Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Stubenville and the stark gender divide in how we think and talk about rape

Like many of my friends, I've been reeling over the past couple of days at the media's coverage of the Stubenville verdict.  The extent of sympathy for the perpetrators of the crime, the implicit message that the life of the young woman who was raped is so much less valuable than the lives of the young men who raped her, it all fills me with inarticulate rage.

As a 20-something feminist, I have a lot of feminist discussions with my friends on social media.  We pass commentary around.  We discuss rape, birth control, and women's rights in what is essentially an ongoing conversation, discussion flowing from the comments on one post to the next in an endless stream.  This is the kind of good thing that the facebook news feed enables.

What stuns me, though, is how much this stays a discussion among women.  Even though we hold it on a public forum, where plenty of guys can see it.  On the one hand, this is a good thing, because it means that our male friends are either thoughtful enough or have enough respect for our debate skills not to come in and make douchey comments.  On the other hand, isn't "yay the guys in our lives don't barge in and say asshole things about women's issues!" a really low bar to set?

My boyfriend self-identifies as a feminist, and he fully agrees with all the feminist thought we've ever discussed.  But he once complained to me that he sometimes feels like the women he's friends with on facebook discuss rape and other feminist outrage too much, that it gets tiresome.  I'm ashamed to say that I didn't respond, because I couldn't articulate a response.  I wish I could have said, "That comment exhibits male privilege.  Because as women, we don't have the luxury of ignoring these issues.  They are constants in our lives, and we have to deal with that reality every day, not just when we feel like doing so.  That's why we talk about these things almost every day--because almost every day, we are forced to confront the devaluation of women in our society, and forced to confront it, we feel the need to vent to each other about it."  But I didn't, because at the time I couldn't put the feelings into words.  Not that I think anyone should be forced into talking or thinking about anything all the time.  But we don't talk about these issues because we enjoy thinking about them; we talk about these issues because we must think about them.

Yet I don't need to be gay to understand that my gay friends feel a need to constantly discuss gay rights (or to participate in those discussions), or to understand that my friends who are members of racial or ethnic minority groups may need to constantly discuss the discrimination they face (even though they often don't do so in public, which is in some sense extremely telling of discrimination all by itself).  I don't need to be gay or brown to approve of such discussions, or to be happy when my friends who do happen to be gay and/or brown feel comfortable having those discussions in a place where I can see them.  I don't need to be gay or brown to click like on posts about the needs of gay people or brown people.  I appreciate those discussions as opportunities to learn, and to hone my social conscience.

Yet when my friends and I discuss women's issues: when we discuss subtle discrimination in the professional workplace, when we discuss rape, when we discuss birth control, when we discuss unequal household and child-rearing responsibilities, when we discuss abortion, one might be tempted to think that we were all posting to a mythical women-only filter.

Before blaming the guys for not getting it, I think it helpful to engage in a little self-examination.  Because the discussions we have online largely mirror those that we have in real life, except that online we usually keep things less personal.  The people who engage in these discussions online are by and large the people who have them in real life, as well.

In person, we also keep these discussions between women.  They're topics for girls nights, for lunches between female friends, topics for the safety and support of other women.  There are some really, really valid reasons for this.  At the root of our in-person discussions are personal experiences.  It's much easier to share our vulnerabilities with people who understand them and share them, people who also struggle with them, and people who will believe us rather than questioning whether we're imagining experiences, people who won't conflate the intangibility of what we often experience with the reality of it.

These in-person discussions can involve some incredible vulnerability.  Like most adult women, I've had friends look me in the eye and tell me that they've been raped, molested, or otherwise sexually abused.  I've had a friend ask me with anguish if I thought God could be punishing her for having had an abortion when she was 18.  Not because I am unusual, not because of anything exceptional about me, but because I am a woman who has female friends.  These moments have been intimate, vulnerable, transformative experiences.  They have shaped the way I listen, and they have shaped the way I approach women's issues.  After the things I have been told, no discussion about these issues is abstract.  No discussion about these issues is an intellectual, hypothetical exercise.  That illusion has been shattered, and there is no going back.

Yet most of the men I know--including some very good, decent, well-intentioned men--do tend to regard these issues as abstract and intellectual.  Because they haven't had the life experiences to teach them otherwise.  They haven't had these discussions.  It is not intimate for them, it is not personal, and so they go on approaching women's issues as an a series of intellectual, hypothetical exercises.

I am not suggesting that anyone who has been raped or undergone any other traumatic experience has a responsibility to have these conversations with men, so that men may be enlightened.  That would be putting the responsibility on the victims, where it does not belong.  No victim has any responsibility except to herself or himself.

I am suggesting that we should go beyond our comfort zones and draw men into in-person discussions, even if we are not secure enough to exhibit the same vulnerability that we share in our discussions with other women.  We should make men aware that these discussions happen, that personal experiences of sexual violence are one of the things women talk about when men aren't around.  That those of us who have been lucky enough to avoid sexual violence should be willing to look our male friends in the eye and say, "Have you ever had someone tell you that they'd been raped?  Because I have.  Multiple times.  And so has almost every other woman I know.  That's why it's so personal for us."

Because maybe then they'd start listening differently.  Maybe they'd recognize that they have a place in this conversation, and that we would welcome their presence if they were willing to join it in a listening way, which is how all of us must come to it if we are ever to say anything worthwhile.

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