The other night, my bear asked if he could discuss with me this post, where I talk about (among other things) the victim-blaming ramifications of telling a woman to change her behavior to avoid rape. He was conflicted. On the one hand, he totally agreed with me. It is not a woman’s fault if she’s raped, regardless of whether or not she is wearing a miniskirt and a beer hat and holding a sign that says she likes sex: all that indicates is that she is a beer + miniskirt + sex enthusiast. On the other hand, my bear is awfully fond of the ladies in his life, and is horrified at the idea of them going out in a miniskirt and beer hat with a sex sign and possibly coming home raped because some rapist viewed her as a free pass.
This is not an unreasonable or uncommon conflict. Victims do not ask to be raped, or want to be raped, or try to get raped; any of those actions would make it, you know, not rape; consent and sexual assault are mutually goddamn exclusive, is the thing. And yet there are a whole bevy of actions women can take that lead rapists to calculate that they can get a rape pass. Not taking those actions is absolutely no assurance that a woman won’t be raped, but there is some psychological reassurance in accepting (unreasonably restrictive, infantilizing, humiliating) restrictions if they yield even the smallest of protection.
As the bear and I were discussing it, I was trying to find a way to verbalize minimization of risk in a way that isn’t victim-blaming. The bear and I both live in a state that has a crosswalk law stating that whenever a pedestrian crosses the street, that place automatically becomes a crosswalk, and drivers are required to treat it as such. Drivers, as a whole, routinely ignore this law, to the point where a driver that does slow down when they see you on the curb creates a mess of traffic and pedestrian confusion. So I said it was like looking both ways before you cross the street here. The drivers should yield to you, but the consequences if they don’t are so huge that you have to take that extra precaution that you should not legally have to take. On the other hand, that’s not a decent metaphor at all, because looking both ways and crossing the street carefully really gives you a pretty good assurance of not being hit by a car, while wearing a burlap sack and never going outside without a male escort doesn’t really diminish your lifelong risk of rape all that much.
My bear and I both spent some time in a different Midwestern college town, where pedestrians frequently swarmed the street at the slightest fancy, and it could take cars 10 minutes to go one block. Drivers didn’t like it, sure, but they didn’t start mowing folk down, either. My bear also remembered having lived in Oakland many years ago, where they had a similar crosswalk law that was actually significantly enforced. Pedestrians behaved similarly, crossing the street wherever they liked, and drivers would stop in their tracks if they saw a pedestrian anywhere near a curb.
Taking all this, my bear modified the traffic metaphor. He said it’s like looking both ways before you cross the street because you don’t want to get hit by a car, except you live in a Mad Max world where drivers are specifically trying to run over pedestrians, and will make special trips out of their way to do so. Also, there are other pedestrians on the sidewalk pointing at you and yelling, trying to get the driver’s attention so he has an easier job of hitting you. And also there is a cop standing nearby who just kind of watches. And when you do get hit by a car, the other bystanders are quick to point out that you didn’t run fast enough to avoid the car intentionally barreling down on you with the purpose of killing you.
In Oakland, as well as that other Midwestern town, there was a culture that, for whatever reasons, decided this particular traffic law was worth enforcing. Because there was enforcement, there was eventually a widespread and general expectation that the majority of people would obey this law. There was enough of an expectation that pedestrians only needed to look both ways before crossing the street; they did not need to find a light, hit the pedestrian button, look both ways, and then bolt for their goddamn lives while dodging traffic like Frogger. They only had to take a minimal precaution, because the responsibility for enforcement of behavior had been diffused among governing institutions and others in power.
This is the biggest problem with using modification of a victim’s behavior as the primary and front lines of prevention. It’s placing all the responsibility at the very end of the crime, upon the person who has the least influence and position and power and general foresight to prevent the crime. I have a major ideological problem with ever giving in to victim-blaming and, say, changing my clothes before I go out because I am afraid of being groped if I wear my favorite Lolita shirt. But survival trumps ideology, so I change my shirt and seethe about it. I have done the tiniest thing, and it probably only reduces my personal risk of sexual harassment by the tiniest amount. That’s all the ability I have access to, that’s all I can do. And yet even if I do all the right things and still get raped or harassed or groped, it will still be my fault for not doing more. We do not have a general cultural expectation that anybody but me (and maybe sometimes my rapist) should be taking responsibility for my rape.
