liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
So [ profile] cereta made an impressive and widely linked post about the pervasiveness of rape. The reaction to it has been really bizarre, and I want to talk about that and about a related issue: the one about women taking personal safety precautions.

Firstly, you probably don't want to plough through the comments to [personal profile] cereta's post unless you have a lot of time and a lot of emotional energy. There's some upsetting stuff there and some angering stuff there, along with a lot of positives. If you're really a glutton for punishment, you can take a look at what happens when the meme spreads beyond the tightly controlled conversation among people who mostly get it.

I am really struck by the fact that a post can be explicitly about the fact that not all men are rapists, and still get lots and lots of responses from offended men who feel unjustly accused of a heinous crime just because of their gender, (as well as the usual bunch of responses pointing out that men get raped too and that women can also be sexual abusers). I mean, what?! Cereta is looking for strategies for non-rapist men to use to combat rape, and stories of non-rapist men who went beyond the baseline decency of simply not raping people when they had the opportunity and actually did something active to protect vulnerable women from rapists. And somehow people see the keyword "rape" and feel compelled to jump in and say that it's unfair to describe rape as in any way a gendered problem. I'm starting to be tempted by the ludicrous conspiracy theory view that there's some secret fraternity of misogynists who want to make it absolutely impossible for anyone to make a simple statement like "too many men are raping women and that's bad". Of course I don't actually believe that, I'm not stupid, but it's hard to find a more rational explanation to some of the reaction to Cereta's (in my view very pro-male!) post.

To respond to the post itself, well. I can think of hundreds of occasions where a man had an opportunity to rape me and didn't take it. Let's take the first and most significant: I'm 17 and desperately naive. I'm in Oxford for interviews, and I have no mobile phone (they weren't common back in those dark ages!) and just about nobody knows where I am; my parents expect me home in three days' time, and other than that I'm off the radar. I meet someone and we click instantly, and suddenly it's hours later and we've talked ourselves hoarse and we're being thrown out of the JCR because it's midnight and the volunteer ushers need to go home. He suggests we go back to his room to continue chatting, and I have an instant flash of all the advice I've been fed my whole life about how agreeing to this would be little short of suicidal. But in the next instant, I realize that I am not willing to throw away the miraculous friendship of this stranger I've just met, no matter what the risk is. So I agree to go back to his room, and guess what? Not only does he not rape me, he doesn't even make a pass, because in fact he genuinely wanted to carry on the conversation and nothing beyond that.

I think I may have over-generalized from this positive experience, and concluded that all the safety advice I'd ever received was a load of crock. I want to be able to have male friends, basically, and I don't think that's compatible with going to elaborate lengths to make sure I'm never alone or non-sober (or, you know, asleep) in male company. And it makes me angry that going to those lengths should be considered a "reasonable" safety precaution to "prevent" rape.

Here's another story, which didn't happen to me but to another 17-year-old girl close to me: she was supposed to meet some friends in Paris, travelling there separately. And for various reasons she ended up stranded in Calais with no money and no phone, and decided that the least bad possible option was to try to hitch to Paris. The first guy who picked her up told her that she couldn't possibly stand there by the roadside, it wasn't safe, and suggested she come home with him and he'd give her a bed for the night and money for a train fare to Paris in the morning. The girl made a quick calculation and reckoned her chances were better with this guy than with any random trucker or loony or opportunist who happened to pass the junction, and went home with him. Apparently his wife was a little surprised by his bringing home a bedraggled and scared 17-year-old English girl, but the two of them did in fact make up a bed for her in the guest room and fed her breakfast and sent her on way to Paris safely the next day. Now, that's a man who did something beyond merely not raping her when he could have done; he actually helped her out, and took a not insignificant risk to do so. I'm sure it must have crossed his mind that she could have been a bait for dangerous robbers lying in wait just out of sight, or the kind of unbalanced woman who might accuse him of something nefarious even when he was completely innocent.

So, there are good men out there, and they quite possibly outnumber the evil men. (And yes, there are also some evil women out there, and when they are in the rare situation of having power over men some of them are going to take advantage of that.) But the problem is that you can't tell which are which. The people who responded to Cereta's rant with comments how all the stuff about rape and misogyny is irrelevant to them because they're sensitive and articulate and geeky, and obviously women only have to be afraid of jocks / frat boys / lower class men, make me possibly even more angry than the ones who just reflexively say "you're making sexist generalizations!" You. Can't. Tell. That's why people get raped, not because they are stupid or choose to put themselves in vulnerable situations with "obviously" skeevy people. It's natural to want to assume that most people you meet are decent human beings, and honestly, I should think the kind of evil rapists who make it obvious from the beginning that they're out to rape anything that moves are probably a lot less "successful" than the kind who pose as normal, reasonable people.

