Dear Lily June,
I don’t want to write this letter. I don’t want to tell you that you live in a country accused of permitting, if not outright embracing, a “rape culture,” one dominated by misogynistic ideologies, violent fantasies, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and impossible virgin-whore dichotomies. I don’t want to admit that rape is often implicitly trivialized, if not explicitly excused; women are subtly sexualized if not openly objectified; and the rape of men is often passively (or even mockingly) dismissed when it’s not actively being swept under the rug altogether.
I don’t want to write this letter, Lily. But because you live in a world where I don’t want to isn’t always a shield–where, in fact, those words can become a sword that’s turned back on you who initially wielded it–I have to write this so that you learn, when it comes to sex, there’s nothing you have to do. Your partner(s), on the other hand, will have to wait. Your partner(s) will have to be sure you’re ready, willing, and able to engage in sexual activity with them. Your partner(s) will have to respect you, body, mind and soul. Or your partner(s) won’t be given a choice about whether to strap on some running shoes in order to pound the pavement and flee your dad and I, in hot pursuit. They’ll just have to.
I kid, of course, not because I won’t be filled with a murderous rage–the depths of which aren’t even fathomable to me now–if someone were to hurt you physically or sexually, but because violence is a part of the problem, and to combat violence against the body with more violence seems to miss the point.
The truth is, the violence starts, not with the body, but with the mind. Some argue that rape is not about sex at all; it’s about control. A rapist who violates your body is really trying to gain the upper-hand over your state of mind, your sense of safety, your understanding of yourself. But the process behind rape starts before the rapist ever engages in his control-driven actions. It starts with the culture’s collective consciousness and with how certain people are treated.
If, by the time you’re reading this, Google is still master of the internet’s search engines (and hasn’t gone the way of AskJeeves or Yahoo–R.I.P. My Youth), try a little experiment. If you type in part of an expression and stop, Google will attempt to finish your sentence by offering up several suggestions of the most popularly searched-for items that begin in the same way as your phrase did.
At the time of this writing (in the year 2015), here are the telling ways the following phrases were “finished” by Google for me:
Why are men…
- …attracted to breasts?
- …taller than women?
Because slang changes every day, I’ll tell you that “players” was, in 2015, still recognized as a compliment among certain segments of the male population. Urban Dictionary gives this definition for the term:
“A male who is skilled at manipulating (“playing”) others, and especially at seducing women by pretending to care about them, when in reality they are only interested in sex.”
It goes on to say that the term may derive from “playing someone for a fool”–though I’m inclined to associate it with the expression “playing the field” (meaning, to seek many sexual partners with no commitments). The issue here isn’t one of sex, per se, lest I be accused of player-shaming (which I don’t think is a preferable substitute for slut-shaming). The issue is in the intentional “manipulation,” in the misleading of a partner to believe emotions are involved when they aren’t. To me, that kind of mindset sets the stage for sexual violence to occur.
Otherwise, though, the results were fairly benign, if not humorous. Wondering why men like boobs is the beginning of a lifelong mystery, Lily, one if you ever Nancy Drew your way to the solution, I hope you’ll share the answer to. “Why men are taller” seems a ludicrous thing to search for (does it matter? Are they always?), but far be it from me to shake up the hive mind.
The results for women were far more malignant.
Why are women…
- …so shallow?
- …so emotional?
- …so mean?
Notice, Lily, that the way “men” was completed was neutral, based in confusion and interest. The way “women” was completed tells a different story: a story of a world where women are implicitly judged as shallow, typecast as emotional, and stereotyped as mean. If I had to wager a guess, I’d imagine a number of the people searching for that last phrase have, in some way, experienced romantic, or even sexual, “rejection” from a woman. You will find, Lily, that not everyone takes kindly to the idea of “no” meaning “NO.” Some believe that “No” is a game of cat and mouse; some think “No” is an indicator of ice they are invited to thaw; some don’t care what “No” means at all. Which brings us to the idea of consent in the first place.
Legally, linguistically and sociologically, we live in an interesting time, where we have more terms, concepts and laws by which to understand, analyze and prosecute rape, and yet, bogged down as we are in the minutia of debate, we often forget that it’s as simple as No means No (or, as they say in California law, Only Yes means Yes).
One blogger actually wrote a post about how consent is as simple as a cup of tea, and my extreme gratitude to both her and the blogger who sent me the animated video version of that post, which I’ve provided below (and which I hope like mad still works by the time you’re old enough to see it):
Other artists have shown the complexity of rape legislation with as simple a symbol as a mattress. A brave young art student named Emma Sulkowicz, for her master’s thesis at Columbia University, created a piece of endurance performance art called “Carry that Weight.” Claiming to have been raped in her dorm room in 2012, she carried around a fifty-pound mattress (the kind used in the dorms) any time she was on campus–to class, to eat, to the bathroom–until she and the alleged rapist graduated in May 2015. She did so in protest, not just of the rape, but of how the school and police investigated and failed to prevent then prosecute it.
