Archive for October, 2014

Consider the Possibility

Note: I’ve made some changes to this post since first sharing it. I decided to switch out the original “first example” for one that I had a much clearer memory of.

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual harassment, rape account, rape culture

Once again we find ourselves in the midst of a battle over rape culture, this time with a Canadian flavour. Who’s surprised? Certainly not I, says this disillusioned little feminist, but how many times do we have to have this conversation before something really gets done?

I’m not completely lost to cynicism: each time we have this conversation things seem to inch a little closer to better for those who have survived abuse and are speaking out (or aren’t but are watching the tides slowly turn and maybe considering that they might one day feel comfortable to speak out themselves). But why does there continue to be such shock and denial over this concept?

Of course there’s a whole added wrinkle to this kind of conversation when a celebrity is involved, but that’s beside the point for today. What’s troubling is not that celebrities do these kinds of things. They are, after all, just people. From my own experiences of the various scandals that have come to light during my lifetime, really what makes a scandal scandalous is the rampant entitlement that comes to light. Celebrities don’t have any sort of monopoly on a sense of entitlement, although I feel it may be overfed in those cases. Even if it’s overfed, though, scandals of that nature do tend to be reported hysterically, probably because the media behind the reporting is regularly fed by the masses’ desire to feel superior to those they admire, despise, or envy.

To come back to the topic at hand, I’ve long since come to the conclusion that it’s just easy for some folks to be skeptical because they haven’t had a similar experience themselves, or perhaps have not allowed themselves to admit that their experience was similar. And I’m tired of this skepticism. I’m tired of the loud vitriolic finger-pointing and the quiet passive-aggressive contempt. Both of them are borne out of the same violence.

Rape culture is not just a buzz word. I’ve seen it.

Don’t believe me? Fine. I’ll give you two examples from my own life.

First Example: I was twelve years old, and it was my first summer with breasts. I have always been a curvy person, and it made me stand out in my mum’s family, as the women in it do not tend to be curvy at all. Yes, I’ve joked that my boobs came from my dad.

Either way, it was summer and I was wearing a bright red tank top. I don’t remember it being particularly revealing. The straps were wide and it covered my midriff. (Why should I even be compelled to defend myself? I was a CHILD).

I was on my way to my very first day of the Arts Umbrella animation summer day camp on Granville Island. I had never done anything formal with regards to art before. I was so excited to get to go to a camp where I could drawn manga all day.

I came out the front door of our apartment building and the first thing I saw was a guy pass by on his bike. I remember him being kind of schlubby looking, maybe 50 at the most, hairy, wearing a baseball cap. Old enough to be my dad, at any rate.

As he passed, he saw me and stuck out his tongue. Not in a teasing way but in a “Hubba hubba!” kind of way, with big eyes and a wide open mouth.

“Yuck!” I thought, baffled, but as he was whipping by on a bike I didn’t think much of it.

I kept walking, and finally came down to a place where there was a park sloping away from the street and overlooking the water.

The guy was standing there, quite far away, but close enough to see me. I saw him grin and hop on his bike to ride toward.

“Oh crap,” I thought.

He rode alongside me for just a minute – just long enough to snort at me three times, like a pig.

I can remember literally curling into myself, shying back.

He continued on ahead of me.

I bolted back home.

Running into the apartment, my mum looked up, startled. “What are you doing here? You’re going to be late.”

It all came out in a rush. I think I sobbed through it.

My mother was annoyed.

“Now I’m going to have to drive you.”

I stared at her.

“You’re going to have to learn to just ignore that,” she said brusquely, and hustled me off to the car.

I felt so betrayed.

How is this rape culture? Well, first of all, you’ve probably seen scenes like the one I experienced played for laughs on TV and in movies and books. It’s a stereotype: the lecherous old man who’s lost all sense of propriety. Most of the time he’s portrayed as harmless, maybe because he doesn’t appear to have much physical strength or sexual stamina, so he doesn’t really pose a threat. Therefore, she should just shrug off his inappropriate behaviour and maybe have a laugh at his expense.

Have you ever seen a scene where this happens and the woman responds by cuffing or slapping the guy, the way she might in a similar scene with a younger guy in the groping role?

I certainly haven’t.

Take a moment to try and think of the last time you saw this stereotype played out with the genders reversed. Sure, it happens, but it’s not quite as pervasive, is it? It’s not a stereotype the way the former is; it’s usually “successful” as comedy because it’s a reversal of what we usually see. I would argue that it’s a lot more common to see a scene that includes an older woman misinterpreting some hapless guy’s comment as sexually suggestive and accompanying an outraged “Well, I NEVER!” with violence. And who is providing the comedy in that scene? It’s her. She’s the joke. Because no-one would want her. A young girl, though? Possibly undeserving of the unwanted attention, but “understandably desirable” to a horny old man.

Do you realize how messed up this is?

But even more messed up – I can remember hearing girls in my gym class that fall tell a story about a guy they had seen masturbating in public at the beach. They all laughed about it. I remember being totally horrified.

I’ve shared my own story with many other women, and a lot of them, curvy and thin, had not only had a similar experience, but had been, like me, around twelve or thirteen years old as well. That was always the average age of their first encounter with harassment.

That encounter, and my mum’s own irritated response, was only one of the many things that made my breasts a source of shame and embarrassment. I still struggle with that feeling today – that I’m “too much,” maybe that I even deserve any catcalls or staring.

And that is rape culture.

Second Example: This one is a great deal more complicated, and for the most part I’ve kept it low key, although I wouldn’t call it a secret. It’s been the sort of thing that I’ve unpacked in the nine years since it happened, and all of the talk that’s come up around rape culture has kept it pretty far forward in my mind.

