Last night I had a speaking engagement in a part of downtown that quickly becomes deserted after dark. After the program ended, as a matter of course I waited to leave until another woman, one of my co-presenters, was ready to go. I can’t speak for her, but for me, it just went without saying that I didn’t want to walk out into the dark parking lot by myself. I was dressed for the stormy weather, bundled up, sensible shoes, hardly provocative, but as Amanda Hess points out,
Acting like a woman, in many ways, involves performing behaviors that are out of the ordinary: shaving your entire body, coloring your lips and cheeks, lengthening your eyelashes, extending your legs on high heels, “doing” your hair, dieting obsessively, waxing, plucking, padding your breasts, painting your nails, stuffing your tummy into tight spandex casings, wearing skirts and dresses and pantyhose and earrings. The behaviors associated with femininity occupy a strange space in our culture. While they are obsessively reinforced as “normal” behaviors for women, they simultaneously work to situate women as abnormal, different, “other.”
To the average heterosexual cisgender man, refraining from performing these behaviors is just a fact of life. For women, these feminizing behaviors are enforced from birth, and are extremely difficult to avoid. And when women do refrain from performing these behaviors—when they don’t shave their body hair, don’t cinch their waists and inflate their breasts, don’t teeter on high heels, don’t wear makeup, and don’t wear skirts, just like men don’t—they risk being dismissed as “abnormal” women. In a culture where the privileged experience of the average heterosexual cisgender man is the baseline for “normal,” women are seen as outsiders no matter how they act.
And so when a woman is sexually assaulted—no matter what she’s doing—it’s easy for the culture at large to insist that she’s done something out of the ordinary to bring it upon herself. Because women’s lives are out of the “ordinary.” Because heterosexual cisgender men are born with the privilege of not being systematically targeted as victims of sexual assault. When you say that women who wear too-short skirts, or too-high heels, or too much make up are not sufficiently protecting themselves against rape, what you are really saying is that women who act too much like women deserve to be raped. When you say that women who drink with the boys, or have casual sex like the boys, or walk alone like the boys are not sufficiently protecting themselves against rape, what you are really saying is that women who don’t act enough like women deserve to be raped. And what you are really saying is that women deserve to be raped because they’re women. In a culture where women’s behavior is viewed as alien, it is this attitude that qualifies as “normal.”
When it comes to sexual assault, every neighborhood is a bad neighborhood for a woman.
This particularly resonates with me, because one of the first moments of click when it came to figuring out what the Feminist Peace Network was about was walking out onto a deserted street in Washington DC after a discussion with a member of FPN a few months after we had formed and realizing that while discussing the impact of militarism on women in Afghanistan (this was in 2002) was important, the reality was that women everywhere were terrorized by having to consider whether it is safe to walk to the subway or collect firewood or anything else, regardless of whether they live where there is peace or war every day of our lives.
And we are not immune from this danger in our digital lives either. There have been several Facebook pages lately that have portrayed violence against women as entertainment. One group called “Punching pregnant women in the belly is fun” had members who were children. The group was reported to the school that the children listed on their profiles and the page is now gone. Earwicga explains,
It is particularly important to challenge the teenagers views that these types of groups are a bit of fun and trendy. The results of a recent NSPCC study highlighted how prevelant sexual and physical violence in adoloscents:
The study suggested a quarter of girls aged 13 to 17 had experienced physical violence from a boyfriend and a third had been pressured into sexual acts they did not want.
The children’s charity said it was alarmed by the number of young people who viewed abuse in relationships as normal.
If you find other examples of Groups or Pages on Facebook promoting violence, please report them to Facebook and you can also list them on a Facebook page created to combat the problem.
As I write this, I realize that I am incredibly weary from having to even think about these things. While I live in a place that is far, far safer than if I were living in a tent in Haiti or a refugee camp in Darfur, the reality is that I am still vulnerable to violence simply because I am a woman, and while I may take precautions when I can, neither I or any woman should have to do so.
That we cannot collect water or firewood, or walk to our car or the train or simply walk outside for a breath of air without fearing for our lives belies the very definition of civilization. Sexual violence and harassment of women is a global pandemic. The damage it does is profound and it is time, well past time, that everyone, men and women say enough, no more and as importantly, we need to be clear with our children that this is not entertainment or what normal should be.