In 2013, Shafeeq Shiekh, a doctor at the Ben Taub Hospital in Houston, Texas, raped an acute asthma patient while she was sedated. Though he was convicted and his license suspended, the punishment handed to him at his trial last week was shockingly bare: he received 10 years of probation, but no jail time. Shiekh was arrested in 2015, after detectives analyzed evidence that included footage of Shiekh entering the patient’s room, DNA test results, and two years’ worth of other damning material. Despite understanding that he had deliberately exploited a sick woman in an obviously vulnerable state — he was roaming the halls during his night shift when he “noticed her breast implants” — jurors decided to interpret the guilty verdict they handed to him as one that did not warrant a lengthy prison term, or any prison at all. How could this be? They were confident enough in the evidence they were presented to deem him guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of raping a sedated woman. Texas sexual assault law gave the jury the authority to sentence him to 20 years in prison. Did they simply not attach any great meaning to the crime they determined Shiekh had committed?
In any society that maintains itself through law, that law will be contextualized and influenced by the culture, ideas, and norms of that society. Early philosophers like Aristotle considered legislators to be the most virtuous of all professionals, because, in his day, they allowed ethical concepts contemplated by only a few to be transmitted to the masses via the law. “It is legislators,” he wrote, “who make citizens good by habituation.”
The way law and culture intersect today is wildly different than it was in the past. We once believed that it was necessary to impose morals onto society via the law because we assumed that the hierarchical structures that were in place ought to be maintained. This meant that we created legislation that would enforce and maintain already existing systems. Today, culture and legislation remain inextricable, but because we recognize the potential of law to be an instrument of progressive social change. In other words, we see the law as a potential means to change society and to reflect our updated ideology or ethics.
Conceptions of what is “moral,” “good,” and “virtuous” have varied widely across time, space, and culture, and the legislation dependent on those ideas has tended to follow those ideological fluctuations. When drastic cultural changes take place, similar legal changes follow. For women in some parts of the world, cultural changes have led to laws protecting our rights to work, to exercise reproductive choice, and, generally, to exist autonomously as members of society.
Unfortunately, disdain for many of the crimes that disproportionately affect women is hardly represented in U.S. law. Child marriage — a crime in which girls are typically forced or coerced into marriages with older men — remains legal in 48 states, and cases like that in which Brock Turner spent three months in prison for raping an unconscious woman reflect the lenience with which sexual abusers are often treated. Domestic violence claims, when they are investigated, are not always taken seriously, and rarely result in jail time for the offenders. Indeed, victims of domestic abuse who act violently in self-defense are sometimes sent to jail with or in lieu of their abusers.
Even when men are arrested for these crimes, they are often treated with a degree of flexibility. Many sex offenders are given the opportunity to be released upon payment of an assigned bond while they await trial. While judges sometimes require defendants to pay 100 per cent of their assigned bond in order to be released, in many other cases, they are only required to pay a small percentage, provided they appear for their day in court. If and when they attend their trial, they are assigned weak sentences far too frequently.
Some will argue that this lenience is due to the law’s flexibility. Indeed, the now-recalled California judge who sentenced Turner, Aaron Persky, defended his decision by saying that he owed deference not to the convictions of the public but to the law, saying, “As a judge, it’s my role to consider both sides. It’s not always popular, but it’s the law.” But Persky ignores — or chooses not to address — the fact that the laws of a republic are inextricably tied to social views and ethics. This means the law’s lenience must be connected, in some way, to the perspectives and beliefs held by the public. Indeed, a recall effort against Persky was successful, but no efforts were made to amend or review the laws that permitted a rapist like Brock Turner to be handed such a light punishment.
Perpetrators of crimes against women are not treated by judges, juries, and law enforcement as serious offenders. We need to consider this not only as a flaw in the law, but as a reflection of the beliefs, mores, and concerns of broader society, and conclude that violence against women remains low on the list of things we deem to be worthy of denunciation and deterrence.
Although rape and domestic violence are criminalized, a quick scan of our culture makes it clear that violence against women is something that we consume, celebrate, and, ultimately, excuse.
The TV show Game of Thrones is one of the few excuses many people use to keep their cable, and is wildly popular in spite of a glaring flaw: it contains a ridiculous amount of sexual violence. When confronted, the show’s writers and producers, including George R. R. Martin himself, author of the books and producer of television series adaptation, defended the misogyny and frequent rape scenes by saying that it is realistic, considering the show takes place during a violent and archaic time (although it’s not clear how the dragons and the undead also contribute to the show’s historical accuracy). If consumers disapprove, they certainly don’t show it. Stores like Hot Topic sell oodles of GoT merchandise to eager buyers, and the viewership speaks for itself: if people are at all upset by the ubiquity of sexual violence in GoT, they aren’t upset enough to stop watching.
