We Deserve Police Who Believe Victims

It happened to me again last week: a police officer participating in an online discussion I was part of insisted that most rape charges are false. In his work, he said, most of them are efforts to cover up infidelity or parents who discover that their teenagers are having sex and want to punish the other child.

It’s hard to overstate how discouraging these claims, especially by police officers, are. We have pretty solid data about the number of false reports (2-8%, but that number includes cases of mistaken identity, in which a person has been raped but misidentifies the perpetrator; so the number of cases in which a women deliberately lies is on the lower end of that figure). This makes false claims of rape much less likely than some other kinds of crime, such as auto theft. And, despite what my online conversation partner claimed, the assaults most likely to be made up (of the very small number that are) don’t involve people who know each other but claims of rape by a stranger. Indeed, the more personally difficult addressing an accusation of rape is likely to be, the less likely it is to be false.

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Above, a rape kit. If officers don’t think that rape happens, will they show up and do the best job possible of investigating?

We can repeat that all day long, but when police officers–the people who, women are told, we should call when we’re harmed–respond with disbelief, it doesn’t matter.

Take, Officer John Shipman of Jonesboro, Arkansas–where my university, Arkansas State University, is located. Shipman recently argued on his personal Facebook page that 80% of claims are rape are false. This is a man tasked with arriving to the scene of a rape and investigating it. Every case he investigated is now in doubt. Every future case (after he comes back from his 30 day, unpaid suspension, plus additional sexual assault training)will be in doubt. If you live in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and are a victim of sexual assault and Officer Shipman shows up, please ask for another officer to be sent.

Shipman will have to undergo additional sexual assault training, which seems to me to be similar to allowing a student who failed his assignments to pass the class on extra credit. Extra training won’t help if the first one didn’t help. To add insult to injury, the police department called the comment “insensitive”–as if the problem is that the women of Jonesboro, Arkansas, are just a little testy, maybe too emotional, rather than that this claim is outright inaccurate.

Arkansas, by the way, is the most sexist state in the US. Shipman alone isn’t the reason why, but he’s a symptom of a larger problem.

The idea that police officers feel that they can determine if a crime happened is particularly galling, given that this seems to violate the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” that so many anti-victim advocates say they believe. Whether a crime occurred isn’t up to an officer to determine, and when they do that, they are robbing victims of the opportunity for justice.


Elizabeth Smart and the Ideal Survivor

It’s been an especially hard few weeks for victims of sexual violence. On the other hand, the internet’s biggest jerks are having a blast, taking a cue from their President and mocking survivors of sexual violence.

I want to address a particular argument I see in criticisms of sexual violence survivors. I first noticed in in response to Gamergate–a campaign of harassment, including doxing, rape threats, and murder threats, of women involved in video gaming. It dramatically impacted the real lives of women who developed, played, and offered criticism of games, so much so that game critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel an appearance at the University of Utah because of threats against her life–threats that the university, unfortunately, refused to address by banning guns at her talk (which they are able to legally do).

The argument invokes the figure of Elizabeth Smart, a young woman who was kidnapped at age 14 from her Salt Lake City home and raped and kept as a prisoner for nine months by a local couple convinced that their actions were ordained by God. Smart was brought into public by the couple, and, eventually, she was recognized just 18 miles from her home. The trauma is unthinkable, but Smart has emerged as an advocate for missing persons and victims of sexual violence; she speaks eloquently about her mission and is critical of the way that her own religious background–Mormon–contributes to the culture of shame that silences victims of abuse. She is a lovely person–an ideal victim. Her kidnappers and rapist are clearly bad guys–strangers who nab sleeping children from their beds. Her parents didn’t expose her to risk of sexual assault by bringing bad people into her life. She survived, she says, by knowing that her parents loved her. She preaches the power of the individual to overcome seemingly impossible things. She is white, blonde, and beautiful.

