This week I read a serious novel: Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li. It is about a rape and is based on a real assault that happened to the author. It is deeply moving, and also surprising, because it presents the narrative from the perspective of both the victim and the perpetrator.
Reading Dark Chapter as a heterosexual male caused a lot of reflection. Toxic male sexuality, machismo, is something I do not like. Y'know, that pressure to behave in or tolerate certain behaviours and attitudes. It makes me uncomfortable, because this culture makes me worry that I - and most men like me - could probably get away with rape.
This impression comes from the repeated instructions to women telling them to protect themselves from rapists, despite little said ordering men not to rape.
Things are changing, but when I was in education, rape was treated as something that happens to women who do something ill-advised. You get too drunk, you trust the wrong man, you wear clothes too revealing, you have "too many" lovers. Our "freshers' pack" contained reusable bottle caps for women to use to prevent men from pouring Rohypnol in their drinks. Women were told to tell their friends when they'd arrived home safely, or - better yet - not travel home alone. What I never heard said to a man - still haven't heard it directly said, to me at least - is "do not rape".
It's women's clothes and bodies being in the news; it's films and TV shows with young women's murders as the central plot; it's the jokes and comments men make when women aren't listening - dialogue that Li captures unpleasantly accurately in the scenes between the rapist and his peers; it's the popularity of blokey banter; it's the way men shout when they're drunk in pubs; the way men leer at women; the way every woman I know has stories of being - at best - patronised and harassed...
It's how casually rape is joked about in both mainstream and "alternative" comedy; it's the popularity of porn; it's the normalisation of aggressive male sexualities; it's the disparities between the way men and women are expected to dress, to behave, to think about and engage with sex.
It disgusts me that this is the world, and that I'm expected to see it and take advantage. There seem to be no more repercussions for being "bad" than there are rewards for being "good". The rules aren't made for heterosexual white men, and if you're not one it may be hard to understand how confused most heterosexual white men seem when you tell them you don't like this.
Traditionally, heterosexual men are encouraged to feel pride and entitlement with regard to sex, while women are expected to feel shame. This is what men are able to exploit to get away with rape. They can and they do and it isn't right. It isn't fair that language can be used to shift guilt from perpetrator to victim.
As a non-diminutive white man, I have never felt sexually threatened, though when I was younger I did regularly receive unwanted sexual attention from older men. For me, and for most men, there is a significant difference between unwanted sexual attention and sexual threat. There is no presumption that the former will become the latter. When I received unwanted sexual attention, I rejected the offer and that was it, the man would go away. That is the closest experience I - and most men - ever get to sexual harassment and therefore sexual assault. This - as Dark Chapter indicates - is not how most women experience unwanted sexual attention. There is always the fear, the risk, that it will turn threatening.
I would advise any men struggling to understand why women dislike unwanted attention to read Li's novel. Her prose brings a reader close into the personal perspective of a woman as she is bothered, harassed, followed, stalked, assaulted, attacked and raped. Li's crisp prose makes a reader part of this terrifying experience, pulls us inside the mind of the victim. As literature, it is powerfully moving; as a piece with a purpose, it is highly successful.
When a woman is raped by a man, the only person who should be judged negatively is the rapist. Men should be told not to rape more than women are told not to be raped. We must take more responsibility for the world we live in and we must normalise this statement: Men, don't rape anyone.
It's a simple message, but one rarely heard. I'm going to repeat it before I finish:
Men, don't rape.
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