I am a woman. When I step outside of my home, I have been programmed to keep myself safe from being sexually assaulted. In order to keep myself as safe as possible, I should probably follow as many safety tips as possible. I should . . .
avoid going out late at night, always go in pairs, carry pepper spray, walk around my car before I get into it, wear shoes I can run in, avoid wearing revealing clothes, hold my keys in a key fist, take a self-defense class, avoid parking too far away, always park in well-lit areas, be aware of my surroundings, make sure I always have my cell phone, never wear my iPod when running, only run in daylight, don’t make eye contact, lock my car door, lock my house door, lock my windows, get a dog, get a security system, keep a baseball bat by my bed, not list my number in the phone book, etc.
Every time I turn on the TV, I’m watching another story about a woman being brutalized on CSI, Law & Order, 48 Hours, the evening news, etc. It’s an orchestra of media screeching, “Be Afraid. Stay Inside. Everything is dangerous!” Whenever I get an email chain letter about a scary new gang tactic or a serial killer, the perpetrators are always targeting women. And I’m given the same laundry list of safety tips from my family, friends, police officers and media. I’m regularly warned that there are men hanging out around every corner, behind every bush, lying in wait to rape me. And if I’m raped it means I slipped up, let the wrong man close, wore the wrong clothes, looked for too long or in the wrong way. The message is, “It’s your fault if something happens to you.” The never-ending chorus croons the fictitious message, “Boys will be boys. This is just how men are. You sent the wrong message. You secretly wanted it.”
These messages mask the reality of sexual assault, which is a major social problem. As the Rape Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) reports, in the United States. . The reality is the , and the .
This is a rape culture. This is a culture where men and women live on opposite sides of a thick black line dividing human existence into masculine and feminine, like two siblings sharing a room.
Let’s put aside that it’s questionable if these tips even make women safer or not. Let’s put aside the limitations of personal freedoms that our culture is proposing for women. Let’s put aside that this erases the experiences of male victims of sexual assault. Let’s put aside how much this setup controls and limits women’s public space. Let’s put ALL that aside for a moment and ask, how does this conversation affect relationships between men and women?
Women are taught to always be vigilant, to never let their guard down. This means that everyday occurrences will mean something different to them then they mean to men. It’s within this context that we reexamine the male gaze.
Let’s examine an example. Two people pass on the street. One man, one woman. The man checks the woman out or to be specific looks her up and down. The woman does not look over at the man. Both continue walking.
Within a rape culture, this looks different
. A woman walks down the street. She sees a man walking toward her. Her defenses go up. Her muscles tense ever so slightly. She wonders for a second if she should cross the street. The man looks at her. Not just looks but seems to invade her space with his eyes. A sick feeling develops in her throat. She feels vulnerable. Her eyes dart to the side. When they pass each other, she increases her pace.
I have been this woman. I have watched this woman. I have seen my friends become this woman. I have seen my sister become this woman. I have seen my mother become this woman. Are we all suffering from paranoia? Are we being unreasonable? Well, if the never-ending chorus of cultural conversation trains me to see all men as my enemy, then why wouldn’t I treat them as such?
I live in a world where I’m constantly reminded that I’m vulnerable. That feeling is backed up by seeing my friends victimized and knowing that . This fact may have something to do with the reality that we as a culture are more likely to blame the victim rather than the criminal. Or in a world where the and the , we’re more likely to blame the woman rather than the man. We simply ignore women predators and male victims or violence within same-sex relationships.
So am I saying that men should never look at women? Am I saying that every time a man looks at a woman on the street that this is how she feels? Of course not. I’m not saying that I or any other woman experiences this every time a man passes a woman on the street. My argument is that this vulnerable feeling is a consequence of the socialization of women within a rape culture and that it negatively affects relationships between men and women.
Personally, I write about this because it pisses me off. It pisses me off how quickly I can be reminded on a deep, guttural level how vulnerable I am. It pisses me off how much of my time and energy goes into deciding how and when to leave my house. It pisses me off that there’s a voice inside my head constantly telling me to be aware of my surroundings. “Know where the exits are. Never relax.” It pisses me off that there’s an invisible barrier between me and the men in my life. It’s always in back of my head. We must collectively take on the responsibility of shifting the dialogue away from minimizing and denying women’s experiences and ask some difficult questions about how we’re gendering men and women.
“It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”–Sally Kempton
Rebekah Carrow enjoys crafting and is currently turning a table that was thrown away into her coffee table.