The confluence of the death of Maya Angelou, a strong woman with a strong voice, just the kind of woman we need now, and the Elliot Rodger rampage brought on by his hatred of women (yes, as well as his mental illness), has prompted me to take an afternoon and write this out to you, my male friends. Because this tragedy could give us opportunities to talk about so many important things, like reasonable gun control, the state of mental health care in this country, and/or the disgusting epidemic of celebrating infamy in our culture (the Kardashianization of America, if you will), I encourage you to think about those things, and discuss them amongst yourselves. However, let me be clear: I’m going to use this space to talk about the way women are treated in this culture. Before you go all “Not ALL men” on me, or make fun of the social media phenomenon of #YESAllWomen, just go read some of these “manosphere ideas” * and tell me whether you’d feel comfortable being thought of and discussed this way. I’m thought of this way, as is my daughter, and my mother, and all the women I know, by men just like those quoted in that last linked article, and those sites that Rodger frequented. Now tell me you don’t know any men who think of women that way. If you say you don’t, you’re either very lucky or very lying. I’ve known some men who think like Elliot Rodger thought. Plenty, in fact. Now let me tell you a story.
The first time I visited New York City, I was 22 years old. I went with some friends from law school. We were at a bar early one evening before dinner. One of my friends and I went to the restroom, and walking back through the crowded bar to rejoin our friends, someone behind me grabbed my hair, and jerked me back hard, at the same time, demanding loudly, “Where the f**k have you been?” Clearly, this was a case of mistaken identity and I feel terrible for the girl for whom he mistook me and the kind of life she must have been living, but I got up on my tiptoes and yelled right into his face, “Who the f**k are you?” I continued to harangue him until my friend, in fear for my safety, pulled me away. And do you know what he did? He pretended not to hear me, or see me. No apology. No acknowledgement of the battery he had just committed. Couldn’t be bothered. If that had happened to you, would you be okay with it?
That’s just one story about how some men feel that the public sphere is theirs alone, and that women are just objects in that sphere; objects that also belong to them. And it’s not even my earliest such story, by a long shot. Nor is it my most recent such story. Nor is it the worst. And here’s the thing. I never know when the next story is going to happen. Of course, none of us know what fresh hell the future holds, but I’m talking about a very real, specific unease with which I’ve had some experience, just like all women. I may have one of these experiences the next time I go to the grocery store. After all, it’s happened there before. My real experiences being treated like I am chattel span the gamut from merely annoying to truly frightening. Have you ever been leered at unapologetically, stared at from head to toe in public by someone you’d never seen before? Someone physically larger than you? Someone accompanied by someone else, also physically larger than you, also staring? Have you ever watched while someone stared at your 17-year-old daughter that way?
Have you ever been called a “whore” or a “bitch” by a complete stranger? How about by someone you know? Have you ever been called a “feminazi” because you spoke up for something you believed in? Have you ever been told you couldn’t participate in some activity because “you’re a girl?” Have you ever been made to feel that your sex life/attractiveness/physical appearance was fair game for public discussion, dissection, and, ultimately, judgement?
Have you ever worried about whether someone was going to slip something into your daughter’s drink? How about your son’s drink or your own? I’m guessing not so much. Do you ever feel uneasy when you have to pull off the highway to refuel when it’s late?
Look, I’m not paranoid. I don’t live in fear. But I do live in reality. We live in a society where there are such things as “rape drugs” and rape jokes and rape threats as “jokes.” We live in a so-called democracy where a woman can be paid a lower salary for the same work as her male counterpart, and it barely registers as unfair. We elect male politicians (and complicit female politicians) who think a woman’s birth control and contraceptive health is more their business than hers and her doctor’s. The whole issue is more complex than I can attempt to parse here, and there’s so much to consider when we start to talk about gender issues, but the point I hope I am making is that most, if not all, my women friends will recognize themselves in one of the above scenarios. And that’s just not okay.
So, if you are my friend, and you are a man, I thank you for not being part of the problem. But will you also stand with me and all the women I love and be part of the solution?
*You can go to the original sources, just as I did, but you’ll have to find your own way – I’m not going to drive more traffic to such sites.
2 thoughts on “If You Are My Friend, And You Are a Man, You’ll Read This”
I’m all for the movement against the objectification of women. I don’t agreaa with what you said about the joke part, but the rest I can totally get behind.
Jared – you don’t think women should be thought of as objects…but you don’t want to give up rape jokes? Rape jokes are intrinsically and unavoidably objectifying. If a rape victim, male or female, hypothetical or not, is the butt of such a joke, you can’t be thinking of or empathizing with them as another human being. And, either way, the effect of making a joke out of rape is to contribute to a culture in which it is normalized and not taken seriously.
I admit that there’s a more nuanced conversation to be had here – some comics, like Wanda Sykes, for instance, have bits that mention rape in constructive ways that don’t poke fun at victims or the act, but satirize the elements of culture that produce them, and these might be thought of as “good” rape jokes. But somehow I doubt that you made your comment because you’re the Jonathan Swift of rape jokes. Just a gut feeling.
The bottom line is that you really can’t cherry pick which of people’s basic human rights you’re going to “get behind.” As long as violence against women can be tolerated as a subject of humor in our society, women won’t be able to enjoy those rights – EG the right to occupy public space without fear, the right to bodily autonomy, etc – fully and equally, but will continued to live in the constant fear of gender specific violence that Suzanne described in her post.
It’s actually kind of a big deal. And it’s actually really easy not to tell or laugh at rape jokes. I think if you try it you’ll find it hasn’t cost you much. Certainly not as much as the prevalence and tolerance of such jokes costs victims and women in general.