“A Severe Breakdown in Communication”

Content Note: Discussion of sexual assault, rape apologetics.

Dear Abby,dear abby

You recently responded to a young woman who described being sexually assaulted. Your response? “It appears you and that boy had a severe breakdown in communication, which led to your being sexually assaulted.”

Now, I’ve never been an advice columnist, but I am a writer and a human being. As a writer, I know I should always do my research to avoid looking like an idiot or an asshole. As a human being, I know I can sometimes be wrong and that my getting things wrong can hurt people, so I need to be careful. In your response to this young woman, you’ve failed both as a writer and as a human being.

Miscommunication does not cause rape. The appearance of miscommunication is a tool used by rapists. They cultivate it. They craft it. They use it as their shield to protect themselves. They use it as a gag to silence victims. You, Dear Abby, have acted as that tool in this column.

Studying and possibly making out are not equivalent to sex, which are the activities the letter writer consented to ahead of time. (And even then, she could have withdrawn consent and refused to kiss him at any time.) The letter writer describes what happened after she agreed to go study with him:

I decided I was fine with just kissing, but as soon as I got in his truck, he started to feel me up. He took me to a semi-isolated area and we ended up having sex. It wasn’t fun or pleasurable. I told him he was hurting me, but he didn’t stop until the third time I said it. He was very upset with me. He only cared about me pleasuring him.

You characterize this as miscommunication and lament that parents don’t “talk to their sons and daughters about responsible behavior”. Yes, I guess you could describe not raping people as “the responsible thing to do”, but you couple this comment with blaming the girl for miscommunication and it sure seems like you’re saying her parents should have taught her to be responsible enough to…what? Not be raped?

She said he was hurting her. Even if she had wanted to have sex with him (and she makes clear she didn’t in her letter), he hurt her and continued to do so. This is not a miscommunication. She stated she was in pain and he continued to cause her pain. Did she say no or stop? She doesn’t mention if she did, only that she told him three times (three!) that he was hurting her. Is that, Dear Abby, where you think the miscommunication happened? The lack of the letter writer writing in big bold letters “I SAID NO“? Because that’s not necessary in any other circumstances where someone is causing you unwanted pain and you damn well know it.

As Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith wrote in their paper Just Say No? The Use of Conversation Analysis In Developing A Feminist Perspective On Sexual Refusal:

Drawing on the conversation analytic literature, and on our own data, we claim thatboth men and women have a sophisticated ability to convey and to comprehend refusals, including refusals which do not include the word ‘no’, and we suggest that male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals which conform to culturally normative patterns can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.

Softened refusals are how communication normally happens, particularly when the refuser has to worry about the response of the other party. (Like, say, the other person is a rapist who is actively hurting them!) Kitzinger and Frith conclude:

[Y]oung women responding to unwanted sexual pressure are using absolutely normal conversational patterns for refusals: that is, according to the research literature (and our own data) on young women and sexual communication, they are communicating their refusals indirectly; their refusals rarely refer to their own lack of desire for sex and more often to external circumstances which make sex impossible; their refusals are often qualified (‘maybe later’), and are accompanied by compliments (‘I really like you, but . . .’) or by appreciations of the invitation (‘it’s very flattering of you to ask, but . . .’); and sometimes they refuse sex with the kind of ‘yes’s which are normatively understood as communicating refusal. These features are all part of what are commonly understood to be refusals.

Even if she gave a soft no, even if she was trying to avoid a confrontation, it would still be clearly communicated, because people know how indirect refusals work in every other context.

Yet it was more than that. It wasn’t a matter of him raping her while she laid there passively and did nothing and he ignored her lack of consent. It was a matter of him raping her while she was clearly communicating her pain. If someone asked you if you’d like to dance with them and you agreed and then they started twisting your arm behind your back while you cried in pain, are you at fault for a miscommunication there? If someone invited you over for coffee and you agreed and then they began force-feeding you corn like a foie gras goose while you said it hurt, are you at fault for a miscommunication there? Why would the introduction of sex somehow make it confusing or unclear that it’s not okay to do things someone didn’t agree to and hurt them in the process?

A severe breakdown in communication, Dear Abby? As if rapists don’t know every victim blaming game in the book when they’re planning their assaults? Do your research.

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