All ‘Fessed Up and Nowhere to Go
This is the kind of entry I hate to write — not only because I know nobody’s listening, but because it’s about issues that I fear that there may be no solution to, or at least not the starkly delineated solution that people who think they’ve figured it out seem to think there is. We are supposed to know the right way to act, the right direction in which to step, wherever we stand on the political spectrum; if we are unable to realize change, it is not because we do not have a solution, but because forces are arrayed against us, keeping us from putting it into place. And it is true that I, too, think I’ve got it sussed most of the time, but the older I get, the more I relate to Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, explaining how he’d lost the calling: “I got nothing to preach no more, that’s all. I ain’t so sure of things…a preacher got to know. I don’t. I got to ask.”
I was lucky enough to have been born in 1969 — a year after the most world-shaking period of the latter half of the century — and raised in a time when a great many of the painful prejudices of the past were being, if not wiped away, at least questioned, analyzed, and provoked. The old and ugly was not being overthrown (it still hasn’t been), but it was growing nervous; the men with their hands on the throats of the world were used not only to getting their way, but doing so without impertinence. Now, everywhere the bosses turned, someone was getting in their faces and asking them to justify their behavior. We were (and still are) engaged in one of the most important process of human thought: that of questioning things, of analyzing and reorganizing them, and giving them new names based upon what we had learned.
The burden of traditional male roles, still so heavy when I was born, has been lightened, and the notion that homosexuality is a sin punishable by death is now no longer universally accepted; indeed, it is now a surprising thing, relegated to backwards-seeming African despotisms, and encouraged only by fanatical religious zealots. We have advanced enough to call racism an infamy, even if few of us are willing to admit our complicity in it. We now invoke words of great power and great shame — colonialism, imperialism, privilege — upon what was once considered to be nothing more than seizing our natural birthright, and if we have not fully come to terms with these things, we have at least developed a new way of talking about them. The idea that one group has an inherent and eternal superiority over another has hardly been eliminated, but it has become uncomfortable to champion in too loud a voice. All these things represent a progress that is frustratingly slow, but exceedingly fine.
And now, we hear from some quarters, we are living in something called a “rape culture”. According to the knee-jerk, privileged worldview of the men’s rights crowd, I ought to take instant offense at the phrase. But after hundreds of years of rape being ignored, excused or minimized by the men who run the world, and thousands of years before that of rape being barely recognized as a concept, I figure we’ve just come around to another example of seeing things clearly and giving them the names they deserve. The self-identified “nice guys” who have never sexually assaulted anyone don’t get to exempt themselves from having to contribute to solving the problem of rape, any more than the millions of southerners who supported the Confederacy get a free pass just because they didn’t personally own slaves. The problem of rape, regardless of your feelings about the phrase “rape culture” and your own culpability, is a real one — and, even more, it is a manifestation of the unequal status that is still forced upon women in what is still a male-dominated society.
Then, there is this — an essay that has been met with great praise in some quarters, but with which I find myself having decidedly mixed feelings. Of course, the author is right to feel the way that she feels, and she, along with far too many women of my personal acquaintance, have made it painfully clear what it is like to live in fear, or at the very least in sadness and stress, at how the simplest walk around the neighborhood can turn into a gauntlet of harassment. It also fills me with one of the worst sensations: that of helplessness, of frustration. It makes me almost understand the defensive, hostile reaction of the MR creeps; because at least they’re in control of their reactions. I just flail around helplessly, consumed with shame, not knowing what to do. It makes no difference that I have never engaged in that kind of oppressive objectification; I swim in the same polluted waters.
But it’s also an essay that seems to be preaching to the choir. The final paragraph, where the author lists the many ways women must invent uncomfortable coping strategies to avoid street harassment and asks the men who hassled her if they want to be that guy, seems a bit naïve; certainly that is the goal, certainly that is the question, certainly that is the struggle. But the answer, were she to pose the question to those men in person instead of in the more welcoming surrounds of her own blog, would likely have been shut up, bitch. It’s applying a progressive shine of reason to something too old and ugly to bear the treatment. I’m reminded of the widely propagated posters and infographics that deliver a message along the lines of “don’t teach women self-defense; teach men not to rape”. It’s a wonderful sentiment, not to be disagreed with, and certainly a society where men are taught from childhood to respect women and recognize sexual boundaries is one we should forever strive for. But we’re a long way from getting there, and in the meantime, there are a lot of men who will rape. Asking them why their parents didn’t teach them not to is going to prove a lot less effective than giving them a face full of phenacyl chloride.
This is where I’d normally try to synthesize all of these thoughts into a conclusion, but I can’t. All I see is a problem that I’m part of, and a solution that means not only real political action, but constant and personal self-appraisal of ourselves and our cultural standards. Feeling helpless doesn’t mean being helpless, but we can’t figure out what to do in our heads. We have to talk to the people we don’t want to talk to about the subjects we don’t want to breach. We have to let go of our own defensive reaction that a problem of society is a personal accusation; and we should know who our allies are, and who our real enemies are. We have to come up with the right words and ideas to envision the equality of women as we know it ought to be, but we also have to bear down and do the uglier work of dealing with the inequality of women as it currently is. We have to stop being so sure we already know the answers, because the person who thinks he’s got all the answers is the one who doesn’t care what happens to people who don’t agree with those answers.