Vulnerability and Misogyny

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The other day I was in a prayer group on cultivating spirituality in our daily lives. One of the questions at the end of the chapter asked, “Who are the most vulnerable in our society today? In what ways can I or we reach out for help?”

Without hesitation, all of us responded “Women—they’re the most vulnerable.” My voice was among these. I have been thinking about this issue with grave seriousness (to the point of depression) for months. We all know the on-going fights for equal pay, breast-feeding controversies, and annoyance over catcalls, but lately there has been a not-so-subtle culture of misogyny hovering over our country, nay the world.

For example, this past July CNN reported a story about an Indian woman who was brutally gang-raped, not once, but twice by the same men. The horror of that experience stayed with me for weeks, still does in fact. No one was there to protect this already scarred, vulnerable woman. She was attacked a second time coming home from college classes. There are hundreds of other international stories of honor killings, female genital mutilation, killing or disfiguring women with acid, and kidnappings of hundreds of girls around the world (e.g., Boka Horam) for torture and sexual exploitation. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around magnitude of this abuse.

And, it’s not much better over here in the “Land of the Free.”

The release of Donald Trump’s “musings” about his lack of control around beautiful women, that he deliberately tried “f***” a married women, and how he felt, as a famous person, entitled to grab any woman’s “p*****” was just the most recent example of how women are dehumanized in this country. What surprised me was my reaction to hearing this clip. I just shook my head in disgust. Just a year or two earlier, I would have been incensed, outraged. I think this is an example of how I, like many people, have become desensitized to misogyny.

In fact, during the first Republican presidential debate when moderator Megyn Kelly called Trump on his inflammatory, crude remarks about women, his response was to call her a “bimbo” and that she was so mad, “You could see blood coming out of her eyes…blood coming out of her wherever.” Her wherever? How did he get away with saying that? Of course, he insulted a lot of people that night including the sitting President and Congress. The media and the RNC made a huge mistake that evening. Trump should have been escorted off the stage for his inappropriate remarks. Shouldn’t there be some basic civility expected of our country’s leaders? That behavior should never have been tolerated then, because it just fueled his ego enough to let his mouth run amuck for months after. The man has said hateful things about darn near everyone, and it’s not that I think things like that are not said, it’s just that I’ve never seen anyone so public and unapologetic for such rantings and bad language. In the South we would say, “His mama did not raise him right.”

Trump is a spoiled, narcissistic loud mouth. He’s been making outrageous statements throughout the past few years, so that’s why, in my overexposure to this behavior, I simply rolled my eyes when it came out he felt he could get away with inappropriately touching a woman’s private parts, which by the way is sexual assault, which by the way is illegal. Cher summed it up best when she tweeted, “LADIES WE R NOT DISPOSABLE BLOW UP DOLLS,4RICH MENS PLEASURE.” Shame on me for my minimal reaction.

But, it is not just Donald Trump overtly demeaning, dehumanizing, and objectifying women. It feels as if our whole culture has agreed that treating women as “less than” and as pleasure tool is okay, fine, just boys being boys.

A Culture of Dehumanization
• Fox news and its environment of sexual harassment that started at the top with Chairmen of Fox News Roger Ailes is a recent example. Gretchen Carlson was the first to sue, but Andrea Tanteros has filed a suit as well. That’s dehumanizing women in the workplace.
• Pornography addiction is the number one addiction in America today. This is the objectifying of women as tools for one’s own pleasure. Scientist found that, like all addicts, people need to view more and more, cruder and cruder scenes to get the initial pleasure they first had when viewing pornography. What makes it an addiction is more than the inability to stop watching. People will continue to watch even though it negatively affects their job, social life, and marriages. Not only does pornography dehumanize the women who are filmed, by extension it dehumanizes all women.
• In 2012, researchers estimated that 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults took place in the armed forces, yet only one in seven victims reported the attack and only one in 10 of those cases went to trial. Dehumanizing women in the military.
• Stanford student Brock Turner received a “slap on the wrist” sentence for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Dehumanizing women by athletes.
• Bill Cosby’s long and sorted history of drugging and raping women continues to evolve in the news, and he is still a free man. Dehumanizing women in Hollywood.
• The commonness of campus rape. Just as an example, University of Michigan conducted an internal study of rape on its own campus, and found that 20 percent of the women had been sexually assaulted. Internal studies conducted at other universities show similar results, although I think 20 percent is a gross example of underreporting. Dehumanizing women at school, where they go to better their minds and futures.

