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Misogyny and the Law: Confronting America’s Rape Culture
Rather than admiring from afar the protesters in India, and congratulating the national leaders who have begun to address sexual violence in the U.S. military, we need to confront the broader problem of misogyny in American legal culture.
By Priya Dieterich (guest blogger)
Eariler this month in New Delhi, the trial began for the six men accused of beating and gang-raping a young woman who later died from the injuries she sustained. Immediately following this grotesque crime in December, Indians took to the streets in droves to express their outrage and insist that the men be charged and prosecuted for their crimes. The American press reported the story as India’s failure to protect women, asking whether the Indian justice system is up to the task of prosecuting the men for their crimes.
It was an attack on “them,” but as author and video blogger John Green says, “there is no ‘them,’ there are only facets of ‘us.’” Rape is not solely or uniquely an Indian problem or a problem of the “third world.” It is a global scourge to which the United States is hardly immune. The U.S. purports to have a higher functioning legal system and lower levels of police corruption, but it is failing just as miserably to prevent and punish rape as its Indian counterpart.
A recent documentary film, the Oscar-nominated “The Invisible War,” tells the catastrophic story of sexual assault in the American military. A.O. Scott of The New York Times summarizes what the film uncovered:
The Defense Department estimates that 22,800 violent sex crimes were committed in the military last year alone, and the filmmakers calculate that 1 in 5 women in military service has been the victim of sexual assault. “The Invisible War” presents other numbers, mostly from the military’s own records, that make the picture of pervasive abuse even more alarming. Many crimes are never reported — this is true of rape in civilian life as well as in the military — but among those that are, only a tiny fraction are dealt with in any meaningful way. A culture of impunity has flourished, and the film suggests that the military has mostly responded with pathetic attempts at prevention (through posters and public service announcements) and bureaucratic rituals of self-protection.
The producers of “The Invisible War” are open about their film's political agenda: they seek not only to shed light on the sexual assault culture in the U.S. military but to effect fundamental change. As Alyssa Rosenberg reports at the Daily Beast, there are signs they may be meeting their target:
[S]ince The Invisible War’s release, federal action on sexual assaults in the military has instead accelerated. On January 23, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on the investigation into Lackland Air Force Base, the site of the Air Force’s basic training: a staff sergeant stationed there was convicted of rape and sexual assault last summer, and 32 instructors are alleged to have sexually coerced or formed relationships with their students that violate military regulations. The New York Times wrote “that they are doing so is in large part a tribute to” The Invisible War, though Dick said he was frustrated that so many congressmen left the hearing to attend a vote, skipping the part of the program where assault survivors testified about their experiences.
As national leaders begin to come to terms with the military rape scandal, they risk mistaking sexual assault as primarily a military problem. It isn’t. We are not only talking about a deficit in military justice. The civilian legal system that is supposed to protect women is permeated with rape-apologists and rape-denialists. Though sexual assaults have fallen since the mid-1990s, a rape occurs every two minutes in the United States. Rape is still a scandalously under-reported crime, with over half of assaults never reported to the authorities. The criminal justice system does not prescribe consistent consequences for aggressors: only 3 of every 100 rapists spends even a day in prison.
This data finds horrific illustration in a recent case in Steubenville, Ohio. A girl was gang raped and dragged, unconscious, from party to party by a group of high school boys and the authorities largely covered up the story because it was ugly and uncomfortable to talk about. It came to light, even warranting a New York Times article, only because of one blogger, Alexandria Goddard, who refused to let the incident be brushed under the rug. Goddard wrote about the crime for months before mainstream media picked up the story (and it is worth noting that she was then sued by a Steubenville football player for doing so).
While the victim thankfully survived this attack, the atrocity of these crimes is on par with the rape in New Delhi. Its brutality is exacerbated by the fact that throughout the night the boys tweeted about the rape and posted videos, including one uncovered by the hacker group Anonymous, that is a painfully disgusting 12 minutes of one of the accused boys laughing about “how dead” and “how raped” they thought the girl was. Why, with this story developing almost simultaneously to the New Delhi story, are we not having a national discussion about the American culture of rape and how to address it?
