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Deep thoughts on a Saturday night

One of the side effects of getting poison oak all over my hands is that it's been hard to write much. (Fortunately, the worst of it is now past, although I still get struck by itchy fits from time to time. But they're more "let me slough off this dead skin" and less "oh my god I don't remember what it feels like not to be one giant itchy spot", so it's a lot easier to deal with now. Anyway.) So I've been spending more time reading, and contemplating, and following conversations all over the Internet (and playing Bubble Spinner, but we won't talk about that part), and for various reasons the topics that've been consuming most of my reading and thinking time lately are related to feminist issues.

Partly that's because I've just finished reading Yes Means Yes (I have a full review on Goodreads, here), which is a collection of essays about rape, women's sexuality, and different models of consent. And it was in the context of having these ideas rattling around in my brain that I read this call to arms by cereta, in which she exhorts men to stand up and do their part to help end rape culture. I'm slowly working my way through the comment threads, although last I checked it was up to 16 pages, so there's no way I'll be able to read them all. But I definitely recommend going as far as you can; people are sharing some incredible stories, good and awful alike, and there are some fantastic (and sometimes frustrating) discussions about being an ally, and consent, and victim blaming.

It's that last one that really gets me thinking. Just how steeped our culture is in blaming the victim for cases of rape and sexual assault is something that I've only really understood within the last couple of years. I knew, of course, that our society will automatically try to get any woman who is sexually assaulted to take the blame upon herself -- what was she wearing, did she flirt with him, did she say yes and then change her mind, etc. etc. etc. It's a story we've all heard a thousand times. But it happens on the other side of the equation, too, because whenever we talk about rape prevention, our entire focus is on how women should protect themselves. Don't go out alone, don't drink too much, don't be alone with a strange man (never mind that most women are assaulted by someone they know), don't be "too wild", carry mace/a whistle/keys, learn self-defense. Every one of these suggestions places the burden of not "getting raped" on women, and many of them force women into tiny boxes of "appropriate" sexual expression. Want to wear that skimpy outfit, or go out drinking with your friends, or hook up with a guy you barely know? Well, go ahead, but don't say we didn't warn you.

(Not that I'm trying to claim that these are necessarily smart things to do. But does our society tell a man not to go out drinking because he might be an easier target for a mugger? Does society warn him against one-night-stands because he might get assaulted? And do we then turn around and blame him if anything happens to him? There are exceptions, of course, but as a rule I would say no. We don't. This is part of what equality means: women should have the same opportunity as men to do crazy things, stupid things. Fun things -- one of the essays in Yes Means Yes, by Jaclyn Friedman, is a manifesto on the joys of cutting loose and being wild, and on our right to experience them, and I found it one of the most compelling in the book.)

But this method of rape prevention leaves out one factor completely: the rapist. Oh yeah, that guy. (And yes, I do know that not all rapists are male and not all rape victims are female. But looking at the odds, those are good ones to play. Also, my point is really more about rape culture than about individual victims and perpetrators, and in our society, rapists are gendered male/aggressive and victims are gendered female/passive, regardless of the details of any particular case.) What does he have to do with anything?

Plenty, I'd say. Because if there were no rapists, no one would ever be raped. And it wouldn't matter what they were wearing, where they went, what they drank, what they said. Complete prevention, full stop. Put it that way, and it sounds almost ridiculously simple. So why don't we have books and courses and all of that to teach men how not to be rapists, how not to commit sexual assault, how to recognize consent and take "no" for an answer, how to stand up to other men who are about to cross the line?

I could come up with all sorts of reasons why we as a society haven't gone this route, mostly relating to male privilege. But right now, I'd rather just leave the question open and out there, in all its simplicity. Seriously. Why not?



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 14th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
Ok, this response of mine was so long I couldn't post it in one, so bear with me here.

I agree with you on that bullshit 'she was asking for it, she was wearing a short skirt' excuse, i think any man who says that should added to the government's de-population list instantly.

It's a sensible suggestion; books and courses on how not to be a rapist but there's a couple of problems with that; the first one is choice; few men would volunatrily go on one of these courses, because most of them would feel that going to one of these courses would create the idea, in the eyes of their peers, that they are going on this course because they think they would actually be inclined to rape someone. You can imagine the kind of reaction that would provoke in a community; knowing that a male that lives among them went on a rape course, people have killed others for less and based on suspitions rather than actual proof of any wrong doing.
The alternative is mandatory courses for men, which brings me onto the second problem; civil liberties. Speaking as a law-abiding person who hasn't so much as gotten a parking ticket and is completely aware of where the social, political and judicial line is regarding rape, if i was told i had to go on a course to learn how not to do something that i already knew how not to, at best I'd laugh at them and tell them to get out off my front doorstep and at worse find it extremely offensive and be a lot less polite and I'm a pleasant sort of person, at least i think I am, I haven't had any complaints so far, but any guy with a worse attitude is going to create a hell of a problem if told he has to go on a rape course.

