Saturday, June 7, 2014

Let's Talk About Sexual Entitlement

It started when I was only five years old. A neighbor boy, about a year older than me, with a couple of his friends, persuaded me to take off my clothes for them. My older sister was shocked and put a stop to it-- but it was the first lesson of many. The second lesson was on my first-grade playground, where I was caught by two third-grade boys and dragged to the notorious schoolyard kisser, where despite my struggles I endured being kissed by the boy while his friends laughed and jeered.

By second grade my female classmates and I had learned to consistently wear shorts under our skirts. Boys liked to run by and flip the skirts up, or crawl under the monkey bars and look up as we swung overhead. In fifth grade, the year I got plump before thinning down again in junior high, I became known as "fatso" and "bubble-butt."  My name seemed to have been forgotten, replaced by jokes about what I looked like.

It was the early 1970s, and all these things joined together to teach me that what mattered most about me, as a girl, was my body: how it looked, whether that was pleasing to boys or not, and how it could be turned into a source of fun and mockery. And when I started to develop breasts? Well, all I will say is that this didn't improve things.

In junior high, one day when I had to leave class before the bell rang (I don't remember why) a boy chased me through the empty halls, down the stairs of the school and across the parking lot, trying to touch my chest. But even worse, somehow, was the feeling of worthlessness because other boys wanted nothing to do with me, being too smart and not pretty or cute enough. A girl's worth was measured by whether a boy wanted to be her boyfriend, and I didn't measure up. I'm sure I'm not the only girl who invented a boyfriend who lived in another town, just to get a little respect as a girl whom a boy had claimed.

This continued throughout high school. Girls who were small and sweet, who acted childlike and not too smart so that boys could feel important and protective-- these were the valued ones. Not being one of these, I began to learn to find my value in other ways: through the speech team, through grades, and through my new-found faith.

One of the main draws of the spiritually abusive religious group I joined in college was that, whatever their faults, they required the guys and girls to treat one another as sisters and brothers. Girls were given opportunities to have a real voice in the church, too, though we couldn't aspire to anything greater than to someday be a pastor's wife. As sisters, though, we really were viewed as real people, not just as bodies that existed primarily for the enjoyment of men.

There was, in fact, actually a good reason at that time to be fearful of "the world" around me-- the university campus had developed a reputation for the ease and frequency with which rapes occurred. The campus was even referred to as "the candy store" because women were so vulnerable as they crossed the grounds and the surrounding streets. Those of us girls who lived outside the church's boarding house were requested to call the house for a brotherly escort any time we needed to walk after dusk.

The memory will always stay with me of the evening I hurried home just after sunset, having misjudged the hour, terrified of being noticed by anyone. At the sound of pounding footsteps approaching down the sidewalk behind me, I froze in panic. "It's all right! You're all right!" said the jogger as he passed me, leaving me weak with relief. Not all men were rapists. But we had no way of knowing who was and who wasn't.

I know I'm one of the lucky ones. Except for the occasional grab, I've never been physically assaulted by a man. But that doesn't mean I've escaped the pervasive sexual entitlement in our culture.

When I finished college I went to work at first for a woman boss, and that was lovely. But her company failed, and I found a job for a small technology-development company where all the bosses were male. I had to get used to comments being made about my legs, my figure, and my singleness. I was propositioned by the CEO, who was over 70 years old and apparently liked a little side action when his wife wasn't around.

But I was fortunate. None of them did anything more than talk, and the CEO didn't try to force the issue when I told him I was only interested in guys my own age. In fact, they were afraid I might report this to someone or get a lawyer. It was the mid 1980s, and "sexual harassment" was new terminology that had only recently been coined.

Not until I arrived at work with an engagement ring on my finger did the harassment stop. But this was not because they had decided to respect me. They only respected the fact that a man had now staked a claim to me.

I left that job for the paralegal position I have held ever since. The lawyers I have worked for have been men, with one brief exception-- but I have always been respected there as a person, not just as a female body that belongs to another male. As I have grown older, instances of disrespect and harassment elsewhere have also pretty much ceased. But the attitude that female bodies exist for the use and enjoyment of men has not died. Far from it.

When a young man in Isla Vista recently went on a killing spree because women refused to have sex with him, it touched a nerve on the Internet, resulting in the Twitter page #YesAllWomen.  Women everywhere added their voices to say that though not all men participate in this attitude, pretty much all women, young and old, have experienced it in one way or another in their lives.  It isn't just a problem from our society's more sexist past -- it's still going on now.

