Trigger warning: This piece deals with stories about rape, assault and violence. It also involves me talking about my own life, including my body and my sex life, in a level of detail that might make some people uncomfortable.
Disclaimer: I am a white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender woman, and my personal experiences with feminism and rape culture have been influenced by those identities. This essay is meant to be a personal reflection, and as such, it’s not an all-inclusive look at how all people experience and perceive rape culture. I in no way wish to discount the experiences of people of color, queer people, trans* people and people with disabilities, and would welcome any criticisms, corrections or additions.
In Ecuador I walk down the street, morning, mid-afternoon, dark approaching. I’m wearing skinny jeans, normal jeans, corduroys, a short skirt, a long skirt, a t-shirt, a sweater, low-cut, high neck, sneakers, sandals, boots, hair up, hair down. I’m walking slowly, walking quickly, looking at the ground, looking ahead, lost, sure of where I’m going. I pass a guy, or a group of them, and they call after me: Hey baby. Can’t you even hit on me in Spanish?, I wonder. Hola, mi amor. They laugh. They whistle. They stare. I want to shout at them, Tengo un nombre. Soy una persona. I want to ask them, has that ever worked for you? Ever, in the history of the world, has a woman heard a strange man yell something at her on the street and said, Oh hey, I actually do want to dance with him, go out with him, fuck him, marry him and have his babies? But I guess it’s not really about that. It’s about power. It’s about control.
I used to experience these things as isolated incidents.
The catcalls start in middle school, the same year we have the history teacher who supposedly seats girls in his class by chest size—largest in the front. My eighth grade boyfriend and I rarely talk about our hopes and ambitions in life, but he makes sure to tell me I look hot when I wear tight shirts. I refuse to shave my legs or armpits as a gesture of feminist resistance. Friends, guys and people I meet online all feel compelled to point out that hair removal is just another part of hygiene, like brushing your teeth.
In high school, I run cross country for two seasons. On the way home from practice, a guy six years my senior sits next to me on the bus. He asks for my number, and I pray he’ll leave me in peace. I don’t yell at him even when he won’t stop talking to me, because I don’t want to cause a scene. I finally give in and start shaving sophomore year. Although my times on the 5k put me near the middle of the girls’ team, I’m far more concerned with the fact that my hair never seems to stay in a nice-looking ponytail like everyone else’s. I gain ten pounds. I decide to quit junior year when we get a new coach who takes things too seriously. My mom, concerned about my health, asks me, “Aren’t you worried you’ll get fat if you don’t exercise?”
Later that year, I have lunch with a guy in my aikido class because I want to practice my Spanish with him. He’s in his 30s and I’m still not legal, but he tries to take me to a hotel. He kisses me goodbye on the lips, and I’m too afraid to pull away. I get home and call my best friend, because I feel bad. I told him we could hang out again, but I don’t want to see him. I’m afraid of what he might do, but I’m almost as afraid that he’ll think I’m mean if I don’t answer his calls. She tells me I’m never going to talk to him again, and makes me program him in my phone as DO NOT ANSWER. He calls me almost every day for the next two weeks, leaving long messages in Spanglish telling me how much he loves me. I spend these two weeks terrified that he’ll figure out where I live and come looking for me. I feel dirty and ashamed, and I refuse to say anything to my mother. I’m scared she’ll say it’s my fault for going to meet a guy I didn’t know very well. I’m angry at myself for being stupid enough to think that I could have a friendship with a guy who happens to be older than me without him wanting more. I wonder what I would have done if he’d gotten me to that hotel. I wonder what I would have done if he’d tried to hurt or rape me. I tell myself I would have fought back, would have hit and kicked and screamed until he stopped and left me alone. But I wonder—if I didn’t run away screaming when he asked me to go to a hotel in the first place, if I willingly sat through lunch with him, if I hugged him goodbye even though he was the last person on earth I wanted to touch, if he kissed me and I said nothing—what would it take to make me actually stand up for myself?
I have, at various times in my life, been called beautiful, ugly, fat, skinny, a prude, a slut, a tease. I have worn each of these labels with pride, hated myself for being called each of them. Skinny me desperately wanted breasts. Ugly me was proud that men wouldn’t be tempted by my body, that I would be ignored, left in peace. Fat me loves my curves and hates the lack of self-control that keeps me from running four times a week, from leaving that last piece of bread for someone else to finish. Prudish me took pride in not giving in, in being stronger than desire, and slutty me loves screaming yes to someone I want to be with. And me, whole me, soul me hates fragmenting myself, letting these labels define me, work their way inside my skin and influence my thoughts, my perceptions, my very sense of who I am.
