This past week has been very emotional for myself and many others. New York Magazine published an article detailing the stories of 35 of the 46 women (that we know of) who were sexually assaulted by Bill Crosby over the years. I guess we can drop the “allegedly” since his deposition has come to light. The cover, which has garnered lots of attention, has row after row of his victims, and one strikingly haunting empty chair.
Social media discussion sprung up on twitter, centered around The Empty Chair, with women and men sharing their personal stores of sexual assault and molestation. I was literally in tears reading the heartbreaking tragedies shared with the hastag’s creator, Elon James White. I didn’t want to read these stories – they were that painful – but I felt that I owed the victims that much at least, to acknowledge that these horrible things had happened to them. While my focus today is on women and the attitudes toward us and our sexuality, I do recognize sexual assault victims as boys, girls, women, men, and transgendered men and women, the entire spectrum of humanity whose ages also run the gamut from infant to senior citizen.
One thing that stood out is how the reality of rape is so often different from the perception. The perception is that only “bad girls” get themselves into situations where they find themselves on the receiving end of an attack. Or that a rape is always violent. The perception is that these were women and girls who were someplace they didn’t belong, wearing something they had no business wearing or doing something they had no business doing. Not that this justifies being violated, but the underlying attitude is always that they share some blame in what happened to them. This is a universal attitude. In the United States we aren’t covered head to toe in burkas, but the centuries old narrative around rape is that women are somehow responsible for a man not being able to control himself and his lustful nature.
While there were instances were drugs or too much alcohol played a role, what I read mostly were stores of women whose abuse started before they were even in kindergarten. They possessed no womanly wiles with which to seduce anyone. They weren’t dressed to tease a man. I read stories of being violated by pastors, men of God. They weren’t hanging out in a club, they were at church. They weren’t out running the streets, they were at home, playing in a room or a yard somewhere. Or taking a bath. They were home, in their own rooms, in their own bed, where hey were supposed to be and where they were SUPPOSED to be safe and secure. They weren’t hanging out with strangers, they were home with family, family who instead of protecting them, were preying on them.
There is always the control/power aspect to rape and sexual assault, or men who believe they are entitled to take what they want because of their wealth, accomplishments or some other self-aggrandizing trait, but two other things stood out to me:
1)How many times these women said no and were straight up ignored and
2) The speculation about why, when sexual assault or intimidation discussions occur, some men become instantly defensive and hostile, accusing women of lying, calling them names, and verbally attacking them instead of seeking to understand or help end a culture that could at any time come for their daughters, sisters, mothers, etc.. The explanation is simple, in my opinion. Pervasive, but simple.
To begin with, getting a woman drunk or high in order to get her to submit to sexual encounters is standard operating procedure for many. It’s like rule number three in the male dating handbook. Rule two, if they are broke. Rule number one if they just don’t give a damn. So if they are not charming and witty enough to talk her out of the panties, and they didn’t spend enough money on dinner and entertainment to make her feel obligated into stepping out of the panties, then they can always resort to plying her with enough alcohol to eventually slip her out of them anyway. It’s like a game of “cat and mouse”. Give her something to drink. Start sexual advances. She says “no”? Offer her a bit more to drink and then try again. The rationale is that eventually she will say yes or be too out of it to say no. (Silence is consent.) Now, while most men realize slipping someone a roofie is bad, encouraging a woman who is holding the glass and drinking of her own free will isn’t, in their minds.
Coupled with this, boys and men are taught from a very young age to disregard women’s noes. The common wisdom is that women really want sex, but they don’t want to ruin their reputations. Women really mean yes, but said no because they want men to respect them in the morning. Women mean yes, but just like to play hard to get. Women mean yes, but are saying no only because they want men to show them how much they really want them, which of course is a cue to be even more aggressive. This is what is behind the whole “no means no” campaign. (The no means no campaign is a good start, but boys learn from the older boys and men around them. Younger people may be better at getting the message, but they are still more prone to respect and follow the “wisdom” of a male figure whom they admire. If they are being taught no means yes, the cycle will continue.) There is also a sense of entitlement: She said yes before, how dare she say no now, as though one or multiple intimate encounters gives them a right to the nookie always. I’ve even heard that in their own minds women would think badly of themselves if they say yes, so they need to be forced so they can have sex without the burden of thinking of themselves as sluts. (Yes ladies, we are even lying to ourselves.) So in order to get women to own up to what they really want, they need to be loosened up. Just give them a lil to drink and their real desires can be set free. This is of course all utter nonsense.
