When children are little, “no” will come to them easily enough, the way “no” often does. Kids revel in their newfound autonomy, in what they will or won’t do, what they want or don’t want to happen, what they like and don’t like. It’s easy for a child to say “no,” the word bursting from their lips like a bomb, a cataclysmic, definitive answer. They are the masters of their own hands and feet, their own bellies, their own eyes, their own bodies.
But somewhere along the line as we grow up, we say it a little more softly. We learn that our “no” doesn’t amount to much.
As time goes on and we grow up, “no” becomes more nuanced and weighted. As adults, there are far more complex things that factor into why someone would ignore another person’s “no”, but really, it should be simple, especially when it comes to issues of bodily autonomy, like sex. When someone says they don’t want to sleep with you, it is a definitive no. You don’t need to lash out, to retaliate, to punish them for their rejection of you. That choice was theirs to make, and something you have to respect. No matter how much they had to drink or if you thought they were interested in you, the minute they say “no,” it’s over. At least, it should be over.
There’s really no way for me to enter into this breezily, so I’m going to jump right in: chances are good you heard about the shooting spree that occurred in California over the weekend, leaving six victims and the man who is alleged to be the shooter dead. You probably watched the hate-filled video, allegedly made by Elliot Rodger. It’s a scathing tirade toward women who had dared to say “no” to him and just as angry at the men who were actually dating those women. My friend and I watched it together and all we could do, quite honestly, was look at each other and wonder if he was for real. We felt uncomfortable — we know men who think like this.
Hearing that there has been another rage-fueled “retribution on women” is sad and scary, but doesn’t seem too hard to believe. In a world where misogyny, objectification of women, and a pervasive sense of entitlement to their bodies is still so inextricably entwined into our general social mindset, tragic events like this are, in fact, the extreme other shoe that we’re perpetually, anxiously waiting to see drop.
Rodger’s 141-page manifesto is equally as uncomfortable, disturbed and disturbing. The 22 year-old student was active in several forums and online communities for men who felt entitled to the attention of women, who embittered themselves against women who did not want to have sex with them, and exhibited jealousy towards men who were more successful with women than they were. His commentary there was extreme at times, but by no means out of place or significantly singular.
(More troubling is the fact that you could probably overhear this same rhetoric at your local bar. This rage is not new. This rage is not unique. Rodger’s actions were extreme, but he was closer to the norm than any of us would like to admit.)
I wish this manifesto was a hoax. Sexual harassment and the misogyny behind it should never be a joke, and yet we live in a society where it is far too easy to wrap ourselves up in pop culture references and jokes to try to temper the severity of it all.
But a mass murder is no hoax. And six innocent people are dead.
In probably one of the greatest examples that social media can actually be used for good, Twitter erupted at the news with the kind of hashtag that would typically be buried. Not because it is silly or inane, but because it is uncomfortable. It presents us with a challenge.
But that is what we need. It should be uncomfortable to read the #YesAllWomen hashtag. This should give you pause, and the realization that this is something that at least half the population faces every day.
We don’t need to be reminded that not all men are part of the problem. We know that. Most women are not circling the wagons and excluding our male allies out of fear or anger. But sometimes, it sure as hell feels like we need to remind some of you that though you may not be part of the problem, you can help us to be part of the solution.
As I began tweeting out my own experiences using the hashtag, a few things happened:
- I lost a few followers. (But then again, you can lose followers by delivering one joke that falls sort of flat, so really, that’s not a great gauge of anything.)
- People from all reaches of the globe — strangers I’d have never met otherwise — reached out. They related. They retweeted. They shared their own experiences, their own truths. We bonded through something painful and scary and real.
- A few friends all shared the same sentiment: that when you tweet with the hashtag, you do so at the risk of finding something less than pleasant in your mentions later. People were retaliating in a way that Rodger might, and responding with even more violence, with rape and death threats. Disrespect breeds dismissal breeds distrust breeds disrespect breeds… you get it.
