There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet
an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says,
“Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a
bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,
“What the hell is water?”- David Foster Wallace
Most of us are the young fish; unable to detect societal violence because it is normalized. Not only do we accept this normalized violence as inevitable, we subscribe to a defeatist belief system that forgoes our future by resigning to the “fact” that our society will never change. Ironically, these are the very things which uphold the success of an unequal and violent society.
While it is accepted, and normalized that girls and women must exist in a world under the constant threat of the possibility of cisgender (“cis”) male sexual violence, it is not acceptable. Our low expectations of men, and the belief that men are unable – rather than unwilling – to respect the physical and sexual boundaries of girls and women, is how the normalization occurs. These norms successfully shift the burden of male sexual violence from men who perpetrate violence, onto the bodies, actions, clothing, and ultimately the existence of girls and women who are subjected to this violence.
This essay is for Nova and the other girls of tomorrow born today. I urge their mothers to resist.*
I write this essay because I recognize the water that surrounds us can be made clean. I believe in the transformative power of humanity; as we created society, so shall we re-create it for better justice.
It is fairly easy to tell women to cover up. It is a cosmetic coping mechanism that provides us with momentary psychological peace.
Friends and family believe it necessary to police the clothing of their daughters, sisters, wives, co-workers etc assuming that appearing “appropriate” will ensure safety. This line of thinking places the burden of curbing male sexual violence on women.
We already tell our daughters: to make sure they don’t dress too sexy, make sure they don’t attract men with their bodies, tell them not to go out at night, tell them to utilize the buddy system, tell them not to accept drinks from strangers, tell them not to be too free, be aware of their surroundings at all time, pre-dial 911 when walking alone at night. Essentially we tell our daughters to restrict their light so they don’t shine too bright, lest they attract the attention of a rapist!
Despite the tragic reality, few initiatives exist to teach boys and men not to be rapists.
Check out this subversive rape prevention image below:
This ability to make women pay for the sins of men is a premier power of a patriarchal society; a power characterised as the constant threat of male sexual violence – rape in particular. Ultimately, power is the ability to make a person do what they would otherwise not do, and the coercion women into perpetual vigilance is exactly that. This vigilance, we are told despite little evidence, will ensure our safety. Yet the stats and our experiences show otherwise.
How the threat of male sexual violence is perpetuated
Below I highlight four invisible social mechanisms of maintaining men’s power:
1. Giving men the social space to harm
What does it mean to give men the social space to harm? This means to create a social setting that does not penalize cis heterosexual men for harmful behavior imagined as sexual desire, when directed at women. It is in allowing straight men to do to girls – to stare, harass, catcall, follow, grab, feel – what they would kill gay men for even thinking of doing to straight men.
Boys will be boys
It is in setting expectations so low for men, that we expect them to rape in any instance where an opportunity presents itself, and responding to instances of boys’ violation of girls’ autonomy with “boys will be boys”. This phrase exists because society refuses to assign boys with integrity, self-control, respect and empathy for girls. It is a phrase that laughs off, trivializes, and accepts as normal, instances where boys violate the bodily autonomy of girls ( eg. “copping a feel”, grabbing a wrist to physically force women into men’s presence so they can talk, slapping asses, obstructing women’s pathway with their bodies so they can “holla” etc. )
Not everyone is granted this freedom.
Allowing straight men the social space to harm girls exists both in the lack of criticism, punishment, and negative reinforcement of cis straight men’s behaviour when it is directed at girls and women, and in the acceptance of this behaviour as instinctual and uncontrollable.
2. Normalizing and treating men’s harm as an inevitable function of heterosexual male desire
Cultural quips such as “boys will be boys” allow men to have the social space to be violent precisely because heterosexual male desire is constructed as naturally and inherently predatory.
Heterosexual male desire transcends many social boundaries, even if they are important ones. We live in a society where girl’s consensual sexual activity and expression is shamed, while boys’ harmful harassment, demeaning of girls, slut-shaming, and sexual assault is accepted as an inevitable manifestation of heterosexual male desire. Cis heterosexual boys are positively reinforced for having sex with many women, being antagonistic towards LGBTQ persons, and for demonstrating an ability to exercise control over women. As they grow, ideologies about being a “real man” prioritize a show of dominance and exercising control, over displays of compassion, empathy, or nurture.
…this teaches girls and boys that inciting male sexual desire, intentionally or otherwise, can lead to unwanted comments, touching and/or rape.
It is also present in the language we use in describing consensual heterosexual sex as an act done by men, to women. Even worse, constant messaging to girls of “what did you expect” as a response to rape and sexual assault represent heterosexual men’s sexual desire as inevitably violent.
Essentially, this teaches girls and boys that inciting male sexual desire, intentionally or otherwise, can lead to unwanted comments, touch and/or rape. This is how society constructs sexual violence as a normal result of igniting heterosexual male desire.
3. Suppressing women’s sexual agency
Women’s sexual agency is robbed from us in many ways. One classic way of dehumanizing women for expressing interest in sex is the use of violent words such as whore, slut, cum-bucket, hoe, thot and its many variations.
