I spend lots of time in the world of technical theatre in my community. As a result, I have friends of all ages, from teenagers to wise old folks in their 90s. One day, I was sitting in the light booth having a conversation with a 20 year-old crew member who was also a college student. We were talking about some of the struggles college women and men experience in dating. My young friend said that women should not have to fear domestic violence and forced sex in their relationships, and she went on to say that women should not have to fear rape under any circumstance. I agreed.
In December, a brutal gang rape on a bus in Delhi captured international attention and outrage. This rape resulted in the death of a 23 year-old woman, a physiotherapy college student in India. In late 2012, a 20 year-old woman was raped on a Los Angeles metro bus. In early 2013, the rape of a young woman in a Washington, DC parking lot was captured by surveillance cameras. These three sexual assaults occurred in public venues and garnered considerable media attention. They represent only a tiny fraction of the violence against women that occurs every day. Rape is frighteningly common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States one in five women is raped during her lifetime, and more than 80 percent of these women know the rapist
Now, national attention is on Steubenville, Ohio. Two high school football players are currently awaiting trial in March after being accused of the gang rape of a 16 year-old girl. Beyond the brutality of the rape, this case captured national attention when considerable evidence of the rape was found in the football teammates’ texts, tweets, and cell phone images, which were posted on social networking websites and seen by countless other kids and eventually stunned adults. These tweets exposed sexually provocative and misogynistic views among this network of teens.
While discussing these horrors of rape with my young friend, I used the word “feminist” in describing my point of view. She offered a common paradoxical response, “Well, I’m not a feminist, but…”. The “but” was immediately followed by decidedly feminist ideas about non-violence and equality. She agreed that violence against women must be stopped, while flinching at the mere mention of the word, feminist. Although she did not realise it, her idea is a feminist one.
The stigma of the F-word
Feminism has become a bad word. The stereotyped myth of the angry, ugly, man-hating feminist is alive and well. This highly negative, but fictional, caricature has been made to seem repulsive to people. Opponents of feminism exploit these harsh stereotypes and scare women and men away by frequently using hateful language, like “feminazis”. Who would want to stand up and claim this as their identity? Resistance is especially profound for college students and other young adults who are in the midst of developing their own identities.
The silent victims of rape
Some girls and women, especially those who are white, educated, and have access to resources, will say that they already have equality. Sometimes it can be hard to see unfairness and inequalities, especially for people who have social and economic privilege and have not experienced discrimination. Girls and women, even those who have feminist ideas -yet do not call themselves feminists – are calling for an end to violence against girls and women.
For many, feminism is strictly associated with women, not men. Men routinely flee from even the idea of feminism because the word is associated with femininity, with women, with girls. For American men, all that is tied to hypermasculinity, like dominance and toughness, is prized, and all that is associated with femininity is expected to be rejected. So, many men reject feminism by mocking it.
Most men want to turn feminism into a joke, without ever realising that it benefits them directly. Of course, feminism can open up careers possibilities by creating options for men to become librarians, nurses, social workers, anything they want to be. If more career options don’t interest men, what about better sex? In research out of Rutgers, both college men and older adult men with feminist partners reported greater sexual satisfaction than men with non-feminist partners.
What gets ignored is that feminism is about creating a world in which everyone will want to live, no matter their gender, skin colour, social class, or sexuality. In reality, feminism has the power to impact both men’s and women’s lives in positive ways. Men could become freer to be themselves than they’ve ever been, freer to express themselves in their own unique ways, and freer to ignore the social pressure to put on a superficial, hypermasculine mask.
Leading the charge
It is true that we don’t need to call ourselves feminists in order to end the sexual violence crisis. If people who are not feminists have ideas about how to end violence against women, I invite them to work alongside their feminist neighbours. All who wish to rid the world of sexual assault are welcome. For now, feminists are leading the charge.
Young feminists are doing a lot as social activists to create change. Here’s one example: young feminists have started a community project called SlutWalk to draw attention to and combat our rape-supportive culture. SlutWalk intends to reduce victim-blaming for rape and decrease slut-shaming for women liking sex. Another example: young feminists generated awareness and built conversation about our rape culture when they projected the words, “RAPE IS RAPE”, on the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, as part of the political dialogue surrounding the concept of a so-called “legitimate rape”. Strong online platforms for feminist discourse, such as feministing.com, feminist.com, and msmagazine.com, inspire this social activism via progressive blogging, community organisation, and activist projects. Texts, tweets, and sophisticated social media networks can be used by feminists to advance messages of social change, non-violence, and equality, rather than serving as a forum for exploitative communications and misogynistic ideas.
It’s a myth that young people don’t care about feminism. My young friend cared deeply about many feminist issues, including the elimination of violence against women. Ironically, even with some rejection of the word feminist, there remains broad support for feminist ideas. The more exposure young people have to feminists, the more they find people just like themselves. The more exposure to feminists, the more comfortable young adults will become with the word. The more exposure to feminists, the more likely individuals will be to claim this identity, and work to bring change to our culture of rape.
Dr Linda Rubin is a licensed psychologist and professor in the Counselling Psychology doctoral programme at Texas Woman’s University. She has teaching, clinical, and research expertise in interpersonal violence, traumatic stress, and gender issues, with 85 publications and professional presentations in international, national, and regional venues.