She has also become the model of how sexual assault survivors are supposed to handle their assaults. Critics of Christine Blasey Ford point to Smart and say, “Look what Elizabeth Smart went through, and she’s fine, so why is Ford complaining about something so much less traumatic thirty years later?”

Some of the people making this argument are likely just internet trolls. Others, though, are articulating a hierarchy of victimhood: some victims matter more than others. People who are younger, people who are hurt by strangers, people who are white, people who are attractive, people who don’t “politicize” their experience–these are the ones we need to take seriously. Everyone else isn’t deserving of our empathy because they should have known better, should have done better, should have fought harder, should have spoken up sooner (or not at all).  Even Smart is regularly asked why she didn’t try to run away–as if her captors weren’t holding a knife to her throat. Smart explains that she didn’t have confidence that anyone would believe a child’s word over an adult’s. She hadn’t been taught the difference between rape and consent, and all the abstinence-only education she’d received told her that girls who had sex were degraded. Those chains weren’t put on her by her kidnappers but by the broader purity culture. Even now, the fact that people ask this question, shows that we don’t really trust survivors, even the most “pleasing” ones.

See the source imageAbove, Elizabeth Smart, all grown up and successful.

If a beautiful white child snatched from her home by religious nutjobs searching for underage brides to build their religious empire don’t have 100% of our empathy, we know that we don’t really care to believe women.

And this matters tremendously. We frequently label child victims of sexual abuse as “promiscuous”; we interpret what we call overt signs of sexuality as “promiscuity” rather than as signs of abuse. A girl is brought to the doctor’s office with a sexually transmitted infection, and we don’t check to notice that she’s been brought in repeatedly–an indicator that she might be being trafficked. We see that the pregnant fifteen year-old girl in the neighborhood has gotten married, but we don’t want to know that her new husband is the 30-year-old man who has been abusing her for a year; some of us would rather have her married to her abuser than a single mother, though we’ll judge her the rest of her life either way. We label our aunt who refuses to come to Thanksgiving as “difficult” or even accuse her of trying to divide the family because that is easier than admitting that no one protected her from our grandfather. We call the child abuse hotline to report a teen we know being sexually abused by a family member in the home, and the state of Kansas tells us that they won’t investigate because they have too many other kids to look after; this one is already 17, and by the time they get to her case, she’ll be 18, and then what was abuse will be seen by the state as consensual.*

When misogynists invoke Elizabeth Smart, they are trying to argue that they would care about victims if those victims overcame their trauma in a particularly American way: through optimism, hard work, and never letting the bastards keep you down. The baloney concepts of “resilience” and “grit” are supposed to help us survive cancer** and the Holocaust***, but all they really do is tell us people’s problems are their own–and, in the process, let us off the hook for our role in the structures that hurt women, children, and other victims of sexual violence.



*Yeah, true story. Thanks, Governor Brownback, for the budget cuts that literally endanger the lives of children.

**No, they don’t. They just don’t, so stop telling people with cancer to “fight” it, as if the difference between living through cancer and not weren’t mostly due to health care access.

***Also a terrible claim. Lots of people who were strong and determined died in the Holocaust.


A Pornography Party

I’ve been reviewing the tapes of the last two weeks’ performance by Brett Kavanaugh and the members of Congress who maneuvered him to the Supreme Court bench. I wasn’t sure of the word, last week, to describe it, but I think I’ve found it: pornographic.

Film scholar Linda Williams argues that hardcore pornography allows viewers to witness the “involuntary confession” of other people’s bodies: everything, even their insides, is visible, and, in passion (or pain), they lose control over them. Pornography that promises real sex allows us to see another person out of control of their own bodies–bodies revealing some kind of truth that they would not reveal if another circumstances. These include secret desires (attractions to bodies that are socially looked-down upon, to be hurt, to hurt, to be humiliated, to humiliate). Pornography shows us how we would all act if we had no restrictions on us, if our bodies were simply able to do what they want. (It’s not true. We would not all act this way, and pornographic actors are actors, and their job is to create this story for viewers,)

I see in the Kavanaugh hearing pornography: a man out of control of his body, all reaction to a woman. Kavanaugh couldn’t help but yell and cry any more than a man in a pornographic film can, by the end, help but ejaculate. She made him act this way–but, really, he did it for you, the viewer: to feel the anger you would feel if your right to abuse women was threatened and, more importantly to feel his pleasure in degrading others.

