Women and Men: Self-Image and Rape Culture
I haven’t updated this blog in about a year, and all of a sudden I’m posting something potentially controversial. That’s just how I roll.
No one thing prompted this post. It’s been a combination of many things, mainly discussions of women, feminism, sexism, rape culture, and so forth that I’ve had recently, with different groups of people in separate venues. By that token, the time feels right to dig a little deeper into this and express my thoughts.
Not everyone will agree with what I have to say. I fully expect that. It might make some people angry. Some might feel attacked, although this is not in any way a personal attack on anybody. I’m also not trying to claim I’m perfect or that I never make mistakes–I make as many as everyone else, perhaps more. But there are some things I feel I need to say, and some things that I believe are worth discussing.
For clarity’s sake, when I say “you” in this post, I am referring to the men in the audience, who may or may not be guilty of the behavior I describe. If you haven’t done these things, then don’t feel attacked–you’re not the “target,” so to speak.
With the disclaimers out of the way, I’ll get right down to the meat.
In Western culture, men have privilege. Before you start arguing, just hold that thought and play along for now. It’s the truth. It’s not like we’re given a membership card when we’re born, it’s just something society is built around, because men (straight white Christian men, that is) designed and, until relatively recently, completely dominated this society. It’s not an intentional thing that you use whenever you come up against an obstacle–a “get out of jail free” card for any of life’s problems–but it’s something you are assigned by default, without asking, without (initially) questioning. That is not to lay the blame at your feet (or mine), but to acknowledge that it exists and work from the position that it is absent for others: women, black people, gay people, etc. Although I could speak at length about any of those groups, for this discussion I will focus on women, and issues specific to women. In particular, I will talk about American women, though what I say may be applicable to women (and men) elsewhere.
I’d like to go over a couple specific issues I’ve noticed, particularly online, but they can apply in “real life,” as well.
Women and Self-Image
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most women have self-image problems. The numbers vary, but around 80% is seen as a fairly credible statistic. That means 4 out of 5 women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Eating disorders are still common, affecting as many as 1 out of 4 women. One thing men do that exacerbates these problems is objectifying women. Now, there’s a phrase everybody’s heard but many may not know what it means. What does it mean, exactly, to objectify a woman? Put simply, it means to reduce a woman to nothing but her physical attributes–or, more crassly, just her sexual attributes. Saying, “I’d fuck her”? Yeah, that’s objectification right there. Rating a woman’s attractiveness on a numerical scale? You better believe that’s objectifying, too. You meet a woman and before you even get to know her or have a conversation you have already judged her looks and put her into the “would do” or “wouldn’t do” category? That’s objectification right there. Not considering a woman worth your time or attention unless there’s a chance of her having sex with you? A bit more subtle, but it’s essentially the same thing.
You may not think it’s a big deal if you make racy comments about celebrities, either. After all, you’re not likely to ever meet Katy Perry or Scarlett Johansson or Catherine Zeta-Jones, so it’s not like your comments personally hurt them, right? But what about the women around you? If you’re posting “I’d do her” online, how do you think that affects the women who read it? What they see is you passing judgment on a celebrity–supposedly the most beautiful women in the world, or so popular culture tells us–and whether your comment is something like “I’d hit it” or “too ugly for my tastes,” you’ve just announced to everyone (especially any women witnessing this) that women have no value to you apart from their appearance and/or their ability to satisfy your sexual fantasies. No need to care about women being intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive, creative, articulate, or anything else–if she ain’t got the looks, she ain’t got squat, right?
As a somewhat startling example, go and google “best female musicians of all time.” What’s either at the top or very close to it? An article about the “Top 20 Sexiest Female Musicians of All Time”. Wooo! I also found, in the course of playing with Google, that if you start typing “best female”, the top suggestion is “best female body”. Because what else would someone want to search for about women than their bodies? This is hardly something to blame on Google, either. These suggestions are a result of their popularity with users. Lots of people are searching for “best female body”, apparently.
If you view a woman, not as a person with independent thoughts, feelings, and goals, but as a means to an end, then you have objectified her. Maybe you just want her to be your emotional dumping ground, or maybe you just want her to fulfill your sexual desires. It doesn’t matter which. In both cases, you’ve reduced her to a tool you can use, rather than a person whom you respect.
