Thursday, January 18, 2007

"Won't Believe the Hype" - article on sexual violence from Durham, N.C.

I haven’t posted in too long. I was ready to think something up when this article came to my inbox. I recommend taking a look. There is great work being done in Durham.

-Patrick Lincoln

Won't Believe the Hype
by Bryan Proffitt

The following essay is about the ongoing struggle against sexual violence, especially in the context of the last year’s events in Durham, NC. Readers should know that it could trigger difficult emotional responses among survivors and those folks close to survivors.

It's been a dizzying couple of weeks here in Durham. Rape charges dropped against the lacrosse players. Another survivor's life poked and prodded by a public that has little interest in her health or happiness. District Attorney Nifong's scandal. Finnerty and Seligmann invited back to Duke in "good standing." Survivors of sexual violence re-traumatized by public attacks and re-assertions of one myth about rape after another.

Those of us living here, and those of us struggling to end violence: we've been busy. Many of us are survivors and supporters of survivors, and this has been the perfect recipe for a few weeks of nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and despair. We've been working to heal ourselves and each other, and building strength and strategy for the fight ahead.

In the media frenzy of this case, the lack of instant response has led many to believe we've gone away. Not the case. Our timetable is different. Our work is not the work of headlines and sound bytes. We have not gone anywhere.

Be assured. We will continue to fight until the violence ends.

We know that there are people across the country looking for a grounds-eye perspective on this one. Others are better equipped to come with legal analysis and media strategy, but for those of us focused on the long-term struggle to end sexual violence, here's some thoughts. Please share them with others and take action in your own communities.

1) Sexual violence happens every day. We knew this when the charges first became public; we know it today; we'll know it until the day it stops. In building a survivor-centered response, this has been our emphasis from the start. We know that anywhere from 1 in 3 to 1 in 8 women will experience sexual assault in the U.S. in her lifetime. Countless men, children, and people who live outside the gender binary are subject to this same plague. It is vital to fight against ALL sexual violence until the day it no longer happens. A crucial part of this fight is believing those who bravely step forward, every single time. This is the first step.

2) It is more likely to happen to people who are more socially, politically, and economically vulnerable. It's no accident that sexual violence occurs most commonly among women and children. It is a tool to control, humiliate, and batter the bodies and souls of those deemed less-than-human by our society. People of color, prisoners, transgender people, sex workers -- anyone historically denied respect, less likely to find sustainable employment, less connected to institutions of power (schools, government, the military, corporations, etc.) is at a greater risk. Every day.

The fact that the survivor in this case is working class and Black has everything to do with the reality of how this case has unfolded. From the lacrosse team's request for a Black dancer, to the racist attacks heaped on her as she left the party, to the police officer who assumed she was drunk rather than in need of help, her race mattered that night in March. It has mattered since. She has been disbelieved, denigrated, spoken for, spoken about, and stripped of her agency; all without the privileges of whiteness to shield her.

3) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real. Imagine the survivor of a traumatic car accident being asked for a second-by-second detailed account of a crash in which she lost a leg and watched her child die. Would we expect that she would tell same exact story twice? Would we call her a liar when it inevitably changed, as certain details became clearer while others clouded?

Anyone who has experienced trauma is going to suffer long-term consequences. Add alcohol or drugs, a disorienting situation, the stress of your trauma's publicity, threats against your family, and your life's story splashed across every television in the country the way this survivor's has; most of us who are close to, or are, survivors were not surprised when the story changes multiple times. We know that it is a reality of survival of any traumatic situation.

4) The judicial system is an unlikely source for justice in the case of sexual violence. In five minutes the other day, I counted in my head the names of over 20 people I know who have survived sexual violence and not reported it. This is the case for the strong majority of survivors. Factor in those who go to the police and are not believed, and those who are believed, have charges pressed, and see them beat or dismissed in a trial or investigation: now you have the typical story of almost all survivors. After all of that, it's not hard to doubt the legal process.

