Reconsidering Rape III ArtMinji Reem / Morningside Muckraker

Lane Feler wrote “Reconsidering Rape: Experience as the Life of the Law” in Issue 2 of the Morningside Muckraker, and followed it up with “Reconsidering Rape: The Conundrum of Silence” in Issue 6. Though she is now the Opinions Editor, she offers this third piece in her trilogy as a contributor, not in her capacity on the editorial board.

“You may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; who was offered a celestial crown . . . but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.” 

– Theodore Roosevelt (1906)

Muckraking, as T.R. thought of it, is a menial enterprise—a long cycle of callus-building work, the reward being the satisfaction of cleaning away the grime and, after toiling long enough, maybe revealing a glimmer of truth you know is there. That’s the only expected reward, if you can manage to scrape the surface. But writing about rape, I suspect, has an additional hurdle, in that you have to be willing to remove the Band-Aids on the battle wounds and let people see the damage. They get to poke and prod it. The wound, though, is part of the truth you have to expose. Not a lot of people will write about it, and I did not really imagine they would read about it.

Yet in February 2014, halfway through law school, I picked up my rake anyway because victim silence was becoming a detriment to my education—our education. Like traditional muckrakers before me, I chose words over silence. Writing was a relic of the past for me, kind of like the first love you’ll never forget. When my undergraduate faculty mentor sat me down for what he ominously called “The Talk,” he gave me two professional alternatives: the first being journalism and the second being law school. I thought I was saying goodbye to writing beyond briefs and memos.

Of course, the first of my law school application essays featured the word “advocate” prominently, as advocacy is as necessary as breathing to us attorneys. But the second paid tribute to my love of the written word—albeit in the pages of trashy romance novels.[1] The latter seems trite to some, I am sure, but I love reading just about anything. Simply put, so much understanding and, yes, connection can be found in text, whoever penned the words linked to those who read them. Minds, feelings, worlds are opened to you. Written words can leave an impression, even if you don’t get “timshel”[2] tattooed on you one morning in Spain, and if the words are really good, sometimes they can breathe life outside the page. It is a crucial realization for advocates.

Since the Muckraker published the first piece in this series, rape has become a much more ubiquitous subject of debate. Still—and even after Emma Sulkowicz began her own advocacy project—the voices are few in number. The past year, I have been approached by victims on numerous occasions because I had the cajones to write about rape; doing so made me a singular, identifiable resource for a group of people who quite systemically, to a well-documented degree, have been denied substantial support. T.R.’s muckraker is a lonely image, but still he “continue[s] to rake himself the filth on the floor.”[3]

And for what? Why do it?

That same faculty mentor who urged me to pursue this legal degree, who could not have foreseen that the study of justice would bring me back to my words, called recently to remark on how I have created something useful to him as an educator and mentor. As students began to come to him to share their experiences or concerns with sexual assault, he found himself better equipped having read the pieces to have those conversations. He mused about how I was the responsible adult giving out advice this time around. To the extent muckraking has granted me responsibility almost as an “organizational catalyst,” I consider that he is right.[4]

I have knowledge to leverage.

This is what I want my fellow colleagues to know, what is buried underneath the grime, what experience has taught me: I used to believe that the private sphere inherently meant safety, that harm could not enter my little bubble so long as I controlled who else was welcomed within. It’s a fundamental belief of American law, enshrined in our jurisprudence, embedded in our value system.

If I feared anything, I feared strangers whose behavior I could not anticipate. I believed in backstops, that in my private world even if some harm loomed large on the horizon, others would be able to protect me from that harm. I suspect I clung to childhood vis-à-vis my faith in that security.

At nineteen, I learned firsthand that for the most part, sexual violence occurs in private. To be sure, sexual harassment occurs openly, every day, on every street corner. I had experienced no shortage of it—from profanity shouted as I ran through my neighborhood, to the restaurant manager who used to stroke my calves during my shifts when I was sixteen as I just froze.

But for the most violative of sex-based misconduct, often no one is there to see, no one is there to monitor, no one is there to curb such degrading behavior. There typically isn’t a backstop to protect you. In the moment, when you are alone and the deed is just done, it is terrifying.

And, the fear doesn’t end there. Fear undergirds habitual victim silence. Fear of reprisal, fear of doubters, fear of shaming. At some objective level, you let someone into your private bubble, and it generates a false sense of responsibility. It took me four years to throw off the yoke and grant myself the permission to speak publicly. But fear still pays a visit in private, even amongst those I would say I trust. As soon as I sense some amount of unwanted sexual aggression, I feel fear enfold me.

It is not so much that we victims fear the sound of our own voice; it is not ultimately a matter of hearing our own truths. What we fear are the voices calling in response. Empowerment can lead to embattlement. It means opening the hatch to our private lives for public scrutiny, inviting those who weren’t there to comment and cajole and, yes, criticize. It is often hard to see how speech has any bearing ex post, because statistics are statistics and they stay fairly stagnant.[5] What if the words amount to nothing?

But we as a society venerate words.[6] We venerate expression, and with good reason. I think about the word empowerment, and I wonder what writing openly has granted me. Relief, perhaps. But power? It sounds like a somewhat twisted joke, because no matter how often or loudly I speak, I do doubt the amount of power granted to me by this society in which we live.

Yet my words, I have come to learn, reached people. They have comforted. They have sparked a tiny measure of change, even if just to open the conversation.

One could call muckraking an art, one of advocacy through words. In truth, it isn’t so much an art as a labor, and it is a labor of love. There is always a chance we can write the words that actuate a more just society. Ultimately, we shoulder the risk and consequences in the name of an ideal and hope something, anything, comes of it.

February 24, 2014, I became a muckraker. I chose, after a long deliberation,[7] to publish the first part of this trilogy, and I felt some strong emotion beyond the panic that the creature I had birthed was finally let loose upon the world. You might be thinking, big deal—it was an article for a fledgling online publication, hardly the stuff of legends.

But that feeling I had, I think it was strength. It’s hard work raking muck.

[1] This is verifiable.

[2] See John Steinbeck, East of Eden 303 (1952) (“[T]he Hebrew word, the word TIMSHEL—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open.”).

[3] Theodore Roosevelt, The Autobiography, Condensed from the Original Edition, Supplemented by Letters, Speeches, and Other Writings 246–47 (Wayne Andrews, ed., 1st ed. 1958).

[4] Susan Sturm, The Architecture of Inclusion, Harv. J. L. & Gender 247, 287 (2006) (“Organizational catalysts are individuals who operate at the convergence of different domains and levels of activity. They leverage knowledge, ongoing strategic relationships, and accountability across systems.”).

[5] The “one in four” statistic has remained constant in studies since the 1980s; an early example is a study done by Koss, Gidycz & Wisnieweski in 1987, and a more recent example would be a study in by Tjaden & Thoennes in 2006.

[6] U.S. Const., amend. I.

[7] See Steinbeck, supra note 2 (“But ‘Thou mayest!’! Why, that makes a man great, for . . . he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”).