Fixing Rape Culture is a Big Project. Here's Step One.


Rape Culture has been normalized and accepted for far too long. Finally people are talking about it and realizing how prevalent it is. It isn't just something “those girls” have to deal with. Every woman, by the time she reaches a certain age, has experienced at least one interaction made acceptable by the prevalence of Rape Culture. Whether it's someone on a crowded subway car or at a concert 'accidentally' brushing against her and staying too long or at the movies or on a plane rooting around near her ankles in a quest for something they may or may not have dropped.

Thanks to Brock Turner and Aaron Persky and Donald Trump standing up and acting as if all of this is no big deal, we are talking about Rape Culture. Women are furious and in learning they are not alone, empowered to talk about their experiences – with their friends, families, significant others. And for the men who are hearing about this for the first time, these stories are a revelation.

It's become common for psychiatrists to hear about breakfast table arguments between spouses because “he thinks I'm exaggerating or being paranoid.” It must be hard for men to learn about this so late in the game. For the good men, the ones who would never, ever in their lives want to make a woman uncomfortable in that way, it must be shocking to realize how common these experiences are, how truly shitty some of their gender is.

And that's how Rape Culture has thrived for so long. The good ones aren't doing it and the shitty ones are running amok because women who feel unsafe have no way to vocalize it without having to back it up with “proof” and it's very, very hard to prove malicious intent in certain interactions.

I have a solution. It's not perfect but it's a starting point. What if the burden of proving intention was shifted, at least partially, from women to men? What if men had to do their share to validate their intentions as not malicious?

In chess, if you touch a piece on the board, you must move it. It doesn't matter if you weren't paying attention or just thought of something better. You touched the piece. You have committed to moving it. As a result, chess players are very thoughtful and careful about touching a chess piece. Of course, many chess players like their pieces to be sitting “just so” within the squares on the board and often feel the need to adjust the position of a piece within the square, intending to move it around the board. In that instance, before touching the piece, the player must declare the phrase “ j'adoube ” which means “I adjust.” This warns the other player of their intention before any contact is made.

What if we applied the same concept to society at large? What if before bending over on an airplane to fetch something that has fallen below his seat, the man were expected to turn to the lady at his side and say “I've dropped something. I'm going to bend over and pick it up now” before reaching down? What if on a crowded train a man were expected to say “excuse me. I'm just trying to squeeze by” before sidling behind a woman? What if every time a man needed to access the space within one foot of a woman's body, he needed to declare his intentions and warn her of the possibly impending contact, thus giving her the option to shift away, deny him access, or at least know his intent is not malicious?

Of course, this solution is imperfect. A man could drop his pen on a plane and then root around looking for it while “accidentally” petting your ankle. A man could declare his need to pass behind you on a crowded train, thus rubbing against you when he really doesn't need to get to the other side. But few men who think molesting a woman against her will is okay would bother declaring his intentions in advance and offering her the slim possibility of moving out of the way or fetching the pen for him. Men who think it's okay to grab or rub up against a strangers body are unlikely to warn their victims.

And more important than the actual announcement of innocent intent itself is the shared responsibility of proving innocence or guilt. This shared responsibility could be a small step in the right direction of ending the acceptance of Rape Culture. If men start showing their innocence, it will be easier to identify the predators who can't or won't do so. More importantly, it will help reinforce the importance of consent to both genders, but especially to women. Men are often told and many internalize that acceptance is important when it comes to touching another persons body, especially with sexual intent. Women are taught by society that their bodies are objects for the pleasure of others, that their consent is fairly meaningless and their innocence must be proven over and over again.

Rapists are innocent until proven guilty and even then, rarely punished. Victims are punished over and over again, not just from the physical trauma but from the guilt and shame society teaches them they should feel. Perhaps they were asking for it, non-verbally, of course. Perhaps they deserved it. Perhaps their bodies are there for the pleasure of others and what they think and feel doesn't really matter.

If men have to prove their innocent intent in the seemingly benign interactions which can feel and be threatening violations of a woman's body and personal space, then it will be a tiny bit easier to separate those with innocent intentions from those will malicious plans. It's easy to feel upset and angry on behalf of a rape victim, but she has likely been violated many times before, in all those little interactions to which no one pays attention. Perhaps if in those interactions she had learned that her consent had value, coming forward after rape would be easier. If she knew that society would treat her consent as valuable and her innocence as a given until proven otherwise, she would suffer less from the guilt and shame that often follow dramatic sexual assault.

She didn't want the stranger to rub her leg at the movies when she was 12. She didn't want the old man to rub her arm on the plane when she was 15. She didn't want that guy to grab her butt on the train when she was 19. She didn't want him to rape her when she was 22. Every single instance was unwanted and every single one, and the hundreds of others she doesn't even remember, because there were so many, taught her the burden of having to prove the intentions of a stranger, of how insignificant society considered her authority over her own body.

If the men had to ask, she would have learned the power of her ability to say “no”. If everyone had been expected to declare some form of “j'adoube”, how many fewer unwanted touches might there have been?

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