“Why are sex and violence always linked? I’m afraid they’ll blur together in people’s minds – sexandviolence – until we can’t tell them apart. I expect to hear a newscaster say, “The mob became unruly and the police were forced to resort to sex.”
Today a man came into the office and told me that he and his wife got into an disagreement about rape in our university town, because she wanted him to escort her even extremely short distances when it was dark, and he saw no need because we live in a “good” place where bad things “don’t happen.” Couldn’t I back him up since he was clearly right? I told him in no uncertain terms that he was wrong, that rape and other forms of sexual crime happen in our town just as much as anywhere else. He tried to argue with me! I refrained from what I wanted to say, which was, “Of the two of us, only one works in a police department and deals with this regularly. It isn’t you.” Instead I gave him facts, statistics, personal anecdotes (cheered on, as it happens by a – male – student waiting behind him with silent grins and thumbs up, which were very much appreciated), most of which he tried to counter. But what finally seemed to make an impact was when I told him the estimated statistics for sexual crime versus the (much lower) actual reported ones – and told him bluntly that seen through a pair of female eyes, those numbers meant the world was a hostile and frightening place where the chances of us becoming a victim of sexual crime (from mild harassment – still criminal – up through rape) were higher than than our chances of not. His tone changed after that.
Here’s the truth.
The statistics on sexual crime are appalling, and the majority of that crime is directed at females.* From our perspective (when we admit it ourselves or anyone else), the world is a sexually threatening place for us and the possibility of it intruding is very real.
As a kid several of my favorite playmates were boys, and the trend continued into university. With the exception of The Girls, I’ve mostly hung around with guys – many of them dear friends to this day. But I remember the specific day that boys took on a more threatening aspect for me. My first year of high school I was accepted to a magnet school for writing that required being bussed to the next county to attend the class every day. I was the only girl chosen for that class that year and that meant I spent a couple hours on a bus everyday with at least three boys from my school and a few boys from another school. There were older girls but they often drove themselves to the program rather than taking the bus.
These boys were the normal sort of teenage males, a bit loutish and inclined to show off for one another, but not malicious I didn’t think. There were tons of discussions between them that made me uncomfortable (being a nice, boring, bookish sort who mostly read on the bus ride), but nothing negative was directed towards me until I started standing up for myself against mild picking on. When I voiced opinions counter to the boys, when I told them I didn’t like the conversation topics, when I spoke up. I don’t remember what the conversation was about but one day (when I was the lone girl on the bus) I said something contrary to the general opinion. The next thing I knew one of the boys loomed over me and told me to, “shut your mouth and spread your legs.” I don’t even remember how I reacted (except for the fact that I marched into the classroom when the bus pulled in and told the teacher straight away), but I remember the realization that I was much smaller than even the shortest boy there, that there was nowhere for me to run to, and that the bus driver was awfully far away. I remember realizing that in that moment that these boys, if they wanted to, if they chose to, could hurt me. I remember realizing that I was suddenly scared of these boys who I sat in classes with every day.
They didn’t hurt me, he pulled away laughing and they got back to their which-sexual-superpower-would-you-prefer meditations. To some of the boys’ credit they looked deeply uncomfortable about what had just happened, but none of them had stood up against their friend and none of them apologized until a teacher and another school authority made them.
My fear turned to fury at the fact that they had chosen to try and shut me up via sexual intimidation, which is what motivated me to tell my teacher, but I’d by lying if I said I’ve forgotten how scared I was in that moment before anger propelled me into action. That experience stayed with me, and if I’m honest it has colored every relationship I’ve ever had with any male. And to reiterate, most of my friends have been male, so clearly permanent damage wasn’t done. But that was the moment I realized for the first time that beings who I previously saw as playmates were growing up bigger, stronger, and more able to enforce their will that I was. On me and on my body if they chose. Believe me, that is a realization that sticks.
I’m not the same girl now. I’ve grown up. Since that day I’ve been catcalled, I’ve been grabbed at by strangers, I’ve had dates get unwantedly frisky, but I’ve handled myself just fine with more confidence than I had at 14 and much more sass. Cultivated, if I’m honest, for the purpose of being able to stand up for myself against people who would always be bigger and stronger than me. Frankly, these days and after working where I have for four years gleaning the perspective I have, I’m just glad nothing worse happened on that bus – and I know exactly how statistically lucky I am that nothing much worse has happened since. Although, to be morbidly honest, I’m barely a third of the way through my life – there is plenty of time for sexual crime to happen to me still.
And I think that there are so many men out there – good and decent men who are, I fervently believe, the vast majority of their gender – who don’t realize that most women live with that thought, whether conscious or not, everyday. They walk into parking lots with keys held out ready to stab, cancel exercise plans when their partner does so they don’t walk alone at night, refuse calls to avoid people who intend them fear or hurt. And we don’t do any of this for amusement, we do it because we honestly live with the threat of grievous harm – for no other reason than we are female and we either know from personal or trusted anecdotal experience that there are people out there who think their desire trumps our willingness. That they have a right to do us harm. Sexual violence against women is pandemic; yes, even in First World countries in “good” places filled with “good” people.
This man at my counter thought expecting an assault walking to the mailbox and back in the dark was silly. His wife knows that, while on this particular Monday it’s not exactly likely, it’s more than possible.
*Sexual crime against men and boys happens and it’s just as horrific, but I’m speaking as a female here, so bear with me.