Why Audrie & Daisy is Required Watching in a Culture of Slut Shaming and "Locker Room Talk"

by Courtney Morgan

This article originally appeared on The Thought Erotic on October 14, 2016. 

TW: Sexual assault, rape culture, suicide

Last Friday, October 7, 2016, was a big day in the media for sexual assault. President Obama signed the historic Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill into law. The same day, Access Hollywood released tapes of presidential candidate, Donald Trump, in 2005 bragging about his propensity toward, and ability and history of committing acts of sexual assault against women. And I, that evening, just happened to watch Audrie & Daisy—the documentary (which premiered at Sundance and released on Netflix September 23), about the sexual assault cases of two American teenage girls, Audrie Potts and Daisy Coleman. This imbroglio of mixed messages sort of felt like an average day in America—but it also painted a pretty clear picture of what needs to change.

The Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill is important legislation, which extends some key rights to survivors of sexual assault, focused on the collecting and preserving of rape kits.[1] This bill is necessary, especially considering the difficulty rape victims have proving their claims. It is also not nearly good enough,[2] and addresses only one very small piece of the very large problem.

The truth is, there is only so much legislation can do, especially when confronting rape culture and institutionalized sexism and cissexism in trying to protect the victims of sexual assault.[3] Legislation is not enough, when prevailing cultural attitudes and media representations send the message that women[4] are commodities and that rape culture is normal and okay. Which brings us, of course, to Trump.

If you happened to miss Trump’s words, here they are:

“I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her,” Trump says. “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

“And when you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump says. “You can do anything.”

“Whatever you want,” says another voice, apparently Billy Bush’s.

“Grab them by the pussy,” Trump says. “You can do anything.”

 

It is quite clear that, for Trump, women’s bodies are available for a man’s pleasure and consumption, regardless of her wishes and without her consent. His comments promote a sense of entitlement, a feeling of pride even, in taking what’s not proffered him, in helping himself without permission. An attitude that perpetuates a climate where boys feel that sex is their right and their due, and that access to women’s bodies is something they should both expect and exploit.

This is what rape culture looks like.

In response to backlash to this video, Trump dismissed his behavior as, “locker room banter”[5] and “just words.”

 

But for Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman, rape culture is anything but harmless banter. The documentary by acclaimed filmmakers  Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk follows the stories of the two girls, in different parts of the country (California and Missouri, respectively), who are both victims of sexual assault. We watch two very different—though both harrowing—cases unfold.

The documentary is difficult to watch and process, not only because of the assaults, but also because of the attack that follows—the bullying and silencing and slut-shaming that the girls, the victims, have to confront daily, after being raped.

For Audrie, the aftermath of the assault, the gossip and bullying that ensued, became too much. Audrie Pott committed suicide[6] just eight days after her assault, and after pictures from the event went viral at her high school.

This is why comments like Donald Trump’s matter—why they cannot be dismissed as “only” banter. Because that kind of banter perpetuates a world in which women are up for grabs (literally), are not whole people but an array of body parts available for use. And because that kind of banter creates and sustains a world where bullying, teasing, threatening and demeaning other human beings is not only acceptable, it’s normal, it’s just to be expected.

And in this toxic cultural atmosphere, legislation such as the bill signed October 7 can only do so much. Daisy Coleman had a rape kit. The DNA matched her alleged rapist. She had a blood-alcohol level of .14 the morning after the assault, when she woke up in her front yard in below-freezing temperatures, where she’d been left by her rapist (her alleged rapist; he was not charged with sexual assault). There was also a video, which the sheriff’s office later claimed was irretrievably deleted.

But Daisy’s (alleged) rapist, Matthew Barnett, a white 17-year-old (Daisy was 14 at the time) football player and grandson of a former house representative, claimed that Daisy had been awake and coherent, and had had consensual sex with him at a party in his basement. It became a he-said, she-said—despite her blood alcohol level and signs of vaginal tearing found during her examination—and Barnett was never charged with sexual assault (though he was charged and settled on a misdemeanor count of child endangerment).

Audrie’s assailants admitted to drawing lewd messages on her naked body while she was unconscious (after drinking), digitally raping her, and taking (and distributing) photos of the assault. They were ordered to serve between 30 and 45 days in juvenile detention (on weekends, while they remained in school).

One of the most infuriating, and also frightening, moments in the film is when one of Audrie’s rapists—her “friend,” who claimed he was playing a prank when wrote degrading messages on her naked body while she was passed out, and then raped her—is asked what he had learned about girls through the ordeal. (Audrie’s rapists were required to provide interviews for the film as part of their settlement, but got to remain anonymous because they were juveniles.)

