When a teen is gang-raped and photos of her rape distributed online, the normal human response should be indignation toward her attackers – not toward the victim, for allegedly being a slut who enticed all the boys. Sadly civilisation has a long way to go, but even in the last couple of years, the cultural climate has grown more conspicuously hostile for misogynists who fancy themselves arbiters of women’s sexual worth. Something has changed – but what?
The gang-rape in question happened two years ago, at a time when rape victim suicides were becoming a depressingly regular feature in news cycles. Rehtaeh Parson’s slut-shaming and death inspired my friend Emily to start her own documentary on the issue, having blogged months earlier on her own experiences in secondary school.
That was 2013. A week ago I suddenly learned she and her team had finished editing UnSlut: A Documentary Film. I’d seen a workprint during its lengthy gestation in postproduction hell – the major question on my mind was how much the world would change by the time the film was released, versus when it was simply an idea two years ago.
But in reality, the premise of her film is as fresh now as it was then. Not because rape culture has necessarily worsened – plenty of observers have argued otherwise – but because more people than ever, from kids to politicians, want to listen. This is not an environment where police can blame rape victims for acting like victims, and expect to escape condemnation.
Of course, cultural winds can change in an instant – just ask Todd Akin and Josh Duggar. So why are said winds blowing in our favour, for now? And why has the national dialogue grown more receptive to our issues?
Three reasons seem likely: 1) politicisation of rape and women’s safety, 2) resulting revitalisation of grassroots feminism, and 3) a presidential administration willing to leverage this into support for tangible action against rape culture.
The politicisation of rape speaks for itself. The 2012 election was the first in U.S. history where rape became a national issue – not because white men like Todd Akin and Rick Santorum suddenly decided they supported rape, but because they foolishly revealed their own party’s platform had been pro-rape for years, with a particular obsession with forcing impregnated victims to have their rapists’ babies.
This national spotlight on politicians’ beliefs, along with their obsession with politicising birth control and women’s bodies, probably had something to do with the electoral massacre that followed. See what happens when you politicise millions of women into realising why they might still need feminism?
This alone didn’t turn the tide against rape culture. What it did provide was human fuel for a seemingly unrelated development – grassroots feminists who, after appealing to the Bush Administration for nearly a decade for help with addressing campus sexual assault, found a new White House that was willing to at least stop obstructing them.
Granted the Obama Administration has been largely supervisory in its approach to sexual violence. Its biggest action to date has been to clean the Office of Civil Rights of political hacks, and staff it with professionals who returned the OCR to its historic role as nonpartisan investigator. This was a noticeable improvement over the office under Bush, who had ordered the OCR to scale back its focus on Title IX, which bans gender discrimination on campus.
Intentionally or not, the Obama Administration set events into motion by re-tasking the office with doing its job. In 2011, the OCR issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to universities, reminding them that refusing to take sexual violence seriously was a form of gender discrimination. At the same time, survivors who’d been trying for years to hold their schools accountable were networking online, sharing and discovering recurring themes in their cases, and organising to file lawsuits. The OCR’s letter was a sign that someone on a federal level was finally willing to enforce the law, if survivors pursued legal options.
With lawsuits came stories. With stories came outrage. With outrage came national conversation around why this was happening. The politicisation of rape back in 2012 had already set the stage for dialogue, for people to connect the dots between society’s contempt for women and the way it treats survivors. We have a long way to go, but the groundwork has been laid – more media than ever treat attacks on women’s sexuality as a serious issue, and blaming girls for being sexually harassed is roundly condemned, rather than treated as serious discourse.
It’s about momentum, the swing of the pendulum. It’ll keep swinging our way if we keep the conversation going.
From our past conversations, I know Emily and her mates made UnSlut: A Documentary Film so they could contribute to the broader, on-going conversation around rape culture. None of us knew if a documentary would still be relevant by the time it was done. I think it still is, and I encourage anyone interested to take a look and even consider organising a screening.
If you have questions for Emily, on her journey to the final cut or thoughts on online feminism’s future, comment below – we’ll follow up in a future Q&A!