Let’s REALLY talk about institutionalized abuses.

So yesterday I wrote a blog post which I worked very hard on.  I tried to compassionately ask that men please just listen to the women sharing their stories right now, and then I told my OWN story in order to illustrate a culture of misogyny that I had experienced.  I only had one sentence in the entire blog post which made a generalization about the male experience, and it was “and men are trained that it is okay to blame us, because their privilege is more important than our rights.”

Did I say that all men abuse women?

NO.

Did I say that all men are evil?

NO.

Did I even say that all men are complicit?

NO.

What did I say?  I said that society, as a whole, has a different attitude towards men than women.  Men are given license, by society, to blame women for the way in which women are treated by men.  I was very deliberate in not having gone any further than that and stopping my claims there.  Partly, because a blog post should only ever be so long; but, mostly because I understood that no matter what an individual writer says, when you’re writing about an issue which is broadly in the media people tend to react to the issue itself instead of your words.

I immediately received a personal backlash.

The thrust of the arguments which I had with several men, both privately and publicly, is that it is wrong for women to make generalizations about men.  Making those generalizations weakens women’s argument, puts men on the defensive, makes dialogue impossible, and so forth.

I was forced, then, to make a choice:  To either continue to restate my actual argument which necessitated a generalization, or to capitulate.

Why does the argument necessitate a generalization?

Let me take you to a moment in Guadalajara Mexico,when I was cornered by a police-man on a motorcycle.  My gut clenches and I am looking for any avenue of escape, but there is none.  Why am I looking for an avenue of escape?  Because the woman I am staying with, a native of the city, says that police men are known to rape white girls when they are on Spring Break.

She made a generalization, didn’t she?  But she made one because the generalization was necessary.  Sure, she could say, “some policemen have”, but that is still general.  Or she could say “there are a hundred known cases of”, but that is actually too clinical to be effective.  The problem that she is addressing, that she is trying to communicate to me, is one that is endemic in the way the policemen of that city operate.  To address an endemic injustice, one MUST use language that encapsulates the system.  The system of police, in that case, which is based summed up in the statement “policemen are known to rape.”

Or, let’s look at the civil rights movement.  In his infamous “I have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, said, “Instead of honoring this obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.”  This is literally the first of many generalizations that the good Dr. made in his speech.

Okay, men, go dig him up from his grave and explain that making generalizations weakens a person’s argument.

Sometimes, when you are talking about systemic injustices that are institutionalized in the very way in which society operates, generalizations are all you have left.  When a black person talks about their experiences, generally, with white society, do we accuse them of being prejudiced against white people?

See, the #YesAllWomen movement has been characterized as being sexist in the way that generalizations against race are racist.  There’s a difference, though, between being racist and addressing systemic injustices that are based on race.  When someone says “all black people are lazy”, they are being a racist.  When a black person says, “white people are better rewarded by the academic system”, they are simply pointing out an injustice which society ignores, an injustice which is documented and undeniable.

When women say, “men are given permission to silence women who speak up about abuse by slut-shaming them or making them responsible for their own mistreatment”, women are simply pointing out a systemic injustice in society which, guess what!  Is documented and undeniable.  Sociologists have been puzzling over issues such as these for decades, and it is undeniable- empirically, scientifically undeniable-that there is a double standard in society.

So I will ask again that men listen to women address these injustices with open ears, open eyes, an open heart, and a closed mouth.

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Men. Women. Society. Meh.

First, I have to say that I understand why the #NotAllMen backlash is happening.  It’s a frightening thing to feel that you may be unwillingly drafted into a bitter generalization.  The immediate response is to say, “not me, right?”  But, friends, that doesn’t mean it is the right response.  Let me illustrate with a story.  The college campus I work at has a majority of Hispanic students, and the Writing Center where I work is often a home-away-from-home for students that are looking for a quieter environment to study.  This is a good thing, as we work hard to create a safe and comfortable atmosphere for our students. Sometimes that safe and comfortable atmosphere lends itself to somewhat uncomfortable conversations.  For instance, once I was sitting at the front desk when a handful of Latina girls started talking about their frustration with a particular instructor.  Soon that conversation ballooned into their frustration with the attitudes they encountered as Latina students in a world that seemed stacked against them, where men and white women seemed to hold all of the power and they were minorities on many levels.  It wasn’t long before they were talking about how white women don’t seem to understand how much luckier they are than women of other races and cultures.  And I was itching, absolutely itching, to join in the conversation and talk about how many odds I had to face and to more or less ask, “not me, right?”

