Can You Answer Yes? I Wish I Could.
TW: sexual violence, rape culture, sex abuse
In the past 24 hours I have seen at least 50 Facebook status updates asking the same question.
If you identify as a woman: Have you lived a life free of sexual violence?
The majority of answers – “No.”
On my post, less than 15 hours old, 71 “nos” so far. And I see more and more comments and posts by friends every hour.
Some of the posts included a definition for sexual violence. Mine was: Sexual violence is any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act by violence or coercion, unwanted sexual comments or advances, acts to traffic a person or acts directed against a person’s sexuality, regardless of the relationship to the victim.
Others left it up to the respondents to interpret how to answer the question.
One friend shared the post with the explicit request that men sit this one out.
There has been the occasional “yes.” Usually accompanied by a statement of gratitude – “I’m one of the lucky ones.” You are. Or a clarifying statement: “Well, if you are only talking about rape or physical violence, then…yes.” That’s not the definition that I use.
While I would never tell someone they have to identify as a victim or admit to having something horrible happen to them, I believe we live in a culture where sexual violence is so pervasive and accepted, that most, if not all, women would have to respond “no” if they really thought about it. If they could enter that horrifying, vomit-inducing, screaming as loud as you can “Not me! This can’t be happening to me!” mind-space where they realize that sexual violence happens to all women and girls (and most non-cis men) in our culture every day.
- you felt a hand grab your ass in an elevator or graze your breast in a bar;
- you heard a shout of “Hey baby, want to fuck?” from a passing car, while you are mowing your lawn. You are too afraid to say anything back because he knows where you live. Your children are playing nearby and hear everything;
- you are told by your boss to use your feminine wiles to appeases a client and to wear a shorter skirt to work to look more pleasing;
- a male coworker looked up your skirt as you climb the stairs to your office at a woman’s organization and said – “check out your panties!”;
- you are five years-old and an older boy made you take off your clothes and promise not to tell. When you got up to leave your bedroom, he punched you so hard in the stomach you threw up on your bed and were so embarrassed and scared that you lied and told your mom that you wet the bed after you washed the vomit off in the bathtub;
- your partner begged you for sex until he wore you down and you were too tired and too scared to say “no” another time;
- you passed out at a new friend’s house after a night of drinking and conversation in grad school and waking up with everyone gone except you and a man you don’t know, with a used condom inside you and no memories other than saying – “I don’t want to.”
And those are just a few examples from my lifetime of experiencing sexual violence.
Some comments shared with permission:
Then, there’s the people who are hung up on the definition. It’s too broad. Of course you’ll answer “no” if it’s that inclusive.
In a recent discussion of this topic with Grounded Parents contributors, Emily Sexton commented:
I think it is interesting how the responses differ depending on whether a definition is provided. For example, I suspect that a lot of the “yes – I have lived a life free of sexual violence” answers on Chris’s thread would be different if he had included the definition in yours and some others that implicitly includes things that I have experienced well short of rape – unwanted touching and kissing, including in public places and from men in positions of power over me; violent catcalling, including explicit threats of rape and or death of the man I was with in order to obtain me; the assumption that consenting (even initiating) once means ongoing consent.
It’s the same “forcible rape” or “legitimate rape” dumbfuckery over and over again. It’s only rape if he held you down; it’s only rape if he used a weapon; it’s only rape if you fought back, screamed no, didn’t drink, etc.; it’s only rape if he put his penis in your vagina; it’s only rape if you didn’t do everything you could to prevent or stop it.
It’s wrong to tell survivors that their experience of sexual violence is not valid, because it wasn’t the worst possible thing that could happen. Minimizing and dismissing violence as normal and innocent contributes to rape culture where these things happen again and again to most women and girls. Some ignoring reality to feel okay about something they did or saw or something they cannot possibly understand.
Sorry you feel bad about what happened, but at least you weren’t raped.
To quote Brené Brown, “empathy rarely starts with the words, at least.”
And we do it to ourselves, to get through moments of relative safety – denying what happened, minimizing what happened, hoping no one will find out, because you are so ashamed or afraid or feel like you won’t be believed. Being afraid to post the word “no” on a Facebook post about sexual violence, because your friends and family might see it and KNOW (so you message your friend so she can say it for you). Being afraid to post the status update yourself because of the push back you might receive from people you love.
I want you to know that I believe you. I am here. Let me know if I can help.
And violence isn’t always overt. Women and girls have a subtle awareness of our job to be pleasing. That our bodies are not our own. Grounded Parent Mary Brock writes,
This is kind of related to the idea that women’s bodies are not their own. Growing up, my breasts developed very slowly and were smaller than I liked (oh if only I knew the future….). But I was reassured many times that “more than a handful is too much.” Because obviously my breasts are not my own, they are the possession of any man who wants to touch them. There was the same kind of thing in that song “All About That Bass.” Which is why I find the song so annoying.
As a parent I want my children to be able to answer yes.
At seven years-old my daughter has certainly already started to feel the constant pressure against her small female self to be, look, and act a certain way. As much as I want or try to protect her, ubiquitous acts of sexual violence surround us, reinforced by rape culture and a Greek chorus singing – don’t be so sensitive – to those who speak up. I want her to answer yes. I want her to be perplexed by the idea that a man might rape a woman or touch them with out their permission or comment about their body and get away with it. I want this epidemic to end.
For that to happen, we need men to play a part. As my son learns what it means to be a man, I don’t want him to learn that being a man means being a rapist or being complicit in or dismissive of sexual violence. I want him to understand and practice consent, listen to the women in his life, and speak up and intervene when he sees violence. We need to start intervening – in our communities and on our campuses. To prevent these things from happening and hold people accountable. To send the message that this is not okay.
Are you starting to understand? This isn’t rare. It’s not something that only happens to people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time or who got drunk or who wore a short skirt. #yesallwomen. All of them.
It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be a woman in our culture, what it’s like to experience sexual violence every day. Luckily, while hard to watch, this short film – Majorité Opprimée by Eleonore Pourriat does a pretty good job. (CN: violence, nudity)
“Then, there’s the people who are hung up on the definition. It’s too broad. Of course you’ll answer “no” if it’s that inclusive.”
“Too inclusive” is subjective, but if you’re including stuff like someone making an unwanted sexual comment or touching you on your shoulder to get your attention (which you by definition didn’t want, because you weren’t aware until it happened), then probably 100% of men are going to be included too.
There certainly might be some people who would classify unwanted sexual comments as “sexual violence” (there are some definitions for violence which don’t limit it to physical acts), but if anyone would consider a shoulder tap sexual violence, they’re in a small minority. The “yes” replies to this seem to make it pretty damn clear that the people responding are generally talking about more than a shoulder tap, more even than unwanted sexual comments.
It would be interesting to poll men as well (specifically cis-het men), to see how it compares with the privileged group, though.
I am not sure why there’s always one person who brings up men when involved in discussions of sexual violence. It’s a red herring. I think we have reached a point in our culture where people just don’t feel comfortable admitting that rape and other sexual violence is as a pervasive as it is. We ignore the little things – an unwanted backrub, a catcall and try to tell ourselves that it is okay. It may not be physically violent, but it IS violence. It’s threatening. It’s designed to demean and dehumanize women. It’s not a fucking complement.
It’s not the same for men. I got catcalled while running remotely a few weeks ago. I feared that I would be raped or hurt. I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t get cell phone reception. I decided never to run that road again. I doubt most men have the same thoughts or feelings if they get catcalled. If they do, I would hope that they would want to have this discussion and try to change our cultural acceptance of these types of violence.