My first college roommate was a film student with a pink streak in her hair. She became very involved in organizations and events with a strong feminist bent, which were plentiful on our campus, and her film work reflected this interest. As I watched her edit a documentary on sexual assault, however, I was ambivalent. This issue in particular, I thought, suffered from overexposure. During welcome week, all the freshmen had been subjected to an hours-long presentation on the dangers of sexual assault on college campuses, and every man in the room squirmed in his seat as the actor/presenters on stage demonstrated various modes of pressure, coercion, and manipulation. The school’s “Take Back the Night” observances had enormous turnout. Our Center for Women and Men provided endless resources. Rape=bad. We got it.
Except…we didn’t, apparently. The last few years have forced me to see how little our perception of rape has really evolved over the last half-century. While defense attorneys in rape cases may no longer directly reference the sexual history of a rape victim in an attempt to discredit him or her, and while the law books have (mostly) been updated to recognize spousal rape, rape of men, non-penetrative rape, and more, much of our society clings doggedly to the idea that rape without physical assault and struggle isn’t “really” rape.
I thought that this outlook was dying out, that it, like widespread opposition to marriage equality, was a relic destined to last only as long as the Baby Boomers. The 2012 elections saw condemnation, albeit somewhat weaker condemnation than I would have liked, and the defeat of some political candidates who spoke of “honest rape” (Ron Paul), described how “some girls rape easy” and thus men should be wary of engaging in sexual acts with women who might later regret them and cry rape (Roger Rivard), and expressed support for abortion only in the case of “legitimate rape” (Todd Akin). I read plenty of articles that claimed that these comments reflected a broader worldview than many of us realized, but I attributed this, in part, to media sensationalism.
The Duke lacrosse scandal catalyzed, and Penn State and Steubenville advanced, the discussion of rape culture. It became part of our social discourse, and was, for many, an acknowledged problem: our social structures aid and abet rapists, our media and entertainment promote sexual violence in ways subtle and profoundly obvious, and the phenomenon of social media has made victims more vulnerable to invasion of privacy in addition to the violation of bodily integrity. The Internet exploded with campaigns, grassroots and top-down, to advance the cause of consent. Essays were everywhere, urging parents to teach their children (usually focusing on sons) to respect the rights of others, encouraging young men to be “upstanders” rather than “bystanders,” and confessing personal stories of sexual assault. Some of these articles were less than perfect; many put the onus on potential victims (usually presumed to be women) to prevent the violation of their bodies, few talked about the rape of adult men (especially by women), and some bordered on hysterical (ask me sometime about my theory on the song “Blurred Lines”). But the word was out. We all heard the statistics: one in three college-age women is sexually assaulted, some ridiculous percentage of rapes (anywhere from 30% to 90%) goes unreported, etc. I had faith in our ability to make this right.
And then, last night, I had one of the worst paradigm shifts of my life. I attended a screening of a new Israeli film whose English title is Six Acts. The screening was on the Columbia University campus, was put on by Columbia’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, and it was followed by a discussion led by a documentary filmmaker and activist against sexual assault. About 20 people trickled into the event, taking free candy and gently mocking the swag laid out for grabs: mints, foldable Frisbees, cups, and buttons bearing messages about sexual consent. “Keep Sex Sexy: Talk!” was better than the ambiguous “No More,” but whatever.
This is not a review of the film, but a summary is necessary. Six Acts is, fittingly, divided into six segments. The film opens with a montage of a young woman using her webcam to take self-portraits. This is Gili, a teenager described as being “in the top five of her class” and new to her school. She lies about where she lives, presumably because she doesn’t want the “cool kids” to know that she isn’t as wealthy as they. The only interaction we see with her mother is a brief argument, and Gili says that she hasn’t spoken to her father, who is shown snoring on the sofa, in two years. Omri, a good-looking and wealthy classmate of Gili’s, summons her to the mall parking lot one night, telling his friend Tomer that she is “just like the girl from Eilat [presumably Tomer's love interest] but less fat,” and the charismatic Omri does some more objectifying. When Gili arrives, the ambivalent Tomer retreats, Omri sends Gili after him, and after some half-hearted flirting, Gili manually stimulates Tomer to orgasm.
Gili’s desperation is almost palpable: she lies about having friends to drive her to meet the boys, she praises Tomer’s pathetic choice of lookout point (a parking lot), and she readily agrees with and to virtually anything the boys say. When Omri and Tomer hop a fence to swim in a hotel pool, Gili follows. She flirts with Tomer, who pointedly ignores her. Omri, however, is interested, and when he playfully removes her bikini top, Tomer leaves the water. Omri then insists on having sex with Gili. Gili protests: no, not now, I don’t want to, Tomer is right there, I’m on my period– all variations on “no.” Omri smoothes over every objection: “but you’re so sexy!”, “Tomer doesn’t mind; it actually turns him on”, “oh, it’s okay, we’ll figure out something else”– and then initiates anal sex with Gili. No. Wait. I’m sorry. He anally rapes Gili.
