WARNING: The following is not intended as a work of satire, humour or fiction. It is as serious as it gets. This piece will contain subject matter which may be uncomfortable, however I believe it is important to discuss.
Author's Note: A very special thank you to Jennilee McLean for her feedback and contributions to this article. Her guidance and insight made this piece much better than it would have been otherwise.
"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As I was checking through my facebook feed, catching up on what has been going on while I've been whacked on NyQuil and Neo-Citran over the past week and I came across this post from my friend Jennilee. Reposted here with her permission. After reading, hopefully you might understand why it didn't feel right to just go on writing about whatever silly thing I had planned. Sure, I'll get back to that but for now it's time to get real.
Here's her message:
"Some people are horrible: I got felt up by a complete stranger last night.
I also experienced lots of dudes saying gross things to me and making gross gestures, just because I happened to be near them. All that stuff I post about how misogyny is ingrained in our culture is real, and this is just one tiny example of it. A man thought it was perfectly acceptable to not only touch me, but aggressively grab my body. The real sickening thing is all I can think is that I'm just glad it wasn't worse. Because it is worse for women everywhere, every day.
Any time you hear me complaining about the stampede, understand that it isn't the event that I hate. It's the terrible behaviour that comes with it. It's a week long nightmare of shitty people being extra horrible, in my neighborhood."
I wanted to include the quote as it was because I believe in giving credit where it is due when something I have to say is inspired by someone else. The other reason is a little more complicated. I always find, when discussing complex issues it helps me focus to put a human face to it. We live in a world where we have more capacity to put up walls, electronic and otherwise, than we've ever had before. That tends to wring the humanity out of these stories. We sometimes forget that behind every statistic, there's a story just like Jenni's or worse.
The sad thing is, Jenni's experience is not unusual for these types of events. As she mentioned, something worse happens to women every day. In fact, statistically speaking, someone else was sexually assaulted that day and likely in a much more severe way (also, statistically speaking it went unreported-another sad truth).
I attended Calgary's Comics and Entertainment Expo earlier this year and they ran a campaign called "Cosplay is not consent". The campaign was designed to shed light on the problem of people mistaking revealing costumes for invitations for unwanted contact or harassment. This is at least encouraging insofar that the pervasive (and previously unacknowledged) elements of rape culture these events tolerated in the past, are at least being addressed. And there we have the point of this piece. I've said the two magic trigger words that make a lot of men tune out to this issue: "rape culture". That is what I want to talk about today (although "want to" would indicate joy in the act which would be incorrect).
I should preface by saying, normally I avoid using the term "rape culture" in these types of discussions. The reason being, it's a loaded and somewhat ambiguous phrase that carries a lot of baggage with it and it tends to hang up the conversation. Frankly, it causes some of us with Y chromosomes to tune out. Kind of like how some white people tend to tune out whenever a black person talks about "the man". In both cases, the phrases function as intellectual off switches. The content of the argument gets brushed aside because in the use of both "rape culture" and "the man"...we know they're talking about us (white males) and that gets all kind of uncomfortable. Denial is a powerful thing.
I'll admit, I was once that way too. I ignored issues of institutionalized misogyny because I could always justify it with "I'm not like that so they're not talking about me". I batted it away as someone else's problem to deal with. Over the past several years, however something began to gnaw at me. I couldn't describe exactly what it was at first or when it really kicked in. It just started as a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach.
It first came into my purview with the reporting of the widespread misogyny and rape threats aimed at female gamers online. Then came the rash of teen suicides predicated on slut shaming and harassment of sexual assault victims. Then came the Steubenville Ohio rape case, where townspeople, school officials and the American news media found more sympathy for the young football players convicted of rape than the victim of the the rape. Then came comedian Daniel Tosh's whole "Can you make jokes about rape" controversy that might have been a thought provoking bit of social commentary had it not come from Daniel Tosh. Then came Amanda Todd and Rehteah Parsons, bullied into suicide after being sexually extorted and assaulted respectively. It all started to add up so fast. The picture it was creating was ugly and something I, as a self described enlightened modern man didn't want to face.
The "rape culture" I had been ignoring because it had nothing to do with me, was in fact happening all around me. It wasn't that this stuff was now happening more often, it was that I was finally able to see it and people (much braver and more perceptive than I am) were speaking out against it.
What it all comes down to is, as a culture, we have a serious problem with the way we treat women. I don't mean that in the chivalry sense of holding open doors and standing when they enter the room. I mean on a deeper, psychological, sociological and systemic level how do does our culture treat women?
Part of my growth as a writer (especially in regards to social matters) has been a greater emphasis on recognizing patterns beyond what is simply seen and heard out in the open. It was in looking at the issue through that lens I finally saw what "rape culture" actually meant. It's not the actual stories that comprise a rape culture, it's the unseen connective pieces between the stories.
