Age 12. The waves were beating against my legs as they hung off the back of the inner tube. My arms hurt from gripping the handles as I bounced over the rough waters of the Mississippi. And my face hurt from smiling.
I wasn’t actually that happy, but I felt like I should probably look like I was having a good time – after all, this was summer, and I was out with my cousins in their boat on the Mississippi River. I figured I should be grateful. Somehow, I managed to keep a smile plastered on my face for a good 20 minutes, finally being pulled into the boat when the person driving got tired.
“Gee, Dianna, I thought you were out there for a long time, but you just kept smiling, so I figured everything was okay!”
Age 15. I’m sitting in the chair at the hairdresser’s, something my mom and I did as a mommy-daughter date every 6 weeks. My hair was short at that time, so it needed the upkeep. I didn’t know the hairdresser very well, and wasn’t particularly versed in the ways of hairdresser-client conversation. But, I felt I should be polite and nice, and that meant smiling from ear to ear the entire time as she cut my hair, right?
It was awkward and weird, but by this point, I’d been pretty well trained that a smile from a woman was disarming, was read as “polite” and that if I smiled to show that I was “enjoying” something, it didn’t matter what my actual feelings about the matter were.
Age 21. I’m in Oxford, England, and walking home by myself through city center at about 9:00 at night. I’ve just been out to an improv club for a fun night with my friend Scott, but unfortunately have to walk the 20 minutes back to my house by myself. As I’m walking through Cornmarket street, a homeless man yells something unintelligible at me.
“No, thank you!” I yell back and start walking hurriedly, wondering why I thanked the man for yelling at me.
Age 25. I’m home on Christmas break and having the worst day. My ex boyfriend is refusing to speak to me, I’m having severe anxiety issues, and I feel sick to my stomach most of the time. I realize that I’m supposed to stop at the local grocery store for something on my way home, and pull into the parking lot. As I’m marching inside, thinking about everything that’s going wrong in my life and all the stress that’s piling up to nearly unmanageable levels, the Salvation Army bell ringer – a man – notices my frown and yells, “Hey, smile, pretty lady.”
I have to resist flipping him off.
Women are conditioned, from birth, to be as unassuming and unresisting as possible, not to show displeasure and only to respond in the nicest of ways. In these tiny, subtle ways, our culture has invested itself in the public ownership of women’s bodies, to the point that they prioritize other people’s feelings over their own safety and their own perfectly valid reactions.
We all know how it looks. That female coworker who sends emails with emoticons to soften the blow: “I’m sorry but that report needs to be redone. :)” Women fret over how to let down nicely the boy who didn't bother to call for three hours even though you were dressed up nicely for your date. The simpering, groveling obeisance, the responses that put the feelings of the person hurting us over our own feeling of being hurt. The invalidation of our own pain out of some odd deference to that of everyone else.
Women are trained to act and see themselves as as receptacles for the feelings of others. Once you begin noticing it, you see everywhere. We wonder why women have trouble saying “no” directly when women who fiercely stand up to street harassers are met with yells of “bitch!” We wonder why women don’t take control of their own body when someone violates their boundaries after we’ve been instructing them their entire lives that their bodies are meant to be saved for their future husbands and that the men in their lives get say-so over what clothing women put on their body.
We condition and socialize and punish, and then claim that demure niceness and prioritizing sympathy for their abusers are central traits to what it means to be a woman. We lecture that “no means no,” and then we pick up toddlers who don’t want to be picked up and punish them for not giving their relatives a hug.
We spend our lives teaching women to take responsibility for every pain, hurt, and feeling they might cause others – an unhappy woman is cause for concern, just as an unabashedly and happily ambitious one is cause for ridicule.
And then we wonder at rape culture? We say that talking about the enforcement of boundary crossing, the policing of female behavior and clothing and connecting it to the ultimate crossing of boundaries is “sensational”? As though rape is some sort of revered thing that must only be discussed in hush tones behind closed doors?
We discount women’s
words and women’s emotions in the smallest things, in the littlest
interactions. When we tell women that they’re oversensitive, over-reacting, and,
perhaps, sensationalizing their abuse
for profit, we reinforce an attitude that pervades juries, judges, prosecutors,
police forces. We reinforce attitudes that justify rape in the minds of the
rapist, that result in victims living in hell.
I don’t write about rape culture because it’s
sensational. I write about it because it is the stuff of my life, of the lives
of people around me. I write about it because I think the way we talk about
women’s bodies and the way we discuss our value matters in the larger scheme of violence against women.
How we talk about our culture matters. How we participate in relationships with the women around us matters. Because all lives matter. Rape isn't some sacred thing that we must only discuss "when appropriate" which is often code for never. Rape needs to be talked about, discussed, and seen for the horror it is. Talking about culture that condones and endorses rape, then, is the act of bringing light into darkness, of making it harder for evil to hide, of setting our foot down and saying "no, that's not okay because that is the mindset of the rapist."
It is not sensational. It is necessary.