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Rape Culture Is Surveillance Culture

After being roofied twice, I realized I didn't always know who was watching me. And how dangerous that is.

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Last weekend, I went out with a few friends for a couple of drinks that instead ended up turning into 10 or 15 drinks each. By 2:30 in the morning, I was drunk, and it was a drunkenness that I wore on my face: I was laughing at my own jokes and my eyelids were dipping and the pincurls I had done earlier that night were starting to sag.

While we stood by the bar and talked, there were two men sitting near us. They looked over at me periodically, laughed to each other, while talking louder than they realized. They were discussing how drunk I seemed, how I was clearly out of my mind. They talked about how many more drinks I might need before I could be approached, before one of them could take me home to sleep with me. They posited how many drinks I’d need to put out.

I was aware of my surroundings, but not lucid enough to verbalize anything. After I heard them, I tugged at my male friends and tried to explain what was happening but it was clear I didn’t make any sense because I had had too much to drink. They were looking at me, puzzled with brows furrowed. So instead, I begged them not to leave me alone, not to go to the bathroom, not to go outside for a cigarette without me. We stayed together for the rest of the night, and one of my friends escorted me right to my front door.

A few weeks before, I went to dinner with another friend. We ordered a second bottle of wine for ourselves. Behind us, she overheard two men look at us, lean in, and say to each other: “We’re in.” We grimaced and drank our bottle, then a third after that.

Often, people seem to describe rape as an unfortunate accident, two drunk bodies colliding: It’s more about miscommunication than intentionally ignoring a lack of consent, or actively seeking a body and mind that can’t say no. Rape culture doesn’t flourish by error. It’s a methodical operation so ingrained in our public consciousness, we don’t even notice when it’s happening, and we rarely call it out even when we do see it.

The men standing next to me at the bar weren’t trying to figure out how to talk to me. They weren’t discussing what would work as a good opening line or how to impress me in order to get me to willingly go home with one of them. They weren’t even deciding if they wanted to buy me a drink, or what I needed, which was some water. They were conspiring.

Men watch women in a way we’ve long since normalized. It’s normal for men to watch you when you enter a bar, to watch what you’re drinking, what you’re doing, in an attempt to get closer to you. It’s normal for them to offer you a drink, and when you say no, to press a little further with are you sure, come on, have one drink with me. (When a guy asks to buy you a drink, suggest he buy you a snack instead and see how that goes over.) Men watch women at the gym, at work, on the subway: In any space occupied by men and women, the latter are being watched. We’re so used to it that we hardly notice.


Have you heard of "party culture"? It’s the latest culprit rapists are blaming for their actions, as if party culture influences them to assault an unconscious or drunk woman. Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer found guilty for sexual assault, thinks alcohol and party culture are to blame for what he did. It somehow strips away every modicum of morality or ethics you have. It’s not his fault; it’s just that they were both drunk.

Brock Turner blaming booze is hardly the first time alcohol was considered a bigger factor in an assault than the formulaic, intentional calculation of a rapist. In 2012, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons killed herself after she was gang-raped while intoxicated, and the photos of the assault were circulated online. That same year, a high school girl was raped by her classmates at Steubenville High School when she was drunk, then photographed. In 2013, Vanderbilt football players were accused of raping an unconscious 21-year-old student in a dorm.

What a coincidence that rapists so frequently seem to find women who are drunk. We know being drunk doesn’t mean you deserve to be assaulted, and we know that there are plenty of men who can drink without raping someone. When we think of rape, we tend to think of coordinated calculation: Men who drive around in unmarked vans with duct tape and sharp scissors in the back. Men who follow women around, tracking their daily moves, catching them at their most vulnerable. We think of rape in terms of how men create intricate plans for hurting women, for sexual violence at its most gruesome, men who use physical force to hold women down. But we don’t, for some reason, associate it with a man who surveils you in public, maybe for an hour or two, to see if you’re getting drunk on your own or if he needs to intervene by buying you a drink. These types of rapes — rapes where women are too drunk to consent, or unconscious, or when no one bothers to ask for consent in the first place — are considered accidents. Everyone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Youthful indiscretion. Party culture. It’s the wine’s fault. We forget that there’s calculation, that he walked up to you because you were teetering and he thought it would be easy.

Pickup artist culture is most obviously dedicated to monitoring women, to tracking their moves and how the little ways we let our guards down may benefit a man. Roosh V, a pickup artist perhaps best known for saying rape should be legal, gives tips on his site for which girls you should pick up at a bar: “I look for girls who are drinking … It’s possible to have a one-night stand with a sober girl, but a few drinks in her makes it easier.”