Interestingly (but unfortunately), themes of sexual assault, violence against women, and sexism in general are consumed en masse by fans of the nation’s favorite music genre: rap. It’s true that the genre is diverse and that not all rappers produce work with misogynist themes and lyrics; it’s also true, though, that that many popular rappers are openly violent and misogynistic toward women in real life. Rapper XXXTentation, who was recently murdered, had a long and brutal history of domestic abuse, but people around the world mourned his death anyway; industry figures like Kanye West, J. Cole, and Travis Scott lamented his shooting on social media. Though some celebrated his death, he received a posthumous outpouring of support from the world of popular culture. Performer Chris Brown is still alive, but continues to receive support from his many fans worldwide, despite the fact that his brutal abuse of Rihanna is known to anyone who came in contact with popular culture at all during the late 2000s. Many more celebrated rappers — dead and alive — have histories of violence against women, including Big Pun, Dr Dre, and Nas.
Beyond violence behind closed doors, a great deal of rap music includes messages of sexism and sexist violence. Some songs, like “Bitch Suck Dick” by crowd favorite Tyler, the Creator, openly describe acts of abuse; Too $hort’s song “Blow Job Betty” describes a woman choking to death via oral sex, and Rick Ross’ “U. O. E. N. O.” presents a presumably fictional anecdote in which the rapper rapes an intoxicated woman and insists she enjoys it. Performers across the genre also seem to have difficulty referring to women in ways that don’t include the word “bitch” or sexually objectify them. These disturbing and demeaning trends are hardly given any notice within the sphere of popular culture; and, on the rare occasion that the topic of sexism in rap is entertained by that collective sphere, it is often to say that those who make this argument are misguided at best and racist at worst.
To be sure, many female rappers and prominent feminist figures like bell hooks have repeatedly addressed the ubiquity of sexism in hip hop. Unfortunately, when these analyses of the genre are offered, they are often ignored, and, in some instances, the violent behavior of rappers against women who speak up is deliberately swept under the rug. Rap, many black feminists agree, is “a welcome articulation of the economic and social frustrations of black youth.” They also acknowledge, however, that “youth” in that case typically only refers to “male youth,” and that women — black women, especially — are often verbally brutalized via this “frustration.” The obvious and often violent form that sexism takes in rap music ignores the struggles that the female subjects of the genre face, and undermines their autonomy. In spite of this, though, rap’s many avid fans continue to support the genre and the artists who use it to purvey a message of sexism — some black feminists even consider the violent misogyny in rap to be a “necessary evil.”
Among all of the cultural manifestations of sexism and sexist violence, though, two of the most shocking continue to exist within the liberal green zone. The first of these is pornography.
Since the dawn of the Internet, porn viewership has risen dramatically — some estimates say certain sites now receive 100 million unique visitors each day.
Pornography addiction among men is also on the rise, and the categories into which the videos are separated include increasingly exploitative and disturbing content. A data-gathering effort from PornHub which calculated the most popular content category in each state found that “lesbian” was the most common search nationwide, indicating a clear disregard for female sexuality, and that categories like “step-sister” and “step-mom” weren’t too far behind. Another study published in the journal Violence Against Women found that nearly 90 per cent of the content available on the internet contains physical violence and nearly half features verbal aggression, with 95 per cent of each aimed at women. Despite the overwhelming evidence that pornography is harmful to women, its public stock is rising.
The same thing can be said for BDSM. A once-taboo sexual practice that began gaining momentum in the 1940s and has now found favour in alternative circles as well as the general public. BDSM, though widely misunderstood, only further demonstrates social acceptance of sexism and sexual violence. Considering that the basis for BDSM is domination and subordination, and we live in a culture wherein men are dominant, it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of males who practice BDSM with a female partner play the “dominant” role. It relies on the sexualization of abuse, though its proponents claim BDSM is harmless, since it’s only “role-playing.” Even if it were true that it is simply “role-playing,” and therefore disconnected from real-life violence, practitioners say they find BDSM pleasurable because it allows them to either have sexual power over another person or to submit to the deliberately frustrating, uncomfortable, degrading, abusive, and/or painful sexual demands of another. The fact that “a heavy concern for safety” may exist in such an environment does not negate the presence of sexual sadism, masochism, and aggression. Even if participants don’t suffer physical injury or death, the harmful combination of violent and exploitative sexual behaviors and the modern justifications of those behaviors that make BDSM so alluring for its practitioners affects the way they view other humans.
Widely critiqued by practitioners for its supposedly unrealistic portrayal of BDSM, the Fifty Shades of Grey novel and film trilogies were immensely popular with the general public. The series presented shocking amounts of sexual sadism to its immense audience, romanticizing male masochism and intense sexual violence, and was a remarkable commercial success. While practitioners and their “progressive” allies didn’t offer much support for the franchise, their criticism was rooted in its allegedly inaccurate portrayal of BDSM, not its glorification of male abuse.
If we choose to look for it, we can see that the presence of violence against women in American culture is imposing. And, once we do look, the claim that such violence is low on the list of things we deem immoral, which we have already determined is possible, begins to appear more realistic than we would like to consider. Though we would like to dismiss it, the legal and cultural evidence that led us to question our beliefs about violence against women to begin with only seem to confirm our worst suspicions.
Morgan Amonett is a Classics student at the Ohio State University.