Which instance do I start with? The boy I kicked in the groin who had me pinned to the ground to forcibly kiss me, only to be told by his mother that his actions “weren’t that big of a deal”? The scummy cook whose seemingly accidental touches kept me quiet for months because his ex-wife ran the restaurant I bussed tables at and I wasn’t quite sure he was doing anything on purpose anyway? The 6’4” man who stalked me until my 6’5” friend showed up, and whose mug shot appeared in the paper weeks later on three counts of underage rape? Or perhaps the man in his 60s who cornered me in the backroom of my job saying he knew I wanted “it” and how I had to lock myself in the bathroom until he left?
All of these things happened to me in either Cedar City or St. George before the age of eighteen, and I only say that to bring home the reality that things like this happen to women everywhere.
In each of those moments, the right to being human suddenly became a privilege, one whose value was lesser because of the F on my birth certificate. Each time, fighting against something I did not want to happen to me, I had become an object, something that was not supposed to have feelings or opinions. My job was to be a toy whose uncompromising silence is taken as an agreement to have whatever done to me done without a “no” getting in the way. My silence made it easier to put words in my mouth, as if these men were playing house with dolls. My anger and fear were variables that didn’t belong in this equation.
When people feel the need to tell me or other women to “just get over” experiences like this, I feel the need to throw feminist books at them until ignorance leaves their bodies like the demon it is. Women’s fear and anger don’t just come from the memory of violence and harassment but from the reality of other women experiencing similar violence and harassment right now. This is not a list of petty past grievances we’re desperately clinging to in order to milk a moment of gross attention. We are not martyrs waiting to swoop in and cash in on the latest slew of sexual allegations like vultures. For the women I know who have experienced sexual assault (including myself), speaking about it is a source of great shame and pain better left alone. But we know things won’t change if we stay silent.
In the past when women voiced their anger or sadness at patriarchal grievances, it resulted in a period joke, an overwhelmed reaction at how scary and unreasonable they were being, or — worst of all — being told it was somehow their fault. Now, in 2017, women are still receiving the same reactions, but they are also simultaneously being given hope that if one woman can stand her ground and tell the truth then others can too, and that truth telling can lead to real and positive change.
I want to be clear that the ever-present cancer plaguing this country is not men but the ideology both men and women are taught growing up. Men are told to seek power and respect and to never show emotion so as to be less like a woman. While men are shamed for ever coming across like a woman, women are shamed for being born women.
The real sickness here is shame and how it is built into both men and women their entire lives. This shame ultimately stems from women being seen as the lesser sex. Women are not the weaker sex, but I know I have been fooled in the past into acting as if I were, my actions in the face of harassment saying, “Yes, I deserve this for reasons I have never understood, but I know I will be shamed if I try to retain my humanity by saying ‘no’ or talking about it.”
We are all taught ways of being according to our gender in this country, and the only way to stop it is to stop caring enough to give our attention to these structures. Men are afraid to speak up out of fear of being seen as soft and more feminine, and therefore less manly. Women are afraid to speak up out of fear of being shamed for being women. In both cases, femininity has been knocked into our heads as a fast track to being treated as less of a person and more of an object.
The only way to stop this machine from churning out more abusers (who are also victims) and victims is to choose to see women as equals even if the world around us does not believe it, and especially when the truth seems to make things worse. If we continue to openly fight for the truth, so will others. If we fall into complacency, sexual assault will continue to be normalized rather than criminally punished as it should be.
Men and women alike are shamed into acting against the best interests of women. But the thing about shame is that it will stop being a punishment when we know the truth. As Brene Brown put it, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” So once we start telling the truth — the truth about equality and not the lie we’ve been told by the world at large about women — shame will disappear, and the truth left in its place will become power to uncover and obliterate others’ shame too.
What goes hand in hand with seeing women as equals is recognizing that men need help too. When we focus our efforts solely on teaching and healing women yet ignore the men creating their victimization, are we not ignoring half of the problem? Are we not cutting off the three heads of a hydra, only to have six grow back in its place?
This is absolutely not a plea to release from judgment the men who have committed crimes against women. Rather, it is a plea to treat our young boys the way we do our young girls by bringing their attention to things like sexist ads and behavior when we see it and by standing up to it ourselves. So many women have created support systems with one another, from seeking counseling and raising self-aware girls to openly speaking about their personal experiences. There need to be places for men to release their shame and heal, because the patriarchal system has trained them to turn to stone and seek power at whatever cost. These places need to be brought into existence by other men who are fighting this system to show that there is another way of being other than abusing or side-stepping generations of oppressed women.
Every one of the men I mentioned at the beginning of this column may not have had the resources available to help prevent them from making the choices they did. I’ll never know if they would have made better choices even if they had been taught to value women. All I can do is speak up now, not just for me and other women but for all of us — because we all deserve better.