Rape culture is aided and abetted by many things. Music that hypes the domination of women by men, the sexual objectification of girls and young women in clothing, media depictions, and everyday language, and the eschewing of feminism by women themselves all pile up to create an environment where boys consider themselves to be ‘more than’ and girls let them think that way.
The wrenching stories of teen girls who were victimized, raped and humiliated by groups of boys in person and then forever on the internet correctly paint the perpetrators as villains. The young boys who thought it was okay to click cell phone photos of a fellow student being raped and quickly pushed the Facebook publish button, the new, more deadly version of the locker room brag, weren’t trained to be rapists and girls wasn’t trained to be raped.
Or were they?
Years ago, in the heat of an intense debate with co-workers about sexism, one co-worker blurted out to me, “You think all men are rapists. Don’t you?”
Yes, I did. I’m not so sure now. Then I believed that the extreme power imbalance between men and women made women vulnerable to anything men wanted to do to them: oppress them in the workplace, keep checking accounts out of their hands, make sure they couldn’t get a mortgage, get them fired from teaching jobs because they were pregnant, keep them from voting, make it impossible to get safe birth control, and, depending on where they lived in the world, keep them completely covered, swathed in cloth. Now some of the more dramatic manifestations of sexism have disappeared, at least in the U.S., but its ghosts are lurking everywhere.
The most dangerous thing about gender inequality is that women are not only ‘lesser than’ but deserving of their powerlessness, they’re weaker, less able, dependent. These ideas are very dangerous for women because although male power can often be felt as protection, it can also be a terrible weapon. In one respect, rape culture is a manifestation of our having taught young boys, not intentionally, not hatefully, but subtly in tiny every day doses, that they are better than girls. Look around you today. Are you doing this with your sons? Are you worshipping your sons? Are you leading them to believe they are ‘more than’ girls?
As hard as it is to imagine that adoring, conscientious parents might be cultivating rapists, it is harder to think that we are grooming our girls to be raped. Every time we, as parents, buy into a culture, marketplace, language that sexually objectifies young girls and women, we’re putting another small log on the fire of oppression. A recent article in Psychological Science (Calogero, 2013) found that women with higher levels of self-objectification, defining themselves primarily in terms of their physical appearance and attractiveness to men, were significantly less likely to challenge gender inequality. To me, this signals the most sickening aspect of oppression, that is, when the oppressed believe in the superiority of the oppressor.
In other words, they had bought it. They believed that their value in the world was an external one, a visible one. The notion that their appeal to men was their most important feature had been instilled in them how, where?
In the same way that no boy baby is born a rapist, no girl baby is waiting to be oppressed. Our babies are getting these little daily drips of message from somewhere. Shall we guess where?
If girls are focused on being accepted by boys and are convinced that their worth is bound up in how much one boy or two boys or all the boys at school like them, they are in constant peril. And so are the boys. Girls whose self-worth is externally defined by boys’ acceptance are sitting ducks for drinking too much, being separated from friends, and being victimized. Boys who’ve grown up with high doses of ‘more than’ forget every lecture their mother ever gave them. The result is horrible.
Everyone is complicit in this set-up. No single boy, no single girl, no single set of hysterical and self-questioning parents is responsible. We create and recreate the train wrecks by refusing to see where the tracks are going and spending the time necessary to uproot them and rebuild in a better direction. We give gender inequality a stronger reach every time we let yet another women’s right be snatched, every time we ho-hum inequality in the workplace and the paycheck, look the other way when sports heroes batter their partners, and buy 7-year old girls black leggings with lace trim like I did just last week. I looked at them in her dresser drawer yesterday and wondered, “What am I saying here? What’s my message?”
We can’t do all these things as children grow day by day and then when they’re teens give them the lecture about respecting girls and respecting themselves. By then, it’s too late. The trains are already on the horizon.
Gender inequality is the foundation of gender oppression in every form. If we raise our girls and boys as feminists, teaching each that no one is more than or less than the other, rape culture can be gutted. Pogo was right. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”