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A Case Study in Awful: The 8 Worst Parts of the Recent Naval Academy Rape Hearing

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Written by Erin Matson forRH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Recently, attorneys defending three former Naval Academy football players against allegations of sexual assault at an off-campus party spent more than 20 hours over five grueling days questioning, taunting, blaming, shaming, and what appears to be re-victimizing a 21-year-old female midshipman.

At one point, the midshipman said she was too exhausted to continue testifying and the commander presiding over the hearing granted her a day off. "This is borderline abusive," her attorney Susan Burke said upon leaving the Navy Yard that day. Abusive, yes, and sadly all too instructive in how rape culture encourages attorneys, members of the media, and others to turn sexual assault victims into the accused.

The routine process of victim blaming, as illuminated by this Article 32 hearing, serves to silence other sexual assault victims, generate sympathy for rapists, and create doubts that the definition of sexual assault includes anything beyond a stranger jumping out of an alley and raping a sweet, chaste woman wearing modest clothing.

In this case, the midshipman saw social media posts that led her to believe she was raped while drunk. All three defendants admitted sexual contact with the midshipman on the night at the center of the allegations—either to her, or prosecutors. What follows is a look at some of the horrible insinuations, statements, and questions used by defense attorneys to impugn the character of the midshipman, which offer an entry point to talk about and refute rape culture as a whole.

How do you perform oral sex?

Defense attorneys repeatedly asked the midshipman how she performs oral sex. This question is irrelevant, even though one of the defendants has said that he put his penis in her mouth that night. Here's the deal: It doesn't matter if a sexual assault victim has had sex, and it doesn't matter how she (or he) prefers to have sex. People are biologically driven to have sex. Sex is part of normal life. A history or manner of having oral sex, or rough sex, or any specific style of sex, does not mean that you can't be sexually assaulted orally, or roughly, or in that specific style. There are infinite ways to have sex, minus one: Sex without consent isn't sex. By definition, it's rape.

Tell us about your sex life.

Along with repeated queries about how she performs oral sex, the midshipman was asked to describe her sex life in detail. This, like the oral sex question, is also irrelevant and demeaning. Casting the spotlight on a victim's sexual history in the context of discussing her (or his) rape serves to make others imagine the victim sexually. It serves to degrade her (or him). Sharing your sexuality with others is a personal choice. Being cast in a sexual light can be highly desired, even great, when freely chosen. But painting a sexual picture of someone when they haven't asked you to serves to shame, silence, and sluttify.

You had sex with him before, right?

The midshipman and other witnesses were called to say that one of the defendants had a history of consensual sex with her prior to the night listed in the sexual assault charges. But this is irrelevant. There is no social role—boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, best friend, casual sex partner, community leader, religious official—that renders a person unable to rape. The only way to not be a rapist is to not rape. Further, consent is never permanent. Consenting to sex once or even 1,000 times is never consenting to future sex. Consent must be given for every single sex act, every single time. Sexual contact without consent is sexual assault.

 

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