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?"
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.