In the potent and divisive ongoing debate about rape in the U.S., one question tends to assert itself: Who is to blame?
It's a simple question. And even though I am a sexual assault survivor myself, it wasn't until I read Kate Harding's deft and timely book, "Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do About It," that I realized how problematic it is. As Harding points out, there is never, ever, anyone to blame for rape or sexual assault other than the person who is perpetrating the crime of rape or sexual assault.
Harding, herself a victim of rape, writes: "It is as though none of us ever learned about 'passive voice' in freshman comp. She was raped. Local woman raped. Girl, 11, raped in abandoned trailer. Who's doing all the raping here? Incubi? If nobody's actually committing rape, how are we supposed to address it as a public health and safety issue." Or, I would add, address it at all.
I recently wrote a piece in which I recounted my experience of having been sexually assaulted as a teenager by a much older man that I knew through a family I adored growing up. After the piece was published, one of the now adult children from that family sent me a note on Facebook to express her indignation at having been outed as "the family that introduced you to a pedophile"; she immediately assumed that I was blaming her for not stepping in to prevent this trauma from happening. But the man who sexually assaulted me is the only person to blame, and the only person who could have prevented the crime from happening — by not doing it.
SIGN UP for the free Essential Arts & Culture newsletter >>
Sexual assault, as Harding writes, is not "a failure of 'normal restraint but of humanity. It's not a 'mistake' but a deliberate decision to treat another person like a soulless object." Later in the book she places a finer point on the misdirection of blame, noting that certain media commentators have long tried to blame various mitigating factors such as "binge drinking, the decline of religious values … bad parenting" for rape. "In other words, they've put the onus for rape on anything except rapists."
While Harding dedicates several pages and passages to bystander responsibility and what that actually means, along with the importance of having female friends who look out for you, she also notes, particularly in regard to a failed campaign from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Commission presented in markedly poor taste, that "to add this to the list of responsibilities on girls' and women's shoulders, to hold us accountable for rape-proofing not just ourselves but all of the women we care about, is appalling."
Informative and informal, the book is a smart, impassioned and well-researched agenda for a strictly no-nonsense understanding of rape culture. Although Harding's biting sarcasm occasionally feels too glib (one early chapter subhead reads: "First, Let's Agree on a Definition of 'False Report,'" which is then followed by the narrative lead-in: "'Just kidding! Nobody can!'"), for the most part, the humor serves as refreshing comic relief given the tenor of the subject and its attendant, near palpable sense of exhaustion at having to still explain some of this stuff. I.e.: Men are not from Mars, and Women are not from Venus — both are from Earth.
The book comes at a time when dialogue about rape is at a particularly heightened level, as alleged serial rapist Bill Cosby continues to make headlines, ordered last month by a Los Angeles judge to give a deposition in a lawsuit involving a woman who says she was assaulted as a 15-year-old. The highly anticipated and enormously hyped N.W.A biopic "Straight Outta Compton" has prompted a discourse on the sexual violence and misogynoir in the group's music and the abusive history of its co-founder Dr. Dre. And then there's GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has publicly referred to Mexican migrants as "rapists" and was himself accused of rape by his ex-wife. His lawyer's response to that accusation?: "You cannot rape your spouse."
This is one of myriad reasons Harding's book is so necessary. Because, actually, you can rape your spouse, and many people do. Most rapists know their victims and, although spousal rape has been illegal in all of the U.S. only since 1993, Harding writes, citing a CDC 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, "over the course of a lifetime, nearly one in ten women in the United States will be raped by an intimate partner."
Harding covers a lot of territory, including the in/appropriateness of rape jokes, the impact of false reports fueled by racism, and the depressingly high number of unprocessed rape kits. The book also features a venerable lineup of shout-outs to some of this generation's most luminous contemporary feminists and writers, among them Lindy West, Zerlina Maxwell, Jessica Valenti and Akiba Solomon. The text boasts oddly poetic moments ("rape is not actually seduction gone pear-shaped") and jarringly detailed ones (the retelling of the now famous Steubenville, Ohio, case, when an unconscious teenage girl was videotaped being peed on and raped).
The fundamentals are here — consent, politics, trolls and police accountability. But throughout, Harding offers a fluid, urgent and clear message that ends on a hopeful note. Pointing to the spike in conversations about rape on social media and in comedy series like "The Mindy Project," as well as to Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who turned her rape into a performance piece for her senior thesis by carrying a twin mattress around with her on campus, Harding writes: "it feels more as if a dam has finally burst. It feels as if maybe, finally, this conversation won't taper off until sexual violence does."
Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do About It
Da Capo Press: 272 pp., $15.99 paper