I have a heaping lot to say about things that are not empowering, and how progressivism in women’s interest (as well as in general) often utilizes an unempowering sort of empowerment (hopefully not on purpose) to the detriment of all. But I’m not going to put all that in one essay. I’ll break this up into parts, today’s part starting with an explanation of what I mean by that, and ending with a deconstruction of some of the major assumptions we make about gender and violence.
I’ll start off by saying that probably my most frustrating, all encompassing beef with our current culture is that we live in a world where many feel simultaneously victimized and entitled, where everyone seems to feel oppressed by something, and most of them demand to be accommodated by every thought, behaviour, and use of language. Karen Straughan, one of my favourite activists and online personalities, describes this phenomenon as a game of one-downsmanship, in which everyone is vying for perception as the bottom rung, the most oppressed and the most unfortunate, even (often) when they aren’t.
My best guess is that this behaviour is motivated by a combination of wanting to eschew personal responsibility for one’s circumstances, a desire to be treated with the sort of empathy and kindness to which victimhood entitles one (a sort of socially acceptable Munchausen syndrome), and the belief that only those perceived the most oppressed or unfortunate will be able to seek social or political redress, as though it were a “it sucks to be me” contest and only the winner would merit empathy. To be honest, though, I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than that. Social and behavioural phenomena are complex and multifaceted. But this perception often starts when we are very young. Parents tell their children that they are oppressed or that they will face stigma or bigotry, and that belief is internalized and used to create self-imposed boundaries.
I teach in the inner city and I see this all the time: young people who believe that there is nothing they can do to overcome their circumstances, because racism or classism leaves them devalued and subsequently held back by society. And I know plenty of women who have simply always assumed that they are extremely disadvantaged by virtue of their gender, perceiving the world through a lens coloured by the assumption that they will face oppression and they will not make it as far as an equivalently talented or determined man. In both cases, I watch people held back by the perception (legitimate or otherwise) that they are held back.
Whatever its cause, I have observed that the “one-downsmanship” phenomenon itself causes many of us feel like a leaf on the wind because, in our insistence on attributing all blame for our problems to forces outside ourselves (this, in the broad sense, is a human flaw and a universal problem, not just a product of our individual culture), and our own society’s pandering to this attitude, we downplay the value of free will and strip ourselves of our agency. With respect to this problem, I support any desire to empower people: to remind people that they can take the reigns and control their lives, that outside forces will affect you and circumstances are not always in your hands, but that how you react to them and move forward is a choice, and that at the end of the day you are the primary arbiter of your fate, able to make decisions that reward or damn you.
However, there seems to be a pretty powerful push right now to reinforce a belief that we are not in control, that our lives are out of our hands, that we are in danger and should be afraid. By we, in this case, I mean women.
The Duluth model of gendered violence, a concept conceived by academic feminists in the 80’s, describes a paradigm in which men (individually, and as a group), influenced by a patriarchal culture, dominate, terrorize, and subjugate women (again, both individually and as a group) using the threat of or actualized sexual and domestic violence. I think we can all agree that varying extremes of this concept are pretty widely accepted as fact in the west. Most people will tell you that women are the primary sufferers of these types of violence, and men the primary perpetrators, if only due to the disparity in strength and size between sexes. Many believe it to be an epidemic with widespread affects and some gigantic proportion of women as sufferers.
Obviously, I would have a very different blog if I believed any of this were true. The Duluth model was debunked before it was even considered, and continues to be, by every study ever done on the subject. But don’t take my word for it, take the word of these hundreds of academic researchers. I could embed this, but I want it to stand out and beg you to click it. Here is a bibliography of over 500 investigations and empirical studies demonstrating pretty damn unequivocally that domestic violence is gender neutral, and that women are as (if not more) physically aggressive in intimate relationships as men:
And while I’m shattering assumptions, even more people believe that rape and sexual assault are pretty much the domain of men. Again, go ahead and buckle your seatbelts. This is 100% wrong. Laws and culture in general mostly define rape as forcible penetration, which marginalizes the men who are forced to penetrate someone else, which is to say, who are forced into intercourse by women. This is more common than you realize. Again, here are some links. Click through them. Go on, I’ll wait.
Here is a Time article on a small study of men and sexual assault: http://time.com/37337/nearly-half-of-young-men-say-theyve-had-unwanted-sex/
Here are a few male survivors who have decided to speak out: http://www.vocativ.com/underworld/crime/hard-truth-girl-guy-rape/?fb_action_ids=10102607320525794&fb_action_types=og.shares
And here’s the bit that will surprise you. This article breaks down the data from that CDC study we’ve all heard used as evidence of a male-on-female rape epidemic, and it comes to the conclusion that, once you consider forcibly using someone else’s penis to penetrate yourself as rape (because it is, and if you claim to want equality you must agree), men and women experience rape at about the same one and a half percent annual rate.
This article does some editorializing, but it cites its sources very well. Feel free to read through the linked studies within. I did, and I learned an awful lot. Consider this reading your homework for an intermediate course on being a human being.
Did you read it? Good. So, hopefully now we are all on the same page, and we can all acknowledge that this is not part of a broad conspiracy of men keeping women in their place, or even any kind of systemic gendered issue. Sexual and domestic violence are an everybody issue, perpetrated and suffered by all demographics. It is downright dishonest to claim that it is something suffered primarily by females or perpetrated primarily by males.
