Trigger warning: This article talks about rape and sexual assault.
Yesterday* I sat down to write a blog post. It has been a long time. I have been busy, and things have been happening that I have felt unsure how to comment on as someone who writes about sex. Specifically, there was that fucked up Girls Ep (spoiler) where Adam has sex with a woman that she does not want to have, that does not make her feel good. But we, the viewers, are somehow expected to empathize with him because it’s not his fault that he’s fucked up and hurts people? And then there was Steubenville, and everyone was talking and talking and talking about it. And it felt like so many people and journalists and media outlets were doing such a fucking bad job of talking about it. It seemed as though sex and consent, partnered with rape and sexual assault, had become super hot topics and everybody was throwing in their two cents. And while such public discourse around rape made me feel good, it also made me feel weird. It feels powerful to engage in a discourse of consent with all sorts of different people. It felt hopeful to watch women and girls, such as Steubenville’s Jane Doe, come forward and share their stories with such strength and bravery. But, it also felt hard to look at. It also felt difficult to talk about. Talking about rape hurts me. It hurts a lot of people. It is not an easy conversation and the way that it seemed to be happening everywhere made me feel conflicted.
So, yesterday I began writing a blog post about the importance of talking about consent, and the importance of talking about rape, but also about the importance of remembering that these issues are delicate. I wanted to write about how we should always give trigger warnings before we start talking about rape. I wanted to write about how we should consider people’s histories before we engage in heavy discussions about sexual assault. I wanted to write about how hard these conversations can be and how they should happen softly.
And then the story of Rehtaeh Parsons came out and filled my news feed. And I stopped writing.
Rehtaeh’s story is so heartbreaking that it is hard to talk about it. Part of me doesn’t want to look at it. Part of me wants to pretend that these stories don’t happen. So, I stopped writing that blog post. I felt fully unequipped to write about rape in the face of such a painful rape story. I went to the sex shop I work at. I spent the afternoon talking about sex. The conversations were light and easy. I taught a man about his prostate. I helped someone pick out a dildo and harness. It felt good. It felt important. Sex education always does.
I finished my shift and went to the pool. I had been actively trying not to think about Rehtaeh all day. I did not want to think about Steubenville. I did not want to imagine the ways in which women’s bodies are hurt and demeaned and policed and degraded. In the change room, another woman recognized me. She was naked and so was I, and we stood there in our naked bodies, bodies that are strong but that can be hurt, bodies that are subject to violence, bodies that for all their beauty we are taught not to love. She thanked me. I had given a lecture to her class about the sexual health needs of persons with disabilities. I had brought in sex toys that can be adapted for folks with different abilities. This woman had never touched a sex toy before, and she thanked me for the opportunity. She told me she had never had an orgasm before, and sex made her nervous but excited, and she was so grateful that she had been exposed to sex toys in such a safe space. She wanted to come to the store and talk to the staff, to learn more about her body.
And that’s when I realized that if it is important to talk about sex lightly, it is just as important to talk about it with weight too. If I am sure that fun and informative sexual health education is important, than I am sure that talking about rape, and sexual assault, and violence against women & trans people’s bodies is important too. Even when it feels hard. Even when it hurts.
Rehtaeh’s story is unfortunately not an anomaly. In Canada, one in every seventeen women is raped at some point in her life. And girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 are the most likely victims. This happens because we live in a rape culture. To borrow from Force:
“In a rape culture, people are surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate, rape. Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as “just the way things are.”
When a woman is raped and people imply that she was asking for it because she was drunk, or because of what she was wearing, that is rape culture. When someone says “Man, I totally raped that exam” to mean that they did well on it, that is rape culture. When comedians make rape jokes, when girls and women are called sluts, when police officials and other systems of “justice” don’t protect women; that is rape culture.
Our society normalizes rape. It normalizes violence against women. The structures of patriarchy that inform our societal belief systems are dangerous foundations. Patriarchal and misogynist ideas teach boys to hurt girls, and teach girls not to love their bodies. It teaches us that women’s bodies are objects of sex. It teaches us all that men can’t control their “natural” urges. It teaches us all that there is a gender binary, that men are one way and women are another and that there is nothing in between. It teaches us to not speak openly and shamelessly about sex and pleasure, though we see it every day, on T.V and on the internet.
And so stories like Rehtaeh’s will keep happening and keep happening and keep happening because no one is being taught otherwise. Media outlets will talk about the criminal justice system failing but this doesn’t account for the fact that the criminal justice system is a failure as a whole. Of course it is a failure, because it too is informed by sexism and racism and classism. It too lays atop a foundation of patriarchy and oppression. If these boys who hurt Rehtaeh go to jail, will they learn how not to rape there? Will the Steubenville boys ever be taught that their actions were wrong? Will prison really teach them this? I don’t believe that it will. I don’t believe that the criminal justice system will deconstruct rape culture and tear down patriarchy. These systems will fail us time and time again because their basis is not one of equality but is one that perpetuates oppression. And, to be clear, I am not saying that the boys who hurt Rehtaeh should not be punished. I am saying I would not rely on the criminal justice system to dole out justice at all. I am arguing that we need alternatives.
And so I don’t know where to go from here. I don’t know what to do with Rehtaeh’s story, with so much heartbreak.
But I do believe that words have power. I do believe that when these stories happen, if we talk about them and talk about them and talk about them, and talk about them fairly, our words can affect change.
And so, I am sitting here, rewriting this blog post because I believe that part of annihilating rape culture is talking about it. And I know that it is hard to talk about. I know that even the word “rape” has the power to cause pain. Sticks and stones may break our bones but words may break our very hearts. Words have weight. And so I think we should use the strength of our words to talk about rape culture, to talk about patriarchy and misogyny.
Let’s talk about consent. Let’s teach our children and our lovers and our friends about respecting boundaries and respecting one another’s bodies. And let’s talk about how women should be treated with respect at all times, from when they are walking down the street to engaging in consensual sex. Let’s talk about what sexual assault can look like and who perpetrates it. And as we talk, as we speak without shame, lets hope that we are building a culture of consent. Let’s hope that we are creating an awareness around how sexual assault happens. Let’s hope that we are working to support survivors and let them feel love.
And as we speak, let’s remember to be gentle with one another. Let’s remember that these conversations are important but not easy. Let’s remember that survivors walk amongst us, with all their strength and courage, and let’s take care of each other. Let’s give trigger warnings. Let’s ask if someone feels like talking about rape right now, before barreling into the conversation head first. Let’s take care.
Some more resources:
* I began writing all this days ago, but talking about rape culture is difficult. It took awhile.