While cis heterosexual boys are encouraged to explore their heterosexual desires, heterosexual girls are taught to repress their sexuality in the form of “waiting till marriage“. Our cultural nightmares imagine our daughters as “hoes”, yet we are comfortable with our hetero sons’s sexualities, never once considering that they are encouraged to violate women in the name of desire.
…by encouraging women to believe holding back expressions of sexuality is a viable means of negotiating safety.
Another method of dehumanizing women for sexual interest is by assigning moral character and virtue to women who refrain from engaging in sexual activity for men’s control. Additionally, using the myth that sexual activity causes a widening of vaginas- whilst ignoring the well-documented elasticity of vaginas- encourages women to refrain from sexual activity in order to maintain a “tight” vagina for the benefit of men.
All these social norms rob women of the joy of sexual expression, but the worst generally accepted social norm that stigmatizes women’s sexual agency is the belief that being sexy will cause men to rape you, and thus women should be careful about when and where we are sexy.
The messaging sent to women to “cover up”, as a means of deterring men’s sexual violence, results in the stigmatization of women’s sexual expression. It teaches women to expect violence when we are sexual, since men’s sexual violence is accepted as an extension of male desire.
Victim-blaming narratives that look to women’s clothing, dancing, or flirting as justification for male sexual violence suppress women’s sexual agency; by encouraging women to believe holding back expressions of sexuality is a viable means of negotiating safety.
4. Dehumanizing sexual women, and creating an unsympathetic target of Male Sexual Violence
Sex belongs to cis straight men. As previously discussed, the rest of us pay a hefty price for exerting sexual agency. While LGBTQ people are ostracized, discriminated against in the work place, and are constructed as unworthy of God’s love, straight women get called names and lose our moral worthiness. The loss of moral worthiness creates a context of dehumanization, ensuring that victim-blaming becomes a natural response when the person being attacked is not valued as a full member of society.
In a patriarchal society, all women are made to pay for the sins of men, but women who refuse to cater to patriarchal values pay more (specifically, women who choose to reclaim their sexual autonomy). These women are not just harassed, shamed, and insulted for their decision to intentionally be sexual beings, their rape/sexual assault is constructed as justifiable and corrective violence in response to improper behavior. Improper behavior is used as a basis for creating a two tier system for which women are worthy of sympathy, and which are worthy of scorn when both groups are raped by men.
…there is a legitimization of male sexual violence when it is directed at those women who refuse to kowtow to patriarchal rules of modesty.
The notion that modesty saves women from sexual violence is a farce; very rarely are other violations understood in this manner. Such a concept requires the belief that women’s very existence can elicit sexual violence.
The idea that sexiness brings about sexual violence requires the erasure of other victims of sexual violence: children, incarcerated people, civilians and soldiers in war etc. The notion that modesty saves women, also ignores the fact that most survivors know their rapists and that women are already constantly vigilant.
Despite all the work that women, girls, and femmes do to ensure our security, we are still systematically subjected to male violence. We do it almost instinctively, without prodding, and we require other women to do it too.
And yet we are asked to do more.
By encouraging women to abide by patriarchal rules of “covering up” as a means of negotiating safety, there is a legitimization of male sexual violence when it is directed at women who refuse to kowtow to patriarchal rules of modesty.
A climate that protects rapists encourages a two tier system of sympathy when it asks rape victims,
“Why did you drink till you were passed out?“
“Why did you wear that sexy outfit?“
“Why didn’t you struggle hard enough?”
Rather than asking rapists “Why did you rape?“.
It focuses attention on what women did wrong to become targets of sexual violence, and cares for the targets of sexual violence differently, by creating pseudo-categories of morally worthy victims and blameworthy victims. This climate implicitly teaches rapists whose rape matters less to the community, and thus which targets of sexual violence will garner less less repercussions.
For millennia, women and girls have been prevented from living their fullest lives because we must adjust to consider the ever-present, looming threat of rape. We exist in a society that successfully terrifies women into restricting our autonomy.
We do it ritualistically, we do it with ease. Girls hear on a daily basis that our individual actions could deter male violence. We come to believe it. So we work at not being the next victim. We alter our appearance, our routes, our schedules, our comfort in an attempt to secure safety.
As a society, our ideas and initiatives leave girls and women to shoulder the burden of *preventing* rape . This also implies to abusers and rapists what kind of women to victimize, and what kinds of defenses to utilize in ensuring they are not held accountable for their violence.
More insiduously, it provides the ideological foundation for shifting the blame of rape from perpetrators, onto their victims.
By dimming our lights in the hopes of negotiating safety, I fear that we will do to our daughters what our mothers did to us. We will do it for the reasons that our mothers did: To preserve our virtue and to protect us from predatory men. Yet we will have nothing to show for this repression of self.
* I desire to include cis hetero men into the class of people I urge to resist patriarchy, but I am not hopeful about their capacity to shed allegiance to their class interests of male domination.