Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Cute-sifying" Sexual Assault

A friend at an East Coast law school alerted me to a recent string of sexual assaults around the DC area, allegedly perpetrated by the “Georgetown Cuddler”. The man enters a woman’s apartment, lays on top of her to prevent her from moving, and physically assaults her until she wakes up and screams, at which point he flees the scene.

Sexual assault on college campuses is still shocking for me, no matter how many times I hear the staggering statistics. In this situation, however, my horror came from the nickname – “cuddler?!” I asked her? The Washington, DC police apparently agreed, stating in response to the nickname "You cuddle someone you love," said D.C. police Cmdr. Matt Klein. "We're looking for a criminal."

Still floored by the “nickname”, I did a little more digging. Apparently this phenomenon is not exclusive to the Washington, DC area. Chatter surrounding the “Piedmont poker” circulated the Berkeley campus last year; Wellesley students were relieved when authorities finally caught their resident “campus flasher”; and students at the University of Connecticut are advised against walking “the rape trail” alone. Even in my hometown of Omaha, the local news cleverly dubbed a serial rapist the "midtown molester".

In one respect, these nicknames ease our fears. They allow us humor as an outlet for coping with threats to our own safety. This is not an unusual mechanism for accidents or random scenarios that are out of our control. On the other hand, it is no secret that sexual assault victims are disproportionately female, while assailants are almost exclusively male. By turning these horrible, traumatic acts into a joke, the women who survive them are further blamed and belittled. Not only were they probably already accused of wearing too little, drinking too much, or bringing it on themselves with general negligence, but after all that they only got “poked” and “cuddled”. What’s the big deal?

I am further disturbed in researching these cutesy nicknames to find that many of these jokes are being further perpetuated by some groups that seem pretty exclusively male. When a user of this bodybuilding forum asked (neutrally) for someone to explain what the UConn “rape trail” is, other users responded with laments and (hopefully) “jokes” like “the best we have at WVU is the rape courtyard” and “we have rape fields...I'm jealous of you alls [sic] rape trail”. These are not the comforting kinds of jokes we make when our plane hits patchy turbulence or our power goes out in a storm so that everyone can have a nervous laugh. These are hateful statements that degrade and diminish the traumatizing experience of sexual assault.

Rape jokes are not appropriate. Trivializing violence against women is absolutely unacceptable. How, then, do these mischaracterization of serious (and often serial) incidents of violence and assault make their way into our national consciousness? How damaging can this be? If extensive, how can we combat it?


Eve said...

I like that you mentioned that these nicknames can be understood as a mechanism for coping and allaying discomfort. This topic reminds me of my criminal law class my first year where several men had an ongoing joke about how many times they could use the word "egregious" in our discussions about rape cases. To them, the joke was innocuous and made them feel more comfortable with the topic. However, to many of the women in the classroom the joke was hateful.

You are right that language can be used to gain control in these situations. Unfortunately, allowing nicknames to reframe stories about sexual assault and rape does not give survivors more control, but rather undermines the severity of the crimes.

Overwhelmingly, it appears that men are making the jokes and creating the nicknames. They are permitted to do so because the topic is so upsetting. But in allowing them to do this, who are they putting at ease? Women who are fearful of the intrusion upon their bodily integrity or men who are simply uncomfortable with the discussion?

Anne Kildare said...

My undergraduate university had an infamous "rape trail" too. Sadly, a girl from my dorm was attacked and raped when she was jogging on the trail at dusk. What's worse, because she was raped on the "rape trail," she felt like it was her fault.

After reading your post, it occurred to me that universities have an obligation to mitigate known risks. If a part of campus is dangerous enough to be known as a "rape trail," the university take proactive measures to keep its students safe.

Erin S. said...

In answer to Eve's rhetorical question, it's clear that men who make these kind of jokes have not even considered whether they make women uncomfortable. Because of their privilege, it doesn't occur to them that they should consider such a thing; and even if they did, they'd likely take women's discomfort to indicate a lack in sense of humor. Genderbitch recently posted a fantastic analysis of humor as a shield for privilege, as did Muslimah Media Watch.

samina hitch said...

This is an important topic to shed light on. I think that media coverage has a lot to do with the perpetuation of repeated crimes, particularly in this case. It creates almost a new avenue for fame, as a serial criminal with hallmark behaviors that can minimize the actual nature of the crime. I think that women's dorms are commonly invaded upon, and I experienced a similar fear at my college. There were reports of a man who would assault women while they were sleeping, and he would simply cruise the hallways and check doorknobs while the women were sleeping, and I do remember at least one night when I awoke after hearing a jiggled knob. I have no answer or solution to this problem, but I am shocked that college culture normalizes these crimes, and that vigilance to find perpetrators such as the "cuddler" is low. At my college dorm, there was no increased security, and no semblance of protection for the women. In fact, the idea that someone would come into your room while you were sleeping was filtered like a rumor, or normalized as much as the "rape trail."

A "cute-sified" name allows everyone to make light of it, and unfortunately women can normalize that it can "happen" to them...which begs the question, why are we told who to fear, and where not to walk at night? Are those warnings supposed to keep us safe? In the case of someone who cruises dorm rooms and checks for locked doors -- is the girl who left her door unlocked responsible for not having the vigilance to lock herself away from harm? If we are told as women that things can "happen" to us...why isn't there expected heightened protection for us, so that our life is not filled with fear and self-imposed vigilance?

Like rape victims who are accused of "asking for it" -- every woman can be accused of "asking for it" if she is not trained to defend herself, doesn't remember to lock her doors, or has the perceived recklessness to walk around by herself at night or go for a jog at dawn. I am raising a daughter who will have to be educated, likely, to live a life under siege, always prepared to pre-empt the violence around her -- on the spectrum of psychologically abusive boyfriends, molestation, break-ins and outright violent rape. Yet, I can bet mothers of young boys are not burdened with that same responsibility to raise a child with such extreme vigilance and self-protection. Why do we accept this?