This is the first post of our blog series, Word Up, where we untangle feminist terminology through the stories of real women and non-binary people. Our words are our weapons. This month: rape culture.
Content Warning: sexual assault, bullying
By Zoe Grace
On Monday morning I, like many others, read Taylor Swift’s recent blog post, in which she referred to Kanye West “stripping her body naked” in his revenge porn music video. My hands shook and I felt like I was about to fall to my knees. Why was I reacting so viscerally? Because it felt like it was me, being stripped bare.
I was thrown off balance as I was reminded how a man can control the portrayal of a woman’s naked body, then control the whole narrative to destroy her reputation. This is the sign of something we call “rape culture”: a term first coined by feminist theorists in 1974 to describe the explicit and implicit condoning and normalisation of sexual violence against women.
It has always angered me how easily women in the public eye lose credibility following trivial mistakes, whilst men in similar positions fly under the radar. As a young woman in Australia whilst Julia Gillard was Prime Minister, I vowed never to enter politics: I wanted to be able to focus on my work itself, without my clothing choices and appearance being used to undermine the perception of that work. My heart broke in 2016, alongside so many other women, to see how the criticism of Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings compared to the impact of Donald Trump’s statements that encouraged rape. Over and over again we see women undermined for their mistakes, whilst men contribute to a culture that continues to put women’s bodies at risk, without facing any consequences.
On Monday, though, this reminder hit harder than usual. It got me thinking about how I had been perceived in high school. Annoying. Talks too much. Causes drama. These are sentiments that I had internalised, which had affected me even into my university years, where I never felt confident speaking out should someone label me “opinionated”.
It was then that I had a light bulb moment where I realised that my reputation was created by the group of boys who were sexually harassing me at the time. They set out to ruin my reputation when I had refused to do what they wanted me to. The difference between my experience and Swift’s was that while Swift’s was on the world stage, mine was merely in the school yard.
But both are a solid example of rape culture.
As a fourteen-year-old, I would take the bus to and from school. The trip was 45 minutes each way, with assigned seats, and I was forced to listen every day as that group of boys described sexual acts to me to make me feel uncomfortable and constantly objectified other women. They rated women out of 10, using our looks to determine how much we mattered to them. They told me that I would have to be strategic if I wanted to refuse to have sex with a man, because I couldn’t just say no. I stood up to them. Then, eventually, they refused to speak to me anymore, so I couldn’t even stand up against their sexist conversations. All I could do then was block their words out as best I could.
Their actions should have mattered, but they didn’t. I tried to ask for help from my school, but without the terminology to understand what was really going on, my concerns were dismissed.
Even if I had been able to explain my experiences, though, I’m not sure it would have made a difference, in a culture that continues to permit gender-based violence. Whilst gender-based violence affects my life every day, many people with the capacity to create change appear indifferent. I am referring, in particular, to the men who have the capacity to influence culture, whether that is at a national level, an organisational level, or in one particular friendship group in high school.
In 2016 I was assaulted. The perpetrator attempted to do the same thing a second time, days later, but that time, another man was present and physically intervened. Over the years, though, there have been too many passive bystanders. Two men saw me being assaulted in high school and had the power to safely to stop it, but instead they looked me in the eye as I silently begged them to help me, and stayed where they were. Four men encouraged another man to have sex with me, even though it wasn’t what I wanted for my body. Three men were nearby when a man tried to sexually assault me at a party and had the opportunity to hold him accountable but chose not to.
As a woman who advocates to end gender-based violence with the feminist tech startup She’s A Crowd, I have heard all too often that “not all men” are violent. That is true in my experience too: only five men have ever been physically violent towards me. Most men are not explicitly violent, but too many have been silent when it matters. This equates to the condoning of rape culture.
Over the past two years, countless women have come forward with their stories. We are doing our part to end this violence and create a safer society. But we cannot do it alone, and we need men to educate themselves, hold other men accountable and tear down the culture that continues to harm women.
When it comes to men’s involvement in protecting our rights, I go back and forth between hope and despair. On Monday, I voiced my distress. I shared what had happened to me on my bus in a post on Instagram. One of the boys involved reached out to apologise wholeheartedly. I told him, honestly, that I never saw any malice in his actions; it was what we had all been taught was normal. What is important is that we now unlearn what we were taught and replace harmful attitudes with ones that keep us all safe and comfortable. I am grateful for the role he is now playing in creating that change, but as far too many men continue to stay silent, I have questioned the best use of my energy. I believe that helping men to change their behaviour is important, but I have begun to realise that another important form of change is to inspire and support women to share their stories. As more women add their voices to the conversation, the conversation reaches new audiences and becomes more influential because of our collective power.
To all of the incredible women reading this, I want you to know that your voices and your stories matter. A friend recently said to me that she feels that I have more right than her to speak about these issues, because I went on to have experiences of sexual violence that resulted in significant trauma. I responded by explaining to her that my trauma does not give me more authority to speak. If anything, it only makes it harder to speak. Women experience gender-based violence all the time, and wherever that violence falls on the spectrum, it matters. Your voice matters.
And to all of the men reading this, I want you to know that we are not trying to shame you for past actions; we are just begging you to do your part to help us now. Many of us have made mistakes in our past. What matters is that we learn and we speak up.
If you want to share your story on She’s A Crowd, you can share it here.
Zoe is a Social Media Officer at She’s a Crowd. She is also a student and paralegal. She loves to run and dance, drink cups of tea and read books about social justice.
Want to share your story? As part of the She’s A Crowd Blog Project, we will be interviewing women from all communities to share their experiences. If you would like to get involved (or know someone else who might), please e-mail email@example.com.
She’s A Crowd uses storytelling data to make cities safer. Using digital crowd-mapping technology and data analytics, She’s A Crowd collects data about harassment and sexual assault to empower decision makers to take preventative action on gender-based violence.