- I felt the overwhelming need to thank the men who have been decent and good to me in the past when I have been sloppy and messy and vulnerable — and their reaction was, overwhelmingly, “Duh?” But still, even though there is something twisted in feeling the need to thank someone for something that should very much come standard, it is rare and worth acknowledging. Because we do appreciate it. It does mean a lot.
And of course, as with any movement, there is backlash. There are people who have been subverting the hashtag and perpetuating the stereotypes, stigmas, and insults that it was created to fight against. I hesitate to call these people trolls because to do so is to dismiss the fact that they genuinely believe what they’re saying, and in order to create any sort of change in our society, we have to have a dialogue from both sides. I’m just not sure if that dialogue can ever be as logical, rational, or patient as one would hope it could be.
(It’s also worth noting that we consider it brave to voice something as natural as an opinion — and so often, we don’t do it. Why? Because we are afraid that we might be ignored, berated, stalked, threatened, killed.)
Women are not entirely faultless here either. We tear each other down just as much as men do; we play into the misogyny and measure ourselves against some false ideal, then find ourselves lacking. Plenty of women in the #YesAllWomen hashtag are saying they don’t believe in what is being written. There are women capitalizing the men objectifying women by allowing themselves to be bought, by being trophies and art on the wall. There is nuance. We are not completely innocent as a gender.
But then again, we never said we were. The idea is to merely establish for ourselves the same right to exist, to be viewed as human as men, not to elevate ourselves as somehow more infallible and superior. We affirm these truths for ourselves as much as for men; the dysfunctional cultural perspective on women and their value is as embedded in our own sense of self as it is elsewhere.
On Saturday night, I called a car to pick me up from my apartment to avoid getting cat-called on the way to the subway. I considered wearing shorts under my dress to avoid getting groped in the bar. I made a point to stick near my male friends and pointed out one as “my boyfriend” when a stranger would not leave me alone. I only took drinks that I watched the bartender make because I was worried about roofies.
Because a woman is always aware. You are always cognizant of eyes on you; of whispers behind your back; of the fact that you are expected to act a certain way in order to get what you want; of the knowledge that if you turn down a man’s advances, he could turn on you and call you ugly, a bitch, or worse. Every woman is taught to be on her guard, that it safer to assume than to risk. There is a fine line between looking out for yourself and thinking that every man is suspect and malicious. Deep down, we know that not every man is.
Not all men set out to make women feel uncomfortable or like chattel, but all women live with the knowledge that somewhere there is someone who will.
We live in a global community. News from all over the world floods into our peripheral vision all of the time, and it’s easy for something happening in a small town to sift through the cracks, much less one about sexual harassment or rape. (It’s even easy for Rodger’s parents to alert the police about their son’s activities, and have those concerns and fears waved away. Things slip through the cracks all the time.)
Sexual harassment — with all the nuances that range from cat calls to rape, to, yes, murder — is a polarizing topic. It’s controversial, it makes people uncomfortable, and it’s not exactly something you can bring up in everyday conversation.
And yet we constantly go to war in the media and in society in general over this topic. Even though we agree that rape is an issue, we seem to get hung up on why it is an issue. Slate columnist Emily Yoffe suggested that women make an effort to not binge drink. Cutting down on binge drinking doesn’t mean that a sober person still doesn’t stand the chance of being raped. Toronto Constable Michael Sanguinetti told law school students to “avoid dressing like sluts” if they wanted to lessen their chances of sexual assault, sparking Slutwalk protests in response. Women are told to not walk alone at night, to carry pepper spray in their purses, to hold their keys in their hands and to pretend as if they’re talking to someone on their cell phone. Women are also told that it’s on us when we give what men perceive to be mixed signals.
While the logic of these admonitions is readily apparent, the problem is where this tone of conversation places the burden of responsibility: with women. Advice for the prevention of sexual violence is all too often directed at women with the underlying message, “Hey, don’t get raped! Here’s how!” It does nothing to address the men who might perpetrate these crimes; does nothing to undo the mentality that gives them the impression that — whether it’s catcalling or rape or murder — transgressing a woman’s right to establish her own bodily boundaries is somehow acceptable.
