Frankenfurtive: Rape Culture’s Everyday Acts
My mom and I attended church for a handful of years during my childhood. The best way I can think to describe it is as a white, liberal, bourgeois-hippie church. Most of the parishioners wore Birkenstock sandals and voted Democrat and had shopped at cooperative grocery markets since the ‘70s and lived in the surrounding neighborhood of Macalester-Groveland in St. Paul, which is populated with well-groomed Craftsman bungalows and Montessori schools and English-style taverns and gift shops that stock fair-trade mittens knitted by women in Bolivia. I was one of maybe 5 people of color who attended the church (including an infant who had recently been adopted from Africa).
One Sunday, when I was 14 years old, I had to go to the church office to get supplies for the post-worship teen youth group meeting I attended (grudgingly) each Sunday. There was no one in the office, so I stood there waiting. As I was waiting, one of the church’s deacons walked in. He came up very close to me and started talking quietly, almost in a whisper. I was wearing one of those stick-on nametags that says Hello, My Name Is, and he said, “Oops, your nametag is coming off,” and for several seconds he smoothed and massaged and flattened the nametag, which was positioned over my breast. Then he walked out of the office.
At the time, I was stunned and confused. He was such a nice guy, and so well-respected, and so soft-spoken and harmless, and he had kids. And maybe he hadn’t realized he was groping my breast? Maybe he truly was focused on the nametag? Maybe I was overreacting.
I never told anyone about the incident, partly because of this uncertainty and confusion. But also because it was so banal, so quotidian, so unremarkable to my understanding of what being a woman in this culture is, that it didn’t really occur to me to say anything to anyone (to this day I view this incident as so utterly unexceptional as to disqualify it from the #metoo campaign entirely). I understood that there were far worse ways to have been sexually harassed or assaulted. I even ended up experiencing—surviving—some of those far worse ways myself. But the nametag incident? On a continuum of acts, this one was uncomfortable and unwelcome. It was one more in a series of acts that would contribute to the erosion of my self-worth (death by a thousand cuts) and to the understanding that women are seen as second-class, throwaway citizens. But this act was ultimately forgettable. In fact, I didn’t even remember that it had happened to me—until the public response to Al Franken happened.
Imagine if the entire congregation had discovered that a deacon had groped me, and in response, they had rallied around him; had declared their public support of him; had discussed in the church’s hallways how what he had done was nothing compared to, say, the Catholic church’s pedophilia machine; had signed petitions certifying that he was an upstanding family man and he had never done anything to anyone they knew; had ceaselessly reminded each other that this man needed to be in a leadership position because of the good things he did for the church. Imagine how much I would’ve felt that my experience and my body didn’t matter, because he was a good person, and because he hadn’t raped me or even done much of anything at all. Imagine how much of a piece of trash every single girl in that church would’ve felt like. Imagine what this would’ve taught us: that we are nothing, and our bodies are nothing. That our bodies only become something—that they only register culturally—when someone violates us past a certain threshold. What do we tell girls in this society—what do we tell the victims of harassment and assault of any age or gender—when we rush to be sexual harassment apologists?
Yes, what Al Franken did wasn’t as bad as what some others have done. That simply isn’t the point. If we must compare acts that are worse than other acts, then we must know this: the societal rush to justify or minimize Franken’s actions might well be more brutal, more damaging to victims, and more celebratory of rape culture than what Franken did in the first place (several times, over several years, as we are continuing to learn). I don’t even care what happens to Al Franken—whether he remains employed in his current position or not, for example—as much as I care about what we have done by responding how we have responded as a society.
In this season of gratitude, I give thanks for all the people who have stepped forward to tell their stories of sexual harassment and assault. Because we are not in kindergarten, we understand there’s a difference between the various kinds of acts that constitute rape culture; for example, raping a minor or an unconscious person is worse than groping someone as a gag. But because we are not in kindergarten, we understand that the entire spectrum of these acts is what constitutes rape culture. That the constant, insidious perpetration of acts of a lesser degree is what enables acts of a greater degree to occur unremarked and unpunished. If we have a hope of fighting and ultimately dismantling rape culture, we must call out all of these acts into the open regardless of where they fall on some perceived spectrum of valuation, and we mustn’t be apologists for those perpetrators who do the absolute bare minimum of what they should do after being called out.
On this day of thanksgiving (a day that attempts to mask historic atrocities with celebration) let’s be stewards and protectors of victims. If this patriarchal nonsense comes up at the family table, squash it. Squash it like a decorative gourd.