Men1 usually shut down when I talk about non-dark alley rape.
In my bid to clarify it, I’ve lead many of them down the route of simple, logical consequence. Down into the mud of what rape can look like. It starts like this.
- Was it sex? Yes.
- Did she want it? She said yes.
- Could she have said ‘no’ without consequence? Of course! (they say).
And that’s where the real discussion begins. Of course I have to talk about my own experience because the mere mention of the word rape whilst discussing one of their own sexual encounters is too inflammatory for them. To be called a rapist may have adverse consequences for them; their perception of themselves and their position in some social circles. This irony sticks in my throat.
I rarely go on dates, I tell them, but when I do it is virtually impossible to avoid rape if despite all my checks, the man I meet turns out to be unscrupulous. Faced with the unknown I choose to focus on protecting myself from physical death. I leave numbers with friends, I check in on social media – but not too much because I have to make sure my phone is adequately charged in case I need to call for help. I make sure I have enough money for a taxi. Staying alive is my number one priority. Short of cutting off one-to-one encounters with all men, every single time I meet an unknown man, I face the reality that I cannot protect myself from rape.
The men I talk to are horrified by this. They are good men, decent men who would never lift a hand to strike a woman. They would never rape a woman, because rape to them means beating someone up and tearing off clothes in a dark alley. This definition of rape is clear and unmuddied. But this is not the kind of rape I mean.
I explain that when you live as a woman, there is often a power imbalance. And that power imbalance means that I would in all likelihood let myself be raped if I perceived a threat. And seeing as the prevalent power imbalance means that threat is ever present, rape is always a viable possibility. For the men I speak to, the issue suddenly becomes far more muddy. These men don’t like muddy things, they like the world to be black and white. They have difficulty understanding that most women live in a world full of threat because their world is not like that. They live in a different–and in many ways a more simple–world, where they are powerful and their ‘no’ is accepted and understood as ‘no’.
The threat I and many women face is one of violence and in the extreme, death. But it is not only physical, it is social. Social violence is a new term I have started to use and understandably the men I talk to get confused. Physical violence is clear cut, but social violence is not, because they live in a world where as men they are relatively immune to social violence and besides, it doesn’t sound very serious. If it isn’t physical it isn’t violence, period.
What is social violence?
It is manipulation, it is emotional blackmail, it is exclusion. It is gaslighting. It is shaming. It is hate campaigns, it is online harassment, it is death threats. It is mud-slinging in the locker room, it is smear campaigns in high school. It is the systematic destruction of a person’s sense of self. In our society it is inescapable. Social violence is a dirty weapon and it is used as all weapons are, to coerce and force submission.
When a woman asserts her will by saying ‘no’ it has disproportionately more violent consequences for her–both physically and socially–than it does for a man. And for many women the only acceptable choice is to let what is euphemistically termed non-consensual sex aka. rape happen, or face the prospect of violence, social or otherwise. We are taught that women and girls should be obedient, we are taught that they are ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’. If a woman steps out of line, if she asserts her will and/or opinion over a man’s, she becomes a ‘nasty woman’ and she is often verbally attacked. Shunned. Crucified in her social circles (by both women and men).
The ‘muddiness’ of social violence only amplifies the threat because no one knows at what point it will transform into physical violence. They are on the same continuum. When is a death threat real? When will online harassment turn into physical stalking? When does mockery turn into shaming? The line is not simple and nothing can make it so because reality is muddy.
So I ask my male friends in the simple hypothetical: when faced with the prospect of social violence is it hard to understand that we feel threatened for standing up for ourselves in any situation and more particularly rape which is the physical assertion of the rapist’s will over ours?
At this they stop and think. After the initial reaction which is to deny that social violence exists in the way that I describe it, they may acknowledge that if it does exist but unless it is a matter of physical life or death, it is a woman’s duty to speak up. It is her duty to fight back. They can’t say it, but what they mean is to scream and be beaten so as to demonstrate physical proof of her lack of consent. The threat of social violence is no excuse. Because if there is no physical proof she is to blame or at the very least, she somehow enabled it. They see it from their point of view, within the confines of their world and I understand. They do not know the harm social violence causes because they do not experience it to the same extent. On the contrary, society often rewards them with ‘social virtue’ for their assertion of their will and opinion–by force if necessary–as is currently being proven by the ascension of an alleged rapist to the white house.
