Issues

Women Are Finding Their Voice After a History of Coerced Silence

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

“Perfection is a flaw disguised as control. The moment Eve bit into the apple, her eyes opened and she became free. She exposed the truth of what every woman knows: to find our sovereign voice often requires a betrayal.”

— Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

The past several weeks have felt like a desert scirocco. Close to the wind’s source, harsh blasts full of sand have scoured clean long concealed and damaging secrets, while farther away, the winds have brought moisture and healing to others shriveled by sere silence. The spate of stories of sexually abusive men who used their powers for evil-doing has wreaked havoc in the news and on social media. For sexual abuse survivors, the stories have acted as triggers that have brought back traumatic memories and caused further pain. For men who themselves are guilty of sexual abuse ranging from rape to harassment, panic that their transgressions are about to be revealed has led some to go on the offensive, labeling these revelations as some kind of artificial bandwagon of victims not worthy of belief.

While I see the reckoning for abusive men as a thing to be celebrated—not with party hats and streamers, but rather with a sense of relief that perhaps justice is prevailing—the backlash I have seen on social media has sickened me. Some of the worst responses have themselves been criminal, as when one of the defenders of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of pursuing adolescent girls for sexual relationships, doxxed one of Moore’s victims for the purpose of making it easier to threaten her. Another of Moore’s defenders likened Moore to God, claiming that the Virgin Mary was the same age as Moore’s victims, thus inadvertently confirming patriot Thomas Paine’s view: “What is it the Testament teaches us? —to believe the Almighty committed debauchery with  a woman engaged to be married, and the belief of this debauchery is called faith.” (Age of Reason, Part II, Section 20)

***

And where is the safest place when that place

must be someplace other than in the body.

— Claudia Rankine, Citizen

One of the ways that we speak about burdens that hobble members of the population that do not have an impact on others is with the term “privilege,” which is woefully misunderstood by those who assume that privilege is something that “gives”  those who have it some form of monetary value. In actuality, privilege often means “freedom from.” Understanding privilege is the difference between understanding something gained and something gotten rid of—or something one never had to be burdened with in the first place. Certain types of male privilege are possessed by even the most impoverished men, while denied to women. This is still a concept that those with privilege—men, white people, the wealthy, among others—struggle to understand. Because we associate privilege with “having” something, the idea that not having to carry a burden that you’re unaware that others struggle with can feel like some kind of academic, even worthless, idea. Observing how others are weighted down because they don’t share one’s privilege is the most effective way of noticing its existence. (Or actually believing someone when they tell you of their experiences.)

One of the easiest ways to demonstrate how male privilege works is to consider a common exercise in many universities at the beginning of each academic year. I have witnessed this exercise in person, and similar stories have been related to me by many others who have also seen them play out.

At the beginning of the academic year, usually during orientation, students will take a safety seminar, especially freshmen who are away from home for the first time. Students will gather in a room. In the case I observed, an instructor asked the male students what measures they took to keep themselves “safe.” Most of the young men appeared puzzled by the question, having never really thought about it. Then, the question was posed to the young women. Nearly every arm shot up. “Never walk alone at night.” “Never go home from the library by yourself.” “Always walk with your keys between your fingers in case you need to use them as a weapon.” “Carry pepper spray.” “Never go to a party alone; always go with a girlfriend.” “Never accept a ride home from someone you don’t know.” “Always let someone know what time you expect to be home.” The list of safety measures that girls have been taught either by their own mothers or by their peers will fill a chalkboard while most young men are still trying to figure out what is going on.

At times in my own life, especially when I was in my twenties and was determined not to conduct my life from a place of fear, I have taken chances that have led others to accuse me of seeking to be raped.

I used to run for exercise all the time. Five times a week, I would run three-to-four miles as a way of combating stress and because I loved it. Many nights, after finishing studying at midnight or later, I would feel too restless to sleep. So I would throw on my training togs and go out and run on the local bicycle trail. During the day, the trail was crowded with joggers, cyclists, people pushing baby strollers, and little kids riding tricycles. It was like navigating an obstacle course. But at night, the trail was deserted. I loved being out by myself, my music blasting in my ears, racing between the lamp posts that cast pools of light on the trail. After a 45-minute run, I would arrive back at my apartment relaxed and ready for bed.

But when friends found out what I was doing, they were horrified—and angry. “Are you trying to get yourself raped?” one of them asked me. Imagine that question—my going out to run was seen by my friends as an act that would “provoke” my own rape. One night, one of the university cops stopped and asked me if I knew how “risky” my running was. A few weeks later, after another woman was pulled off the trail and raped, I stopped running at night. But even now, when I see male runners out at all hours of the day and night, I wonder how many of them have ever been told that their activities are provoking rapists. It is worth noting that years later, when I was sexually assaulted—by a man I had gone out on a date with—certain friends opined that I had “gone looking” for what happened to me.

