Most men, I believe, really don't get, either intellectually or viscerally, the degree to which the awareness of sexual assault permeates women's lives.
(Note: I say "most." There are always exceptions to everything.)
Someone I respect a great deal asked to hear more about this, which is really just an excuse, because I was planning on posting this anyway. Instead of talking about Women In General, I'm just going to talk about me ('cause I can do that) and let readers decide how universal my experiences are.
Some baseline information, here: I'm 38 years old, white, middle-class, fairly seriously educated. I've lived most of my life in the MidWest, with an eight year stint in Arizona. I've been in a monogamous relationship for eleven years, married for seven. I'm also overweight, have been since puberty, and I have fairly sizeable breasts. I've never been raped. I've been groped a few times in crowds, had a few "oops, are those your boobs?" moments. I've been hit on at bus stops, had a few uncomfortable moments with guys standing too close, that sort of thing. All of this is just to establish: I've taken no more crap in this arena than any other woman, and a great deal less than some.
It is a very rare day that I don't make at least one decision based on the awareness of sexual assault. Most of them are by now instinctive, and few of them are based only on that awareness, but it is a factor.
If I am home alone, my doors are locked. I have several times gotten up from a nap to check and see if I did indeed lock them. This is in part because I'm usually upstairs, and might not hear someone coming in and stealing my iPod, but it's also because that same person could come upstairs, and no one would hear me. About once every other month or so, I think I hear someone downstairs, and I have to decide what to do about it. The other day, when I was in the toystore with my daughter, I priced baseball bats, just because it would be nice to have something to grab before heading downstairs and making sure what I heard was indeed one of the cats.
I instinctively check my backseat before I get in the car.
When I go into work on weekends to grade, I close and lock my office door. This is seldom for privacy. I do this despite knowing that if security comes by, I'll have to get up to open it so they can verify it's me, whereas if I leave the door open, they'll just wave.
When I go for walks, I take my cell phone with me. I never go for walks at night alone, ever. I might if someone were with me, but not alone.
I seldom take stairs when the stairwells are completely enclosed, and never for more than a flight. A friend of mine was raped in one of those.
In my entire eight years teaching at ASU, I taught exactly one night class, and that was after I was living with slashspouse and knew he could come pick me up. The year I tutored at night, I used the campus safety escort to get me the whole half mile to my apartment. This frequently added as much as an hour to my night.
I've been heckled by guys on the street about my breasts. It is only in recent years that I've gotten over an aversion to any clothes that show cleavage. When I was 19, I got a phone call from a guy asking me to do nude modeling. I said no, and two nights later got an obscene phone call that referenced my breasts. It was fairly obviously someone from my summer job. I don't know what would have happened if I'd said yes to the modeling job. Maybe nothing, maybe just a prank. But I carried an exacto knife in my purse the rest of the summer.
I used to have to take rides from friends a lot, and I would from time to time get passed off to someone else. "Oh, he's headed your way." And since they were doing me a favor, I never said anything, but every time, I thought, this is it. This is the moment they ask about at the trial, why did I get in the car with him? And I hate thinking that way, hate it, but how many times have we heard it?
Once, before I met slashspouse, I attended a party at the apartment of some friends who lived across the street. When I left, the guy I'd been talking to all night walked me home. We were both pretty plastered, and we fooled around a bit, but not much. When it came up with the party hosts the next day, they assured me that they would not have let me leave with said guy unless they knew he was "safe." I didn't say anything to prompt it; the awareness of what could have happened was just there.
These are just day to day life. And I have none of the extra awareness that might come from actually experiencing sexual assault. All of this is just self-defense classes in gym, programs in the dorm, things that happened to friends or on campuses. More importantly, all of this is, "Why was she jogging in the park at night?" and "Why did she go up to his hotel room?" and "Well, she shouldn't have gotten drunk." All of this is from hearing that I'm supposed to know which of the guys who hits on me at the bus stop will decide that dinner and a glass of wine means I owe him sex, even as the statistics scream at me that there is no way of knowing, that it's the guy I've known my whole life and trust implicitly that I have to watch out for.
It is also, to bring in fandom for a moment, a result of show after show, movie after movie, that has a sexual assault storyline. Think about the shows that are on for any length of time. How many of them have not, at one point or another, had a major female character be raped (or have been raped in the past), forcibly impregnated, or otherwise subject to sexual violence? (That's a rhetorical question. Yes, I'm sure you can list them. There are still an awful lot that have this storyline.)
And then they turn around and call me paranoid and untrusting and man-hating.
Through all of this, I've watched men I care about and respect struggle with what to do, with how at the very least not to be part of the problem, let alone part of the solution. And I think that's important, because for all that we frame rape as a women's issue, it's mostly not women doing the raping (and seriously, the first person to say, "well, women rape men, too!" gets a link to this post and nothing else). In the final analysis, it's men that have to change.
I'm sort of opening this thread up for suggestions, but here is mine:
Think about your language. One of the less fun events of my (brief) gaming career was when I quit a game in part because the language was making me uncomfortable. (I also wasn't having a very good time, but that was tied in.) Now, y'all know me: I have a mouth like a sailor, and I really have no problem with swearing. However…well, let me explain by example: when one character delivered a good beating on another, soundly defeated that character, often brutally, the most common expression used to describe it was "fucked him like a pussy."
Now, I have no doubt that they didn't intend to be tying violence to sex like that, or to use implied rape as the metaphor for a good beating. And with guys I knew better, I might have either shrugged it off, or even said something. (By the way, one of the best suggestions I ever saw on this topic was to respond to jokes about rape with, "Yeah, because you know what's really funny? Rape.") But as the only woman in a room full of guys I mostly didn't know well, it was an added layer of not feeling safe.
And that, I think, is one thing the average guy can do: think about your language, and the context you utter it in. I'm not saying you can never use language like I described (although I'm not nuts about that particular phrase anyway, but that's another debate). I'm saying, think about the women (or worse, single woman, because most women have at some point or another experienced being the only woman in a room full of guys) in the room, about how the way you phrase things might affect their feelings of safety, and remember: they live with the awareness of sexual assault.
As always, comments welcome.