Not until recent decades has rape been challenged as unnatural and more than just a situational happenstance. Throughout history, rape has been used as physical and psychological warfare, a symptom without a real look at the cause.
For Linda Martin Alcoff, professor of philosophy at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center, the “enforcement of silence around this topic has receded,” a “new resistance has been galvanized by survivors,” and we’ve “set the agenda for theorists.” However, there is still work to be done.
On March 1, Alcoff presented on “Global Echoes of Rape and Resistance” as part of the Colorado College Philosophy Colloquium series dedicated to J. Glenn and Ursula Gray. Besides physics, women are most underrepresented in the philosophy department. Alcoff calls for greater inclusion of underrepresented groups in philosophy, and was able to offer valuable insight unable to be internalized in full by male colleagues.
Alcoff started by presenting on the first chapter of her new book on rape and resistance, emphasizing “the media’s new awakened focus” on the topic of resistance. While movements like “Me Too” have finally prompted action against centuries of abuse against women, Alcoff noted that the true nature of the problem is that it has entered a public domain in which cases of sexual abuse are still largely subject to rampant sexism.
Once released, we cannot control “the way speech is reported, packaged, and interpreted.” Thus, Alcoff emphasized a need for a means not only focusing on getting the word out, but also to better regulate how it is perceived. However, survivors coming forward and feeling equipped to share their stories takes a great deal of courage and is a crucial first step. This is not a phenomena unique to the global north.
Alcoff explained the case of the civil war in former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s in which rape was used as a state and military licensed pointed attack with the goal of producing political chaos; this was the first time rape was prosecuted as a crime against humanity. Rape was denaturalized and studies were conducted proving post-traumatic stress disorder as a result for survivors of sexual assault. Finally, rape was proven as a violation of human rights, and therefore could be more effectively condemned within institutions.
This was important in removing the isolationary aspects of assault and dealing with subsequent trauma. Rape was left unchallenged for so long, as there were no real words or spaces to break the silence and unite survivors. Today, the silence has been broken, but the discourse is still skewed. Truth for truth’s sake has not been reasonably established.
Alcoff took the audience through several case studies, beginning with the rhetoric used during the presidential campaign. Mainstream media allowed an incessant repetition of the allegations of sexual assault against our current president and debated if they were or were not relevant to his campaign. The public was exposed to a misogynistic representation of these survivors stories over and over again, inspiring a fatalistic attitude and widespread PTSD among survivors.
While some media outlets were able to inspire productive dialogue on dismantling rape culture, the climate of society today is still largely based in victim blaming or shaming; “How much did she have to drink? What was she wearing? Was she asking for it?” You simply can’t dictate the public’s prejudices, especially when they are continually validated by a person of authority. Alcoff’s other examples went on to describe instances of sexual harassment and the subsequent backlash as “old school sensationalism in which victims are silenced,” or how “social media [is used] as a means to brag, humiliate, and bully but also as an avenue for education and activism.”
The issue of sexual assault is further complicated with the issue of race and socioeconomic status, with headlines of white, wealthy women often garnering more public interest than a lower class, minority victim. How to constructively create a safer environment is an increasingly complex issue when politics and the public domain are such heavy influencers in the matter.
Alcoff emphasized that in a globalized world, each new case reverberates with others. There are echoes between institutions like the church, government, military, and news, and that victims inside these institutions have taken courage from others who have been systematically silenced. There are still many more who cannot speak for themselves, often times the working class or immigrants. A crucial concrete step in moving forward is to make their voices valid though protection under employment conditions and union contracts.
Alcoff couldn’t offer all the answers to the issue, but she stressed the need for more avenues of discourse and a diversity in the victims voices we hear. We cannot paint a broad narrative of what it means to be raped and how to cope; this is a personal invasion. “Thus it is not the speech in and of itself that produces the productive echoes leading to social change, but the specific circumstances of the speech: where it originates, where it is transmitted, how it is taken up, how it is understood, and by whom.”
“Victims are viewed as scarred beyond redemption and hysterics in waiting,” Alcoff said. They feel safest speaking to other survivors who will not judge them for what they did or did not do. This does nothing for collective consciousness raising of the nation. Alcoff spoke from a perspective as a firsthand survivor. She understands the importance and the struggle in speaking out but stands by the fact that “we need to maintain a concern for truth in light of all of this.” We need to keep the conversation going.
We have made bounds in the ethics of advertising, and there’s no reason to believe the media can’t follow suit. The patterns in which our speech circulates can be improved. Alcoff believes this can start in the courts, and shape public interpretation as a result. This requires institutional restructuring, and it won’t be easy. However, history is a fluctuation of changes in the mainstream discourse and radical social movements, of better educating ourselves and the public. And so, the work continues.