“Hey there pretty lady, get on over here.”
At first I ignored it – just another heckler. But then his voice came again, this time delivering a few vulgar insults.
I hesitated, wanting so badly to turn around and give the guy a piece of my mind. But it would only make a bad situation worse. I kept walking.
I’m only 19, but I’m no stranger to comments like these, nor to the feelings they inspire: Anger, irritation, sometimes a bit of dread. Maybe fear.
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All women deal with misogyny and sexism to some degree. Usually, it leads nowhere. Elliot Rodger was a deadly exception.
Rodger rampaged through Isla Vista one month ago, killing six college students, and himself. The hate-filled manifesto he left behind, which blamed women for his unfulfilled personal life, unleashed a defensive outpouring on Twitter via the hashtag #notallmen. The message: Don’t blame us for the sick misdeeds of one guy.
Next came an online counterpunch under the banner of #yesallwomen. Within a few days, thousands of women had shared their stories on topics ranging from everyday sexism to domestic violence, workplace harassment and rape.
The powerful anecdotes provided a window on a reality of womanhood that is widely tolerated. Mainstream media reports validated the Twitter posts with some troubling statistics: 51.9 percent of women will experience physical violence at some point in their lives, 1 in 5 women is the victim of sexual assault on a college campus, and only 12 percent of rapes are actually reported.
While disturbed by the numbers, I was not surprised.
Meanwhile, other responses to the movement proved less supportive. The recurring argument that “women should take responsibility, too” played out in the men’s rights narrative, most recently with some added female endorsement. During the Miss America pageant, the ultimate winner – Nia Sanchez, Miss Nevada – was asked what more college administrations could do to prevent sexual assault on campus. Her answer: Promote more awareness, so that women can “learn how to protect themselves.” Apparently, as a fourth-degree black belt, Sanchez feels much safer.
The Washington Post ran an op-ed just before Father’s Day concluding that married women and their children are notably safer because of the men in their lives. Women should do more to place themselves in these safer situations, the piece argued.
Translation: Women, not men, need to do more to prevent the problem.
Over and over we are offered solutions focused on the victim. Don’t wear that short skirt. Don’t get so drunk. Don’t ask for it.
I do not reject the notion that women should play an active role in solving this problem. Indeed, we are one of two players, 50 percent of the situation. But to suggest that a longer skirt and a more sober girl would eliminate sexual assault is naive, irrational and unjust. It fails to account for the other 50 percent: men.
The perils of excluding men from the discussion have become particularly apparent to me after two years of college. Before my freshman year, I never thought much about sexual assault. But after meeting students who have experienced it, the raw statistics now seem all too real.
Recognizing the problem, my school took dramatic steps this year to respond, launching a variety of student- and faculty-led initiatives, including speakers, advocate groups and campuswide discussions.
But change comes slowly.
At an event toward the end of the year, a male peer approached me from behind and abruptly grabbed my crotch. Shocked, I pulled away and demanded an explanation. He did not take it well, angrily asking, “What’s your problem?” as if my protest was out of line. Uneasy, I backed away and let it drop.
For the next few days I wondered about my behavior: Why hadn’t I stuck up for myself? Why didn’t I press on? I felt ashamed, violated and angry with myself for backing down.
Eventually, I shared the incident with another male friend who knows him, explaining that while I was physically OK, the episode had left me extremely upset. A week later, my friend confronted the guy and insisted he apologize, which he did.
At first I felt awkward and stammered that it was no big deal. But then I realized it was a big deal and took the opportunity to let him know the truth about his action:
This was not OK.
Obviously not every guy would feel comfortable confronting a friend and calling him out, as my friend did. But that’s unfortunate, because without men enlisted as allies against sexual assault and more ordinary forms of sexism, this problem won’t go away.
The point is, it’s not enough to not rape. We need men engaged and vigilant, taking an active role in reshaping the culture toward one of respect. We must shift away from victim-focused responses to an approach that includes men.
It’s true, #notallmen sexually assault women. But all men should be part of the solution.