Sister Sirens

Blame, Shame, and the Rape Game

By Randi Whitcomb

Brave and beautiful siren voice tells it. In no uncertain terms. Daisy Coleman could be any of us, or our daughters. Randi’s searing statement on this subject is required reading, in our book. Also good backstory for the piece coming Sunday, January 19 in the New York Times Magazine on rape culture, victim shaming, and the new phenomenon of online vigilantes. 

As a former party girl with bipolar disorder and a propensity toward alcohol abuse, I have found myself in more than my share of precarious situations. I once left a club with an NFL player only to end up repeatedly puking out the door of a very expensive Mercedes and calling a male friend to essentially carry me home. During the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards, I stayed at a club until 6 am – long after my friends had left – dancing in a tiny spandex dress sans underwear (something pointed out to me by several male patrons) for famed sexual predator R. Kelly and his entourage without getting myself into too much trouble. During a night out in San Francisco, I split up from my girlfriend to go strip club hopping with a guy I’d just met, excusing myself to the “bathroom” when he began to feel me up so I could run outside to catch a cab. More than once, I have stupidly gone home with strangers, acquaintances and friends, only to have a divine moment of clarity and put on the brakes without incident. And none of this begins to account for the nights I stumbled along streets alone late at night in cities big and small so wasted that I don’t even remember getting home. It’s safe to say that I have a pretty damn good guardian angel. I have been incredibly lucky that despite any risky behavior I’ve undertaken, nothing truly horrible ever happened to me, aside from terrible hangovers and regret over acting like a drunken idiot.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Daisy Coleman.

Daisy photoFor those of you unfamiliar with Daisy, she’s a Missouri teen who, on a night in January 2012, snuck liquor into her friend’s bedroom, got drunk and texted a boy three years her senior who she had a crush on. The boy, Matthew Barnett, agreed to pick the girls up and take them to his house to meet his friends, where they all continued to drink to the point that both girls passed out. The next morning, when Daisy woke up without her pants and freezing on her front lawn – where the boys had dumped her at the end of the evening – she could not recall most of the night. However, a visit to the hospital that day revealed vaginal tears and sexual trauma, and a smartphone video recorded by one of the other boy at the party detailed that a sexual encounter occurred between Barnett and an unconscious Daisy.

Since the attack in January 2012, Daisy has undergone extensive psychiatric care, attempted to commit suicide and been terrorized on social media by her peers. Meanwhile, prosecutors decided that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge Barnett with rape. Instead, last week, he was charged with child endangerment and sentenced to a two-year probation and 100 hours of community service.

What happened to Daisy and the subsequent verdict has been met with divided opinions nationwide. Naturally, many people are outraged that, despite what appears to be plenty of evidence that Daisy – who was 14 at the time of the incident – did not consent to having sex that evening, rape charges were not filed against Barnett. Yet, there’s also a contingency that’s shrugged its shoulders, insisting that Daisy simply shouldn’t have gotten so drunk in the first place that she put herself in such a dangerous situation.

This blows my mind.

While I certainly don’t condone teenage drinking or alcohol abuse, I can assureDaisy sad girl you of one thing based on my experience and shenanigans as a former party girl: When you are so unconscious and black-out drunk that you can’t manage to ring your own doorbell, you are unable to consent to sexual activity. And if you can’t consent to sexual activity, but someone takes your inability to say “no” as a green light to do as he pleases with your body, it’s rape. Period. If you don’t believe me, just ask Merriam-Webster.

To say that Daisy “shouldn’t have gotten into that situation” misses the point entirely and is a dangerous precedent to set not just for rape victims, but for the victim of any crime. If you get lost in a bad neighborhood and car-jacked at a stop light, is it your fault for “putting yourself in that situation” and not ensuring that you knew where you were going? If you get duped in an Internet scam, is it your fault for not doing thorough enough research? If a person gets physically beat up by a partner for starting a screaming match, is it his or her fault? The common answers to all of these questions is “no.” Blaming victims of fraud, robbery, assault and murder seems absolutely ludicrous to most of us. However, time and time again, our society blames rape victims for all kinds of inane reasons, ranging from provocative clothing to men getting caught up in the heat of the moment to a woman having a history of casual sexual encounters.

Much of this is due to the different messages we send to males and females when it comes to sexuality. While we preach to women how important it is for them to have control over their sexual behavior, we downplay the responsibility that men have for their own. We sympathize with athletes like Kobe Bryant and James Winston who get “trapped” by women who insist that they were raped after initially consensual situations spiraled out of control. Men are treated like feral creatures with “needs” who have very little control over their sexual urges – something that ultimately does a huge disservice to how men relate to their own sexuality – and are therefore exempt from situations that “simply go too far.” Consequently, we teach women “defensive driving” when it comes to their sexuality, expecting them to always be “on guard” because men simply cannot and should not be expected to behave. Rather than telling men not to rape, we tell women not to get raped. It’s backwards logic.

