So I was chatting again with my friend from the West Coast today, and he’s still upset about the incident from the other day. He wonders if he was really sexually assaulted, and he’s beating himself up over it. Does inappropriate touching from a blind stranger really count as an assault, or is it just him being oversensitive about it?
I assured him that it yes, it really is an assault. I pointed out that if he’d been mugged, he’d have no trouble saying that’s what happened. I added that the ooky feeling it gave him was enough; it doesn’t have to leave a mark to be an assault. The uninvited, invasive touch is enough, especially if it leaves you guilt-stricken and queasy afterward. After all, he didn’t invite it. He merely got taken advantage of when his guard came down for a brief moment. He had not done the wrong; the other guy had! He finally agreed, and thanked me for that.
And that got me to thinking: Why are we so reluctant to call sexual assault by its right name, even when it happened to us and made us feel like shit? And the answer, again, comes back to rape culture.
Rape culture wouldn’t be such an all-pervasive problem if we were not awfully reluctant to talk about sex in the first place. Our puritanical culture sets up the vulnerable (women mainly, but again, not only) for all manner of indecencies, some of them admittedly grosser than others. But until relatively recently, we didn’t talk openly about sex.
And an awful lot of us still don’t. Just think of those who throw “purity balls” for their daughters, and make them take virginity pledges, and wear those dinky silver rings. Do they teach their sons not to grope, grab and paw other girls — not just those doing the Silver Ring Thing, but ANY girl (or guy, or trans person) at all? Do they teach their sons not to re-enact porn scenes or talk dirty? Do they teach their sons why it’s wrong to send dick pix via cellphone, or demand boobie pix from their girlfriends? Do they teach them proper respect for others?
I’m guessing they don’t. Just look at the statistics; even the most religiously conservative communities, far from being the best at preventing rape, are often the worst at it…and the worst when it comes to victim blaming and slut shaming, too.
After all, being scared of sex, and guarding one’s vulnerable body, is a Girl Thing. (As is the shame-inducing eventual despoliation of that body, assuming that one does not enter a convent — and maybe get raped by a priest in there.)
Real Men, on the other hand, are supposed to grab and grope and maul and manhandle every woman in sight. (Or, in the case of the blind guy who molested my friend, every gay or bi guy they can get their hands on.) They are supposed to, in the words of the odious pickup artist, Ken Hoinsky, act as the “leaders”, and “force her to say no”. (And disregard her as far as possible when she does, and tell her to come on, she really wants it, blah blah.)
And don’t even get me started on what happens at SF conventions, where a very nerdy, geeky, dorky brand of rape culture thrives, and claims social awkwardness on the part of the creepers as its excuse. Things like this make me kind of glad I’ve never gone to one. The last thing I need is for some Elder Statesman of the Genre to give me an unwanted pat-down in front of everyone, and then force me to be a “good sport” and laugh off what is actually not a bit funny. (Remember, the shame of being “the woman so-and-so molested on stage” never washes off.)
Our lack of frankness about sex enables all these and so many other double standards, mixed messages, and outright bullshit to thrive. Mold and mushrooms grow in the dark. So do toxic toadstools.
My friend and I got off “lightly”, if you can call all that second-guessing and self-recrimination “light”. But we did not come away unscathed. One does not have to be an infant in diapers or an eighty-year-old nun full of bullet holes to qualify as the victim of sexual violence. One has only be have been touched (and in my case, also talked to) in an inappropriate manner. And one has only to feel awful about it afterwards to know that yes, one has been a victim. (Fuck the MRAs and their “Don’t Be That Girl” campaign of mansplaining rape away as just “regretted sex”. That shit does not fly around here, motherfuckers.)
Rape culture is about wresting control away from the victims, erasing them, and negating their experiences. It’s no coincidence that not-talking-about-it is what’s the most enabling thing for perpetrators, and the most crippling thing for victims.
And no, victim is NOT a dirty word, so let’s say it loud, if not proud. Nobody wants to be one? Fine, then let nobody be a fucking perpetrator, either. See how simple that is?
And yes, let’s keep talking. And keep calling things by their right name. Even if it makes us feel icky and we’re terribly reluctant to do so. Sunshine is a great disinfectant, so drag that shit out into the light and watch it dry up! Nobody should have to spend 25 years in silence, as I did, trying to erase what happened from her memories. And nobody should have to second-guess himself constantly, as my friend is doing right now as he struggles to process what happened to him. Name it, and shame not the victim, but the system.
And work like hell to change the system when you’ve decided you’ve had enough.