I really wanted to write about sexual assault in print and use that medium to call out rape culture and the normalization of rape apology and victim-blaming. There were two problems with this idea: first, that I had only 800 words to do it and second, that I knew I'd be inundated with rape-apologist hate mail for daring to pin the responsibility of sexual assault on the criminals and the victim-blamers who make it so hard to punish rapists.
To narrow the focus of the piece, I tried to think of just one politician whose foul, misogynistic, pseudo-scientific rhetoric I could focus on; I was overwhelmed with options and soundbites. I searched for court cases where rape victims' clothing or underage victims’ "mature behavior" were considered in the guilt of the rapist or the reporting of the case; again, I was overwhelmed. I asked my female friends what strategies they had been raised to employ as a defense against sexual assault. I heard everything from "don't get in your car without checking inside and under it" to basics like "don't drink too much at parties" and "never leave your drink alone." But there was a glaring lack of acknowledgement of the inescapable truth: that rape is the symptom of a very ill society where sex is not just sex, but one of a limited few avenues through which women have always been able to access power. It is the power, not the sex, that rapists seek to steal from victims; the rising tide of sexual violence against women is reflective of a masculinity-worshiping culture choking harder than Manning in the playoffs as progressive gender sexual politics evolve quicker than it can adapt to a new world where power is being accessed by women in all kinds of new ways. These days, all the ancient, impotent corpse can do anymore is belch one lazy missive or another about nature and alcohol.
It all hinges on this Neanderthalic notion that men are in control of everything except their sex drives, and that lack of control is the fault of women and their damn sexy, sexiness—after all, it's in the Bible, right? From Eve on down, the lot of us are just a bunch of temptresses. From Mata Hari to the witches of Salem, it’s always been written that we’re all just out to distract men from building dong-shaped towers to the sun with our butts and boobs. It’s why some religious faiths insist women are most valued (and valuable) as virgins or childbearing wives (ie, out of the way). It’s why Miley’s 20-something single female tongue-waggling and twerking got a hell of a lot more attention than the married man happily being twerked upon as he sang about how “good girls” and how he “knows they want it” in “Blurred Lines.” Objectively, Robin Thicke was violating a lot more legal boundaries than Cyrus, both on stage and in the content of his song. While male stars can’t seem to get enough eyes on their junk, female celebrities are frequent victims of phone hacking and blogs are quick to lap up their private nudity, all the while clucking their tongues about “smart iPhone usage.” Hunter Moore was only recently arrested after building an empire of "revenge porn"—the private nudes of thousands of women sent in the confidence of a relationship and released on the web post-breakup—when he posted a woman's home address online and suggested someone pay her a visit. These days, thanks to decades of right-wing rhetoric, to object to any of this in public is to be labeled a feminazi and to be talked over by one of the people who can’t wait to tell you you’re wrong. Some of these people identify as Men's Right's Advocates, some as simply "worried about the feminization of America," but most don't identify themselves at all.
I met one of these people at a bar in Broad Ripple a few years ago. He was wearing a sports jersey and looked like he had avoided a haircut for three years and a shower for one. At some point, this Sultan of Slime made a lowbrow quip about some "slut" at the center of yet another college rape trial. I casually interjected that, technically, an intoxicated person — whether male or female — could not legally give consent. Jersey Greaseball let fly with a rather epic rant about "drunk sluts" and frat parties and what "sluts really want" at the end of those nights. I felt my legs go numb as he pointed his finger down at me, the only woman at the table. Not a single man there interrupted him or told him to shut his mouth during the tirade. At one point, one guy said, "Dude, I totally agree with you, but let's just put this away for right now."
And there was the problem. Loud proclamations of disgusting Stone Age attitudes about gender relations are nothing new, but it was the silence of the other men at the table that surprised me. It was a perfect distillation of where we were still divided: men versus women, where the much-touted myth of the degradation of masculinity scares men into choosing male solidarity over siding with those god-awful feminazis and their bitching about rape.
