What we can learn from Stoya
MY FIRST memory of medical clerkship was not a heartwarming story about a patient or a colleague. It was about rape.
On my first night as a clinical clerk in our psychiatry rotation, I met my intern, John, as he was coming from interviewing a woman filing a rape charge against a neighbor. Her story, or my intern’s version of it, was sketchy at best: Apparently, the man in question had kept the woman captive in his house for two days but had also left her alone for periods of time while he went out to work or do errands. Why didn’t she try to escape then? my intern had asked, and the woman answered that she had felt unable to stand. Hindi ako makatayo.
All of this was recounted to me while my intern dug into his dinner, laughingly pointing out the supposed holes in the woman’s story. What did she mean? What was she doing in the house in the first place? Did she think she could get away with this?
That was my first introduction to how rape victims are treated in our society. It didn’t get better. Over the next two years of clerkship and internship I was able to understand, in a nutshell, our response to a complaint of rape or sexual harassment, all of it heightened by the immediacy and the unforgiving atmosphere of the emergency room. I watched a senior resident loudly question a boyish 17-year-old girl about why she hadn’t complained sooner. I watched another resident roll her eyes when a rape victim came in at 2 a.m. because it meant she (the resident) would need to spend at least half an hour interviewing the patient and collecting samples for documentation. I watched families complain about the inconvenience of going through the entire process of filing a complaint just because they had a daughter stupid enough to get raped.
I heard all forms of victim blaming: because a rape victim was wearing a short skirt, or wasn’t careful enough, or hadn’t carried a can of pepper spray, or was in a dark area of Pedro Gil Street. She was just asking for it. I heard the most sensitive, painful details recounted over and over in front of the victims themselves. Some members of the healthcare team would attempt to be considerate but inevitably someone in the chain would fail. Maybe it was because the healthcare workers were overworked, or maybe there was never enough room to conduct an examination with the utmost privacy, or maybe I just wasn’t lucky enough to witness one, but in any case I graduated medical school without seeing a single woman’s complaint of rape handled in the way textbooks on the Art of Medicine said it should be handled—with complete sensitivity, respect for privacy, compassion and credulity.
I didn’t know then that it would take Stoya and the adult video industry to show me how.
Two weeks ago, adult performer Stoya accused her former on- and off-screen partner James Deen of rape through Twitter. She gave no details, only that her right to consent had been violated. And then what I think of as a small miracle happened: Rather than turning against her, the entire industry took their own steps either to show their own solidarity or to make their own investigations. A number of women, buoyed by the courage Stoya showed in blowing the whistle, came forward with their own stories of abuse by Deen.
Laura Penny, writing for Time, called the industry “the first professional community to respond to allegations of serial sexual violence by actually believing women from the start.” Considering that the adult video industry is known for propagating so many things that can be called antiwomen, it might seem ironic that it should be at the forefront of this shift in culture. Maybe it’s because sex workers have a very clear idea about what consent is. Maybe it’s because sex workers, by necessity, have had to be very aware of what their rights are, and when those rights are violated. Whatever the reason, maybe for the first time, without an ounce of proof, a woman claiming rape against a powerful male figure has been believed worldwide in the court of public opinion.
Not that the incident was bereft of problematic responses. From all quarters it’s easy for people to point at Stoya’s profession and assume that her right to consent was flawed in the first place. But what the industry has given Stoya is something that we consistently fail to give rape victims every day: credulity, or the state of willingness to believe something in the absence of reasonable proof or knowledge. So often rape victims are assumed to be lying or exaggerating, despite the fact that (as pointed out by Megan McArdle in a 2014 article for The Manila Standard) the incidence of false reports of rape is unknowable at present. Whatever happens, whether you are the family member or healthcare professional or policeman or social worker in charge of a rape victim, that initial credulity is key: Without it there can be no confidence or trust. Without it there can be no steps toward recovery. Without its expectation, victims fear to come forward.
I have no idea now whatever happened to my incredulous intern John, or to the rape victim he handled. I often wish I could find him and explain what I couldn’t say before as his lowly clerk: Maybe she had been drugged; maybe she had been in a state of shock. I wish I could tell him that as a doctor and as a human being, he had the responsibility to treat her confidence as a precious thing, and to treat her safety and recovery as a priority. More than anything I wish I could say to that faceless woman in my memory—faceless as so many other silent victims of rape in the Philippines—what I, and an entire industry of professionals, say publicly to Stoya now: I believe you.
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