Monday, April 30, 2007

A Reality Women Would Rather Not Believe: Violence Against Women

I just got finished reading a thoughtful, and yet depressing journal entry that a student from my Women's Studies course wrote. She attended the "Take Back the Night" event on campus a few weeks ago, and decided to really confront the questions gnawing at her as she left. The situation is this: she sees a lot of women get up and tell their stories of sexual assault. She shes women get up, whom she knows and yet they never said anything before. The sheer numbers of women sharing their stories of sexual violence are overwhelming to her.

What this experience does is turn her inward. She admits that she cannot help but wonder why these women weren't more careful? Why didn't they avoid the situations wherein they got hurt? [These are legitimate questions, even if we all "know" that a victim is not to blame for her victimhood; but there is a difference between "knowing" that and really getting it].

She then goes on to tell me a story of a young man she knows who was falsely accused of rape by a young woman who wanted to "revise" the sexual encounter they had, in order to "regain her virginity." The young man lost his scholarship to an Ivy league, but was nonetheless able to successfully sue the young woman and get his good name back. Two years ago, I would've read this journal entry and been frustrated at the student. The difference between now and then is that I witnessed, up close, a young woman falsely accusing a young man of rape and saw how it destroyed his life. In the end, he prevailed, but the scars are still there.

So, what did I say to this young woman, who wrote this journal? Well, first of all, I didn't deny that false accusations happen. But, what I think all of us need to do, who have seen the damage that false accusations can do, is consider how unlikely they are to occur. After all, it takes a rather "sick" woman to knowingly and maliciously falsely accuse a man of rape. There might be incentives to do so in some sexual misconduct policies or laws (I am thinking that women in custody battles might be more tempted to make such accusations to get sole custody). But still, if a woman sets out to do this consciously, she is evil. And, if she actually believes her lies, then she is ill (and needs serious treatment).

What does this all mean? Well, if you start to look at the scores of women speaking out at "Take Back the Night" marches and think that most of them are "rewriting history" and making false accusations (ostensibly to save their reputation), then you are committing yourself to a view that most women are evil or mentally ill. Surely, there are folks out there who take this attitude toward women, but we usually call them misogynists. Look, you don't have to be a feminist to recognize how incredibly detrimental to women it is to take this misogynist attitude toward women: you are essentially indicting yourself. That is, you are affirming a worldview that views your sex with distrust.

It's frightening to me how tempting it is for women (including myself) to fall into this misogynist worldview. It is perpetuated by popular culture and pundits. Moreover, to confrong the reality of sexual violence against women, affirm that it is not "made up," is to suddenly feel very, very vulnerable. One would rather not believe it is true.

I think this is also why it is tempting to assign some of the blame to the women; if you do, then you can convince yourself that it won't happen to you. "After all, I am not so naive as these women were to put myself at risk . . .," thinks my student. But, no matter how clever, strong, or sophisticated you are, you can never completely escape the threat of sexual violence if you are a woman. It is pervasive.

I'll never forget my advisee who was attacked by a very deranged man a block from her dorm. We are not talking about date rape. This was a full on stranger rape. When she finally came to talk to me about it, she said: "I never believed all that hype they throw at you that you need to protect yourself against rape. I always thought it was weak women, or women who couldn't take care of themselves, or stupid women. I never used to allow someone to walk me home at night. I was all powerful. And now, now . . . I am terrified."

The allure of the misogynist world view is always tugging at each one of us, forces us to be vigilant about the reality of sexual violence against women. Unless we speak out about it, unless we believe the women who speak out (at least most of the time), we are tacitly approving of a world where men can be expected to take advantage of a foolish woman.