Forget CNN: Emily Dickinson on Steubenville

The Steubenville rapists have been convicted, and that’s something to celebrate. But the whole sad case reminds us that the U.S. is no model for ending violence against women, and CNN’s decision to lionize the rapists makes that point painfully clear.

So, if twenty-first century reporters still don’t think straight about women, we’ll just have to go back to Emily Dickinson. My fav description of Dickinson is by the fabulous Jeanette Winterson, who calls her a “reclusive volcano.” That’s a pretty accurate characterization of Dickinson’s life and poetry: compressed yet with voracious energy barely contained. She is one of our most difficult poets but so worth the effort.

Look at how Dickinson mocks the shame attached to premarital sex in this poem:

Did the Harebell loose her girdle

To the lover Bee

Would the Bee the Harebell hallow

Much as formerly?

Did the “Paradise” – persuaded

Yield her moat of pearl –

Would the Eden be an Eden,

Or the Earl – an Earl?

She is saying that just as it would be ludicrous for a bee to question the Harebell’s worth after fertilizing it, so the shame attached to sex is bogus. But Dickinson makes the point wickedly by asking not just whether the woman (called “paradise”) who gives up her “moat of pearl” would still be an “eden” but whether the earl would still be an earl. Her point is clear: nobody should be shamed over sex, but if a woman loses her rep, well, a man should too. Even an earl.

It’s nice to know that at least Dickinson knew what was up with the whole sexual double standard thing. Maybe the news will catch up. Especially since the Steubenville case is about rape, not consensual sex.

Let’s celebrate this hard-won justice and support the victim to lead a good life after this traumatic event. And let’s consider how we might change things for women now and in the future.


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