So, the other question I want to ask is, how should one respond to not being able to tell? It seems to me that men who have normative masculine gender presentations simply don't worry about it, they assume that if they stay out of prison and really dodgy dives they'll be perfectly fine. That's good because they don't lead restricted or fearful lives, but bad because it may lead to being excessively blasé about situations which are in fact dangerous. Men get beaten up by random strangers far more often than women get raped by random strangers, and while you can argue that getting beaten up is less bad than rape, it's still obviously undesirable. Women, on the other hand, often end up in a constant state of hypervigilance, taking "precautions" which are incredibly restricting, and being unable to relax in a lot of perfectly normal situations. Some genderqueer or just effeminate men are also hypervigilant, and not without reason, because they have the normal male risk of getting beaten up for no reason, and the risk of being beaten up or raped by homophobes. (Note: I am absolutely not saying that less masculine men are actually girls, I'm saying that they face many of the same risks and fears that women do.)

I've ranted before about the saturation of useless, contradictory, unattainable and ineffective rape prevention advice. I don't think that kind of advice prevents rape; sure, people should know about basic safety, but this kind of message goes way beyond "be streetwise and not stupid". What it does is make (some) women more fearful, because any time they wear nice clothes or get drunk or get into an intimate situation with a man or go out after dark or live alone or whatever, they are going to be reminded that they may be taking the chance of getting raped. As a teenager I had "self-defence" classes which taught me very little about self-defence and lots and lots about how much danger I was in in normal, unavoidable situations. Stoking that fear is an incredibly effective way to control women's lives, because although it's impossible to avoid all situations where rape might occur, it's possible to take precautions like, oh, making sure you have a male protector whenever that's possible, or avoiding activities where such protection might not be possible. It's the 21st century; anyone who says that women should be dependent on and subservient to men because of some innate gender determined traits is going to get laughed at. But if someone says that women should behave in a way which is tantamount to that, because unfortunate though it is, we live in an imperfect world and there are some evil men out there who might rape you if you don't follow your properly circumscribed feminine role, that's credible.

When I was composing this post in my head, I happened upon a fantastic essay by [ profile] rm on the topic of being escorted. It's partly about the evil pro-life movement attacking women using reproductive health services. It's partly spelling out why same-sex marriage is an important issue even if you don't "believe in" marriage, because marriage is part of how adulthood is defined in our culture. (I've changed my position on this question thanks to precisely that kind of argument; I used to think that SSM was just semantics and basically a trivial issue, and now I do think it's an important focus for gay rights activism.) But almost tangentially, [ profile] rm brilliantly skewers and dissects the effects of creating a society where women need male protection. Just mind-blowing.

The arguments around how women should "protect themselves" from rape are absolutely no different from the Mediaeval or theocratic means of controlling women's lives. If you behave like a nice girl, and don't step out of place and keep men happy, we'll protect you from those raping beasts out there. If you do anything that shows independence, such as, oh, travelling on your own, or taking a job which means you might have to be out after dark, or expressing your own sexuality rather than being passive and modest, then something nightmarishly bad "might happen" to you. Not that we're threatening you, of course, it's just that we might not be able to protect you any more if you're not feminine enough for our standards. (The threat of rape is also used as a pressure to make men conform to gender norms; if you're not "masculine" enough, you end up in the category of being rapeable, and that's much scarier than having to alter your gender presentation, right?)

A lot of the "safety advice" that is so much of a background assumption in society is not advice about how to keep yourself safe. It's advice about how to be sufficiently dependent and, yes, thank you rm, childlike, to have credibility. To have a chance that if someone does rape you you'll be seen as a victim and not a loose woman who brought it all on yourself.

I say to hell with that. I go where I want to, when I want to (and hello, I live at 60° north, after dark sometimes means 3pm here). I wear what I like, I live alone, I have male friends and sometimes even flirt with or seduce them. I'm not very interested in getting drunk or high myself, but I do believe that adults have the right to enjoy recreational drugs if they want to. I don't avoid parties or stay at parties I'm not enjoying because I can't find someone to "walk me" home. No, I'm not reckless; simply living a normal adult life isn't reckless.