Further, once a case goes to trial, as we have seen, a person's life becomes public property. Names, reputations, and lives are dragged through the mud as the defense works for a not-guilty charge, whether or not their client is innocent.

It is hard to believe that someone would make up a story, subject themselves to such scrutiny, only to face tiny odds of legal "success." I can't think of a single decision I've regretted enough to go through all of that for. For every hyper-publicized account of a false story, there are millions of survivors who never see justice in the courts. Success in a court will never guide my decision to believe.

5) The judicial system is an unlikely source for justice part II. The court systems in this country were created to serve the interests of wealthy white men. They have proven this time and again by denying American Indian land rights, disproportionately sentencing Black men to prison, and claiming that women cannot withdraw consent once it has already been given (see the recent case of Baby v Maryland), among other daily atrocities. The lacrosse players posted bail over $300,000, hired superpower attorneys, and relied on this system to do what it does best, protect their interests. I don’t believe that this is because of malicious bigotry, just a 200-plus-year-old system doing what it is supposed to do.

Most of us never expected that the court case would go far, and we won't be surprised if ALL the charges are dropped. For us, the successful prosecution of rape charges and a rape actually occurring are two phenomena so different, they're hardly on the same planet. When a Black woman is involved, historical precedence says that they're not in the same universe. For centuries, Black women were considered "un-rape-able." Same system, different case.

6) The judicial system is an unlikely source for justice part III. What justice can the court do here? If imprisoned, these men are at a greater risk of violence at the hands of guards and/or other prisoners than that of women on the outside. For those of us who want sexual violence to end, this is not the answer. Prisons are not around to keep crime from happening, nor "reform" those who have committed it. They are another way for us to legitimize violence and pretend that our problems are solved, when they have merely been relocated.

We must begin to imagine alternatives for real accountability. Throughout the world, survivors are leading community responses that challenge instances of sexual violence, hold people who commit violence accountable, and work to prevent it from ever happening; all without resorting to the violence of prisons.

7) Sex workers are human beings. I'll say that again: sex workers are human beings. They are not any number of the dehumanizing names I've heard tossed about since last March. They are people who have responded to the wretched lack of options that capitalism presents them by taking advantage of one of the few avenues that may allow them survival, material gain, or happiness. One's means of making a living, regardless of its social "legitimacy," ought to have little to do with whether or not one is safe from sexual assault.

Many people who disbelieved this survivor's story from the start did so because of her occupation. It meant, to them, that "she deserved it," or that "she was asking for it." No one makes similar comments when a construction worker is hurt in an accident or a police officer is shot on the beat. Sex workers, like Black women and other women of color, are often considered "un-rape-able." A Black sex worker has a double burden here.

Similarly, many who believed her story did so despite her occupation. They pitied her and prayed for her. They still missed the point. There isn't anything that a person could do, including taking off her clothes and dancing for people, operating a phone sex hotline, or actually exchanging money for intercourse, that would justify violence or any sexual act against her will.

By denigrating and denying the humanity of sex workers, we simply open the door for more violence.

8) Men find solidarity in violence. The day after the charge was dropped, I was listening to the radio. The DJ asked for women to call the show because all of the men "know what's going on. She's lying, lying, lying." It could have been Bill O'Reilly or Bill Bellamy: across racial lines men have a perception that we are under attack by vicious rape-charging women. In close to 100 workshops I've run with men as an activist/organizer against sexual violence over the last 5 years, I don't think I've ever facilitated one and not been confronted with this myth. Over and over again, we are willing to deny the reality of every fourth woman we know and take the side of a man we've never met.

Maybe we don't want anyone to know what we, and our friends, have participated in.

9) White people find solidarity in violence. At the beginning, we heard, "they couldn't have done it," as though good-looking, well-educated, well-mannered white men haven't been responsible for some of the most monstrous acts of inhumanity ever perpetrated. Then it was the "Innocent" wristbands around town, and the Duke Lacrosse shirts in the store at the airport. Now it's, "look, the legal system is going to work this one out. We'll find out the truth, and you all should apologize if you were wrong."

