Put Brakes on that Rape Train

Before my career as an Santa Monica College (SMC) student, I received my BA in the 1980s, around the same time as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his alleged victims. Attending a women's college - Mt. Holyoke, a school that recruits SMC students every semester - helped insulate my friends and me from the dangerous behavior Kavanaugh’s victims described - but not completely.

One friendsgiving at Mt. Holyoke, a classmate revealed her PTSD to me; she told me it resulted from a local candidate's son raping her while driving her home from volunteering - for his mom.

Five months later, guys from Dartmouth College visited our campus; they spent their Saturday night destroying Mt. Holyoke’s “Winged Victory,” a statue depicting an ancient Greek goddess. That beautiful old statue had weathered a hundred New England winters, but she proved no match for a handful of disrespecting, destructive college men.

The next morning, the same guys recruited girls on campus to play an outdoor game on our school quad - but it turned out the "game" involved simulating sexual assault. They were going to simulate raping us on our own school quad - at a women’s college. As Dr. Blasey-Ford alleged of Kavanaugh in front of the US Senate last week, the Dartmouth men were having fun at our expense, simulating rape as entertainment, humiliating us as females as a part of their game.

College administrators never told us whether the Dartmouth students were ever reprimanded. Word came back that the damage done was second to preserving the relationship between the schools’ administrations.  It all was swept under the rug. We were thrown under the rape train

I never heard the term “rape train” until  Kavanaugh’s alleged teenage and college assaults appeared in the news. The incidents described included parties where an incapacitated girl would be trapped in an upstairs room, and then boys lined up outside, each waiting for his “turn” with her.  A rape train.

When I looked up "rape train” online, I expected something from the 1980’s party scene.  Instead I found a cartoon meme of Thomas the Tank Engine, with the text “There Are no Brakes on the Rape Train” plastered across it.  A popular meme in online gaming, the phrase describes when a gamer has the upper hand over his opponent and taunts them.  As the site "Know Your Meme” describes it, it means you have your opponent cornered, they can't fight back, and they are about to be overwhelmed,  "owned,” overpowered in a humiliating way - raped.

So here’s a sexual assault term serving double duty - but it’s not just about overpowering the opponent, it includes humiliating them.

Illustration of Brett Kavanaugh by Andrew Khanian

Illustration of Brett Kavanaugh by Andrew Khanian

This reminds me of Kavanaugh’s alleged victim Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony that it was Kavanaugh and his friends’ laughter at her terror during their attempted rape and suffocation that seared itself into her memory, resulting in her PTSD.

I never really accepted that females were constantly under threat of sexual attack until well after my college years. Right after college, I was stalked by a serial rapist who'd followed me home from a ballet class. He gave up on me when he realized the police knew, but I knew of other women he stalked - and they never found him.  Then a few years later, a friend here in LA told me about the time she was jumped walking home one night - her assailant had a rope lashed around her throat from behind. She was able to fight him off and flee, which amazed me.

Those stories finally taught me that I wasn’t safe to walk where I wanted at night.

In fact, last week on Twitter, a hashtag went viral, asking what women would do if men had a curfew of 9:00 p.m.  Womens’ answers ranged from practical to fanciful, but all were heartbreaking. Tweets about partying without fear of being drugged, or just walking freely at night abounded in reply, which shocked and saddened sympathetic men online, many saying they’d had no idea that women lived such circumscribed lives, threatened by sexual violence daily.

In fact, weaponizing sex is so widespread, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor who helps women gang-raped during war, and Nadia Murad, an Iraqi woman who escaped sex slavery. They shared this year’s Peace Prize for working to end sexual assault as a weapon of war.

Even catcalls on the street can be argued as part of a spectrum of abuse that some scholars identify as part of  “rape culture.”

An idea dating from the 1970’s, the theory of rape culture holds that we as a culture see sexual assault as inevitable, and that women fearing it is acceptable, even entertaining or useful. Research and books about rape culture often describe the situation this way:

“In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm . . . In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable . . . However . . . much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change,” wrote Emilie Buchwald in her book, Transforming a Rape Culture.

Simple changes can happen to help this change start.  For example, put women in charge of their own college parties. At Mt. Holyoke, we were always in charge at our parties - the men attended events in our dormitory cafeterias, we had paid chaperones, and we were surrounded by friends who had our backs.  However, college sororities are often banned from hosting with alcohol, while the male fraternities are built around hosting alcohol-laden events, leaving women vulnerable by forcing them to socialize on men’s turf and terms.

The bottom line is:  everyone’s bodies are sovereign - they belong to their owner, and require permission to interact.  Adding simple respect to socializing is part of recognizing and respecting everyone’s humanity. I for one would love to live in a world free of weaponized sex and assault, where the vulnerable are protected instead of exploited.  Be the solution.