When I was 13 and in 8th grade, I went to a sleepover at a friend’s house. Her parents were not home, and she invited some boys over. While she and the other girl present went into separate bedrooms with their boyfriends, I was left alone with three other boys. I didn’t feel any fear, and I flirted innocently with the boys, thinking perhaps one of them would like me and ask me to “go” with them – our youthful term for being a couple. It never occurred to me that what I was doing might be seen as an invitation to sexual activity; although my two friends were more worldly, I was still naive, and I thought that the most that might happen would be one of the boys trying to put an arm around me or even kiss me. So I was shocked and alarmed when the boy with whom I had been doing most of the flirting suddenly lunged at me, grabbing at my nightgown and growling “I’m going to fucking rape you!” I pulled away from him and raced to the bathroom, where I managed to slam and lock the door just as the boy caught up with me. He pounded on the door, shouting at me to “fucking open” it. Then I heard him move away from the door, and with horror I realized he was heading for the balcony. The bathroom window overlooked the balcony, and I ran to make sure it was locked as well as the boy slammed into it and howled at me to let him in.
After a little while, the house was silent again. I slumped against the bathroom door and held my breath, wondering if I could sneak down the stairs and out the door to my own house, which was just a few houses away. My heart pounded in my throat – I can still feel it – as I cautiously opened the door to peek, then scrambled down the stairs and out the front door. I made it to my own house and fell on the living room sofa, still feeling the terror, confusion, and shame coursing through me. I fell asleep crying on the couch and was awakened in the morning by my mother. I didn’t tell her exactly what had happened, only that I had decided to come home. I thought about the boy who had threatened me – he was a year younger than me, in 7th grade – and wondered what would happen when I saw him at school. Fortunately, he pretended he didn’t even know me.
I don’t often think about that night, and I don’t feel as if it has had a lasting impact on me – but in retelling it here I feel the ghost of that night’s terrible fear. I was so young, and the boy was so young, yet neither of us was so young that we hadn’t absorbed some of the more egregious lessons in gender relations that are taught by our culture. He felt he had the right to sexual activity with me. I felt ashamed that I had somehow sent the wrong message. I should have been angry but instead I was humiliated and frightened. I lost track of the boy – he was not a member of my regular group of friends – but I wonder now if he ever tried to take what he felt was his from any other girls.
This all comes up in response to the #YesAllWomen hashtag that has trended on Twitter in the days since a disturbed man took out his frustrations against women and men he perceived to be sexually successful in a shooting rampage in the community of Isla Vista, California. Elliot Rodger believed that he deserved the attention and sexual availability of women, and because his needs were not fulfilled he wrote a terrifying 141-page manifesto and then set about killing the objects of his rage. This tragedy is a mix of cultural hot potatoes: mental illness, gun control, victimhood, and misogyny. I do not believe for a minute that any one of these things alone is responsible for the killer’s rampage, any more than I believe that violent video games automatically turn players into killers. What I do find most interesting about this event is the light it is throwing on male privilege in our society.
I can already sense some of you rolling your eyes and scoffing. “Male privilege? Come on, give me a break! It’s tough to be a man! Every woman automatically thinks you are an asshole who is just waiting to assault someone!” Calm down – that’s not what I mean by male privilege. What I mean is that men have the privilege of not having to deal with things that women deal with on a regular basis (and yes, men probably have to deal with things on the regular that women don’t, but that’s not the subject of this post nor is it the point – just because men deal with their own issues doesn’t make women’s issues any less valid). I mean the privilege of not feeling uneasy about walking alone at night, or being afraid to open the door when someone knocks, or lying to a man about having a boyfriend because past experience has taught you that if you just say you aren’t interested, some men will keep bothering you anyway. This is not the same thing as being spoiled, which is how some people tend to interpret privilege. In fact, I would rather call it something like “things men get to take for granted” but that’s cumbersome. So again, I’m not saying male privilege makes men spoiled or unaware – it just means there are things they can take for granted about their safety and how society will treat them that women can’t.
This idea comes to a head with the #YesAllWomen hashtag. Some men have responded with a hashtag of their own: #NotAllMen. That is absolutely correct. Not all men harass or assault or demean or attack or condescend or otherwise make women feel unsafe and disrespected. But the point is, SOME MEN STILL DO. If you are not one of them, that is wonderful, and I understand if you feel defensive, but instead of reacting defensively, stop for a moment and think about why women feel this way. It is not meant to be a blanket indictment of all men. Instead, I read it as an indictment of a culture in which a person like Elliot Rodger can find a community of men who truly, horrifyingly believe they are owed the sexual attention of women. And it is an indictment of a culture in which YES, ALL WOMEN have stories about being harassed or bothered or afraid. We are so fast to blame the victim or say she should toughen up, pull up her big girl panties, and put a stop to the harassment. Why aren’t we asking instead that the men who still treat women in this way pull on their big boy panties and act like civilized human beings who treat others, no matter what their gender, with dignity and respect? Why aren’t we asking our culture to grow up and start teaching boys as young as the 12 year old who attempted to assault me all those years ago that men and women are equals with autonomy, individuality, and the right to feel safe? This is not about not being a victim – this is about not being a perpetrator.
So this is my response to the #NotAllMen hashtag: #StillSomeMen. I know many warm, wonderful, caring, loving men. I am lucky to always have had good, close friendships with men. I am incredibly blessed in my relationship with my father. I do not blame all men for the actions of some. But it is still important to fight against the men and the culture that still gives #YesAllWomen stories to tell about their experiences with misogyny and fear.
In closing, I want to recommend two of the several articles that have commented eloquently on this phenomenon. There are many, many more, but these two particularly resonated with me.
Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds, Arthur Chu. This article is a stunner. And I was surprised and gratified to see Chu describe two movie scenes that have always bothered me. They both feature what can only be called rape, but both scenes are played as victories for the nerdy guys who finally get to sleep with the hot girl because the girls are either tricked or too drunk to know the difference.
I Am Not An Angry Feminist. I Am A Furious One., Madeleine Davies. This one inspired me to start using the #StillSomeMen hashtag on my own Twitter account. Davies is more eloquent than I am about why the #NotAllMen response is upsetting.