The institutionalized rape culture in the United States goes well beyond Steubenville. In an even more blatant display of our legal system’s failings, a judge in Nebraska in 2008 prohibited a woman from using the words “rape” or “sexual assault” or describing herself as a “victim” or the defendant as an “assailant,” in her testimony against her alleged rapist. The judge, who is not the only one to have issued orders of this manner, explained his decision by citing the defendant’s right to a presumption of innocence. This reasoning is absurd, of course: a judge would never prohibit a witness from using the word “thief” in the case of an alleged theft. But the judge’s order speaks volumes about our society’s tendency to excuse rape, belittle rape accusations, blame the victim and protect the criminal. When men observe a legal system that refuses to take rape charges seriously, coupled with a fetishizing of aggression, rape is encouraged, not deterred. The institutionalization of misogyny in the courts, as well as slut-shaming attitudes in society, result in the shockingly low percentage of reported rapes, despite the fact that 1 in 5 women in the U.S. say they have been sexually assaulted.
Our failure to provide justice to women who are victims of gender-based violence is not confined to situations involving rape. A strikingly parallel situation can be seen in the way our society tries battered women in courts of law. In a 1984 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, expert testimony on battered woman’s syndrome was found to be relevant to the case of a woman who killed her husband during a fight after enduring seven years of abuse. Statements by the prosecution in that case were condescending to the defendant and blatantly misogynistic, but the ruling could have given one hope that this type of injustice would no longer be tolerated. Apparently that hope would be naïve and ungrounded: battered women are still mistreated by the judicial system and unfairly prosecuted. In a murder trial that began in 2005, Nancy Seaman was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison. When a U.S. District judge ruled for a retrial on the grounds that the defense should be able to construct a self-defense claim based on battered woman’s syndrome, a federal appeals court overturned his decision, explaining that battered woman’s syndrome is not a defense under Michigan law. The Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project conducted a study of homicide convictions in Oakland County from 1986 to 1988, concluding that “Overall, a white female defendant with no criminal history who was convicted by a jury of killing a white person could expect an average sentence of 10 to 30 years. However, if the woman was a victim of domestic violence, her predicted sentence increased to life.” That’s blaming the victim with a vengeance.
What’s going on in these courtrooms? Why are battered women treated with hostility and discrimination in our courts of law? Why are rape victims frequently ignored and disparaged? Institutional attitudes toward spousal abuse and rape are both rooted in a patriarchal, misogynist culture. In each case society makes similar, inaccurate, unfair judgments of the women in question, and the legal system accepts rather than corrects them. The assumption that battered women are masochistic is directly paralleled by the accusation that a rape victim was “asking for it.” The two issues have sparked different levels of mainstream media coverage — there is an active feminist movement speaking out about rape culture that gets some attention, while battered women’s cases receive little — but they are inextricably linked to each other and to entrenched and institutionalized misogyny.
We must acknowledge that violence against women is a product of our society and everyone is conditioned by it. In modern American culture, the problematic gender relations and gender norms that foster violence against women are the very same influences that condition jurors, judges, lawmakers and observers to perceive this violence against women as normal. James R. Mahalik, who studies gender norms in society, has developed an index of 11 Masculine Norms, among them Violence, Dominance, Emotional Control, and Power over Women. Society defines and elevates these characteristics in men, fostering intimate partner violence (usually of a man against a woman), and cultivating a culture of rape. Consider any situation wherein one person attacks another: as soon as the assailant is identified as male and the victim as female, we are conditioned to normalize the masculine aggression (even as we frown upon it) and identify faults of the woman’s character that may have led her to this fate.
Addressing the issue of gender-differentiated treatment by the law is complicated. We must strike a balance between our obligation to litigate within our far-from-perfect reality and our obligation to foster social progress. When we give priority to the latter, under the pretense that our judicial system can handle these cases in a gender-neutral way, we fail to uphold either of these obligations. We are kidding ourselves if we assume that the average American is capable of fairly assessing a battered woman or a rape victim, or if we are confident that our legal system is capable of objectively adjudicating cases involving these women.
Mahalik’s research on masculine norms contains few surprises; we see gender norms enacted and reinforced every day. Despite the pervasiveness of these norms, we consistently fail to understand the situations in which they do our society a disservice: when they prevent victims of gender-based violence from attaining justice. Refusing to address these issues in public conversation and in courtrooms prevents us from correcting these injustices. There is no hope of progressing away from this reality as long as we systematically deny it. We cannot continue to operate under a pretense of gender equality and an assumption of a well functioning judicial system. Instead, we should be looking inwards just as critically as we have been looking outwards to New Delhi.