Now, people generally want to think of themselves as good people. Yes, they have body image issues, fear of success or failure and other issues around self esteem that can cause them to have low opinions of themselves, but for the most part people like to believe they have some nobility. They like to think that at least their intentions are good. So, if a man were to accept the notion that these actions are hurtful and damaging to women or just flat out evil, they would have to view their past behavior though that lens and pass judgement on it as being bad. Maybe seek forgiveness or attempt to make amends. If it is bad behavior, then they would have to modify their behavior going forward because to continue these actions would in effect make them a bad person. Most don’t make it that far in their analysis. Their minds shut down and they lash out as soon as any implication that their behavior – behavior that benefits them and has had some success- is hurtful in anyway to others. Many don’t want to do the work of gaining and keeping a woman’s trust. They want easy and “uncomplicated” sex. They simply don’t want to change their behavior, yet can’t reconcile it with being a good person, hence the hostility mentioned above.
Now in the black community, our women and girls often come under attack at younger ages. Be it due to genetics, hormones in the food, parabens in the hair and beauty products, or any combination thereof, our girls tend to “develop” faster physically and look older than girls of other races who are the same age. They get approached by older men and boys when they are at a much younger age. Yes, she has the body of a 24 year old, but her face has the innocence of a 12 year old, so keep stepping. Often the newness of the attention and appreciation lures girls into situations that are not to their benefit. (PSA: Fathers, tell your daughters regularly how beautiful and special they are so when they get to that age, its not a novelty.) Men, you are the adult. Even if she is receptive to your advances, YOU should know better. To quote Hard Candy:
Jeff: You were coming on to me!
Hayley: Oh, come on. That’s what they always say, Jeff.
Hayley: Who? The pedophiles! ‘Oh, she was so sexy. She was asking for it.’ ‘She was only technically a girl, she acted like a woman.’ It’s just so easy to blame a kid, isn’t it?! Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman, does NOT mean she’s ready to do what a woman does.
I mean, you’re the grown up here. If a kid is experimenting and says something flirtatious, you ignore it, you don’t encourage it! If a kid says ‘Hey, let’s make screwdrivers!’ You take the alcohol away, and you don’t race them to the next drink!
On the subject of black women, one of the complaints that I hear leveled against us, which tends to bother me above all others, is that we are not feminine in comparison to women of other races. While street harassment is a problem for all women, (You OK, sis?) we often get approached at much earlier ages, and often we don’t always have the protection, safety and security to be openly feminine. We become defensive and suspicious, as being too polite can be misconstrued to mean the advances are welcome, and even saying no politely can have deadly consequences. I was always a girly-girl, so it drove me nuts to see my nieces in baggy clothes and baggy sweatshirts where you couldn’t tell if they were a boy or a girl, but I got over that real quick. I figured if their baggy clothes would slow someone down enough to see he child in their face rather than the woman in their bodies, they can wear a parka year round for all I care.
One last note regarding children: Parents, please, Please, PLEASE learn to respect their boundaries. Please do not force them into physical contact with a stranger, friend or family member in order to be “polite”. I cringe every time I see this. For whatever reason, someone is giving your child pause. They sense danger on some level. They may simply have been startled, the person could be loud, lighter or darker than what they are used to, larger or smaller than what they have seen before or they may even smell or look funny to them. Maybe the child is just being temperamental. Regardless, when you force them to hug or kiss someone or let someone hold them when everything inside them is screaming to them that this person is a threat, you override their instinct for self preservation and teach them to submit to physical contact they don’t want. Now, once they are at a certain age forcing them to say hello or shake hands to be sociable is one thing, but please respect their personal space.
While I am fortunate not to have sat in The Empty Chair, I have friends and family who have. When my niece told her mother what happened to her when she was younger, she called her a liar and kicked her out the house. The first thing many mothers do when confronted with a situation they don’t know how to handle is go into denial. Some chalk it up to children experimenting. They don’t want to break up the family. They are depending on the perpetrator for finances. They think if the man leaves, they will be alone forever. So they put their head in the sand at the expense of their children. This is wrong. Period.
For the women and men who shared their stories, I believe you. I’m sorry you had such a horrible experience, sometimes more than once. It wasn’t your fault. You deserved better. You deserved to believe the first time. You deserved to be protected, not your rapist. You deserve justice. Society has failed you.
We need to end the cycle. We have to give people the safety, protection and benefit of the doubt needed to come forward and seek justice. We have to educate our boys so they grow into men who respect the choices of women and *gasp* treat us like human beings. Yes mothers and schools have lots of influence, but men have the most in this area. Please exercise it. Use your power for good.