Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't
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Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

A dangerous double bind for women.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

CW: sexual assault

Growing up, my parents taught me to fear men I do not know. They never used those words outright, but they would warn me to never go to the bathroom in a public place alone, to always be on my guard, always with the implied consequence that a lapse in vigilance could result in being sexually assaulted.

While I don’t think there is anything wrong with parents teaching their daughters to be careful, far too often girls are taught that it is solely their responsibility to do everything to protect themselves, while the inexcusable behavior of boys is forgiven. Victims are criticized and discredited for not having done “more” to prevent their own assault, while the guilt of assaulters is mitigated.

Examples of victim blaming are far too easy to find. In a 2014 rape trial, a Canadian judge asked the victim, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”

In short, society tells women:

“You will be held entirely responsible for your own sexual safety. If you are assaulted, we will look for reasons that you were asking for it, whether it be the way you dressed or the fact that you had consensual sex with the same person in the past. Those who assaulted you will not be held accountable to the same standards, nor will we teach our sons to always get verbal and enthusiastic consent before sex.”

Anyone who has used social media at all in the past few years is familiar with #NotAllMen. The hashtag is used in response to women talking about their own experiences with sexism and sexual assault. The phrase is meant to say, “Not all men are like that.” It implies that women are somehow participating in “reverse-sexism,” which, like reverse racism, does not exist. Sexism implies institutionalized and systematic oppression, which, in our society, only exists in one direction.

#NotAllMen is an inappropriate response to a woman speaking up about sexism or assault for several reasons, but most relevantly, the hashtag fails to acknowledge that women can never be sure which men they encounter will do them harm and which will not.

Speaking for myself, I have a handful of male friends and family members whom I know very well and whom I trust, mostly based on having seen them act as true feminist allies.

Beyond that, I am wary of men I don’t know. This doesn’t often change the way I act, because, well, men are everywhere. It may be terrifying to live in this world as a woman, but ultimately, I still have to live in it.

But that doesn’t stop me from feeling anxious every time a strange man goes out of his way to talk to me. While I’ve been lucky to have never experienced anything worse than an uncomfortable encounter, my fears have not been proven groundless. I’ve had a man fist bump me while he walked by me at the gym, after he looked me up and down. I’ve had a man literally stop in his tracks while he was walking in front of me so that I would pass him and he could walk behind me, staring at my back.

Again, these experiences are mild compared to the experiences of so many other women. I’ve read so many horror stories online and heard even more from my own friends. And let's not forget that non-white, non-cisgendered, and non-straight women suffer even more.

This harassment and assault isn’t limited to strange men; most sexual assault victims know their attacker before the incident, so it’s not just unknown men that pose a threat.

The point is that when a woman encounters a man, she has no idea how he’s going to act. He might be perfectly fine, unremarkable, or he might catcall her or worse. So, while it’s true that not all men treat women horribly, women have every reason to be wary of every man they meet.

Both victim blaming and sentiments like #NotAllMen are harmful enough on their own, but when considered in conjunction with each other, they put women into an impossible double-bind. We’re told time and time again that society will hold only us responsible for our own sexual safety, and we have to do literally everything we can think of to keep from being assaulted. But then, when we adopt the mindset necessary to navigate a world in which the onus is on the victim, we’re criticized and silenced with #NotAllMen.

With this catch-22, women can’t win. If they’re assaulted, it’s their own fault; they were asking for it, they should have done this and that to prevent it. If women are wary of men, then they’re generalizing. They’re being prejudiced. Women are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

What it really boils down to is that society wants women to silently accept sexism, and this double-bind is just another tool used to perpetuate it.

The good news is, we can dismantle this tool.

Stop silencing women. When a woman speaks out about sexism, don’t respond with #NotAllMen; create a safe space for her to be heard, and call out anyone who tries to silence her.

Stop victim blaming. No one is ever “asking” to be sexually assaulted, regardless of inebriation or attire or behavior. Stop trying to assign guilt to anyone but the attacker.

Start teaching all children that verbal and enthusiastic consent is always a prerequisite for engaging in sexual activity.

And finally, keep talking about this issue. Silence and apathy only help to maintain the illusion that sexism is “over” now because women can vote. Sexism is still very much alive, and the more we talk about it, the more we force society to acknowledge and address the problems.

I know it’s scary, but if you can (without putting yourself in danger), speak out.

They can’t silence all of us.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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