With 2012 closing, some are ready to declare a new Year of the Woman. Apparently, the first one did not do the trick. The anemically aspirational "Year of Whoever" trope reminds us how far whoever still has to go, having exceeded our self-defeatingly low expectations. Strides can, of course, be traced from 1992's Year of the Woman to 2012, marked by the Hunger Games, a few more Women Senators, another Katheryn Bigelow war blockbuster and Sandra Fluke's rise from would-be expert witness in Congress to DNC headliner to would've-been Time "Person of the Year." There sure were a lot of people watching the DNC that one time, but the man who drove Sandra Fluke to fame, Rush Limbaugh, enjoys nearly 15 million listeners every week. After all that controversy, how many Americans know the story Fluke was sent to Congress to testify (but then not allowed to share)? Versus how many know how Rush Limbaugh would like to be repaid for her birth control pills? (It's videos of her having recreational sex, in case you've already purged that image from your mind.) Our post-election celebration is over and as 2012 closes, we know what year it is. It's the year of still not listening to women.
We pleaded desperately to defeat rape deniers in the national elections. We did so by giving prime coverage to toxic ideas and the people who spread them, shining light on men's bad behavior rather than the women impacted by it. We gave Rush Limbaugh valuable headlines for calling Sandra Fluke a slut (still an insult, apparently). But in the wake of that news cycle, how many people remember Ms. Fluke's story? As we wrap up this so-called Hollywood's Year of the Woman, it's time to reframe the media conversation from sexist men's ignorance to women's lived experiences. Who deserves the spotlight? Of course we must respond to these blatant attacks, but letting the attackers pick the talking points is operating from a place of weakness. We're not weak.
We watched another election season rife with disdain for women's input, plus what Jessica Valenti aptly termed "rape illiteracy." America dismissed the worst offenders by vote, but we have not dismantled their disturbing (and prevalent) opinions of women. In the black-and-white of campaigning, the most direct tactic at hand was to express our disgust. Now that the dust has settled, there's more (and more complex) work to be done. We're left angry but also perplexed by a worldview that barely hangs onto sense. Was it ignorance or hate that motivated Todd Akin's now-famous statement that women don't get pregnant from "legitimate" rape? Unquestionably, he used his influence in a hateful way, compounding the loathing that sexual assault survivors often load onto themselves, a reflection of the contempt that our society expresses toward them. Could half of us really be indifferent to the suffering of our mothers, sisters, partners? Some people do hate women. But from my experience as a documentary filmmaker listening to women's stories, I believe that it's not so typical to hate our daughters or partners, but it is deceptively common for us to be entirely unfamiliar with their experiences, even those closest to us.
As women, we don't often talk about sex or sexual violence. We don't tell our stories in public, and for many, we don't tell them in private. We don't talk about rapes or abortions, or about pleasure or desire. Why don't we tell? Many of us don't believe that our experiences are important, or that anybody cares whether we hurt or flourish, because we learn this message every day in the objectifying pages of magazines, in the disparity in our treatment and compensation in workplaces and in the ways that sexual violence laws are written and enforced. The stakes for telling our stories are excruciatingly high. As the devastating documentary "The Invisible War" fleshed out in terrifying detail, for members of the U.S. Armed Forces, the result of telling one's story of sexual assault could mean retaliation, loss of livelihood or even violence. For a bullied teenager, it could mean the loss of her life. And that's talking about assault, something inflicted and not chosen. The consequences of expressing desire or sexual agency are also bitter. When I decided to make a documentary about women and sex, I considered whether I'd ever again be employable in the mainstream working world, the one that does not want to know that you think sex is an important topic. It's no wonder women don't want to talk.
But we only have compassion for what we can see. When we don't tell our stories, we don't give people the opportunity to empathize. We can't change Todd Akin with facts -- that much we know. Maybe we can't change Todd Akin at all. But many people are loving and curious and want to know the realities of being a woman in the U.S., realities sometimes harsh and sometimes beautiful. We open people up by telling stories and by actively making space to listen well to the stories of the people in our lives. Do you know a woman who's been sexually assaulted? Statistics say that's one in five. Some people can't talk about their lived experiences because it's traumatic, or because their lives are truly in jeopardy. Others can take the risk of talking about sex, and we must.
When we tell our stories, we paint a picture where there was none before. We paint onto the canvas of other people's understanding of women and sexuality. Parts of the canvas are blank. Parts are already filled, often with warped depictions and skewed untruths. We can't shy away from what's scary or complicated, and we can't only talk about violence and pain, or people (particularly young people) will think that sex is all about bad things. MSNBC analyst and sexual assault survivor Melissa Harris-Perry remarked that perpetrators of sexual assault take away their victims' power to choose. When it comes to sex and politics and sexual politics, we must be the ones to choose how stories are told, not those who dismiss us. The election is over and 2012 has drawn to a close. The brave women of India are standing up against rape, even with their own government fighting them with tear gas. We must choose whose version of sex and whose version of rape we paint into vividness. Is it ours or Richard Mourdock's? Is it ours or primetime television's? Is it ours or Cosmo's? It belongs to whoever doesn't stop talking. Or better yet, who stops not talking.