Rape Culture

Last week, I wrote a post about the current state of feminism where I was actually quite positive and upbeat. I concluded that, though it can be daunting that there’s so much work to do, our very vigor for engaging in that work is inspiring, and maybe even enough. I thought, out loud and in a public venue, that it’s enough that we continue to have a discourse about gender inequality.

And then things got crazy. Not all of a sudden, of course, but all of a sudden into my limited, sheltered world, and now it seems that every day brings more reports of men raping women, of men threatening to rape and kill women, and of men using 1) women’s completely reasonable fear of being raped and 2) the system that sustains and normalizes that fear as tools to keep things the way that they want them to be. And all I want to do is wail and cry and punch and honestly, delete the naive stupid hope that I put out there mere days ago that we can all have a reasonable shared discussion on gender equality and that that conversation’s mere presence is enough.

The most recent situation that I can’t stop dwelling on is Adria Richards at PyCon. I fully admit that while this is tangentially my industry (I work in tech, but I’m not a programmer), I definitely don’t have the level of contextual familiarity with this particular conference or community to comment on the inciting conflict. If you can believe it, what Adria witnessed and how she acted is actually not the main story here. There was a conflict, and it escalated to the level of real-world consequences (the offenders were fired from their jobs) that I’m assuming were not her initial intentions, but if it’s how the cookie crumbles, that’s life. Whether or not what they were saying was appropriate for the situation, whether or not the offense caused to those who heard them was enough to merit being reported by Adria, and whether or not the action that she took was the appropriate one — all of these things are worthy of debate and discussion. When you add in the context of it being a very male-dominated field and our culturally-entrenched norms of how women and men communicate with regards to conflict, it’s an interesting conversation that I’d be interested in having. This is what I was trying to be generous and empathetic about in my last post — these are the discussions that I think it’s worthwhile to have, regardless of what conclusions are reached.

But what happened next is chilling and frankly, incredibly depressing. Much like Anita Sarkeesian before her and tragically, probably like many future women who speak up about entrenched sexism, Adria Richards has been the target of an avalanche of vulgar, demeaning, and very real threats of rape and death (NOTE: that link features VERY violent imagery and links to violent language. But I feel it’s important to draw attention to how ugly and terrifying this all is). Her real-world address has been publicized — this is not internet shit that you just shrug off (which, to begin with, SIGH). And the most terrible thing about this is that to many women, like me, it almost seems inevitable.

When I recently turned 30, an idle thought popped into my head: “Huh, good for me. I made it to 30 without being raped.”

On one hand, that’s a ridiculous thought — who would think something like that? I have a fairly risk-free lifestyle and have for ages — a steady partner for the last 12 years, a social life that rarely if ever involves being in a compromising situation, and c’mon, a 30-year-old body that gave birth to a human, and shows it. So why would I even think that? Because I was raised with the expectation that it could happen: if I wore too short of a skirt, if I got too drunk, if I said something provocative, if I gave the wrong impression, if I strayed too closely to the whore end of the virgin/whore spectrum that we’re all supposed to know and obey. Being raised with that expectation has nothing to do with my particular upbringing or anything my parents ever said. It just is a fact: we live in a society where a large number of men rape a large number of women. Obviously it’s not a reality that we should blindly accept, but ignoring the fact that it happens is as ignorant as pretending that we can achieve societal color-blindness (aside: one of my favorite Girls scenes this season is when Hannah, arguing with her black boyfriend Sandy, tells him that she hadn’t ever thought once about the fact that he was black, to which he retorts “That’s insane. You should, because that’s what I am.”).

