What if she SHOULD be able to run/walk/hike alone? Thoughts on the rape and murder of Chelsea King

(Cross-posted at Ms. blog here.)

Of all the news I have heard in relation to the recent sexual assault and murder of Chelsea King, a 17-year-old from my community, one quote keeps reverberating in my mind: “She should not have been running alone in the park.”

When my son shared that this was the message passed on to him during a teacher’s discussion of the local tragedy, I bristled. Why is it that we focus blame on the victim? Why are we suggesting she should have been more careful rather than emphasizing he should not have attacked her?

Yet I must admit that this quote reverberates  because it was one of the first things I thought when I heard a young girl was missing after going to run alone in a local park. Living in a rape culture which blames the victim, I recognize that even I, a feminist scholar and teacher, have had a “she should have” commentary beaten into my brain on a daily basis.

Chelsea King (and all humans for that matter) should be able to run in the park without fearing sexual attack. More generally, girls and women should not have to live via a rape schedule, which Jessica Valenti argues is “essentially like living in a prison—all the time.” But our culture does not seem to care much that females have to constantly worry about their safety. Instead, we question the victim’s actions and demeanor, while not focusing nearly enough on perpetrators.

That’s why, I surmise, so many  news stories emphasized that Chelsea was a straight-A student and great athlete. Such descriptions and accompanying photos stressed she was a “good girl,” thus suggesting that some other girls are not so good; some may even “ask for it.” Simultaneously, the perpetrator was framed as a “bad apple,” a repeat offender who should be locked up for life.

What about directing some focus on society itself? Is not patriarchy the underlying culprit here?  As noted in a 2004 Amnesty International study, “Violence against women is one of the most pervasive and ignored human rights violations.” Yet, rather than focus on this rampant societal problem, we might blame a 17-year-old for jogging alone and judge her assailant as a sick anomaly.

Sexualized violence is no anomaly, so displacing the blame from a patriarchal society that encourages and perpetuates such violence to the individual victims and perpetrators only guarantees that such violence will continue. Violence does not happen in a vacuum, nor is it the result of a few bad people (as the work of Erica Meiners, Angela Davis, Jodie Lawston and so many others makes clear). It results from the privilege/oppression matrix and a society that glorifies power. Locking up individual perpetrators and creating sexual offender registries does nothing to address these issues, instead it gives a false sense of security and furthers“stranger danger” myths. As Davis argues, our prison-happy culture is merely “a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.”

The alleged murderer of Chelsea King, John Albert Gardner, no doubt is an individual manifestation of the rampant sexism in our society that frames women as objects. But his actions need to be considered in relation to a wider glorification of violence. Locking him up will do nothing to punish the larger perpetrator–the accomplice, the enabler–which is society itself.

What if that Pebble Becomes a Boulder?: Racism and Sexism on Campus and in Everyday Life

The theme of one of the common complaints I often get from students in my women’s studies classes is “feminism is so depressing.” Students, young and fresh-faced, though eager to dissect and critique the world around them, also seem to yearn to look through the world through rose-colored glasses. They generally dive into analyzing privilege and oppression historically, happy to give examples of the injustices our world has doled out for centuries. However, when asked to hold up a mirror to their contemporary moment, they often like to focus on the positive changes, suggesting that somehow all the rumors of a “post-racial” and “post-feminist” society are true. It is partially my job to place large cracks in such a rosey-eyed view, revealing that, yes, racism, sexism, homophobia and all those other ugly –isms are still going strong.

On the campus where I teach, this was in shocking evidence today on, of all places, a bathroom wall. The picture above, sent to me by a student, was taken last night in one of the main campus buildings. Placed there on the eve of the statewide day of action defending education budgets, it is surely a modern-day exhortation to “keep your mouth shut,” a threat to those of us on the side of history that seek to progress society towards justice rather than conserve the longstanding privileges that the maker of this sign unabashedly seeks to maintain. (And don’t you just love how there is a heart above the ‘i’ on this message?!?)

While I had planned to post something upbeat today about my daughter turning eleven this week, detailing positive changes in culture compared to when I turned eleven in 1982, my own rosey-eyed view of feminist accomplishments has suffered a brutal beating in the past few days. Locally, just in this past week, there has been news of a high school senior sexually assaulted and murdered, there has been a spate of racist attacks at local college campuses (with the picture above only one of many incidents), there was, just yesterday, another young woman attacked by two men at a local park.

On a more personal level, I was told by my son’s principal that a teacher’s P.E. commentary, consisting of “you throw like a girl” and “don’t use the girly weights” are meant to be “humorous.” “She is a very strong woman,” he assured me, “a role model.” On the one hand, I am proud my thirteen-year-old son sees the sexism his principal fails to, on the other hand, I am deeply disturbed that such sexism is still passed off as “just a joke” and excused by claims that it’s ok because she is a “strong woman.”

To top it off, I have somehow received a plethora of emails of late that either assume I am a man (due to the “Dr.” title I imagine) or that address me as “Mrs. So and So.” This last annoyance is so slight in comparison to all the other horrors of this week, yet it somehow rankles me– it seems, in short, like a virtual but constant reminder, knocking at my in-box, reminding me “keep your mouth shut…you are only a woman…who are you to try and change the world?”  This “little thing” reminds me of Jewelle Gomez’s realization that “Sexism could be like a pebble that needs to be removed from a shoe; a tiny thing that throws off a woman’s gait, causing her to limp, sometimes unconsciously, to avoid pain every day.”

This week, it seems it is not only pebbles, but huge boulders, and I am indeed limping from the resounding evidence that no, we are not living in a post-racial, post-feminist society. However, despite those who wish to “get rid of” people like us, the people who want to change the world for the better, I will keep limping along, teaching my “depressing feminism” and endeavoring to remove pebbles and boulders out of the path of those who march towards justice.