This post is long and tiresome because this problem is, too.
I can’t actually tell if widespread conversations about rape culture and sexism are finally happening or if I just have a lot of feminist and activist friends. I hope it’s both.
My Facebook feed, always the infallible litmus of what’s going on in the world and the fluid collective conscience of my social sphere, has been stacked the past few days with threads sparked by the Steubenville rape case. A visually overwhelming summary:
- There are memes pointing out the out-f-ing-rageously frustrating tweets and news media coverage is (like this one) and the petitions that follow (like this one).
- There’s the satirical but all-too-fitting Onion video from two stinkin’ years ago.
- Then there are thoughtful essays on parenting and how we can teach children (and our friends) not to rape (like this simple one, and this personal favorite overview, and this one my twenty-something city-dwelling friends will probably enjoy more just because it’s on ThoughtCatalog).
And then there’s this one that my friend Chris posted.
And I’m singling that one out not necessarily because the author does The Absolute Best Job Ever of explaining the problems with how USAmerican culture talks about consent or rape or womanhood, though she does do a pretty outstanding job of that. But it’s worth noting because my guy friend Chris posted it.
Every single meme and article I linked above has been shared by at least three of my friends, in some cases at least a dozen. Including Chris, names of my male-identified Facefriends come up three times.
I know I have more guy friends than that. I know the men I choose to keep in my life—my friends, my brothers, my cousins, my mentors—are good guys who make good choices and respect people of all genders in their lives, or would at least try to. And what’s more, I’ve had real-life-in-person-vintage-style conversations with them about this stuff. Many of them have listened to me vent about which politicians were super sexist this week and what innuendos some stranger tried to make and what insensitive joke someone tried to tell. Many of them ask questions. Some of them have bravely admitted that they will never understand what it’s like to be a woman or in a woman’s body. And I appreciate that.
But only a handful of my guy friends have ever started the conversation. Or brought it up. Or even taken two seconds to click a link and share something on the ever-changing, faceless interwebz. Forgive me for quoting/using hashtags (it will not happen again), but my aforementioned friend Chris tagged it #accountability. I want to call you #allies.
I want to know what the men in my life are saying to their friends and their partners and their sons and daughters and their sisters and their brothers and their leaders and their students to make sure that women are not raped or abused (not even to mention all the systemic and subtle stuff). To make sure I, even as one of the luckier women I know, don’t have to be sexually harassed in some way at almost every job I take. To make sure I don’t have to keep being told to carry pepper spray when I’m traveling the country—or coming from my bus stop. To make sure every other person in their lives knows that they are cared for and supported. To make sure every other person in their lives actually is cared for and supported and looked out for.
This came up with a male co-worker recently, whose approach with the guests and general demeanor genuinely inspires me. I have a lot of respect for him, as a professional but foremost as a person. But my job is vastly different than his and the other men I work alongside’s. The reality is, just about every single day I go to work, there’s at least one patron who says or does something inappropriate to me that my male co-workers don’t have to deal with.
And it’s not because one of my job tasks include putting condoms on the counter, though men seem to think this two-second task is a really opportune time to make all sorts of too-subtle jokes that are never clever at all. It’s not because I work with homeless men, or men who might be dealing with mental illness and trauma, or men who are sexually repressed/frustrated/dysfunctional/whatever, or men who are often in especially hypermasculine and heteronormative environments. It’s because I work with people—as was the case when I worked at a food court, a coffee shop, a grocery store… And if anything I wish maybe it had more to do with being unusually chipper and outgoing or whatever, but my male co-workers do not get called “sweetcakes” (?!?!) by the guests or have men poking their sides from behind as a way of playing (seriously?) or have to find ways of responding to lines like, “I don’t want to check [if it’s my appointment time yet] on the clock; I just want to keep asking you so I can look at you” (I literally did not give him the time of day).
That’s the lame stuff.
And I still respond pathetically to the lame stuff.
But the other day a man said something that could be interpreted as violent about a woman that wasn’t even directed at me (and probably, in all fairness, came from a trigger in his own mental condition). But it set me off. And I had to talk it out with this co-worker, partially to cool down and partially because I had honestly begun to wonder if my male co-workers even noticed when this sh*t happens.
Turns out they notice. Or at least he noticed how uncomfortable it was when some sketchfest made Yet Another Condom Comment after saying “Who’s that one over there bending over?” while I was reaching for something in a lower shelf. He noticed because it was uncomfortable for him too.
So why didn’t he say anything?
And why couldn’t I expect him to say anything?
Whatever. I mean, I don’t need men to fight my battles, right, yadda yadda, I know. But it would just be nice to live in a society where, like I said earlier, I can count on people looking out for other people, men, women, genderqueer, and so on.
And that’s exactly what he was afraid of, too: he didn’t want to suggest there was something he could do that I couldn’t and seem further patriarchal, he didn’t want to step on my toes. And those aren’t just excuses from his own fear; those are things people have called him out on before. What’s more, he just didn’t know what to do. Some of that was out of his own discomfort. But maybe also because we don’t talk and listen about this stuff.
We both agreed that every situation is different and complex. There are no answers for anything, ever, in the whole world, so I won’t pretend to provide them.
But I will say this: there is something he can do that I can’t, and that is be his own voice and his own ears. And I can only be my own voice and my own ears. And the truth is, having that short conversation meant more than enough to me. I learned from his experiences, questions, feelings, presence, and I needed to share what I shared.
I told him that one thing I could use every time was at least some acknowledgment. Tell me you notice when something doesn’t seem okay, or when I don’t seem okay. Be my backup when I get too heated, as in any other kind of conflict. If someone’s bein’ a jerk, give the jerk a look that says you’re there and you see me as a human and won’t stand for that, either. And maybe you can even tell him, or at least tell me, and then maybe we can talk about it. And maybe sometimes you step in or we work together to take care of some further steps. These don’t just apply to sexual harassment, or to what the bystanders at the Steubenville party could have done/not done. These aren’t just things men can do, though I hope you men do, and these aren’t just things we do for women, though I hope we all do. These are pretty much some vague adages on the road to human respect, for anyone.
One of the things finally coming up in the consent conversation is that it’s not just about “no means no” but that “yes means yes” and even enthusiastic consent (coined here). That is, “no means no” implies that someone must (verbally) say “no” in order to not consent to sex—which someone might not be able to do when they’re unconscious or simply can’t communicate in the same way as their partner. On the other hand, enthusiastic consent suggests that not only should consent require a “yes” but a downright enthusiastic one that lets you know the experience is definitely desired. For instance, if your partner is only consenting because you pressured that person repeatedly and wore her into a “yes,” is that really consent?
Maybe the same paradigm offers some insight when it comes to consenting to an ecstatic and even life-giving culture rather than rape culture.
You may not be a rapist, I may not be a rapist. But maybe we have been bystanders at some point to rape culture and straight-up powerful disrespect, and unfortunately, we live in more of a no-means-no society right now. So what can I do to live my life as an enthusiastic yes toward a more positive culture and better way of being, so that it’s louder than those who wait for silence?