For me, this incident in the movie colored everything that followed. Gili, a rape victim, romanticizes the act. Omri sends her text messages praising her, calling her sexy, and she reads and rereads them. Omri promises his friend Shabat that, in an implied exchange for marijuana, Gili will provide some form of sexual gratification; Tomer does not seem keen on the idea. Gili arrives, under the pretenses of studying for an exam, and Tomer leaves, asking Gili to stop calling him. Sad and vulnerable Gili submits to the ministrations of Omri, her rapist. Though she protests that she does not want to, and then that she doesn’t want Shabat in the room, Omri coerces her into fellating him, calling her a whore and dismissing it as a joke when a shocked Gili becomes upset. Shabat attempts to initiate sexual contact of his own during the blowjob, and Gili slaps him away. Shabat masturbates, occasionally reaching out to touch Gili, and when Omri orgasms, he tells Gili to “hold still” and “be a good girl” while Shabat touches her and finishes.
The rest of the film sees Gili’s female peers gossiping about her provocative clothing and sexual mores, Gili bragging about her sexual encounters with Tomer and Omri (perhaps for social capital, perhaps as a coping mechanism), Omri attempting to curry favor with a friend by making an intoxicated Gili fellate both of them in a bathroom stall, Omri filming an unaware and drunk Gili while she fellates him (and distributing the video), Omri sending underage Gili to buy beer so that he can desert her and have sex with his (much younger and presumably wealthy) girlfriend, Shabat raping Gili (more on that later), Omri’s parents turning a blind eye to the inappropriately sexual behavior of Omri’s younger brother, Omri’s father and his friends viewing and praising pictures of Omri’s sexual conquests, Omri “offering” Gili to yet another friend and finally to his 13-year-old brother, and, in the ambiguous final scene, Omri’s father driving Gili home. In that scene, Omri’s father tells Gili that her shirt is on backward, and she takes it off to turn it around, exposing her bra.
The film was upsetting and sadly relatable, but the most disturbing part of the night was just beginning. Honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention to the beginning of the conversation, not least because the facilitator sounded unprepared and began with something along the lines of, “So, what do you want to talk about?”, a line that was met with reverberating silence. Gradually, though, people started talking. I think my alarm bells first started going off when someone said that the movie dealt with class issues, and that Gili’s relative poverty was linked to her being and dressing like “a slut.” The facilitator repeated this word, describing various characters’ outfits and actions as “slutty” or “not slutty.”
I didn’t speak up until the facilitator described Shabat as “kind of an ally.” She said that he was the only one who asked Gili if she liked the way he was touching her, and that he was concerned about whether Gili had had an orgasm during their encounter. I don’t even think I managed to raise my hand before blurting out, “Right…after he RAPED HER.” You see, in this scene, Gili comes over to Shabat’s house and confides in him that Omri is angry with her over her failure to sexually satisfy his friend at the club. Shabat, who had driven drunk Gili home from that night, says that he didn’t like the way Omri treated Gili, and they sit on his bed and talk. Gili replies, “it’s fine” or “I don’t care” to Shabat’s offer of a massage and when he begins to stroke her arm. Shabat, a chubby guy, straddles a prostrate Gili to better massage her, then rapes her. She says, in succession: no, please don’t, I don’t want to, you’re crushing me, no. Shabat refuses to stop, so Gili asks him to put on a condom, a request he denies, saying that he will pull out, which he doesn’t.
Well, according to several people at this screening, that wasn’t really rape. One of the event organizers said in response to my comment, “Well, she did ask him to put on a condom, so she ended up consenting.” The facilitator said that the lines were pretty blurry here, especially since Gili “made choices” to go to Shabat’s house and laid on his bed. After all, she said, although Shabat was physically crushing her, he probably would have stopped if she had physically resisted more forcefully, or if she’d screamed. I responded that, in addition to the fact that NONE OF THESE THINGS MAKE THAT NOT RAPE, Gili’s actions throughout the film are exactly in line with a rape victim, someone who has suffered and survived a serious trauma. You know, the rape in the pool?
Oh, wait. Some people in the room didn’t think that was rape, either. The facilitator wasn’t sure that there had been penetration, so that would mean it wasn’t really rape. An undergraduate woman said that since Gili flirted with and kissed Omri and joked about not wanting to have sex, and since she used the excuse that she was on her period, which would probably indicate she would have sex if not for that, it was really kind of her fault. She was “teasing” Omri and “sending mixed signals.”