I hate the thought of someone else judging me silently, so I preempt their judgment by labeling myself first. I know I’m not as thin as I used to be. I believe in fat acceptance
wholeheartedly, but my willingness to support it only matters to me if I can prove that I’m
“strong” enough not to have a double chin. It’s so much easier to fight someone else’s battles, so much easier to say you’re helping an oppressed group than fighting for your own liberation. A skinny girl preaching acceptance is radical, forward-thinking and empathetic. A fat girl asking for the same rights has to accept herself for who she is before she can work for change. I tell myself that I’m not really
fat, not enough that anyone would come out and say it, and I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse. I feel disingenuous for identifying with either label. I hate that I have these thoughts at all, that people can’t just be people and a body can’t just be a body.
Sometimes I have to remind myself of all the things my body can do, all the ways I am powerful. True, I’m no great athlete, but I know how to move. I have run a mile in under seven minutes. I have hiked over a dozen miles in a day carrying a 30 pound backpack. I have had at least eight orgasms in a single hour. I have run barefoot through mud and rolled around in grass, stood naked in a canopy tower and felt the breeze play with my hair.
I can’t deal with the clubs anymore. A song is playing, and it’s always the same song. The lyrics may change, but the message never does. There’s a video too, faceless women, a dark room, a pole, a man who says things and dresses like a businessman, but we all know what business he’s really in. I know it could never be my body on the pole—maybe in real life, but not in the video. I hate knowing I’m not worthy of being an object and hate that feeling even more. I want the story my body tells to be mine. I want its pride and accomplishment to be written in sweat, drive, determination, not in the desires of someone I’ve never talked to. Looking around, I see couples, women bent at impossible angles, men scheming to find a partner. And the happy groups, and the people who know each other, and it isn’t all bad I swear. But those images get locked in my head—disembodied tits, a roaming hand heading south—and I can’t breathe. A guy asks me to dance and I want to shove him up against a wall and ask him who he thinks he is. I’m so angry all the time, and it really isn’t his fault. An innocent question. I shake my head. No, I do not want to dance. I want to smash patriarchy and rape culture, but I love club music. Some nights I take another shot and let my hips find the rhythm without listening or thinking too hard. Some nights I want to walk outside, wander around by myself, dare a guy to find me and try something because I will smash his fucking face into the ground. Some nights I go home feeling empty.
When I had someone, this was easier. When I could go home, we could take our clothes off slowly, relishing each moment, drawing ourselves into each other closer and closer together, when I could scream without reservation, feel loved, feel whole, feel wanted in the best possible way, when I could separate being wanted from being an object, separate sex from the meat market and just breathe him in deep, I felt nourished. Now, it feels like I’m just waiting to get that back. I know I should be strong and confident on my own. I know I don’t need a partner to complete me. But sometimes it’s so hard to stay grounded without someone to hold on to. It’s so hard to remember that relationships can be mutual, that love can exist without objectifying, and that even being an object can be fun when the person you’re dressing sexy for is someone you know and care about, someone who knows that you’re so much more than just a pair of striking eyes and a nice rack.
New CDC research
says that one in five women in the United States will be raped in her lifetime.
I have four younger female cousins.
A friend told me that she decided to have sex for the first time because she was afraid. She had had a friend try to take advantage of her, and it made her realize that given the choices she makes in her life, the fact that she spends time drinking in the company of men, she couldn’t be sure that that wouldn’t happen to her again. So she wanted to control her first sexual experience, wanted it to be with someone she loved and cared about. And she did love him and care about him, and she would have done it anyway. But she wanted to do it sooner rather than later, because she was worried that if she didn’t give up her virginity, someone was going to take it from her. This way, she knew that if she ever was raped, at least it wouldn’t be her first time.
Recently, I’ve started thinking that I want to have sex with a woman. I can’t tell if this is because I actually want to have sex with a woman or just because the female body has been so sexualized and so objectified that I want it for the aura of sexiness it seems to radiate. I can’t decide if not knowing matters. Sex columnist Dan Savage
frequently gets letters from readers with fetishes and fantasies ranging from pie-fighting to hardcore humiliation. These readers often wonder where their desires came from, and Dan usually tells them that it’s not important. Even if you can identify the precise cultural norms and facets of your upbringing that lead you to want what you do, at the end of the day, you’re still going to want it. Better to just go for it and see if you like it or not. But I can’t shake the feeling that those two methods of desire are fundamentally different. If I actually wanted to have sex with a woman, I would do it. It would be about her, about us, about connecting. But if it’s just about the female body, then I’m lusting after an object, not a person. How can I reconcile that with everything else I believe in?