But we see it in far less insidious places too: normalized in what we consume as entertainment. On the U.S. version of The Office, Michael Scott spends much of the first few episodes sexually harassing his boss, Jan, ignoring her when she says no and following her around. After a night of drinking, they sleep together, but she still rejects him the following day. He continues to harass her at work and monitors her actions to see if something suggests she didn’t mean it when she said no. How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson had pickup techniques that, if displayed in the real world, would get him arrested. Plenty of Mad Men episodes were about getting women drunk in order to take them home.

Surveillance feeds into rape culture more than drinking ever could. It’s the part of male entitlement that makes men believe they’re owed something if they pay enough attention to you, monitor how you’re behaving to see if you seem loose and friendly enough to accommodate a conversation with a man you’ve never met. He’s not a rapist. No, he’s just offering to buy you a beer, and a shot, and a beer, and another beer — he just wants you to have a really good time. He wants you to lose the language of being able to consent. He’s drunk too, but of course, you’re not watching him like he’s watching you.


The first time I was roofied, I was barely 18 and as I walked home from one bar, I was swept into another by a man who promised me a glass of water and a comfortable seat. “I’ll get you some water and then you’ll be able to get home OK,” he told me. I said OK because I didn’t have the language for “No, please get me a cab.” He was nice to me and he had a soft, French accent and he was cute. (I think he was cute, I just remember a vague brunette blob holding my hand and guiding me to a table.)

He put a glass in front of me and I drank greedily, until my brain got foggier and my limbs felt weak. He sat next to me for most of the night, he watched me tip the glass to my mouth, he waited for my words to get more and more disparate. He turned his back for only a second and I stole away to the bathroom. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror — hair matted, forehead beading with sweat, lips dry and cracked — before my legs locked and I collapsed.

Outside the door, a woman heard me fall and came to pick me up. She asked me what my name was and where I lived and I don’t remember telling her anything. She carried me out front, through a snowbank, and into a cab. The guy who spent the night with me, who was running around the bar trying to find where I went, rushed up before she could close the door: “Wait,” he said, “she’s with me. I’ll take her home.”

The woman turned to him, blocking me from his view. “OK,” she said. “What’s her name?”

I have a difficult name for the sober, for people I have known for years, never mind someone who I do not think actually ever asked me what my name was. He backed off immediately. The woman handed my cab driver some money and put my seatbelt on for me. “Take her straight home and make sure she gets inside,” she said. “And if you don’t, I will find out, because I’m a lawyer.” I woke up the next morning on my kitchen floor, my pants replaced with penguin pajama bottoms.

The second time, a bartender drugged both me and my (male) friend. Our best theory is that he was trying to get to me, and it was easier to catch both of us. We were sick for days. I laughed it off — “I’ve done this before,” I told him — and he was so rattled he didn’t ask to see me for months.

Both times, I knew I was being watched. The first, I was being watched when I stumbled down a street by myself, pulled into a bar I didn’t want to go to. I was watched while I drank, watched while I struggled to give answers. My drunkenness was monitored, because the worse I got, the less resistance I could offer. Saying no is a clear full stop, but if I can’t really speak at all, if my words are running together and I’m closer to sleep than struggle, it’s OK to take me home.

The second time I was being watched by a bartender who spent too much time hovering over our drinks, who filled them up from an area behind the bar I couldn’t see.

So now, when I drink, I’m far more cautious. I don’t like ordering draft beers from taps hidden from view. I don’t like pouring bottles into pint glasses. I don’t leave my drink with strangers, I don’t let people I don’t know order drinks for me without me watching them do it. I don’t turn my back on a cocktail, not just because I like drinking but because I can’t trust what happens to it when I’m not looking. The intersection of rape and surveillance culture not only means being a guarded drinker is my responsibility; it becomes my sole responsibility. Any lapse in judgement could not only result in clear and present danger; it also sets me up for a chorus of “Well, she should’ve known better.”

The mistake we make is in thinking rape isn’t premeditated, that it happens by accident somehow, that you’re drunk and you run into a girl who’s also drunk and half-asleep on a bench and you sidle up to her and things get out of hand and before you know it, you’re being accused of something you’d never do. But men who rape are men who watch for the signs of who they feel like they can rape. Rape culture isn’t a natural occurrence — it thrives thanks to the dedicated attention given to women in order to take away their security. Rapists exist on a spectrum, and maybe this attentive version is the most dangerous type: We’re so used to being watched that we don’t notice when someone’s watching us for the worst reason imaginable. They have a plan long before you even get to the bar to order your first drink.