Last week I read an article in Mother Jones profiling some of the leading female supporters of the men’s rights movement. Several of them work with people who were abused as children, or with men who feel they have to pay too much child support or have insufficient access to their children. I thought about this article as I followed the Michael Brown case on social media.
In the article, one of the women is quoted as saying there is no such thing as rape culture. She passes the idea off as some kind of mass “rape fantasy” by women who believe they are so sexually desirable that all men want them. This remark exposes a fundamental failure to grasp what rape is.
Rape is not about sex. The rapist is not amorous, he’s angry. He doesn’t desire women, he desires restoration of his own sense of entitlement and mastery. Rape is about control. The rapist sees any woman who dares enter his territory (defined as anywhere he is, including public spaces) as fair game. He can leer at her, jeer, catcall, grope, follow, intimidate, proposition, assault or murder if he chooses. He is an “I,” an agent. She is an “it.” Because she dared take up space, walk, talk, dance, yell, sing, sit, be in his presence, anything that happens is her fault. She is to blame, not he. She asked for it. She shouldn’t have been at that party. She shouldn’t have worn those clothes. She shouldn’t have gone out at night or walked down that side of the street. She provoked him. She’s lying. Boys will be boys.
Rape culture is a culture of control, contempt, domination, and violence. It isn’t about sex, though bodies are its theater of operations and sexuality is one of its tools. And it isn’t just about adult relationships or interactions. Rape culture is an ethos, a worldview. The strong may do as they wish. The weak are prey.
The Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen that emerged after a rich young white man went on a shooting rampage because he was unable to be a successful “pickup artist” represented an unmasking of rape culture. Not all men rape, but all women are affected by rape culture. And so are all men.
According to one of the women profiled in the article, most violent men were abused by their mothers. That may well be true, but it does nothing to refute feminism or disprove rape culture. Rape is violence, not lust. Feminism is not about allowing the rabbit to start hunting down and eating the wolf. It’s about the lion lying down with the lamb. It’s about ending predation entirely, not switching places. The violent, abusive mother was abused when she was small and helpless. She was objectified, stymied, stultified, negated by someone with power over her. If she doesn’t heal from that, she will take it out on her children, who will, as their mother did, internalize both the victim and the perpetrator. As the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.”
Feminism, rightly understood, liberates both men and women. It cultivates the agency, efficacy, and humanity of every human being. It is about freedom to be oneself, to occupy space, to move from place to place, to be sassy or shy, bold or timid, fat or thin, gay, straight, male, female, gender nonconforming, black, white, biracial, Asian, Latino/a, or whatever. It’s about walking in the middle of the street with your friend if you want to without interference if you’re not endangering yourself or others. The purpose and function of every human being is to develop, to learn, to love, to create, to be a member of God’s family. Rape culture makes all those capacities and rights contingent on the whim of someone who has more power than you, who has a bullhorn or a gun or fists or a belt. Or a penis.
In the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown, a young black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, my friend Kevin Vetiac wrote in his blog:
Racism killed Michael Brown. Racism that refuses to acknowledge people of color as fully human. Racism that says people of color are to be humiliated, exploited and kept in their place. Racism that says all black men are dangerous menaces to society who need to be locked up or shot dead. Racism that tells white people to be afraid of all black people everywhere at all times. Racism that makes it OK to shoot first and ask questions later. It is this racism that fuels the American way of life and makes white privilege possible. . . .
I am a person. Do you get that? Do you really get that? I’m fully human just like you. I am not a target. I am not a dog that can be shot down in the street for no reason. I do not exist to serve you or be subordinate to you in any way so don’t expect me to be submissive to you. I’m going to say that again because you really need to hear this white America. I DO NOT EXIST TO SERVE YOU OR BE SUBORDINATE TO YOU IN ANY WAY. I am made in the image and likeness of God. My blackness is not a curse, it is a blessing. I will never apologize to you for existing, never.
Kevin is right. And, to a surprisingly great degree, you can substitute “woman” for “black man” and “rape culture” for “racism” in those statements, and they still say something true and profound. Racism and rape culture are essentially the same. Both are based on the premise that some lives, some bodies, matter more than others and that some people, solely by virtue of physical characteristics and/or social location, have the right to exert power over those lesser humans.
U.S. culture automatically gives people who have been assigned the status of “whiteness” advantages, privileges, and immunities over non-whites. That is what is meant by white privilege. A stark example of this is how the presumption of innocence is turned upside down and backwards when either the suspect or the victim is not white. Mike Brown, a black teenager, was unarmed. He had his open hands up in a gesture of surrender when he was gunned down by a white police officer. As Kevin Vetiac said, racism killed him. And Michael Brown is not alone. An astonishing number of black people are routinely killed by white people in this country. And every time it happens, the focus is immediately placed on the character, demeanor, dress, drug habits, and history of the person who was killed. That actually cuts both ways. Mike Brown was about to start post-secondary education, but even though that fact keeps getting repeated, it’s utterly irrelevant. Even if he had just committed a robbery, even if he had just done something violent and heinous, he still did not deserve to be gunned down on the street when he put his hands up and said “Don’t shoot.” If he had been white he would still be alive. I know this because James Holmes, who is white, took weapons of mass destruction into a movie theater and committed murder and mayhem. He was taken into custody alive and unharmed. And Jared Lee Loughner, who is white, and who shot a Congresswoman in the head and killed six other people, was likewise taken alive.
Rape culture decrees that every woman’s (and some men’s) bodily integrity and personal safety are contingent upon the will of someone else. White men do not live with this reality. Not all men are rapists, but all men live in a society where every woman knows this fact. Rape culture, like racism, gives people in dominant positions a license to negate the humanity of those they perceive to be subordinate, and to use and abuse the bodies of those subordinate, objectified people. This domination occurs along a continuum of aggressions and demands for subservience. Strangers tell women on the bus to “smile.” White police officers intimidate and bully black people just because they can. Security officers keep an especially close eye on black shoppers. And men feel entitled to control women, even complete strangers.
Although racism and rape culture are expressed in individual behaviors, they are not solely personal failings or choices. Racist, misogynist, and destructive behaviors are manifestations of the predatory character of the culture as a whole. If you step back you can see that racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, domestic violence, militarism, religious intolerance, mass incarceration, and environmental destruction all emanate from the same ethos of objectification and negation. Erich Fromm called it “necrophilia,” or love of death. The desire to control is the desire to extinguish all spontaneity, creativity, unpredictability, rebellion, and differentness. It is, in essence, the desire to kill everything.
The solution is conscientization, a robust word bequeathed to us by the brilliant Brazilian educator Paolo Freire. It means waking up, becoming aware, reclaiming one’s dignity, agency, and personal integrity. It means listening to oppressed people and recognizing them as fully human. And it means becoming aware that all of us have been shaped by the dominant culture and we all carry oppression, racism, and misogyny inside us. All of us are racist and sexist, even those who are targets of the racism or sexism of others. And all oppressors are diminished, limited, and damaged by oppressive systems. Conscientization means learning to act out of love instead of fear. It means relating to oneself and others in new, nonviolent ways. Conscientization occurs as a dialectical, communal process of acting, reflecting, and acting with and for others. Anyone who wants to overcome embedded racism and misogyny must enter into loving, authentic, dialogical relationships with others who are on the same quest. Each teacher is a learner, and each learner teaches. Conscientization is humanization and liberation.