I don’t think the issue is that Republicans “don’t care” about the accusations against Kavanaugh. I think that, for many of them, such accusations bolstered Kavanaugh in their imaginations. Sexual assault is a rite of passage for men, as one law professor argued in response to Kavanaugh’s hearing; it is not something we should expect him to apologize for but is something we should celebrate. Even worse, some of them were titillated by it: Kavanaugh did what they would like to do to Christine Blasey Ford and to every woman who challenges them.

See the source imageAbove, Brett Kavanaugh’s O face is an A face–anger that he invites you to join in.

Many women I know described the Kavanaugh debacle as a kind of sexual assault: you are screaming, but no one with power listens. You describe what happened, but others tell you it isn’t possible. Brett Kavanaugh will not take no for an answer, and he is helped along by a crowd of other men who also will not take no for an answer.

Though I am generally cautious about using sexual violence metaphors to describe things that aren’t sexual violence, I think the comparison here is useful–so useful that I think we should think about it from the perpetrator’s perspective, too: just as some men participate in a gang rape by standing by and watching, so, too, last week, did a lot of men stand by and enjoy watching Brett Kavanaugh “involuntarily confess” his deepest lusts: for power achieved by degrading women.

This is typical Brett Kavanaugh. Please remember that during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Kavanaugh, part of the special counsel charged with the investigation, was uniquely, disgustingly explicit in his pursuit for details about the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship. “If Monica Lewinsky says you inserted a cigar into her vagina while you were in the Oval Office area, would she by lying?,” he proposed asking Clinton. He didn’t want to  know this because it mattered to the investigation; he wanted to use sex to humiliate.

In a move that should shame them but probably just makes many Republicans giddy with what they and their (I mean this literally) pornography-promoting president can get away with, in 2016, the GOP added an anti-porn plank to its platform:

Pornography, with its harmful effects… has become a public health crisis that is destroying the lives of millions.

True, true, true–more true than they meant.



Mediocre White Man Max Boot Discovers that Republicans Have Been Racist

I’m feeling a bit like the prodigal son’s older brother today after reading Max Boot’s opinion piece in the Washington Post. In it, the former Republican tells us the true history of the 20th and 21st century Republican Party. Turns out that the GOP has often come down hard on moderates like Eisenhower, instead pushing itself further and further right, not in defense of noble ideals like equal opportunity or service to the nation or individual responsibility but out of “racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, isolationism and know-nothingism.” This is all new to Boot, who apparently never bothered to read a book by someone who disagreed with his earlier view or else instantly dismissed it as liberal claptrap.

Boot, who served as a foreign policy advisor to three presidents, including the one who got us into the War on Terror, feels like Donald Trump was the surprise ending to Republican politics. Since his election, Boot has been reviewing the movie “to find the clues you missed the first time around” and he finds that, lo and behold, the clues were there all along. Goldwater was a nutjob. Nixon’s Southern Strategy was about racism. Phyllis Schlafly was a conspiracy theorist. (He’s almost on the verge of seeing that she’s an anti-Semite, but he’s not quite there.)

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Above, Max Boot. Dear God, let me never be so confident about my uninformed opinions, and, if I am, give me friends who kindly help me do my homework.

