Yes, the verdict in the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case is old news by now, but when you have a Sunday verdict and a Friday blog, these things happen. And the good part is that I’ve had a few days to digest the whole thing and why it matters to me as a woman and a mother. But the bad part is that even after days of wrestling with this, I don’t know where I stand.
I was raised as a feminist by a feminist. I was told from an early age that no meant no and that I always had the right to say it at any time. I was told that it didn’t matter how drunk I was or what I was wearing – no one ever had a right to do anything to me that I didn’t enthusiastically consent to. So whenever I would hear about rapes in the news and hear the inevitable victim-blaming that went on, I would become furious. “Even if a woman is drunk and naked on a street corner, no man has the right to rape her!” I would think to myself. I still think this, of course. “The problem is with men, not women,” I would think. “Why can’t it be on men not to rape instead of on women not to get raped?” I still think this, of course.
But this past week, when I was talking about the verdict and the backlash with some friends, one of them asked me, “What do you think about this whole thing as the mother of daughters?”
Huh. I wasn’t quite prepared to deal with that question, actually. I have been having enough trouble coping with the fact that my sweet tiny baby Ruby just lost her first tooth; now suddenly I have to think about her going to keggers and dealing with date-rapey teenage boys? No.
But I stopped to consider it anyway, and I was shaken by my gut reaction. Because my gut reaction, not as a feminist but as a mother with daughters to protect, was that I would try to get the message across to them to not put themselves in harm’s way by drinking to excess at parties. I would want them to understand how dangerous alcohol can be, for a variety of reasons. I would want them to understand the importance of taking care of their friends if they drink to excess.
But somehow, these messages of simple personal responsibility seemed to me too much like blaming the victim. Because, honestly, if men aren’t inclined to take advantage of women, then it wouldn’t matter how drunk my daughters were (although there are still plenty of other reasons I want them to be careful with alcohol, including a family history of alcoholism). No matter how drunk a woman is, the person to blame for a rape is the rapist.
It just seems stubbornly disingenuous for me, though, to pretend that a woman can’t lessen her risk of being a victim; I guess, to be fair, not even the staunchest feminist would argue that, but for some reason, that’s kind of what I’m struggling with. It’s hard for me to untangle the notion of blaming the victim from taking steps to not be a victim. It’s hard to tease out “this should never happen to you, ever, at any time, by anyone, but if it does, it isn’t your fault” and “these are ways to try to keep it from happening to you.” I understand that feeling like there are things that you could have done to keep yourself safer can lead to not just victim-blame – but even more damaging, to self-blame. If you can lessen your chance of being a victim, after all, then why isn’t it your fault if you become one? I never want to get close to this line of thinking when it comes to rape, ever.
But I tell Ruby – and will tell Georgia, when she’s older and can, you know, talk – to not ever talk to strangers. To be rude if she has to. To run away. I teach her that no one has a right to touch her in a way that she doesn’t want. But God forbid, if something happened to her anyway, she wouldn’t be the one at fault. And – I shiver as I type this –even if she ignored my advice and climbed into a car with some monster, nothing that happened to her would be her fault, even though she could have been more careful. Of course not. For some reason, that doesn’t seem contradictory at all – teaching kids to stay safe isn’t victim-blaming, shifting the onus to them; it’s basic parenting. Why don’t I wrestle with that the same way? I think it’s way more Ruby’s basic right to be able to play safely outside by herself than it is to be able to get black-out drunk at parties, but I won’t let her do the former now, and I hope she never does the latter either – because both put her at risk because there are bad people in the world. And yet I feel honor-bound as a woman and a feminist to insist that women should be able to drink as much as they want without having to feel like they’re in potential danger of being raped.
They should, yes. And Ruby should be able to safely play outside by herself. But I’m not about to tell her, “The world should be safe, Ru, so go ahead and walk to dance class alone. And if any guy says he needs your help finding a lost puppy, well, he should be a nice guy who is just concerned about his pet, so please go ahead and help him look.”
Honestly, I think the vast, vast majority of people are good. I think the vast, vast majority people would help Ruby if she were lost and alone. I think the vast, vast majority – well, at least the vast majority – of teenage boys at a party would take care of her if she were drunk instead of taking advantage of her. But to the extent that I can control any of this (and that’s the scary part about parenting: how little I can actually control in proportion to how deeply I care), I want to make choices for her now – and teach her to make choices for herself later – that are as safe as possible. I hope that’s empowering, not somehow subtly shifting blame on to her.
Is anyone else wrestling with this? Mothers of sons, what are you telling your kids?