Updated: Oct 2, 2018
Welcome to Sunday—a Sunday following a week that had a century’s worth of news in it. For many of us, it’s been a week that took us all back to our darkest sexual experiences—even worse, our darkest high school sexual experiences. And if you are among those lucky enough to have escaped high school or university without traumatization, you’ve now got to process the spectacle of a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States earnestly describing how he cherished, truly cherished, his virginity in an interview on national television. That’s even before we get to his heel turn in the hearing room, during which he wept, shouted, and harangued a sitting senator who had asked him a polite, if searching, question about his drinking.
I am one of many women who has experienced sexual violence, including in high school. This week has left me with an abiding ache in my bones. It isn’t really because of the memory of what was done to me, or even because I remember the disembodiment, the disorienting unmooring from one’s self, that comes with trying to tell people about it and not being believed. This week’s ache is more than anything a fear of the future. I’m the mother of a nine-year-old girl.
Top Tips for Savvy Victims
How do I prepare her for what could lie in store for her? The advice you are given against sexual predators as a girl or a young woman is usually couched in terms of self-defence in a situation involving a stranger. Don’t walk alone in the street at night. Wear roofie-detecting nail varnish to test whether your drink is spiked. Carry a rape whistle or pepper spray, or even a gun. Always check in with someone when you get in a taxi. Fan your house keys between your knuckles. Aim for the eyes, or the Adam’s apple, or the nuts. Run.
The problem is that women and girls are almost never assaulted by strangers. According to Rape Crisis UK, only 10 per cent of rapes and assaults are committed by someone the survivor doesn’t know. If, God forbid, my daughter is ever attacked, it’s likely to be someone she knows and trusts. And the advice we give girls when it comes to those we know and trust—particularly men—is to be pleasing and accommodating. Put others’ needs first. Don’t be selfish. Say please and thank you, don’t get so upset if you’re interrupted. Smile.
As they become teenagers, the advice gets even weirder. Be fiercely yourself—but don’t be threatening, and when we say “threatening” we really mean angry, or ambitious, or even just willing to point out when someone is wrong. Achieve great things, but maybe don’t promote yourself. Don’t feel pressure to conform to those impossible beauty standards, although it would be great if your nonconformity fell in within this slightly less narrow band of acceptability, and definitely in a way that’s not slutty. Protect yourself from attack, but if you are attacked, consider the man’s or boy’s future when you come forward—you don’t want to ruin his life over this one thing!
This briar patch of double standards into which all young girls and women are thrown is hard enough to prepare a person for even if she has keen social antennae and a high emotional intelligence quotient. My daughter has a communication disorder and functions roughly three years behind her peers socially. This complicates things.
Being a person with a disability makes it much more likely my daughter will become a target—nearly one in three people who used Rape Crisis services in 2016-2017 identified as having a disability, and according to Disability Justice, 83 percent of women with disabilities will experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetimes. This is, to put it mildly, fucking terrifying.
My girl is already a target of patronisation, jokes, and subtle or not-so-subtle sneering (thankfully very rare, but it still happens). It is easy to imagine her becoming a target for darker impulses as she ages. I can imagine a boy misinterpreting my daughter’s body language for permission. I can imagine teenage boys competing with one another to be the first to score with the “dumb” girl. I can imagine some man deciding my daughter won’t be able to tell someone what he wants to do to her, and I can imagine her not being believed when he does, and she tries.
I don’t want to imagine these things, mind you. It’s just that the constant vigilance against male violence I’ve had to adopt for myself now extends to my daughter. That was the message this week drove home for me: by having a daughter, I have provided fresh meat for this system that grinds women down. Thanks to decades of effort and the fresh impetus of the #metoo movement, the system grinds a little less completely than it did, a shade less exceedingly fine, but grind it does and will. I am going to do what I can, as the mother of a daughter, to fight that system for her and for others like her.
But it’s not enough. It’s not enough for women to teach their daughters that people will hurt them, or for women who have been hurt to testify against powerful men who will call them credible but insist their memories must be faulty, or for women who have been hurt to block an elevator door to confront a senator. What tips this over is action from men and boys.
We Want You to Be Traitors
There’s a system at work here, and before this system can bring a girl like my daughter to her knees, it has to tear the heart out of someone else’s son first. It must pluck his empathy for others out at the root by making his natural boyhood affections suspect. It must work him over until he believes that his status in the eyes of other boys and men is all that really matters, and that earning status means consuming and disposing of a lot of women to impress those men. (Do you really think Donald Trump chose any of his wives as anything but a signal to other men?) It adopts elaborate pseudoscientific theories and paperback philosophies to explain why this consumption and status-seeking is "natural".
Even if he doesn’t participate in that consumption directly, the system will still seek to make this boy an accomplice to violence when the perpetrator is his football team captain, or his boss, or his father. He will have to choose whether to help protect men he loves and trusts, men who have power over him, or to stand by the woman or women injured. By then, he’ll already have been taught to believe women are not merely less important or less valuable, but somehow less real. When you can convince someone that half the people with whom he lives are not as human as he is, you can prime him to reject justice or equality for those people—and likely for anyone else not exactly like him.
What I need—what my daughter and what all women need—is for the men in our lives to interrogate the ways in which they’ve been programmed and reject them. It isn’t enough to boast about how you “treat us like people”—I know plenty of men who treat their dogs like people, too. It isn’t enough to suddenly wake up when or if you have a daughter to the fact that gender equality matters.
We need you to reject ways of thinking and behaving that reduce the women around you to accessories, or consumables, or, in a best-case scenario, interesting secondary characters in the heroic autobiographies you’re writing in your heads. Whether you’ve asked for it or not, you’ve been entered into a bargain that offers you a small amount of power and privilege in exchange for your complicity in the life-long degradation of our humanity—our common humanity. That “gentlemen’s agreement” is what the system rests on, and we need you to start saying what we’ve been saying all along: the bargain is null and void.
If you won't, then you really are complicit.
Further Reading from Better Writers
It Is Very Difficult to Get the Train to Stop - Alexandra Petri, the Washington Post. Petri's humour columns have become enraged or sorrowful tone poems of late, and I am glad.
Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, and the Things Men for Other Men - Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker. "In high schools, in colleges, at law schools, and in the halls of Washington, men perform for one another and ascend to positions of power. Watching it happen is a deadening reminder, for victims of sexual assault and harassment, that, in many cases, you were about as meaningful as a chess piece, one of a long procession of objects in the lifelong game that men play with other men."
When the Muzzle Comes Off - Rebecca Traister, New York Magazine. “There are other qualities women are told to cultivate if they want to be liked and accepted: pliability, friendliness, flirtatiousness, sexual availability, forgiveness. Is it not devilishly grotesque that each and every one of these traits can be used to discredit their claims of having been preyed upon? Don’t believe her — she was drunk, she was flirting with me, she slept with so many people, here’s a photo of her smiling with me a year later, and now she says I raped her?”
The Reckoning Always Comes - Drew Magary, Deadspin (2017). "I shouldn’t have needed this long to gain the ability to actually empathize with other human beings, but there you have it."
"I Kicked a Boy", the Sundays