I was walking to work earlier, as I do every day. It was about 11.10 am and as I advanced down 16th Avenue toward Pike Street, a car drove by and screamed "Slut!" from their open window.
Now, if you're familiar with Capitol Hill, you know that this particular stretch is very quiet, since the only active building on the whole block is a church. Perhaps it was this quietude that caused my lapse in understanding, because it wasn't until maybe 15 or 20 seconds later that I thought to myself "Oh! It's ME that he's calling 'Slut'." This was immediately followed by abject bewilderment which was very quickly followed by what is a lifetime of misogynist ingraining by the rape culture: I quickly looked down at my own body and thought to myself
"What am I wearing that provoked this?"
Of course, the answer is: nothing. Because the reality is that this public degrading, casually thrown from a car window like a fast food wrapper, actually had nothing at all to do with what I was wearing and had absolutely everything to do with an arbitrary asshole deciding that this was the moment he would spew vitriol at a completely random stranger and that there certainly would be no consequences for his actions. Why would there be? The culture has taught him since birth that this is his RIGHT- to deem as he sees fit all women's bodies he surveys in his vast kindom of Dude-Land. But me? I'm just a lone slut walking down a street. Clearly, I was asking for it.
But let's back track for a moment, shall we?
Two decades ago, I had written in a zine and subsequently spoken to groups of peers about The Checklist. That which female-bodied individuals everywhere seemed to carry around with us, in our heads. So unconscious we weren't even really aware when we referred to it, as most did (and still do) before leaving the house:
-Where am I going?
-When do I anticipate being back?
-Will this involve walking down a dark street/ through a sketchy part of town/ being around a lot of guys I don't know?
-How well can I run in these shoes/boots/heels/flip flops?
...As well as other questions more tailored to the situation and our individual upbringing ("How much makeup is 'too much'? Will there be anyone around I can trust if I get as drunk as I want to? I must remember to look in the back seat of my car before I climb in to make sure no one is back there. Does this dress make me look attractive without looking like I'm trashy?")
This is part of what we're taught. Boys will be boys, so girls should take care. Men are brutal, animalistic raping machines, so women, don't provoke these uncontrolled beasts with your miniskirts and your fluttering eyelashes and your girlie-parts.
This sentiment is the crux of the Rape Culture, of course. And guys- take note. Because this kind of bullshit thinking hurts you as much as it hurts us. I mean, really- who wants to be vilified, thought of as terrifyingly out of control and suspect of committing the most heinous of crimes because they see a skirt fluttering in the breeze? Who *really* wins? When we are taught that we are all suspicious and blameful, no one can win.
Back to my morning slut-shaming.
How many of you have been burning with curiosity as to what I was wearing? How many of you are sitting in either silent judgement of me because, without my full disclosure of what exactly I had adorning my body, I MUST be hiding something, or else are on the fence about exactly how much sympathy I deserve for my street harrassment because you feel you don't have 'all the facts': the 'facts' being what I wore as I made my way to my job? Do you feel a wave of sympathy and perhaps some guilt when I let you know that I was wearing a long, shapeless gray skirt and a flowing blouse that covers my upper body, not a scrap of makeup on my face, my hair pulled back in an unassuming bun? (I wasn't wearing this, but that's not really the point, is it?) Do you feel yourself rolling your eyes, maybe even a bit smug when I tell you that, actually, I was wearing a tight black miniskirt with a revealing halter top and thigh-high tights, my hair loose and wild, a slash of shiny red gloss on my lips? (I wasn't wearing that, either, and it's STILL not the point.)
Following the verbal assault on my personage -and that's what it was. I mean, really, let's not mince words.- I called my partner, as is my way, when something traumatic happens. I felt slightly better for having connected a minute with someone who knows me and loves me and would be horrified to see something awful happen to me. But as I walked to get my morning coffee, I felt myself very close to tears and feeling completely confused as to why this was effecting me so deeply. I mean, it's not like these sorts of things haven't happened to me most of my life.
I recall, vividly, having a fully-grown adult man pass me and my older sister on St. Mark's Place and, with a slyness that indicated he'd done this countless times before, ran his hand along the side of my breast as he walked passed me. I realized only after the fact what had happened and, as I looked over my shoulder, he looked back at me, showed me the hand he'd just violated me with and winked at me. I was twelve, and had been developing breasts for less than a year. I had no concept of what was happening to my body, let alone any context for understanding how sexual assault works, so I had no words for the violation that had just occured, only a deep confusion and a sense that this was not only a shameful thing, but one that I must not talk about because, even then, there was something in the atmosphere that trickled into my subconscious. A message that this, somehow, was my fault.
It was not the first time, sadly, that I found myself in a situation in which merely owning my body was a dangerous enterprise, and it clearly wouldn't be the last.
