As hundreds of thousands of women flock to social media to share stories of sexual harassment and assault, many men are left reeling with the revelation of the sheer pandemic scale of the problem. ‘I obviously knew it was a massive issue,’ one male friend commented ‘but nearly every woman I know has posted.’ Even the most self-consciously woke flocking to comment boxes to express – horror, surprise, perhaps even a lingering shred of disbelief.
It’s a sentiment seldom echoed by the women I know. It’s heart-sickening to hear the details of exactly how my women around me have endured violence and abuse. Shocking, even. But not surprising. The spectre of sexual violence has haunted our lives ever since we were old enough to feel uncomfortable when a man looked at us that way – though we were perhaps too young to articulate why. We say goodnight with ‘text me that you’ve gotten home safe’. If someone disappears for too long at a house party, we go hunting. We make the dark walk from bus stop to front door with our knuckles frocked with keys, wolverine-style. It’s loathesome, yes. It’s also absolutely normal. In fact, it would be surprising to learn that a woman or femme had somehow avoided being casually groped by someone they trusted, or been spared the banal indignity of a stranger speculating on the composition of their genitals.
Some of this talk takes place in a half-clandestine language of mutual survival – tacit heads-ups about that one weird friend who’s just, you know, a bit creepy. Little wonder, given the shame and stigma heaped upon anyone who speaks openly about the realities of sexual violence, staining through every sector of society. But revelations about these realities are nothing new. For years – decades, centuries even – women have been coming forward with tales of routine violation from strangers, friends, partners, colleagues, family members. That some retain the capacity to be shocked is perhaps testament to the profundity of disbelief with which we treat women. When someone speaks up, sharply-honed lexicon of victim-blaming furnishes us with a thousand ways to dismiss, minimise or excuse that violence; that she’s trying to smear someone’s reputation, that she’s exaggerating, that she’s lying for attention, that she was asking for it, that she’s covering for her own bad choices. All of these are deemed more likely than the outrageous suggestion that she was telling the truth about her assault or harrassment. That someone hurt her, through no fault of her own.
It’s a breathtaking masterpiece of dehumanisation. That as a society, we bear witness again and again to the intimate details of female suffering, and the first questions we ask are – what was she wearing? Was she giving signals? Could she have stayed at home? We suspect, deep down, that she deserved it – so it is upon us simply to figure out why and how. It happens without thinking; and even the self-proclaimed progressive among us are soaked in and trained on a culture that routinely dismisses female testimony and ignores female suffering. (Yes, that includes me.)
This dehumanisation useful in maintaining the control mythology of rape culture. It animates the callous assumption is that victims probably deserved it, unless they have fulfilled certain impossible conditions. The onus is upon you to avoid assault. To dress modestly, to do as you’re told. Not to go out, unless your attacker lives with you, in which case you have to magic the means to move out. To tell someone if you’re assaulted – but not to smear a good man’s reputation. To be sexually obliging, but not a slut who was asking for it. Behave, and you might escape violence. I can think of no more compelling logic by which to hand down a playbook of rules controlling womens lives.
Of course, this is somewhat undermined by the wellspring of stories testifying to the fact that – none of it works. Sexual violence happens everywhere. It cannot be avoided by dressing down or playing nice. It happens at home, at work, in bars and on tubes, it happens among friends and in families. Resisting the truth of those stories requires a rape-culture masterclass in sociopathy. You need to determinedly ignore the protestations of anger, fear and pain by women claiming the right simply to exist untroubled by pandemic-level threats of violence and harassment. You need to block your ears and close your eyes. You need to be able to look a survivor in the face and assume she is guilty until proven innocent of some moral or practical failing for which the universe has rewarded her her just deserts. Doing otherwise might imply that the problem lies not with misbehaving victims – but rather with abusers, and those who turn a blind eye while they wreak merry havoc.
I get it. I really do. That revelation is unsettling – not least because of the sheer crushing mathematics of the problem. No single abusive monster, however determined, is efficient enough to rampage their way through so many countless women’s lives. Behind the thousands of testimonies of assault, there lurk thousands of assaulters of harrassers, many blithely coddled in the assurance that what they did was fine. She was into it, right? We had sex before, after all. It’s just a compliment. It’s just banter. To accept the reality of #MeToo is to shatter that shell of self-reassurance, invite the radical paranoia which bids us look at our friends, at our acquaintances, at ourselves, and ask – them, too? It’s hard. But it’s also necessary.
That’s why I’m relieved that countless thousands of testimonies together form an irresistible force that sweeps before it all protestations that sexual violence can be avoided if you just behave, or just dress modestly, or stay home. Against the weight of patriarchal violence, such victim-blaming codes of conduct are worse than useless. I’m relieved that people have finally felt emboldened to come forward with allegations against men who had spent years glossing their crimes with a patina of power or respectability.
But I’m furious that women are once again expected to tout their personal trauma to be considered human. Dehumanised by default, we are obliged to crawl through a mud mire of personal nightmare. To dredge up past trauma as evidence in a lifelong Turing Test. We are obliged to unfurl the details of our most intimate lives – the more grotesque, the better. To summon a ghost army of reaching hands and flapping mouths. In want of bruises, (long-since faded) the skeptical court of public opinion will also accept psychological scars as evidence that these, perhaps, are sapient life forms capable of suffering. A previously unconscionable biological marvel. Against the sheer the weight of patriarchal disbelief, only this will suffice.
In the movie Ex Machina, as the hero finds himself surrounded by artificial intelligence, he starts to question whether he too might be a robot. He takes a razor blade and cuts open his own arm. Shuddering with the pain of it. As the blood wells up, he’s relieved to discover that he’s human after all. That’s what we’re being asked to do, just for our pain to be believed. Women everywhere, crying out for a little compassion. Slicing ourselves open again and again just to remind people that we bleed too. Little thought is given to how we might, eventually, be allowed to heal.
#229 No Return to ‘Normal’ ● Sir David King blasts the government ● State power, policing and civil rights under Covid-19 ● Hope and determination in grassroots resistance ● Black liberation and Palestine ● The future of ‘live’ ● Pubs, patriotism and precarity ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
And you choose how much to pay for your subscription...
Phoebe Kisubi reflects on using participatory theatre as a tool for social and political activism among sex workers in Cape Town, South Africa
Shakespeare’s women can alert us to alternative stories – if we listen to them. In ‘talking back’ to the Bard we can change our own stories, says Charlotte Scott
Cleaners are being ignored in the government’s provision of a safety-net during the pandemic. The current crisis is rooted in a long history of domestic work being made invisible, writes Laura Schwartz
With pop culture increasingly a political battlefield, Marzena Zukowska asks Carolyn Petit of Feminist Frequency how the left can leverage the momentum of video gaming
As the University and Colleges Union strike enters its final week, Ruth Pearce discusses the importance of building alliances and fighting back
A book that systematically unpicks the myths that are spread in order to preserve the status quo, written by Nesrine Malik. Reviewed by Leah Cowan