At this point, I experienced, for the first time in my life, being blinded by rage. Determined just to make it out of the room without physically harming someone, I furiously texted a friend, (mostly) blocking out further discussion of how Gili’s silence was consent, how her bragging after the fact indicated that she had consented, how her continued socializing with the boys showed that she really wanted it and needed to “take responsibility for her actions that led to what followed,” how her consent to kissing meant that the consent to sex was assumed, how her texted joke to Omri about having “a gang bang in the toilet” justified his insistence that his somewhat reluctant friend violate her, how her “slutty” clothes were indicative of something being “not quite right in her head.” (Yes, something was “not quite right.” SHE’D BEEN RAPED.) One participant pointed out that Gili is evasive about the reasons she transferred high schools, saying that people “made up stories” about her. Maybe, this person reasoned, it was really that this had all happened before, and she “makes bad decisions.” Someone else chimed in, saying that because Omri’s father didn’t ask Gili to remove her shirt, her actions showed “judgment problems.”
The facilitator told us that what she liked about the film was that it didn’t romanticize the sex, and that anyone who was “turned on” by the movie had a serious problem. She discussed films, both comedies and dramas, that do romanticize non-consensual sex, saying that she thinks our broader culture understands much better now what rape is like than we did “in the 80s.” She defined rape culture for a participant, mentioning the Twilight series and its “romantic violence” as well as the Steubenville case. She told us that she herself is a rape victim, and that rape is not romantic. And then she continued to assert, and to agree with others’ assertions, that in this film, there were “a lot of things in play,” “serious questions of agency” (a word she pulled from something I said and then proceeded to misuse), and “gray areas” in the rape scenes.
The facilitator invaded my self-imposed cone of silence, asking me directly, “So, do you think this movie could be used to teach about consent?”. I told her, my voice shaking, that I could see how, properly presented, this film could be used to demonstrate all the ways that non-consent can manifest itself, and how insidious rape can be, but that I was shocked to hear in this discussion all of the misconceptions about rape that we’ve fought to change, not to mention a disturbing amount of victim-blaming. She responded that maybe in certain contexts, “like with high school students,” that would need to be underscored, but not in general.
And then I left. An older woman who left when I did told me that she had been as shocked as I, and she was glad there was “at least one other sane person in the room.” But, by and large, I don’t think I came across as the sane person in the room. I think I looked and sounded angry. And I think that most of the people in the room disagreed with me to one degree or another. And that terrifies me.
Can we review? An underage girl, usually drinking or smoking marijuana, is subjected to vaginal, anal, digital, and oral penetration. Almost every time, she verbally articulates that she does not want to engage in that sexual act: sometimes she says she doesn’t want it at all, sometimes she doesn’t want it then, sometimes she doesn’t want it with that person, sometimes she doesn’t want it because of other conditions. Many of those times, she physically struggles, attempting to stop the sexual contact. On at least one occasion, at the club, she is too intoxicated to stand, appears unaware of her surroundings, and is so silently reluctant to engage in oral sex that Omri’s friend insists that he can’t let her fellate him. EVERY SINGLE TIME, even with the hand job in the beginning, the man (or men) in the scenario is deliberately misleading her as to his intentions and frame of mind.
That’s rape. It is. I will say it a thousand times if I have to– but I never thought I’d have to. I am distraught that I have to.
Why is this on a blog about Judaism? It’s a Jewish issue. Why? Pick your reason. I’m Jewish, and I’m angry about it. The film is Israeli (though my issue is not with the film). The event was put on by the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. There were Jews who watched the film. There were Jews who said that what they saw wasn’t rape. Judaism is a tradition that tells the stories of the forcible rape of Tamar by Amnon, of the sexual coercion of Jacob by Leah, of the sexual trickery of Judah and (another) Tamar, of (depending on your understanding of the text) Ishmael “sporting with” Isaac. It is a tradition that has, since the time of Talmud, recognized that rape does not always– or even usually– mean a strange man using physical force to vaginally penetrate a physically and verbally struggling woman with his penis. 2000 years ago, the rabbis said, however imperfectly, that we have to do better than that in our attempts to understand the havoc wreaked by sexual violence and impropriety. They were right. And we are failing.
What happens if, God forbid, one of the people who attended that screening– someone who heard people saying that what they saw wasn’t rape, or who said it himself– goes to a party, has a drink too many, and is coerced, rather than physically forced, into performing a sex act? How many times do you have to hear someone cast aspersions on whether non-consent is “really” rape before you’re too ashamed or scared to come forward? How many victims can you see blamed before you view your own rape as your fault? How many rapists hear conversations like that one and think that what they’ve done isn’t “really” rape?
I don’t have an ending for this story. I want to say that I know what to do, the next steps to take, the right calls to make. I don’t. But I know what I saw on that screen, and I know what I heard in that room, and I know that I am terrified.