I am lucky: I was born male in a society that values male persons more than female persons, and, arbitrarily, accords the former undeserved privileges while unjustly denying the latter their full equal rights as human beings. I am lucky: because of that undeserved privilege, and the way our misogynist culture works, and some measure of random chance, I have not been a target of sexual assault. I am lucky: I live in a society which, though misogynist, has a relatively effective system of laws, the application of which, even over my three decades of life, has been, on the whole, more closely (if slowly) approaching justice. The people I know, in my real-world, meat-space life, are lucky: disproportionately few of the women I know are survivors of sexual assault or rape — or at least, as far as I know; but it’s also not unlikely that I simply don’t know about many cases, because our misogynist culture teaches women to be ashamed of, and silent about, having been the victim of crime.
Sheril Kirshenbaum at The Intersection, along with Isis the Scientist, Aetiology, Bioephemera, Neurotopia and The Questionable Authority, has launched a project, inspired by a Nick Kristof column, to bring attention and pressure to bear to try to end the epidemic of mass rape around the world.
Kirshenbaum, taking seriously the idea that silence is the enemy, opens her post by describing her experience with sexual assault. She’s right: if survivors refuse to be silent and ashamed, it becomes harder and harder for people who’d prefer not to upset the apple cart to pretend the status quo is tenable.
It’s important, however, not to misunderstand this (which I don’t think Kirshenbaum does; she’s just picked a particular focus) as a problem of Darfur, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Liberia, or West Africa, or “elsewhere.” There are certain places in the world — generally, places where a state of war or lawlessness has lasted a long time: mass rape has long been used as a weapon of war, even by our own soldiers — where these things happen in such numbers, and with such brutality, that it can be hard to believe. The roots of these problems are deep, and are intertwined with histories of colonization and exploitation, and of war, and of poverty.
But we should not believe that we in the “West1” are so much better. We have, in the United States for example, a functioning government, and relatively fair laws, and no war is being fought on our soil. But even so, by the most widely accepted estimate, at least one in six women will be sexually assaulted or raped at least once in her lifetime.
Let me rephrase that, actually, because it’s important that we do not linguistically hide the criminals. Men2 will sexually assault or rape at least one in six women. It’s not just something that happens, it’s something people do. And like the women of Congo, the women of Darfur, the women of Liberia, like Sheril Kirshenbaum, silence is also the enemy of these women. Silence is the enemy of the one in six who have been assaulted, and the enemy of the five in six who have not, but who are also in danger. Silence is the enemy of the men who have been victims of sexual assault, because the weight of culturally-imposed shame falls heavily on them as well. Silence is the enemy of the men, too, who have never harmed anyone, many of whom simply do not know, because our misogynist culture of shame and silence is not set up for them to know, the true extent and impact of sexual assault and rape.
Two months ago, Melissa McEwan opened a thread at Shakesville to try to help break that silence: the more we understand the extent of this horror, the less excuse we have not to fight to end it. Silence is the enemy; these stories need to be heard.
1 “West”? West of what? We are “the West” only insofar as we are west of “the East” — but it is “the East” only insofar as it is east of us. Neither, as Edward Said wrote, has any ontological stability.
2 No, not only men; women commit sexual assualt and rape as well. But the vast majority of such crimes are committed by men, and the problem is inextricably intertwined with our conceptions of “masculinity.”