You may also think it hurts no one when objectifying comments are made solely around other men, so-called “locker room talk.” Except it does reinforce those sexist tendencies that see women as little more than vessels for men’s sexual pleasure, and a woman who can’t offer herself up as that, or is found unworthy of being that, is seen as having no value at all. Indulging in this even when no women are around still reinforces in the men participating that this behavior is okay, and it will tend to bleed out into their interactions with women elsewhere in life.
I don’t believe most men think things through to this level. They’re just trying to have a good time, and sizing up women is a game, like arguing over which football team is the best or which car is the fastest. You might spend only a few seconds forming a sexist thought, but it’s going to stay with any women within earshot a lot longer, piled up with all the other sexist comments they are subjected to on a daily basis. Sure, you just made one little comment–and so did a dozen other guys that day. Have this happen day after day, year after year, and where does it lead? Body image problems, eating disorders, poor self-esteem. It’s not just sexist comments that do this, of course, but they are a major contributor to the problem.
No one can solve this problem all by themselves, of course. But you can do your part, by thinking twice before making a comment that dehumanizes a woman into nothing but a pair of breasts and a vagina for you to fill.
“What rape culture?” Yeah, I didn’t used to think it existed, either. I mean, rape is illegal and society hates rapists, right? How could we have a “rape culture”? It’s not as if you, personally are a rapist, right?
Again, this goes back to male privilege. One of the things men virtually never have to worry about is being sexually assaulted. “But men get raped!” Yeah, yeah, I know: very rarely and at nowhere near the rates women do, so let’s not pretend the situations are at all similar. Men do get raped, and that is worth discussing and addressing, but not when we’re talking about women who are raped. Men do not live in constant fear of being sexually assaulted, while most of my female friends have expressed to me a persistent, sometimes crippling fear of being raped–and it’s not an unjustified fear, given that about a quarter of all women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, and many will be assaulted more than once. This is not a small problem, not something we can just sweep under the rug and say, “we’ve outlawed it, nothing more to worry about here.” You aren’t a rapist, but you may–without even meaning to or realizing it–help to excuse and minimize the actions of rapists.
Have you ever done anything to lessen the crimes of a rapist? Have you ever made a rape victim feel like she brought it on herself? Have you ever said a woman who appears “too serious” or “uptight” just “needs a good fucking”? Do you make rape jokes in mixed company? Congratulations, you help to promote rape culture.
No, that doesn’t necessarily make you an asshole. If you don’t think there’s anything wrong with this behavior, then you very well might be.
First, think about the language commonly used to talk about rape. “She was raped.” Who is missing from that sentence? The rapist, of course. Do people generally say, “someone raped her”? Not in my experience. I don’t think this is intentional, either, but a way of describing the situation that makes it about the victim. In fact, it makes it so much about the victim, that it becomes something that simply happened to her, not something that was perpetrated against her by another person. When viewed that way, it can appear that the rapist himself has been excused from his crime–his victim goes on suffering, but he’s out of the picture, existing only as a mythic boogeyman if consciously existing at all.
It helps to remember that, when a woman tells you someone raped or assaulted her, you don’t forget that another man did this. That doesn’t mean it’s your fault, but it does mean you should be more sensitive about how you discuss it with her. The last thing you want to do is seem like you are excusing the rapist, or worse: identifying with him more than her.
Questions never to ask someone who is telling you about how they were raped:
- What were you wearing?
- What time did you leave the party/theater/friend’s house/whatever?
- How much did you have to drink?
- Are you sure you didn’t lead him on?
Questions like this serve no purpose but to a) make it sound like the rapist wasn’t really at fault and b) anger/upset the woman who thought you were a decent enough guy to talk about this with, but now you’ve completely ruined that, so great job.
