Tuesday, July 31, 2007

the thing about tornadoes.

last week, i read a post over at This Fish where she took a male commenter to task for implying that a woman checking her closets and under her bed before she goes to sleep at night must mean that she's seen too many "Lifetime Movies of the Week." Fish schools him with both a real life anecdote and some stats, mainly that:

Over her lifetime, one in four women will be the victim of sexual assault. One in four of those will be assaulted by a total stranger. Often in her own home. The problem is, you don't get to choose not to be the one in four. Or the one in sixteen. And that's enough to convince me that checking under my bed and in my closets is not, in the least bit, irrational.

this post generated 101 comments. i would wager that close to 50% of them were women with stories: stories of being one in four, or one in sixteen, or having come perilously close to being put in one of those categories. a small sampling:

I actually had something similar happen to me. I was visiting a friend who had a creepy neighbor living on the floor above him. In the middle of the night, I woke up to find the guy standing in my friend's living room, touching me on the leg.

When I lived alone, in a great neighborhood in NC, I had a HUGE lab...I woke up in the middle of the night to him barking ferociously at the window. I screamed at him, told him to shut up and finally he did. The next morning I went to walk him (in fresh snow from the night before) and there were footprints by my window and my screens were slashed.

Quite a few years ago now, I was happily living alone in a sweet Victorian apartment when a pervert broke in one night and strangled me while I slept. Long story short, he did not accomplish his supposed goal of raping me because I fought him off...

I lived in an apartment with my lab, Willa. One night I woke to her barking wildly at the back door. She's usually a mild-tempered dog, but something had her completely protective. From my bed I could hear someone yanking on my back door - luckily I had the deadbolt locked! I called the police, and when they showed up they found that the back door knob had been completely ripped out.

I'm also a 1 in 4 and a 1 in 16. I was 8 the 1st time. I fought off the stranger when I was 15. He took fright for no obvious reason and fled.

I am a 1 in 4 x2. The first time was in daylight at a mall parking lot when I was 17 and I scared the guy away by screaming and swinging a large flashlight frantically. The 2nd time was 14 yrs later in my own home...

I am one of 4 and one of 16. Keep checking under the bed and in the closets. And if anyone feels the need to make fun of you for it, have them talk to someone like me who didn't check closely enough.

there are more.

my only contribution to the discussion was to point out that as horrifying as the prevalence of sexual assault by strangers may be, the even greater prevalence of sexual assault is the kind perpetrated by someone the victim knows (and very possibly trusts). if one out of four women who are sexually assaulted don't know their attacker, that means three out of four do.

upon reflection, i realized that what really amazed me about Fish's post and subsequent comment thread was how women, if they are in a space where they feel generally safe and supported, will tell you about their lives. they'll tell you what has happened to them. Fish's site is not feminism or politics oriented (it's hosted by iVillage's Love and Sex page, for chrissakes!), and she doesn't use it for a soapbox or a debating arena. and yet here were scores of women, unprodded for disclosure about their experiences, that all stood up and said "me. that was me, too."

the problem is, the revelations of these spaces don't often translate into the media cacophony at large. they are most often generally ignored, if not outright shamed, discredited, or dismissed. and society proceeds merrily on its way, convinced that because charges were dropped against those four "nice boys" from Duke, all must generally be right with the world.

it's not, though. it's far from right. on the train to NY last weekend i was reading a book of Katha Pollitt's articles. in one of them, "Violence in a Man's World," she says:

We live, I am trying to say, in an epidemic of male violence against women.

that struck me: an epidemic. something so big that it should be causing alarm bells, and breathless news reports, and Twelve Point Plans of redress. i'd wager it's even bigger than an epidemic, because an epidemic has a beginning and an end. i'm not sure there's a word for the scale upon which male violence against women exists. what was it that shulamith firestone wrote about radical feminism in the 60s? "If there were a word more all-embracing that revolution, we would use it."

if there were a word possibly all-embracing enough to encompass the nature of violence against women, i would certainly use it here. but i'd take "epidemic" as a mainstream media start. instead we get the sensational, salacious, fear-mongering news coverage of CNN and "entertainment" of Law & Order: SVU. you'd think the mere existence of a spin-off crime drama, which has been running episodes about sexualized violence for eight solid years, might have tipped society off to the fact that there's something big going on here. but somehow, it doesn't translate. as Pollitt points out, men who perpetrate these crimes are most often pigeon-holed into one of two categories - "guy who made a mistake" or "monster" - and that this is misleading and outright harmful in so many ways (this is a long-ish excerpt, but it's spot-on):