I say “claimed” and “alleged” not to discount her story, but because the school and local authorities dismissed the charges, calling into question the veracity of whether the sexual violation took place. The truth is, divisive as the performance art piece was, it still forces us to think about the weight that those who have been raped carry every day: in their memories, in their loss of security, in their fears, pains, and anxieties.
In Sulkowicz’s case, just because the rape wasn’t proven doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Of course, the reverse is true, too: Just because she claimed it did doesn’t mean it occurred. I hate to raise the specter of doubt, but I also just don’t know. No one truly does but the two directly involved. I imagine the weight of that, on both of them, is far more crushing than fifty pounds can even convey.
That’s another problem with the culture, Lily: It’s so hard to know the truth. This becomes especially apparent when lawmakers step in and further the violence against someone who has been raped, engaging in what’s known as “victim blaming.” A famous instance of this occurred in Toronto, Ontario just four years ago, when a member of the police force there, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, stated that as a preventative measure towards sexual violence,
“…women should avoid dressing like sluts.”
The outpouring of outrage was palpable, culminating in a movement known as “The SlutWalk,” which continues to this day. It’s a kind of protest parade where some women dress in intentionally provocative clothing in order to send the message that no matter what women wear, a wardrobe does not consent. A mouth does.
Victim-blaming and slut-shaming are problematic concepts, though. In college, I took a course called “Women, Violence, and Victimization.” I learned that those who have survived sexual attacks often hold themselves accountable. To reestablish a schema in their minds of safety and justice, they tell themselves tales like “If I hadn’t been walking down a dark alley alone…” or “If my skirt hadn’t been so short…” It’s the only way to restore an emotional balance for some, and I’d never want to take any part of the healing process away from someone, yourself included, by claiming it’s a harmful placebo.
I will tell you a controversial paradox, Lily: It’s true that there are some things you can do to lessen your risk of being raped. You can avoid walking alone at night. You can avoid alcohol in situations where you don’t have a safe way home. You can carry personal items of protection–a cell phone programmed to call the police with a voice-activated cue, a can of pepper spray (where law permits), your keys slipped through your fingers with the sharp ends out, just in case.
But it’s also true that you live in a world where you shouldn’t have to do this, and where, if these actions should fail (or if you decide you don’t want to take them), you still shouldn’t be subjected to unwanted sexual advances or violations. The only penalty for not bringing a cell phone should be that you miss a loving call from your mother. The only penalty for drinking too much should be what any hot-blooded American youth is forced to endure: a hangover the next morning. There should be no punishment for being vulnerable.
And yet… I ask you to balance the dual roles of any woman. I ask you to be smart and safe, and, if those measures don’t work, to not be ashamed. If you ever are raped (oh, how it hurts my heart to type those words!), afterwards, if you want to, I hope you’ll be righteously indignant, and you’ll fight like hell. If you don’t want to do that, I hope you’ll be overwhelmingly kind to yourself, and you’ll do the hard work of healing. Honestly, I hope you’ll do whatever you need to in order to get through (though I sincerely hope that includes letting me help you, if involving me *would* help you!)
If it helps you to report the rape, do. If it hurts you to report the rape, you do not have to. You’ll get pressure from both sides–people who’ll tell you that you won’t have closure if you don’t report, and people who’ll tell you the system will abuse you further if you do. Some will even try to tell you that you’ll be protecting others to report it, which may or may not be true. The truth is, if the rapist goes out and hurts someone else, it was not your responsibility to prevent the next rape, any more than it was your responsibility to defend against your own.
I hope those words hang meaningless for you in the air. I hope you’ll never know, from the inside, what it means to have to make that decision. I hope every partner you have respects you and treats you to a cup of tea only if you want/ ask for it, and/or agree that a cup of tea would be a nice way to warm up on a cold morning. (Sorry for extending the metaphor a little. That made *me* feel dirty!)
There’s so much more to say on this topic, and though I won’t want to, I will at some point say it. Because forewarned is forearmed. And because you can’t fight society’s injustices if you don’t know what and where they are. And because you deserve the truth. And because, no matter who you decide to be or be with, your body is your own. And YOU are the only one who should be able to decide what’s done with or to it.
- “Meissen-teacup pinkrose01” by Miya – Miya’s file. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meissen-teacup_pinkrose01.jpg#/media/File:Meissen-teacup_pinkrose01.jpg
- “Emma Sulkowicz, Mattress Performance, 19 May 2015 (cropped)” by Adam Sherman – Adam Sherman by email. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emma_Sulkowicz,_Mattress_Performance,_19_May_2015_(cropped).JPG#/media/File:Emma_Sulkowicz,_Mattress_Performance,_19_May_2015_(cropped).JPG
- “Karmen Pedaru at Anna Sui” by Christopher Macsurak – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karmen_Pedaru_at_Anna_Sui.jpg#/media/File:Karmen_Pedaru_at_Anna_Sui.jpg