We were discussing homosexuality because of an allusion to it in the book we were reading, and several boys made comments such as, “That’s disgusting.” We got into the debate and eventually a boy admitted that he was terrified/disgusted when he was once sharing a taxi and the other male passenger made a pass at him.
The lightbulb went off. “Oh,” I said. “I get it. See, you are afraid, because for the first time in your life you have found yourself a victim of unwanted sexual advances by someone who has the physical ability to use force against you.” The boy nodded and shuddered visibly.
“But,” I continued. “As a woman, you learn to live with that from the time you are fourteen, and it never stops. We live with that fear every day of our lives. Every man walking through the parking garage the same time you are is either just a harmless stranger or a potential rapist. Every time.”
The girls in the room nodded, agreeing. The boys seemed genuinely shocked.
“So think about that the next time you hit on a girl. Maybe, like you in the taxi, she doesn’t actually want you to.”
→ a Dish reader
Men who want to flirt with women have to realize: Women live in a state of continual vigilance about sexual safety. It’s like having a mild case of hay fever that never goes away. It’s not debilitating. You’re not weak. You’re not afraid. You just suck it up and get on with your life. It’s nothing that’s going to stop you from making discoveries, or climbing mountains, or falling in love. Sometimes you can almost forget about it. It doesn’t mean it’s not there, subtly sucking your energy. You learn to avoid situations that make it worse and seek out conditions that make it better.
If a female stranger is wary around you, it is not because she suspects you are a rapist, or that all men are rapists. It’s because a general level of circumspection is what vigilance requires. Don’t take it personally.
If this frustrates you, try to remember that women are blamed for lapsed vigilance. If a woman does get raped, everyone rushes to see where she let her guard down. Was she drinking? Was she alone? Was she wearing a short skirt? Did she go to a strange man’s room for coffee at 4am?
A woman must be seen to be vigilant as well as be vigilant. If she is deemed insufficiently vigilant, she will be at least partly blamed for any sexual violence that befalls her. If she’s regarded as downright reckless, that “evidence” can be used to completely exonerate her rapist. If it comes down to a he said/she said dispute over whether sex was consensual, as so many rape cases do, the dispute becomes a referendum on whether the woman seems like the sort of reckless person who would have sex with a stranger.
If a woman does go back to a strange man’s hotel room at 4am, even if she only wants a coffee and conversation, she’s more or less given him the power to rape her. No jury is going to believe she went up there for anything but sex. So, don’t be surprised if a stranger reacts badly to that suggestion.
Women stick their necks out to say that something is fucked-up, hurtful, oppressive, scary: Misogynist. They do this knowing full well that there will be social consequences. Remarkably, we’re all familiar with the idea that the women who do this are bitches/ugly/humorless/scolds/delusional (“you see sexism everywhere”)/hysterical/oversensitive/insensitive/etc. We know that we take on most of the risk, in this conversation. We know that we have to be very careful in terms of what we say, and to whom; that we will be expected to choose our targets and our words very carefully, seem “understanding,” seem “empathetic,” make all the right allowances, be oh so very polite. We labor over our words, swallow our anger, push through our fear (and most women who bring themselves to make these kinds of statements are very afraid of reprisal; we know it happens, in overt and subtle ways, pretty much every time), construct these carefully tortured and worked-out sentences; we work at this shit.
And then, after all that work, some dude makes a joke about how we need some dick — not even a joke he’s had to work on, really; that line’s been around forever — and everybody laughs, and it’s over. We get no apology. We get no consideration. We get no hearing. We get nothing. What this exchange ultimately proves to women, every time it’s played out, is that no matter how hard we work, we will never matter. We will never be heard. It’s just the same fucking thing, every day, like a punch to the gut: You think you can change shit? You think I care how you feel? You think I care what you think? No. Never. You think it fucking matters that you don’t like what I do to you? It doesn’t. I’m gonna fucking do what I want to you. Sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up, and take it. Or else I’m gonna tell everyone what a bitch you are, that you won’t play my game. My very special game, that I designed. And here are the rules for the game: You Lose.
Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?
Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.
John Scalzi, “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” (via emm-in-sem)
The analogy seems apt. Scalzi makes a good point about the word “privilege” being offputting. I know it’s exciting when you finally learn what exactly privilege is and it’s all you want to talk about because you see it everywhere. But the word “privilege,” while not quite up there with “racist,” does tend to make people tune out, either because they don’t get it at all or they don’t get it in the same context that you do.