I'll use the analogy of news coverage to illustrate better. In news coverage, there are always two elements at play when you look at a news item. There is the "story" and there is the "narrative". The story is the one off. It's the isolated incident. As Joe Friday would call it, it's "just the facts". The narrative is more fluid in nature. It's not always easy to spot. It requires stepping back from the story itself to see where it fits into the scheme of things. For example, a story about three men breaking into a room in the Watergate Hotel is a story. It has a clear who, when, what, why and where? The narrative in this case is that of abuse of power by a sitting United States President and what happens when people lose faith in their government. The narrative took years to fully emerge in this case, but it had far broader implications than the act of breaking into a hotel room.
Looking at cultural misogyny through the same lens, I had finally tapped into the right frame of mind to see the pattern that had been there all along. Like Neo learning to read the lines of code in the Matrix or that moment when the magic eye picture finally takes shape. Once you know the pattern, you can't unsee the picture.
What makes a pair of Ohio football players think they have a right to force themselves on a girl who is passed out? What made the loser in Jenni's story think he had a right to violate her in that way? What made her less of a person and what made him think that it was ok? This points to a much deeper mass psychology issue than just one gross asshole being a little gropey. The CCEE wouldn't have to run a campaign telling patrons to keep their hands to themselves if there wasn't a bigger problem. The man in Jenni's story didn't seem to know or care that what he was doing was sexual assault and he was committing a crime. Somewhere a reeducation is needed. It not cute, it's not funny and saying "boys will be boys" just doesn't cut it any more.
The narrative when it comes to rape culture is that young boys have been conditioned to see women as objects from a very young age. I never fully grasped the full implications of the phrase "objectifying women" until this all clicked into place for me. I thought it was simply focusing on their physical traits (see my review of Sleepy Hollow for my awkward and failed attempts to avoid that pitfall). The truth is far worse. By objectifying women (ie - treating someone like an object), we remove their humanity. They become less real and therefore, less worthy of consideration and respect. They become prizes to be won, status symbols to show off, notches on bedposts and stories to tell the next day. In all of these mindsets, the women involved have no agency over their own bodies or destinies. Once they become dehumanized, and that's where the danger comes from. When you start seeing a particular group as less than human, it becomes easier to justify committing atrocities against them. Just look at slavery or to holocaust to see what happens when we fail to recognize the humanity of others.
This brings me to the second story I wanted to tell which further illustrates my point. A little over a year ago, an event was held in Calgary called the "Skirt Chaser 5K". It was a singles run where the women or "skirts" would get a head start and the men would have to chase them.
Joanna Pesta, a friend and coworker, made a comment on twitter about how sexist the whole thing was. It got retweeted a bunch and blew into a media dust-up for a few weeks. The response was the fairly typical backlash faced by any woman who questions the status quo. To Jo's credit, she (and Stephanie Symington, another friend and coworker who also got involved and is deserving of a shout out) handled it well considering the amount of vitriol that came back. The justifications from men ranged from "they've done this for a long time and nobody has ever complained before" (fun fact - dwarf tossing and public lynchings also used to happen pretty regularly), to "you're making a big deal out of nothing" (aka - gaslighting) to variations on "Calm down, it's all in good fun" (aka "Sit down, shut up and take it" with a mix of "Lalalalala I can't hear you!"). And those were just the ones that were actual responses and not the misspelled rantings of sexually frustrated man children.
Here's again where the difference between the story and the narrative comes into play. Is one misogynistic fun run that bad? Not at face value. When you look at the bigger pattern though, the picture becomes more sinister. In this case the women were prizes to be pursued and caught (the predator/prey implications more than overt). They were also given the head start for the explicit purpose of giving the men something to chase after. Once again, reducing women to prizes (in this case, prey to be caught) and not human beings of equal value to the men. Not surprisingly, the men on the opposing side didn't see the big deal, because men don't often have to worry about being chased and sexually assaulted when walking alone. The same way non dwarf sized people didn't have a problem with dwarf tossing until the little people spoke up and said "Hey, knock it off assholes! That really hurts." Those in a position of power have the luxury of not thinking it's a big deal.
To contrast, I routinely go on late night walks, without once experiencing the fear of being harassed, chased or assaulted based on my gender. How many women would be able to say the same? Jennilee put it in perspective: "All women risk danger - simply by going out into the world - at the hands of dangerous men. And dangerous men look just like other men."
The statistics bear that out. In the United States (where we take many of our cultural cues from) a woman is assaulted approximately every 2 minutes. In Canada the figures are every 17 minutes. A majority of assaults are by person(s) known to the victim. What kind of society have we created where one gender has to go through life in a constant state of hyper-awareness and fear? To dismiss that fear as not important, or overblown is to be willfully ignorant of white male privilege.
You see the elements of the misogyny culture everywhere once you crack the pattern. In the movies, the hero saves the day and gets the girl, as if sex is the expected reward for doing good things. In the Axe Body Spray commercials young men are made to believe if they spray what I believe is DDT mixed with vomit onto themselves a bevy of beautiful women will instantly swoon over them, the women apparently having no agency in this decision. Every case of female body shaming reinforces the idea that women exist merely as objects to be enjoyed aesthetically. Any time someone complains about being in the "friend zone" they are perpetuating the idea that women are obligated to give them sex in exchange for being "nice" (Hint: If the only reason you do nice things if to receive sex in return, you're not really nice.) Also, let's not forget generations of women whose reproductive rights have historically been controlled and legislated by men. There are a lot of people out there who would happily force women to bear children against their will, once again taking agency over their bodies away from them. What kind of message does that send? "We'll decide what you can do with your body." These are just examples off the top of my head. The sad truth is that I have barely scratched the surface. Even with that in mind, it's enough to paint a pretty disturbing picture.