Few of these people actually know these young men. Even fewer were in the house on the night in question. I'm quite certain these assumptions of innocence and/or faith in the court system to serve justice have at least a little bit to do with the guys that we're dealing with here. These are our sons here, the all-Americans.

The history of white men's sexual violence against Black women in the U.S. is well-documented. I'm not prepared to assume innocence because of these men's whiteness.

10) These men's lives are not ruined. I don't envy them, whatever the results are. There will be rough times, prejudicial treatment, and a lost opportunity here and there. If they are, in fact, innocent, this is a travesty.

Their lives, however, are not ruined. Their position in society is allowing them the best defense money can buy. Duke has issued them an invitation for readmission in "good standing." They will graduate from one of the top schools in the country (Duke or another) and immediately access the network of power and privilege that has brought them safely to this point. Given what's been said about them in the media, they are likely to be held up as martyrs; heroes who nobly and stoically suffered a horrible injustice.

Having one's life ruined looks a bit more like perpetual anxiety, nightmares and an inability to sleep; a disconnection from healthy sexuality; a lifetime of therapy, medical bills, and drugs to avoid mental hospitals; stays in mental hospitals; physical wounds that never heal; depression, alcoholism and drug abuse; eating disorders; suicide. Or simply having your life's plans and daily activities controlled by the constant threat of the reoccurrence of violence. These are the realities of survivors that I have known.

Know that we haven't gone anywhere. We aren't going away because these charges have been dropped. We are healing ourselves and each other, and steeling ourselves for the fight ahead. We recognize that alliances will come and go and those responding to the bright lights of controversy will fade when the lights do; but we'll be here. We will believe. We will struggle until sexual violence no longer exists. We will create a new world.

Bryan Proffitt is a Hip-Hop generation white man who belongs to Men Against Rape Culture (MARC), a Durham, NC-based organization committed to building the struggle to end sexual violence, and Ubuntu, a women of color and survivor led coalition committed to ending sexual violence. He can be reached at This essay could not exist without survivors, fighters, and lovers. It was shaped and reworked and made infinitely better by the thoughtful support and critical editing of Nancy Wilson, Tema Okun, Aiden Graham, Sam Hummel, Serena Sebring, Bob Pleasants, Michelle Lanier, Kriti Sharma, Precious-Jewel Zebriskie, and Manju Rajendran. Share


  1. "Many people who disbelieved this survivor's story from the start did so because of her occupation. It meant, to them, that 'she deserved it,' or that 'she was asking for it.'"

    The first sentence is true; the second sentence may be true for some, but not for all.

    The entire profession of stripping is based in dishonesty, conceit and fraud: the promise of something that is never (well, rarely) delivered. Disbelief of the accuser has nothing to with "she deserved it" because of doubt that the "it" ever occurred.

    Fighting rape myths by constructing other rape myths is counterproductive. Another example is the "rape is not about sex, it is about power" myth. Power is a 'powerful' sexual stimulus for both men and women, and the exchange of power is common in many sexual relationships, both gay and straight. Denial of this fact will do no good; only by recognizing its truth and understanding its influence on human behavior will any kind of prevention be possible.

    A good many of these anti-rape myths come from the depths of the radical feminist community, and as such, they do not necessarily represent the views of women with a more realistic perspective of female/male relationships.

  2. Many feminist like the poster "Y" (above), are still ignoring evidence to try and "spin" the stripper's lie that hurt so many people into a victimization of a poor lowly stripper who was only lied about being raped to get out of being arrested again.

    The stripper’s body was completely void of any sign of a sexual assault (except for signs of recent vaginal and anal from her boyfriend). The alleged crime scene was completely devoid of DNA.

    It is impossible that a crime scene with three drunk men in a small enclosed room with a fighting and clawing woman being orally, virginally, and anally penetrated not leave any DNA evidence of urine, blood, vaginal fluid, sweat, fecal matter, scat smears, saliva, tears, or semen... especially if condoms were used. How would they take off the condoms during all this chaos without spilling, smearing, or touching the content inside or outside of the condom?

