Sunday, February 6, 2011

Words are for Communicating

 Trigger warning: this essay comments on rape and sexual assault, among other things.

I do volunteer work for part of the year with a program that works with at-risk teenage girls, using rock climbing and mentorship to help build confidence.  It is rewarding and really hard and awesome all at the same time, and I do it in equal measure because as a ropes course professional I have long believed in the power of rock climbing to help young people in general and in equal measure because I remember being an insecure teenage girl even though not dealing with inordinate family and life trouble, and am all for the underlying cause of rape-prevention that the program exists to work on by creating an ability to understand and communicate one's boundaries.

The downside of this being that observing very sad stories unfold sometimes happens, and that much thought into subjects of violence and sexual assault result.  This work and conversation is a part of my life, even if difficult and sometimes inflammatory to blog about, and sometimes I do think I've found some important things to say about it.

In addition to the girls we get who have very little confidence, who are very shy and have a hard time speaking up for themselves, we have girls who have internalized a message of violence at all times to protect themselves, of belittling, distancing and antagonizing men in particular and other people more generally as the only way to stay safe from them.  This is neither a way to live a healthy lifestyle, is harder, at least for me, to figure out how to help with, and it strikes me that in some ways the acceptability of this is as equally deep-wired as the social cues that contribute to under-confident women.

One aspect of this that deeply bothers me is that it is acceptable, even admirable or cutely sassy, for a woman to slap a man for a minor offense, while the reverse would ostracize and perhaps criminally indite the man who did the same thing.  Not that a man shouldn't be ostracized or criminally indicted, but why do women get a free pass on assault just because the victim is male?  This point is surprisingly hard to get across in discussions with young women about communication.

I have a somewhat personal understanding of where this acceptability comes from.  Many women generally live under a constant risk-analysis, which goes like this:

If I receive male attention while in a public place, is it of a benign, friendly, flattering kind, or of a creepy intent-to-do-me harm kind?  Is it a kind I could politely refuse if I didn't want it or heck maybe even safely reciprocate if I did like it and not have that be an open invitation for absolutely anything, or a kind I need to be firmly assertive in blocking and potentially ward off with self-defense if I'm inclined that way but at the very least a call for help and protection?  Because if I smile and am friendly and the guy starts being creepy, then by some societal rules, probably the ones in his mind, I just lead him on, the most asinine implication being that if I in any way could have been seen as leading him on then whatever he ends up doing to me to me is kinda sorta my fault too. Yet if I am overly rude, I'll be seen as a bitch, and while it may seem like no big deal or an acceptable price to pay for safety to be seen as a bitch by a total stranger, if I act that way toward every stranger I ever meet then I'm likely to miss out on meeting quite a few people I'd actually like to know.  Sometimes the difference between creepy and benign is obvious--but sometimes it isn't at all, because some great people suck at communication, and some very bad people are very good at manipulating others.

But if the choice was just the difference between sorting out good verses bad people among strangers, that would be one thing, something that's part of being a functioning adult even if sometimes difficult.  Everyone must go through that risk-analysis, because anybody could turn out to be a jerk or randomly hurt you and yet being open to no one means never making new friends.  Yet this particular choice for women is couched in a whole load of societal angst about what is appropriate and safe, mixed in with an extra helping of judgment, judgments that do not apply to other situations:  a woman trying to sort out the good verses the bad from stranger women, a man trying to sort out the good verses the bad from stranger women or stranger men. 

Women are supposed to both be smartly aware of danger and not put ourselves into stupid situations with men at the same time that we can't be too un-social, defensive, removed or unwilling to interact with men because then we'd be a bitch who's hard to make friends with.  If we do actually want to be desired by men who aren't going to hurt us, we're unable to do so if we must take the "ice queen" approach as the only method of personal protection.  And although women DO assault men and violently too, "Stranger Danger Rape" is generally attributed to men attacking women because it more generally happens that stranger men assault women than the reverse, and women who are sexually assaulted are put through the "well was she doing what she was SUPPOSED to be doing?" test in a way that victims of no other violent crime are not.  Just look at cases with rape charges against famous football players, or the case against Julian Assange.  Sure, there are bad women out there, who make up cries of rape to get attention or remove blame from themselves or as a tool for some other motivation or just to be bad people.  But we put women who cry rape through these "well come on, she was hardly screaming out DON'T VIOLATE MY BOUNDARIES in the events leading up to the rape, therefore maybe she has some culpability herself" judgments in a way we do not do to people who claim they've been robbed or beaten.

With this in mind, reserving the option to use a slap or other small act of violence in response to something that, while minor, can be seen as somewhat threatening, does seem like a tempting option.

This is further complicated by the fact that real sexual assault is 99% of the time NOT Strange Danger at all.  It's your best friend who you thought you could trust, your boyfriend who doesn't respect your boundaries, your boyfriend who doesn't respect your boundaries now because wtf you had sex with him before doesn't that mean sex anytime he wants, is the man you just want to like you and so when he goes too far well then maybe that's okay because you were sort of leading him on anyway and you know what his wants are more important than yours and he won't like you otherwise and isn't him liking you what you wanted most anyway?

If someone you think you can trust won't listen to you when you say no, perhaps you do have a right to use violence in your own defense--but who is going to do that?  It's your best friend! I'm not sure about you, but I could see myself  maybe defending myself from a uppity stranger but I am going to hesitate, perhaps critically, to attack my friend.  But if violence against men isn't such a big deal if he was asking for it, is just an okay thing for me to do because it's full of okayness if he's being a jerk, then defending against absolutely whoever I need to defend myself from is possibly a little easier.

So yeah.  The slap across the face for a forward comment, maybe it's tempting to let that be cutesy and sassy and fine.  Defending yourself against real sexual violence sure as heck is fine--if you happen to have the wherewithal to recognize it for what it is at the time it is happening and have no problem doing so even if it IS your best friend, and can deal with being judged as an overreacting psycho-bitch if it turns out he wasn't really intending to be that creepy.

But outside of self-defense, violence is still violence.  Rape and sexual assault are a particularly demeaning form of violence--and it is a form of violence that is perpetuated across all forms of gender-pairing.   Responding to something that is NOT violence itself just furthers the problem, no matter what gender you are.  Excusing an "all in good fun" kind of slap as a "cute" communication of boundaries furthers a double-standard that is damaging to all genders alike:  that in defense of personal space, words are not enough.  

Words should be enough, and there are enough bad or even just clueless people in the world that they won't always be.   But allowing violence in a situation that doesn't actually warrant it doesn't do a damn thing about that problem, and at worse sets up the expectation that words don't have to be listened to so you might as well do what you want.  Then you know, she wasn't actively struggling although she did say "no" so she must have been up for it after all and so it wasn't like, rape or anything, not really.

Plus, that guy you just slapped?  Now he's been assaulted just for saying something, and maybe that happened because you were expressing your own desire not to be assaulted yourself, but he WANS'T actually assaulting you, and transferring the violence against one party to violence against the other is just raising the rights of one group of people to not to be assaulted above the rights of another group not to be assaulted, perpetuating the destructive myth that more rights for women means less rights for men, that equality is a zero-sum game that must pit all the factions vying for equality against each other.  Then lost amid all this is the crucial skill of just communicating.

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