I’ve been immersed in sexual assault these days. (So much so that I can’t even engage in my usual mild self-harming practice of watching Law and Order:SVU) Who isn’t, though — I mean, when aren’t we all immersed in sexual assault and hostility? When do we get a break?
I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s new book The Small Backs of Children (read it), then her essay Explicit Violence when thinking about how to write about violence without “overwhelming” my readers (a topic we discuss often in grad school — never mind that no matter how explicitly I describe the violence done to me or my sister, how cleanly I can recreate the house we lived in, the reader is never going to be as overwhelmed as we are just living with the memories). One book I read for my Autobiograpy class includes the narrator getting routinely raped by her brother, almost gang raped by older boys at her high school, and pressured into sex by her “boyfriend”– and that’s just in the first 80 pages. Never mind the news: Bill Cosby, sexual assaults on camps, story after story about how the Catholic Church continues to cover up the abuse of children perpetrated by its priests around the world. My dear friend tells me some of what she’s learning in her anti-trafficking trainings, as local organizations ramp up their services in advance of the Super Bowl. I get an announcement from the SFSU security deparment, reporting a stranger rape on campus, which reads like an old-school alt.sex.stories.rape post…
And then there’s the writing I’m trying to do — finding the words for it, writing down the old stories, the stories I haven’t written yet, the parts of my story that appear between the time Before and the time After. I’ve spent a lot of ink these last ten years writing about After, but I’ve done very little writing about During. And writing about the During means being back in the During — means having to remember what it felt like to be a confused 12, 14, 16 year old, being back in that body, being back in that disembodiment.
I’m thinking a lot about writing violence, how violence is portrayed, who gets to wield it unreservedly, even in fiction.
There have been two sharp spotlights of surprise in all this media consumption of violence against women. The first was while my sweetheart and I were watching the Sopranos (please don’t ask how I got myself watching this show that I managed to avoid watching for all these years), and in one episode, a woman simply picks up a gun and shoots in the chest a man (her fiancee) who had hit her in the face. I couldn’t help it — I cheered.
The other while watching Queen Latifah’s portrayal of Bessie Smith in the HBO movie Bessie. The movie gives us Bessie Smith as an absolutely take-n0-shit kind of woman — in one of the earliest scenes (spoiler alert), Bessie is fooling around, drunkenly, with a guy in an alleyway back behind a theater where she’s performing. Her back’s against the brick wall, they’re having a good time, and then he’s trying to pull down her drawers, which she doesn’t want, and she says no. He keeps pressing, pushing her to go further than she wants. She knocks his hands away, and he punches her hard in the face, knocking her over, and curses her. While she’s bent down, and he’s preparing to go ahead and take what she wouldn’t give him, she picks up a shard of glass. She straightens up and stabs him in the side, doubling him over. Then she stands over him and says something like, I said I wanted to fool around, but I didn’t want all that, damn. And it was just getting good, too. Then she kicks him, not hard, just a kind of nudge — a sharp nudge. Her brother bursts out of the back door, frantic — it’s time for her to go on stage. So Bessie leaves the guy bleeding, goes back into the theater, dons her costume, rushes out on stage and sings for a packed house, with a bleeding cut on her head.
I cheered then, too.
There are several moments in Bessie, actually, where we get to see her bashing back on the men who expect her to simply and unquestioningly comply with their wishes, sexual and otherwise. She doesn’t appear to hesitate, just turns the violence they do to her right and exactly back onto them. And because they don’t expect it, don’t expect any woman to fight back, to stand up for themselves, to say no and have the full power of their strength and agency behind that no, the men are astonished at Bessie Smith — I was astonished, too, because I, too, have been conditioned not to expect any woman to fight back, to stand up for themselves, to say no and have the full power of their strength and agency behind that no.
It gets beaten out of us. It gets terified out of us. It gets silenced out of us.
Around the time I watched Bessie last fall, I said to my sweetheart, what if women’s violence were a more common response to men’s violence? It isn’t the solution I want for us as a human race, and yet, just today, I want all of us armed with knives and coat hangers and guns and shards of glass. I want all of us put through tae quan do training, I want all of us fully aware of our phenomenal strenghth, not just internally but externally — in our biceps and quads, in our jaws and teeth. How many men would keep shoving their dicks in mouths that are absolutely willing to bite down hard enough to sever flesh from flesh
Do you think men will stop their violence on their own? Do you think they will be peacefulled, yoga’d, west-coast-Buddhist-ed out of it? Do you think those ecstatically-dancing, hippie Burning Man guys aren’t beating their girlfriends, sexually assaulting drunken female rvelers (who thought they were hanging out with friends in a place of peace and love and new possibility), aren’t expecting that the new order will still have them absolutely in control?
“Listen, I know this is a bit of a dreary story. But whenever I get told that, by friends, or agents, or editors, or publishers, I think, if this dreary story is hard for you to live with, how are we supposed to live with you?” – Lidia Yuknavitch, “Explicit Violence“
Are we still really wondering whether no means no? Are today’s college-age men learning something that their older brothers didn’t learn? Are they doing it differently? You saw the study last year announcing that nearly a third of college-age men in this country say they’d commit rape if they thought they could get away with it: “When combined with what the study’s authors described as ‘callous sexual attitudes,’ the results suggest a man with a hostile attitude toward women may view “forced intercourse as an achievement,” and a woman saying ‘no’ could be ‘perceived as a token resistance consistent with stereotypical gender norms.’”
Also last year, in a story about affirmative consent (which means that folks get to say yes to sex they want, instead of it being all right for someone to fuck them just because they didn’t hear her/him/hir say no loudly enough), the author wrote: “Studies have found these stereotypes, even in the age of hookup sites like Tinder, to be generally true. Men tend to rely on nonverbal cues in interpreting consent (61 percent say they get consent via body language), but women tend to wait to be asked before signaling consent (only 10 percent say they give consent via body language). No wonder there’s so much confusion.” (“Affirmative Consent; Are Students Really Asking?” New York Times, 7/28/15)
Confusion. Aha — that’s what we’re calling it.
Here’s the thing: They’re not confused. We’re not confused, no matter how long (like, centuries) they’ve worked to convince us otherwise.
Is it any wonder that I can’t listen to the news these days. I look up stories of women who fight back —
And right here is when I stopped writing last fall — I looked up links to those stories of women who fight back against men who are assaulting them, and was overwhelmed with all the stories from around the world of women being attacked by men, page after page after page. I couldn’t read through even a fraction of them just to pick out two or three links, no matter how much I wanted to show you a couple of the women who said No More and “won.” But instead, guess what I found? You know. You know what happens to many women who say no more — they’re jailed for killing the men who’ve been abusing them for years, for fighting back against the rapist (against whom they have to fight back if they want to be taken seriously as “victim” rather than “tease”) — or they’re killed.
There’s a reason many of us keep our old Hothead Paisan books in easy reach.
I just tried again to find those links. And had the same experience. So let me just link here to Home Alive in Seattle — the organization that formed in the wake of the murder of Gits’ singer Mia Zapata in 1993, which offers self defense classes and information rooted in social justice analysis. This is a group of folks who said No More, and are still alive, still fighting, not giving any ground to the folks who want to hold on to the license to rape offered by the so-called confusion about what the words yes and no mean, and yet also holding out hope that a different world is possible (to paraphrase the tagline of the US Social Forum), with heads held high, shoulders back, eyes up, unashamed of our strength, unashamed of our survival, unashamed of all the truths we have to tell, and honoring every bit of the myriad ways we fight back every day of our lives.
Thank you for your resistance. Thank you for your resilience. Thank you for your words.