24 Mar Fear is your tradition
The process we are going through in our community and in our culture as a whole is something akin to first contact.
Abusers have a habit of revealing their true selves to people nobody’s going to find credible — to women who are vulnerable, or women who are marginalised, or who are just, you know, women. But abusers don’t come from any strange source or dark background. We grew up with them. We’ve worked with them. Admired them. Loved them. Trusted them. Practised beneath and alongside them. We become them.
And now we have to deal with the fact that our reality is not what it seemed.
To be the victim of sexual assault is to fall down a rabbit hole into a reality shaped by collective delusion: specifically, the delusion that powerful or popular or ordinary-seeming men who do good work in the world cannot also be abusers or predators. To suggest otherwise is to appear insane. You begin by questioning yourself. Even before anyone calls you a liar — which they will — you’re wondering if you’ve overreacted. “Surely he couldn’t be like that. Not him.” Anyway, it would be insanity to go against someone with so much influence and sway. The girls who do that are sick in the head. At least, that was what we used to think.
Because something important has changed. Suddenly women are speaking up and speaking out in numbers too big to shove aside. The narrative around abuse and sexual entitlement and the common consensus around who is to be believed are changing so fast you can see the lines between one paradigm and the next, the hasty drawing where one version of reality becomes another. Now, instead of victims and survivors of rape and assault being written off as mentally ill, it’s the abusers who need help – and the ensuing support group(ies) to defend them.
And, as history has shown us, no better way to carry on with our businesses (personal and otherwise) than to call them, mentally ill. Crazy women.
The language of mental illness is also a shorthand for the articulation of truths that are outside the realm of consensus. Anyone who challenges that consensus is deemed mad by default, including women who dare to suggest that predators in positions of power might have to be accountable for their actions.
There’s a long, grim history behind the idea that women lie about systemic sexual abuse because they’re mentally unwell. Freud was one of the first to look for a psychiatric explanation for the number of women patients he saw who told him they had been molested or raped. To report that such things were going on in polite society would have outraged Freud’s well-heeled and intellectual social circles. So in the course of his later writings, the father of modern psychoanalysis found alternative explanations: perhaps some of these girls were unconsciously obsessed with the erotic idea of the father figure, as opposed to an actual father figure who might have committed actual abuse. Or perhaps they were just hysterical. Either way, no reason to ruffle whiskers in the gentlemen’s club by giving too much credence to unhappy young women. Change the protagonists to your favourite guru and your institute of choice, and read it out loud. Go on, I dare you.
A century later, in absolutely every situation like this ever encountered, the same rhetoric applies. Women are over-emotional. They cannot be trusted, because they are crazy, which is a word patriarchy uses to describe a woman who doesn’t know when to shut her pretty mouth. They are not to be believed, because they are unwell, which is a word patriarchy uses to describe women who are angry.
Well, of course they’re angry. Of course they are hurt. They have been traumatized, first by the abuse and then by their community’s response. They are not able to express righteous rage without consequence, because they are not men. If you had been assaulted, forcibly penetrated, treated like so much human meat; if you had sought justice or even just comfort and found instead rank upon rank of friends and colleagues closing together to call you a liar and a hysteric, telling you you’d better shut up — how would you feel? You’d be angry, but you’d better not show it. Angry women are not to be trusted, which suits abusers and their enablers just fine.
This is what we’re talking about when we talk about rape culture — not just the actions of lone sociopaths, but the social architecture that lets them get away with it, a routine of silencing, gaslighting, and selective ignorance that keeps the world at large from having to face realities they’d rather rationalize away. If everyone around you gets together to dismiss the inconvenient truth of your experience, it’s tempting to believe them. The first step to normalisation is familiarity.
“They should no dress like that”, “they should cover themselves”, “It’s cultural”, “Same thing was done to men also”. “It was not sexual”.
Good, it was not sexual. Doesn’t matter. It is easier — much, much easier — to manufacture an attack on sexuality than it is to imagine an attack on patriarchy.
It turns out that most women can, in fact, distinguish between sexual assault and a bad date or unfortunate touch or “adjustment”. It turns out that sex is just one more thing they really do not need mansplained to. If anyone is confused about the difference between sex and harassment, if anyone is operating under the assumption that men are always and only animals who cannot be expected to control their erotic compulsions, it’s not women. It’s us. It’s men, because we’ve been socialised to understand sex and violence as synonymous. It turns out that women, largely, are not the ones who are confused between sex and something else that is not sex.
So yeah, sex is not the problem. Sexism is the problem, along with the upsetting multitudes of men and women who seem unable or unwilling to make the distinction. An attack on sexuality, however, will always find recruits from across the moral spectrum as well as from armies of amoral trustafarians who just want to read about what celebrities are scratched off a list and where’s the best rooftop set. An attack on patriarchy, male supremacy, and sexual oppression — that is far harder to accept. It is far harder to allow. Easier to transpose it into a key of prurience and wait for the whole thing to stroke itself into exhaustion. But — forgive me — if you think this movement has blown its load already (no pun intended), you have no idea how women work, and you have no clue what’s coming.
I am perfectly willing to accept that toxic masculinity leaves a lot of broken men in its path. I include myself. That culture conspires to prevent men and boys from being able to handle their sexuality, their aggression, and their fear of rejection and loss of status in any adult way; that it is unbearable at times to exist inside a male body without constant validation. But very few men — very few people, actually — grow up with wholly healthy attitudes towards their own gender. Not everyone with fucked-up ideas about women goes on to do fucked-up things to women. Toxic masculinity, is a social illness before it is a psychological one.
The terms of this war have changed, and so have the weapons. Physical violence and emotional threat won’t work for you anymore. You are trying to fight against whispers and rumours and inference, against righteous rage, against charges of hypocrisy, exploitation, and crass dehumanization. And you’re trying to fight this war with an arsenal you don’t know how to use, against an army that has been training with these weapons for generations, because these tools of emotional warfare are the only ones they have ever been allowed, because they are women.
You are going to lose.