Now, I don't have all the answers here. I'm just one guy. When you're dealing with mass psychological and cultural issues there are no easy answers or quick fixes. There is no magic formula and you can't really "solve for X" on this one. I'm not an expert. There's a lot I still have to learn, and a lot of things I don't have any real answers for.
I do know that, while protection under the law is extremely important, it's not the solution. Cultural attitudes cannot be legislated and in a lot of cases we tend to take legal protection as a sign that everything is alright and we rest on our laurels. Legal protection is only the first step to changing the cultural mindset. In that area, there is still a long way to go.
I do know that talking about issues is an important step to solving them. Even if the conversation is uncomfortable to have, even if recognition of responsibility is required. It's not about assigning blame, it's about identifying problems in order to correct them.
I do know it's important for men to speak out against this kind of stuff. Young boys learn from their role models. Teach these boys right and we can leave the future a little better than we found the past. Here's what I do know. I know that what we can teach them is as simple as it gets.
"Women are not objects, they are human beings. They are deserving of respect. Their bodies are their own. Nobody is entitled to any part of them."
And it's important to support brave women who speak out on these issues like Jenni, Joanna and Stephanie. It takes a lot of courage to stand up for yourself, while constantly being told to sit down and be quiet.
Since I am in the position to appeal to those who need to hear this message most, if I could have men do one thing, it would be to listen when women say they feel threatened or offended. Don't brush off their concerns as overreactions or exaggerations, actually listen to them. Don't reflexively retreat into "Not all men are like that", actually listen to them. Of course not all men are like that, but all men currently live in a culture that thinks like that, and that's the problem. As a self described enlightened modern man (it sounds dumber each time I type it), I sometimes catch myself falling into anti-woman rhetoric or excusing this kind of behavior either out of habit or ignorance (as happened in the first draft of this piece, check out the links below for more on that).
Earlier this year, I was party to a discussion regarding whether or not the 1989 Montreal Massacre at École Polytechnique was still relevant to the generation of young people coming up today. The shootings earlier this year in California remain a startling reminder that this issue can have deadly consequences. In both cases, disturbed young men lashed out because of a deep hatred of women and because women in general had something the shooters felt they were entitled to (career/educational opportunities and their bodies, respectively).
Silence isn't an option anymore.
It's time to speak up, gentlemen.
Before I wrap this up, I want to leave you with Jennilee's final words on this.
Recognizing and owning one's privilege is really fucking hard, but it is vital. Some men lash out and feel personally attacked when women share their stories of injustice at the hands of other men, because they can't conceive of a conversation that is not in some way about them. That is privilege. Instead, understand that it is not about you. Listen to the women in your lives, and practice empathy. You can't know what it's like to be a woman, but you can believe them when they tell you. By declaring 'not all men', you dismiss her experience, and you remind her that her experiences don't count (and you're telling her something she already knows). We know that not all men are the problem, but all men must work to end systemic misogyny.
www.rainn.org - The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network does great work for survivors of sexual violence.
assaultcare.ca - A Canadian based support network for sexual assault victims
Jackson Katz - "Violence against women, it's a men's issue"
-An interesting presentation calling men to the cause of opposing gender violence. I stole the Martin Luther King Jr. quote from him.
"Feminspire: Debunking the "Caveman" excuse. Why rape is not natural"
-During the course of writing this piece, I consulted with Jennilee initially to gain permission to use her quote. Thanks to her feedback, I gained some valuable insight into a trap I had fallen into, by bringing up the biological argument that rape is an evolutionary holdover. After more research on the matter (beginning with this article) I realized I was wrong. Not just from a moral perspective (trying to explain rape using flawed biological reasoning can be used as an excuse) but from a logical standpoint as well (coming from social primates, it makes no sense for rape to be a part of the natural order). Even though I removed the content in question, I left in this explanation and the link above to illustrate that even those of us who are well meaning are capable of being misinformed.
Slate: "Not all men: How discussing women's issues gets derailed"
-An interesting article that goes over some of the territory I covered here. Particularly in regards to the "Not all men" response. Definitely worth a read.
CBC Article on "Skirt Chaser 5K"
-Featuring quotes from Joanna and Stephanie Symington.
www.sexassault.ca - Contains a helpful summary of stats as well as information and resources
*If there are any links you feel I missed, please let me know in the comments.*
"Your Princess is in Another Castle" - Suggested by Shereen Samuels, a well written piece about misogyny and entitlement in geek culture. The author touches on a few issues I have mentioned, but goes more in depth into geek culture than I have here. Very interesting read.
Hi, my name is Mitch and I write things sometimes.