Campus rape is not a new thing. When I was an undergraduate at a large public university, I woke up one Sunday morning to learn that the Delta fraternity found a battered, naked woman unconscious in the their back yard. She had been gang raped and beat up, she had cigarette burn marks on her thighs, and she had the word, Delta carved into her leg. My blood ran cold because I had been to a party at the Delta house the night before. I think every woman on campus was thinking, “It could have been me.” What really happened is even worse that the original scenario. It turns out the boys (legally men) from the Pike house right next door, did all of these heinous things and tried to put the blame on the Deltas by “marking” with their frat name and dumping her, yes dumping her over the fence.

I’ve never forgotten that, and when I was a high school teacher, I often warned seniors heading off to college: Don’t go anywhere alone, especially at night; don’t wander into a boy’s room alone; watch your drinks so no one puts a date-rape drug in your beer; never leave a party or club with a man you just met no matter how safe you feel. The onus is on you I would tell them. Now, I taught at a girls’ school. I wonder if anyone was ever talking to the boys who were off to the same colleges, and what they were told. My guess is that they were told nothing; all the messages they received about how to treat women they learned from the media, big brothers or their fathers. It begs the questions,

What are boys learning about their gender counterpart? When do they stop seeing women as human beings, people with souls who should be respected, and see them as merely tools to satisfy a sexual urge? If rape, assault, pornography, sexual harassment is so prevalent, then where are the strong male voices trying to counteract this travesty?

Right now, the only strong voice boys (and girls), men (and women) are hearing is a loud mouth pseudo-politician who thinks it is perfectly acceptable to call women fat, bimbos, dogs, slobs, disgusting animals, and just plain ugly. And, no woman seems to be exempt (except Ivanka and Melania) because he has publically insulted Rosie O’Donnell, 1996 Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado, Angelina Jolie, Heidi Cruz (Ted Cruz’s wife) and even supermodel Heidi Klum. There are plenty of women speaking back, like Secretary Hilary Clinton, Megyn Kelly, Cher and other noted people, but I wonder if their message is falling on deal ears.

I am no historian, but I can’t help feeling that in this country we have taken 15 steps backwards in the fight for equality. Women are more vulnerable, suppressed and demeaned than they have ever been. The irony is that all of this is going on just as woman has a real shot at the White House. I know it is no coincidence, just as race relations have taken a tragic turn for the worse while our sitting President is an African-American.

The second part of the question posed to our prayer group has me stumped: What can I do to help the vulnerable? I always feel helpless in the face of overpowering cruelty. Just writing this piece for my blog is one way to help. Another is to exercise my right to vote (a right that women in this country have had for less than 100 years) and send a message that I won’t stand for dehumanization as a political or bullying technique. Finally, I have to talk to my children: my girls will know they are worthy of the same rights, that they are children of God put on this earth to love and be loved, and that they should be warriors against anyone or anything that sends a message otherwise. Similarly, my son will know that girls and women are their equal, their partner under the law and the eyes of God, that the only way to interact with a girl or woman is with respect and reverence, and that any other action would be a betrayal to their manhood and their humanness.

Aren’t these basic things we teach all our children in preschool?
• Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
• Don’t interrupt anyone.
• Wait your turn.
• No name-calling.
• Tell the truth.

It seems to me that a lot of people need to be sent back to preschool to relearn these basic tenants for living in this world. All I can say is school’s open. Enroll your misogynist now.

Teaching my girls about the face of evil

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When my first child was just a few weeks old, I spent many-a night rocking and soothing her, trying to get this sweet baby to understand that one sleeps at night and not 13 hours during the day. One of those nights, I went downstairs and turned on the TV for some bleary-eyed diversion. At the time we had the cheap cable package so my choice viewing options were junk and more junk. What captured my attention was an hour-long infomercial for “Girls Gone Wild.”

