Saturday, August 27, 2016
Around 2000 I was at a party in someone’s flat in Germany. We were probably all in our 20s, students or postdocs at the university, and there was a lot of alcohol. A guy (I’ll call him Guy1) was talking to me, he asked me to have lunch with him, I said no, in that joking inoffensive way that we do. He tried again a couple of times, I laughed him off. It was all very light, it probably lasted a couple of minutes and was completely forgettable, except for what happened next. Another guy came over and started talking to Guy1, he moved Guy1 away from me. In the next few minutes several people, men and women, apologised to me for Guy1’s behaviour and assured me that he would leave me alone. It was so beyond my experience of life that all I could do was laugh. I was reminded of this the other day when I was thinking about how hard it is to explain what rape culture is, and why it’s bad. If, like me, you can’t stop yourself from reading comments on articles about violence against women, you will know that many people are outraged by the term rape culture. I get that no-one likes jargon, and lots of people are scared of feminism, so we could use different words to talk about the same stuff. But when people don’t use the term rape culture, it’s clear that the words aren’t the problem. The problem is that many people accept that violence (especially violence against women) is inevitable, and for whatever reason, they are offended when anyone acts like it’s not. They are offended when people don’t accept violence as an inevitable consequence of a woman being drunk, or alone, or out at night, or with a man, or wearing whatever, or working, or taking drugs, or having an opinion, or using public transport, or not standing up for herself, or blahblahblah. Those people talk about how women need to be responsible for avoiding this ever-present threat of violence, and are upset by anyone who wants to talk about how to remove the threat. They have accepted that violence against women is inevitable, so we all need to accept it. To be clear, whenever anyone says or implies that violence is inevitable, when they ask us to accept that violence is inevitable, they ask us to accept violence—violence is acceptable. And if violence is acceptable, then the victim is the problem that we need to focus on. If violence is inevitable, then there is no point trying to stop people being violent, instead we need to control potential victims. How do you shift them from that point to reveal violence as a choice that some people are making? To reveal that we can be safer and more free by focusing on that choice, whether or not to be violent. Whereas, whenever we focus on the choices that victims or potential victims of violence make, we make the world more dangerous and less free. My experience of parties and pubs has ingrained rules in me—don’t make eye contact with men I don’t know, don’t smile, don’t make conversation, stay in the bubble; smile and laugh if a man approaches, have a polite excuse to get away; always be aware; be nice/ likeable even if it takes forever to get away. I expect men who will not accept a polite excuse, I expect to have to argue, gently, carefully, and that it might take minutes or hours, I know some of those men will be dangerous even if they don’t know it. I expect men who will choose not to respect my decisions about my body. At times, it has taken hours of gently, carefully, saying no to men; at times, those men have been close friends who care about me. My partner (a woman) had a conversation with my dad a few weeks ago. My dad was worried that I was abusing her, and it turned out that the problem was that I had said no to him—I had refused to continue an email argument, and when Dad wouldn’t stop, I told him I needed a break from him until he controlled himself. The only way my dad could make sense of this was that I am an abusive person, hence his concern for my partner. My partner explained the concept of personal boundaries to him (that we each can choose how we want people to behave towards us and what happens if they won’t), but the idea was new and foreign to him. I’m sure he still sees me saying no to him as a character flaw. How do we keep ourselves safe if we are taught that it is wrong to say no to someone who doesn’t behave towards us in the way that we want? I was wondering what the absence of rape culture would be like. What would it be like if people were free to say yes or no whenever they wanted without constant vigilance and fear for their safety? Would I recognise it? It feels beyond my comprehension. And then I remembered that night at the party in Germany—the concern of the other party goers was beyond my comprehension. It felt weird. I was even uncomfortable with them talking to the guy—was it controlling, oppressive? I’ve heard enough people talk about anything like that as repressive—how can we even have fun? It’s policing normal behaviour, you’d lock up all teenagers next, etc. It’s tragic that respecting each other is so foreign and terrifying. The idea that it is reasonable for women to have personal boundaries was not something I was raised with, and it’s not consistent with my experience. My experience of parties and pubs comes from at least some people struggling to respect other people’s boundaries, and no-one telling them they need to. There are no repercussions for a guy being obnoxious, there are often no repercussions for a guy being violent. When guys ask for the same thing over and over, and ignore polite requests to stop and to leave, whether or not they are threatening us, they are using the existence of the threat of violence. It is treated as normal and acceptable, and no-one tells them they are being abusive. I hope it is a generational thing. I hope my experience is incomprehensible to my daughter. I want her to go to parties like the one I went to in Germany, I want it to be normal. If someone behaves badly, I want it to be unacceptable, to her and everyone else. I want her to be free, to say yes or no to whatever she likes, to give and expect respect. I want a future where, when people talk about what’s inevitable, that’s what they’re talking about—mana, manaaki, care, respect. For that to happen, we need to get better at how we talk about and what we do about violence. It's not inevitable, it's a choice. We need to stop accepting that choice. We need to support people to stop using violence, to get away from violence. We need to get better at recognising when violence and the threat of violence are being used to control—whether it's by individuals, groups or the state. Violence is unacceptable. We need to keep saying that.