When I walked into the coffeehouse this morning, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I stop in most days and so I immediately had a sense of safety upon entering. But the tears were threatening to build up again and I realized there was no one present that I felt like I could just tell about what I'd just experienced. Not the tattooed barista when she handed me my scone, not even the butchy girl waiting for her tea over by the milk and sugar. I recognized that I was suddenly afraid of how I'd be perceived. That I didn't trust those interactions to go well. That the barista might think I was weird for bringing up such a commonplace occurance. That the butch might take my femme appearance as a sign that I was too different from her, or hetero-normative or sis-gendered and therefore would regard me with disdain or outright suspicion. And so the ripples of the slut-shaming had wide reach- not only was I afraid of another assault by the guy in the car or another man just like him before I could safely reach work, but now I was suspicious of the judgement and scorn of the women around me should they find out what I'd done. What *I* had done. Not what was done *to* me. Score Rape Culture: 1; Personal Psyche: 0
Twenty years ago, it would've been a different story. At 19, I was galvanized by the injustices that me and my girlfriends were experiencing on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. My fury motivated me, propelled me into more and more public forums, doing spoken word pieces, publishing zines and helping to found the movement that some of you know as Riot Grrrl. I would read aloud from Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth to customers at the health food store where I was a cashier before I'd ring up their groceries. I'd stand up on buses and address the other passengers about sexism. And I didn't hestitate to tell a street harasser to go fuck himself. Another person I knew wrote 'Riot Grrrl' on the back of her jacket, stating "Maybe some random girl will see this and want to be friends with me as a result." I had this feeling that I was connected to all women and girls everywhere, that our struggle against a common enemy united us.
8 weeks before the 1992 presidential election, I got pulled up onstage at a club in downtown Los Angeles and asked to speak to the crowd before Bikini Kill played their set. I pleaded with those assembled to register and vote: Supreme Court Judge Blackmun, the last remaining justice still on the court from the Roe Vs Wade era, had just ominously warned that he was old and could not sit in session forever. The implication being, that if the wrong man made it into the White House, our reproductive rights would be eradicated with the next appointee to the bench. It felt literally like a matter of life and death.
Two years later, just in time for the mid-term elections, Friend To Women Everywhere, Rush Limbaugh, coined the term "Feminazi", thereby pulling the time-honored tradition of employing a "divide and conquer" strategy that helped a conservative congress gain a foothold in the Clinton White House. Because clearly, only "extremists" would be angry about not getting equal pay for equal work. Only a "fundamentalist" would be outraged by a lack of social support for single parents. Only a "crackpot" would be enraged that high-school-aged girls were starting to die in alarming numbers because they lived in states with newly-enacted 'parental consent' abortion laws and so -surprise!- didn't stop having abortions, but instead began getting dangerous, illegal ones when they were too ashamed and scared to tell their parents that teaching abstinence-only sex education doesn't work. At all.
But Rush knew what he was doing. By tarring those of us most vocal about such glaring injustices with a wide, name-calling brush, it effectively scared, or at least silenced, the rest. And so continued the sometimes systematic, always ruthless, dismantling of the rights of women. It truly astounds me that here I stand, twenty years after voting in my first national election, and I find myself pleading with those around me to vote at yet another pivotal time in history, but for exactly the same reasons as before.
Only this time, it is not merely for me and a group of angry young punk girls that I entreat. I watch my kid, about to have a baby of her own- a choice she made with my full support- and I think about what lessons she will teach her son about the Rape Culture, what lessons she will have to do her damndest to eradicate when the culture itself tries to teach him. What forces will work against them at every turn? What judgements will be thrown at them for the choices she's made, for the choices he has yet to make? I think of my best friend, dealing with life-long chronic illness, some being a by-product of a lifetime of abuse, much of which is condoned by a culture that will shame a little girl for being so "seductive" that the adults around her "simply could not help themselves" when they helped themselves to her body, willfully ignoring the devastating consequences of their actions. I think of my mother's despair and impotent rage when the Equal Rights Amendment got voted down, in part thanks to Phyllis Schlafly, the individual who spearheaded the perplexingly-named "Women Against Women's Rights". I think of the women and girls who come into my shop, hating their bodies, already assuming that they aren't beautiful, that they don't count anyway, that they don't 'deserve' to feel good in their own skins because they cannot measure up against the culture's impossible Photo-Shopped beauty standards. I fear for the adolescent girls that are getting bombarded with messages that Kristen Stewart's cheating on her boyfriend puts her in the same league as a murderer, and that being called a slut, as Stewart has been repeatedly, is therefore something to be avoided at all costs. Most of all, I worry about what such pervasive circumstances and messages do to us all, for there is no way to be uneffected by such hate and malice being directed at so much of the population.
I made it to my job, coffee in hand. I still felt shaken, frightened and teary as I unlocked the door and was grateful for the 40 minutes I'd have of quietude before I needed to open the doors for the day. I had thought, honestly, that I was done with this. I believed what my foremothers had iterated, that it was time, now, to pass the torch to the younger generation. That this is their fight now. Only that was another lie that the culture had bestowed. It's been their fight all along, as it's been mine, and yours, too. And clearly will continue to be so.
From the original post on Facebook by Suki Valentine