America Has a Rape Problem – and Kate Harding Wants to Fix It
Are there any particularly bad offenders you want to call out?
Something I write about in the book is the recurring phenomenon in pop culture where consent is clearly not there at the beginning of a sexual encounter, but by the end you’re supposed to believe the woman has consented. It happens in the movies Crank and Observe and Report and also on Game of Thrones. It’s this idea that consent can be retroactive – that if she’s screaming or pushing you away or saying no at first, all you have to do is persevere, and by the end she’ll be moaning and super into it. That perpetuates the “no means yes” myth, that a lack of consent is simply a hurdle to clear on the way to getting the prize.
Speaking of pop culture, we can‘t have an interview about sexual assault in 2015 without mentioning Bill Cosby. In less than a year, we went from more or less ignoring the allegations against him to seeing three dozen of his accusers featured on a much-lauded New York Magazine cover. Why are we, as a society, now taking those allegations more seriously? What changed?
I would love to say that as a society we’re getting better about rape – and we are, compared to decades past – but I think it was more that we had the Internet and social media as a vector for the story, so it couldn’t fade away before it had maximum impact. It’s the difference between the way media spread in 2003 versus the way it spreads in 2015. You can’t shut things up as easily. Also, there are all these online feminist communities that have strong social media presences that are there to support people who accuse a celebrity. And then it was just victim after victim after victim coming forward that kept it going.
The Cosby story is an example of the media helping to bring attention to victims’ stories (if not in a uniformly positive way). At the same time, I think it‘s fair to say there are still many problems with how the media covers rape. What are some of the biggest problems you see?
There’s this idea that to appear objective you have to give equal weight to anyone who has an opinion on the subject, no matter how well considered it is. And that if you’re going to give air time to a victim’s report of her rape, you have to also give equal time, with no editorializing, to the notion that she might be lying.
You need to be able to be fair and protect the rights of a person who is being accused without being abusive to the victim, and without presuming that any woman who reports a rape is lying about it, or has the motivation to lie. The best estimate is that there are between 2 and 8 percent of police reports of rape that are unfounded in some way. But it gets treated like there’s a 50-50 chance that any woman could be lying.
There is a fine line to walk; you should be very circumspect about putting serious accusations into the world without fact checking, or without at least giving the person who’s accused the chance to respond. But the unfortunate consequence of this faux objectivity is that it makes people think that there are a lot more false accusations than there are, and that women lie at the drop of a hat. So whenever a celebrity is accused of rape, the immediate thought is that the woman is looking for a payday. Sure, settlements do happen, but it’s absurd to think that this is a good get-rich-quick scheme: to have sex with a celebrity, and then wake up the next morning and say, “It was rape!” You’re going to have everyone calling you a slut and a gold digger, and risk being prosecuted for making false statements to the police, but you’ll go through all that to take a shot at getting money through a lawsuit? That’s insane. It’s not something people do, and it reveals such a bleak view of women. The relentless interrogation of every woman who reports a rape is premised on the idea that any one of us could be that manipulative and evil. We’re so unwilling to believe that any man could be a rapist, but any woman for sure could be a vengeful, horrible beast.