“Oh boy, you best f— her good tonight, because if you don’t, someone sure will.”
I looked over at the heckling passer-by, who was tipsy, slurring his words ever so slightly and talking too much with his hands. It was 10:15 on a Thursday night in Boston, right after a Red Sox loss. My friend and I were sitting on a bench by the Charles, watching people meander the river walk. This guy stumbled in front of us, then turned back to, apparently, discuss our future plans.
I heard my male friend laugh nervously and scoot just a tad farther away from me so our legs weren’t touching anymore, fumbling for an excuse that would get him out of the increasingly awkward situation. I sat silently, hands folded in my lap, a polite smirk plastered on my face, my jaw clenched. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe—nothing that could give the man any more reason to comment. I kept looking at the man, his couldn’t-care-less gaze that never broke from my friend’s, listening to him ramble about overpriced French fries in the same breath as “f— her good.” I was unseen.
So many things about this scene strike me as problematic, but chief among them is how frankly unmoved I was. I was sexually harassed; I was reduced to skin exposed by my shorts and tank top, an object to be “f—ed” by anyone who felt like it, simultaneously valuable for my sexual possibility and too worthless to even be glanced at. And while I registered the deep implications of his comments, the entire interaction didn’t surprise me. It was just an average Thursday.
A National Problem
A Gallup poll released in early October 2016 reports that 34 percent of women worry about being sexually assaulted, up 5 points from last year’s 29 percent. That’s one in every three American women who put their keys between their knuckles, who have 9-1-1 already typed on their phones when they walk from the parking lot to their apartment buildings, or who (in fear) refuse to go out at all.
Harassment constituting an average Thursday isn’t an overnight occurrence; there is a lifelong learning process that has created an entirely different worldview for me than for my male counterparts. It is the water that I, and the vast majority of American women, swim in. But like my own reaction to cavalier assault threats, the primary issue here is ambivalence: no one seems to care that 34 percent of women are afraid of being assaulted for simply existing. And yet, how little has changed–and we can blame rape culture for that
Rape culture is the concept that society normalizes men’s sexual objectification, assault, harassment, and violence, and blames the victims of such attacks. This acceptance is a built up tolerance—we accept the “locker room talk,” the catcalls, the unsolicited dick pics, the doping, and the groping, all in that order. Once we can accept all that, rape and sexual assault are much easier to tolerate. As someone swimming in the fetid water, I feel unsafe around “harmless locker room talk” because those comments aren’t just talk—rape culture backs that up. Rape culture often doesn’t look like blatant acceptance of and egging on sexual assault and rape, but sometimes it does.
What It Looks Like
Rape culture looks like last week when I got off the train and called a male friend while I walked less than a block back to my apartment. He was so confused about why I needed to call, but I did because I know that it discourages assailants when their targets are talking to someone who might care if they disappear or get hurt.
Rape culture looks like last summer when I brought my car into the dealership for a tune up. I introduced myself to the middle-aged mechanic and he looked between my younger and sister and me, his gaze roving our bodies:
“Wait, you’re the older one? You look like you’re 14 at best.” I protested that No, I’m 19–yes, really. When my father showed up, the mechanic immediately dropped the conversation with us, marched right to him and shook his hand. They chatted about what needed to be done on the car, and I stood there silently, a polite smirk on my face, as to not give him any more reason to comment, trying to be unseen.
Almost made it: “Sir, I can’t believe you let your daughter leave the house dressed like that,” the mechanic said, giving my shorts and tee-shirt a once over.
Rape culture looks like last semester when I was walking by an upper-class dorm in the middle of the day and got wolf-whistled at out a window, followed by a “Damn, girl!” followed by a “Shit, close the window!” No, I didn’t feel flattered.
Rape culture looks like my senior year of high school when I took a self-defense class and learned to never, ever reveal to any male what we know because 90 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known by the victim. It also looks like a Friday night when I mentally ran through my go-to fight sequence, should I get jumped as I waited at a parking garage for my car at 12:30 am in downtown Chicago.
Rape culture looks like a passer-by telling my male friend he better sleep with me regardless of what I want. Equally important, it looks like my male friend having no response other than to remove himself from the situation.
Years of microaggressions and objectification taught me to notice how these small moments are not isolated incidents. They are all connected by rape culture, which is why I was both afraid by this passer-by’s comment and truly unsurprised.
Rape culture is unlike any other public health crisis. Unless men and women begin talking about it openly, our relationships will suffer the consequences of silence.