His answer: "Girls, the gossip really. There's a lot gossip between girls. And, you know um, guys are more laid back and don't really care. So, that's what I've learned. For sure."  John_B

Wait, hold up. That is your takeaway from the consequences of committing sexual assault? From a friend committing suicide after actions you took against her? Not that rape is wrong? Not that girls are fully human and deserve basic rights like the safety and respect of their bodies? Not even that social media and cyberbullying and sexting can be highly dangerous or at least have bad consequences?

That girls care more about gossip.

And it was hard, at least for me, to hear that statement, and not think, It’s just locker room banter.

While I’m furious at  John_B, I’m also frustrated with the families, institutions, educational systems and media surrounding a boy who has learned nothing about his actions, even after being charged with felony rape (and felony possession of child pornography). Even after a girl has died.

A huge part of the problem is that we’re not talking enough about consent and sexual assault,[7] about what it is, what acts constitute it, and also the damage it inflicts and the consequences for perpetrators and victims (not to mention that we need far more serious consequences, and we need them enforced).

Sexual assault and consent education need to be a required part of sex education in schools, and they need to be a part of the conversation we’re having in our families. Most especially with our sons.[8] In addition, this education must address girls’ and women’s sexuality and the negative way we depict it—slut-shaming, the madonna-whore complex, and other cultural narratives and myths which demonize, erase, and punish female sexuality while celebrating men’s. (More on this to follow).

And we have to address the prevailing attitudes and narratives that perpetuate the objectification of women, condone violence against them, and normalize sexual assault.

 

Donald Trump’s comments, and perhaps even more so his dismissal of them as “locker room banter,” normalize sexual assault. They send the message: This is what boys and men do. It’s just the way things are.

Pat Robertson’s response that Trump was just trying to look “macho,” normalizes sexual assault and reinforces toxic masculinity.

Brock Turner’s father’s message following his son’s conviction for rape normalizes and invisiblizes sexual assault. It calls rape sexual promiscuity. It erases Turner’s crime, writing it off as normal, drunken, teenage (boy) behavior—instead of the rape and assault of a human being. It blames alcohol and calls for pity and compassion for the rapist, instead of the victim.

Yes, we need to educate boys and men about what sexual assault is and all the ways and reasons it’s wrong. Yes, we need to create more comprehensive punishments and consequences for perpetrators of sexual assault, and get these punishments actively enforced. Yes, we need to hold culpable lenient judges, lawyers, police, and policy-makers. Yes, we need to find ways to make it easier for victims to prove their cases and get convictions.

And, we need to address a conception of masculinity that considers violating another person’s space, body, and sense of safety as “macho,” as a desirable quality. That meets the sexual assault of women with a shoulder shrugging, boys-will-be-boys mentality.

And also, we need to stop shaming women about their victimhood, and about their sexuality in general.

Let me get one thing crystal clear: sexual assault has nothing to do with a person’s sexual history. Whether she (or he) has many partners or none, a person always, ALWAYS still has the right and ability to not give consent to sexual relations. And let me also be clear that sexual assault is NOT sex; women and girls who are assaulted are not promiscuous as a result.

The problem, however, is the cultural narrative that links the two. And the problem is that female victims (especially young women and school-age girls) of rape suffer additional wounding post-assault through gossip and labels. The in-person and (most especially) online bullying that followed both Audrie’s and Daisy’s attacks was horrific. And much of it centered on slut-shaming.

We need to divorce the narrative of sexual assault from the victim’s sexuality. And we need to address the narrative in which a woman who is sexual (as most human beings are[9]), is bad, tainted, less valuable, or ruined.

What is so heart-wrenching about Audrie’s story is her response after being sexually assaulted: “Now I have a reputation I can never get rid of.” “My life is over.” “u have no idea what’s it like to be a girl,” she told her assaulters on Facebook, (her assaulters who were also her “friends”). A victim burdened with the additional guilt and shame of her own abuse.

 

And it’s a very specific kind of shame, and one primarily reserved for women in our culture. Audrie was raped, and yet her concern was that her peers would now see her as loose, promiscuous, slutty.

This is a really common story for survivors, and one explored by the film—the shouldering of fault and shame, believing messages from their rapists and also from the community that so often turns against them, doubting themselves and their memories. Maybe I am that girl. Maybe it is my fault. [10]

“You begin to believe that all these bad things they’re saying about you are actually true. So your image of yourself completely changes and you kind of become a shell of yourself,” Daisy says in the film.

This is an old narrative that fits snuggly into the confines of victim-blaming: What do you expect wearing clothes like that? Were you drinking? Why did you go to that party/club/alley/(anywhere outside of the confines of your home)?

Or how about this gem: “She is leaving her home at 1 am in the morning and nobody forced her to drink…what did she expect to happen at 1 am after sneaking out?” asked criminal defense attorney and Fox News guest Joseph DiBenedetto about Daisy Coleman.