When I stood up with tears in my eyes, their faces softened and fell. They mumbled apologies when I left, but I was too mortified at having lost my cool to listen. That night encapsulated rape culture for me: one angry misogynist yelling about drunk sluts while six other guys stare at ESPN and hope he'll shut up. None of them willing to cause tension in a chill night by telling that guy to sit down and put his mommy rage issues away. None of them saying a word until a real woman, right in front of them, breaks down into the predictable tears that get us labeled “unstable.” Since that night, when I looked into the fearless eyes of an educated 30-something barking at me all the reasons why women deserve their assaults, I have been extra terrified of rape. Before then, I could let myself believe that these people lived in their mom's basements and prowled in the shadows and I’d have to avoid The Star’s comments section and dark alleys. Instead, it is much worse: they'll proudly proclaim their right to rape under the warm glow of wall-to-wall televisions to the only woman at a table full of men, and no one will tell them they're wrong.
I am deathly scared of being raped because I don't think I could live in our culture as a victim. My attacker would face slim prosecution chances at trial (if I reported the crime at all). I’d have to answer questions about my private life and have my body prodded and photographed. I would have to listen to grey-haired politicians advise me to be thankful for my rape pregnancy, while others would say that if it were a true rape my body would have shut that whole thing down. I would have to prove my rape to obtain an abortion (though Eric Turner, author of HJR 3, might accuse me of making the whole thing up to obtain a free abortion). I would have to read essays that ponder the "ruined futures" of the Steubenville rapists, who loaded their unconscious classmate into a car like so much cargo — a shockingly literal act of objectification — so they could repeatedly rape her. I don't want to increase my chances of having to live in this rape culture as a victim. I'm pretty sure I would spontaneously self-immolate in the heat of my own rage.
My original fear was that I'd have to put up with what Lindy West of Jezebel did, when she went on TV and dared to say to a comic that mocking victims of rape is not good comedy. The online comments ranged from wishing West get raped to accusing her of being mad that she wasn't conventionally attractive enough to be the victim of rape. Then a new one bloomed in a dream, where a man kicked in my door and raped me, all along mumbling about “showing me about rape culture.” What if someone like Hunter Moore wanted me to be a victim and doxed all of my information online? Was it worth raising my chances of that happening, already 1 in 5? Or would it make me feel safer simply shouting into the ether about how difficult it is for someone to even talk about sexual assault in the age of the internet?
It’s an uncomfortable reality, realizing there's nothing I can say that will make me feel more safe or more in control. I can tell you all the reasons that I do not feel safe, using the biggest words I know, but it won’t make a damn bit of difference to either the person who might target me or the apathetic justice system set in place to help me. I’m exhausted, folks. I've been listening to all the reasons it is my fault that a man might rape me for 26 years. My feet are all bloody from walking that razor's edge between sexy and asking for it. It's hard to have fun at the bar when you're worried about the walk to your car because you forgot your mace. It's hard to remember all the places to check for potential intruders every time you get in your car when you're late for work. It's tough to justify the expense of self-defense classes when you know that you're most likely to get attacked by someone who will be able to physically overpower you anyway. It's tiring to be warm but not flirtatious but not too serious but not leading him on but don't talk to strangers but don't be rude because jeeze, he was just being nice! What the fuck's your problem, bitch? I'm just paying you a compliment. You need a big dick to calm you down.
