Friday, January 30, 2015

Sadly, this Brought the Sexual Assault Conversation Back to my Dinner Table … What Could Make It a Subject at Yours?

What we each think about sexual assault must become instinctive and of one voice. ... We will all—individually and/or together—act when we must, because we know.

If you are familiar with the OJ Simpson (football star) murder trial some twenty years ago and the media theater that played on living room TVs across the country each evening, this past week was a deja vu moment in Nashville, TN when two football players from the city's almost-Ivy university, Vanderbilt University, were tried for an alcohol/drug fueled gang-rape which occurred inside one of the school's dorms early one morning during the summer of 2013. The week-and-a-half long trial held many locals spell-bound as the court room trial was televised live, gavel to gavel, along with expert commentary and screaming newspaper headlines. In the end, two of the defendants were found guilty on all counts for, among other things, aggravated rape (of an unconscious female). Two other defendants who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors still await a decision between the state and their attorneys regarding their fate.

One sad fact (among many) that came up in the football players' trial was that while a number of knowing bystanders could have stepped in to stop the assault, or even simply render after-the-fact assistance, no one did. Oddly, the whole incident apparently only came to light to authorities after the victim was left out in the hall, the campus rumor mill got out of the assailants' control and evidence was seized, including cell-phone video, photography and text messages.

The defendants' attorneys blamed their clients' incontestably inappropriate behavior (remember it's on video) on the “culture” of excessive alcohol, youth and today's sexual mores (I paraphrase). “A perfect storm,” one called it. Outsiders have posited the “bro-code” had something to do with it as well. I might add another factor: the victim could not fight back. She was blacked out, totally unconscious—allegedly from too much alcohol (Caution dear reader, I'm NOT pointing my finger at the victim, nor should anyone!). Per testimony, the victim for some time blamed herself before she got her head around the pertinent facts and wisely realized she was not to blame. She's now rightly being called a survivor and a hero.

This was a lot to absorb for this two-time alum of the same university. As such, the weeks' past events have gotten me thinking about the problem of sexual assault and what we can all do about it as a community.

I first visited this topic in my novel, Sleeping in Snow with Bears, published back in 2012. Even though a campus rape is a primary plot driver in my novel, I always had some misgivings about writing a blog-post about the topic—several years' of misgivings in fact. In part because rape is a real downer, but more importantly, I wondered, would it be acceptable to play off a theme that is so awful? Certainly not. So instead of focusing on rape directly when I pitched the novel, I talked around it, focusing instead on the victim's after-the-fact struggles and the physical and inner-strength her best (female) friend had in spades but could not, for innumerable reasons, teach. The rape and the inadequate response was brushed over, allowing other plot points to prevail whenever I spoke about the book.

But given recent high-profile discussions around the country about the right of all women to be safe from sexual assault (recall the mattress carrying women at Columbia University), this real-life assault which happened more or less in my own backyard, and the subsequent conversation in my immediate community—not to mention my own family's dinner table—I thought it might be acceptable now to post a piece (here) that pitches what I was trying to get across in the book all along.

Like the rape case I describe above, in Sleeping in Snow with Bears the rape victim also blames herself. It isn't for being unconscious and unable to fight back, but for not fighting back at all—more accurately, not knowing how to fight back. Was she correct in blaming herself? What difference might fighting back have made had she?

The novel deals in large part with the protagonist's conscious and unconscious life-long journey to learn to fight—both physically, emotionally and spiritually—after the fact. But in a perfect world, she never should have had to fight back in the first place.

In the case of the football players' trial, I side with the defense on one point; that being, the culture—I call it society—is to blame (and of course, as the jury unanimously agreed, so were the players). It is society's job to prevent sexual assault from ever being contemplated. If the bro-cod—to first support one another—the bro-code needs to change. There need to be obvious catalysts that trump it. Total success sounds impossible, but surely society could prevent many.

But how?
First, there must be a national conversation the result (second) from which we all come together with some general, ever-lasting agreement as to what defines inappropriate behavior. But besides just talk and finding a common definition that society as a whole agrees upon, it goes further such that society understands what to do—like communities who pull together and assist one another after a storm without being asked. What we each think about sexual assault must become instinctive and of one voice. The third point will then happen automatically. We will all—individually and/or together—act when we must, because we know.

So what exactly could kick-start such an important conversation? Sleeping in Snow with Bears offers one solution to bring about in-your-face national consciousness regarding sexual assault. It involves Hollywood and red carpets, a little bit of spirituality, and … I've said enough. It's fiction after all.

If you've read this far, you might be thinking, “So what? Sleeping in Snow with Bears is fiction, someone's dream, while sexual assault is real. We need a real solution.”

I agree. All I can argue is that enough fiction (think old science-fiction) has come true to life because of dreams, so why not try? The goal is worth it. Let's have that conversation. Perhaps it could work in real life too. It certainly will get more of us on board.

#VAW #Anitrape #Rape #YesAllWomen #AllMenCan #SurvivorPledge #HeForShe #EndVictimBlaming #SupportSurvivors2015