April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and yet it took the recent school shooting at the University of Southern California, Santa Barbara to bring the subject to light. Never have I been prouder to be a part of a social media platform than on May 23rd, when thousands of women on Twitter poured their fears and experiences into the hashtag #YesAllWomen. The flood of tweets and Facebook convos that ensued made me realize how disillusioned we are about the culture which is raping us of our sexual freedoms. Not all men are rapists, and not all women are victims, but until we have an open dialogue about the social issues plaguing this country…hell, the world…then this, like many social issues, will go by the wayside without eliciting a single change. Sex is fun and exciting, but it can be terrifying and confusing as well. And until we relinquish societal control over our genitals and what we do with them, then we as a people will never truly be free.
What surprised me most about the debate over #YesAllWomen is how defensive people were. Men and women alike jumped to defend their position with excuses that ranged from “Not all men are rapists; I’m not a rapist,” to “These women are just big old whiners.” In my own life, I watched my husband forced to defend himself on Facebook from his friends when apologizing for his own contribution to the rape culture—a brave sentiment, and one echoed by countless other men in the wake of #YesAllWomen. It was frustrating watching the debate unfold, knowing what I know about sexual and gender inequality in this country. And when the conversation inevitably turned to the NRA and mental illness, I had to laugh. As if there is only enough righteous indignation for one societal injustice at a time.
Elliot Rodger’s rampage through Santa Barbara exposed the worse in our culture—a triple-faceted mirror that we have writhed from because it reflects all too honestly our own contribution to the problem. And when backed in a corner, any animal’s first reaction is to fight, to lash out and defend ourselves, our actions, our words, even if they’re indefensible. I do not defend Rodger’s actions, but I can pity him. He was the product of a misogynistic society which places so much emphasis on gender performativity that he—like so many other people—didn’t realize that no man or woman can comfortably fit this invisible mold. Elliot Rodger’s, like so many of us, was a product of rape culture—a term that has been hotly debated the last few days, but one I feel envelopes the problem at hand.
Rape culture goes deeper than the act of forcible sexual penetration. It is a culture which perpetuates sexual violence, gender roles and misogyny, making all of the above part of our social norm. It is the reason why a man in Texas got a lesser sentence after raping a 14-year-old girl because “she wasn’t the victim she claimed to be” and why trans-vaginal ultrasounds may soon be the norm for any female requesting an abortion. It’s why five year old Billy isn't allowed to play with a pink bouncy ball, even though it’s his favorite color, or why there’s such stigma over the “effeminate male” or “butch female” even within the homosexual community. And if you happen to be transgendered, you've broken all of society’s expectations for you, and your scrutiny is far and wide. Rape culture isn't just about rape. It’s about you and me. Societal expectations versus our own. It’s about a lack of empathy, of righting our wrongs, of teaching others tolerance and compassion.
Over the past few days I’ve read A LOT of opinions—everything from gun control and mental health, feminism, and even semantics has been argued. I’ve been angry by what I perceived as ignorance. How can anyone live in this country and not see how rape culture has saturated everything since its puritanical foundation? And then I remembered: I was part of the problem too. In many ways, I still am. A gay, cisgendered male who has gone without kissing my husband because it might affect my tips at work. A brother who couldn’t quite wrap his mind around it when his sister began talking about the ghosts of sexual abuse she had never mentioned before. She was having a mental break down, so she had to be making it up…right? A timid co-worker who walked away silent but outraged after watching three of my female friends accosted by an employee I knew made them feel uncomfortable. They didn’t want to stir the pot, so why didn’t I pick up the spoon?
That is the cultural decision you and I face. Do we stand idly by and watch, powerless as our individuality is raped? Or do we fight and scream, and, in the words of Ghandi, “be the change we wish to see in the world”? Like I said, I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces over the tragedy in USC, and the reactions of people who either agree or disagree with the misogyny prominent in this country, but blogger Neil Gaiman’s was probably the most profound. In an article for Slate, Gaiman writes:
“Even though we may not be the direct problem, we still participate in the cultural problem. If we’re quiet, we’re part of the problem. If we don’t listen, if we don’t help, if we let things slide for whatever reason, then we’re part of the problem too.
We men need to do better.”
I’m going to take it one step further—we as individuals need to do better. The problem with rape culture isn’t about male vs. female. It’s about the male/female dichotomy. Gender roles that were assigned to us the moment someone else saw the tiny genitals between our legs. Before we ever grasped on to our first tangible memory, we were boys and girls, football players or ballerinas. And when asked, most of us naturally gravitated to that end of the spectrum we were told we fit on. If we didn’t, then there was hell to be paid. But as societal norms and expectations shift, we as a people are faced with the choice to either stay stagnant in those belief systems that can be so confining, or to expand our minds and realize that everything society teaches about sex, sexuality and gender is simply…misconstrued.
A few weeks ago I wrote about sexual abuse, a rushed piece, but a piece I felt I needed to write after Sexual Abuse Awareness Month in April. In it, I discussed a 14-year old boy who faced being tried as an adult for the rape of his 8 year-old cousin. While his actions were horrifying, I couldn’t help but wonder what in his young little life led him to commit such a violent act against a member of his own family. I went on to talk about the need to educate children about sex and sexuality, a conversation many parents feel is uncomfortable to have with their child. Uncomfortable as it may be, though, it is more important than ever to open that line of communication. And not just about the physical act of sex. Kids need to know there can be passion and tenderness, respect and trust. Boys and girls of all genders need to know they have worth in this throw-away culture they find themselves in. And above all, they need to trust that you’ll be there for them if it all goes wrong.
Rape culture, like gun control and civil rights—is a serious issue, and one we cannot continue to sweep under the rug. Change is never won with silence. Yet, in every social movement there are those blissfully unaware that they are just as affected as the movers and shakers making the most noise, those comfortable in their own oppression. Does that make them any less deserving of the same respect and equality as the people who are fighting the good fight? No. If anything, they deserve it more. After all, sometimes it takes seeing freedom to lust after it yourself.