When a new high-profile sexual assault or harassment accusation hits the press, you can rest assured the backlash machine will kick into overdrive. Victim blaming, followed by victim shaming, rounded out by a Greek chorus of “whys?”
Why didn’t she come forward before? Why didn’t she say just ‘no'? Why didn’t she tell anyone, go to the press, press charges, stand up for herself?
Af if the easiest thing in the world is for a woman to stand alone in a public arena, one already starved and braying for her blood, and face down a system which has been aiding and abetting Goliaths for the last thousand years.
Yet the questions linger, leaving the aftertaste of doubt on our tongues. Why wouldn’t a woman who’s been humiliated and harassed by her boss, a woman who has been raped, a woman who’s been beaten black and blue, why wouldn’t she come forward?
Why? Because women often exist between a rock and a hard place.
A woman exists in this confining space, caught between two unattractive choices — whenever she has to trust her own instincts (and the communal instincts passed down from woman to woman, generation to generation) in order to survive a given situation. Many, many times that situation is not life threatening — being talked over, interrupted, having your ideas stolen without credit. Being leered at, touched without consent, told to smile. Sometimes, however, there’s much more at stake than your ego or a publication credit.
It’s positively quaint to think a loudly shouted “NO!” is enough to stop a rape or sexual assault. It’s just not true. Women everywhere know this is not true. What women also know is that sometimes her best chance of survival lay in another direction entirely. Yet if she doesn’t say no, the law, the courts, society (men AND women) assume some level of consent.
Death or rape?
Survival or assault?
Raped more violently or believed in court?
Rock and a hard place.
Even when a woman does say “no," if it’s not loud enough, repeated enough, in the right pitch, tone, and key — we can come up with 1,000 different requirements — it’s not enough. Why? Because even when a woman says “no," all it takes is the accused to contradict her. Report it and risk having her actions, dress, sexuality, alcohol consumption, and life choices questioned and judged, likely for naught…or try to move on with her life knowing the accused got away with it. Rock and a hard place.
A woman who is sexually harassed at work must decide whether to speak out and possibly risk her career, a promotion, her professional reputation. She has to decide if reporting her grope-y boss to HR is worth that risk. Rock: Ass-grabbing, leering boss. Hard place: A bad reference which could kill her job prospects, a spot on a industry-wide blacklist, pushed out of her job.
A woman in a domestic violence situation must calculate the likelihood of her abusive partner following through with his threat to kill her, her extended family, or her children. She may have to decide between the rock of financial destitution or the hard place of a fist to the face every other Thursday.
A woman who is cat-called on the street weighs the risk of answering back. A woman told to smile more must decide. The rock of humiliation and anger? Or the the hard place of the real possibility of being followed, stalked, or physically threatened?
Women know, instinctively and through experience, that saying “stop” or “no” more loudly, indeed saying anything at all, is sometimes dangerous–economically, physically, socially. When it is, she is forced to choose the least worst option.
When the least worst option is the humiliation of having to put up with a grope-y boss or some mouthy teenage boys calling you hot mama, you do those calculations in your head lickety-split. When the least worst option allows you to survive, to work, to move ahead, you do those calculations.
It doesn’t mean you like it. Or invited it. It doesn’t make it okay. It doesn't justify it. It doesn’t make it right.
And yet time and time again, a woman’s choice between two shitty options is used against her. She must have liked it. If it really bothered her she would have said something. If it was true she would have come forward. I see well-intentioned comments to that end all the time.
If it were me I would have….
stood up for myself
Life is black and white to those who haven’t walked in someone else’s heels.
Contrary to the stereotype, women are great at math. Let me tell you about the mental calculations most women do at various points in their life. The ones involved in calculating the odds of walking home alone at night and making it home safe, alive, and un-raped. The odds of being free to continue walking if you snap back at someone cat-calling, dividing the salary you might lose if you report your co-worker by the rent that’s due. Women grow up tabulating these odds in the back of their heads. It’s second nature. When faced with these situations, you choose. And that choice is sometimes between a rock and a hard place.
This is what the women in feminist spaces are reaching out to say. Equality, even within laws that protect against things like assault and harassment–is far more complicated than simply saying no, or leaving, or reporting it.
If all it took was women saying “no” more firmly the world would be a different place. And a hell of a lot louder.
It is not fair to put the burden of survival, of a life unmolested solely onto women. Yes, women should and must be vocal, assertive, and aggressive at times. But men must learn to listen. The burden is never on a woman not to get raped. The burden is on a man not to rape. The burden is not on a woman to say “No!” more loudly, to come forward more quickly, or to speak up. The burden is on the men who are doing those things to stop doing them in the first place. Because in all of those "whys?" what lays hidden between the lines is this: why did she let it happen to her.
Women don't let themselves be harassed. They don't let themselves be raped. They don't let themselves be beaten. Those things are done to women. They are done to women by rapists, by abusers, by harassers. Don't let anyone shift the blame, or the burden, or the language onto women.
What you are seeing now-the clap back, the outrage — it’s not a small coven of women intent on making the lives of men miserable. Women don’t hate men. On the contrary, most of us love them. We’re married to them, raising them, friends with them.
The sound you hear now is women chipping away at those rocks, pushing back against those hard places, securing even more public space for themselves. It’s women trying to forge a broader space to live, love, and work within so that they are not caught between those two shitty places. Rock. Hard place.
It doesn’t mean there’s no room for men. It just means that men must get better at sharing that space.
A version of this post originally appeared on wineandcheesedoodles.com.
Top photo: Flickr Creative Commons/daveynin
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Dina Honour is an American writer living with family in Copenhagen, Denmark. Her prizewinning work has appeared in magazines such as Hippocampus and Signature, as well as on popular parenting sites such as Scary Mommy and Your Expat Child. Her first novel, All the Spaces In Between is currently awaiting a forever home. Dina blogs regularly at Wine and Cheese (Doodles), where she regularly observes life at the four-way intersection of parenting, politics, relationships, and living abroad. Find her there, @DinaHonour, or on Facebook