Sometimes I get told I’m too angry. I should learn to compartmentalize, mellow a bit. Yes, we live in a sexist fucking world, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun. I try, and it works sometimes. But it never lasts for long. Frat guys at Yale
run around campus chanting, “No means yes! Yes means anal!” At the University of Vermont, they distribute a survey
asking members who they’d like to rape. Police officers warn women
in New York wearing short skirts that they’re putting themselves in danger of being raped, and this is after Slutwalks
have been going on for a few months. An eleven year old in Texas is gang-raped by eighteen men, and the New York Times feels it’s relevant to mention
that she wore clothes appropriate for a much older woman.
And god, do we have it good in the United States of America. In Ecuador, lesbians are sometimes locked up
by their families in prisons where they are raped by men in order to “turn them straight”. During the Guatemalan civil war, raping Mayan woman was a key tactic used by the US-backed state army, because they were the ones who gave birth to the enemy. Rape gangs
patrol the refugee camps and temporary shacks in Haiti, terrorizing women who are already living in the post-earthquake nightmare. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo
, it’s estimated that 40 women per day are raped just in the South Kivu area, and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in total, just a few more casualties in a conflict which has claimed 5 million lives. Women in the US Army serving in Iraq have died of dehydration
because they won’t drink water. They’re afraid of having to go to the bathroom at night because they are afraid that their fellow soldiers will rape them.
Ask me how much longer I could keep writing this list. Ask me how I’m supposed to sleep at night knowing that somewhere on earth, a woman is living through hell. Ask me how I can live knowing how many women are walking around feeling his breath on their neck, feeling broken, feeling guilty, feeling powerless.
Feminist Harriet J explains
how social conditioning can poison women, make us less likely to fight for ourselves even in situations where our lives depend on it.
If we teach women that there are only certain ways they may acceptably behave, we should not be surprised when they behave in those ways.
And we should not be surprised when they behave these ways during attempted or completed rapes.
Women who are taught not to speak up too loudly or too forcefully or too adamantly or too demandingly are not going to shout “NO” at the top of their goddamn lungs just because some guy is getting uncomfortably close.
People wonder why women don’t “fight back,” but they don’t wonder about it when women back down in arguments, are interrupted, purposefully lower and modulate their voices to express less emotion, make obvious signals that they are uninterested in conversation or being in closer physical proximity and are ignored.
And then, all of a sudden, when women are raped, all these natural and invisible social interactions become evidence that the woman wasn’t truly raped. Because she didn’t fight back, or yell loudly, or run, or kick, or punch. She let him into her room when it was obvious what he wanted. She flirted with him, she kissed him. She stopped saying no, after a while.
I have never been raped, which is to say, I have been lucky. Do I have a right to feel so traumatized when I don’t have a night to relive over and over, don’t have a smell or sound that will make me flash back to a moment when I had no control? I talk to my friend about this, about secondary trauma, the idea that just witnessing enough can make you unable to fall asleep, unable to walk down the street at night without feeling terrified every time you see movement in the shadows. I’m not a victim, but there are still places I won’t go by myself, situations I can’t feel safe in because I’m afraid of what might happen.
Sometimes I think we’re all a little traumatized. How else to explain our inability to say no even when we really don’t want it, our refusal to stand up for our desires, our true wishes? How else to explain the times I’ve had sex with guys I didn’t want to just because it was easier to not speak up, easier to give in than to own my no? How else to explain that when I ask my younger cousin what her biggest fear is, she tells me it’s getting grabbed, and when I ask her what that means, she tells me a girl at her school was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a stranger and she doesn’t want it to happen to her too? How else to explain that, as much as I want to, I’m terrified to have a daughter, terrified to think of trying to keep her safe from a world that would control her, hold her down, kick her, spit in her face and tell her she asked for it?
Every time I have this conversation, more stories come out. Friends, relatives, people I thought I knew tell me about eating disorders, suicide attempts, cutting, abuse. I sit in my kitchen with a friend well past midnight, and she tells me she’s never been raped. But she did have a boyfriend who pushed her off the bed and sometimes kicked her and tried to have sex with her when she didn’t want to and she had to fight him off. And then a few times, he had sex with her while she was asleep or passed out. And I tell her, that is rape. You can’t consent to anything when you’re blackout drunk, when you’re not conscious. And she stares at me. She thinks. And then she talks.