Thankfully something told me to hold my peace.

The conversation wasn’t about me and shouldn’t have been about me. I learned something.  Despite all the hardships I faced, the fact that I’m attractive and white has definitely helped me to edge out other women who are just as deserving as I am, but just happen to have darker skin and rougher features.  My whiteness has benefited me, but I’ve been allowed to ignore that fact and focus on the areas that are still a struggle: that I’m a woman, that I’m a returning student, that I’m a mother.  Because I do face prejudice I can take it for granted that I also have a great deal of privilege.  

Let me repeat that:  I have a great deal of privilege.  I have the benefit of pale skin and a middle class upbringing that allows me to sidestep institutionalized prejudice.

So, men, I’m going to try to say this all as kindly as I can:  You have the privilege, you have the power.  Like me, you don’t have to think about your privilege because from your perspective it’s just how life works, and you can drum up a million examples of struggles as evidence that your privilege isn’t complete.  Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, you have privilege.  And the only way you will learn to appreciate that privilege is by listening to the other voices in the room without exerting your ability to co-opt the conversation.  I get that you wonder, “are they talking about me?”  I get that you see the anger unfolding and you don’t want to be subjected to it.  I get that you may even be angry that you feel like you are having to shoulder some of that bitterness unwilling and undeserved.  The truth is that you will now know whether or not women are talking about their experiences with men like you until you take the time to actually listen.

Please.

Just listen.

Now, my lady friends:

Don’t shut up.  Please don’t shut up.  The worst part of the institutionalized misogyny of our culture is the way in which it robs us of our voices because we are trained to expect every outcry to be met with criticism and scolding.  Even when we’re assaulted, even when we’re raped, even when we have blood and bruises to demonstrate the wrongs against us we still have to prove that we are victims.

We learn, pretty quickly, that things heal better if we nurse them in silence.  But, that silence leaves us at risk for greater pain.  So do not, ever, shut up.  

When I was seventeen I went to college for the first time.  I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t.  Stress and poor grades and frustration led me to drop out a semester in.  Or, at least, that’s the story I tell.  But really, I may have done a lot better if a few weeks into my stay there I hadn’t been assaulted by someone I thought was my friend.  Now, I was told that it was my fault for being alone in a room with him.  I was told that it was my fault for dressing provocatively.  (In jeans and a tank top?)  I was told that it was my fault for “leading him on” or not “reading the signals.”  And for a long time, I did believe that it was my fault.  

It wasn’t until recently that I put any amount of thought into how twisted it was that this guy, who stuck his hands down my pants uninvited, was treated like a victim of MY sexuality and naivete and everyone, even my girlfriends, played along.

Thank God my brothers had taught me how to throw a punch.  But, even so, I was lucky.

In the movies, girls sit around sipping cocktails and talking about when they lost their virginity.

In my own experience, we show each other our scars and speak in hushed voices.  We each share our stories of assault.  Rare, very rare, are the girls that have no such story.  We imagine such girls like birds of extravagant plumage, floating down from heaven, like unicorns or mermaids, creatures of fantasy.  We imagine unstained girls as such because we do not known these women.

Yes, all women I know have a story of the time that they were handled roughly by men.  Maybe a husband, a lover, a father, a brother.  Maybe a stranger on a bus.  But we all have our scars, and many more of us than are willing to admit have physical scars we invent fictions for, so that when someone says “what’s that mark on your chin?” we can laugh it off and tell the charming story of our own clumsiness.

Because the real story of having our head shoved down against the bedpost is just way too humiliating, right?

Because it’s somehow our fault?

This, right here, is the institutionalized misogyny.  We, as women, are taught to bear the burden of our victim-hood as if it is our responsibility that we are victims.  And men are trained that it is okay to blame us, because their privilege is more important than our rights.  Now, not all men see women as extensions of their will or objects to be used.  I understand that.  But the patterns of behavior that trap women in perpetual silence are propagated by society and are misogynist.  Sometimes, men participate in the cycle completely unaware.  Often, women do the same.

And what could change that?

Women, don’t shut up.  Men?  Listen.