This evening, just after supper, I was chatting on Facebook with a friend of mine who lives on the west coast. And he told me a story about how he was speaking out at a rally following the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage, and a blind man with a white cane approached him after his speech, and took his hand and started talking to him.
And my friend, sensing that the stranger was something of a “lost soul” (his words), let his guard down, in spite of his own OCD, which normally makes him skittish and unsociable. Because what kind of awful person is rude and standoffish to lost souls?
And then this lost soul, for lack of a better word, groped him.
And my friend, who happens to be bisexual, was so taken aback that he at first did not know how to respond. He had to physically pull away from the other guy before that guy got the message that he’d stepped out of line.
At least, I hope the other guy got it, but it’s so hard to tell. Because, you see, we live in a culture that facilitates this kind of thing all too often.
It’s called rape culture, and yes, it’s a problem, even for guys.
Straight guys may not be aware of it, but bi and gay guys and transgender people certainly are, because they are placed all too often in the “woman’s” role in this culture. A submissive, subservient, sissified, less-than-a-“real”-man role. A role that converts the person into an object to be gawked at, appraised, manhandled, groped…and sexually assaulted.
And it’s such a pervasive assumption that this is all okay that even a blind man with a cane can do it.
Or some other poor, sad, lost soul.
My friend’s story reminded me of something that happened to me when I was 20.
I was in a writers’ group that met at a local high school. It was several blocks from my apartment, so I usually caught a ride home, because city streets are (so we’re often told) unsafe for women walking alone at night. There was a park near the university campus that was nicknamed Pervert Park, because rapists and flashers were said to lurk there at night, taking advantage of uneven ground and bushes and poor lighting to force themselves on passersby. It was a penitentiary town; local cab companies were rumored to be hiring paroled rapists from the local federal prison. Even the Orientation Week activities of the university itself incorporated all kinds of blatantly sexist, rape-like hazing “rituals”, which were supposedly optional, but there was strong peer pressure to participate — and just take the stupidity in stride. And the two main campus pubs were places best avoided unless you were prepared to take the consequences of being blotto in a setting of mass confusion. It was not a safe place to be female, by any means.
And I, at a virginal 20, was anxious to avoid those obvious traps. So of course, a ride from a friendly, fatherly fellow writer seemed like a good idea to this girl, living so far from her parents’ home for the first time in her life.
Well, the middle-aged man who usually offered me that ride apparently forgot that he was supposed to be making things safer for me, because after a few rides, and the striking up of what I thought was just a nice harmless friendship, he started talking…inappropriately. More specifically, he grabbed my hand while the car was in motion, stuck one of my fingertips in his mouth, and then commented that he wished it was my nipple.
Even now, 25 years later, I still cringe remembering that.
But not only that. I also cringe when I remember what happened when I tried to tell the others about it.
Somebody told me that the man had a sick wife. Bedridden. So of course, the poor guy was lonely. What was I expecting would happen?
Well, NOTHING, actually. That’s what I was expecting would happen. And I dared to think this guy was old enough, and wise enough, to keep his hands to himself, understanding that I was not to be touched, not to be propositioned, not to be manhandled and mauled. Not under any circumstances.
Yes, I was dumb enough to actually believe it worked that way, once.
And oh, how I blamed and kicked myself for it when it didn’t. Because that’s what I was taught to do.
Of course, 25 years ago, no one talked about rape culture. Even at the university women’s centre, where I volunteered, this phrase was not yet in vogue.
Yet rape culture was all around us. It lurked behind bushes in Pervert Park. It lurked in the taxis, where I always took the back seat. It lurked in the windows of the men’s dorms on campus, where the guys decided to mock a “No Means No” campaign by sticking up signs reading “No Means Harder”, “No Means More Beer”, and “No Means She’s a Dyke”. It lurked in the mansplaining letters to the editors of campus newspapers saying that the women needed to lighten up, that it was only a joke, that there was something wrong with women who didn’t laugh.
The fact that I wasn’t laughing meant there was something wrong with me. Like the fact that I didn’t want to sleep with this man who was old enough to be my father, to take pity on him because he had a sick wife. Or like the fact that I didn’t feel safe sitting in the front seat of cabs, or walking across Pervert Park even in the daytime unless at least one male friend (gay, of course) was with me. Or like the fact that I didn’t feel brave enough to talk about it anymore, not even in the safe space of the Women’s Centre.
