On Mens’ Disbelief That So Many Women Have Been Sexually Assaulted

The oldest of the parallel universes are the gender universes that leave so many men and women wondering how the same place—Earth—can be experienced so differently.

We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.― Susan Glaspell, Trifles

It’s been almost 25 years since John Gray published Men Are From Mars, Women Are fFom Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex, and 100 years since Susan Glaspell wrote Trifles, a one-act play that reveals the disparities in how men and women view the same evidence.

But here we are in 2016, nearing the bitter end of the most polarizing presidential election in recent history, and our worlds are more constructed—and constricted—than ever. In 2011, Eli Pariser warned us via TED Talk that the Internet was increasingly limiting our exposure to a broad swath of information by becoming more personalized, an echo chamber of our own interests and politics and beliefs made from the data crumbs of our online lives. And so it continues to be. A bleeding heart, urban leftie like me has an entirely different newsfeed than my mother-in-law in rural, conservative Alabama. The “filter bubble,” as Pariser calls our existence in the virtual world of our own making, allows each of us to believe our worldview is the most representative.

But it isn’t just the Internet, or rather, the Internet merely reflects and magnifies other ways we perceive our own reality as the only reality (particularly if we’re white, wealthy, and male—OK, there go my politics again). The oldest of the parallel universes are the gender universes that leave so many men and women wondering how the same place—Earth—can be experienced so differently.

Case in point: For the past two weeks, we’ve been hearing the multitudinous stories of women’s first sexual assaults. Originally solicited on Twitter by writer Kelly Oxford, the #notokay tweets lead to Facebook posts, and now, some 30 million posts have rolled in revealing the spectrum of the first violations women can remember (an important distinction, as many women are likely to have experienced a violation without knowing it), mostly in childhood and early adolescence.

This isn’t the first time women have gone viral with personal narratives of objectification and sexual assault. In response to all the Elliot Rodgers, Brock Turners, and Donald Trumps, whose open entitlement to women’s bodies have forced us into this 21st-century form of testifying, #yesallwomen began trending on social media in 2014, and the stories are still accumulating.

It’s true that Oxford’s original solicitation was directed at women, but the absence of men from these conversations troubles me anyway. We know, for instance, that one in six men are also victims of sexual assault, a figure that supports bell hooks’ claim in her seminal essay “Understanding Patriarchy” that patriarchal systems are “the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit of our nation.”

Last week, when I offered my own #notokay story on Facebook about the time a male professor kissed me without warning and then stalked me for months, I had my belief in the basic goodness of humanity affirmed in the plethora of supportive comments I received from friends. But a distinct pattern emerged: All of the 32 commenters, save for two, were women. And of the two men, one wrote, “Why didn’t you call the cops? Get a restraining order? Buy a gun?”

I was confused. In my universe, the statistics related to prosecuting any kind of sexual violation are infamously abysmal. And the incident I described in my post fell distinctly into the weak category as far as sexual assault cases go, almost certainly never to result in anything other than further trauma had I reported it to the police (I did report it to the professor’s supervisor, who gave me a taste of what it would have been like to call the police when he told me I should have been less friendly with the professor). As Soraya Chemaly demonstrated with overwhelming research here at Role Reboot three years ago, we live in a culture that assumes women don’t tell the truth. Never is that more obvious than in the case of a rape or sexual assault allegation, but the assumption is more insidious than that, questioning women’s experiences of things both large and small.

In Trifles, a play written before women were granted the right the vote, the murder of farmer John Wright and the subsequent arrest of his wife for the crime is not the plot, but the occasion. The play begins with the county attorney, the sheriff, and a neighboring farmer entering the Wright house to search for evidence that would solidify the case against Mrs. Wright. While the men go upstairs to pick apart the murder scene, the sheriff and farmer’s wives, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, remain in the kitchen that the county attorney and sheriff have deemed irrelevant to the investigation. “Nothing here by kitchen things,” the sheriff says.

Ah, but the kitchen—that setting of domesticity so associated with the triviality of women’s lives—the kitchen contained all the clues to Mrs. Wright’s deep unhappiness in her marriage. In the end, it is Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale who uncover the motive for the murder hidden in those homemaking details, though they hide what they find from the men in order to hamstring the case against Mrs. Wright. “Loyal to your sex, I see,” the county attorney says to Mrs. Hale when she refuses to disparage Mrs. Wright’s housekeeping. Indeed.

The point of the play is that men and women live in such separate ways that they literally see different things in the same room. And that disparity of experience is, first and foremost, a disparity of power.

Earlier this week, I walked to work in downtown Boston on a portion of sidewalk shielded by black canvas flaps. The flaps, designed to prevent debris from roof repairs from falling on pedestrians, created a makeshift tunnel that immediately made me uneasy.

It was there, inside that confined, invisible public space, that I heard a man’s voice behind me. “I love your hair,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

I sighed that deep, heavy sigh of being coerced into a conversation I didn’t want to have. The enclosed space made me afraid of saying nothing, of inciting him further with silence, but I didn’t want to encourage him, either. “Thank you,” I said, not turning around.

His footsteps grew louder and closer. The man—middle-aged, white, wearing a tan unzipped jacket—ran ahead of me to the very end of the tunneled sidewalk, and then stopped, facing me. In order for me to get away from him, I had to walk right past him while he stared at me, at my body. His stare was intent. Menacing.

Such an incident is so common that it took me two days to remember to tell my husband about it.

“We need to talk about how men deal with their loneliness,” he said, shaking his head.

Loneliness? That’s what he heard in the story? The man was lonely, so he ogled me, a perfect stranger? Because I’m a woman, I’m the solution to a man’s loneliness? My husband, by the way, is a feminist voting for Hillary Clinton.

I keep wondering if men—the majority of whom intellectually reject Trump’s “locker room” talk about grabbing genitals without consent—are flabbergasted by the sheer number of stories they’re hearing from women after millennia of relative silence from both universes. bell hooks argues that, “Patriarchy as a system has denied males access to full emotional well-being,” preventing men from admitting to the pain such rigid gender structures creates for them as well as for women, practically mandating that men adhere to roles of dominance that tamp down natural inclinations toward gentility and vulnerability.

At The Establishment, Ijeoma Oluo expands on hooks’ concerns. In an open letter to cisgender men, she writes, “What bound us to you was circumstance—circumstance that you created. But what bound you to us was fear. And as we break our bonds of circumstance, you face an even harder task: breaking free of the prison of your own minds that says that you stand on nothing if you do not stand on our necks.”

I’m trying to imagine what it must feel like right now. A woman is within steps of the White House, which is not the catalyst but the result of women’s slow building of feminine power that is itself the result of exposing the ills of patriarchy en masse. I wonder what it’s like for men to be suddenly inundated with the painful stories of women that point to a collective wrong in our culture about which many men weren’t even aware, even as they, too, suffered from it.

This whole thing, this collective revelation—I’m going to call it a movement, to borrow Trump’s language—must be like discovering the Matrix for some men. No wonder we’re hearing renewed calls to repeal the 19th Amendment. No wonder men like Trump want us all to just live on Mars, to deny Venus’ very existence.

But the portal between universes has been opened. The filter bubbles of gender have been popped.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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