This is the second part of Tuesday’s post, going on to discuss the nature of cyber threats and what we can learn from it. Tuesday we talked about why harassment happens in the first place. Today we’ll get a bit more specific as to why certain threats are more prevalent. Trigger warning for discussion of rape threats and harassment.
Why they go there.
When men want other men to shut up, they generally* don’t threaten to rape them.
Women’s bodies are treated as objects for conditional sexual pleasure in just about every aspect of our culture, from films to music videos, to organ donation. (Seriously.) Everywhere the message is that women’s bodies are for men to consume. That offering men the chance to fantasize about having sex with women is the primary driver of motivation for everything from showering to adopting pets.
At the same time, it’s recognized that rape is a violation. Widely recognized. Mark Millar and his fellows describe it as a plot device because it shows just how horrible a bad guy is. Over and over again the threat of it is used to show the evil of a villain. The Governor in The Walking Dead in both the comics and the show either threatened it or actually did it.
When these people use rape as a threat to get women to shut up, they do it because they are asserting that women’s bodies are for them AND asserting dominance by saying that they will come find you where you live (either your home or in your body) and take that from you. Rape is always about power and control. The sickeningly widespread prevalence of these threats is just very, very visible display of just that.
Your body is the single thing you are born with and the single thing that is with you your entire life. It is you. It is what you do with it. It’s where you reside, where your thoughts and feelings and soul dwell. It holds your personhood. When someone threatens to invade it, they are completely denying your personhood.
They are saying that you are unworthy of being engaged with on a human level. They are saying that you are no longer a person with boundaries. This threat is probably the single most telling signifier that we live in a deeply imbalanced society, one that first widely proclaims that women exist for male sexual expression and then turns a blind eye when some men attempt to realize just that by physical force, cyber harassment, or otherwise.
For those of us who have actually been through it, having someone threaten to do it again can set off a visceral reaction. And for those fortunate enough not to have personal experience with it, it can be just as frightening.
To be clear, this is not a free speech issue. You have a right to say you disagree with something I said. You do not have a right to threaten my bodily autonomy and cause me physical and emotional harm.
So why this threat? Because it simultaneously reinforces the status quo (women’s bodies are objects that exist for male pleasure) and is one of the most extreme control tactics used on women who are perceived as threatening said status quo.
As for why it’s not taken seriously by the authorities…
Well. Take your pick. We live in a country where women are being told every single day by our culture, by the media, by lawmakers, by religious leaders, by random people on the street that what we think doesn’t matter. A woman in Texas’s right to decide whether she is taken off life support or not is taken away because she is pregnant and her wishes are therefore unimportant even if the fetus she’s carrying is not viable. Women in several states now are required to undergo invasive and unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds if they want to terminate a pregnancy for any reason. (And I’ve had one of them prescribed by my doctor to screen me for endometriosis symptoms. They are indeed incredibly invasive.) Panels discussing reproductive rights include no women. Those are all examples of issues cisgendered women face, but transwomen are discounted and excluded as well. Texas (again, Texas?) is putting forth a new voter ID law that will pretty much only affect women due to it regarding name changes on identification. This will also affect transwomen if they legally change their names.
Women who speak up are treated not to engaged dialogue much of the time, but character assassination and belittling based on their looks, their sexual histories, and their backgrounds.
In that context, why wouldn’t women be told just to get over it?
Which brings me back to empathy.
No amount of pontificating is going to stop trolls from being the festering carbuncles of humanity. But what empathy can do is help mobilize those who just, you know, don’t want to be dicks.
Empathy. Being willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I doubt Mark Millar would be so ambivalent about rape as a plot device if he considered reading his own work through the eyes of his daughters. (But then again, he doesn’t think comic books are for girls at all, so naturally they’ll never actually read what he writes. Mmmhmm.) Being willing to ask the women you know about their experiences and really listen, from how they feel when catcalled to when the first time they remember their gender affecting their lives in a negative way. (Don’t point blank ask them if they’ve experienced sexual violence. But if they volunteer the information, listen.)
The point is, this bile geyser erupts because we let it. We as a society. We as a culture of humans. The other day at work I listened to a man who is incredibly promiscuous talk about how he wouldn’t marry a woman who had the same sexual experience as he does. And people nodded along as if it were fine. This person also simultaneously spoke of wanting to start an adult film company and disrespected the women he would be hiring. Part. Of. The. Problem. It’s not just seeing double standards; it’s engaging with them. I called him out, and a couple other women did too. But none of the men in the room did, even though one of them looked like he wanted to.
Here’s an example of what I’d like to see more of.
So here’s my challenge for you. Engage with this issue yourself. And engage with someone else about it, too. Someone at work or an acquaintance. Engage. I’m not asking people to call out every instance of sexism they see (though I certainly would welcome hearing more men pointing that stuff out too). I’m asking for engagement. If you’re out with a friend and he catcalls a woman on the street, ask why.
I’m convinced that none of this will change unless we all embrace the Neville Longbottom declaration: It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.
Engage. Learn and show empathy. Don’t shut up.
If we do that, I think we just might change things.
*Obviously this does happen in some cases.