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June 24th, 2009


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11:17 am - Rape, social class, & the worlds we all live in
I've read a number of posts about rape and sexual harassment recently, and I've talked about such issues with people for several decades. The responses I've heard have been quite diverse and often directly at odds with the experiences of others also writing and talking about this issue [[1]].

Leaving aside misogynists and the utterly clueless, and focusing only on the experiences of people who are reasonably self-aware and sensible, and what I have seen is that experiences vary widely, but in a significantly non-random manner. After thinking about this recently, it seems to me that it's effectively a case of people living in different worlds – worlds defined by race, privilege, wealth, social class, and possibly location.

About half of all rape victims are in the lowest third of income distribution; half are in the upper two-thirds. Also, while murder rate and the rate of sexual harassment and rape do not correlate perfectly, there is at least some correlation, and the murder rate in the US varies by a factor of more than 100 based solely on location. The statistics on this graph have special meaning for me – I grew up in the county that's on the lowest edge of the graph (Fairfax VA), which is located only a few miles from the 3rd worst city (Washington DC).

I now live on the West Coast, in a world of progressive geeks who are almost exclusively white, almost exclusively from middle class (or in a few cases wealthy) backgrounds, most of whom live in relatively safe neighborhoods, and most of whom grew up in situations that were at least as privileged, and in many cases far more so, than they are now. I talk to the women I know well, and in almost all cases, not only haven't they been raped, but they also haven't experienced any sort of harassment that ever felt truly threatening. Then, I talk to the few women I know who have lived (as either children or adults) in far less privileged circumstances, and I hear stories of all manner of nastiness. I haven't heard all that many such stories, but I also don't know many people who have lived in such environments.

I read arguments by women and men who have had experiences similar to mine, and I often see shock, disbelief, and in some cases even anger at the degree of fear and anger that many women living in other circumstances feel towards men. Like murder, rape and both creepy and exceedingly frightening forms of sexual harassment can happen to anyone, but they are considerably less likely to happen to women who grew up and live in privileged, economically well-off environments. I'm not in any way denying the experiences of women from highly privileged backgrounds who experienced such things, but it is definitely true that the odds are far more against women growing up and living in poverty and similarly wretched circumstances.

In many ways, this is yet another example of how both social class and race separate us all into worlds that rarely intersect in person and where reasonable assumptions can be very different indeed. teaotter and I were talking about this yesterday, and she mentioned that never in her life has she had any doubt that the police would come to her aid if she called them and that they would actively help her, and yet we have both known a few people whose experience of the police has been vastly more negative, and that's just one of many aspects of life. The US is a nation that is as a whole uncomfortable with notions of privilege or social class, but both are exceedingly real, and they make huge differences in peoples' lives.

[[1]]One recent example was reading this post, which is in response to this previous post.

(21 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:moominmuppet
Date:June 24th, 2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
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I hadn't consciously thought about it specifically in regards to sexual violence, but what you're saying rings true for my experiences and the conversations I've had, as well.
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From:veleda
Date:June 24th, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC)
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i have found this to be totally true.
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From:dancinglights
Date:June 24th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)

yup.

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I live a couple miles outside of Baltimore. The city shows up a lot in that article and others like it. I have lived in both higher-class and fairly scary parts of that city and the difference in real and perceived danger is palpable across mere city blocks. It's hard to grow up here and not notice that, though I know some particularly cloistered or willfully ignorant people do.

(Also here, I have also had the police forward me to non-existent numbers and otherwise ignore me when reporting thefts because they honestly had more important things to worry about. I can say the worst treatment I can expect to get from the cops is being ignored, and that this expectation is entirely based on the privileges of my background.)
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From:pegunicent
Date:June 24th, 2009 10:03 pm (UTC)
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I can't say anything about race, as I am a typical white woman, but I can say I know rape. And fear. And the strange sort of paranoid insanity that comes with fear of rape. I would say that we are a good middle class, comfortable sort of income group, my family. My mother came from a strange background. On the one hand, poor. On the other, mob connections of a good caliber. I'm not sure what kind of numbers that adds to the stats, but there you go. Of course, she wasn't raped by mob members, that was all my grandfather, so when you look at it, and I think research shows this, you are *more* likely to be raped, molested, abused and killed by someone you know, someone close and maybe even blood, than a random stranger.

This does nothing for the paranoid fear insanity. But it's a fact. I think.

Evil is always mundane. It sits at our tables and sleeps in our beds.
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From:heron61
Date:June 24th, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC)
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I think research shows this, you are *more* likely to be raped, molested, abused and killed by someone you know, someone close and maybe even blood, than a random stranger.

Absolutely! 90% of the fear surrounding women walking alone is absolute nonsense. However, what seems to be true is that problems with acquaintances and (possibly) family members are significantly less common (although not nonexistent) among women of higher socioeconomic class who live and work around people of a similar socioeconomic class.
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From:jsguardian
Date:June 25th, 2009 04:30 am (UTC)
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I dunno about 90%. Then again, I'm in a strongly blue collar town, on the lower end of middle class. I completely agree that the rape by stranger scenario is the rarest type. However, and this sort of plays into what you're saying about socioeconomic class, around here, there are places that aren't safe. There are precautions you have to take to prevent robbery. It stands to reason that the things a person does to help prevent robbery would also prevent this type of rape. If you don't take the precautions, robbery can and does happen. Rape too. Which isn't to say that as crimes, they're on a level. I think that fear is not entirely overblown, if fear = taking precautions, as opposed to fear = everyone panic.
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From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 05:19 am (UTC)
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Fair enough, the overall figure is slightly more than 80% of all sexual assaults are committed by people the victim knows, but that figure may well vary significantly depending upon location and socioeconomic class - I have no idea, I've never seen figures about that.
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From:siderea
Date:June 25th, 2009 07:10 am (UTC)
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I think research shows this, you are *more* likely to be raped, molested, abused and killed by someone you know, someone close and maybe even blood, than a random stranger.