The ability to move through the world without a thought of sexual assault is an example of male privilege. It is freedom from. Freedom from wondering if it’s “safe” to engage in a simple activity: running at night, going to the grocery store to grab milk, going to the cinema alone. How many men have mocked women for having to do even the simplest things—going to the restroom, for example—accompanied by another woman? But from our earliest days, we are warned that the world is dangerous, and that disaster lies in wait for the unaccompanied woman.

They are warnings that come down to us in a variety of languages. When I was a child, it was being hectored by both my mother and my father, who while encouraging me to read and to learn and to grow smart, also told me that my behavior wasn’t “very ladylike,” or being told by my father that he should call me “Ports-MOUTH,” because I was too loud. We tell girls from an early age to not take attention away from boys, to not compete, to not challenge authority. I believe that my parents didn’t lecture me in such ways because they were trying to diminish me. I think, in their own best way, they were trying to protect me from a world that has punished women for their voices.

In recent works, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has addressed herself to the topic of “feminism.” For Adichie, who was raised in Nigeria, messages about “feminism” were frequent. She recounts being told what feminism “was” by those who saw it not only as a threat to power, but also as a belief system that would ruin any chance she would ever have of “catching a man.” Adichie argues that it’s not enough for women to become feminists when they become adults; we need to change the way we speak to young girls. “We teach girls shame. Close your legs. Cover yourself. We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. Who silence themselves. Who cannot say what they truly think. Who have turned pretence into an art form.”

“Who have turned pretence into an art form.” For thousands of years, men have written about vainglorious women who pretend in all things, that women are incapable of real thought, or that we deceive men by our flatteries, or our unwillingness to tell the truth. But those behaviors are taught to us almost from the moment of birth. We learn from the beginning, or else it is taught to us on the playground and in the classroom, that boys are bigger than us, louder than us, and that when we assert ourselves, we can be shut down by being ignored by a teacher or by a fist raised in violence or by the cruelty that is being shunned. How many smart girls have written of the pain of first learning that her voice only seemed to get her into trouble with those around her? No wonder so many of us learn how to pretend to be dumber than we are, to be more quiet, to avoid attention unless we are competing for men—the activity that we are told that we were made for.

Simone de Beauvoir told us in The Second Sex that a “woman is made, not born,” and yet, here we are, decades later, still operating in a system in which the male voice is privileged above that of the female to the point that we are still teaching little girls not to be “too much” when interacting with boys.

Imagine how much courage it takes for a woman to go out on a date. Each time a woman goes out on a date, she has to trust that she has judged that the man she is out with is not a rapist. Because, according to many, once a woman agrees to be alone with a man—in his car, in his domicile, in a bar—she has given consent to everything that happens. Men rape women. Subject verb object (to paraphrase Catharine MacKinnon). And rather than hold men accountable for this behavior, the onus is always put on women to “avoid” putting themselves into this situation. In fact, the urge to rape is so overwhelming, Vice President Mike Pence does not trust himself to dine alone with a woman who is not his wife.

If a woman is raped and she has gone out on a date with her rapist, “date rape” is treated as a “he said/she said” situation. What he insists was consensual sex—after all, she agreed to be alone with him—is given equal weight to her word that sex was not what she wanted. And, because a woman’s propensity to lie has been instantiated in philosophy, theology, and popular culture, when certain men are accused of rape, it’s assumed that his victim must be lying.

In Missoula, journalist Jon Krakauer documented and investigated a series of rapes that took place in college-associated spaces in Missoula, Montana. In case after case, female students had been raped, most often by young men they knew, and when the women took their attackers to court, it was the women who were hounded, harassed, and victimized again by those who insisted that the accusation of rape against a young man was far more damaging than the original crime.

These views of women are not new. To take but one example, let’s consider a document called Malleus Maleficarum, usually translated as Hammer of Witches, written in 1487 and used as a manual for persecuting those accused of witchcraft. It began with this prevarication about the very name given to women: “And all this is indicated by the etymology of the word; for Femina comes from Fe and Minus, since she is ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith.” This etymology is false. “Femina” comes from the Latin “femina,” which simply means “woman.” The implication of the lie is chilling. Authors Kramer and Sprenger have told inquisitors that a woman’s insistence on her innocence of the crime of witchcraft should be assumed to be a lie. Not only are women liars, but their ravenous sexual appetites drive them to commit the worst sins.

Kramer and Sprenger cite Church Fathers such as Saint John Chrysostom and such philosophers as Seneca to confirm their argument that women cannot be trusted because women are all lying seductresses. The philosophies that justify these beliefs are drawn from a hierarchy in which the spirit is superior to the body. For many male thinkers, women were incapable of higher thought because they were incapable of rising above their menstruating, child-bearing bodies: women were bodies, while men were spirit. And from this hierarchy, dualities were created in which the superior quality was attributed to men, while women were assumed to be men’s opposites. As Chrysostom wrote: “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours!”

