Writing the blog entry that I was intending to post this week quickly took a disturbing turn. And what occurred was a good reminder that no matter how much guys like me like to think that we “get it” when it comes to issues of sexual assault, sometimes we still buy into – and actually repeat – the myths that our patriarchal society has about rape… myths that actually perpetuate rape.
Here’s how my post began:
The other day I encountered a brilliant blog posting about the fact that one of the most famous pictures celebrating the end of World War II actually depicts a non-consensual sexual act. The picture, taken in New York’s Times Square, shows a sailor bending a nurse over backward and kissing her. The blog post, entitled “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture,’” points out that that the photo shows a man doing something to a woman that he did not have permission to do.
The woman was not expecting to be grabbed. To be kissed. To be bent over backward by some very strong, totally inebriated man -- a man she did not even know!
Oh no! Oh shit! Did I really write “a man she did not even know!” as I was trying to show just how wrong that guy’s behavior was?
Yes, yes I did. Sigh…..
Fortunately, I caught it before posting it. But it kind of stinks to know that it even occurred to me to write. Because here’s the deal: somewhere in the recesses of my mind a voice was saying that the fact that the man was a stranger somehow made it a more compelling case that he should not have done what he did to that woman.
And that’s just messed up.
Because whether or not she knew him is totally irrelevant! Men are no more allowed to grab women they know than they are welcome to grab perfect strangers!
But isn’t being sexually assaulted by a stranger worse than being sexually assaulted by someone you know and trust? the voice asks.
No. Not always. Not necessarily. It depends. To be assaulted by a stranger would be terrifying and is to be betrayed on a human and social level. And some studies suggest that stranger rape often involves more physical injuries to the woman who is attacked. But to be assaulted by someone you know and trust is to be betrayed on a personal level as well.
He knew me. He was my friend. How could he do this to me?
Being grabbed by a stranger would be absolutely terrifying. But having someone you know attack you sexually is likely more heartbreaking.
So which one is worse? the voice asks. Well, it turns out that’s a pretty useless question. Both types of sexual assault are horrible. Both are harmful. And neither should happen. Ever. But our society has a history of treating assaults by strangers as a crime while considering assaults by known men as something that “just happens.” A “misunderstanding,” perhaps. This, even though assaults by men who are known to women are far, far more common than attacks by strangers.
We do not treat rapes by known men as if they are as severe as stranger rape because women have long been considered to be the property of the men they know. And our laws still reflect that terrible legacy. Marital rape was not even criminalized throughout all of the United States until 1993, and in many states a man who is married to the woman he victimizes still cannot be charged with felony rape, but only with lesser crimes like simple assault. Why? Simply because the woman he victimized is his wife.
If he raped a stranger, they could throw the book at him. Prosecute him with far more vigor. Because he raped someone other than his wife.
And that’s messed up. Rape is rape. Period.
And I messed up. I am a little bit freaked out by the fact that I included that phrase a man she did not even know! in trying to make the argument that a man’s behavior was in fact sexual assault. And by the fact that it would even occur to me that the story of what this man did would be somehow made more compelling -- that the wrongness of the man’s act would be more clear -- if I mentioned the fact that the woman did not know the man who grabbed her.
But I also take it as a chilling reminder of just how deeply imbedded I am in our rape culture. That no matter how aware I try to be, that I am not above sometimes buying into the myths. That I am still vulnerable to being mentally colonized by the poisonous patriarchal messages promulgated by a culture that not only fails to take male sexual aggression seriously, but actually works to promote it.
Although I am disturbed that it happened, in a way it is good that it did. It’s good to be reminded that no matter how enlightened that I like to think I am around these issues, I am still sometimes vulnerable to the patriarchal, oppressive messages that are all around me.
There is an old proverb that says that “a fish does not recognize the water in which it swims.” (That our awareness of the context of our everyday lives simply escapes us. It all just seems “normal.”) But as a profeminist man, I like to think that I’m pretty good at recognizing the patriarchal currents in which we swim. But what happened as I worked to construct this blog post serves as a good reminder that even if I do tend to recognize the patriarchal waters in which I swim, I am still immersed in them.
And that at times they can still sweep me away.