So here I am at 30, and I’ve never been the victim of rape. And possibly, neither have Anita Sarkeesian nor Adria Richards. And yet: almost every woman in our society has been the victim of the systemically-regulated fear of being raped — the thing that keeps fueling rape culture. That fear can operate on a largely dormant low boil for ages, when you’re in a situation where you actually innocently don’t realize it’s a possibility or you simply forget because it’s not really your reality. That’s often for the better: fear is incredibly stressful and paralyzing, and obviously, it’s way more advantageous to go on and live your life without it. Worry does no good, the sayings all go. But then! You read about very real women who make public contributions to the ongoing discussion about gender equality (and you see, whether or not you feel that those contributions are positive, it’s beside the point), and all it does is draw the attention of faceless men who threaten to rape them senseless, murder them if they ever met, and otherwise violate every facet of their lives. And the fear returns. It feels very very real. And while I don’t often identify primarily as a mother, yes, it’s killing me to think about how I can introduce my daughter into this world where this fear is so real.

There is so much talk these days about teaching kids about how to speak up against bullying, against inappropriate touching, against any of a litany of abuses. But how can we do that and still allow that, yeah, it’s totally possible that those instances of speaking up will target you for threats against your innocence, body, and life?

I just don’t know.

(Photo from Muslim Women Exposed)

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What is feminism in 2013?

One of the most common topics that it seems society grapples with over and over again these days is gender equality. Do we have it yet, should we really be striving for it, what does it look like, when will we know when we’re there, and of course, is there even any merit in continuing to ask these questions? You’d think that the sheer resilience of the obsession would definitively answer that last question, but no, there are always those who are ready with the classic response, “UGGGGH, are we still talking about this? BORING.”

I feel like, in very recent times, there’s been even more attention being drawn to the questions of what it means to be a woman these days, and separately, what it means to be a feminist. Whether it’s conversations (deliberately focusing on the positive here and not the vitriolic name-calling from trolls that can result) about working mothers, changing one’s name when getting married, feminist fatigue, or women’s responsibility to other women, it’s obvious that we’re all still grappling with these questions and not finding answers that satisfy us, at least not enough to move on.

And that’s honestly okay.

One thing many folks don’t know about me is that I have a master’s degree, and while it’s technically in Communication, in my mind, it’s also in Gender Studies, since the overlap between the two was the bulk of my academic interest. I mention this primarily to underscore that — while I no longer ask anyone to refer to me as Master Abby — I do have a strong, abiding interest in the theories and questions of modern feminism, and I’ve read (at least the introduction and conclusion to!) quite a large amount of feminist literature.

Based on all that, my incredibly informed, educated conclusion? I’m still unsure about it all. Which is as it should be. Yes, I have specific opinions, but they’re not written in stone, which is okay, because this is something we all (I shouldn’t have to specify, but yes, I mean women AND men) live every single day. And every new perspective I read, every new life phase that I enter has the chance to change my worldview to some extent. For me, the true work of being a cultural critic, besides having the pretentiousness to call yourself one, is to be open and agreeable to that change, to want to grapple with those questions, even if you never arrive at a satisfying conclusion. So, yes, it can be incredibly frustrating to see questions and issues of gender inequality everywhere, especially if you do take a dip into those aforementioned nasty name-calling areas (comment sections are just The Worst); but not engaging and not caring is the choice to work against sexism, against racism, and against all forms of inequality.

I’d never tell you what to think, but I fervently would ask you to think, and to continue doing so as you hopefully allow your worldview to be challenged. To my earlier point implying that men can (and should) be feminists: one of the privileges inherent in being in the norm (e.g., being male, being white in America) is that you can go through a lot of life not thinking about your gender or race — not because you don’t want to, but because you don’t have to. The awakening of this consciousness in those populations is absolutely vital work, and frankly, beautiful. I don’t vaunt male feminists above female ones simply because of their Y-chromosome, but because it is much easier for them to choose to keep their eyes closed, and to ignore the work that I feel we must all take on to truly change our world for the better. So when they make the choice to open themselves to this struggle, as we all should be doing, it is 100% a positive thing for our whole society.

At least, that’s what Master Abby thinks.

PS If any of you are in Seattle and want to warm the cockles of my heart, go check out my thesis. No, seriously, it’s actually a checkout-able book. It’s been nine years, but that still gives me a thrill!

(Photo courtesy of the genius XKCD, titled “How It Works”)