Also, if it was made mandatory for all men, it would gradually create a psycological undercurrent in society that all men are rapists in waiting, which would foster serious resentment among decent men and i think women have a hard enough time dealing with men and their bullshit as it is with out all men having that kind of chip on their shoulder.
Wouldn't that also foster fear among women; the idea that any man who has not been on one of these courses could be getting ready to jump them? How would they know who has and hasn't been on the course? What if someone goes on the course and rapes someone anyway, wouldn't that have rendered the whole thing pointless?

I would also like to mention one important thing, or at least it's important to me: most, if not all men despise rapists, you only need to look at how rapists are treated in prison by their fellow inmates to know how much other men hate them; at best they're shunned, verbally abused and threatened, or worse, made the 'prison bitch' and are given a taste of their own medicine in the showers and at the very worst, have their throats opened up with a stolen table knife and if a guy convicted of armed robbery or drug dealing thinks a rapist is scum imagine what the rest of us think of them.

I would also ask how any government would enforce this education of many millions of men, both physically and financially.
Jun. 14th, 2009 08:56 pm (UTC)
Ok, enough hole picking because despite everything I've said above I do agree that men need to take on the responsibility of preventing rape before it even happens and I may have a solution, one that bypasses the 'free men will not voluntarily do this' problem; you take your course idea and you apply it in the one place(s) where 'men' (massive inverted commas) are not free to choose; schools.

Specifically you target the 17-18 age bracket, there's no point in teaching them any younger because i doubt they will be able to fully comprehend the seriousness of what they're being told (and how many rapists under 17 can there really be?) but that's the age i think you need to teach people because they're young enough to be open minded enough to accept what they're being taught and not be dismissive, but on the flip side old enough (just) to be able to take it seriously. I also think (if it's a mixed school) the girls should attend as well, firstly so that it doesn't seem unequal (not all rapists are male and not all victims are female as you said) but primarily because the boys in attendance will almost certainly without exception take it seriously.

It's got to be done properly as well of course, you've got to go waaay beyond just telling them no means no etc etc. I think these lectures or lessons would have much greater punch if they were conducted by a victim or someone who has counseled victims, someone who can actually convey to them the kind of trauma and suffering that occurs (as best the victim can allow themselves to do of course).
These pupils also need to be made totally aware of where the law stands on rape as well, i should imagine that many cases of statutory rape occur because the perpetrator was ignorant of what is written in the statutes.

As I've written this another idea formed in my head: I'm a regular reader of men's magazines, especially FHM, I've read it for many years now, but as far as i can remember, I've never seen any articles about rape and victims accounts etc and to my mind the big monthly magazines like FHM, Loaded, Maxim etc, all of which have huge reader bases would be perfect places for serious articles about rape. Governments could introduce laws saying that, oh i don't know, how about least one of the monthly issues produced each year has to have a major article about rape and a victims account or something like that. That seems a good way to get the message across to men who've long since left school.

Edited at 2009-06-14 08:56 pm (UTC)
Jun. 15th, 2009 03:14 am (UTC)
Thanks for your long and thoughtful response! I mostly used the word "course" to describe rape prevention efforts to contrast with the way we approach teaching women to protect themselves; I wasn't thinking of it as a practical suggestion.

I agree that your idea of anti-rape education in schools is probably the best one, in terms of practicality and of catching boys while they're still young enough to hear the message and before it's too late. It could be incorporated into sex education easily enough. The thought of publishing rape awareness articles in the "lad mags" is a fascinating one that hadn't occurred to me at all. It's certainly a significant presence in women's magazines, and it makes a lot of sense. Even if the government didn't require it, they could certainly provide incentives like tax breaks for the publishers.
Jun. 15th, 2009 05:42 am (UTC)
I wanted to respond to the this part of your comment separately, because it's important, and I felt like I needed to put a little more thought into it.

Also, if it was made mandatory for all men, it would gradually create a psycological undercurrent in society that all men are rapists in waiting, which would foster serious resentment among decent men and i think women have a hard enough time dealing with men and their bullshit as it is with out all men having that kind of chip on their shoulder.
Wouldn't that also foster fear among women; the idea that any man who has not been on one of these courses could be getting ready to jump them? How would they know who has and hasn't been on the course? What if someone goes on the course and rapes someone anyway, wouldn't that have rendered the whole thing pointless?

