The following is an essay I wrote for the forthcoming zine We Will Not Go Quietly. We Will Not Go Quietly is a project of two Australian feminists, Kate Ravenscroft and Mel Hughes, “who mourn the absence of survivors’ voices in their world and want to do something about it.” The deadline for submissions has passed, but Kate and Mel are currently seeking a designer to help them put the essays, poems and articles together. If you think you might be that designer, or if you know someone who is, email Kate and Mel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Earlier this year, my friend Jamie, who is a young feminist blogger living in Chicago, wrote a post called “Today I had to leave class to cry.” Her tears were tears of frustration and anger, the ones you feel when an injustice is being done – or in this case, excused – in front of you, and you feel powerless to stop it.
Jamie, who is in her first year of university, was in a class called “Free Speech,” and the topic of discussion was whether or not it would be a restriction of free speech to ban a manual for how to rape someone. The conversation soon turned to rape prevention, and to what women can do to prevent rape:
There is no such thing as “rape prevention.” The only way for people to not get raped is for people NOT TO RAPE THEM. We can’t end rape by dressing modestly or avoiding dark alleys or letting friends babysit our drinks when we go to the bathroom. The only way to abolish rape is for nobody to rape anyone else. It really isn’t a difficult concept.
I chimed in politely and explained this to the class. I fully expected at least one other person to agree with me. I looked around. Nobody agreed. A bunch more people raised their hands and tried to correct me. “They can at least be aware of a rapist’s techniques!” they argued. “It is silly to think that women can’t prevent rape.”
At this, Jamie writes, she could no longer control herself. “It isn’t the job of women to prevent their own rape!” she said. “The only people who can prevent rape are rapists!” And then, she left had to leave class to cry.
As I read Jamie’s post, I felt a hot, uncomfortable dread creep over me, that prickly feeling under your skin that you sometimes feel when you’re ashamed of something you’ve done. I sat for a moment and thought about what Jamie had written. And then I opened up my browser and wrote her an email.
I used to be one of those people who made you cry today. When I was a sophomore, I took a women’s studies class, and when it came time to discuss alcohol and consent in precept, I didn’t get it. I said things about being drunk and being responsible and being raped that I now deeply, deeply regret. I hurt the feelings of two girls in the room – that I know of – who had been raped while drunk. Things got heated and we all went and met with the professor teaching the class and it was really ugly.
Now, four or five years later, I get it. Like, really, really get it, enough to write about it for Feministing. I think about those girls in my class every time I write about this stuff, because I have to remember how much pain I caused them just by espousing stupid, poorly thought out and entirely mainstream ideas, and I have to remember what I used to think and how I used to justify it to myself. I guess all I’m saying is, you probably converted a person or two today. And if you didn’t today, you will next time or the time after that.
When Kate and Mel asked me to contribute to We Will Not Go Quietly, and told me that it was a resource for survivors, I wasn’t entirely sure what of use I could say. I am not a survivor. I am lucky to be one of the three out of four young American women who has not been the victim of rape or attempted rape. Every day, I am grateful for that. Every day, I live with the possibility, and the fear, that I will one day join the other twenty-five percent. But as it stands, I do not know how it feels to be sexually assaulted.
What I do know is that I have sat where Jamie sat and felt the frustration that she felt. But I have also sat across the table and inflicted that pain on other people. I’m not proud of the things I said in that class as a second-year student. I’m appalled when I remember the tears in the eyes of my classmate, a woman who, she told me later, was a survivor of a brutal rape. I wish I could take back what I said in that classroom – and even though I can’t, every time I write a blog post about victim-blaming and rape apologism now, I feel like I’m atoning, in some small way, for the fact that I said them.
I’m atoning because at some point, I saw the error of my ways. I saw how wrong I had been in believing those ideas I espoused back then. And ever since then, I’ve been on the other side of the table, Jamie’s side. I can’t remember exactly what it was that made me see reason. But it did happen, eventually.
My point, then, is this: conversations like the one Jamie describes are incredibly difficult to have. They can be triggering and traumatic and sometimes they can make you cry with frustration and disbelief that people just don’t get it. But they can also convert people. They can make those people question beliefs they’ve never really thought to question before. They can bring them around to see what you see, what Jamie sees, and what her classmates could not yet see: rapists cause rape. The only way to prevent rape is for rapists to stop raping people. Perhaps it won’t be your words that change someone’s mind, but that doesn’t mean that their mind won’t one day be changed.
As difficult as these conversations are, we have to keep having them. We have to believe that when it comes to mainstream ideas about who’s to blame for sexual assault, minds can be changed. We have to fight that good fight, even when it’s exhausting and enraging and frustrating beyond description. And sometimes, we have to leave the room to cry.