In other words, instead of teaching women how to not get raped, we should be teaching men how to not view women as objects that are theirs to take.
In all of this chatter and all of this advice — which I know means well, but meaning well and doing good are sometimes two very different beasts — we seem to forget one simple thing: what one person wants, and how that does or doesn’t correlate with what the other person wants. We become mired up in the ‘he said, she said’ of it all. If one person doesn’t want it, that is where the conversation should end.
There has been a lot of rhetoric focused on the idea that Rodger’s tirade is the result of being rejected by women. It is important to note that, for the most part, women did not actually turn him down. In his manifesto, Rodger mentions hating women who were not openly seeking him out, finding fault in any woman who did not immediately fall, swooning, at his feet. If he failed to mention any women who did reject his flirting, I’m sure that their experiences and reasons will surface in exposes and eerie interviews within the coming days. But you see, instead of taking the fact that strangers never owed him their sex and companionship for an answer, he retaliated with violence.
As I write this piece and try to scratch the surface of this issue, I’m listening to rap music. The beat helps keep me motivated as I write, but rap music is riddled with misogynistic lyrics. It struck me as odd and unnerving how easily I can separate the artist from their words. That I think all the talk about “hos” and “sluts” and the sexual acts a woman can do for the artist can’t affect me, because it’s “just” music.
Somewhere in another apartment is a little boy listening to these same songs and learning that it is okay to talk to and about women this way. Somewhere in this world is a recording artist with a very ill-adjusted view of women, one that we might never pay attention to unless they lash out — and all because they get to hide in the idea that it is their music, and not them.
But music matters. Everything matters. Everything will always matter. If not, what are we here for? Why?
I don’t know the ins and outs of the justice system well enough to posit how we as a society could stop another mass murder like this from happening again.
But we need to remember what no means, its power and its weight and — most importantly of all — how to respect it as the answer, even if it’s the only answer.
It’s not the only thing we need to do, not by a long shot. We need to change our laws and we need to remove the stigma of victims speaking out and the backlash that comes after (Go on and mention something about being raped on Twitter, and see how long it takes for someone to come out of the woodwork and try to tell you that it was “your own fault, sweetie.” My record is two minutes.) We need to admit that sexism and misogyny are real and troubling. We need to acknowledge that rape culture is real, and that trying to protect and explain away the perpetrators will get us absolutely nowhere. We need to do a lot of things if we want to eradicate the epidemic of sexual harassment. Because that’s what it is. It’s a widely reported, reality-shattering, scarring and awful epidemic that we can’t ignore.
But setting the groundwork for a better future also involves defining the word “No.”
We need to remember what “No” means from the beginning, and not after these accusations and these trials and these sentences come to light. We need to remember about respect at every age and in every aspect. And we need to continue to teach everyone — both male and female — the weight of no in terms of sex, because both can fall victim to harassment, abuse, and rape. While 99% of rapists are men, both can refuse to take no for an answer.
It is only when people finally speak up and share their experiences that we can begin to rectify the problems. It takes victims a long time to sort through the nightmares and insecurities and terrors that come with sexual assault, because assault does not end after the night is over. Rape does not end when penetration does. Assault leaves scars, and they last years. Some people never recover fully. Some grow to hate sex — and recoil from it. Some people hate and blame themselves or every member of the opposite sex. In turn, those women and men who have been warned about the dangers can begin to wonder if “No” means anything anymore. If anyone is even going to listen. When perpetrators and attackers are let off with lesser sentences (or are given sympathy after they kill people) or when cases are dropped altogether, we might begin to doubt ourselves, and to question if saying “No” in the first place matters at all.
But of course it does.
It always will.
Your voice — everyone’s voice — matters. Say no. Scream it if you have to, but say it. Just because one person refused to listen to one voice doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak up, and continue to speak, until the world has no choice but to listen.
We need to reinforce the notion of “No,” because increasingly, we need to also remind ourselves.