    When investigators questioned the stripper after DNA tests on the semen found inside her vagina and rectum didn’t match any of the Duke players, the stripper admitted to having had sex with at least three men around the time of the alleged rape. The stripper named her boyfriend and two men who drove her to Duke. She also confessed to using a vibrating sex toy vaginally during a performance, prior to the Duke party, for a man and woman.

    When questioned, the “drivers” said they would drop her off at several places, including hotel rooms.

    Many sexist and feminist groups have marketed this stripper as a courageous single mother, but new information seem to tarnish her “halo”.

  3. From Peggy Sakow:

    I have written to MCSR on several occasions to express my interest in
    your wonderful work. I was going through some of your Blog comments
    today after I received the email on high school programs. One blog made
    reference to the rape of a prostituted woman, however, the contributor
    referred to her as a sex worker.
    I am co-chair of a committee that works against human
    trafficking. Prostitution is considered human trafficking because the
    overwhelming numbers of women preotituted have pimps and traffickers
    who control and coerce them. In Canada (which is where our committee is-
    Montreal), there is now an important trial going on now in whcih a
    man, Pickton, a pig farmer, is accused of confining, torturing and
    killing prostituted women. There may be as many as 50 young women
    killed and buried on his farm near Vancouver. Although I do believe
    that your blogger only meant to be respectful, he is using a term that
    we believe to be harmful to the women who are enslaved in a situation
    where they are raped every day and night.
    Since the Pickton trial has hit the press, the pro-
    legalization forces have stepped up their cry for decriminalising
    prostitution. Part of their technique is to use words like "sex
    worker" or "sex trade worker" as if to indicate that this is, after
    all, a job, work like any other kind of work. This kind of hygienic
    lexicon was used for slaves in the 19th century. The word "field hand"
    sounds fairly innocent. It actually described someone who was captured,
    shipped away from his/her homeland, enslaved, separated from his/her
    slave family, branded like cattle, forced to work without pay,
    relegated to endure pain and violence and live a sub-human existence
    for his or her entire life. So goes the terminology of todays enslaved
    woman or man.
    Decriminalising prostitution would be the mob's, pimps' and
    traffickers' dream come true. We need only look at Germany and Holland
    where it is legal. The argument is that the girls and women will be
    safe if they are registered and every brothel is under the government's
    watchful eye. Prostitution is not a safe life. It is a life of slavery-
    slavery to the pimps and to the "customers". Often this life of pain
    and misery is relieved by slavery to drugs- whcih the pimps happily
    I know in your work to bring gender equality and respect for
    women, you do talk about paid sex and the exploitation of women (and
    children and men). We, of our committee, must speak out whenever we see
    terminology that distorts and misleads. There are no "happy hookers".
    There are just women, usually poor, usually with a history of abuse,
    trapped in what is "the world's oldest oppression of women." I hope
    that you will bring attention to these words that attempt to distract
    us from the facts and our real job. We must set these girls free. We
    must protect them. We must stop the demand and prevent girls from being
    lured from schoolyards into the streets.
    I don't know how to blog, so I leave it to you to perhaps
    post this as a response to the blogger on your site or add my thoughts
    somewhere. I agree with your writer. We have no right to judge but we
    have an obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Amen.
    With all good wishes for your continued success with our young men,
    Peggy Sakow
    Co-Chair of the Temple Committee Against Human Trafficking
    Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom
    Montreal, Quebec

  4. To Proffitt: White people find solidarity in violence? lol Do you know real FBI rape crime statistics? Ever been to Africa? Look, you can live in your fantasy world all you want to (still pretending the Duke boys are guilty of anything), but if you want to for once do something useful for real in pursuit of a world without sexual violence you should focus on Darfur or South Africa (rape capital of the world). Or even visit those places. Go where the trouble is for real instead of preaching from the comfort of your home in North Carolina.