Protest sign reading "Don't get raped," with "get" and "ed" crossed out to read "Don't rape."

From the White House to Motels, Rape Culture is Alive and Well

A teenager girl is suing a motel, known as the “local epicenter of human trafficking,” for being complacent in allowing over 1000 men to sexual assault her and many other victims of sex trafficking. This piece published in The Washington Post discusses the Roosevelt Inn, where the teenager girl was kept while the motel owners rented rooms to multiple men and profited off the abuse. 

Reading this story, I was reminded of the endless ways in which violence against women and rape culture are perpetuated by not only individuals, but businesses and institutions.  Even when the man running for president has bragged about and was accused multiple times of sexual assault, politicians stepped forward to protect him. I’ll admit that I felt an immediate sense of relief when I heard the news of the Trump tapes, since naivety had me believing they would finally be enough to disqualify Trump from leading our country. Several months later however, we all still wake up each morning to Trump’s painfully embarrassing tweets and the reality of an accused sexual assailant as our president.

If perpetrators are the flame that ignites rape, bystanders who do not intervene are the fuel that feeds the fire. Add to that a culture that victim blames and discredits survivors, and you have the circle of rape culture — the act of violence, the invalidation of truth, and the compliance of outside witnesses. While the benefits of individual bystander intervention are widely documented and discussed, rarely do we look at the ways that systems themselves allow for rape culture to continue.

Evidence of the way systems interact and allow for rape and assault to be covered up is everywhere. Across our justice system, we see those charged with protecting people get away with just the opposite – from abuse in immigrant detention centers, rape at the hands of Border Patrol agents, or police brutality against teenage girls. When survivors of campus sexual assault come forward, their universities often put the onus on them to avoid their assailants, rather than take meaningful action to stop the perpetrators from hurting anyone else. A department of justice study published in May of 2016 reported that 84% of Native American and Alaskan Native women surveyed have experienced violence of some kind, and 56% had experienced sexual violence. Most often this violence was at the hands of a non-tribal member, yet the justice system available to the women was unable to support them.

Rape culture is systemic. In order for progress to be made, our focus cannot solely be on the perpetrators or the survivors, it has to also be on the forces that enable or allow the practice to continue, as in the case with the motel staff who did not report the abuse happening within their business, or even guests who had concerns about the safety of the teenagers they saw wandering through the halls at night.

I think often of the person who was listening to Donald Trump discuss “grabbing women by the pussy,” and wonder what went through their head at that moment. I think of the person recording, or the person who uploaded the recording into a computer. Of the many different points at which someone could have expressed concern and perhaps called out his comments for what they were. When we talk about stopping rape culture, I believe we have to include these red flag moments and think about where we, all of us, encounter them in our daily life.

Trump’s misogynistic and abusive comments towards women have already been mirrored in the decisions and changes he’s made in office. Within a few short months he’s signed several executive orders that will be devastating for marginalized women, such as making steps to end Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood, both of which will disproportionately hurt women in the years to come. When rape culture and abuse of women is allowed to fuel and aide a person’s rise to power, it becomes reflected in the ways that women’s bodies and rights are ignored, undervalued, and silenced under their administration.

Header image credit: Richard Potts

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