If you haven't read the post by cereta that I linked above, you really should, because her post and the comment threads address a lot of what you say here. What it comes down to is that many women *already* feel like they have to treat most men as potential rapists, because it's the only prudent thing to do. (The comment threads are so huge, and I've barely made a dent in them, but I think this is representative of that part of the conversation.) As to your first point, while I have some sympathy for the decent men who are hurt by this situation, it's not equivalent to the fears women have. One of the commenters posted a quote that I think really sums it up:

Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, "They are afraid women will laugh at them." When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, "We're afraid of being killed."

So while I think the points you bring up are real, I think it's worth making some men uncomfortable, because the end result would be a world that's so much better for everyone.
Jun. 15th, 2009 07:02 am (UTC)
I am fan of your writing who lurks your journal from time to time. I can see how important this subject is. I agree that there should be something in preventing men from becoming rapists, instead of putting the responsibility solely on the victim. BUT, this is not just a symptom of male privilege as you so imply. For some reason, society likes to put the burden on the victim for a variety of things, especially if it has some psychological impact. For example, kids who are bullied in school are told how to respond and prevent being a victim, but people rarely try to work on the bully. People talk about preventing school shootings by identifying and stopping "disturbed" kids, but no one thinks to keep these kids from having a reason to shoot fellow students by stopping bullies who pick on them. If kids grow up seeing this victim-blaming attitude for bullying, you can bet they will apply it later in life to things like rape. Although rape is horrible, please don't just focus on rape. Focus on changing this general attitude that pervades our culture.

-Random Lurker

(Sorry for the rant, but school bullying is a touchy subject for me.)
Jun. 15th, 2009 07:26 am (UTC)
Hi Anon,

No worries; these kinds of conversations often bring up touchy issues, so strong emotional responses are totally to be expected. Thanks for speaking up!

I agree that victim-blaming is often a problem in bullying as well, but I don't agree that it's not related to privilege. A bully is almost always someone who benefits from privilege -- gender, class, race, sexuality... -- asserting themselves over someone who lacks privilege. There's a power imbalance, and bullying is one way that people abuse power.

Bullying is a serious problem; so is rape, and especially considering that they share some similar root causes in our culture, I don't see why we can't work on both. There's no reason for it to be an either/or proposition.
Jun. 20th, 2009 07:13 pm (UTC)
systems vs. individuals
(I'm here via a link in cereta's post)

One big part of the answer to your "why?" question, I think, has to do with our tendency to think of things in terms of individuals rather than systems. That's also a big difference between conservatism and liberalism in American politics and public policy: conservatives focus on the individual, liberals try to think of both. Hardly anyone focuses primarily on the systemic. I'm not saying we should - I think a good balance is best - but I am saying our society is heavily canted towards ignoring the system. We're a nation of individuals, and proud of it.

Now, if you think "rape prevention" in a purely individual context, there's a big difference between preventing rape through changing male behavior, vs. female behavior. Namely,

- Rape prevention through changing the behavior of an individual man, however effective it may be, can prevent the rape of someone, but nobody knows who that someone is. It may not be someone you'll ever meet.

- Rape prevention through changing the behavior of an individual woman, even if it's less effective, will protect her. Specifically her.

If you think systemically, it's obvious that rape prevention focusing on male behavior is going to be more effective. But if you ignore the systemic aspect and think just about individuals, it's completely natural to prioritize on the kinds of prevention that will protect yourself or someone you know and care about, over the kinds of prevention that will protect some random unknown people.
Jun. 21st, 2009 07:11 am (UTC)
Re: systems vs. individuals
This is an interesting analysis. I definitely agree that our society has a tendency to focus on individuals over systems, and that this is one symptom of that. You can see it in many other areas, too -- one thing that comes to mind is news coverage of tragedies (including rape and assault!) that focus on the ways to "protect yourself and your family" rather than looking at the big picture (remember the summer of shark attacks? Our reactions to epidemics like swine flu and SARS come to mind as well). Even if working to change the system would be more effective at protecting most individuals, in the end.

I wonder if one might have more success with tactics like teaching men not to rape in societies that are more used to looking at solving problems systemically.

Thanks for coming by, and for the comment! I'm still working my way through the comments on cereta's post (on page 15, as of the time I wrote this), and I've really appreciated your contributions to the conversation.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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