Rather than admiring from afar the protesters in India, and congratulating the national leaders who have begun to address sexual violence in the U.S. military, we need to echo these efforts in opposition to the broader problem of misogyny in the American legal culture.
Priya Dieterich is pursuing an Associate of Arts degree at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan.
The young man died nearly 2,000 years ago in the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii.
- A team of researchers in Italy discovered the intact brain cells of a young man who died in the Mount Vesuvius eruption in A.D. 79.
- The brain's cell structure was visible to researchers (who used an electron microscope) in a glassy, black material found inside the man's skull.
- The material was likely the victim's brain preserved through the process of vitrification in which the intense heat followed by rapid cooling turned the organ to glass.
Almost 2,000 years ago, Mount Vesuvius — located on the gulf of what is today Naples in Campania, Italy — erupted, burying the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii beneath hot ash.
Recently, a team of researchers in Italy discovered the intact brain cells of a young man who died in the disaster in A.D. 79. The team studied remains that were first unearthed in the 1960s from Herculaneum, a city once nestled into the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The man was around 25 years old when he perished and was discovered lying face-down on a wooden bed in Herculaneum's Collegium Augustalium (the College of the Augustales), located near the city's main street. The building was the headquarters of the cult of Emperor Augustus who was worshipped as a deity, a common Roman tradition at the time.
Discovery of cells
Electron microscope image of brain axons.
Credit: PLOS ONE
Now, subsequent research has described how the researchers, using an electron microscope, discovered cells in the vitrified brain. According to Petrone they were "incredibly well preserved with a resolution that is impossible to find anywhere else." Additionally, the team used another method called energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy to determine the chemical compounds of the glassy material. The sample was rich in carbon and oxygen, which indicates that it was organic. The researchers compared those ancient proteins to a database of proteins found in the human brain, and found that all of the discovered proteins are indeed present in human brain tissue.
Additionally, Petrone and his team suspect they also discovered vitrified nerve cells in the ancient victim's spinal cord and cerebellum based on the position of the sample in the mind of the skull and the concentration of the proteins.
These impeccable preservations of brain tissue are unprecedented and will undoubtedly open the door to new and exciting research opportunities on these ancient people and civilizations that weren't possible until now.
The Italian research team will continue to study the remains to learn more about the vitrification process, including the precise temperatures the victims were exposed to and the cooling rate of the ash. They also, according to Petrone, want to analyze proteins from the remains and their related genes.
New data have set the particle physics community abuzz.
- The first question ever asked in Western philosophy, "What's the world made of?" continues to inspire high energy physicists.
- New experimental results probing the magnetic properties of the muon, a heavier cousin of the electron, seem to indicate that new particles of nature may exist, potentially shedding light on the mystery of dark matter.
- The results are a celebration of the human spirit and our insatiable curiosity to understand the world and our place in it.
If brute force doesn't work, then look into the peculiarities of nothingness. This may sound like a Zen koan, but it's actually the strategy that particle physicists are using to find physics beyond the Standard Model, the current registry of all known particles and their interactions. Instead of the usual colliding experiments that smash particles against one another, exciting new results indicate that new vistas into exotic kinds of matter may be glimpsed by carefully measuring the properties of the quantum vacuum. There's a lot to unpack here, so let's go piecemeal.
It is fitting that the first question asked in Western philosophy concerned the material composition of the world. Writing around 350 BCE, Aristotle credited Thales of Miletus (circa 600 BCE) with the honor of being the first Western philosopher when he asked the question, "What is the world made of?" What modern high energy physicists do, albeit with very different methodology and equipment, is to follow along the same philosophical tradition of trying to answer this question, assuming that there are indivisible bricks of matter called elementary particles.
Deficits in the Standard Model
Jumping thousands of years of spectacular discoveries, we now have a very neat understanding of the material composition of the world at the subatomic level: a total of 12 particles and the Higgs boson. The 12 particles of matter are divided into two groups, six leptons and six quarks. The six quarks comprise all particles that interact via the strong nuclear force, like protons and neutrons. The leptons include the familiar electron and its two heavier cousins, the muon and the tau. The muon is the star of the new experiments.
