About That Viral Jared Fogle Cover Story Image

Less than two weeks ago, I used a pen to fix a cover story in The Washington Post on Jared Fogle. I crossed out the word “underage sex” and wrote in “statutory rape” in the headline, and then changed a few more words in the story: “having sex with” and “sexual encounters with” became “raping” and “rapes of” underage girls. Then I took a picture and posted the image to Twitter and Facebook.

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The image went viral. Using the most conservative estimates that don’t account for people copying and pasting on their own, the image has been shared well over 40,000 times. I want to talk about why that image resonated so strongly and make some suggestions about where to go from here.

People are sick and tired of rape culture. Rape culture is the way media, law, language, sexism, and social norms interact to create a world where sexual assault is commonplace. It manifested in the Post story by wrapping Fogle’s sexual misconduct with minors in the language of consensual sex.

We can, and should, talk about why this happened. It happened, in part, because of the inadequacy of the charges against Fogle: “Distributing and receiving child pornography, and conspiring to do so, as well as repeatedly traveling to engage in commercial sex acts with underage minors.” Here’s the problem: Legal language and technicalities can obstruct telling it like it is and pursuing justice to the point where it becomes an open question whether the law is designed to protect victims of sexual crimes or powerful, popular men like Jared Fogle and Bill Cosby.

In plain language and the lived experiences of victims of sexual assault, if a person is unable to consent to sex – it’s rape, and that includes the circumstance of an adult preying upon minors below the age of consent. The exchange of money does not override other factors that make a person unable to consent to sex. Fogle engaged in criminal sexual conduct with minors – and while journalists can say that, they can’t say he raped them unless or until the law says he did.

The general population is pretty unaware that one of the largest concerns about reporting on rape within newsrooms is making sure you don’t get sued. So, The Washington Post couldn’t have said that Fogle raped those girls or young women, even though tens of thousands of people agree with me and wish they could have. Part of our ire should rightfully be focused on the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Indiana that offered Fogle the plea deal that allowed him to avoid rape charges.

That said, The Washington Post must be held accountable to an open accounting of its editorial standards surrounding sexual crimes, and revising them to avoid the appearance of victim-blaming. The article in question is hardly the first time the newspaper has reported criminal sexual conduct in the language of consensual sex, or published outrageous things about rape victims – last year, columnist George Will suggested victimhood is “a coveted status that confers privileges” on campus. Tell that to Willa Murphy, who was told to leave Georgetown after she was raped and her academic performance suffered a setback.

The headline on Fogle could have spotlighted that a plea deal meant he avoided rape charges. The text of the story could have referenced the charges explicitly by name, and then paraphrased them later as “sexual misconduct” rather than “sexual encounters.” Language really matters.

We do not use the language of consensual practices to describe other crimes. We don’t read stories about people sharing their wallets with the criminals who robbed them, or offering their lives to the murderers who killed them. We should not do the same with criminal sexual conduct – no matter the other circumstances of the victim’s life, and no matter the celebrity of the person facing charges.

While less relevant to the Fogle story, there is an important, additional step The Washington Post can and should take in its reporting moving forward. It should not call victims “accusers” and/or present the facts of their personal lives, but instead place the emphasis on charges and the people facing them. “Accuse” carries a hostile connotation that reflects upon the person doing it. It is time to use the language of crime to report all crimes, including sexual crimes.

Editorial standards need to change. It’s also pretty clear the application of law does, too. Judging by the shares of the image I created recently, people of all political persuasions on the Internet are leading the way.

It’s Still Rape

It’s still rape when the rapist is famous, or well-liked. “A family guy.” That kind of bullshit.

It’s still rape when the rapist is a friend, date, hook-up, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife. Rapists are people — and usually not strangers.

It’s still rape when it happens in the LGBT community.

It’s still rape when the victim is underage. No matter what she was wearing. No matter what he said in class. They could be “asking for it,” doesn’t matter — when the person is underage, it’s rape.

It’s still rape when the media calls victims, “accusers,” and rapes, “sex.”

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It’s still rape when you’re fucked up on alcohol or drugs. When you said yes before you said no. When you’re a person who likes sex, yes, just not rape.

It’s still rape when Whoopi Goldberg is friends with the rapist. When the military protects its chain of command. When the Vatican says it shouldn’t be held responsible.

It’s still rape when politicians are too busy trying to control abortion to listen to victims and give them the dignity and support they deserve.

It’s still rape when the victim has chosen to identify as a survivor (heck yeah!).

We need a new conversation on rape, immediately. We need to insist upon it. We need to make corrections the moment they are due. Otherwise, we are all part of the problem.

Video: May 2015 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of To The Contrary, and discussed advertising and women’s empowerment, a smear campaign against Emma Sulkowicz (whose Carry That Weight art piece at Columbia University started a national conversation about campus sexual assault), and food security.

You can watch a video of the show here:

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Don’t Ban All The Fraternities, Lower The Drinking Age

Sexual assault on campus is an epidemic. Estimates suggest that one in five young women will experience sexual assault while in college (and the statistics are worse for women of the same age who don’t attend college). Most of these crimes will go unreported for a variety of reasons: the victim is not “perfect,” there can be devastating social consequences to reporting that someone raped you, and on and on.

