Thursday, April 30, 2015

Do They Honestly Know Not What They Do?

It happens all the time. A woman is raped. For whatever reason, it becomes a high profile case. Maybe she was drunk. Maybe she was outside. Maybe she was 11. All high risk behaviors, to be sure, and someone will always be sure to point it out. That someone will be accused of victim-blaming. Now, I would say that accusation is very fair. They're victim-blaming and they know it, right? Nobody could possibly be that clueless, could they? 

Earlier today, it hit me. Yes. They could be that clueless. It's entirely possible. 

A friend had posted this article on Facebook, about a mayor's response to a gang rape in Australia, and expressed her displeasure with the obvious victim-blaming. There should not, in my mind, have been anything controversial or even debatable in what she was saying. The mayor, Kevin Mack, hadn't minced words. In fact, he'd made himself abundantly clear. 

"I always have encouraged women not to walk alone, to have someone with them at all times, because that in itself is an invitation for someone to take advantage of you." 

An invitation. That's what he said. Those were his words. 

"We just need to be a little bit more careful, a little bit more security conscious and we as a public need to look after each other."

He said we just need to be a little more careful, because he knew better than to say you need to be a little more careful. When it comes to looking out for each other, he's doing his part. He's giving women ridiculously obvious advice that no woman needs to hear, because the message was driven home long ago. 

A friend of my friend's defended the mayor. He explained that he was just giving sensible, practical advice. No blaming, no moralizing, just a little pearl of wisdom. 

The discussion grew heated, and the man defending the mayor deleted his comments. Although I had only passively participated, I felt badly. In part because I'd been a bit harsh in my sarcasm, but mostly because it suddenly hit me. He may not fully understand how intuitively women know to be careful in public, at night, alone, and in the presence of men, particularly unknown men. I doubt he thought the advice was new, but he might not have realized exactly how old it was. 

I was in my late teens when I first heard Ani DiFranco sing, "I'm determined to survive on this shore/you know, I don't avert my eyes anymore." It hit me. When I passed a man on an otherwise empty street, I always averted my eyes. I promised myself I would stop. I have many memories of realizing, right after it happened, that dammit, I looked away again! But I don't remember ever succeeding in holding my ground.  

I've understood for some time that many men, especially the white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle-or-upper-class, abled-bodied variety, may not understand how different their lives would be if they lacked even one of those markers of privilege. Seeing this man's obvious bafflement, I got it. Again. And better. He doesn't know how deeply women have gotten the message to be careful. 

So, fellow traveler, I'm going to try to put this in terms you understand. 

Your parents told you to be careful crossing the street. Especially under dangerous conditions. There are, in many cases, crosswalks, lights, and other indications that you shouldn't have to worry, but only a fool would trust that all the drivers on the road care as much about your safety as you and your parents do. So you don't just trust the sign that says "walk." You also look. You listen. You get a firm handle on your surroundings before you step out into the street. 

You were told all this so long ago that you don't remember ever not knowing. Not only do you get it, but you know almost everyone else gets it, too. After a certain age, there is rarely a need to repeat this advice. It would be almost insulting to harp on it. 

If I read about someone being hit by a car, my instinct isn't to try to figure out what they did wrong and warn everyone in their demographic not to do the same. The mayor doesn't respond to a story like that by telling all the citizens to be careful crossing, and certainly not if the car in question was driven by a reckless criminal. If he did, yes, it would look like victim-blaming. Because he'd be implying that if you were always careful enough, nobody would ever be hit by a car. And he would never dream of suggesting that you should just stay home, despite the fact that home is well known to be an excellent place to avoiding being hit by a car. One could even argue that home provides more protection from cars than it does from gendered violence. 

Your parents told you to be careful around cars. They said it emphatically, and repeatedly, and they started before you could understand the words coming out of their mouths. For me to repeat it now would be unheard of. 

Jessica Williams and Jordan Klepper were delightful in this bit. 



But maybe you don't understand that was a real presentation the girls attended at college orientation? That we were officially told everything Jessica Williams said, it wasn't presented as a joke, and the only difference was that the woman presenting it didn't need to fumble around to remember any of it for comic effect? 

Women know to be careful. They were told by their parents. By their teachers. And by everyone else. We get it, Kevin Mack. Better than you ever will. You have nothing to offer. Your advice is worthless. You can't teach anyone anything about avoiding rapists, except perhaps your daughter or niece - someone significantly younger than you, if you have an important role in her life. Not one single woman heard what you said, took it to heart, and benefitted from it. It may be difficult to imagine, but women have a better handle on this "being female" thing that you do. 

But the three rapists in question did get to fly right under your radar. If you'd been addressing someone being killed by a drunk driver, you'd have reminded the people in your city not to drive drunk. Period. You would not have suggested staying home to avoid drunk drivers. 

The man on my friend's timeline didn't do anything to help prevent sexual assault. He didn't make me understand that Kevin Mack had been right. But he did help me understand where Kevin Mack may have been coming from. A place of genuine ignorance. 12 hours ago, I didn't understand that as well as I do now. He may have honestly not known any better. It may not be what I've always thought - that he doesn't understand this as well as women do. It may be that he doesn't understand it at all. Maybe it's not willful. Maybe it's not even partially intentional. I thought you were lying. I see you may not have been. 

God forgive me, I didn't know that. I didn't know how different things might have been if I'd had that particular marker of privilege. I'm sorry if I was mean to you. I thought I knew you were coming from a different place than I was, but I didn't. Not really.