“But wait! I wasn’t trying to excuse the rapist at all!” I know. You really weren’t thinking of it that way. Instead, you saw her rape as a “problem” to “solve.” Something she could have prevented, and an experience she can learn from. If she just does the right things in the future, this won’t happen again. If she dresses more conservatively, drinks less, doesn’t go out after dark, and avoids making eye contact with strange men, why, she’ll never have to worry about being raped again! It’s so simple, isn’t it? It’s a good thing there’s a smart man around to figure this out, because it’s not as if a simple woman could.
When a woman is talking to you about her rape experience, she is not looking for you to solve a problem, she just wants you to listen. If you can’t offer understanding, at least offer support. But don’t condescend, and don’t patronize. Every woman will have her own reasons for expressing this to you, but never is it because she wants to hear how she could have kept it from happening, or otherwise be told how it was in some way her fault. Don’t turn it into a political discussion, don’t bring up how men are raped, or how women make false accusations of rape–don’t even do this in a more public/online discussion regarding rape culture or male-on-female rape in general. It is hard enough for many women to talk about their experiences without some men making them feel inferior for it, or even implying they somehow deserved it, or just plain hijacking the discussion into being about men’s issues.
This is rape culture. Women are first reduced to objects, and those objects are to either be used or protected, depending on a man’s whims–and in either case, it’s about men. Men get to define women’s roles, men get to determine whether a woman was responsible for being raped, men get to decide whether women’s issues are even worth talking about, men get to determine at what point a woman should simply “get over it,” men make women choose between either being assaulted or infantilized. If you behave this way, even if you don’t mean to, then you have helped promote rape culture. Two words: stop it.
As for what I said about patronizing: don’t go overboard and treat them like porcelain dolls. They may be coping with a traumatic experience, but they’re still women, not children that expect to be coddled and sheltered from the big, bad world. If a woman tells you someone raped her, that doesn’t mean she’s asking you to protect her from now until the end of time–she just wants you to understand that that experience is a part of who she is, and something you need to be aware of if you’re going to be part of her life. It is a privilege (just not the inborn white male kind) to be told about this. Don’t have a huge reaction to it–don’t make a big show, don’t probe for all the gory details, don’t insist on bringing it up constantly (but also don’t dissuade her if she does want to talk about it.) These things will probably make her regret telling you in the first place.
So, what can you do to help thwart the promotion of rape culture? Pay attention to what I said above: don’t objectify women, no matter the context. It is fine to appreciate a woman’s beauty, as long as you are able to appreciate her for more than that. Think about women as people first. When you talk to a woman, engage her on a personal level, don’t just practice your flirts and pick-up lines. When your male friends are engaged in raunchy talk about women–be they celebrities, coworkers, or that woman you passed on the street–speak up and tell them you aren’t comfortable with it. If you aren’t ready to challenge them at that level, just change the subject. Anything to get it away from the sexist portrayal of women. Remember that even if you just make one questionable comment a month, women hear them all the time. Enough men eliminating their once-a-month indiscretion can have a big impact. When a woman is talking to you about how someone sexually assaulted her, just listen and offer your emotional support. Recognize that many of the women you pass on the street may have been the victims of rape, and no one walks around wearing a sign that says, “someone raped me.” So keep the rape jokes to yourself, and don’t make discussions of rape about how tough it is for men.
There is no one thing guys can do to solve these problems, but make no mistake, as a cultural issue, the ways in which men treat women are our problems to solve, because men perpetrate the vast, vast majority of sex crimes and sexist behavior. It’s not something that will change overnight. Just stop and think about what you say before you say it. Think about how a woman might feel about the next words to come out of your mouth–how might she interpret them, as opposed to how you mean them? You aren’t a bad person, I assume, and you don’t want to be a bad person. Go the extra mile and put yourself in other people’s shoes, and consider how they might see your behavior, and if you are comfortable with how it makes you look. It’s about how you treat women, both directly in how you interact with them, and indirectly in how you talk about them. Do you want to look like someone who trivializes the concerns of women, or someone who excuses rapists, or someone who makes women feel worse about themselves… or do you want to be someone known for their understanding, empathy, and trustworthiness?
It’s your choice.
Note: The above post was informed by some other blog posts and articles I’ve read. Feel free to peruse them, as well. They are very insightful, too:
I am certainly going to leave this open for comments. I want to hear your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Think I’m insane? Let’s talk!