It’s common knowledge that at (most) strip clubs, touching a dancer will get you kicked out and banned from the venue. It doesn’t matter that a naked woman is giving a lap dance to an extremely turned-on man – he is forbidden from taking the situation further and patrons generally respect this rule. For some reason, this is an easy concept for people to grasp, yet, many – both male and female – believe that a woman in a tight dress who is dancing provocatively with someone at a dance club shouldn’t be appalled and offended when she gets a hand shoved up her dress. In fact, the many times that this happened to me during my younger years of dancing in pleather, halter tops and towering stilettoes, the men I shoved away got pissed off and called me a “bitch,” “slut” or “tease.” I can assure you that my desire to grind along to Ja Rule’s greatest hits in cute clothes didn’t mean that I was obligated to have sex with anyone and resisting unwanted sexual advances didn’t make me a bitch, slut or tease. And, yet, when I once walked over to a male friend to bewilderedly tell him that I’d been groped on the dance floor, he laughed, said, “Well, what did you expect dressed like that?”

We cannot afford to have such a cavalier attitude toward unwanted sexual advances. According to RAINN, nearly 238,000 sexual assaults occur in the U.S. and 60 percent of them go unreported. Victims often don’t report these incidents because they believe that they did something to invite the assault and, for that reason, a crime didn’t really occur. But there aren’t any gray areas when it comes to sex – anything other than explicit consent is non-consent, whether you are a drunk teenager passed out at a party or a married woman who tells her husband “not tonight.”

When we teach young men like Matthew Barnett that there are no consequences for his behavior – chalking it up to “boys being boys” – we perpetuate the myth that victims of sexual assault are unwarranted in their accusations and prevent these individuals from coming forward. What messages are we sending by enabling a culture in which female sexuality is so devalued that men are allowed to perceive any hint of a woman’s sexual desire or interest as an invitation for him to freely act on his own? Can we then truly expect the Matthew Barnetts of the world to treat their girlfriends, wives, daughters, mothers, sisters and female peers with any kind of respect at all or be open to the ideas and contributions that women have to offer at home, in the workplace, and the world? No, we can’t.

daisy justice hashtagWhen Daisy Coleman woke up the morning after that party two years ago, she should have been fully clothed, in a safe place, dealing with little more than a gut-wrenching hangover. Like most of us, her youth should have a been an opportunity to make mistakes, have fun and rack up a collection of ridiculous stories, like dancing in DJ booths until dawn and harmlessly making out with a crush in the corner of a club. What happened to her is horrendous and the justice she was denied is unconscionable. And, unfortunately, unless we’re able to do some serious triage on how we view female sexuality in this country, it will happen again.

5 replies »

  1. Hi Randi,
    Thank you for telling your story so honestly. I agree with you completely. As far as I am concerned, no one “deserves” to be raped based on anything they wear or do. And an inability to consent means absolutely NO. What I struggle with is what to say to young woman in the meantime while we work to change perception and get perpetrators prosecuted. I feel so torn. As a homeowner, no one is allowed to rob my home whether the doors are locked or not. Locks should be unnecessary, yet we all have them. As a woman. no should mean no and stop should mean stop, but once a woman is raped, there is no way to take it back or make it right. What do we say to women today knowing that the system is flawed and bad things happen to good people? As a teacher, it is something I genuinely struggle with. I would love your thoughts on this.


    • Deb, I agree–Randi’s full-on honesty and the way she articulates our pain over this issue was cathartic for me. I struggle with it also as a teacher of almost-college age people. But thinking and talking about it with this kind of frankness is a step in the constructive direction, oui?


  2. Hi Deb,

    It definitely is a complicated issue and I don’t think there’s an easy answer. It’s difficult to encourage women — especially young women — to be themselves and fully experience life, knowing the danger that might put them in. As I mention in the post, I put myself in some truly precarious situations and was lucky things never turned out badly for me. However, I knew the stakes; in fact, I carried pepper spray with me at all times for many years.

    I think a big part of the problem is that we don’t educate young men well enough. Society has done such a good job of portraying sex as something that men need, that we tend to make excuses for their bad behavior. This is particularly true when alcohol is involved an a woman consents to the beginning phases of physical contact — for some reasons, the lines blur for many men after that and women lose the right to put on the brakes. And that if she later cries foul, it’s simply out of regret or rewriting the facts of the situation. The comments that swirled during the Jameis Winston investigation were truly sickening — one person I know referred to the woman who accused Winston of rape as a “gold-digging ho” before any of the facts even came to light. We need to do a better job of telling boys and men that having women in their beds doesn’t give them the right to do anything more than is mutually agreed to, period. I also believe that it’s easy for some men to justify that what occurred wasn’t really rape if the females involved consented to any fraction of what occurred. “Rape” is such a dirty word and I think that people need to understand that ANY non-consent is rape, whether it’s with a stranger, some person you talk with for five minutes at a party or someone you’re dating. As I mention in the post, we need to stop teaching women not to get raped and start teaching men not to rape.


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