My foray back into the past is simply to point out that the belief that women lie about rape has been written into our history. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the foundational text claims that Eve’s lie is the original sin that has condemned humankind to death and suffering, and that women are ultimately a barrier that lies between a man and his salvation.

***

But there is no male or female language, only the truthful or fake, the precise or vague, the inspired or the pedestrian.

— Francine Prose,Scent of a Woman’s Ink

Each year, the VIDA Count reports on the number of women’s bylines in a range of national and international publications. The count documents what many women writers have long known: women’s writing is less valued in our culture than that of men’s, as quantified by the fact that the majority of writing in magazines is still performed by men. As I wrote earlier this year, an untold number of men don’t even read work by women authors. But women readers do read male authors. Numerous essays and articles have explored this phenomenon, which appears to be rooted in notions that the subjects that men write about are of universal interest, while the things that women write are somehow “womanish” or only of interest to other women. Norman Mailer claimed he could tell a woman’s writing by its “scent,” and wrote, “I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn…” Writer V.S. Naipaul declared that no woman writer had ever been or was his “equal.”

Despite the fact that the majority of book buyers are women, male writers—especially white males—continue to occupy a position of superiority in the literary world. The same culture that assumes that a woman who speaks of her rape is lying is the same culture that values stories written by men to that of women’s.

***

“[W]e could also talk about quotidian assaults, because though a rape is reported only every 6.2 minutes in this country, the estimated total is perhaps five times as high. Which means that there may be very nearly a rape a minute in the United States. It all adds up to tens of millions of rape victims. A significant portion of the women you know are survivors.”

Rebecca Solnit, “The Longest War 

Society and culture have historically deemed war an arena not fit for women. But as the reality of war has seeped into the literature, the definitions of bravery have also changed. Now we see courage and bravery in terms of the psychic toll that battle takes upon a man. One of the common tropes about men who go off to do battle is that they return from the fighting damaged in some way. In World War I, it was called “shell shock.” In the Second World War, they called it “battle fatigue.” We now assume that the average soldier, having witnessed the horrors of battle, will return affected with what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in which the soldier’s inability to process into words what he has experienced creates a harmful silence, a failure of language. We privilege that silence, the inability to talk about what’s been seen, as part of the process of PTSD, and we have been told that it may take years, even decades, for those affected to speak.

Why then is the silence of female victims of sexual assault—many suffering from their own PTSD, their own alienation from a language that could give shape to their ordeals—interpreted as either implied consent to the rape, or as proof that whatever occurred was not that serious? Why do we dismiss women who wait “too long” to talk about what happened to them? Why are women assumed to have the words to talk about their traumas when we allow men to take their time? How can someone like Roy Moore claim that because his victims took 40 years to come forward, they must be lying, when we readily accept that there are still soldiers from World War II, Korea, or Vietnam who only now are talking about their pain?

Roxane Gay wrote in Hunger, “My body was broken. I was broken. I did not know how to put myself back together. I was splintered. A part of me was dead. A part of me was mute and would stay that way for many years.” How do those words not sound as eloquent as any writing done by a man about what he lost during war?

Violence against women, specifically, the killing of women by their intimate partners, has claimed more American lives than the attacks of 9/11 and American deaths in the wars that followed, and yet, when women speak of that violence as a problem that needs a society-wide solution, politicians refer to women who lobby for political recognition of the problem as “single-issue” voters. Do we denigrate the culture-wide issue of war, veterans, and mental health as single issues? We have two federal holidays dedicated to acknowledging the pain and suffering caused by war. Where are the holidays that acknowledge the long war waged on women’s bodies?

Many men claim that women “lie” about rape, and the revelation that a particular rape charge has been fabricated is taken as proof that all women are liars. Each year, men claim battle honors that are false, and yet, never has it been suggested that all men lie about their service records. To believe such a thing would be absurd. (In fact, lying about one’s service record is considered such a taboo that laws such as the “Stolen Valor” Act of 2005, sought to make such claims a crime.) How many men lying about their service records will it take for the country to believe that all men are liars? But how many people believe that all women lie about rape because one woman did?

In Alabama, the belief that women are liars is so ingrained that a poll done this past weekend shows that 37 percent of evangelical voters in Alabama are more likely to vote for Roy Moore since the pedophilia allegations have surfaced. Those same people who believe that Eve brought evil into the world by her lies are now willing to vote for a pedophile rather than believe that women may be speaking the truth.

In a culture that punishes women for speaking, the woman who articulates her pain is courageous. Where are her medals, her statue?