Of course, none of this disproves the claim of an epidemic (usually made about rape). I can tackle that one, too. Again, most people cite the oft-quoted CDC study (2010) which was responsible for the headline 1 in 5 and 1 in 3 statistics, referring to rape and general sexual assault, respectively. As I stated above, this study itself demonstrates that rape is something that happens to about a percent and a half of people annually, which is considered more reliable than the more sensational lifetime numbers, but having read the study, their methodology still left a lot to be desired. The study breaks down sexual violence into 5 categories: rape (including an ambiguous question about alcohol use before intercourse), being made to penetrate (usually this is rape of men by women), sexual coercion (in the CDC’s own words, this can include “someone who repeatedly asked for sex or showed that they were unhappy”), unwanted sexual contact (anything from kissing to groping), and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences. I’d like to draw attention to the mischief contained within that final category:
“Non-contact unwanted sexual experiences are those unwanted experiences that do not involve any touching or penetration, including someone exposing their sexual body parts, flashing, or masturbating in front of the victim, someone making a victim show his or her body parts, someone making a victim look at or participate in sexual photos or movies, or someone harassing the victim in a public place in a way that made the victim feel unsafe.”
So, basically, what this study says is that a third of female respondents had been anywhere from spoken to in public in a way that made them uncomfortable to forcibly penetrated, including actual unequivocal sexual assault, as well as being catcalled, sent a dick pic, kissed by someone who got the wrong vibe, having sex after a drink or two, or having sex with someone who had asked you a few times if you would like to do so. Frankly, I’m shocked that only a third of female respondents reported experiencing one of these things. I would have thought it was closer to everybody. This is such a wide range of experiences, some of which are incredibly subjective definitionally, that it is not a meaningful statement, and yet it is being reported as a reliable metric and evidence of rape culture. When you have to use this sort of rampant skewing to make your claim of victimhood and oppression, I get more than a little skeptical that there is any oppression or systemic victimhood to report.
“But Jackalope!” I can almost hear you cry, “isn’t violence a serious enough problem that we should put a stop to it, no matter what? Why do you want people not to care or not believe that there is violence against women???” I do care, and I want people to care (about sufferers who are men, women, and everything between), but spreading misinformation hurts the cause and does some of its own damage to boot.
Of course, misinformation of this kind marginalizes the shit out of victims of violence that don’t fit into the popular assumptions, like the dozen and a half or so people I know who are male survivors and/or survivors of female violence, who have been turned away by cops, mocked by loved ones, have no shelters or support networks to seek help, and in general are denied legitimacy by a population who is convinced they don’t exist, as well as perpetuating some really nasty and unfair stereotypes about men. But these faulty assumptions also hurt your widely accepted female victims of male violence like yours truly, and women everywhere who believe said assumptions. Let me explain.
The whole point of the Duluth model when it was first conceived was that, in the perception of the authors (assuming, perhaps optimistically, that they were unaware that it was incorrect), the nature of violence was gendered, and was part of enforcing an over-arching power structure. In this hypothesis, men commit violence as a power play to keep women in fear and in their place. Feminists will tell you that not all men need to be violent in order for this nasty, malicious goal to be achieved. A few female victims are enough, because all the rest of us will be aware and intimidated by the knowledge that it happens, and it could happen to anyone.
So, bearing that in mind, what exactly do we think inflating statistics beyond all recognition, sensationalizing violence, and rampant media fear mongering are going to do?
I already know dozens of women who feel unsafe walking at night, receiving sexual (or even non-sexual) comments from strangers, or even being in a crowded public space without a buddy. I constantly hear the argument, “We shouldn’t have to carry our keys between our fingers to feel safe at night!” Women are certainly afraid. Of course, if you read even a little on sexual violence, you know that the overwhelming majority of victimizations are perpetrated by someone the victim knows in a familiar environment. Your odds of being cornered and raped while walking to your car from the club are slim to none.
And yet women are afraid. So afraid that they compare men to poisoned M&Ms, a risk not worth taking. So afraid that they will change their behaviours, limit themselves, and avoid activities they would otherwise enjoy. So afraid that they feel their quality of life has suffered.
This constant barrage of misinformation and media fear mongering leads women to believe that they are in constant danger and there is nothing they can do about it. The message is this: Rapists are out there, and they will get you. You know at least four women, so that one in five could be you. And if it isn’t, there’s always your husband or boyfriend. He could beat the living shit out of you any time he wants. You are unsafe, and you are a fool if you aren’t living in fear.
Here’s the thing. Even if you subscribe to the belief that women are oppressed and kept in fear by systemic gendered violence, you have to acknowledge that sensationalizing that violence until the majority of women live in fear of walking alone at night or drinking at a bar will do exactly the same fucking thing. Way to go, feminism. You are The Patriarchy, spreading a belief that leaves women afraid enough to change their behaviours and feel oppressed.
This sad attempt at an awareness campaign is not helping women “take back the night.” It is helping them into their bunkers while they wait for the apocalypse to blow over. Scaring the bejeezus out of an entire demographic by demonizing half of humanity is just about the most unproductive, damaging way I can think of to try to help someone.
Here’s an idea, how about we stick to the facts. Rather than trying to spread awareness with a fear campaign, it’s time to address this for what it is: a small proportion of sociopathic men and women batter their partners and sexually assault people. Men do it to men. Women do it to women. Men do it to women. Women do it to men. We need to understand that proclaiming a gender neutral phenomenon is systemic and gendered is a slap in the face to any survivor who doesn’t fit that mold. No one should have to face trauma and invisibility. No one should have to hear that they can’t be raped, that they should suck it up, that they aren’t a real man, or that the hideous truth they’ve found the courage to speak just isn’t something that happens. We need to provide objective, gender neutral justice and support systems that address this adequately without leaving an entire population in fear of walking out their doors, without slandering half of humans. Justice will be best served with accurate information and progress based on facts, not faulty assumptions and the fear of a war on women.