I’m grateful, truly, that Boot has come to see things he couldn’t see before. He admits that he didn’t want to see them. (“It’s amazing how little you can see when your eyes are closed!”) I understand that the difficulty of facing facts that don’t align with how you want reality to be. What I don’t understand is why anyone else let him rise to a position of authority, given his apparent lack of curiosity about or ambition to investigate the history of the political party he argued for as a matter of his profession. Boot isn’t an armchair observer; he is a writer with a national audience (with a new book out about how he was mistaken–so, still making money off his mistakes!). Yet, by his own admission, he hadn’t even read the writing of his heroes. (“I used to think Goldwater’s reputation as an extremist was a liberal libel. Reading his actual words — something I had not done before — reveals that he really was an extremist.” Yes, Max, you should read the original sources.)

So, yeah, I’m glad he changed his mind. I’m dismayed that he did so little work to understand his own party but felt so confident about his right to a national stage that he pursued it anyway. This is what we mean by “mediocre white men.” If you don’t do the homework, I don’t think you should get a national stage–and I don’t think you should get to admit your laziness in a national newspaper and get accolades for it.


A plea for white evangelicals to develop anti-racist theology

Hi Joel,

I have a lot (a broken heart full) of things to say about John MacArthur’s effort, in the midst of so much hurt and pain and violence in the world, to undermine social justice among Christians. As some of our readers know, I’ve been working for several months on a research project about conservative Christian attacks on social justice, but I still didn’t feel quite prepared for the unkindness in his words. The fact that it’s such a logical mess only shows how important it was, at all costs, for MacArthur and his conservative friends to undermine social justice.

See the source imageAbove, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Tower of Babel. How we tell stories like this one–or of Ham, or of Onesimus, and of many others–shapes and reflects how we think about race. This story is often used as evidence that God ordains segregation. 

MacArthur has invoked his concern for black people in his attacks on social justice: he worked alongside, he said, Medgar Evers’ brother, and he worked with black pastors who were victims of violence, and he was close enough to Memphis when Dr. King was murdered to rush to the scene of the violence to mourn right there. And, because he has black friends (and because some black pastors signed on to his attack on social justice), he can say authoritatively that it’s social justice that presents the greatest threat to the gospel today. After seeing black pastors killed, he says:

Over the years, I’ve fought a number of polemical battles against ideas that threaten the gospel. This recent (and surprisingly sudden) detour in quest of “social justice” is, I believe, the most subtle and dangerous threat so far.

I will likely unpack more of this over time, but today I wanted to share a quotation from John Fea’s new book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

“[White evangelicals and fundamentalists post-Civil War] failed to see how their literal views of the Bible contributed to structural racism in American life. White terror groups seemed to understand this better than the fundamentalists did” (108).

It’s easy for white evangelicals to treat their theology–including how they read the Bible–as its consequences are only good. They’re not. If white evangelicals don’t want to be racist, then they have to write a theology that is anti-racist; otherwise, their racist co-religionists will continue to use it for continuing oppression.


“A King Cyrus President” just published!

I’m pleased to share the news that Humanity & Society has just published my article “A King Cyrus President: How Donald Trump’s Presidency Reasserts Conservative Christians’ Right to Hegemony.” Here is the abstract:

Religious right leaders and voters in the United States supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election for the same reason that all blocs vote as they do: They believed that the candidate offered them the best opportunity to protect and extend their power and create their preferred government. The puzzle of their support, then, is less why they chose Trump and more how they navigated the process of inserting Trump into their story of themselves as a “moral” majority. This self-understanding promotes and exploits feelings of entitlement, fear, resentment, and the desire to dominate to encourage political action. Because Trump’s speeches affirm these feelings, religious right voters were open to writing a plot twist in their story, casting Trump as a King Cyrus figure, as their champion if not a coreligionist. This article analyzes appeals to and expressions of entitlement, fear, resentment, and the desire to dominate from more than 60 sermons, speeches, and books by religious right authors, Donald Trump, and Trump surrogates. Using open coding, it identifies themes in how these emotions are recognized, affirmed, and invoked by speakers, focusing on Trump’s Cyrus effect.

The article was released the same week as the film The Trump Prophecya rightwing Christian film arguing that Trump is God’s candidate.