Of course. And you're more likely to have the same race and socioeconomic status as someone in your family or community than a random stranger, so that makes sense: it's far more likely statistically that it's the socioeconomic status of the rapist which has a direct influence on his behavior, not the socioeconomic status of the victim. It's just that the two are linked.
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From:mindstalk
Date:June 24th, 2009 10:16 pm (UTC)
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"About half of all rape victims are in the lowest third of income distribution; half are in the upper two-thirds."

I'd guess that's actually fairly egalitarian as crimes go.
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From:heron61
Date:June 24th, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
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True, but from what I've seen things get far less egalitarin when considering location, race, and less broad economic/social class divisions.
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From:queerbychoice
Date:June 25th, 2009 12:16 am (UTC)
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I agree with the comment that half of rapes happening to women whose families are from the upper two thirds of the income distribution is actually fairly egalitarian as crimes go. Also, in my personal experience, rape has not seemed to correlate with wealth. My fiancee comes from the upper third of the income distribution - her father is a doctor, and her childhood back yard included horses and a private tennis court. My own childhood was probably in the middle third - my parents had two cars and lived in the suburbs, but the cars were so unreliable that for significant stretches of time, we had to lift the hoods every morning and fiddle under the hood to try to get them started, and I never went on a car ride without wondering whether the car would actually start and/or continue running for the entire duration of the drive.

She was raped by at least half a dozen different men in her teens and twenties, including her father, her dentist (yes, during an appointment), and at least one other near-stranger toward whom she had made no romantic or sexual overtures whatsoever, in addition to several boyfriends. I was raped by my first boyfriend, not by anyone else.

Granted, I haven't known very many women from the lower third of the income distribution, and I fully accept the idea that they probably run a somewhat higher risk of rape than those of us in the upper two thirds. But I find it hard to believe that many women in the lower third of the income distribution could be subjected to many more separate, unrelated rapes than my fiancee has been. Some women certainly do seem to be raped by many more different men than other women are, through no fault of their own and for no reason that I have been able to discern - but in my personal experience, this doesn't seem to correlate well with social class.
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From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 12:39 am (UTC)
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I think the circumstances people live in involve more than just wealth - subculture, location, and various other factors all play into it, and that may have affected what happened to your fiance, or she might just be an example of the fact that such things can happen to anyone.
From:5eh
Date:June 25th, 2009 02:29 am (UTC)
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I know the "woman walking alone" = mostly nonsense, but having grown up with more than half the girls I know having been sexually molested/abused by the time they were in college (rural Colorado), I still can't muster the courage to walk by myself in my semi-affluent suburban neighborhood.
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From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 05:18 am (UTC)
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How many of them were molested by strangers are opposed to people they knew? From my PoV, one of the problems with a lot of ways that people teach safety awareness is that they are teaching the wrong sorts of lessons - more than 80% of sexual assaults are committed by family members, friends, or acquaintances, and so being afraid of walking alone seems less useful than learning to be very careful who you are alone with.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:June 25th, 2009 07:58 pm (UTC)
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I think those safety classes are mainly designed to protect girls and women from getting blamed by society in the event that they do get raped. If a woman follows "the rules," people won't say she "asked for it."
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From:siderea
Date:June 25th, 2009 07:03 am (UTC)
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It is taken as an article of dogma in many feminist circles that socioeconomic status and race have nothing to do with risk of rape; what you have proposed is Unspeakable and Treasonous to those who snarl "rape can happen to anyone" to any suggestion that it is not completely randomly distributed throughout the population (of women, of course).

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From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 07:10 am (UTC)
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I know. Part of the reason for such statements is clearly a perfectly reasonable attempt to build solidarity, combined with a very clear awareness that rape most definitely can happen to anyone, but I think that there is also either a lack of awareness of or perhaps an unconscious denial of the fact that class and wealth issues matter a great deal in the lives and experiences of both men and women. OTOH, I'm definitely sympathetic to many of the facets of Marxism, so I also have my own biases.
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From:alephnul
Date:June 25th, 2009 08:09 am (UTC)
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Actually, I have never met a feminist who claimed that rape was not much more likely to happen to poor women or to women of color. When I was taking women's studies classes in the mid-90's, discussions of rape were very clear on the fact that women of color face much higher threats of rape than white women do. As you say, the point that rape can happen to any woman is an important one and it does come up in the face of certain sorts of arguments about who are the main targets of rapists, but not (in my experience) class and race based imbalances (although the class-based inequality is dwarfed by the race based inequality from anything I've ever read). Specifically, discussion of the fact that rapists disproportionately target young women will bring the "Rape can happen to anyone," response. The reasons for this are, I assume, fairly obvious: rape as something that happens mainly to young women ties very strongly into a host of core concepts of reactionary rape mythology. Doesn't make it not true, but does make it a red flag for other false ideas about rape.
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From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
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Actually, I have never met a feminist who claimed that rape was not much more likely to happen to poor women or to women of color.

The only time I encountered this was in the late 80s, in a university setting (UW-Madison) which was impressively white and middle-class. I would not be surprised to see if such attitudes were significantly less common now.
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From:waterfire741
Date:June 25th, 2009 03:31 pm (UTC)
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Well, rape is a crime of power, not sex. Power can also be measured by cash flow. If you feel powerful ( or have grown up in a 'powerful' environment), you're more likely to pick another outlet for your urges. Sure, the more affluent social classes have less sexual crimes, but they are more prone to murder and theft of various sorts.
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From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 07:24 pm (UTC)
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That makes a great deal of sense.

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