I’ve been alerted recently to the disturbing fact that some white liberal men still don’t really know what rape culture is. Or what a rapist looks like. So here are some thoughts. This is my story, but it’s also the story of many women.
Young girls are not taught that all men are rapists/threatening/dangerous. What we learn – through our parents’/caregivers’ words to us, admonishments to us, abuse of us in many cases, through watching men with women, feeling their energy, is the art of risk aversion. We learn it from a very early age. At the age it begins, this gendered inculcation, we aren’t aware of the word rape. We aren’t being told the word at that stage. We watch the world around us and we notice things. I adored my Dad, but I knew at a very early age, when he argued with my mum, that men could be a bit scary. And I noticed, when I was small, how men talked to women, how there was a bit of an energy about them that was a bit unsettling. When I was 8, and had to walk home alone from Brownies (a reasonably short distance, I have to say) – and this was in 1972 – my mother told me that if anyone were to ever follow me, I should swear loudly at them and go to the nearest lit house, as if it were my own. She didn’t say who that person would be, but I assumed it was a man. Why would I assume that? Because the only people, up until that point, that I had found at all vaguely scary were always men.
When I was about 10, a man on Takapuna beach – an elderly man – saw my friend and I coming and spread his legs, to flash his genitals at us. I laughed at him – quite ridiculous – but that was my experience of the world. Other young girls would have found that upsetting. Not a bad man, necessarily, just a bit of a dick, getting his jollies. That’s rape culture.
When I was 17, and at University for the first time, I had a boyfriend. He wanted to have sex with me but I wasn’t ready. I was dumped after 3 months of him trying. Not a bad man, but with a sense of entitlement. That’s rape culture.
When I was 19, I was walking through Albert Park – back then it wasn’t well lit, nor was it well peopled because we all knew it was a “dangerous” place at night, and were well schooled in risk aversion – some young men tried to jump on me. I used my salty language to great effect, and yelled at them which scared them off. Not bad men, necessarily, just boys out for a laugh. Until it wasn’t. That’s rape culture.
When I was 20, I was at a party and my good friend and her boyfriend went off into the bedroom. And then I heard him lock the door. And then I heard her yelling. I leapt up, and banged on the door, and somehow or other, we got it open, and her out. He was hustled away, but no police were ever called. That’s rape culture.
When I was 21, I had a party at my parents’ house, and a man I fancied was there. He came back after everyone had gone, and I was in bed. I let him in. Both into the house, and into my bed. I didn’t want sex, but he did. I said no, he said “oh come on”, and I acquiesced. It wasn’t violent, but it was nonconsensual. Not a bad man. He just wanted sex – he even stayed the night. That’s rape culture.
When I was 22, I used to regularly walk home from University, down K Rd. On a number of occasions, cars of young men would stop and invite me in. I always refused. On one occasion, a car stopped, and I was asked if I wanted a ride. I refused. I walked a bit further. The car stopped again. “Come on. It’s late”. I refused. I walked further on. And then they stopped again. “Get in the car, bitch. Now.” And then I started yelling swear words at them, and they drove away. Not bad young men, normally, maybe. But they wanted something, and I wasn’t playing the game, so they felt gypped. Thats rape culture.
That same year, I was walking home along Ponsonby Rd, and I heard footsteps behind me. I sped up. The footsteps sped up. After a while of this, I turned around and yelled, mightily. I was terrified. It was a male friend who’d been trailing me, to make sure I got home safely. Or was he? That’s rape culture.
When I was 23, and newly arrived in the UK, I was invited back to a boarding house situation with a group of young men. I went, and when I got there, the room they were in was dark, and someone locked the door behind me. Most of them seemed to be asleep, but a group of them suddenly greeted me, and I felt very threatened. Once again, I yelled, swearing, at them, to open the door. They did, whilst proclaiming that it was only a bit of crack etc. Not bad men, necessarily. Only out for a bit of a laugh, because they thought I was up for it. That’s rape culture.
For all of my life, it seems, I have been aware that men were capable of bad things. And then that awareness turned into experience. I took those experiences as being examples of how foolish I had been, with my own safety. Silly girl. If I hadn’t done this, that wouldn’t have happened. I believed that until fairly recently. That’s rape culture.
Now, I believe that I walk through this world, claiming my space in it. That no-one has the right to do anything to me that I don’t want them to do. That if I let my feelings be known – through words, or body language – that should be respected. Nothing I have ever experienced in my life has led me to believe that all men are rapists, but I also know that all men are capable of various forms of violence. Because they feel entitled. To their space, to getting what they want, to believe that the world is their oyster, that they are right. Their mothers and fathers, their caregivers, have taught them that. As children, our upbringings are so subtly soaked in this gendered inculcation, and it’s not going away any time soon. It will never go away until we understand that rape or violence of any kind is not just something that other people do. And it will never go away until we routinely raise our boys with a sense of fairness, and encourage gentleness, and respect, in them. Until we are determined that kindness is more important than winning, and getting what you want, in this life. That none of us have the right to wield power over another. We can teach our children these lessons, but first, we have to want to.