The last time a man sexually harassed me was yesterday. I was running when I heard a whistle followed by, “I like the look of that.” Running faster, I looked back to make sure he wasn’t following me. Then I ran for another 30 seconds and checked again. And then I looked once more to make sure that he was off in the distance.
I responded as I did because I understand the risk I take by running alone. I understand what it means to be reduced to that, a dehumanized sum of my sexual parts, and I understand that a rape would be perceived as my fault. “She shouldn’t have been out there alone,” they’d say. “But what a shame.”
This is tense and traumatic space: we live in a society that acknowledges violence against women as wrong, and yet accepts this violence as inevitable and therefore normal.
We speak of Roy Moore with repulsion, wondering how he can be ahead in the polls, and yet he maintains his lead. We mourn the death of Hugh Hefner, lauding him as iconic while completely ignoring the accusations of sexual assault. We even accepted former President George Bush’s admission and rationalization of assault without protest when his press secretary gingerly explained that “he [President Bush] has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner.”
Still, for me the most painful example of the acceptance of violence against women is the man who sits in the White House. Trump has been accused of sexual assault, walked into the dressing room of adolescent girls, bragged about groping women, called women pigs and dogs and directly stated that one must “treat em [women] like shit.” He was still elected because his blatant disregard of women as humans with equal rights to safety and dignity is excusable in a society that accepts and normalizes violence against us.
This is all so outrageous, isn’t it? And yet it is our lived reality, and one that I’m struggling to find words to describe.
In this reality women are responsible for managing men’s reactions to our bodies. This isn’t a lofty theory; this is the rule of the road. Rape trials routinely examine what a woman was wearing when assaulted. If she passed out because she drank too much, then she was at fault for putting herself in a vulnerable position where – understandably, inevitably – some man could not help but rape her.
When I run, I make sure that my shorts aren’t too short- and yet I know that I could be raped anyway. But I’m doing my due diligence not to provoke the men who will be provoked whether I’m in a bikini or a burlap sack because this social rule is so engrained into my psyche. It’s a prescription for madness.
To fight this madness we’ve begun telling our stories and raising our voices with #MeToo. I have mixed feelings on this campaign because I feel a nauseating irony in telling our stories to those who have written them. Men know the violence around us because they are the ones committing the violence. It’s like telling the butcher that he slaughtered the cow, or telling those responsible for cleaning the carcass that the butcher slaughtered the cow.
Not all men perpetuate violence against women, but too many do – and even more hold space for the contaminated culture.
One in five women living in the United States will be raped in her lifetime. Nine out ten rape survivors are female whereas as over nine out of ten perpetrators are male. These perpetrators are less likely to go to jail or prison than perpetrators of any other category. So, these are normal guys. These are our fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, sons and friends. They have nice manners and good jobs. They watch baseball games and garden. They tell us they love us.
And then some of them will catcall the woman walking to her car. Others will approach her. Others will grab her, assault her, rape her.
No, not all men. But too damn many of them.
I grapple with how we can change a culture that is simultaneously horrified by and accepting of sexual assault, especially when so many ordinary men and women foster this culture through acts, words and silence. But when I apply what I have learned working globally with women and girls, this is what I can come up with:
- Believe survivors: only 2-10% of reported sexual assaults are false claims and yet an estimated 63% go unreported, in part because women assume that they will not be believed
- Raise boys to change their culture: We teach girls to avoid sexual assault; now it is time we teach boys not to commit sexual assault. This isn’t just telling them to ‘respect women,’ but explaining power and coercion, exploitation and abuse, consent and autonomy. These conversations need to happen repeatedly.
- Hold men and boys accountable: Sexist jokes are not funny. Excusing sexual harassment and assault is wrong. We need to reverse the culture of acceptance on a micro level.
- Support survivors: Be the friend. That is everything, everything.
- Support organizations that support survivors: I donate regularly to RAINN and run their virtual 5k every year. RAINN is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US and runs a 24/7 phone hotline and Internet chat for survivors in English and Spanish. Its work matters.
- Get informed: We have to understand the underpinnings of this culture. If not triggering for you, search #MeToo. Watch films like Audrey and Daisy, read memoirs like Lucky, and listen to what artists like Tori Amos are saying in their music. Read the Girls’ Globe blogs during these 16 Days of Activism. Donate to our crowdfunding campaign to allow us to keep doing what we do. Learn, share, repeat.
Unfortunately, I can’t think of a truly positive ending to a blog addressing the acceptance and normalization of violence against women. The ray of hope is that, despite the seemingly infinite space for violence, we are expanding our resistance through campaigns like these 16 Days of Activism. Change will come. We just have to keep fighting for it.