“Me, too” and the f*cked up logic of rape myths

My “me, too” moment came this morning, after a lengthy thought conversation with myself over the last few days. Most honestly, I feel like my story has been told, both on social media platforms, in the court room, and verbally amongst friends, family, and therapists, and I feel like this should be enough. I shouldn’t have to keep using my experience (which oftentimes drudges up old, painful feelings that I have yet to completely process) to advocate for the cause of validating assault victims’ experiences and pushing forward the truth of sexual assault while dispelling the associated rape myths. No one should have to keep bringing attention to the things that have invalidated them in the hopes that another person might read it and realize, “oh, I guess there really is a problem!” This should be an accepted norm: to immediately recognize that a wrong has taken place upon hearing of a sexual assault/sexual harassment instance, and to validate the sharer’s experiences and feelings from the get go. This is the only way to deal with sexual assault, and I cannot understand why this is so hard for people to accept. It’s beyond me, why I have to keep defending myself. I was raped. I was raped. I was raped. It took me two very long, painful years to fully understand that it wasn’t my fault. Yet still, even a second of guilt and/or shame felt by a victim/survivor is too much, which is why I’ve delved into the deepest feelings of this event and decided to share it, yet again, though a little differently this time.

This semester, I learned of Toulmin’s construction of an argument in rhetoric, and I will use it here to illustrate the completely asinine views of some people that fuel this need for victims/survivors to share their stories over and over again. The first element to this construction is the claim, which for a lot of rape myth believers is some form of these (I am using these because I have personal experience with this particular set of rape myths): “She/he/they deserved it”, “she/he/they asked for it”, and “she/he/they should have said no more forcefully”. The second element to Toulmin’s claim is data, which for these myths are, respectively: “She/he/they was/were acting in a way that some (typically more conservative people) would say is inappropriate”, “she/he/they was/were acting in a promiscuous way”, and “she/he/they didn’t convince the perpetrator that the act was unwanted”. Now, the third element (the the last element for the purposes of this note) is a warrant, which, for all of the aforementioned claims and data, respectively, are: “anyone who acts inappropriately deserves whatever heinous act comes their way”, “acting promiscuously is an implicit invitation for unwanted sexual advances in all circumstances”, and “The responsibility of the sexual assault/harassment instance that took place falls completely on the shoulders of the victim/survivor”. I would like to note that the last warrant is completely the opposite of what a victim/survivor should feel.

Now, for the first argument, which I will reiterate: She/he/they deserved it because she/he/they was/were acting in an inappropriate way. This implies (the warrant) that inappropriateness is an open invitation for people to commit heinous acts. Let’s apply this logic to murder: Jane Doe deserved to get murdered because she was throwing beer mugs against the wall and smashing them, which made the bartender irrationally angry. Implied is the horrendous warrant that anyone who throws beer mugs against a wall at a bar deserves to be murdered. I don’t know of a single person who would accept this warrant, so why then, do people accept this line of thinking when it comes to sexual assault? Are they not both crimes? Are they not both despicable? Are they not punishable regardless of the surrounding circumstances? I could provide more data, claims, and warrants for all of these questions, but I choose to think humanity isn’t so far gone as to understand that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes” (with the exception of the first “why” question, which is a question I’m attempting to point out as, unfortunately, still relevant with this very note).

Secondly, let us examine the second argument: She/he/they asked for it because she/he/they was/were acting promiscuously. Implied: promiscuity is an open cattle call for all unwanted sexual advances/harassment/assault. Again, let’s apply this logic to murder: Jane doe asked to get murdered because she was flaunting a gun she had just bought at a bar that caters to gun owners and allows those with a legally owned gun to bring them inside (the Wild West was my inspiration for this scenario). This implies that anyone who flaunts a gun at this bar asks to get murdered. Let’s think this through for a minute: what would a reasonable person do in this instance? I believe they would ask her to put it away if they felt uncomfortable, or they would ignore it. If another were to walk up to her and, out of uncontrollable want for that gun, take it away from her, we would call that theft. End of story. There wouldn’t be one hundred op-ed articles debating over whether or not she asked for her gun to be stolen.

For the third argument I want to first bring up a few statements which I believe hold true. A drunk person not saying no due to inebriation is not consent. A person who is unable to say no due to the freeze response (look up fight, flight, or freeze) is not consent. A person who initiates sexual activity and later changes their mind is not consent. Being someone’s spouse/partner is not consent. A sixteen year old allowing an adult to take advantage them is not consent. With that being said, here is the third argument: she/he/they should have said no more forcefully because the perpetrator didn’t know the act was unwanted.This implies that all consequences of unwanted sexual activity should fall on the victim/survivor if the perpetrator claims to have not known that the activity was unwanted. Murder scenario: Jane Doe is inebriated, leaning against a building in an alley, when someone comes up to her and says, “unless you run or tell me not to, I’m going to shoot you”. When Jane, unable to move or process the perpetrators words in a timely fashion, doesn’t respond, the perpetrator shoots her, leaving her for dead. When questioned, they say, in defense of their actions, “I thought she wanted me to shoot her! She never said she didn’t want it, even after I gave her the option.” If you’re reading this and thinking about how incredibly crazy this scenario sounds, you’re on the right track, although I recognize the shortcomings in this particular instance, namely that shooting someone is never okay in any circumstance, whereas sex is a perfectly legal activity that can be consented to and enjoyed; but I believe it still serves the purpose of highlighting the flaws in rape myth arguments, because to me, that’s exactly how people defending their sexual assaults/harassment sound when they claim to have not known that the act was unwanted. When there is any question at all as to whether or not someone gives consent, best not to engage in the sexual activity at all. That is the decent person thing to do. Period. If someone misreads the signs, decides to have sex with someone anyway, and ends up getting accused of rape, they are still responsible for their actions. Much like statutory rape is a strict liability (meaning intent does not have to present), taking a gamble with someone who isn’t fully coherent enough to give explicit consent with the present ability to stop the activity at any given moment is, in my eyes, also a strict liability.

In sum, I understand that my parallels are not perfect (I am no rhetoric scholar, but I do think these arguments serve well for the purposes of this note). Rather, I hope they help to engage in a conversation that is not entirely rooted in emotion, but also appeals to the logic behind sexual assault, sexual harassment, and any other unwanted sexual advances (illegal or not). I hope it gets people to think twice about their own rape myth acceptance, and to more deeply examine just how complacent we are when it comes to acknowledging and dispelling these myths. In my experience, I’ve heard a multitude of individualistic rationalizations such as, “well, I’m not going to dress that way, so I won’t get raped” and other arguments of the like that also perpetuate these rape myths. Putting a positive spin on faulty logic is just as bad as believing these myths as they are. I truly hope these musings of mine help to further the advocacy on behalf of sexual assault victims/survivors, and my thoughts are always with those who have suffered through any form of unwanted sexual activity/harassment. Lastly, I would like to make it crystal clear, for those in the back, for those that can’t get out of bed, for those, like me, who have severe anxiety, and for those that so selflessly and willingly (more willingly than I), share their stories in an effort to help shed light on this subject, that your experiences are valid, and you are worth every bit as much as the next person who walks this earth.

Reference (APA):

Brockreide, W. & Ehninger, D. (1960). Toulmin on argument: an interpretation and application. Quarterly Journal of Spech, 46, 44–53. doi (published online in 2009): 10.1080/00335636009382390