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Monday, 21 July 2014 05:45

Pretending It's Not Rape: The Politics of a Violation and a Community That Covered It Up

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 10men(Photo: Wolfram Burner)

This is the remarkable and ordinary story of the reactions of the people around a woman who woke up bruised with no memory of how she got that way. Ariel Zepeda lets us see how a campus rape can not just go unreported, but unnamed, how people can choose to smooth it over to spare themselves the difficulty of admitting there’s a rapist in their social circle and that justice might require something be done. Zepeda—who I had the pleasure of working with this spring in a writing seminar—is the voice we haven’t heard from yet: the male peer who’s horrified at the conduct of his fellow students but ambivalent about what constitutes an appropriate response. The New York Times’ cover story a week ago demonstrated yet again how awful can be the consequences for a university student who chooses to report being raped; it’s not a choice you can easily make for someone else.

It’s also worth remembering that from Harvard to Stanford, from Berkeley to Notre Dame to University of Connecticut, our finest universities are apparently graduating a new crop of unpunished rapists every year. I don’t know how this epidemic will be stopped, but I’m amazed and moved by the young women organizing on dozens of campuses to address the situation. They are doing much to change it. And I’m convinced voices like Ariel’s will help us see the nuances, the conflicts, dilemmas, blind spots, and pressures that surround these crimes and criminals. Too,  this is an issue that men must address, because the most misogynist among us don’t listen to women and absorb the idea that rape is cool rather than reprehensible from what we now call rape culture and from their male peers in particular. Which is why the other voices need to be heard. 

-- Rebecca Solnit


She trusted the people at the party. It was her second semester at U.C. Berkeley, at a fraternity party she attended with a group of her sorority sisters. You are vulnerable to new people whenever you try to gain entrance into a society. Some people try to befriend you while others try to take advantage of you. Ultimately, you must be able to trust these strangers. Even if you cannot trust strangers enough to befriend them, you should be able to trust the friends you already have.

The mandatory class on the responsible use of alcohol at U.C. Berkeley consisted of a couple hundred students gathered in an auditorium. We watched a video in which unsuspecting bystanders reacted to a scene in which a man (an actor) attempted to take an intoxicated woman (also an actress) home with him. We were supposed to learn that sex is never okay when drinking is involved, because you cannot fully ensure the other person’s consent. When we discussed the video, a student questioned the usefulness of the exercise, since the actor in the video was vocal about her refusal to leave the bar with the man, while real-life situations are more ambiguous for the bystanders and sometimes the participants.

In a more chaotic environment, like a party, it is nearly impossible to know what people are doing, or to know their intentions. Even if someone were to witness another person engaged in suspicious behavior, most would not get involved or would assume that someone else was responsible for that stranger stumbling away from the party. It is all part of the social experience at universities. You take chances, make mistakes, and try to move on – though this night would be different.

She drank so much she could not remember anything about the party. She woke up alone in someone else’s room with bruises on one side of her body. She walked back to her place and searched through her phone for photos of the previous night. A group of her girlfriends and sorority sisters came over and told her that she left the party with a guy they all knew, and that they were too drunk to do anything about it. They discussed what she should do; she felt that it was no big deal and they agreed; she said he was a “good guy” and did not deserve punishment, and, again, her friends agreed.

Before the guy came over, he texted her that she received the bruises when she fell out of his bed. When he told her that they had slept together, she told him to bring the pregnancy prevention medication “Plan B.” She asked her friends to leave so she could speak privately with him. Perhaps her friends should have stayed, but she felt secure enough to speak with him alone. She dealt with one immediate danger by preventing a possible pregnancy, and her rapist no longer felt responsible for her because he rid himself of this potential consequence of his actions. No one tried to convince his victim to act against him. It was easier to agree with her than to suggest that she seek help or justice. Perhaps she needed someone to speak to that part of her that knew he violated her and that knew the ramifications of that violation extended beyond her body.

My friend listened to the other girls agree that the boy did not deserve to be punished, and she had to leave the room when the rapist came in. She felt the world was less safe after that, more uncertain. People around her could allow rape to happen and do nothing about it. Even when she tried to convince her roommate that what happened to her was wrong, the rape survivor brushed the advice aside. It seemed it was best to forget and move on.

Earlier that semester, the other roommate (they were three sharing a room) brought a guy over and drunkenly gave him a blow job when all she wanted was to know if he loved her – while my friend tried to sleep. There was no room for conversation, no space for anyone to question anyone else’s decisions. They let the men in their lives dictate the course of a night. The nights seem more dangerous; for my friend, strangers lurk in the shadows and she feels she needs protection from them and from those who would remain silent. The history of silence dissuades anyone from speaking up.

We were part of that silence.

Most rapists know their victims in some way: as a friend or coworker, family member or neighbor. This could be because it allows the rapist easier access. Another, stranger factor is that social intimacy allows a potential rapist to take advantage of the complex network of relationships to keep him or her safe. The survivor’s friends had an allegiance to her and to her rapist. They thought they owed both of them their support. The situation became political.

No one wants to be associated with a rapist, so the easiest response was not to regard him as such. Everyone involved, even the survivor, wanted to forget about the incident and move on. The survivor would not need to go through the embarrassing and troublesome procedure of calling the authorities and going to Oakland for a medical inspection, one of the many necessary procedures to exact justice. Her parents would never have to know about her drinking problems. She deserved that kind of privacy. Even if she went through with the procedure, she might have shared the same fate as thirty-one of her fellow students and alumni who filed complaints against U.C. Berkeley in February for the university’s inadequate investigations of their cases. Her rape kit might have joined the hundreds of kits that remain untested in the Alameda County. She was part of a community of the unheard. Even those who have raised their voices have not been heard, and perhaps this is part of why she chose to remain silent. Her friends could forget this ever happened. The rapist could move on with his life, potentially left to rape again.

As an outsider – a man, and a stranger – I felt an obligation to her. No one offered her the option of justice or closure. She denied that anything happened to her while everyone played along. Perhaps justice would only have brought more pain. She would have been responsible for damaging her rapist’s reputation, even if he did not deserve her sympathy.

Justice could not change the past. The past was unclear for her anyway; she blacked out that night. Her friends supported a false reality to provide her the most comforting situation. In truth, she could no longer trust the people around her. Her friends worked with her to create a reality built on neglect and silence, and that kind of reality allows people to destroy lives.

Maybe she only needed to know that everything was okay. Maybe it wasn’t any of my business. Who was I to tell her how to act – how to feel? I could have risked looking like an ass, or feeling like one, but she might have sought help: counseling, legal support, hospitalization – whatever she wanted. All of us on the outside could only guess at what she was thinking, how she wanted to handle the situation.

We all failed her. She convinced herself that nothing happened and we did not say enough to change her mind. That may have been helpful in the short term. Nevertheless, what will she do when she realizes – if she hasn’t already – that she was violated, not just sexually, but spiritually and emotionally?

Those faces she thought she could trust seem less reliable, like the anonymous faces in a crowd. They seem that way to me as well, and I am a face in that crowd. I thought more about myself, the way she or her friends would perceive me if I intervened, than about what I could do for her. My intrusion might have been a second violation, an immediate disturbance of her artificial peace, but it also might have helped her. I regret my choice to keep silent and do not know how she felt then or how she may feel now, or what influence I could have had.

I will never know; she and I remain strangers.

Ariel Zepeda is a recent graduate from University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. in English. He hopes to teach high school English in Coachella Valley, where he grew up.