Thursday, July 30, 2009

Superstars and Sexual Assault

[Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault]

Back when football star Michael Vick was all over the news for his involvement in an illegal dogfighting operation, I had a conversation with a male friend about the preponderance of media coverage of this crime and the outrage that many sports fans were expressing. Specifically, I noted that while dogfight operations are cruel, one rarely sees as much press or fan outrage- especially within the sports media- in instances where, say, a woman is raped by a sports star a sports star rapes or is accused of raping a woman.

It is difficult to talk to men about these things without them getting defensive.

For instance, even though my male friend is gay and thus not in the class of men who usually go around raping women, he immediately replied "well, you know, these women just need to report assaults to the police if they want anything to be done about it."

That is a typical Defensive Man Answer.

For one, my friend overlooked the fact that I was clearly referring to instances in which the woman had gone to the police and, in which the media had reported on it. Immediately, his mind jumped, not to my noted disparity in media coverage and subsequent sportsfan anger, but rather to what female victims might have done "wrong" to cause the disparity. Two, while the Poor Duke Boys (tm) are the martyrs around which many men "prove" that "bitches lie" about rape, the reality is that most rapists actually walk free. 15 out of 16, in fact. And, I honestly think that that is quite okay with some men, particularly the ones who believe that most "bitches lie" about rape.

There are many reasons as to why women (and men) do not report that they have been raped, but that low probability of conviction is certainly one factor. For many women, re-victimization occurs almost immediately upon telling others about the assault. Enduring invasive physicals and a trial in which a woman's character and sexual mores are trampled upon isn't worth it, especially after what has happened.

The mistreatment of women who allege rape is especially true when the alleged rapist is some sort of male superstar. When, for instance, an alleged rapist is a famous athlete, the media, attorneys, and/or the alleged rapist can transform a woman from alleged victim to a goldigging lying victimizer. I'm not saying that women never lie. But I am saying that it is a story that plays well, as the dominant narrative about sex in a society centered around the heterosexual male gaze posits that women have a natural desire to be sexually available at all times to wealthy, rich, and famous men. Such men, the story goes, Could Have Any Woman They Want and, therefore, women who actually get to have sex with such men are Very Very Lucky. These VIP (let's call them) males cannot rape women because, really, what woman would not consent to sex with such a VIP man?

One of the problems with the dominant narrative, of course, is that it assumes rape is mostly about getting off.

On July 21, a female hotel employee filed a lawsuit against Superstar NFL Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger accusing him of raping her in a hotel room last summer. I can already hear my friend telling me that this woman just should have gone to the police sooner. And, well, you don't have to be an attorney to know that waiting a year to report a rape makes for a problematic case.

Yes, it is true that this woman could be a Gold-Digging Liar or some variation of that theme. Yet, what if we looked at her decision to wait to report the alleged assault, not from the male vantage point within the Superstars-Can-Have-Any-Woman-They-Want-And-Are-Therefore-Incapable-of-Rape Narrative, but from the perspective of a woman within that same story. What if, for instance, from her perspective a hypermasculinized culture (especially of sports) continually tells us that rape is not a big deal, especially when compared to More Important Things like winning sports championships, having good teams, and not damaging an image.

What if ESPN, the self-touted "Worldwide Leader in Sports"
issued a 'do not report' alert on the Roethlisberger story,"
presumably because ESPN did not want to jeopardize its future access to the Superstar*.

What if, after reporting the incident to security at the hotel where she worked, the chief of security allegedly told the woman that "most girls would feel lucky to get to have sex with someone like Ben Roethlisberger" and that her boss would "personally fire [her] for starting rumors about Roethlisberger's personal life"?

I think the Yes Means Yes blog sums it up perfectly: "This Is What Rape Culture Looks Like."

We don't know what happened in this case. But, Rape Culture, from the perspective of a woman in this case, tells us two things. One, some things are just More Important than a man's sexual assault of a woman, especially sports. Two, Sports Stars are not capable of rape, because all women naturally want to be fucked by Sports Stars. When put like that, I hope some of my male friends can begin to understand why a woman might sometimes be hesitant to come forward about a rape.

*ESPN is claiming that it banned coverage of the story in order to protect Roethlisberger's reputation.

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