Addressing sexual violence in our culture and in our communities MUST involve a shifting of sexual shame. It needs to allow women and girls their sexuality. An ability to take ownership of and pride in their sexuality. We must be working toward a culture where women (and people of all genders) are allowed to express and enjoy their sexuality. And where victims of sexual assault are not further victimized as “sluts.”

These are two separate issues—rampant sexual assault against women, and the conflicting messages for women (and girls especially) around their sexuality (or lack of it).[11] But, these two issues become inextricably tied, especially in cases of rape of teenaged and college-aged women (where slut-shaming is most prevalent). And I believe if we really want to address sexual assault, and also find ways to help and support victims—we must address depictions of sexuality, and allow women and girls to be sexual (or not), as they choose, without judgment or shame.

Because in one way, John_B might be right. Girls might be more affected by gossip. Held to a confusing double standard in which boys and men being sexual (or sexually promiscuous) is good, is normal, even when it becomes invasive or violent, while girls who are sexual (even if that act was unwanted, was forced upon them) are sluts, or even at fault for their own abuse—girls and women have a very hard time navigating and certainly finding strength or empowerment through their sexuality. And that—along with this culture of sexual violence—needs to change.

Slut-shaming should not be the default response to sexual assault. It should not be a part of the conversation at all.

In some ways, Trump has been a useful figure to have so publicly displayed and scrutinized; time and again he dredges the caverns of our collective cultural conscious, and pulls up all the muck that we have tried to sweep under the rug, to "fix" by avoidance. But ignoring it has not made it go away, and Trump brings all of our racism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and sexism to the surface to be confronted. At the time of writing this, 27 million people (of all genders, but primarily women) have responded to Kelly Oxford’s tweet call with their stories of sexual assault—from being “grabbed by the pussy” (insert body part) to rape.

These 27 million people begin to shift the narrative of victim-blaming and internalized shame.

Daisy Coleman, Delaney Henderson, Jada Smith, Ella Farion,[12] and the family of Audrie Pott begin to challenge the normalization and acceptance of sexual assault and behaviors of sexual aggression.

 

(Image from SafeBae.org)

The media (both social and traditional) frenzy that followed the release of the 2005 Trump tape begins to challenge the acceptability and normalization of rape culture—creating more fertile ground for sexual respect and empowerment.

Watch out, DT, the pussy grabs back.

pussygrabsback (1).jpg

 

 

[1] Amanda Nguyen, a rape survivor who helped craft the bill with Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), started a nonprofit to address the problem after finding she had to return to Massachusetts every six months to ensure her own rape kit was not destroyed.

[2] Even within the scope of rape kits, the legislation doesn’t do enough; it doesn’t, for example, address the backlog of untested rape kits now in police custody—which some experts estimate to be in the hundreds of thousands.

[3] 9 out of 10 rape victims are women1 in 5 women are victims of completed or attempted rape. Nearly 1 in 2 women experience sexual violence other than rape. 1 in 2 transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted. 1 in 33 men are victims of completed or attempted rape. 1 in 5 men experience sexual violence other than rape.

[4] When I say women in this article, I am referring both to cis- and transwomen. While men, (and especially transmen) are at risk for sexual assault, most victims of rape are women. People who are trans face horrifically high rates of sexual assault, often as a result of transphobia; a deeper exploration of this is beyond the scope of this article, but more information can be found in this report. This article will focus on violence against and cultural attitudes toward women.

Risk for sexual assault is higher in some other subpopulations as well, including women of color, especially American Indians, though a full exploration of this is unfortunately also beyond the scope of this article. More information can be found here.

[5] Many athletes have pushed back at these words.

[6] About 13% of rape victims will attempt suicide. http://www.suicide.org/rape-victims-prone-to-suicide.html

[7] A recent Planned Parenthood survey found most people think that too little is being done to educate about sexual assault in high schools (63%) and colleges (61%).

[8] We’ll be writing more about this in upcoming articles on The Thought Erotic, and AudrieandDaisy.com has a whole host of resources and discussion guides for parents and educators.

[9] Unless they are asexual, which has nothing to do with one’s gender.

[10] For more guidelines and tips on how to support survivors of sexual assault, please see the discussion guides at AudrieandDaisy.com, developed by Futures Without Violence and Blueshift Education.

[11] I.E. Your virginity is a prize that needs to be cherished and protected, giving it away (too much, too early, too often, or at all) makes you bad. But also you need to be attractive and sexually appealing and available (or no one will like you), but again, not too available.

[12] In addition to telling their story in the film, these four survivors co-founded the nonprofit Safe BAE to combat sexual assault and provide education to schools and individuals across the country.