A friend of mine, let’s call her K, has a son who just turned fourteen. She’s fairly committed to the idea of raising him as a relatively decent human being and, being a fairly active person online, she recently asked her blog for help finding books and DVDs and the like on how to be a gentleman. The replies were somewhere between empowering and heartbreaking. Rather than tips on holding doors open for women and other gentlemanly conduct, they were more suggestions on not having sex with a girl who is drunk. It was more about rape culture and how you go about breaking that to a boy without suggesting you think that he is – or is ever likely to be – in any way culpable. And it got me thinking again about just how differently our society treats men and women.
Last year I was at a concert with my girlfriend (Bertie Blackman, for those who care) and I was having a pretty good time. Except that there was this guy. I don’t know what tipped me off about him but I kept turning my head and catching his eye. I don’t mean I kept looking at him because I really have no interest in guys whatsoever. I just keep looking in different places, and he’d be there, always, always looking at me. It was crowded in there so this was in no way accidental. I figured, whatever, the guy’s probably on drugs, he’s fixated on me for some reason but it’s not a big deal. Except that at some stage during the night, I kissed my girlfriend, and when I looked up, he was there again. About five minutes later, when I did it again, I felt someone’s hand slide across my back and towards my butt and it was not my girlfriend’s.
I prised him off, screamed in his face and had security throw him out. But the feeling of violation took a long time to go away, and even now I have a little shudder going down my back when I think about it. Because I have no idea in what possible universe seeing two other people (of whatever gender) be intimate in public would be an invitation for you to paw them. I would like to blame it on the occasion, or the guy being on something, or on anything, really – except this kind of thing has happened to me before. I’ve had guys put their hands on the back of my neck or lean in when I was kissing a girl. I’ve had cars pull over and guys yell at me to give them a go when I was merely holding hands. I’ve even had guys who I thought were friends try to get me drunk to see if I’d swing their way when intoxicated.
But I have never had a woman do anything of the sort, no matter what I was doing, where I was, or how drunk I was.
I don’t know if we have a rape culture and I don’t know what it means, really, to have naked women on every magazine. I don’t know if the guys who have been fucking creepy to me have seen me as an object or if they’re insensitive idiots. I do know that my all-girls school taught self-defence on how ‘not to get raped’. That every girl I know has had it beaten into her to never leave a drink unattended, to avoid short skirts and travelling alone late at night, and to never approach or get into an unknown car.
I do know that there was a facebook group from an all-boys school last year that described itself as ‘anti consent’. I know that some guys in a van repeatedly slowed down and harassed my girlfriend on a quiet road last week. I know that I have been repeatedly singled out at night by men who were a lot bigger than me to ask for directions or help. I don’t know what the guys in the van wanted; maybe they too were just after directions. But for several men in a van to yell at a girl alone at night on a quiet street shows, at the very least, a criminal lack of awareness of the fact that they scared the living daylights out of her.
My friend K wanted advice on how to explain to a guy that women are taught from a young age that they need to protect themselves from sexual attacks because some guys think it’s okay – even funny – to have sex with a woman who is drunk and can’t consent. That women have, out of necessity, learned to always walk on the side of the street with the lights, never accept an open drink or let one out of their sight, and not go anywhere with a guy they don’t know.
That rape jokes, regardless of context, delivery, or individual, really just aren’t okay.
Just for starters, it terrifies me that guys don’t know these things. On reflection, it upset me that I was so overwhelmingly glad that my friend was teaching her son these things, because it shouldn’t be a special case, it should be universal. If we cannot yet change gender differences or power imbalances, then, at the very least, every damn person in the world should be aware of them. Every guy should know that many women will perceive an unwanted come-on as a threat. Every guy should know that even if they personally have not, would not, and will never commit violence in any way, shape or form, particularly in relation to sex, most women will weigh up the possibility before responding. Every guy should know that if they yell out of a car at a woman on the street, and she doesn’t respond, it may reflect that she’s scared they’ll stop the car and attack her, not that she doesn’t mind. Every guy should know that every woman, at least in Australia, has been told endless times that she may be subject to violence, rape and assault from men, whether or not she already knows them. Every guy should know that women around the world are raped, sometimes multiple times, often by people they know, frequently as a form of control, sometimes as a weapon of war, often by people who should be protecting them, sometimes by their own family members, sometimes as children, sometimes while incapable, sometimes after being sold. Every guy should know that rape culture says that if a woman is raped it’s her own fault – and every guy should know that that is not ever true.
Every guy should know that every girl knows most of those things, and that when he makes an unwanted advance, some of that will inform her answer.
I like to think that maybe if guys had the faintest idea how I felt about it, they wouldn’t treat me and my girlfriend as another pin-up or porno. That they wouldn’t follow us around or scream abuse or chase me down the street because I had the nerve to yell back. And yes, it’s probably a faint hope, because I’m pretty sure some guys will never have it beaten into their heads that some women a) don’t want them and b) are allowed to not want them. That someone else being gay has nothing to do with them. That other people’s sexuality is not an insult, nor is it relevant, to their own.
Bring on the education. Because when I thought through the list of guys I know, and tried to name those who would know what rape culture even meant, I came up with one. And that’s not okay.