I know my last post expressed anger, sorrow, and rage, but somehow, I can’t seem to shake the part of my brain that wants to educate instead.
So I’m going to try, for a moment, to educate in the best way that I can.
I’ve seen a lot of this argument expressed online, with friends and relatives and acquaintances and people I know in real life, as well as TV pundits and journalists and bloggers, saying things like:
I am glad that Ms. Ford was believed. I believe her. But I’m also worried about a lack of due process. I’m worried that my sons might be one day falsely accused.
And I know a lot of my colleagues have replied by quoting statistics or graphs, citing data, sending memes. And while I agree with them, I’m going to try something different.
I’m going to instead try to begin by understanding. By saying, you have every right to be afraid.
That’s what parenting is. Fear of the unknown. Fear of things you cannot control.
You birth a tiny person into the world and suddenly, their little lungs expand and contract and their little hearts beat and flutter, and you have no ability to control whether or not those organs could stop working at any moment, but you think about it, you obsess over it, because you’re a parent and worry is part of the gig. You watch as your kid learns to walk and to talk and to test boundaries and to say no, and of course you fear all the usual stuff — the scraped knees, the playground bullies — and all of the myriad possible options for how things could go wrong in a different way. What if they develop an allergy and I’m not there to save them. What if a car just decides to run a red light. What if a stranger just decides to prey on them. What if I’m looking away for one second while we’re at the pool and they go under. What if there are toxins in our foods or our water? What if our car seats aren’t effective? What if we lose our jobs or our house has black mold and what if our kid needs surgery? What if they break their arms, or legs, or someone else breaks their heart? What if they get sick, what if they die? What if? What if?
How can you make the world safe for your kid, knowing that world will never be truly safe for anyone?
When it comes to the issue of sexual assault, I know my parents worried about it. I worry about it too. My parents taught me to walk with my keys in my hand, and always check the car backseat and underneath the car before getting in. I know to always carry emergency cash for a cab, I know to not go jogging at night, I know to park in well-lit areas. I own pepper spray and mace.
My parents, and later, my female peers, taught me about making eye contact, about walking with intention and purpose. Lock your windows before you go to sleep, don’t rent on the ground floor if you can help it, don’t live alone. Make sure people always know your schedule; text a friend before leaving for a date, check in when you’re home safe. That same chain email circulated around forever, that both my mother and grandmother sent me: don’t wear your hair in a ponytail, don’t wear overalls, don’t be on your phone in a public place where you can be distracted and overpowered.
My brothers never got those lessons.
They never had to.
And to a degree, that makes sense. They’re larger, more physically imposing. The world is easier for them to navigate in this regard, although statistics show that 1 in 10 will still be a victim.
But here’s the real kicker…. for most women, these lessons don’t really matter, either.
In fact, I think they can hurt more than they help.
About 85 to 90 percent of rapes occur in situations where the attacker is known to the victim. Where no amount of door-locking or mace-carrying or drink-watching would have helped. Where it’s just simply not about where you walk at night or where you park your car.
And for a lot of women, myself very much included, the anger and confusion and pain that I felt in the aftermath was not exactly “But I did everything right! I locked my doors and I carry my keys and I never jog alone!”
It was, instead, the pain of telling myself that I should have known better. Even though there wasn’t anything that I could have done differently; the actual issue at hand is that I happened to be in a room with someone I liked and trusted, who just turned out to be a rapist. Even though it’s the most common version of this story, I still wasn’t prepared. I didn’t have language for it — because if it wasn’t a violent, knife-wielding lunatic, then it must not really count, right? Right?
There’s no easy chain email to send to women reminding them that some men will feel entitled to sleep with you if you’re drunk, that some men will coerce you into sex even if you’re not comfortable, that some men will initiate sexual activity and even if you’re deeply uncomfortable, you’re too scared to ask them to stop, that some men feel as though it’s completely fine to keep going even after you say no. That an absence of an answer is not the same thing as consent. There’s no easily digestible version of “Tips and Tricks for Women to Avoid Assault” that covers this material, even though that’s the arena where most assaults actually take place, and that’s because at a certain point, the tips boil down to, “Either you trust no one or you take your chances.”
