Sexual terrorism

I haven't taught my Gender and Violence class for a couple of years, so much of it feels new to me.  Last night we were discussing an essay by Carole Sheffield called "Sexual Terrorism."  Sheffield defines sexual terrorism as "a system by which males frighten and, by frightening, control and dominate females."  She goes on to say that "women's lives are bounded by both the reality of pervasive sexual danger and the fear that reality engenders."

The statistics for violence against women are bad.  Like, bad.  Violence against women is incredibly pervasive.  But what's even more pervasive is fear, or a consistent awareness among women of the need to make choices that will "keep them safe." (Please note that those are scare quotes from me.)  Every time I've ever discussed this essay in class, I ask my students if they've experienced this low-level, pervasive fear.  Every time, the hand of every woman in the class goes up.  And that's what happened last night.

I asked them to tell me some examples.  They had story after story: 

  • "I'm not sure if I'm just being weirdly paranoid, but I won't park in a parking garage unless I'm near an elevator."  
  • "Of course I won't ever leave the library alone after dark."  
  • "My friends told me about the bars that are roofies bars or Ambien bars, so I try not to ever go there." 
  • "I never let anyone I'm not really close to know where I live."
  • "I heard a guy tell his girlfriend, 'I don't care what kind of self defense class a woman takes.  If I wanted to rape her, she couldn't stop me.'"
  • "I got catcalled in broad daylight by guys at a fraternity house, and every time I walk by there, I'm afraid.  They felt okay yelling things at me during the day.  What would they do if they saw me at night?"
I also had five different students in the class--five students--tell stories of cars pulling up beside them and guys rolling down the windows and saying, "Get in."  Not, "Do you need a ride?", not, "Can I take you somewhere?", but "Get in."  None of the students got in.  But what the fuck were these drivers trying to do?

At a certain point I had to stop the storytelling.  I suspect we could have gone on for another hour, but class time was limited.  I noticed that as they were telling their stories, many of them were laughing, as were folks in the class.  There's a way in which humor is a defense mechanism:  if we make it funny, it's not as scary.  But I shared with them that I was listening not as their peer but as a professor, a mentor, and a parent, and I didn't find the stories funny at all.  Those stories tell me about the world that we're living in, a world in which women consider it normal--even sensible--to spend much of their time afraid.  And as a culture, we don't consider that a problem.  We consider it just the way things are.

That is truly offensive and fucked up.  Having been away from this conversation for two and a half years, I'd let my cynicism diminish.  I wasn't calloused enough.  I was wide open to the outrage that is the appropriate response to hearing a room full of valuable human beings tell you about the world they live in which encourages them to be afraid, but doesn't actually provide any meaningful protection from what they're afraid of.


Anonymous said...

I was just talking with two men about this the other night. They both sort of laughed about it, and said, "Wait, you feel like there is danger lurking at every corner?" And I said, "Yep. I'm constantly sizing up my surroundings for violence potential." It's a normal part of my day. To wonder if I'm going to be raped or attacked. Totally fucked up.

Aaron said...

So, what's the answer? How do we start to change the fear paradigm? Is it as simple as self-defense/empowerment training? I'd like to be able to help (especially given that I teach Taekwondo to several college women), but it's difficult for me to truly understand the fear that's being felt.

Do you think dealing with the fear is the first step, or dealing with the society that creates the need for the fear?

erniebufflo said...

When we lived in Charleston, I rode the bus from West Ashley to CofC daily. And I was harassed on a near daily basis. Everything from being shouted at on the street to having men sit next to me and say graphic sexual things. And many women respond to such things by saying things like, "do they really think things like that WORK?" But it's not about actually picking me up or getting me to go out with them. It's about expressing and reveling in their power to see me as an object, to make me question what I'm wearing or where I'm standing, to make me realize that they are more powerful and intimidating than I am. Even when I finally stood up for myself and flipped some catcallers off, I wondered afterward if they were going to turn their truck around and try to hurt me for daring to fight back. I would go home and just cry to my husband about the exhaustion of living in fear every day, in what is allegedly the most polite city in America. It was absolutely terrorism.

Anonymous said...

Just last year I saw a young woman being polite to a man who was clearly trying to prey upon her (asked her to walk to get some coffee at 2am in a closed down airport!) She stayed so polite until I yelled at him asking if she knew him (I wasn't even sure, because she was so polite to him).

I used to yell out "why are you walking so close to a woman ALONE? HUH?" to gauge whether people walking too close were in fact trying to kill me or just not paying attention.

And I once fought off a guy in a small train car who put his hand in my pants while I was sleeping- I just attacked him. Yelling and cursing, while certainly won't always work, worked then. And (in country, lang. barrier, no police to be found) I even returned to the damn car- I was so sure he was going to leave me alone (he did).

Anyway, I've been with women who don't act like maniacs in these situations, and it reminds me that as much as I admire norms of society- in all the pinches the ability to quickly yell f you f you f you with all your might is a very good skill. I'm making sure my little girls have it. :)

Our role model: http://jezebel.com/5696376/subway-flasher-picks-the-wrong-woman-to-mess-with

Erica said...

One of my students (USC) got sexually harassed by a campus postal worker last week and luckily she was brave enough to report it and share with the class so they could be on the lookout for the creep. Also, one of our professors was murdered by an ex-boyfriend so we are currently trying to figure out how to make our campus and city safer for women.

Anonymous said...