Because some women who've touched on this issue have met negative reactions, I want to say that I don't think my refusal to be afraid makes me cooler or tougher than other women. It's an often-quoted statistic that 1 woman in 4 is raped during her lifetime, and even if that statistic is an order of magnitude too high, that's an awful lot of women dealing with the aftermath of trauma. And I think that the constant messages about how to "keep safe" actually have the opposite effect, they create an atmosphere of a warzone. I think it's a little analogous to what happened after the September 11th bombings; yes, it was a terrible atrocity and rightly shocking and horrifying. But the constant loop from the media repeating the footage over and over and over again and milking the tragedy for every last drop of pathos created an atmosphere where many people were afraid all the time. And that made them easy to manipulate politically and probably led to, for example, the 2004 US election result. The constant atmosphere of telling women they should be afraid, the forcing us to imagine being raped in every situation, and of course the far too prevalent cases where the threat is real, are what causes the fear and hypervigilance, not the fact that women are stupid and gullible and afraid of shadows.

What I'm asking is, if you see a discussion about what to do about rape, don't add to this warzone atmosphere by giving pointless advice about "safety". (Most certainly don't make stupid comments about how it's unfair to presume all men to be rapists, but I'm assuming you wouldn't do that anyway.) Even if you don't feel that you personally can do anything about rape, that it's too hard a problem for ordinary individuals to affect by making minor personal choices, don't make it harder for people who are trying to fight it to have strategy discussions. And yes, if you assume that women are like innocent children who need to be lectured on "say no to strangers", you are making it harder to have those discussions.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-10 10:54 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] neonchameleon
Please learn the difference betwen explaining and condoning. And when you've done that, please go back and re-read my comment.

I was not condoning the responses. What I was doing was explaining where the knee jerk reaction comes from - it is not even slightly mind-boggling (to use your own words) if you have the empathy and imagination to put yourself in the shoes of the target group.

I started with a few analogies that were slightly stronger and clearer - but hit the same set of nerves. This was in an attempt to guide you into putting yourself into the knee jerker's shoes. Instead of reading and understanding why I was writing what I was writing, I think your knee jerked hard. (Which wasn't the way I intended to get you to empathise with knee jerk reactions, but might be a start).

What I was not doing was saying that the knee jerk response was morally right. Simply that it was inevitable that some knees will jerk and that that was why.

Is is not the same as Should. But until you can understand the Is, it's normally very hard to approach the Should.

I mean, if someone said, hey, it's a big problem that women worldwide have a poor rate of literacy, I wouldn't jump up and down and say "stop accusing women of being illiterate, I can read perfectly well!"

That's a bad comparison at two levels - first illiteracy is something that happens to women rather than something they do, and secondly it isn't a moral failing. Closer would be "It's a big problem that so many women marry men then take all the money the men earned when they get divorsed." And even that comes nowhere near the accusation of rapist. Better yet would be for a white person to say "It's a real problem that black people commit so much violent crime".

(no subject)

Date: 2009-06-10 11:12 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] neonchameleon
That isn't my "devil's advocate thing". It's one of the serious reasons behind my playing devil's advocate. Trying to understand why people believe what they believe and act the way they act. By getting inside their heads and defending their beliefs.

What gets processed by most people is the attack on the group (using divide and rule tactics) long before the reasons for the attack. The chief difference is that amongst reasonable people assuming good faith (and I'm afraid given your initial response I can't count you here on this subject) the next two questions are "Why are they saying that?" and "Is there enough truth to it that I need to pay attention?"

When there isn't an assumption of good faith then neither happens and we are left with the initial perceived insult being what is reacted to. (You reached phase two in your second post and came to the not entirely inaccurate conclusion that I was playing devil's advocate).

Yes, there's some stupidity thrown in with the not assuming good faith. But it's the assumption of good faith that's the critical part. If you assume it, irritants are going to get smoothed over. If you don't then they are going to be focused on.

Would it help if I illustrated with a "good faith" and a "bad faith" summary of Cetera's post?

(And FWIW, "rape" isn't the problem. The problem is that generalised gender terms are almost invariably used (and with good reason) - specific cases wouldn't be an issue. It's that combination combined with an assumption of bad faith that makes it read to the target audience like the cases of differentiating to disguise bigotry I outlined).


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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