Most men have the luxury of knowing about the fact of rape, but not the reality of rape, and what it means in terms of day-to-day life for girls and women.
A few months ago, TIME magazine editor Susanna Schrobsdorff wrote a terrific article about having to talk to a daughter about rape. In the wake of the piece, I saw many messages suggesting that now a father should write a piece about talking to sons. On the surface, that makes sense. It’s uncomfortable to have these conversations. However, sex segregation is part of the problem. Sex segregation, and the attitudes that accompany it, are seriously implicated in rape prevalence.
Additionally, when mothers are the only ones to talk about rape, it strongly suggests that rape is a “woman’s issue” that men don’t need to do much about. This is a problem because too many men continue to know far too little about rape.
Girls and women don’t have to be raped for rape to affect our lives profoundly. Most men have the luxury of knowing about the fact of rape, but not the reality of rape, and what it means in terms of day-to-day life for girls and women. Many people think of rape as a moment in time, discreet and unpleasant, sometimes, but not usually, physically violent and involving strangers. It is sometimes those things, but it is also much more, and something else entirely.
Part of “taking care” or talking about rape as a mother is having to “pass the knowledge of rape” torch to girls in a socially and developmentally palatable way—not too angrily, not too politicized, not too man-hating, not too graphically, and not too publicly. That’s basically the approach that “family friendly” media takes, too. Rape information is quiet, minimal, sanitized, detached and yet, somehow, miraculously, supposed to be effective in terms of “staying safe.”
When we hear or see graphic information about rape, it typically represents sensationalized incidents, is framed in terms of he said/she said, and fails to portray rape from the perspective of victims, and as a public health and social harm issue.
This is ridiculous.
Rape is scary.
Rape is enraging.
Rape is political.
Rape is cultural.
Rape is overwhelmingly male-perpetrated, regardless of the sex or gender of the victim.
Rape is publicly, graphically, pervasively eroticized and commercially profitable.
All of this was startlingly brought into public light again two weeks ago, after a 12-year-old chef, a girl contestant on a popular TV cooking show, became the target of an online festival of sexual harassment, objectification, and rape fantasies. “She has straight, blond hair and blue eyes. If I had consent, would I be a pedophile?” wrote one man. “That Valentina will become one of those secretaries in porn movies by age 14,” wrote another.
Think Olga, a Brazilian feminist organization battling violence against women, launched the hashtag #PrimeiroAssedio, or #FirstHarassment. It has generated more than 90,000 responses on Twitter. Even one of the TV show’s judges, Paola Carosella, an Argentine chef, came forward to share that when she was 11 or 12, riding a public bus, a man rubbed against her and masturbated. “When I found the strength and courage, I pushed him and got off the bus,” she explained. “I couldn’t walk. My legs were shaking. I never told this to anyone, because I was ashamed, as if it was my fault.”
Looking at a fraction of stories, just over 3,000, Think Olga found that, on average, a poster’s first experience of harassment occurred at 9.7 years old.
I was 9 the first time I was openly threatened with rape—in my Catholic schoolyard. It was late in the afternoon, and my brother and I were waiting to be picked up when an older, bigger teenage boy thought it would be fun to tell me what he might do while no one was around to help me. I remember not really knowing what the word “rape” meant, but understanding that this was frightening. When we were picked up, he was standing right next to me. I never told an adult and we went to the same school for years after.
Decades later, when I told my brother this happened, and explained that this was just the beginning of awareness and adjustment, that his teenage daughter, too, had already undoubtedly had to deal with similar situations or at least their threat, he refused to believe me. He couldn’t fathom how he and I, growing up as friends close in age and in the same house, could possibly have had such different experiences of the world.
It was upsetting and cognitively dissonant. However, our conversation, in my experience, is fairly typical. There are two common threads in conversations that turn to rape. It’s strange and incredibly consistent: Men are filled with disbelief. This makes sense because individuals manage the psychological costs of privilege in one of three ways: denial, distancing, or dismantling.
Girls learn to weave rape through their days in a million small ways and the costs are high. Researchers at the University of Mary Washington found that, as the result of sexual objectification, harassment, and hyper vigilance, a huge number of women experience “insidious trauma” over time, leading to negative health outcomes. If we don’t manage to “not get raped,” as is the case for one-in-five women in the U.S., and the one-in-three globally who experience physical brutality, often involving sexual assault, we live with powerful effects for the rest of our lives.
Two things are important to note about gender and rape: 1) most rapists are men, regardless of the sex, gender, or sexuality of the victim; and 2) men continue to hold vastly more social and legal power and have higher cultural status, so are in a position to do more to end rape as we know it. Some are trying, working with young men and in specific cultures.
Rapists thrive because of institutional tolerance, impunity, and the fact that too many men, people far more likely to have the legal, political, religious, social authority, and power to do something, don’t know enough about rape or treat it as a serious problem. A week ago in New Zealand, for example, five women ministers of Parliament were thrown out of the House after they revealed, while demanding a related apology from the Prime Minister, that they were all survivors of sexual assault. The Speaker of the House ruled their comments “out of order.”
Once aware of the scope of the problem, denying, distancing, or dismantling becomes a matter of choice, not a visceral, emotional response. For the record, it’s not just men who are denying. Ask the average woman if she thinks about rape everyday, and she might very well say no. Prod a little, however, and you might hear, as I did: “I never told anyone, but once in college, a man I knew broke into my bedroom one night and tried to rape me. I fought him off and he ran out of the room. I’ve never even told my husband,” or “At a party, when I was 19, I locked myself in a bathroom, broke the window and jumped out,” or “My uncle used to get into my bed…”
Telling people who talk about rape to be quiet, that they are liars or exaggerating, don’t know what they’re talking about, or should consider themselves lucky not to be “over there,” is unhelpful. It’s condescending. Aggressive. Gaslighting. It’s part of the problem and not a solution. And, today, it’s brazenly, willfully ignorant.
There is no reason not to know what is going on anymore. There are simply too many of us being clear and open. Too many hashtags, books, tumblrs, speakers, stories, pictures, grassroots movements, too many women…talking. We are done with ceding spaces and speech in silence and shame, and finished with cultures and institutions that make it easier to be a rapist and a rape apologist than to be a rape victim and anti-rape advocate.
“If you are a man, you are part of rape culture,” wrote Zaron Burnett to the dismay of many last year. “I know…that sounds rough. You’re not a rapist, necessarily. But you do perpetuate the attitudes and behaviors commonly referred to as rape culture.” His piece was then followed up by another, “Explaining ‘A Gentleman’s Guide To Rape Culture’ To Men: How To Translate To Men Who Aren’t Buying It.”
When father are involved and available, they should be talking to children, especially daughters, about consent, harassment, and rape. It would indicate a vitally important cultural shift. Primarily, it would mean, however, that more men actually understand what we are living with and choose to do something to change it.
For more information about rape, rape culture, and how men can help, the following books are excellent resources:
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by John Kraukauer
Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation by Estelle B. Freedman
Transforming a Rape Culture by Emilie Buchwald (Editor), Pamela Fletcher (Editor), Martha Roth (Editor)
Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.