This led to a discussion about responsibility for prevention. Discussions about women wearing short skirts and the like usually get into the bad metaphor zone because it becomes an argument about whether or not it’s wrong to expect somebody to take minimal precautions to avoid becoming the victim of a crime. It’s not wrong to expect people to take some minimal precautions, but it is wrong to place all the responsibility for preventing a crime upon the completion of these minimal precautions. Before a rapist commits a rape, there are thousands of little points along the way where other individuals or institutions could come in and take some responsibility for prevention. And, of course, at the source of all that is the rapist, who is the first point where responsibility can be taken. When all these points are passed, and every individual or institution abdicates responsibility, the very last point becomes the victim. Which leads to a culture that engages in absurd magical thinking, believing that rape can be prevented by BYOB or wearing turtlenecks.
Thinking about it, I realized this is part of what personally pisses me off the most about the “tips” given to women about avoiding rape. I can follow all those tips, and make the tiniest reduction in my lifelong risk of rape, but it’s like fighting off an attacker with a paper sword. If I get attacked, believe me, it’s not because I suck with a paper sword. It’s because paper cuts don’t deter attackers. I want other people to take responsibility for prevention. I want there to be something more than my Lolita shirt between me and a life-altering, life-threatening grotesque attack.
My bear recounted a story from a few years back. He had been in a bar with a couple of friends, and they were all pleasantly wobbly and drunk. On the way out of the bar, my bear saw a man and a woman having an altercation in the parking lot. The man had the woman in a headlock. It could have been a friendly tussle, and it seemed like all the other witnesses were treating it as such, but it gave my bear a bad feeling in his tummy. He wasn’t sure what to do, and all his friends were wheedling at him to just leave it alone, get in the car, let’s go – which I think is further confirmation that something more than a friendly tussle was happening.
Instead, my bear just stood in the parking lot, and made it very obvious that he was watching. The guy noticed him, let go of the girl, and started a very basic aggressive monkey dance. If you’ve ever watched documentaries of monkeys establishing territory and dominance while trying to avoid actual physical fights, this entire interaction will be very familiar to you. The guy started thrusting out his chest, making vague grunting noises. My bear just stood there, staring. The guy started making general stomps in the direction of my bear, but my bear just stood there (all the while, his friends were whining that he should leave it alone and let’s just go, bear, seriously). Finally, the guy did a classic pant-hoot and headed across the parking lot for a confrontation. My bear has some defensive martial arts training, and he was pretty confident he could diffuse a physical altercation, so he held his ground. The dude approached, pant-hooted some more, than poked my bear, in the forehead, with his forefinger. My bear just kinda stared at him like, “Seriously?” Dude deflated some, then grunted his way back across the parking lot. By then, the girl was had headed back into the bar.
Who knows what was really going on in that altercation. I doubt, considering the monkey screeching that followed, it was all purely in fun. Maybe the girl appreciated my bear intervening. Maybe she didn’t. But that’s not the point. My bear took some responsibility to prevent what could have been an escalating crime. He illustrated to the monkey-dude that his behaviors were not invisible, that bystanders noticed him and didn’t approve. Maybe that only had an effect on that one incident. Maybe that is something monkey-dude will remember in the future, thus limiting the physical spaces in which he will attempt whatever the hell he was attempting. One thing my bear most assuredly did was illustrate to all the bystanders there – some of whom knew him personally – that he was the kind of person who would step into a physical altercation where a woman is possibly being attacked. His friends that night – who are, by the way, no longer his friends – didn’t appreciate that he would do this. Probably plenty of other bystanders didn’t, either. But likely there were a few that could file that info away, and realize that this is a person who will not allow them to be attacked in his presence, if he can help it. Instead of a paper sword being all that’s between you and a rape, it’s now a paper sword and a bear.
Anyway, this story and the conversation made me decide to put up a new page on my blog, the “Stuff What Boys Can Do” page. This is going to be a place specifically to leave anecdotes and examples of things men can do to actively ally themselves against misogyny. The examples don’t have to be successful; I mean, chances are, monkey-dude just went in the bar and abused his girlfriend in there. But that doesn’t negate the fact that my bear intentionally and voluntarily put himself in a vulnerable position in order to defend a woman from an attack. That had an effect on him as a person, and it had an effect on the people around him. It sent a message. The examples also do not have to be Really Big Deals. If, during a sexist conversation, one dude put out there, “I disagree,” that’s good enough. That’s still a thing what a boy can do.
I was reading this post on PunkAssBlog the other day. It’s about how asking men to be allies isn’t really a cut and dry case. Privilege is its own kind of oppression; to maintain privilege, one must maintain a very specific and strict mode of behavior. Stepping out of that behavior strips you of your privilege, and leaves you vulnerable for a pretty significant degree of attack. There are times when an ally can pull an Afterschool Special, and there are times where even deigning to disagree could get a guy beat to within an inch of his life. I’d like to see, and hear, more ways that men can be allies in all the different contexts they find themselves in.