How can I say that? I feel like I went through something so horrible that I don’t even remember. It’s like I’m looking at my life with different eyes. It’s like waking from a deep sleep into a hellish nightmare, begging yourself to go back to sleep when you do.
She stops. We talk about other things. I ask her about his other actions, the way he treated her during their relationship.
If I’d ever said to him ‘you raped me last night’, I’m pretty sure he would have hit me.
And yet somehow, we stay silent.
No one else knew these things. It took me until our conversation to decide that this happened to me. It’s hard to think about yourself in that way. How could that thing happen to you? That thing you swore would never happen to you, that you were invincible from…
She still won’t say, “I was raped.” She doesn’t want to tell herself she was abused. An hour later we’re still talking, about silence, about blame, about how many women will live through this in their lifetimes.
Face it: more than 1 in 5 women have been raped. They just don’t know it.
This isn’t just a female issue. Genderqueer and trans people experience disproportionately high rates of sexual assault, and plenty of men are raped too. The one thing that’s clear is who’s responsible: well over 90% of rapists are men. How are we still telling ourselves this is only a women’s issue? How is it that I can have this conversation with my cousins, female friends and acquaintances, but I’ve never sat down with my brother to ask for his help in making it stop?
It’s all related. It has to be. The anti-civilization writer Derrick Jensen has twenty premises
he bases his argument against civilization on. Premise fourteen states, in part, “If we did not hate ourselves, we could not allow our homes—and our bodies—to be poisoned.”
Harriet is right. We’re conditioned not to fight back, not to tell, not to cause a stir, not to create controversy. We’re conditioned to lie there and pray that someday we’ll be able to forget.
But Derrick is right too.
If women weren’t bombarded with images of perfection day in and day out, maybe fewer of us would hate our bodies. We’re raising a generation of feminists who are smart and media literate, and we’re still killing ourselves every day trying to be perfect. Courtney Martin said it best in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: “We are the daughters of feminists who said, ‘You can be anything’, and we heard, ‘You have to be everything.’” We understand that fat is ok, but we still think we’re better than that. We need to be in control all the time. We overschedule ourselves and run events and meetings, and when that isn’t enough, we control our food with a finger shoved down our throat, control our pain with a small knife tracing lines on our forearms. The hatred is there, we’ve just found ways to bury it deeper.
What would the world look like if we weren’t taught to hate ourselves and our bodies?
It might look like a woman screaming NO the next time someone tries to move things further than she wants them to go.
It might look like a man refusing to stay silent about his rape even though he fears not everyone will take him seriously.
It might look like women loving and admiring each other instead of constantly judging and trying to be the best.
It might look like me taking responsibility for my sex life, not sleeping with a guy I’m not attracted to because he’s there and refusing to say anything when he spends less than a minute trying to get me off, because I don’t want to make him uncomfortable or cause conflict.
It might look like all of us reacting with love and support when someone comes forward with a story of abuse, instead of finding ways to call their experiences into question.
It might look like my friend realizing that even if she is drunk, no one has the right to violate her body or her trust.
Derrick Jensen’s fifteenth premise is my favorite: Love does not imply pacifism.
I think of all the women I know, all the pain I’ve seen, beautiful faces contorted remembering the unimaginable. I see the voices so long silenced, the love I feel, the courage it takes to finally share your story. And it makes me want to fight.
I’m done being silent about what I feel, what I experience. I’m sick of feeling like I don’t have the right to be visible in public. I hate that my freedom to move is challenged by the actions of a few, that there are situations in which I can’t feel safe, can’t be myself. I don’t have all the answers, and I know I can’t stop myself from being victimized. But I can’t let that keep me from speaking out.
I’m done sitting silently when people make jokes about rape. I’m done letting guys have sex with me when I don’t want to. I’m done being nice. I’m done not talking about these issues with my guy friends because I don’t want to make them uncomfortable.
I’m declaring war on rape culture, on assault, on abuse, on everything that takes our right to control our own bodies away from us. I don’t have a tactics manual. I don’t even have a game plan. But I’m going to keep pushing forward until we make a world where my daughter won’t have to fight the same battles I did, a world where all of us can fall asleep at night feeling safe and healthy and whole.
An infinite amount of thanks go out to my friend Madelyn for reading and editing this piece, and to all the friends who shared their stories with me and made this possible.
Edit: This piece can be downloaded in PDF form here.