When my father was in his late 80’s he asked me to explain “rape culture” to him. I recall looking him in eye and suspiciously asking, “Do you really not know what rape culture is, Dad?” I couldn’t fathom how my wise, ever-the-advocate-for-women, life-long cultural geographer, politically astute and father of four daughters could NOT KNOW about something so evident in our society.
Ever the Socratic teacher and learner, it was his style to gather information by quizzing those who’d had different life experiences than his own. Looking back on the conversation I believe he clearly knew the academic definition of rape culture; meaning — he possessed the intellectual information and had processed it as much as he could from his very privileged, White, educated, male status in the world. But what he had never done was ask a woman to describe it from her perspective or experience.
In many ways the conversation that ensued was a win (as in, better late than never), but I also found myself realizing some regret. I wish I’d opened up with my father much earlier in life about what it was like to be a young woman in a horrifically gender biased and unhealthy society. He’d always been my champion and well into adulthood cheered me to “go conquer the world.” But I had never really described to him the darker side of being female. I suppose it was because I didn’t want to worry him or let him down in some way. I had judged that it would’ve been an uncomfortable conversation, and since girls are conditioned to treat daily acts of misogyny (the building blocks of rape culture) as small stuff, I — like every other female I knew — told myself that none of it mattered enough to discuss it with my parents.
Despite hearing all the “girl instructions” regrading the activities, behaviors and thoughts that “girls don’t, can’t and shouldn’t have,” my girlhood was tame. I grew up in a safe and small quasi-liberal town.
It was the sixties and seventies, a time for Civil Rights, the era of Women’s Lib, war protests and peace marches. I had older siblings who found themselves by pushing boundaries and depression-raised parents who were desperately trying not to be as narrowly conservative as their previous generation. I took advantage of the openminded environment and grew up sassy and strong willed. Aside from the occasional playground bully I was never truly hurt, so I was fierce for those who couldn’t muster it, knew the difference between kindness and cruelty, and – at the expense of no one – made mischief every day.
Between ages six and twenty-one, girls were taught essential constructs. Early on, it was the Lady Litany: Ladies sit still. Ladies use quiet voices. Ladies cross their legs. You look like a little lady when you wear a dress. And the overarching: Act more lady-like.
Once we hit our teen years, we learned the “The Don’t Details”:
1) Don’t swagger like a boy; smaller steps are more feminine.
2) Don’t raise your hand so often in class; no one likes a bossy know-it-all.
3) Don’t look so serious; you’re prettier when you smile.
4) Don’t purse your lips; you look like a bitch.
5) Don’t cut your hair; long hair is sexier.
6) Don’t flirt, wear short skirts, dance too much, drink too much or laugh too loudly unless you want “it.”
In schools, churches and our communities we were pursued by male classmates and neighbors who said they wanted to be friends until turned down for dates, propositioned and preyed on by far too many married men, and bullied by other young women when we could’ve been banding together. None of these realities were unique or unusual in the early 1980’s. They still aren’t today.
During my college years I was actually lucky. Lucky because I learned (when there was no one to walk with from the library on late evenings) to hide my small body inside big sweatshirts and then – gripping keys between fingers like a metal claw – to run as fast as possible across the blackened nighttime campus. I was lucky because, unlike my best friend who was raped in her dorm room by a guy across the hall, the boy I met at my first Friday party as a college freshman – stopped when I said no. And then I was lucky again, on that springtime evening when I drank too much at a dance and the two strong young men who walked with me took me safely to a friend’s house.
By 21 years old, I / we had been warned, judged, criticized, cat called, pinched, grabbed, cornered, labeled, looked over, leered at, gossiped about, propositioned, flirted with, denied access and discriminated against – thanks to being born girl. These realities of the female experience were as familiar to us as breathing and in fact, normal.
How normal? So normal that our mothers never warned us (because it never occurred to them) and our sisters and friends never spoke about it. We didn’t challenge the status quo regarding these everyday phenomena.We were conditioned to normalize discrimination, coercion, sexually loaded words and imagery, jargon, body shaming advertising, actual violence, emotional pressure, that horrible feeling of being in the wrong place with the wrong person, and the haunting fear that if we spoke up – we’d be ruined forever.
Amazingly, incredulously —at all still applies today. This is scary for some. It’s okay to be scared. Use caution and proceed. One can be scared and a man and speak out for women. One can be human and vote their conscious rather than their Party. Be scared, but be brave. Voting for representation and laws of Equal and Human Rights is one small thing that we can all do. Use your vote, voice, position, compassion and nerve to help anyone who is vulnerable because of their circumstances (gender, sexuality, income, education) and Fate.