When Did You First Have To Think About Rape?

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Soraya Chemaly says men don’t understand how often women are forced to think about sexual assault every single day.

It has become obvious to me that most men don’t realize that virtually every woman on the planet thinks about rape and avoiding rape regularly. Like every day. Ask a woman if she thinks about rape everyday, and she might very well say no. I mean, who wants to do that? It’s depressing and if we paid enough attention to it we’d drive ourselves crazy. We may not be walking around, petrified, saying to ourselves, “I could get raped today,” or pondering which man we encounter on any given day is a potential rapist, but by the time we are fully engaged in the world, at school, going to work, shopping for food—you know, living—we have already made our own personal adaptations to the reality of the threat.

For example, we choose our commute options carefully to avoid being alone in certain places, we park closer to entrances than men might, we don’t exercise outside as much, we limit our daughter’s physical freedoms earlier than they or we want to, we develop instincts about the level of threat implied in street harassment, and we learn to weaponize everyday objects, like keys.

We have a gendered safety gap and we pretend that it has no effect, when it does. It affects everything from how we dress to the suppression of our speech as a result of this violence and its threat.

In 2012, Gallup released the results of a survey, conducted in 143 countries, in which they asked respondents if they felt safe walking in their communities at night. In the United States, 89% of men answered “yes,” while only 62% of women did the same. This surprisingly large difference was consistent across developed nations. Australia, France, Finland, and Sweden have almost identical gaps. The United Kingdom and Germany hover at roughly 20%. In Arab countries, the gap averages 14%. Researchers concluded, “Violence against women remains a problem in many developed countries, and the perpetrators often go unpunished.” The fact that the gap is largest in developed nations says a lot about the nature of sexism and the superficiality of equality. 

This isn’t just a matter of perception. A woman’s chance of being sexually assaulted is 1 in 5, for men it’s 1 in 77, and assaults with male victims primarily take place when they are young, whereas for women there is no age-related end.

We all assess risk and, when your risk of being sexually assaulted is 1 in 5, you make rational decisions about your safety. These actions are small and invisible. And, we rarely talk about this and the cost of our adaptations—in time, in travel, in money, in suppression of speech, in psychic energy.

We have to talk about this. So I do. And, when I do, a strange thing often happens: Men are filled with disbelief. They are often surprised and argumentative.

I was nine 9 years old the first time I was openly threatened with rape. I was in a school yard and my younger brother was with me. My parents were away and my great aunt, who wasn’t used to picking up children from school before, simply forgot about us. We waited for three hours, at the end of which a much older and bigger teenage boy thought it would be fun to tell me what he might do while no one was around to help me.

I remember not really knowing what the word “rape” meant, but understanding that this was frightening. Mainly, I was worried about my brother who was 7 and playing nearby but out of earshot. My response was to stare, stone-faced, at him while he talked. When we were picked up, he was standing right next to me. I never told an adult. When I told my brother this, decades later, and explained that this was just the beginning of awareness and adjustment, that his daughter, too, had already undoubtedly had to deal with similar situations or at least their threat, he refused to believe me at first. He couldn’t fathom how he and I, growing up as friends and close in age and in the same house, could possibly have had such different experiences of the world.

Before I realized that many men feel like he did, I started talking to women friends. When I began to write about this and related topics, women friends started to say things to me, like: “I never told anyone, but once in college, a man I knew broke into my bedroom one night and tried to rape me. I fought him off and he ran out of the room. I’ve never even told my husband,” or “At a party, when I was 19, I felt certain that I was in a very dangerous situation, so I locked myself in the bathroom, broke the window and jumped out,” or “Once on the subway, I was in a car that emptied out and I found myself alone. I would never have gotten on if the car had been empty. A man got on the train and, in the whole empty train, sat right next to me. I got out at the next stop and had to wait, on an empty platform for more than 30 minutes in the middle of the night. It was frightening and so I stopped taking the subway.” Or, “My uncle used to get into my bed. We didn’t call it rape then.”

The most common thread in all of these conversations? With women: “I didn’t tell anyone.” And with men: “I had no idea.”

So, some of us have stopped being quiet, and fewer people can say they had no idea. We are loudly fighting against rape threats, rape jokes, rape silence, rape tolerance. Rape. We are well and truly done with ceding spaces and speech in silence, and with a thuggish culture that makes it easier to be a rapist and a rape apologist, than to be a rape victim and anti-rape advocate.

That’s what the #FBrape campaign was about. It’s what Caroline Criado-Perez’s Twitter challenge is about. Last year, Laura Bates, the founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, created a simple website and invited women to tell everyone about their daily, casual encounters with sexism and violence and threats. To date, just over 12 months later, more than 40,000 women have done this. Every day, as part of a #shoutingback campaign, the Everyday Sexism twitter feed and Facebook page are filled with stories that women are sharing. It’s an important thing to do. But, not just online or in anonymity. We need to have these conversations with our fathers, brothers, sons, nephews, coworkers. We need to have them with other women.

Have you ever told anyone?

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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