Thursday, July 9, 2015

What "Pennsatucky" on OITNB teaches us about high structural risk of rape in rural places (and about the persistence of the white trash stereotype)

Regular readers know that I don't watch television and am generally out of touch with popular culture.  I count on friends to give me a heads up on what I need to know, and that is exactly what has happened with a character who has become prominent in this season's "Orange is the New Black."  The  character is "Pennsatucky," whose "real name" is Tiffany Doggett.  Here's how Salon writer Emma Eisenberg describes her, with some quotes from OITNB author Piper Kerman:
“a young woman from western Pennsylvania who proudly called herself a redneck” ... “Caucasian girls from the wrong side of the tracks.” Pennsatucky struggled with an addiction to crack and had lost custody of her child. “She was like a lost girl.”
Eisenberg wisely notes that "Tiffany's story is absurdly idiosyncratic"--presumably a reference to the fact that Pennsatucky is such an extreme character, by which I mean she is not really typically "rural."  What I am saying is that she and her mother are presented as "white trash" caricatures.  I guess Eisenberg understands that.

Still, Eisenberg thinks Pennsatucky's story--the part that is not idiosyncratic--has  something to teach us:
Pennsatucky and the thousands of other young women growing up in rural communities in Appalachia, and across the American South and West, are ... at high structural risk for rape and sexual assault.
Wow, this is stunning!  Very rarely do people talk about structural disadvantages in relation to white people, even poor ones.  (And to be clear, not all of the people in these rural communities are white; many, especially in the West, are American Indian; in the South, the majority are probably black).  Spot on, Ms. Eisenberg, who continues:
According to 2012 FBI crime estimates, the states with the highest rates of reported rapes per capita were, in order: Alaska, South Dakota, Michigan, New Mexico and Arkansas. With the exception of Michigan, in all of these states about half their populations or more reside in rural areas or small towns—70 percent in South Dakota. In Alaska, where the figure is 55.5 percent, the rate of forcible rapes per year is 80 per 100,000, nearly triple the national average. “We have an epidemic,” Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell told CNN, whose Sean Sutter did a series of investigative reports on rape in the state last year. New Jersey and New York had the lowest rates of reported forcible rape per capita in the nation. 
Recent analyses of rural sexual assault in Pennsylvania—where 60 percent of its counties are rural and home to about one-third of the state’s population—using data from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Pennsylvania Office of Children, Youth and Families found that rates of rape and child sexual assault were significantly higher in rural counties than in urban ones. They also found that the eight highest rates of rape were in rural counties, and included the three most rural counties in the state.
Eisenberg goes into great detail about what we know about rural sexual assault, including why it is even more likely to go under-reported than sexual assaults in other places.  
[I]n rural areas, police officers are more likely to be involved in the victim’s social network, say Ralph Weisheit, David Falcone and Edward Wells, authors of “Crime and Policing in Rural and Small Town America.” Other factors that may cause rural rape to go unreported include lack of cellphone reception and public transportation, substandard road infrastructure, and the long distances that must be traveled to reach law enforcement or crisis centers, which may be hours away or in another state. 
She quotes Susan Lewis who wrote a 2003 Report for the National Sexual Violence Center.
Sexual assaults in rural areas are mostly hidden crimes, hidden both intentionally and unintentionally by characteristics of a close-knit culture or an isolated lifestyle. To varying degrees, rural populations are often marginalized from the mainstream power structure, which holds the opportunities for assistance and services through resources and policy initiatives.
Interestingly, these are all issues I have discussed in relation to domestic violence in rural settings.  I have also discussed them in relation to other legal issues.  See, e.g., the lack of anonymity label on this blog.  

Most provocatively, however, is Eisenberg's observation that #OITNB--in spite of its success at generating "rich cultural conversations about a range of pressing social problems"--has not yet managed to generate a dialogue "about sexual violence against rural American women."

Eisenberg asks the reason for this failure.  

Duh!  It is because rural people are so unbelievably uninteresting and unworthy in the eyes of the chattering classes, those who do the analysis and write the books.  It's about metro centrism, urbanormativity ... (See more here) It's also about the fact that Pennsatucky doesn't represent the type of rural that make us nostalgic.  She represents the type of rurality that makes us turn away in disgust.  To quote the late cultural critic Joe Bageant, “What white middle America loathes these days are poor and poorish people, especially the kind who look and sound like they just might live in a house trailer.”

Jarring as this is for folks like me who think rural people matter, even more jarring for feminists (also including me!) is this commentary on Slate by Jada Yuan, "Orange is the New Black is the only TV Show that Understands Rape."  If you read that commentary, you'll understand the relevance of my noting that, when called for jury duty two days ago, 3 of 23 jurors questioned in voir dire for a criminal case self identified as rape survivors; another one reported her younger sister raped by an uncle now serving prison time for it.  Two of these three were very young women--perhaps 20-25 years old.  Does this mean the current generation are speaking more openly about rape than my generation did?  These women had the option of being questioned privately by the judge, but they declined.  Surely this is a good sign, though we must not become too jaded, too immune to the shock of stories like those I heard during voir dire.  

Here is the NYT's commentary on Season 3, Episode 10, "Unlucky Pensatucky."

On the incidence of sexual assault and rape in the histories of women who get caught up in the juvenile justice system and the wider criminal justice system, read this.  Here's the lede from Timothy Williams' report in the NYT, coincidentally today.
As many as 80 percent of the girls in some states’ juvenile justice systems have a history of sexual or physical abuse, according to a report released Thursday. The report, a rare examination of their plight, recommends that girls who have been sexually trafficked no longer be arrested on prostitution charges. 
The study, “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” found that sexual abuse was among the primary predictors of girls’ involvement with juvenile justice systems, but that the systems were ill-equipped to identify or treat the problem.

1 comment:

Daniel Quinley said...

I do think that younger generations, particularly my generation, is much more open to talking about sexual assault and rape. Whether we're becoming jaded by the experience or not I think will remain up for debate for a long time. I do find it incredibly interesting that the current discussions around rape and sexual assault are definitely focused on metro centers--the urban women, or at the very least, on college campuses (population hubs even in rural regions).

The ignorance of the structural issues regarding sexual assault and rape reporting--and the observation that Ozark/Appalachia incest jokes seem to be the last safe boundary in laughing at sexual assault--says something about pop culture perceptions of rural women. I wonder if there is a strong element of Hollywood sexism at play--rural men are interesting, because for whatever reason they are perceived as "rugged" or "manly" or other notions of ideal. Or they make excellent anti-heroes. But rural women still fall into a binary categorization--either "white trash" or an idyllic notion of virtue. Perhaps someday there will be a nuanced exploration of rural women, but I doubt that it will come anytime soon. The hipsters in Brooklyn are far too interesting to learn about.