Trigger warning: Talkin’ ’bout assault and rape culture

Remember during the run up to the election when everyone was like, “Rape rape rape. Rape-y rape-y rape rape”?  In case you don’t (and lucky you), it was awful. And I’m not even talking about the usual assholes talking their usual “legitimate rape,” “forcible rape,” reality-denying assholery, although them too, definitely.  The really awful part was seeing how directly the subject cuts straight to the darkest part of otherwise smart, rational people’s hearts and minds, how uncomfortable we are speaking about it in a forthright, respectful, measured way.

It was so awful, in fact, that I want to talk about it more!!!… No, just joshin’.  That’s not at all the reason I want to talk about it more. I want to talk about it more because about a week and a half ago I was the victim of an attempted rape and I have a lot of thoughts on the subject.  A stranger assaulted me while I was walking near the Western Cemetery in Portland, Maine at 10:30 on a Saturday night and gave me a concussion and a badass shiner before I was able to fight him off. So now I’m going to do what I do best: pontificate on a thing that happened in my life with a scholarly intensity that would be creepy if it wasn’t for a certain spazzy charm. Right. Let’s do this.

I’m going to assume that not everyone is familiar with the concept of rape culture, so let’s start there.  The link is more comprehensive than I’m going to be, but the general idea is this:  1 in 6 American women will be the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, and while no one thinks this is a good thing, our collective response is something along the lines of, “Totally sucks. You got pepper spray?”

Real quick, before anybody has a chance to say “Yeah, but…” and start blathering about feminism gone mad or extremism or any other sort of blithe, reflexive contrary stance, see how this grabs you: When I turned at the sound of running footsteps and watched a man I did not know barreling toward me, one of my first thoughts was that this was the attack I’ve always expected.  I have been in training for the moment that someone attacked me for my entire life. Please take a moment to absorb how fucked up that is.

Every news story in which a woman is hurt and/or violated is a warning and a series of lessons for independent girls and women: pay attention, don’t walk alone at night, cross the street when someone’s behind you, carry pepper spray, vary your route, learn self-defense, remember that his eyes and genitals are sensitive targets and that your head, your nails, your teeth, your knees, your feet and your voice are all weapons. I’d venture a guess that I’m not the only woman who runs through a “what would I do if that was me” scenario every time it happens to someone else.

It strikes me as sick and sad that I take this information for granted, that learning how to respond as a victim was no more remarkable than learning to sing the counties in Maine to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”  But the fact is that having that information on speed dial saved me a much worse outcome when it did happen to me.  As the assailant ran toward me, I first did some mental gymnastics trying to convince myself it was someone I knew goofing around, then quickly switched modes and thought, “Oh wow, so this is really someone attacking me,” and started running through all of the things I was supposed to do.  Thankfully, the equal and opposite corollary to women’s awareness is that men, even bad men who perpetrate these crimes, even perpetrators whose crimes are premeditated, are at best freshmen in the the school of assault while the victim pool’s working on a Ph.D.

But aside from fostering this really twisted relationship between women and victimhood, rape culture also cultivates an insidiously slimy relationship between victims and the public at large. Even as we make plodding progress toward denouncing blatant, her-mini-skirt-was-an-invitation style victim-blaming, I am acutely aware that there are plenty of otherwise kind people too polite to tell me they could have told me so, murmuring amongst themselves that they would never just go out walking like that, in that area, at that hour, by themselves.  Look, I know that taking a stubborn intellectual stance about how the world ought to work doesn’t count for shit in the face of the practical reality that real threats exist, but I have always and will always draw a line between being cautious and self-jailing and I can’t accept violence against my person as an inevitable price to be paid for my freedom.

So there, at great length, is the backdrop against which I’m thinking about sexual assault, attempted or completed.  But remember a few paragraphs back when I predicted that some portion of readers would be just itching to say something like, “Nuh uh, I take it way more seriously” or “Not every man is a threat” or “Something something overstating the situation something something blah”?  Some portion of readers will think and say that and to them I say, “No duh.  I’m speaking about the greater cultural umbrella under which enlightened thinkers and good people like us live.  And I still trust people and like men and believe that most people are not walking around waiting for a chance to do something awful.  Not all women think like I do, not all mean are dangerous, not everyone is a judgy asshole, so calm down if you’re the exception to the rule because we’ll never change the rule if we can’t stop being defensive weirdos and talk honestly about this stuff. And you’ll have to pardon me if it hurts your feelings that I don’t want to talk to strangers or if I cross the street when your benign self is cruising a little too close behind me, because I guarantee it hurt my face more when I gave someone the benefit of the doubt.”

Maybe it’s all just a really, really long way of saying that misogyny and violence hurt everyone.  It’s obvious how it hurts women, but in the bigger picture it creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear and strips people of all genders of their humanity and individuality.  I think it’s hugely important to have this conversation, to be aware of how it affects the way we live and interact, because shining a bright light is the surest way to clean out the dark corners.