White women are either ignorant or indifferent to how white supremacy uses sexual violence to maintain the oppression of racialized bodies.
This essay contains discussions of r/pe and sexual violence
It’s not that I don’t like white women, it’s that I can no longer fully trust them. It’s a hard lesson I’ve had to learn as I’ve become more engaged with anti-rape activism over the past few years. Evident by the 2016 American election and then some, white women have consistently proven that they’ll gladly side with whiteness over their womanhood. That’s the problem when they zero in on “smashing the patriarchy” instead of understanding it as the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as coined by author and scholar bell hooks. Without committing to unlearning white supremacy or examining and rejecting the benefits afforded to them under these structures, white women will continue to perpetuate rape culture at the expense of racialized people.
In the lead up to his sexual assault trial in New York this month, Vanity Fair ran a feature on Harvey Weinstein’s attorney Donna Rotunno, known as the “anti-Gloria Allred.” While many of the women who’ve come forward about Weinstein’s abuse are white, Rotunno demonstrates how easily white women prioritize their individual success under capitalism over our collective liberation.
The feature mentions the legal defence she plans to raise at his trial, which unsurprisingly invokes rape myths in the interest of serving a powerful white man to help him avoid accountability for inflicting trauma and violence. “If women want equal rights and equal pay and equal opportunity, then you have to also take equal responsibility,” Rotunno explains to support that her client had consent. “Regret sex is not rape.” The piece goes on to describe her as having won plenty of cases “by playing to jurors’ perceptions of what ‘a real victim of rape’ would do.” She happily perpetuates rape culture in exchange for a paycheque signed by a serial predator.
While anyone engaged in the criminal justice system should absolutely have a strong legal defence, that doesn’t entitle them to a defence built on lies that gaslights survivors, psychologically harming them in the process. Rotunno purposefully leverages misogynistic, patriarchal myths in her clients’ favor, and by proxy, her own success.
Donna Rotunno isn’t the only white woman whose success and notoriety have come at the expense of survivors. Lady Gaga infamously collaborated with sexual predator R. Kelly on her 2013 single, ‘Do What U Want (With My Body).’ She explained that she felt a bond with Kelly over the “untrue things” that the media had published about them both, equating tabloid gossip about her weight with the two decades worth of abuse allegations against him. Though she soon after re-released the single with Christina Aguilera, in deliberating collaborating with R. Kelly, Gaga effectively minimized and dismissed the harm and trauma he perpetrated against dozens upon dozens of Black girls.
It took nearly six years for Gaga to apologize. During this time, she began talking about her own experience with sexual violence, essentially rebranding herself as a fierce advocate for survivors. In 2015, her song ‘Til It Happens To You’ was featured in the campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground, and later won the Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. She extended her advocacy and solidarity to other prominent, white women survivors in the media, such as Kesha and Christine Blasey Ford.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t until after the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries aired that Gaga felt compelled to acknowledge their collaboration. It’s telling that she sooner advocated for white women before bothering to extend any sympathy to Black survivors. In the Notes App apology she posted on Twitter last January, Gaga explained that she wanted to create something “defiant” and “provocative” because she was “angry and still hadn’t processed the trauma in [her] own life.” Making mistakes and growing from them are simply part of being human, and unprocessed trauma can manifest in ugly ways. However, this apology left much to be desired.
Not only did it take over half a decade for Gaga to even acknowledge that she was wrong for working with Kelly, but she centered her own journey as a trauma survivor to explain her thinking at the time. She failed to examine her own complicity in perpetuating rape culture against Black survivors. It’s clear that her impulse to be edgy was more important to her than standing in solidarity with the girls that R. Kelly victimized and abused. White supremacy is a hell of a drug.
While Donna Rotunno and Lady Gaga are more deliberate examples of white women who perpetuate rape culture for their own benefit, this also happens when they indulge sexualized stereotypes of racialized identities. Take for example Kacey Musgraves, who wore a traditional Vietnamese gown as a costume at her Dallas concert last fall. The áo dài is a long tunic worn over silk trousers, a symbol of feminine beauty in Vietnamese culture. Musgraves decided to forgo the pants, invoking hypersexualized imagery from the Vietnam War that encourages sexual violence against Asian women. Like Gaga, Musgraves’s failure to interrogate her whiteness caused her to perpetuate rape culture against a marginalized community.
Sexual violence is one of the many tools specifically designed to oppress marginalized communities through trauma. Though they recognize how it affects them under the patriarchy, white women are either ignorant or indifferent to how white supremacy uses sexual violence to maintain the oppression of racialized bodies. Without this crucial understanding, their allyship is empty at best; a deliberate attempt to seize that violent power at worst. There can be no smashing of the patriarchy without also dismantling white supremacy and capitalism. If white women intend to be our allies in this fight, they must examine how they benefit under these structures and commit to disrupting them. Otherwise, they’re just as complicit as their male counterparts.
Roslyn Talusan is a Canadian freelance culture writer and anti-rape activist. Represented by The Bent Agency, she’s working on a memoir documenting her experience with workplace sexual violence. Her writing aims to critique media and dismantle societal beliefs that uphold rape culture. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.