In response, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has clarified that universities have a responsibility to address sexual harassment and sexual assault as part of their obligations under Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education. This development is strongly positive, although colleges and universities still tend to suck at implementing the requirements. (In the words of the youth-led activist group Know Your IX: “But aren’t colleges handling these reports terribly? Yup, they absolutely are. But so are the police.”)

Know Your IX is right; the best way forward is to require better enforcement so schools live up to their legal obligations. Public law enforcement involvement and response also carries wide room for improvement — although this is tricky, as bringing police in can make the situation worse for some victims, especially undocumented victims, victims of color, and those victims for whom their assailants bear continued control over their lives.

But legal strategy will only get us so far. We need cultural change as well. Some cultural change is directly traceable to activism: victims speaking out (brava!), students holding their institutions accountable (hooray!), and conversation-creators like the brave and creative Emma Sulkowicz, who commanded national attention for carrying a mattress throughout the Columbia University campus. Other cultural change will come with policy change.

One proposal increasingly floated to combat sexual assault on campus is to ban all the frats and shut them down. It makes perfect sense to close down fraternities that have been found to engage in overt racism or empower sexual assault. But shutting down every fraternity nationwide because we have proof that some are terrible is untenable. A better solution would be to defang fraternities as monarchies of rape culture. We need to take away the social gatekeeping power older men have over younger women on campus. We need to lower the drinking age.

College students are going to drink. We can get weird and moralistic about that, à la the disastrous reformers (including feminists) who brought us Prohibition, or we can accept that society as a whole benefits when unstoppable private behaviors and desires are permitted under the law.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 used the enticement of federal funding for state highway funds to drag states into raising the age for purchasing or publicly consuming alcohol to 21. Now many will recite for you the often-argued reasons why that’s offensive: 18 is the age of adulthood; you can vote at 18; you can enlist in the armed forces and fight and die for your country at 18, but you can’t have a drink at the bar at your homecoming party if you in fact survive. These reasons are right.

But less examined is the role that an arbitrary drinking age of 21 plays in creating destructive cultures on college campuses, particularly rape culture, and particularly for young women. Many college gatherings do involve alcohol. By granting less than half of a campus access to purchasing alcohol by virtue of their age, this situation empowers older men — including the small proportion of those older (and for that matter younger) men who are sexual predators — to control younger women’s access to social gatherings that include alcohol.

Fraternities have the power they do, by and large, because the many underage people, including underage women, who do drink must go to frat houses and other private settings to hang out. Now, one common objection raised by apologists for campus sexual assault (even if they see themselves in a very different light) is that young women should learn how to behave and be smarter about drinking. Until we are telling our young men with equal vigor that they must stop doing keg stands in order to be safe, I’m going to call that a sexist comment. Young women deserve to be human just as much as young men, without fear of getting raped. Even those young women who play drinking games before they turn 21.

If the drinking age were lowered to 18, all students would be able to go to the bar on a Friday night. This might take away some of the pressure some underage students feel to get really drunk (“pregame”) in their dorm rooms before going out for the evening. It would definitely take away this choice: Sit home and not go out and party, or go to a private house party controlled by older people you may not know who have bedrooms upstairs.

Rather than banning fraternities, this feminist argues that we should siphon away some of their power by lowering the drinking age.

Video: Thanksgiving Weekend November 2014 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of To The Contrary, and discussed fraternities and rape on campus, gender inequality in the workplace, and feminism and motherhood. You can watch a video of the show here:

 

Teaching Consent

Consent is this empowering, sexy, terrific thing. Your body is yours. It does not belong to your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your dad, your mom, your preacher, your religion, your government. Your permission must not be assumed, implied, or revoked. That body is yours, lady! And it is awesome.

Consent is the linchpin of the life I want for my daughter.

I have been particularly haunted lately with a handful of memories that make me want to go back and give myself a big hug (and spit in a few faces). I had comprehensive sexual education. I knew that no was supposed to mean no, and sadly, that no means yes is a punchline. What I didn’t learn was a good working definition of consent, and how to wield it: Not just how to say no, but how to say yes, and how to insist your own body is treated with the respect it deserves — by others, and also yourself.

There are many negative consequences stemming from the fear of youth sexuality,  as well as the fear of female sexuality. One thing that happens is not teaching our girls about sexuality in a realistic way. Sexuality is more often taught to girls as something to be guarded against as sinful (it’s not) or a source of contagion (an unhelpful frame). As a culture we don’t even teach our girls to accept themselves, much less their bodies, and we certainly don’t teach our girls to accept how their bodies might care to be or not be sexual. Instead we need to give our girls a meaningful understanding of how sexuality is something to be accepted on your own terms.

These days my daughter is young, just over a year old. When I think about trying to do a better job teaching her consent than life taught me, I think about honoring her wishes not to be held or touched by other people when she makes it clear she doesn’t want that, and I think about responding to her nods “yes” and shakes “no” as much as practical.

What have you done to help teach the young girls you know the concept of consent? Respond in the comments.