A long time ago, I was in a relationship with someone, not the person I’m married to now, and you’ll see why. This other person was and is still, for the most part, a good guy. This is what’s so difficult to explain: the prevalent myths of how rape works and what it looks like — the myths that keep rape culture going — are all deeply problematic. This person was and still is a good guy. He was funny and charming and I have no ill feelings toward him now, but what happened between us cemented an uncertainty that had been building for some time.

This guy, though good, had a sense of entitlement. He demanded emotional commitments from me that only served to make me feel worse about myself during a time when my self-esteem was pretty damn low to begin with. These demands moved along a continuum between merely insensitive and rather unreasonable. All of this came to a head one day where I said to him, “I really don’t want to have sex with you today.” I had been going through a turbulent emotional time, and there were a few other reasons that I won’t get into, and oh my God can you see it now? Why should I even give excuses? I said no and that was that and there shouldn’t be any need to try to exonerate myself because I did nothing wrong. I didn’t owe him my body. I don’t owe it to anyone.

He felt betrayed by this, but grudgingly acquiesced.

Later, I went shopping. It was fun. I bought some cute things. One of the cute things was a mini-skirt. (Oh, mini-skirt. How unfairly maligned you have been. Among the scapegoats of modern society: people of colour, people of a different religion, “the younger generation,” and mini-skirts.)

When I got back to this guy’s house, he asked me to show him what I bought.

I did.

“I like that skirt. Can I see it on you?”

Well, sure! I put it on and gave him a spin.

He grabbed me and threw me on the bed.

I remember all thoughts shooting out of my brain and leaving me blank. If I were to caption my face at that moment it would probably say, “Well that escalated quickly.”

He was on top of me immediately. It wasn’t exactly what I would call violent, but it sure as hell wasn’t tender either.

There wasn’t much of a coherent thought process after that, but I can definitely tell you the emotions that went through me.

The first was shock.

Then fear.

And following that, one phrase echoed in my brain: “I said I didn’t want to do this.”

I had made it clear not two or three hours earlier that I didn’t want to have sex. Just because it had been a couple of hours did not mean I had changed my mind. I had had no plans to break my own promise to myself that we would not do anything, and I trusted him to honour my request.

And following that?

Again, here’s the rape culture part:

The words below did not form themselves in a concrete way, but the emotion was there. I thought, “Should I tell him to stop?”

And what followed was, “No…because I’m scared of what will happen if I do.”

So, it continued.

After that first initial shock and those troubling thoughts, I actually didn’t find it to be an entirely unpleasant experience. We had enjoyed sex in the past together.

But he never checked in with me, and I was never given the chance to really give consent.

And when we were done, I felt disgusting.

I had never felt like that after sex before. It was an entirely new feeling and it was gross.

Everything got papered over after that, like it hadn’t even happened. He was sweet and caring.

He was a good guy.

So was that rape?

People to whom I’ve told that story have been divided. I honestly still feel divided myself.

I’ll tell you two more things about it:

One: Part of the reason why I decided to ditch that good guy and marry another one was the realization after that experience that the other one would never have done something like that. He would never have been angry with me for denying him sex, and he would never ignore or “forget” a request I had made two hours before. He would either wait until I was ready and told him so, or he would ask.

Not like “a gentleman.” Like a human being that cares about the bodily autonomy of another human being.

Two: I have never confronted the good guy about that experience. What good would it do? What could I possibly say to explain how betrayed I felt by him, when he was already the kind of person to ignore a request like the one I’d made? And how crazy would it have sounded, after all this time? Instead of confronting him, I broke up with him about three weeks after it happened. He was devastated and regularly drunk-dialled me in the weeks that followed until I finally told him to stop. He did. We exchanged a few emails after that, and they were sensitive and caring. Several years later he got married and had a child. When my father died unexpectedly, he sent me a beautiful Facebook message telling me he was thinking of me, and sharing that his own father had also died shortly after mine did.

He wasn’t a bad guy.

He was just entitled.

And that’s what’s so important to understand about rape culture.

Men are not beasts who can’t control themselves. They’re human beings. Monsters that jump out of dark alleys to prey on unsuspecting women are exceedingly rare, but somehow they are the stereotype. They are the socially acceptable image of a rapist, just like the sobbing heavily battered woman wearing a floor length wool coat is the socially acceptable image of a rape victim (and they’re always “victims,” never “survivors”).

In reality, men who commit rape are husbands, brothers, and uncles; wage workers and CEOs; criminals and cops. Some of them might actually be heartless jerks who don’t care about anything but themselves.

Most of them, though, just feel entitled.

And the culture supports that entitlement. Look at the advertising that promotes products with women draped all over them, as though a girl is one of the optional accessories on your new car, or an extra side dish with your burger. Look at the popular books and films that portray guys with dangerous emotional problems and patterns of abuse as sexy desirable “bad boys.” Look at the TV cop shows like Criminal Minds or even true crime shows with “reconstructions” that attempt to titillate viewers by using loving close-ups on sobbing bound and gagged women as vehicles for upping the tension in a scene with a killer. Look at the major news networks who lament the lost futures of high school boys who post videos and photos of themselves gang-raping unconscious girls, networks who devote no time at all to the victims who were humiliated.

I know it’s going to take a long time to fully understand how pervasive something like this is if you’ve never been able to see it before. I just want someone to recognize, if for only the few minutes it takes to read this, that the thing that kept you from seeing it was your privilege. “Privileg” is not supposed to be a dirty word, the kind of thing that shuts down conversations and singles you out. It is simply the thing that makes it possible for us to ignore micro and macro-aggressions that happen to others on a daily basis.

If you do only one thing, let it be considering this possibility: Rape culture may be true, and if it is, it’s worth ending.