On Rape and Beauty…

“So you’re saying that if your daughter were to walk around campus in a bikini and was later raped you wouldn’t blame her a little?”

Those were the words spoken to me about five years ago by a member of the Hamilton College board of trustees. We were at dinner with another faculty couple and three members of the board, an annual practice at the college during the on-campus meeting of the full board. The conversation had veered toward the topic of on-campus sexual assaults, and this board member was once again trotting out the usual platitudes about women somehow being culpable for the choices of their attackers. Until those words were spoken the conversation had been heated, but civil, but once I was asked to imagine Bee, then three years old, being raped, along with the suggestion that my only plausible reaction would be to blame her, well, let’s just say the evening did not end well.

That is the pathology of rape culture. It does not matter that my interlocutor that evening was a woman, because rape culture has so permeated our society that its permissive arguments cross gender lines. Its infection of our legal system facilitates leniency for rapists and transforms victims into suspects. On the back of rape culture we have created a reality where untold thousands of rapes go unreported, not because the crimes are not heinous, but because the barriers to prosecution are nearly insurmountable.

I walked out of that dinner party and just sat in my car crying with rage, not for myself but for the countless women who would be raped in the coming years at that college, and colleges around the country. I wept knowing full well that they would bear those scars for the rest of their lives while their attackers would likely still graduate on time with unblemished records. I wept as my wife, then untenured, suppressed her own rage, fearing the ways this all might have repercussions on her impending tenure application. I wept because I knew that the sociopathic norms of rape culture are omnipresent. And I wept because I knew I could not protect my daughter from it. Finally, I wept because the world was not weeping with me.

Excess (2013) 40” x 160

Excess (2013) 40” x 160” Each of the 1,600 blocks in this quilt represent a life lost to domestic violence each year; the finished quilt hangs over 13 feet long and the fact that it inevitably overflows onto the floor, signifies the terrible excess of each of those deaths. It is quilted with excerpts from the Violence Against Women Act.

It is now 6:45 on a Saturday morning and instead of being curled up under a pair of quilts with my wife I am at a nearby coffee shop vibrating with anger, no, with rage. I woke early this morning to the call of my daughter complaining she was cold. After checking on her and re-establishing her quilts’ placement on her bed rather than the floor I grabbed my phone to check in on the morning’s news to find the words of Donald Trump:

“Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.” –Trump

That is assault. Period.

It says a lot that Trump’s first instinct was to issue a non-apology apology, to try to justify his words as simple locker room banter, but sexual assault, rape is not a joke. But that is the sociopathic nature of rape culture; it reveals an utter lack of empathy, and even worse a complete inability to see women as human beings. His words must be seen for what they are, not an expression of desire, but an insistence upon violent possession, dominance, and egoistic gratification. While his words are indeed symptomatic of rape culture, the pervasive permissiveness of sexual assault, we must not allow that to justify them, to excuse them. Rape culture is an accumulation of individual acts and choices, a horrific litany of subjection and subjugation that is normalized only by accepting it as inevitable. It is a reality supported by silence.

Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that Trump’s words are a confession of criminal intent in the guise of powerlessness:

“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. You can do anything” –Trump

And there is the excuse. Beautiful women are like a magnet; his desire, his need, is uncontrollable. He can’t help himself, and clearly cannot be blamed for biology. Or so he, and rape culture itself, would have us believe. The fact that legal history has endlessly permitted defenses along those lines, the pleas of “but she was wearing black,” or “she shouldn’t have been dressed like that,” or “she was just so beautiful,” supplies rapists with a vocabulary of coded justification appealing to some innate masculine imperative. But that is just shite; rape, assault, are choices, decisions made, violence willed into action.

Indeed, Trump himself admits his full knowledge of that reality in the final two sentences of his statement. He demonstrates that he is fully aware that he is utilizing his position, his power to take action. He knows full well the position victims are put in by their attackers (and they are attackers) and the reality that he can likely get away with actions he full well understands as unethical and violent. For him it is a matter of what he can get away with, the way a woman’s body can be used and abused. But he is devious, he still holds on to the analogy of the magnet, his primal justification: the ineluctable draw of the beautiful.

But Trump’s idea of beauty is ugly, crass. It is purely a mathematics of parts, of particular signals seen only as fodder for avaricious eyes. For him, and so many like him, beauty is consumed and is there for consummation. There is no person, only parts, inanimate and awaiting the animating action of his eyes, his hands, his body. And that is the essential derangement of Trump and rape culture as well: everything is subjected to the perpetrators economy of want. For him the beautiful is always already profane, defiled and awaiting defilement. For Trump there is no beauty, only commodity and value.

And for that I feel sorry for Trump. I do not feel empathy for him, nor do I excuse him. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I pity him because it seems that he must live in a horrible world, a world of mere things, of crass objects, a world where beauty is forever foreign. But he does not elicit my sympathy because it is a world of his own construction, built of his choices. What he does not see, perhaps cannot see, is that beauty is a gift. Not one to be taken, but to be shared. Beauty is substantial, not superficial. Beauty emerges only in the totality, not through an aggregation of parts.

The most beautiful quilt in our house is one made for me by my wife’s grandmother in her waning years. It is a simple design of large red and blue squares, but it is not about the design. What matters is the materials. I was about to move to Iowa to teach, and she was worried that I would be cold, so she made me this quilt of double-knit polyester with wool batting, and tied rather than quilted it. Honestly, it is the heaviest quilt I have ever touched, so heavy that I need to keep the windows open to sleep under it even on the coldest nights. It is beautiful because it is a gesture, a statement. It was made to keep me safe because I was now part of the family. It was made despite with eyes grown dim and hands wracked with arthritis. It was made despite the pain tying those knots must have entailed because the gift mattered; the embrace of the quilt was embracing me as a part of the family, the community.

Red and Blue Quilt, 88˝ x 96˝, 2002, by Marie Combs of Letcher County, Kentucky

Red and Blue Quilt, 88˝ x 96˝, 2002, by Marie Combs of Letcher County, Kentucky

That is the nature of beauty, one inaccessible to rape culture, one seemingly unknown to Trump. Kindness is beautiful. Generosity is beautiful. Smart is beautiful, but more importantly curiousity and learning are beautiful. Passion and compassion are beautiful. Courage is beautiful, but so too are empathy and sympathy. My children are not beautiful because of the genetic circumstances that gifted them with cherubic faces and brilliant eyes. They are beautiful because of the wee people they are. The courage of my daughter as she grows to understand her atypical brain is beautiful. The worlds my son creates for hours at night in his crib before he can fall asleep are beautiful.

So yes, I pity Trump. But I do not forgive him. His words and actions are heinous, reflections of a vile human being, reflections of a vile culture. To put him in office is to accept the culture of rape, to permit its continued propagation across campuses and courts, upon the bodies of women, wives and daughters, sisters and mothers. It is a tacit endorsement of violence and subjugation as the norm, as inevitable. It is a choice to see the world as ugly and make it uglier still.


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