I've just finished reading _The Night Watch_ by Sarah Waters (which you'd really enjoy, BTW) and there's a scene in it set on a train in 1941 London that resonates with the stories these women are telling -- when a woman walks down the train to the loo and is accosted by all kinds of verbal abuse. It made me think of the kinds of abuses of power & infringing on other people's rights go into these kinds of "off hand" (ha) remarks made to women. The fact that this is still very relevant, going on 70 years after this scene was set and that it still feels as possible now as it did then, was sad to me. The scenes of someone lighting up a cigarette on every page were more jarring, because unfamiliar, than the scenes where women were the objects of such sexual objectification.

Anonymous said...

i find myself wanting to express a myriad of thoughts on this subject and others. first of which is this -- i have recently come back to town and would love to see you and biffle and maybelle and involve myself if your lives again. you guys are very wonderful. a few of the others are these -- as things pertain to this blog, sexual terrorism, as discussed or understood by a population, and as a societal and/or cultural phenomenon is a lot like down syndrom, in that it is neither discussed nor understood, and therin lie some of the largest and most dangerous obstacles.

i was talking to another woman just friday night as i was walking her back to her car about similar issues. she was concerned that i planed to then go for walk around, alone, and then would ride my bike home -- it brought up a story, though. she remembers being in high school, and a friends mother taking both girls down to the river and having them yell. just yell as loudly as they could -- to realize the full power of their voices, which are very very powerful.

and in response to aaron -- i think, that like most issues, it will take a one-two-punch (get it? ha. ha.) of education/awareness, and training/empowerment. maybe that was a one-two-three-four-etc. punch. but that's irrelevant.

i could go on. and on. and on. but this is not the appropriate forum, i am guessing...any chance some folks could come sit in on your class and join the discussion?

enough now. goodnight.

Farnworth Robbins said...

This issue is a frequent source of befuddlement for me.

-As a man, fear for myself is still frequent, but it's not generally sexual fear, and it's not as all-pervasive. Generally, just fear of dark parking garages, gangs of rough-looking (but probably very nice) people, and fear of getting body parts cut off by whatever power tool I'm using. Apart from the power tool thing, I generally counter my fears by remembering that I can look intimidating if I try really hard.

-and then there's my fear for the women around me, which happens a lot more. And that's where the befuddlement comes from. I often worry about them in situations where they don't mention the fear. So, what do I do then? Do I encourage them to be safe (and thus reinforce the idea that they aren't), or do I just let them wander off alone (into what I (perhaps wrongly) perceive as danger).

Most of these are cases where I would NOT be worried if they were men. Which then goes back to trying to balance viewing the genders equally along with acknowledging actual differences.

Part of the problem for a (relatively innocent) me is that I have no way to gauge exactly how much danger there actually is. From the comments here, it sounds like there might be even more than I thought.

But all of this is minor beans compared with actually having to feel and deal with the fear for yourself. I don't envy you.


Alison said...

I wanted to give some quick responses to all your excellent comments. Sounds like many of you have experienced this fear phenomenon.

Some thoughts: Sheffield says it's about sex and power. Sometimes the frightening things men do are explicitly about manifesting their power over women. But sometimes they do think they're being sexy.

I agree with the notion that enhancing women's ferocity is a good idea. The ability to YELL (not shriek) can make a huge difference. The recognition of how powerful women's bodies are, and knowledge of how to use them, would make women feel much safer--much more like men.

I heard a woman say that as a girl, she accidentally kicked a boy in the balls, and was told by an adult, "Never do that!" She reflected that what we actually need to tell little girls is, "That really, really hurts, so only do it if you really need to."

I like real self-defense training, FEMINIST self-defense training--and I'm not sure how/if that's different than what you're doing, Aaron, but I suspect it's at least a little different (because I doubt you teach your female students to shout "No! No!" while going for the balls, for instance.)

Aaron said...

I don't think I've ever told them to shout "no!" (there's a lot of shouting, just not words)- but hitting/kicking balls is always good self-defense conversation in class :)

Aaron said...

Update - talked about the power of yelling "NO!" Also, quizzed the students about some vital "targets" to strike when needed - and reaffirmed that their natural instinct to go for the groin is a good choice. Femenist-kwondo.

krlr said...

I'm behind in my reading but this post I had to come back to because I didn't know how I felt about it (the subject, not the post!). I don't like the theme of women always as potential victims for far too many reasons to compress into a blog comment but the short version is that this just hasn't been my experience & so I don't really, in my heart, "get it" (numbers & facts aside).

Where's the line btwn fear of *sexual* attack & general precautions so you don't get mugged? And why -WHY?- do women feel victimized if some freak hits on them? I think we've talked about this before - a nice old fasioned "eff off, effer" is nicely effective.

But then again - am on the wrong side of 35 so don't find myself in the more "perilous" situations (bars & parties w/too much booze, etc). The riskiest part of my day is being the last car in the prkg lot at work. And I've also had a SHITLOAD of defensive training & so, while I'm out of practice, I'm reasonably confident the other guy is not walking away with both eyeballs. You & Aaron both touched on this too... if nothing else, I'd encourage the defensive training too. "Empowerment" is overused but here, apt.

mary said...

heheheh aaron... "femenist-kwondo." i likes it.

Jen Howard said...

The article on sexual terrorism is one that really stands out to me from college - and it feels just as relevant now, 10 years later (sadly) - Thanks for introducing the concept to me!

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