And that’s where I get really frustrated. All that time I’ve spent walking with my keys in my hand, checking my backseats, knowing that ultimately, the much larger threat was something entirely out of my control.
Let’s just think for a moment about what it might mean if we spent the same amount of time teaching men to respect women as we teach women to avoid assault.
(And I’m not just talking about the blanket statement, “Respect women.” I know that most parents DO teach their kids to respect women. They just don’t provide specific context for what that phrase actually means, and that’s part of the problem, too).
I want fathers to tell their sons to watch their friends like hawks, because you never know who is going to try to slip something in a drink or try to force himself on a drunk classmate, and we’ve practiced this, Buddy, you remember what you say?
I want all young men to learn how to flirt in ways that aren’t aggressive, aren’t coercive. I want all men to verbalize “Do you like this?” “Is this okay?” “Tell me what feels good,” “Are you comfortable?,” and, perhaps most critically, “It’s okay to be honest with me.” To teach them that those words mean nothing unless you listen to what is said next. That the important part is listening, responding, and acting accordingly.
I want all young men to go on walks with their parents in the park, learning to observe the body language of others. Learning that non-verbal communication is still communication. Learning to interpret real laughter from nervous laughter, learning to separate interest from politeness.
If we’re going to insist that young women take self-defense courses and walk with pepper spray, then likewise we should put out a series of PSA’s, reminding young men to hold back a few steps when they see a young woman tense up and cross the street while walking alone. To be mindful of the space they occupy in the world, and think “How can I make this moment safe for those around me?”
And sure, we should all teach our kids not to get intoxicated to the point of obliteration. I think we can all agree on that. But we can also agree that it’s a part of our culture and a rite of passage for many young adults. The standard for “What to do when you see an intoxicated female friend” shouldn’t simply just be “Don’t rape her.” The actual answer is, “You make sure she’s with someone who is safe beyond any doubt, and if no such person exists, you become that person. You make up a bed on your couch, you make sure she wakes up with her clothes on, with Gatorade and an Advil next to her, and her phone charged.”
Because the thing is….
A lot of men think they respect women and they have still raped women.
A lot of men genuinely believe that they are nice guys and have still pressured or coerced their way into sexual activity. Have still assumed that no answer is the same thing as consent. And as long as they can persist in the belief that “respecting women” means “buying your mom a card on Mother’s Day,” and their perception of a rapist is “psychotic bushes-lurking creep from an episode of SVU,” their behavior won’t change.
Now. To the point about false accusations.
Of course, you can be afraid that your sons will be falsely accused of a crime they did not commit. Of course you can be afraid of that.
But it says something very powerful that this is the fear you prioritize over the fear that your daughters will be sexually assaulted.
One in three women will be sexually assaulted over the course of her lifetime.
Only 40% of rapes are ever reported, and only 2% of those are false charges.
Your sons might be falsely accused of rape charges. Of course. That can happen.
They can also die in a rollercoaster malfunction. They could be eaten by a shark. They could have a rare birth defect, or genetic syndrome. All of these things are genuine, legitimate fears: things that could happen, and very well might… but are not the first fears that spring to mind, because the vastly more likely candidates are the big ones, the things that affect the most people. Car accidents. Cancer.
Your fear is not illegitimate. Of course you can have that fear. It’s not unfounded.
But it is misplaced. It’s vastly, depressingly, inevitably more likely that your daughters will be assaulted.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m afraid for sons, too.
But I’m not as afraid about false rape charges being held against them.
I’m worried that they’ll grow up to be abused.
And I’m vastly more worried that they’ll grow up to be the abusers.
I used to feel guilty and bad about the page on this website where I asked for money. I don’t feel bad anymore. If you’ve learned something from what I’ve written, feel free to compensate me for that.