This morning I learned that Brad Pitt’s film production company purchased the rights to “Anonymous vs. Steubenville”, a Rolling Stone article about online citizens’ investigation and exposure of a cabal of teenage rapists in middle America and their enablers, which included both teens and adults, institutions and individuals. An advocate for Jane Doe, the unidentified survivor of the Steubenville rape, claims she is seeking input on the film. This whole thing could go very well, or very poorly.
So far, discussion around the new film has centred on the story frame created by the Rolling Stone article, which largely erases Jane Doe, and entirely erases the female blogger, Alexandria Goddard, who exposed the story and shone a beacon on it for Anonymous to discover. Instead, the Rolling Stone story focuses on Deric Lostutter, the Anon who became known as KYAnonymous and famously faces more jail time than the Steubenville rapists for his role in bringing them to justice.
Some folks think this framing is a bad thing, because the last thing we need is another story about sexual assault that erases the survivor in favour of crowing about the heroic man who intervened. Others disagree, arguing that we need to be telling more stories about men challenging rape culture and sexual assault.
I’m inclined to agree with both viewpoints. The truth is, men have an important role to play in solving the problems of rape culture and sexual assault, and it couldn’t hurt to give them more role models for bystander intervention. I think, for me, the problem lies in making the men who do intervene into heroes, and their interventions into acts of heroism and bravery, rather than imperfect acts of support and respect. This mythologization can actually make the act seem more intimidating to perform, and gives people license to stand down if that’s easiest for them, because they’re not a HERO or anything.
I understand that it can be intimidating to stand up to your colleagues if they are making rape jokes, or to tell your friends how fucking predatory it is that they’re scanning the party like Terminators to find the drunkest girl to bring home. Toxic masculinity means that some will interpret these acts as betrayals of your bros. And because of the aggressive ways in which men are socialized to respond to challenge, I understand it also opens up the possibility of physical violence in some cases, and we all need to be careful about that.
So okay, I get it, it can take guts to intervene as a bystander. But make no mistake, these are not True American Hero guts – they are Regular Decent Person guts, and we can all find them in ourselves if we do a little digging. In the case of sexual violence and rape culture, indeed, we all must find these Regular Decent Person guts in ourselves, because it will take that many acts of intervention, that many confrontations, that many snubbings at the bar or in class or at work, that many destroyed “personal brands”, that many damaged or ended friendships (among many, many other things), to solve the problem.
When I was in university, I found myself in a very Jane Doe-like situation: I was black-out drunk and, when my friends turned away for a mere minute, a man I didn’t know (who was sober) whisked me into his car, drove me to my house and raped me. It took a few weeks to begin to understand what happened to me as rape, because of the many messages our culture sends to the contrary (through vessels ranging from the film The 40 Year Old Virgin to my own roommates). One reason I did come to understand it as rape was through the counsel and support of a few close friends, including a couple I knew named Chris and Candace.
A couple of months after my rape, Chris and Candace and I went out to the same bar where my rapist had found me. As the night wound down, we were smoking out front when a good friend of Chris’s approached us to say hello. The friend said, “I want to introduce you to a buddy of mine,” and who should that buddy be but my rapist. I flushed and turned away. After exchanging a few words with Candace (i.e. “That’s him.” “Are you fucking kidding me?” “Nope.”), Candace whispered the guy’s identity to Chris. My rapist held out his hand, to be shaken by Chris. Chris looked at my rapist’s hand like it was covered with snakes.
After what seemed like hours, Chris said slowly and clearly, “I can’t shake this fucking guy’s hand.” His friend looked confused. My rapist looked like he was trying to appear confused, which infuriated me so deeply that my anger exploded in a shove (sorry, I am not an advocate of physical violence, but please, this guy raped me), pitting him against a nearby garage door. In front of a crowd of people smoking nearby, I screamed that he might want to wipe that confused look off his face, since a couple of months prior he raped me without a condom while he was sober and gave me a curable STI. I wasn’t embarrassed, I just wanted everyone witnessing the confrontation to know exactly what he had done. Then I ran away crying, because yeah. When Candace caught up to me a few moments later, she told me that Chris had punched my rapist (again, sorry, see above) and was now having a conversation with their mutual friend about why he should not befriend my rapist.
Chris’s response in this situation was not perfect, and is not intended as a script for how one should always deal with these situations. But he intervened in a way that demonstrated clear support for me, first and foremost, as well as challenging rape culture. Chris wasn’t a hero, he was just my friend. He knew that, if he cared about me and my right to exist in safety without feeling like I can never again return to this bar or be in the presence of his friend again, it was incumbent upon him to act. So he found his Regular Decent Person guts, and he acted in the ways that made the most sense for him in that moment.
I almost wonder if understanding bystander intervention as a challenging act, rather than a supporting one, is part of why men’s intervention in cases of violence against women is so likely to be deemed heroism rather than care and responsibility. Perhaps it’d be helpful if we understood bystander intervention as support and care for the survivor first and foremost, which is in and of itself a challenge to rape culture and gender violence. Maybe then, stories about bystander intervention in cases of violence against women wouldn’t be reduced to, as my friend Heather Cromarty so succinctly put it, “Good Men vs. Bad Men, and damn the ladies in between.”