Men generally live in a world where their will, their ‘no’ carries power, and if it is disrespected, they have been taught how to fight for it and for themselves. They are lauded and praised for doing so. No wonder the man in the white house today has his words read by millions, but hears no one else. He has been taught that he and his will is the only thing that matters, what’s more he believes it. A woman learns by example that in this world her word is rarely heard and counts for very little. It is not accepted or acceptable. So when our protest is disrespected, we know we cannot fight for it without entering into a potentially devastating social war.
The consequences of Social Violence
There are several identifiable chains of causality which although not inevitable, represent a clear threat. Social violence–bad enough in itself–incites physical violence. Physical violence risks death. Another alternative is that social violence leads to a slow and shameful death, where suicide or self destructive behaviours seem like the only escape. The truth is that when you feel like you are at rock bottom, these are choices which represent your only accessible coping mechanisms because the excrutiating pain of social violence is humiliating and inescapable.
In western society, the consequences of social violence have changed for those who experience it. Where decades ago it would inevitably lead to financial ruin for women whose marriage prospects were destroyed and often for men too, today the consequences are less visible. But they’re still there, still as pervasive although now they peek their head above the parapet as stigma, shaming and isolation. Social violence after calling rape, looks like humiliation in the hospital by doctors who doubt you, at the police station by police officers who dismiss your story as a sham, shaming and ostracization from your family and friends because ‘you asked for it’ not to mention the diminished potential of any decent future romantic connection because you are tainted from daring to flout a man’s will and his sacred word. Given these choices, many feel that it is preferable to keep quiet.
Non-dark alley rape often happens simply because of the existence of those consequences. It happens at parties amid people. It happens when you only want to go to second base, but have been taught that saying ‘no’ risks social violence anyway because you’re a ‘cock-tease’ whilst saying ‘yes’ means ‘it’s because I love you baby’. Besides, saying ‘yes’ for a woman all too often leads to social violence anyway for being a ‘slut’. It happens with your boyfriend because we have been brought up in a world where James Bond shows us that a woman’s ‘no’ means ‘yes’. It happens within marriage because patriarchal religions have declared that a woman’s body is the property of her husband. It is our version of turning the other cheek. The threat of social violence is enough to make sex non-consensual, even if a woman doesn’t say ‘no’. Even if she says ‘yes’. Because saying ‘yes’ when you say it under threat is not consensual. And non-consensual sex is rape.
It is often said that ‘rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power’. Those words don’t only mean that a man can overpower a woman physically, or that he derives pleasure from forcing himself upon a woman. They mean that the position of a man in our society is de facto more powerful than a woman’s. His words mean something, whereas a woman’s words don’t. Even when there is physical proof (and there must be physical proof because it’s often the only thing a man chooses to understand). It is man’s desire for physical proof which means doctors suspiciously scrutinize a woman’s orifices to see whether she’s lying or if she ‘let’ something penetrate her without a struggle. Her word will rarely, if ever win against a man’s. We live in a reality where we give a man’s words more power than even physical proof, so what’s the point of struggling? The simple fact that a man is a man, means that he is more likely2 to be able to take what he wants, when he wants with little adverse consequence.
I don’t hate men for being brought up in a world where a woman’s ‘no’ is still regarded as a challenge and an invitation to try to break her will. I hate the world for teaching both men and women that this is how it is, and for perpetuating the paradigm. I don’t hate men for being more physically powerful than women. I hate the world for teaching men to use it to take what they want, and for teaching women that they should let them. I hate that we women learn our best way to survive in this world, is to support men in taking our power, sacrificing ourselves at every turn to promote other people’s interests over our own. Until we reach a point where cut off from every other choice we are forced to buy into the system, by supporting and perpetuating our own and each other’s abuse using social violence, because it’s the most logical way we can ensure our own physical survival, even though we have to kill ourselves and each other to do so. I don’t hate men, but I hate that in order to live many have chosen to deny this truth in order to feel some illusion of happiness at how our world works. But it is true, it is fucked up and I hate it.
1. The men in this article refer to those with whom I have had this conversation and when I speak in general terms on behalf of women I do not presume to know the experience of ALL women, it is from my own experience and the experience of women in my social circle. I’m a white-cis woman and so are most of my friends. It is therefore important to note that this power imbalance and consequence is more severe for intersectional people and for even more marginalised identities.
2. This doesn’t mean that men do not suffer from social violence, they do. But when a man suffers physical violence, men are outraged. When he experiences social violence he is told to ‘man up’ because it means nothing. Perversely this repression often comes out by inflicting social violence on others.