June 24, 2011

It can be hard to take Bristol Palin seriously. The young mother turned reality TV star is a bundle of contradictions — or hypocrisies, depending on whom you talk to.

She was paid more than $300,000 to be an abstinence spokesperson for the Candie’s Foundation, but she has said that abstaining from sex is “not realistic” for all teens. She has framed herself as an average hard-working teen mom, but she has jumped at seemingly every publicity opportunity that’s come her way, be it selling her engagement story to Us Weekly, shimmying on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” or getting plastic surgery (excuse me — “corrective” surgery) a la former reality star Heidi Montag. Just this past week, Palin even filed to trademark her name.

Does Palin want to be a spokesperson, a brand or just a celebrity? It’s not clear. But in her latest stint, as an author, she may be unwittingly stepping into a much more serious role: that of a rape survivor speaking out.

While Palin does not accuse former boyfriend Levi Johnston of rape in “Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far,” her account of the night she lost her virginity certainly sounds nonconsensual. Palin writes that she got so drunk on wine coolers provided by Johnston during a camping trip with friends that she has no recollection of having sex. Afterward, she was distraught.

“Levi wasn’t even there to help me process — or even confirm — my greatly feared suspicions,” she writes. “Instead of waking up in his arms . . . I awakened in a cold tent alone.” Palin realized that she had lost her virginity only after a friend told her what happened.

She doesn’t use the word “rape” anywhere in her book, but what she describes seems to be just that.

She writes that she felt her virginity had been “stolen” and that she “tried not to vomit” when she found out what happened.

Palin describes being devastated as she confronted Johnston: “ ‘You knew I didn’t want to have sex until I was married!’ I whispered. ‘How could you?’ ” She also writes that Johnston apologized.

If Palin’s story is accurate, then what she appears to be describing is a nonconsensual — and likely illegal — assault. She doesn’t say whether she was unconscious, too incapacitated to give consent or just unable to remember what happened the next morning. But, by the account she gives, what took place in the woods near Wasilla that night sounds a lot like what Alaska rape law defines as sexual assault in the second degree, when the “offender engages in sexual penetration with a person who the offender knows is . . . incapacitated or unaware that a sexual act is being committed.”

Erin Patterson, lead advocatefor Alaska’s organization Standing Together Against Rape (STAR), says cases similar to what Palin describes have been brought under that law. (Though without witnesses or confessions, like most rape cases, this one would be difficult to prove.)

Johnston’s lawyer, Rex Butler, told the Alaska Dispatch that Palin’s story was “obviously not true.” Johnston will be telling his own story in a memoir, “Deer in the Headlights: My Life in Sarah Palin’s Crosshairs,” due out this fall.

What Palin chooses to call the experience may be beside the point; many young women who are assaulted are loath to say that what happened to them was rape. They don’t want to think of themselves as victims, and they don’t want to live under the heavy stigma that sexual assault brings women. It’s also possible that Palin simply does not want to deal with the legal ramifications of accusing Johnston.

It’s Palin’s right to name (or not name) what happened on that camping trip. As someone who cares about the issue of violence against women, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of expecting a woman to out herself as a rape victim. But Palin has already done that. She put her experience into the world in a very public way, and her publisher must have understood what the implications of her description were. Her detailed story about the trip that led to her first sexual experience makes up the first pages of her book.

What will the thousands of young women who may read Palin’s memoir think of her description of that night and the shame she felt afterward? The scene she describes is sad and, at least in her telling, seemingly nonconsensual and traumatic. Not calling it assault — and blaming herself, as she does in the book — sends a dangerous message to young women who may have similar experiences. (It broke my heart a bit to read that Palin felt she “sinned” and now she “had” to marry Johnston.)

Perhaps, though, the book — which is very much about run-of-the-mill high school stuff such as sports, family and petty jealousies — and Palin’s self-blame can teach us a lesson. Despite the spotlight Palin was thrust into, her memoir tells the story of a very normal girl. And sadly, what she describes is a fairly normal, though horrible, experience. Her reaction is normal, too.

Palin hasn’t made any direct accusations, but she is being criticized in much the same way rape victims often are. Our culture is so intent on blaming victims that you don’t even have to use the word “rape” to be shamed for speaking up. She is accused of being opportunistic and of lying about what happened to throw sympathy her way and bolster her image as a “good girl.”

Popular sex columnist Dan Savage has written that he doesn’t believe Bristol’s account (though he’s careful to write that it’s not because he thinks “boys like Levi” are incapable of rape). “Bristol’s story . . . is the kind of self-exonerating [nonsense] that scared teenagers offer up to parents and other authority figures when it’s just their good-girl reputations and saving-myself-for-marriage self-images that are on the line.” Savage also points out that Palin has “a paycheck to worry about” from her abstinence speaking gig.

I don’t know what the truth is, but I do know that Palin deserves the same respect as any woman speaking out about her experience, no matter what she calls it. We shouldn’t point to her past publicity or what she has to “gain” by lying, because that’s exactly what’s done to rape victims the world over, again and again.

We live in a country where, according to Justice Department statistics, nearly a quarter of a million people are sexually assaulted every year — nearly half of whom are under 18 years old, and most of whom know their attacker. Women are blamed for rape when they dress a certain way or when they drink; and when sexual assault happens, it’s often not called as much. This year, for example, the House of Representatives was forced to drop language from an anti-abortion bill that would allow only victims of “forcible rape” to access federal funds for abortion after activists pointed out that all rape is “forcible.” The latest trend in misnaming sexual assault is calling some rape “gray rape,” as if being assaulted weren’t a black-and-white issue.

Using accurate language when describing the violence done to women is imperative — it helps to raise awareness of just how often assault happens, it takes away some of the shame and the stigma, and it leads to more cases being reported and fewer women being blamed. The sad fact is, not calling your experience rape does not protect you from the trauma of it. If survivors are going to suffer, they should not do it in silence.

Sexual experiences shouldn’t feel “stolen.” Young women need to know that if they didn’t want to have sex, and if they didn’t say yes, then what happened to them was wrong and illegal. And even if they don’t want to call it rape, that’s what it was.

If Palin were to speak out unequivocally about her experience, she could make a tremendous difference in the lives of assault victims by making it clear that rape is rape, whether it happens in a hotel room, in an alley or in a tent in Alaska.

Jessica Valenti, the founder of Feministing.com, is the author of “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women” and the forthcoming “Why Have Kids?: The Truth About Parenting and Happiness.”

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