Ferdinand Baltasars Pain. King Cyrus gives the stolen treasures of the temple of Jerusalem

Above, in this painting by 17th-century Dutch artist Ferdinand Bol, King Cyrus returns the treasures of the Jewish temple to the Jews who have been living in Babylon but who have been authorized to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Conservative Christians view Trump as a King Cyrus–not one of them, but the strong leader who will allow them to reassert their religion with government support. Upon arriving back in Jerusalem, the Jews rebuild the wall around the city, commit to ending pluralism (especially inter-religious marriage), and create a religion that is much more strident than its predecessors. 

The entire issue focuses on the question emotions in backlash politics in the US and Europe. Special guest editors Joel Busher, Philip Giurlando, and Gavin B. Sullivan have brought together a group of outstanding articles could be usefully discussed together in a class or reading group focusing on the current political moment.

Joel Busher, Philip Giurlando, and Gavin B. Sullivan. “Introduction: The Emotional Dynamics of Backlash Politics beyond Anger, Hate, Fear, Pride, and Loss”

Tereza Capelos and Nicolas Demertzis, “Political Action and Resentful Affectivity in Critical Times.”

Catarina Kinnvall, “Ontological Insecurities and Postcolonial Imaginaries: The Emotional Appeal of Populism.”

Mehr Latif, Kathleen Blee, Matthew DeMichele, and Pete Simi. “How Emotional Dynamics Maintain and Destroy White Supremacist Groups.”

Mikko Salmela and Christian von Scheve. “Emotional Dynamics of Right- and Left-wing Political Populism.”


I want to share a very warm thank you to Joel, Phil, and Gavin for their leadership on this issue. Joel Busher, in particular, provided invaluable editorial guidance on my (many, many, too many) drafts. His intellectual generosity made this a much more insightful piece, and I’m so grateful.


The article is available from Humanity & Society and will be available within the new few weeks in academic libraries. If you don’t have access to it in either of those ways but would like to read it, please let me know and I can help you locate a copy.

Highlights from _Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump_

I recently read historian John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdman 2018) and found it to be a really useful discussion of some of the themes we regularly discuss here. I’ve shared a full review of the book at Reading Religion, but I wanted to share with 606 readers some quotations that I found really compelling:

On what many of us felt returning to church on the Sunday after the 2016 election: “But my emotions were less about the new president and more about the large number of my fellow evangelicals who voted for him” (6).

On coming to see Trump not as an anomaly but as a fulfillment of white evangelical Christian politics: “Over time, my distress did not wane, but my surprise did. As a historian studying religion and politics, I should have seen this coming” (6).

“The social and cultural changes of the Obama presidency–particularly regarding human sexuality–happened so quickly that conservative Chrsitians had very little time to process what they believed to be an erosion of the moral foundations of their nation. in this state of panic, evangelicals saw Trump as a strongman who would protect them from the forces working to undermine the values of the world they once knew” (7).

“Trump… was appealing to a different kind of evangelical voter” (33).

On white conservative evangelicals in the US south, their use of scripture, and their failure to be anti-racist: “they failed to see how their literal views of the Bible contributed to structural racism in American life. White terror groups seemed to understand this better than the fundamentalists did” (108).

“the short history of evangelical fear is actually pretty long (112)

On why Christians need to resist nostalgia: “In the end, the practice of nostalgia is inherently selfish because it focuses entirely on our own experience of the past and not on the experience of others” (159).

See the source image

And two facts only tangential to Fea’s argument but that stunned me:

  1. after the end of legal school segregation, white Christians built private academies at a rate of two per day to pull their white children out of integrating schools (55).
  2. Liberty University, which is basically a den of vipers at this point, receives $445 million dollars in federal loans–the highest amount of any four-year university in Virginia and the 8th largest in the nation. “It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say,” Fea writes, “that the future of Liberty University as the world’s largest Christian university [no longer true as Grand Canyon, an online Christian school has surpassed it] may have been in jeopardy had Hillary Clinton won the presidency in November 2016” (141).