For whatever reason, nothing ignites anger in the guts of rape apologists and misogynists like the suggestion that sexual violence is not in some way the woman's fault. More than anything, I didn't write about my rape culture anger because I don't have the energy to deal with the MRA-brand of intellectual laziness. I don't have the patience to traverse the cognitive dissonance in the argument where rape apologists are both all-powerful adjudicators of sexual agency and also somehow at the absolute mercy of a femenazi-dominated culture. They'll shout about false reporting at the top of their lungs even though it only accounts for 2% of all rape reports. Somehow you end up trying to explain why women, no matter how sexy, are not responsible for the acts of sexual violence men commit against them, or how rape is really about power and not sex. Alas, that assumes brains under those grey helmets of Beltway hair, and compassion in the hearts under all those neck beards. Good, smart men and women have died in those comment sections. I’m trying not to be one of them for the sake of my blood pressure, and yet, here I am: pouring out more words, performing another hollow ritual that’s supposed to make me feel safer. The more you perform them, the more you realize they’re mere pantomime, until the final threads of the illusion are ripped off and you tremble in the cold reality of how close the threat of sexual assault is every day.
Here’s why I’m so passionate: because I like to look sexy and smile at strangers a help people and wear my hair in ponytails. I like to go to parties where I don’t know many people because I like to make friends. I’m a 26-year-old woman who wants to wear short skirts because I have the right to, have drinks at a party, and walk to my car at night alone, and I don’t want to have to think about how every single one of my actions might be perceived as inviting rape—and not just by a rapist, but to every person charged with prosecuting that rapist. We “feminazis” are just women who are really tired of being told that it’s just the way of the world. It’s not a crime that only happens to women, but being a woman means that it’s much more likely to happen under circumstances that someone, along the way, will decide you created, and is therefore wholly invalid as a crime. Imagine if we treated other crimes like we treat rape: home invasion suspects being told by the police that painting their house green tells burglars there’s cash inside. Grand theft auto victims being told that if they didn’t really want to get their cars stolen, they’d get a wheel lock and a lo-jack. Chain emails going out to vegans about eating healthy in public and not getting out of their car if a guy asks you for come help him choose tempeh because he’s definitely going to harvest your organs, stupid. Twitter flame wars about whether or not hate crime jokes are funny to the gay men and women who have been maimed and murdered. That won’t happen, but it’s an amusing thought experiment for the jaded.
So all I'm left with is a long-winded list of pleas. If you disagree with me on the reasoning behind rape and sexual assault, I don't want to know. If you have sons and daughters, just teach them to respect each other. Put away the weird sex-shaming stuff. Praise your daughters and sons for being emotionally intelligent and caring. It won’t make them less likely to play football, but it will make them less likely to see another person as a sex object. Do not use “Boys will be boys” as a convenient catch-all for acts of unfettered aggression. Do not let your sons confuse caring for a woman’s safety with ownership of her body or a debt to be repaid. Don't let them participate in media that celebrates or glamorizes objectification or sexual violence. It's going to be really hard work. Misogyny and sexual violence are woven into all parts of our culture, hiding in advertisements and romantic comedies, even the damn Twilight movies. You’re going to have to think of rape jokes and victim-blaming as being just as damaging as the assaults themselves, which means you won’t feel good about laughing along. It means not getting in fights over a woman’s “honor,” because she’s not property that’s devalued because a man says she is. It’s going to get uncomfortable, but we’re talking about a cultural overhaul here.
You're going to be tired from constantly filtering out the bullshit. But I tell you what, I'm pretty tired of constantly keeping my guard up, and feeling afraid to ask for the help I might need. I wrote about sex-positivity and consent education in print because I wanted to use those trees to promote something positive. I believe in Sarah Diaz's vision of sex-positive education, something she wants to bring to all Indiana high schools. For now, I can only hope that the next generation is being raised to see each other as complete beings, where sex is uncoupled from shame, value, morality, or power. Until I can find out, I'll just remember to keep my door locked, never walk alone at night, not leave my drink alone, never smile at a stranger, never accept a ride from a stranger, never dress too slutty, never go to a party alone, look under my car before I get in it, never look too sexy, never leave my friends alone at a party, never go out on a date without letting my friends know where I am, never walk alone with a ponytail or headphones, get a deadbolt, get a dog, never be alone in a parking garage, always walk with my keys between my fingers ...