There’s always something wrong with us women, isn’t there?
Of course. Because we’re the ones who have to be wary of rape culture. And we’re also the ones, perversely, who have to submit to it when it comes calling on us. And we’re also the ones who subsequently get blamed for submitting, getting told we must be sluts who secretly wanted it to happen to us because we didn’t fight it off in time or scream loudly enough. We’re the ones who have to bury all the abuses of our trust, and stomp on the dirt. And the dirt is us.
We’re trained so relentlessly to be nice and polite, to defer to the men at all times. It’s what I called Nice Girl Training in a previous post, and it fucks up our lives something awful. We’re not supposed to say shit even if we’ve got a mouthful. Or if some guy we thought we could trust suddenly stuffs one of our fingers into his mouth and tells us he wishes it were our nipple. HE can talk, even with his mouth full. WE can’t.
And of course, I said nothing at the time. Partly because of shock, and partly because of Nice Girl Training. And in no small part because I was stuck in a moving car, and to jump out would have gotten me badly hurt (and probably taken further advantage of in my injured state).
And later, when I made the considerable effort it takes to overcome that training and tell somebody, I got rebuffed with a typically evasive rape-culture mansplanation. Subtext: Poor guy, don’t you feel sorry for him? Don’t take it that way, you silly squeamish girl! Nothing really happened, did it? Anyway, are you sure it’s not your fault for leading him on? Because in my day, girls didn’t…unless…
At this rate, it’s only a wonder that so many women don’t get raped. Or that so many men don’t rape. Because damn, our culture facilitates it something fierce. It teaches men to be “pickup artists”, to make advances even if they are utterly unwanted, and to force the woman to fight back in ways that are too obvious, too unfeminine, and alien to her upbringing. It teaches us to defend this “seduction” bullshit as “free speech”. It teaches us women to be complicit in every conceivable way. It renders us too polite to say no on the one hand, and to take the blame just as if we’d invited it on the other. Even if we do fight back or scream to protect our “virtue” (which is really just our right not to be fucking molested), we still get called bitches, and we’re still blamed. It’s like it’s all set up not to let us win.
And in fact, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a set-up. A set-up in which women (and sometimes, transfolk and gay and bi men) who are too painfully polite, or too unwary, get taken advantage of. And then proceed to blame themselves for that, because the culture certainly does.
And so we’re forever on our guard, trying to find the magic formula of appropriate dress, talk and demeanor that makes these abuses just not happen — and forever distraught because that formula just does not exist! As my friend observed during our conversation tonight, even a burqa is no real protection. It still announces a female presence outside the home, where of course she doesn’t belong. And the self-appointed morals police, invariably male, will still find a reason to assault her, even if it’s only for wearing the “wrong” shoes underneath. And even her own mother and sisters will not protect her when that happens, because they too are cowed by rape culture.
Women are supposed to be seen and not seen. We’re supposed to be virginal on our wedding nights, but still accept the unwanted advances of all comers. We’re supposed to fight and not fight. How the hell is that even remotely supposed to make sense? It doesn’t; it’s not supposed to. It’s rape culture. It’s meant to keep us milling around in confusion and getting nowhere. It’s a set-up.
If there is just one thing that has changed in the 25 years since all that stupid shit happened to me, it’s this: At least now we can talk about it and call the underlying problem by its right name. Before, it didn’t have a name. It wasn’t called Rape Culture. If it was spoken of at all, it was just “the way things are”, and the implicit premise was that we had to take it and say nothing. Now, at least, we see that things don’t have to be that way. We don’t have to blame ourselves anymore or tamp it down and try to forget it happened, as I did back then. We have begun to talk, to tell our stories, to call the problem by its right name.
And we have begun to see that talking helps. It helps us to realize how not alone we are in our plight, how what we went through could not possibly be our fault, because it also happened to our friends. And it helps to see that our friends don’t blame us for what happened to us, any more than we blame them for what happened to them. Lifting the blame off the victim’s shoulders is solidarity. It breaks the vicious rape culture cycle of silence, complicity and paranoia. And it helps us to see, too, how pervasive this problem is, and to get angry about it. And to start talking back to it in ways that we could not, before.
It’s not the final answer, but it’s a start. And the end to rape culture has to start somewhere.