A good guy who makes a mistake may seem poles apart from a monster, but at bottom both categories have the same effect - they distance violence against women from the fabric of daily experience by making it seem unfathomable, bizarre and rare when really it is none of those things. Detach the act from the man by labeling it an anomaly (or a "tragedy")...when that's impossible, because the act is too gory, or has been repeated too often, detach the man from the male half of humanity by labeling him inhuman...This kind of thinking gets us worse than nowhere. What we should be asking is not how the most sensational crimes against women are different from run-of-the-mill threats, rapes, bashings and murders but how they are the same. We need to stop thinking of male violence as some kind of freak of nature, like a tornado. Because the thing about tornadoes is, you can't do anything about them. The onus is all on potential victims to accommodate themselves or stay out of the way (what was she wearing? why was she out so late? why didn't she flee/scream/fight back/stay calm?)...Could it be, for example, that defining [someone] as a monster is mostly a way of not having to think about how he resembles the millions of men who hit but don't kill? That those good guys who astonish everyone when they make a "mistake" only passed for good because we don't take seriously the casual hostility to women such men usually display long before they rape or kill?

one in four. and the threat of it, always, hanging over our heads, intoned over ominous music on cable news or dramatized on TNT to give us something to watch while we're eating dinner. unless, of course, you prefer the Lifetime Movie of the Week.


ladyjenbug said...

Excellent, Kate. I've been reading through the comments to Fish's post, and I can't get over that John guy (who you responded to). I keep thinking what a beat down he would've gotten at Feministing or Pandagon, and how he would deserve it.

Mike said...

Well, I didn't read the original post, but here's another point. If women (or men, or elephants, or whatever) spend their entire lives worried about who is under the bed, or who is in the closet, then they're going to turn around at 95 and remember nothing else. That's not how life should be lived.
Do, by all means, take precautions. Make sure your doors are locked, avoid walking in the dark parking lot alone, adopt that dog. Just don't let it run your life, because that's also bad.
I'm a man, I'm nowhere near petite, and two years ago I was the victim of a violent crime. There are some things I should have done differently that wouldn't have put me in that situation, and for a few months after that, I was ultra-cautious. Then I realized that I can't continue to live like that. Every time I didn't do something, or failed to enjoy something, was indicative of one more thing the thugs who attacked me were getting from me.
Live your life, folks. Be careful, be smart, but not at the cost of something larger.

ladyjenbug said...

Oh, and another thing: I can't get over how the comments on that thread were so focused on being alert to your surroundings, like that's going to prevent an assault. I'm not saying you shouldn't be alert and careful, but in a lot of ways it's just victim blaming, playing the "if only" game. If I get attacked because I'm out late in a deserted area it's still the attackers fault, regardless of how careful or not I was being.

kate.d. said...

mike, i completely agree. it's something i honestly struggle with - how to balance being conscientious and enjoying life. there are too many other factors out there - the whole "hey, i could get hit by a bus tomorrow" thing - to personally dwell too much on one particular thing; however, i think that just because we shouldn't let that fear rule our lives that we shouldn't keep pointing out that the problem exists, and that it's fucked up.

not that you're saying that. but just, you know :)

and ladyjen, i agree that there's entirely too much victim-blaming that happens with this - it's the tornado effect katha's pointing out. however, based on mike's observations, a big part of me does feel like one of the best ways to balance and understanding of the threats and one's own sanity is to always, always be aware of your surroundings. while it's not always going to help prevent an assault (75% of victims knowing their attackers, etc), it has been proven to be a decent deterrent, and also helps give one a slight modicum of control.

whew. long comment!

ladyjenbug said...

I definitely agree that one ought to be watchful and aware of one's surroundings, and I don't want to dismiss that as useless or victim blaming at all. But it's that 75% that gets me. I mean, I can walk around and be really careful and do everything right... and then some guy I know casually or well enough to sort of trust betrays my trust.

Obviously, I really struggle with the balance between healthy awareness and too much fear.