Disclaimer: This was a difficult post to write, I’m guessing it’s not going to be terribly fun to read, and it’s not “G-rated.” This has been fermenting in my brain for a long time and I needed to work through it, pen to the page. Maybe it will get you thinking, too. There are also several noteworthy articles and videos linked herein—some of them are long, one in particular is graphic in its description, but they have strongly affected my internal discourse over the past few months and beyond.
This is the year 2013. Why then am I still reading headlines and hearing stories that sound like they herald from the dark ages of humanity? Every day, there are reports of egregious violence and hateful acts against women in particular, each seemingly more horrific that the last. With a culture where the female body is routinely objectified and treated as a commodity and our celebrities are often prized for being a collection of titillating body parts rather than for their inherent charisma and talent, we also seem to be exceptionally and bizarrely prudish and puritanical in our treatment of women and female sexuality. It probably goes without saying that reverence for the sacred feminine seems to be regrettably rare.
We live in a country and in a world that seem to have a widely accepted attitude of “she was asking for it.” Look at the recent events in Steubenville, Ohio, in which many, male and female, have resorted to blaming the victim. A woman is never “asking for it.” Let’s not confuse the issue. A woman may take precautions, or not, but that is not the issue. The real answer to the question of how to prevent and put an end to violence against women? Stop doing it. And stop letting it happen.
I recently watched this TED talk, a truly beautiful piece, and at 20 minutes, it’s very worthwhile. Sheila Kelley expresses her enthusiasm for working with women and helping them find their own beauty, the power of their own sensuality and femininity. It brought glad tears to my eyes.
And in the back of my head, I had this nagging thought that the world is not a safe place for a truly liberated woman: a woman who expresses herself fully, openly, and emotionally; a woman who dresses how she wants to dress, to celebrate and accentuate her body and her own sense of flair; a woman who is radiantly and exquisitely vulnerable; a woman who relishes her own sacred, divine womanliness; a woman, essentially, who lives and acts without fear.
Because according to a large section of the world community, that kind of woman, and any other kind of woman for that matter, is asking for it. Heck, they may be asking for it by simply being there, as was the case of this anonymous woman who was raped while attending a protest in Tahrir Square—by her fellow protesters. It makes me want to vomit. I admire her courage in sharing her story. She has the clarity to point out that rape is not only being used as a political tool of manipulation, but that it is also almost fashionable. These attitudes are not just to be found in Egypt and India, which have made the most headlines recently—they are endemic.
Violence has touched my life and the lives of many of the women I know. In 2011, the New York Times reported that one in five women in the U.S. had been raped, one in four had been the victim of physical domestic abuse, and one in six had been stalked. I’m willing to bet that almost all women have fallen prey to some form of harassment. We tend to tell our daughters they shouldn’t dress like sluts, like maybe if we shame them enough they won’t draw unwanted attention—I don’t think I know a single woman who didn’t receive this harmful admonishment at some point in their young life, often from well-meaning adults. Yet what we really need to be doing is telling our sons (and daughters) that they should treat every woman, every person for that matter, with respect and courtesy. Celebrating one’s body is not an invitation to be assaulted or harassed, yet “slut-shaming” is appallingly commonplace amongst young people today. Some even seem to treat it as a recreational activity—as fun. I’ve heard firsthand accounts of slut-shaming accompanied by shrugged shoulders, as if to say “it’s no big deal.” Just the way it is.
If this is the case, if it’s really socially acceptable to treat women this way, where does the responsibility fall? I’m not by any means taking responsibility off the shoulders of the perpetrators of these attitudes and crimes, but there is plenty additional responsibility that needs to be shouldered by those who have enabled it, shrugged it off, or thought doing the right thing meant just not participating themselves—a common attitude. That is our challenge—as parents, teachers, entertainers, friends and coworkers and complete strangers—to keep our eyes open and not turn away, to speak up, to stop it. “Humanity” is a word that implies intelligence, rationale, and most of all, compassion. Can we try to live up to our namesake?
I am heartened when I see those in influential positions speaking up. Patrick Stewart, a long-time advocate for Amnesty International, speaks eloquently about his own history with domestic violence growing up and his struggle with his own violent impulses. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand radiates outrage and empathy in addressing the issue of rampant sexual assault against men and women in the U.S. Military. But it is Henry Rollins that has so eloquently summed up the crux of my dismay—a very worthwhile read. Speaking about the Steubenville rape case, Rollins questions the contributing factors not only to the actions of the two young men, but also to the inaction of the myriad people who turned a blind eye that night:
“What made these young people think that that what they did was ok? What was in their upbringing, the information and morals instilled in them that allowed them to do what they did, minute after minute, laughing, joking, documenting it and then calling it a night and going home? Out of all the people who were witness to what happened, why wasn’t there someone putting a stop to it?
“What I am attempting to get at, and I apologize if I am not being clear enough is that this is a failure on many levels. Parents, teachers, coaches, peers all come into play here. I am not trying to diffuse blame or lessen the awfulness of what happened but I want to address the complexity of the cause in an effort to assess the effect so it can be prevented…
“I have yet to say anything about the damage done to the young woman involved. It is ironic and sad that the person who is going to do a life sentence is her.”
I am grateful that I married a gentle, thoughtful man. I remember sitting with Damon and watching The Help after Oscar had gone to bed. Afterward, Damon turned to me and said, “Was it really like that?” I love that he asked that. I love that he needed to ask that. And it broke my heart a little to say yes, to reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Then he said, “It is so important to me that we raise Oscar differently.” Yes. Yes. We sat and talked about how a child learns about tolerance and compassion—and about how they learn about racism or misogyny or homophobia or any other destructive, prejudicial, violent attitudes.
We agreed on this: it falls on the parents to examine themselves and their actions, as these are the child’s greatest teachers. It falls on the parents to talk to their children and to not allow any topic to become taboo, no matter how uncomfortable. As his parents, we must listen to everything Oscar brings to us with openness—and respond in kind. We must never turn a blind eye, but shine a light, as Stewart so aptly says in his speech, into the darkest corners. If you choose only to live in the light, you will only have the shadowy places for a view.
This is our challenge as parents, and it is possibly the greatest, most enduring change we can affect in the world. It is also our challenge as individuals. Human decency should not be compartmentalized. I want Oscar to grow up in a world where, someday, his children will maybe watch a film showing these harmful social attitudes toward women, and they will ask him, “Was it really like that?”
Please, let us see that day.