Yesterday morning I awakened and checked my Twitter feed. Immediately my eyes were drawn to the statement issued by Gabrielle Union on Nate Parker and his rape allegations. Reading through her op-ed, I found myself like, her, in a "state of stomach churning confusion." Like Gabrielle, I am a survivor of sexual violence. On two occasions, I was drunk and unable to give consent. Like Union and Parker's victim, the only witnesses were me and my assailant(s). As I write these words, I am mindful of the terrible position that Union has been placed in as a star of the forthcoming film, Birth of a Nation.
As a fellow survivor, I respect the courage that it takes for any survivor to speak out against sexual assault. And while I agree with Union's stance that there needs to be more discussion on what exactly constitutes "affirmative consent," I find myself troubled by her opinion piece and the way in which it is being used by rape apologists to deflect attention away from Nate Parker's actions 17 years ago and onto more neutral territory - society's pervasive problem with rape culture. When I see men and women who have been rabidly defending Parker based upon the fact of his acquittal avidly retweeting her statement, you know there is some form of misdirection occurring.
Equally disturbing is how the media has taken one sentence from Union's article and used it to inaccurately frame the content and intent of her op-ed. Repeatedly, the lead in sentence on social media has been, "As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly." This is clickbait at its finest - for it implies that Union has taken a stand on Nate Parker himself when in fact her article is really a stance on rape culture as a whole.
Parker continues to enlist the protection of women to shield him from the social ramifications of his actions. By stating he is married - he implies he is not a rapist. By stating he is the father of daughters, he is stating he is not a rapist. By bringing his daughter to a press conference, he used her visage to buoy his family man image. By having a prominent Black actress who is a survivor of sexual violence write an op-ed that benefits him and the film, he is being protected from having to face the consequences of his actions that were a contributing factor in the death of a young woman.
"Parker continues to enlist the protection of women to shield him from the social ramifications of his actions."
As I read her article, Union managed to simultaneously indict society for its tolerance of rape culture while giving Parker a pass. She writes, "On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date's consent? It's very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said "no," silence certainly does not equal "yes." Although it's often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a "no" as a "yes" is problematic at least, criminal at worst." She continues, "Regardless of what I think may have happened that night 17 years ago, after reading all 700 pages of the trial transcript, I still don't actually know. Nor does anyone who was not in that room."
By retreating to the well-worn, "well, we weren't there, so we don't know what really happened" statement, Union utilized a common tactic used to perpetuate rape culture. However, she also acknowledges between the lines of her statement that in fact Parker did rape his victim because he did not have his victim's consent - since a woman or man incapacitated by alcohol or drugs cannot give consent.
In her paragraph outlining the various types of survivors who remain silent about the crimes committed against us, Union essentially asks that we focus our attention on the victims of sexual assault - not the perpetrators. But true change can only occur when both are addressed. Parker has of yet to make any sort of definitive statement acknowledging that he raped his victim, outside of an EBONY interview that focused largely on his lack of knowledge of what consent meant while in college and his male privilege. Contrary to what Parker stated, sexual consent has been a topic on college campuses well before 1999.
With expert subtlety, Union redirects the conversation away from Parker's actions by stating that we should instead use the film as an opportunity to discuss consent and challenge rape culture. Union states, "I believe that the film is an opportunity to inform and educate so that these situations cease to occur on college campuses, in dorm rooms, in fraternities, in apartments or anywhere else young people get together to socialize." I disagree. In fact, I would argue that every survivor that has had their voice silenced will see Parker's face up on that screen and be re-traumatized. In the gang rape scene, they will see their powerlessness and the complicity of a patriarchal society. His presence, on film and in person, is a reminder that sexual violence is less important than box office receipts. It is a reminder that if you have privilege - whether as an elite college wrestler or a Hollywood director and actor - that people will find a million ways to justify the right for a rapist to tell their story and live free from any sort of long-standing consequences. In this case, Nate Parker and Jean Celestin, his co-writer on the film, will never have to hear the dissenting voice of their accuser today. They are alive and legally - not morally - exonerated while their victim is dead.
"If a rapist manages to skate a conviction based on a technicality, society will hold you accountable instead."
One does not need to see the film in order to learn more about rape culture. One does not have to watch Birth of a Nation in order to learn more about affirmative consent. In fact, I would argue that by NOT watching the film, one is taking a more assertive stance against acts of "non-affirmative consent."
We can do better. Union can do better. One can choose to hold Parker accountable (such as opting not to see the film) and challenge rape culture. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I argue that by doing both, society is sending an even larger message against the very system of male privilege, entitlement, and toxic masculinity that Union and Parker state we should be taking a stand against. By not seeing Birth of a Nation, the message will be sent that if a rapist manages to skate a conviction based on a technicality, that society will hold you accountable instead.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.