Growing up female means learning a completely different set of rules, parameters, and social etiquette than coming-of-age as a male. It means learning how to protect yourself in a world that isn’t meant for you, isn’t run by people like you, and is, in fact, more of a danger for people like you. As young girls, my sister and I were taught lessons ranging from where it is safe to exist as a woman and when, how to behave around men, and generally how to avoid being victimized like so many women before us. (Unfortunately, just the sheer aspect of growing up in an abusive atmosphere set us up for failure and increased our chances of being re-victimized as adults by romantic partners.) So pervasive and ingrained is sexism, especially in the Southern culture in which I grew up, that we were even told, by school administrators and parents alike, how to dress as to not provoke men into violence caused by their “uncontrollable urges.”
As I got older, I was warned against boys who “only want one thing,” exacerbating the ever-present fear I already had of the more physically-imposing gender. I cursed my petite build, knowing that if I was ever in danger at the hands of a man, I would never be able to defend myself. During college, I often left school late at night alone, so I started carrying pepper spray. My guy friends laughed, dismissed this choice, even characterizing this as paranoid and misandrist. Even other women questioned it and told me that the chances were good it would be used on me during an assault. Very few people saw it the way I did, a strategy to feel safer and give me just a little more chance of escaping an injurious and traumatizing encounter. Luckily, I can say that I have never once been attacked on the street.
Almost as soon as I moved to LA at 17, I became closely acquainted with street harassment. Once, on my trek home from school, a guy attempted to kiss me on the elevator exiting the Metro station. Then, as I walked the few blocks home from the light rail station, I was aggressively accosted by men yelling out their car windows, honking, and pulling over to offer me “a ride home.” The attempted kiss back at the station had shaken me up so badly that after being cat-called and the like several times, I waved down a passing cop car. Instead of expressing concern and sympathy, this officer, joined later by a second in uniform, belittled me and made me feel as if I was just a scared little girl who had just moved to the Big City. My fear was justified, but I learned then never to express it.
Upon gaining experience in dating, I learned all the bargaining maneuvers. This usually amounts to giving a guy part of what he wants so that he won’t coerce you into doing more. Or it can mean giving a guy a fake phone number or chatting politely if it can keep you from conflict. Coercion is a dominant part of the sexual landscape for women, and one that we often cave to if the alternative means violence. In one such case, I was sexually assaulted by a guy who felt he was “owed” sex. We had gone on two previous dates, and this, the third, is colloquially referred to as the “sex date.” Despite my previous statements to the contrary, he had been trained by our culture that he should try and change my mind about having sex with him that night. While I will never fully understand what was going on in the guy’s head, what made him decide to force himself on me, I can’t help but think that a culture of masculine misogyny was partially to blame.
I have wracked my brain for over 2 years to try and explain away the motivation of my assailant. A female friend had once said to me, “He must have been in a lot of pain to do something like that to another person.” Violence against women is the only violence, the only crimes in which we sympathize with the amount of pain that the perpetrator must have been in, by the way. No one wonders what kind of pain a mugger was in when he stole another man’s wallet. However, when a woman is a victim of domestic violence, people ask her what she could have done to provoke him. Survivors of sexual assault are often asked why there were in that setting, what lead up to the assault, and why they didn’t do more to stop it. The previously mentioned female friend had been incredulous when I told her that my rapist was someone she knew. “Are you sure?!” she asked, as if there was any way that I couldn’t be. She wasn’t the only person to express doubt, to call into question my feelings and reality. Even a police officer at the LA County-USC hospital, called in to investigate my report of the incident, asked me if I was certain, since “you know how guys can be.” Believe me, I know how they can be.
After my assault, the world became an even more dangerous place. Long-time male friends and roommates were baffled as to how to interact with me, as they didn’t want to exacerbate my fear. Even worse were the ones who, when I trusted them with my secret, responded with a terse “not all guys are like that.” Those close to me skirted the issue, as if refusing to utter the word “rape” would somehow soften it or make it go away entirely. Attempts to mention it in conversation, even in passing as just another one of my life experiences, caused certain men to become irrational and label me depressing just for sharing my reality. In surviving this experience, however, I gained a new passion: activism. A desire to help others who have endured sexual assault, as well as an aspiration towards social change, propelled me towards blogging, joining groups, and participating in marches to create awareness for sexual assault and related issues. Inevitably, this has alienated me from certain acquaintances, the #NotAllMen crowd who would rather stagnate in the ignorance afforded to them by male privilege. Why wouldn’t you deny something that you never experience and choose not to see? However, when half the population is mired in a nearly-constant worry for their physical safety, the last thing the other half should do is stay ignorant.
The feminist movement, and, in particular, the proponents of awareness for violence against women need male allies. Without them, we are too easily dismissed as fringe, militant, and hormonal man-haters. This is what is so insidious about our internalized culture of misogyny, that only with the support of men will a movement to equalize the genders be viewed as legitimate. The fact remains, I should not have to debate with myself over what I should wear, based on my tolerance for demeaning comments I will receive on any given day. And I should not wonder whether or not I’m “leading a guy on,” or if he will “get the wrong idea.” My word should be enough. While I’m fully aware that not all men commit acts of violence, I shouldn’t have to wonder whether or not any specific guy is capable of it. Ours is a culture in which one half of the population is afraid of the other half, and statistically, for a good reason. There’s something wrong with that. As I like to leave things on a positive note, here is arguably the greatest comedian of our time to explain: