Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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Rape culture is/Rape culture isn’t

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When I hear people say that rape culture isn’t real, I often wonder if it’s because they don’t know what it means.

Skeptics of the term seem to imagine that feminists are describing a world in which rape is not just common but ubiquitous, and in which the public is indifferent to – even endorses – sexual assault.

Plainly, these things are not true - at least, not to those extremes. As conservative commentator and rape culture dissenter Caroline Kitchens argued in a recent article for TIME, “Rape is a horrific crime and rapists are despised.” Or as Jaclyn Friedman put it in an article responding to (and rebutting) Kitchens: “What we really despise is the idea of rapists: a terrifying monster lurking in the bushes, waiting to pounce on an innocent girl as she walks by.”

But when feminists talk about “rape culture,” we’re not saying that every woman experiences rape, or that every man is a rapist (most are not). We are saying that as much as our culture professes to be disgusted by rape, there are a series of entrenched beliefs about women, men, sex, and consent in our society that serve not only to make non-consensual sex more likely, but to make us less likely to believe people, men or women, who speak out about their experiences with sexual assault. And we are drawing attention to the chasm between our response to the imagined rapist boogeymen described by Friedman, and the more complex rapists who exist in the real world: rapists who are also friends, beloved family members, sports stars, political heroes and so on.

Here is what we are talking about, when we talk about rape culture.

A culture that puts the onus on women to say no, rather than on men to establish a yes.

A culture that doesn’t take women’s “no”s seriously. That assumes that a “no” is just the first step in a negotiation, rather than a statement of resolve.

A culture that doesn’t consider the possibility that men might say “no” to sex at all.

A culture that says that some forms of sexual violence are reprehensible – the aforementioned monsters lurking in the bushes – and others are a matter of debate.

A culture that determines the “legitimacy” of a sexual assault based on the character of the victim. What was she wearing? Was she drinking? Did he have an erection? Had she had sex with that person before? Had she had sex with anyone ever before? Why was she being so chatty earlier in the night if she didn’t want to have sex?

A culture that determines the “legitimacy” of a sexual assault based on the character of the accused. Is he from a “good family”? Is she good looking? Does he deserve to have his future derailed because of this one indiscretion?

A culture that teaches boys that girls need to be persuaded to have sex, and will resist at first as a matter of course, to play hard to get or to maintain their “purity.”

A culture where friends and family of survivors ask them what they might have done to lead their attacker on.

More than anything, what feminist arguments about rape culture contend is that rape is not an aberration, committed by unlikable sadists who cannot be reasoned with. (Some rapists fit this bill, but many are people you might otherwise know and like.) It is a crime that is embedded in – and excused by – everyday social interactions.

It’s easy to understand why this concept is confronting; why some people might take the idea of “rape culture” very personally. It’s not nice, after all, to think that you are part of a system that enables violence. It’s even less nice to think that you might have personally done something that might be read as violence by another person.

But ultimately, I think the concept of rape culture is empowering. Because if sexual assault is a product of culture, that means that by changing our culture, we can change the frequency of sexual assault. Not all sexual assaults can be eliminated by tackling rape culture, sure – some rapes are committed by the violent psychopaths who dominate our imaginations (just like some murders are committed by strangers, but most are committed by people the victim knows very well). But lots of them can.

"Rape culture" isn’t a distraction, or a figment of an overactive feminist imagination. It’s an articulation of how most sexual assaults really happen.

OK, I’ll add one more thing as well, to get into why it’s so complicated. The particularity of the female version of unpopular adolescence is that you can be of no interest to the boys in your class, or the boys you like, and be just generally not considered particularly attractive, while at the very same time, you’ll be subject to copious leering, catcalling, etc. from creeps on the street. That sort of harassment isn’t about admiring female beauty at its peak, or any such nonsense, but about intimidating the most easily intimidated, which is to say girls aged, say, 10-16. So there will be this weird thing where you’re spending half the time silently mooning over the boys who like someone else, and the other half getting told “You’ve been spending too much time on your knees!” by strange men who feel the need to remark in an obscene way on your Rollerblading scabs.

As usual, Phoebe says all the things I want to say.

Stop putting yourself down. I mean it. Now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this “Confidence Gap” thing that has been getting a lot of press over the past couple of weeks, based on a new book by American journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. I’ve read the critiques; chiefly that it ignores the structural factors that contribute to inequality (and confidence gaps), like sexism. And racism. And that while the authors managed to find a suite of high profile women who were plagued by self-doubt, there are also plenty of others who are out there getting on with things. Confidently.

All this is true. But I still think the confidence gap is real. Or to be more precise, I’ve observed a pattern amongst women – friends, family, women I meet at professional gatherings, even myself at various points in my life – of understating our achievements and ambitions which I find both disheartening and exasperating.

I’m talking about things like not pursuing (or not taking, when offered) a problem because you figure there’s probably someone in your workplace who deserves it more. Feeling too afraid to speak up in class for fear of seeming stupid, and then getting higher grades than 90% of your classmates. Not confirming with your employer how much you’ll be getting paid before you start a job because you don’t want them to think you’re “only there for the money.” Or just not talking about your work with complete passion and conviction because you don’t want to seem arrogant.

I could go on.

(And no - ceasing these behaviours won’t bring about total gender equality or world peace. But I suspect it would make us all a bit happier and more confident in our place in the world. And that’s reason enough to pursue it, in my opinion.)

The excerpt in The Atlantic only talks about women, but I’d be willing to bet the same pattern applies to any group that doesn’t have a history of easy, non-problematic access to power. People of color. Working class people. People with disabilities. Trans and genderqueer people.

The more you see people who look like you – or better yet, people you know and interact with – in positions of power, the easier it becomes to imagine yourself in that same position.

Confidence alone won’t change that, and nor will getting more girls to play sports. That requires policies that enable social mobility, like good and affordable education, a liveable minimum wage, and non-discriminatory employment practices. Even bridging the confidence gap and learning to own our ambitions and abilities isn’t just an individual endeavour. It requires changing the culture. But changing that culture is something we can all participate in.

The first step is to give other women permission to own their accomplishments. To stop asking, “Who does she think she is?” – either by implication, through your tone and body language, or literally, after she leaves the room. Become comfortable with the idea of women taking power and being secure in it, without it rendering them “pushy,” “vain,” or “not a team player.”

The second step is to allow yourself to own your accomplishments. I’m not talking about exaggerating, or making shit up. I’m talking about talking about something you’re proud of, directly and confidently, and resisting the urge to downsize, hedge or backtrack. About stopping making yourself smaller in a desire to be liked. When you’ve created something you think is great (a song, a product, a test result, an interaction with another human being), give yourself a moment to enjoy that feeling before you start second guessing all the ways in which it isn’t so great.

Finally, celebrate success – your own and other people’s. Champion women you think are doing good work. A non-exhaustive list of women I think are doing great work right now: Gabby Bess. Sarah Nicole Prickett. Nora Caplan-Bricker. The ladies behind SRSLY. Suey Park. Laurie Penny. Andrea Mary Marshall. Paris Lees. danah boyd. (In order to keep this a “non-exhaustive list,” I’ve deliberately not included anyone I am personally friends with.)

I don’t buy into the idea that in order to be a supporter of women, you need to support all women. Some women will do work that is offensive or mediocre, some women will trumpet accomplishments that don’t exist. But there are probably some people out there you think are doing great work. Celebrate them.

Women are taught to be modest and accommodating; to have humility and to make room for others. These are (mostly) lovely qualities to possess, but it possible to have humility and still to own your own strength.

In fact, it might be better for the greater good if you do.When you dismiss your accomplishments as just plain luck, you pull away the ladder for others to follow behind you, whether you mean to or not. How can others replicate your success, after all, if you don’t share how you did it?

To end with a quote from Marianne Williamson: “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. … As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Related: She who tries, wins.
Thoughts on meritocracy, aspiration and privilege.
Invulnerable, inviolable bitches.

CALLING SMALL TOWN GIRLS
My friend Elize Strydom grew up in a small town in northern New South Wales, Australia, where she busied herself with school, sport, friends - the regular things - all while wondering what was ‘out there’ and plotting her escape to the big city. 
Over the past two years, she has immersed herself in the lives of nine teenage girls in places as diverse as Australia’s Broken Hill and Bryon Bay, and regional Oregon and Ohio in the United States, documenting their experiences for her Small Town Girl project - “a journey of remembering and discovery” that seeks to answer the question what’s it like to grow up in a small town?

Elize will be returning to the United States in June for the next leg of the project. She writes:
"This time, I’d like to find out what it’s like to grow big in a small town if you’re African American, if you’re Native American or if you’re of Hispanic origin. I’m looking for 13-18 year old girls of diverse cultural backgrounds who live in towns with a population of 20,000 or less. I’ll live with you and your family/friends for a week and follow you around, taking fly-on-the-wall style photos that will form a body of work to be exhibited in galleries in Australia and the US.”

Sound like something you - or someone you know - might be into? Email Elize for more details at elizestrydom@live.com.au. And please, share this post on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and any of your other networks to help spread the word about this great project. 

CALLING SMALL TOWN GIRLS

My friend Elize Strydom grew up in a small town in northern New South Wales, Australia, where she busied herself with school, sport, friends - the regular things - all while wondering what was ‘out there’ and plotting her escape to the big city. 

Over the past two years, she has immersed herself in the lives of nine teenage girls in places as diverse as Australia’s Broken Hill and Bryon Bay, and regional Oregon and Ohio in the United States, documenting their experiences for her Small Town Girl project - “a journey of remembering and discovery” that seeks to answer the question what’s it like to grow up in a small town?

Elize will be returning to the United States in June for the next leg of the project. She writes:

"This time, I’d like to find out what it’s like to grow big in a small town if you’re African American, if you’re Native American or if you’re of Hispanic origin. I’m looking for 13-18 year old girls of diverse cultural backgrounds who live in towns with a population of 20,000 or less. I’ll live with you and your family/friends for a week and follow you around, taking fly-on-the-wall style photos that will form a body of work to be exhibited in galleries in Australia and the US.”

Sound like something you - or someone you know - might be into? Email Elize for more details at elizestrydom@live.com.au. And please, share this post on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and any of your other networks to help spread the word about this great project.