I had heard of this before, and had seen some tamer commercials for it. I would shake my head, and simply change the channel. I wanted no part of the sexual exploitation of drunk college women. That night, however, as I rocked my innocent baby girl, that commercial seized my heart and injected terror in my veins. Suddenly I was transported 20 years in the future praying that my little girl would never be involved in something like that. Watching these inebriated young women lift their shirts for the camera and accept dares to participate in sexual acts, made me cringe.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m a prude, and I certainly can’t say I made the best choices when I had had a few too many beers (or wine, or shots). Quite frankly, I can think of a few situations, especially when I was a young college student, in which I was remarkably lucky that I was not sexually assaulted. But, motherhood changed me. I went from disgust to plain fear. In my head I kept asking myself, “What do I have to do as a parent to make sure my daughter does not feel she has to use her body to be accepted, liked or admired? What can I do to protect her from men who only want to use her or see her as a source for their pleasure?” I do not have a definitive answer, but figured out that so much of her safety is related to self-esteem and good choices.

Reading about Brook Turner, the Stanford student who was convicted of raping an inebriated, unconscious woman behind a dumpster, has renewed those fears I have for my daughters. Often “experts” spend a great deal of time talking about what women should or should not do to put themselves in the position to be raped:

  • Don’t walk alone at night.
  • Don’t dress “like a slut.”
  • Don’t drink too much.
  • Only drink from a bottle at a club so you don’t accidentally or otherwise ingest a drug like roofies (or Quaaludes), making you easy prey for sexual predators.
  • Be aware of your surroundings (e.g., parking lots, empty streets).
  • Don’t party alone. Always bring a friend who can watch your back.

These are all great suggestions, and when the time is right, I will make sure my two daughters understand them. But, I will also be sure to tell them that even if they do dress provocatively or drink too much, they are never the ones who are at fault for a rape or sexual assault. That blame only rests squarely on the rapist.

The rapist is the one who does not recognize a woman as a human being, but rather an object of pleasure. The rapist is the one whose sick need for dominance leads him to violate and demean another person. The rapist is the one who perverts his sexual desires and his moral reasoning to allow himself to touch a woman’s body however he wishes and without her consent. I will let my daughters know that they not responsible for other’s actions just as they are responsible for their own actions and choices.

And, when the time is right, I will show my daughters Brock Turner’s face, and talk about how this seemingly harmless, Howdy Doody look-alike is the face of evil. They need to know that evil is not necessarily the villain dressed in black, lurking in dark alleys. Rather, I will tell them than evil comes in so many shapes and sizes and colors and backgrounds.

  • Evil can come from “nice homes” raised by “nice parents” and go to “great schools”—like Stanford.
  • Evil can look like the funniest of all-American dads, a TV icon even.
  • Evil can look like a star athlete with potential to compete in the Olympics.
  • Evil can even be disguised as their caring boyfriend or husband whose mask of a loving person will melt away to reveal the dark overpowering villain that he is.
  • Evil can sound like a middle class dad who makes excuses (like he was a victim of a culture of campus partying) for his sociopathic son.
  • And evil can look like a civic-minded judge who is nothing but complicit with the entire system that dismisses rape as “boys will be boys” or it was only “20 minutes of action.”

Just as important, I will sit my son down and tell him how he should treat a woman, how women were not put on this earth to satisfy men’s sexual issues, how women are smart and accomplished in thousands of ways, and how all women (all people) deserve his respect. I will also let him know that, just like the PhD students from Sweden who chased after Brock Turner, it is his responsibility to protect those who are weaker than he is, and to alert authorities when he sees or senses that someone else is in danger. And, I will tell him this is just common sense and common decency.

In some ways I think it is pathetic that I would have to make all of these things explicit to my kids. Shouldn’t they just know this? Don’t people know they should treat others with kindness and compassion? After reading about Brock Turner and how he has never admitted to any wrong-doing and how his father is more torn up about his son’s poor appetite than his victim’s pain, I think this is now a world where knowing right and wrong cannot be assumed. After reading that Brock Turner’s friends and siblings believe he is not a danger to others because he is a shy and hard-working young man, I have to be very clear when I tell my children that psychopaths can be shy, hard-working and bright with a glorious future ahead of them.

My daughters are no longer babies. The oldest will be 13 in a few days. This rape case has made me realize that now is the time I need to have these conversations with them. I’m not relishing these talks, but I know that this conversation is just as necessary as teaching them other fundamentals like using crosswalks, not talking to strangers, locking doors at night, and not engaging with strangers on the Internet.  One day their lives may depend on this lesson.