For all its glory, the Standard Model described above is incomplete. The goal of fundamental physics is to answer the most questions with the least number of assumptions. As it stands, the values of the masses of all particles are parameters that we measure in the laboratory, related to how strongly they interact with the Higgs. We don't know why some interact much stronger than others (and, as a consequence, have larger masses), why there is a prevalence of matter over antimatter, or why the universe seems to be dominated by dark matter — a kind of matter we know nothing about, apart from the fact that it's not part of the recipe included in the Standard Model. We know dark matter has mass since its gravitational effects are felt in familiar matter, the matter that makes up galaxies and stars. But we don't know what it is.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned.
Physicists had hoped that the powerful Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland would shed light on the nature of dark matter, but nothing has come up there or in many direct searches, where detectors were mounted to collect dark matter that presumably would rain down from the skies and hit particles of ordinary matter.
Could muons fill in the gaps?
Enter the muons. The hope that these particles can help solve the shortcomings of the Standard Model has two parts to it. The first is that every particle, like a muon, that has an electric charge can be pictured simplistically as a spinning sphere. Spinning spheres and disks of charge create a magnetic field perpendicular to the direction of the spin. Picture the muon as a tiny spinning top. If it's rotating counterclockwise, its magnetic field would point vertically up. (Grab a glass of water with your right hand and turn it counterclockwise. Your thumb will be pointing up, the direction of the magnetic field.) The spinning muons will be placed into a doughnut-shaped tunnel and forced to go around and around. The tunnel will have its own magnetic field that will interact with the tiny magnetic field of the muons. As the muons circle the doughnut, they will wobble about, just like spinning-tops wobble on the ground due to their interaction with Earth's gravity. The amount of wobbling depends on the magnetic properties of the muon which, in turn, depend on what's going on with the muon in space.
Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Getty Images
This is where the second idea comes in, the quantum vacuum. In physics, there is no empty space. The so-called vacuum is actually a bubbling soup of particles that appear and disappear in fractions of a second. Everything fluctuates, as encapsulated in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Energy fluctuates too, what we call zero-point energy. Since energy and mass are interconvertible (E=mc2, remember?), these tiny fluctuations of energy can be momentarily converted into particles that pop out and back into the busy nothingness of the quantum vacuum. Every particle of matter is cloaked with these particles emerging from vacuum fluctuations. Thus, a muon is not only a muon, but a muon dressed with these extra fleeting bits of stuff. That being the case, these extra particles affect a muon's magnetic field, and thus, its wobbling properties.
About 20 years ago, physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory detected anomalies in the muon's magnetic properties, larger than what theory predicted. This would mean that the quantum vacuum produces particles not accounted for by the Standard Model: new physics! Fast forward to 2017, and the experiment, at four times higher sensitivity, was repeated at the Fermi National Laboratory, where yours truly was a postdoctoral fellow a while back. The first results of the Muon g-2 experiment were unveiled on 7-April-2021 and not only confirmed the existence of a magnetic moment anomaly but greatly amplified it.
To most people, the official results, published recently, don't seem so exciting: a "tension between theory and experiment of 4.2 standard deviations." The gold standard for a new discovery in particle physics is a 5-sigma variation, or one part in 3.5 million. (That is, running the experiment 3.5 million times and only observing the anomaly once.) However, that's enough for plenty of excitement in the particle physics community, given the remarkable precision of the experimental measurements.
A time for excitement?
Now, results must be reanalyzed very carefully to make sure that (1) there are no hidden experimental errors; and (2) the theoretical calculations are not off. There will be a frenzy of calculations and papers in the coming months, all trying to make sense of the results, both on the experimental and theoretical fronts. And this is exactly how it should be. Science is a community-based effort, and the work of many compete with and complete each other.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned, even if less exciting than new particles. Or maybe, new particles have been there all along, blipping in and out of existence from the quantum vacuum, waiting to be pulled out of this busy nothingness by our tenacious efforts to find out what the world is made of.
- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
A recent study analyzed the skulls of early Homo species to learn more about the evolution of primate brains.