In her essay for Yes Means Yes, Latoya Peterson wrote powerfully about "The Not-Rape Epidemic" – the thousand ways men sexually violate women every day that don’t rise to the legal definition of "rape." This week, one young woman took a stand against "not rape" that just might work.
This past Tuesday, news broke that three lacrosse players at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut had been accused of conspiracy to sexually assault the girlfriend of one of the accused players. As details emerged, it became clear that the boyfriend of the accuser had invited his buddies to "secretly" come watch while he was having sex with his girlfriend – without her knowledge or consent.
The boys lawyered up, as you do when you’re charged with a felony. And then their lawyer came out with this gem:
I can appreciate that this young woman was put in an embarrassing set of circumstances through some sophomoric, college-boy antics, but there’s no indication from what I can see or discern so far that there was any sexual assault there.
Let’s break this down. The accuser consented to one act – sex with one person, in private. The accused conspired to force her into a different act – at our most generous, we could call that sex in front of a group of people (though it’s entirely possible it seemed to her that the sudden, unwelcome presence of two other guys in the room meant that they were about to get in on the "action," and it’s also entirely possible that they intended to do just that. But we don’t know, so let’s be conservative and go with "sex in front of a group of people.") They worked together to force her into this act without giving her an opportunity to consent (and, quite probably, knowing she wouldn’t have consented if they’d asked).
Now keep in mind that "sexual assault" is a broader charge than "rape," legally speaking, and can include a whole host of unwanted sex acts.
So you tell me – do you see any indication of "conspiracy to sexually assault" in this story? Because I surely do.
The sad truth is that their lawyer is half-right. Their actions do fall squarely into the category of "sophomoric, college-boy antics." It’s just that that category has involved various forms of sexual assault for so long that it barely seems notable. The anomaly in this case is that the alleged victim pressed charges, not that the assault took place.
There are, of course, some other notable aspects of this case, most prominently that it involved lacrosse players at a private American university, bringing to mind the infamous Duke rape allegation from several years back. I also see shades of the Hofstra gang rape allegation from earlier this fall. What all three cases have in common are situations on American campuses in which something bad, something sexually unwanted, likely happened to the woman in question, but that something didn’t rise to the legal definition of rape. Conventional media outlets love these stories, reeking as they do of the taboo and titilating behavior of virile young college boys and the slutty, lying girls who love them. Because cases like this reinforce our cultural beliefs about how sexual assault works – (It’s just boys off at college getting a little carried away with their fun! What was she doing in that situation to begin with? Clearly she wanted it and is now having regrets.) these are the stories we tell, often to the exclusion of aothers. (To wit: In Alabama two weeks ago, a 14 year-old was gang raped by a 16, 18 and 20 year-old and sent back to high school to bleed in class for hours before anyone helped her. She eventually needed surgery and three days in the ICU. No "college antics" here – and a shocking lack of media coverage. And what little there is focuses on the victim’s female friend, who may have helped to facilitate the assault.)
What makes the Sacred Heart case different than Duke or Hofstra is that the alleged victim didn’t bring a literal rape charge, but something broader and somewhat "lesser," with the obvious hope that it will have a greater chance of sticking in court. It will be fascinating to see if this strategy works. Because "not rape" is so common that it sometimes doesn’t seem worth talking about, and when it does, seems so impossible to change. In a world where it’s more controversial for a guy to kiss another guy than for him to beat his girlfriend, in a world where the first person blamed for rape is still too often the victim, it’s an act of courage for the Sacred Heart victim to simply insist that she was violated, and that the men who violated her be held accountable. If she wins, she wins for all of us, and she just may inspire countless other women to follow her lead.