by Melissa Campbell
The media has been abuzz lately with discussion about Bristol Palin’s new memoir and her first sexual experience. What appears to be a clear cut case of sexual assault has been drawing nothing but head-in-the-sand statements from prominent figures on all points of the social spectrum and I can’t understand why. Even my beloved SPARK said that this was a “tricky” situation. But is it?
From The Daily Beast’s recap:
Bristol awakens in her tent, with no recollection of the night before. She looks over and sees Levi’s empty sleeping bag right beside hers, and hears Levi and his friends “outside the tent laughing.” (Pg. 3) Bristol quickly texts her friend to get over to the tent, and she immediately pops over and tells her, “You definitely had sex with Levi.” (Pg. 4) “Suddenly, I wondered why it was called ‘losing your virginity,’” Bristol writes. “Because it felt more like it had been stolen.”
Let’s be clear: THIS IS RAPE. There is absolutely no question about this. There is no universe where having sex with someone while they are blackout drunk is not rape, especially when the victim wakes up the next day with no memory of the events and feeling as though her virginity has been stolen. THIS IS RAPE.
So where’s the tricky situation here? Frankly, I don’t see it. But apparently because Bristol Palin is Sarah Palin’s daughter, feminists should be conflicted about whether or not to believe her? This is disgusting and it is offensive and it needs to stop.
I still cannot get over this quote from Jennifer Pozner: “I question whether [Bristol] was using intentionally murky language because she is a very prominent, extremely well-paid abstinence speaker and not having willingly had sex could bolster her position and reduce criticisms from those who consider her a hypocrite.”
I was floored when I read this. I read it several more times to make sure it said what I thought it did. I read it out loud to other people to see if they heard the same thing I did: Pozner is suggesting that Bristol Palin is crying rape in order to save face. This is absolutely disgusting. It is unacceptable. I have no doubt that if this were any other young woman, feminists in the public sphere would be leading the charge to protect and support the victim. Instead, there’s speculation about whether or not she was fudging her language to make herself look better. By publicly questioning Bristol’s experiences, Pozner is directly playing into sexist, misogynist tropes that actively harm all women. Things like this are exactly why victims don’t come forward.
Pozner does go on to say that one of the reasons Bristol doesn’t explicitly address her experience as rape “could also be that a young woman from a very conservative family that traffics in circles that regularly deny that date rape exists would have a hard time naming it.” This is one hundred percent correct and she should have left it there. Instead, she follows it up with, “we don’t know.” I’m sorry, but no. When someone has sex with a woman while she is black out drunk, what else is there to know? (Hint: nothing.)
Bristol clarified on Good Morning America that she wasn’t accusing Levi of rape or calling him a rapist, but instead that she was looking at the situation “with adult eyes” and realizing that it was “foolish.” She went on to say that she “shouldn’t have been drinking and I shouldn’t have let myself get into a situation like that.” Some people are taking this to mean that what happened wasn’t rape, but that’s not what it means at all. What it means instead is, like Pozner points out, Bristol has been raised in a culture that constantly and consistently blames women for their own assaults and is internalizing the blame, just like countless other victims of assault.
This isn’t surprising and it isn’t new. My heart broke when I saw this interview because I’ve been there. I’ve said to myself, “Well if I hadn’t done x y and z…” I would still believe that if I didn’t have the open, heartfelt, necessary support that I did. Bristol is obviously not going to get this support from her conservative family or from a culture that constantly seeks to minimize rape. And now at a time when prominent feminists have a chance to reach out and extend that support to her, they’re either remaining silent or playing directly into sexist, misogynist cultural narratives that insist women lie about assault to get ahead.
People have said that they don’t know what to believe about Bristol Palin since she’s from a dastardly political family, she wrote a book, and she makes money from people knowing who she is. But none of those things matter. I am here to tell you: this is not a tricky situation at all. If we can’t align ourselves with women who have been assaulted—no matter who they are or whether or not they are ready to name themselves as victims—then we are not being supportive of women.
We have a responsibility as people who care about the well being of women to change the way the media talks about rape, but that isn’t happening here and it infuriates me. As feminists, our allegiance needs to be to women. ALL women. Not just women we like. Not just daughters of women we like. Not just feminists and liberals and progressives–but all women. There are millions of women who have had and will have similar experiences to Bristol Palin, and who will blame themselves like Bristol Palin blames herself, and we need to support them and not question their stories because we’re disdainful of their politics.