Today I was dismayed to learn that only a week after Isla Vista and #YesAllWomen, a new story of male entitlement is circulating, and in this case (presumably because he hasn't killed anyone or made an over-the-top video expressing terrible misogyny) this 17-year-old is being praised for dumping his girlfriend when she cheated on him-- apparently because he was clever in the way he did it, exclusively using Internet memes.  But if you really take an objective look at what happened, it isn't funny.  It's the same, "I own you, so I can punish you when you misbehave" attitude that women should not still be encountering.  A guy is certainly justified in breaking up with a girl who cheats on him, if they had promised each other an exclusive relationship.  But threatening to "do bad things to you" and to "murder your family," aren't funny even if meant in jest.  And the follow-up picture, which is supposed to be a joke, is nothing more than a gang-rape suggestion/threat.

I'm not laughing.

As blogger Sarah Over the Moon says:
Many people in our society respect women and, if asked, would tell you that women do not deserved to be threatened with violence. They don’t deserve to be shot down in the streets of Isla Vista, and they don’t deserve to receive a text from a young man threatening to murder their whole family. “Of course they don’t! Women are our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters! We would never want such a thing to happen to them,” a benevolent man might say. 
But that same exact benevolent man is likely to change his mind quickly as soon as a woman steps outside of a “proper” role for women to fill. As soon as a woman stops acting like an innocent, romanticized mother, sister, or daughter, and starts acting like a “bitch,”or a “slut,” or a cheater, the hostile sexism begins to fly. There is research backing this up. . .
This is why CNN and Buzzfeed can mourn a tragic shooting one week, and interview a “Twitter hero” who threatens women with violence the next. .  
I’d like to think society is improving in its views toward women. I’d like to think the success of #YesAllWomen shows that men are starting to learn and listen. But then Kane Zipperman goes viral, and I put my fists back up.  
We’ve still got a lot more fighting to do.
A May 29th ThinkProgress article examines several studies that show how the media, and male readers, still frequently categorize women as adjuncts for the benefit of men, rather than as full people in with their own goals, rights and needs.  It concludes:
There are serious consequences to this pervasive cultural attitude about women as objects of men’s desires. When men believe that they are entitled to sex, they often respond violently when women deny it from them. . . 
These attitudes have been so deeply embedded in our culture, young women believe that forfeiting their consent is a normal aspect of gender relations, according to a recent study. “Objectification, sexual harassment, and abuse appear to be part of the fabric of young women’s lives,” the study’s authors noted.
Unfortunately, Christian churches, including the one I fled to for refuge from male sexual entitlement, often also participate in the objectification of women and the commodification of their bodies through Purity Culture and its insistence on women dressing modestly for fear of "causing their brothers to stumble".  But if we can leave all that aside, the idea that unless a man and a woman have both consented to become romantically involved, they should treat one another as brothers and sisters, is a pretty good thing. There's a reason why Jesus and the apostles used "brothers and sisters" as their main terminology for referring to Christians in community.  As Michael Kruse of the Kruse Kronicle puts it:
Remember that in the obsessively status oriented Greco-Roman world, the sibling relationship was the most egalitarian of all relationships. Harmony and solidarity was expected among brothers. If folks followed Jesus instruction of sibling relatedness, then status questions would evaporate. In verses 8-12, Jesus rejects all status seeking preoccupations and reiterates his upside down paradigm where the way you get to the top is by going to the very bottom. This is just one way in which the fictive family metaphor regulates the life of the community.
Kids growing up in the same family do usually imbibe the idea that their siblings are fellow human beings and not objects or adjuncts.  Sharing, respect, and asking first before you take, are all part of being good sisters and brothers.  So can't we do better at teaching these basic principles not just in our churches, but in society as a whole?

We're all still in many ways imbibing the message that women's bodies exist for the use and possession of men.  We're still imparting it to our young people, in the church and out of it.  We're still unquestioning of it on TV and movies and magazine covers.  We're still proof-texting it from our Bibles-- but this is not what the Bible as a whole teaches.

We've got to break this cycle, for everyone's sake.  I would love someday to have my grandchildren struggle to grasp the concept of sexual entitlement in a unit of their high school history classes.  I would love to have respect and consent simply be an integral part of their world.

It's not impossible.  Let's see if, by the grace of God, we can make it true.


Grace said...

Certainly by the grace of God we can make it true, but only if as Christina brothers and sisters, we actually believe it. There are still too many Christian women who are shamed for putting forth the same ideas you have here- even though the Bible clearly states that both gender were created in God's image and likeness. Women are still treated as human but lesser.

Kristen said...

So true, Grace-- and unfortunately, "human but lesser" is the same thing as "less human."