I’ve never been raped, but I understand rape culture all too well. I’ve been followed on city streets, once by a man screaming at the top of his lungs “Want to fuck?” I’ve been touched when I didn’t want to be, in places I didn’t want touched, by men I sometimes knew and sometimes didn’t: An arm around my shoulder, a hand on the small of my back, a pinch, a grab.
I’m average looking. I wear cardigan sweaters and minimal makeup. I have never “asked for it.” No one does.
Yet, it started when I was a little girl, shopping with my mother in a big-box store. A man walked up to me when my mom’s back was turned, stuck his hand down my shirt, and fondled my still undeveloped chest. When I told my mother, her eyes filled with a rage I’d never seen. She raced through the store after him, but he disappeared into the crowds. He never disappeared from my mind.
He taught me that some men should be feared. There would be others who reinforced his lesson. I assume there will be more. So, I walk with my keys in my hands. I skitter across parking lots, scanning my surroundings like a trained Navy SEAL.
Rape culture is more than rape. It’s the fear that at any time our bodies will not be our own, that rape is always a possibility. Rape culture is also the understanding that if it does happen to me, I may not be believed; I may even be blamed.
I want my two daughters to feel empowered, but I know they are vulnerable. I will teach them that no one has a right to touch them without permission, yet I know they will be touched. I know they will be followed. I pray that is all.
So, I will teach them to be afraid.
I will tell them that it is never the victim’s fault, that being drunk does not take away their right to consent, but I will urge them to be careful of what they consume. I will tell them to take back the night, but I will beg them to walk with friends. I will teach them that hitting is bad, but I will show them how to throw a punch, how to use their bodies to protect themselves. In short, I will contradict myself.
While most of us believe forced penetration is wrong, our culture minimizes other forms of sexual assault that embolden and empower the very rapists we claim to abhor.
A middle-school boy flicks a girl’s bra strap in the hallway.
A high-school junior grabs a classmate’s ass in line at the cafeteria.
Boys will be boys.
A stranger shouts at a woman on the street as she walks to work.
It’s not like he touched her.
A man pulls a woman he doesn’t know behind a dumpster and rapes her while she’s unconscious.
She had too much to drink, so did he.
We need to stop contradicting ourselves. Rape culture enables rape.
We need to teach our sons and daughters to respect boundaries, and it needs to begin long before the idea of sex crosses their innocent minds. It starts by teaching them that they, and only they, have the right to control who touches their body. It starts by teaching them that the right to touch another’s body must be granted. And it means making a big deal about a tap on the ass, street harassment, and rape. Because it’s all a big deal.
I’ve never been raped. My heart breaks for those who have, for those who will be. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (“RAINN”), one in six American women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape. If it’s not me, will it be one of my daughters?
I understand now the rage that filled my mother’s eyes. I’m mad at that man for jamming his hand down my shirt when I was too young to even comprehend the sexual nature of the act. I’m mad at every man who thought he had a right to my body. But I’m fucking furious, knowing my daughters will likely have the same experiences, if not worse. We should all be.
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