The following blog post refers to this Vulture timeline on Nate Parker’s rape scandal.
Somewhere at the heart of this, I think, is that men and women have very – very – different interpretations about what it means to treat a woman like a full-fledged human. Parker’s indignation – his belief that he was innocent – feels genuine to me. At the same time, the idea that a woman would let herself go through the long process of litigation and humiliation to prove this point – means it’s very likely she felt raped.
At the heart of this, too, is an inevitable question about race – what a black man feels when he is accused of raping a white woman. And if he doesn’t think it was rape, yet she insists it was, there’s a part of him that wonders whether she would say the same if the man in question had been white. This is an understandable doubt, rooted in one fractal of history. But if we follow that path of inquiry, we risk suggesting that for a white woman to be above political suspicion, her body must be made equally available to all men. At which point, we forget she is human at all – that her body is hers to make decisions for, hers to deny anyone from without need for explanation.
Historically, women’s bodies have been the battleground upon which men fight one another for power and access. The question is hardly ever, “What did she feel? What does she desire? Who does she want?” and quite often, “Why did she reject me but accept him? Why did she feel raped by me but not by him?” Even more infuriating than a woman who refuses to have sex, is a woman who refuses to have sex with you specifically. Yet, because a woman is not a public good (this apparently needs to be said), access to her body cannot be the yardstick by which we measure equity among men.
So there’s something insidious here, which is that men who feel disempowered in relation to other men (for whatever reason – race, class, perceived masculinity, etc.) seek from women a vindication in the form of sexual access. And when that is denied – or, in Parker’s case, seemingly rescinded – the resulting emotion is…well, confusion and indignation. Rather than ask himself, “What really happened that night? Why did she feel raped? Why did I interpret her absence of consent as consent?” his response is instead, “I was falsely accused. I was vindicated. I was proven innocent.” As if feeling innocent and being right are one and the same. As if all wrongs in the world are perpetuated with absolute clarity about what is evil and what is good. As if our cultural miseducation plays no part in creating men who feel innocent while doing wrong.
The onus isn’t only on Parker. A problem with our judicial system is that it’s set up to answer ‘easy’ questions – guilty or innocent for a crime whose definition we can agree upon. This is why we fail so profoundly in litigating complex cases – such as unwarranted police brutality against black lives. Because our judicial system fails when it has to interpret the terms themselves – what counts as ‘murder’, for instance. And in the case of rape and consent, terms are even harder to define. Our judicial system, at its best, facilitates justice by assigning reasonable punishment to those who have been proven guilty of a wrong in question. But what it doesn’t facilitate, and what is desperately needed in rape cases like Parker’s, is restoration. Conversation. Two sides trying to understand what actually happened, and how it’s possible that two people (or in this case, three) can have such different recollections of the same night. Of how men and women can have such different interpretations about what it looks like to treat a woman as a full-fledged human. About what it means to respect that a woman has sole and absolute claim to her own body.
These conversations didn’t happen, aren’t happening. We simply don’t have the stomach for nuance. So: Parker scampers to his side of the story, defends his own innocence, perhaps learns a lesson or two about how easy it is to be screwed over by a quick screw. But the deeper lessons, the deeper conversations – ones where we walk away comprehending a bit more about the fragile experience of living in a woman’s body, of being a black man accused of crime – didn’t happen. What a shame.