There are lasting repercussions to my years in the church and my years being powerless in general. The biggest is the amount of ground I have lost in awareness of social justice issues and in passing along that awareness. Oddly enough, I came to this realization last night after reading the interview with the cast of Arrested Development in the New York Times, of all things.
The interview disturbed me a lot. As I read the article, I felt every instance in which I’d ever been shut down, mansplained, gaslighted, dismissed. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one with that kind of reaction; I’ve seen tons of responses to it today and Jason Bateman made some long-winded but kinda confused-sounding apology. But this NPR article about the NYT article (how very meta) sums up my reaction to the issue pretty well.
Today I also came to realize how much I have failed to impress upon my sons and in many ways also my husband what I feel is important about women’s rights. We recently signed up for Hulu and I was telling them about wanting to watch “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a book I loved that’s been made into a show. My middle son, a high school junior, asked why I described the premise of the show (essentially forced reproduction and where female freedom in general is controlled totally by men) as scary and too close to our current reality. And he didn’t really buy my answer; he doesn’t think things are that bad.
It was then that I realized that, for one thing, I haven’t been talking about the horrible things in the news regarding the threats to women’s rights. Part of that is because I’ve found it overwhelming and that it makes me feel defeated.
But between Iowa passing a law that outlaws abortions at the time a heartbeat can be detected — before most women even know they’re pregnant — to a former Oklahoma senator trying to pass legislation that a fetus is the man’s property and the father must sign a permission slip before a woman can get an abortion, women’s rights are clearly being chipped away.
Oh, in a “Handmaid’s Tale isn’t so far off” twist, that same OK senator (now the EPA chief–you know, that same agency chief who banned AP and CNN reporters from its summit on contaminants a couple days ago) would require the woman seeking an abortion who said she’d been raped to somehow prove it. Because we all know how seriously the authorities take rape cases.
Too many links? Less than 40 percent of reported rapes result in arrests. As the receiver myself of a “what were you wearing?” response to my own admission of a date rape, and having trained as a volunteer sexual assault advocate for a women’s shelter, I know that few women feel assured that anyone will ever come to their defense if they report rape. Few will believe them. And I believe it’s getting worse and women are less safe now.
Just look at the “incel” (involuntary celibacy) movement that is being used to justify mass murders. Seeing as how the incel group on Reddit had 40,000 members before it was banned, and the issue is still being discussed in other forums, it’s clearly not going away. It’s the sexual side of the alt-right. Women, along with Democrats and people who care about helping others, are seen as “weak” and worthless.
It’s the biggest reason I never doubted Trump would win, like so many of my friends did: I knew the size of the community and their anger. Honestly, I should have seen this coming years ago with the Heartiste site (not linking to it) and the whole idea that men who respected women were wimpy “betas.” That whole movement promised men both more sex and respect if they asserted their dominance over women, refused to help with chores and insisted on sex on demand.
I, along with many women I know, have always had this low level of fear of sex and men and rape. It’s really hard to let go of, even when you’re old and fat. If you’re female, it’s just something you live with your whole life, but eventually most women find ways not to have it in the forefront of their minds. (Even my mother-in-law used to avoid certain ATM machines and advised me to do the same because of the presumed greater risk of rape there…as though any place is really a rape-free zone.)
I am so angry about so many of these issues and I feel like if I let any of it out, I’m going to explode.
For nine long years I was supposed to be anti-abortion because of religion. Obviously that also meant avoiding women’s rights news because it so often ties into reproductive rights. I could never quite get there–certainly never enough to join my lone Catholic friend who invited me to join her in “40 days for life” crusades to pray rosaries for an end to abortion.
But I still tried to stick my head in the sand. The best I could say was that it was complicated. And it is still complicated for me. But I absolutely understand why women would choose to get an abortion, and if I were to get pregnant now, I probably could not continue that pregnancy. I do not want abortion to ever become illegal. The places where it is illegal are hardly bastions of human rights in general.
But my complicated feelings and anger about how much women’s rights are being dismantled are even harder because I’m the lone woman in a house full of males.
None of the males in my house have an explicitly anti-woman attitude. Most of them are too shy to harass women. They’re not the kind of swaggering dudes in the old boys’ club, bragging about how much pussy they get. They’re actually pretty against those kinds of attitudes.
So how can it be that I still feel like nobody takes me seriously when I talk about this stuff? Maybe it’s just because they don’t understand, not having experienced it first hand. I know my younger boys (especially my youngest) have said that they often feel like men get an unfair rap because of the actions of a few — or even the actions of the majority. The point is that he’s not one of the bad guys and doesn’t appreciate being lumped in with the ones who are.
And I get all of that. I truly do. The males in my home are gentle and sweet and are not at all the asshole types who are making things worse for women. But that doesn’t excuse their need to know about women’s rights and the issues I fear.
Just like that, I finally had my own lightbulb moment of understanding. I’ve been low key annoyed for several months by some of my friends who are way more vocally upset about racial issues than I am. By and large, these friends are people of color. And I’ve always totally agreed with their demands and been outraged at their mistreatment and I have never once used my white woman’s tears to get out of anything.
That article about how white women strategically use crying to silence women of color actually really pissed me off when I read it a couple weeks ago. Even more so when I saw it shared and retweeted all over the place. I have definitely never done that, so I felt personally attacked for something I hadn’t done. I feel like calling all white women “Becky” reduces me to a stereotype, the same thing I consciously try to avoid having doing to others.
I was similarly uncomfortable a few years ago when some famous blogger whose name I can’t remember wrote about how poor white people could still be privileged. At the time, I was still in Michigan and struggling a lot, so that took a really long time to wrap my head around. But I finally got that privilege doesn’t mean you don’t struggle. It just means that you accept that others face even more obstacles than you do.
And now, I’m starting to get the whole big picture. It’s hard to be a part of a privileged class when I don’t feel I’ve abused my privilege. I want to say that it doesn’t apply to me, and I truly don’t believe it does.
But if my response is more about my indignation over being lumped in with the oppressors, than validation of and concern for the oppressed, I am indeed part of the problem.
Similarly, when my sons and husband say the complaints about men don’t apply to them, I know that they’re coming from a place of good intentions. The complaints about men don’t apply to them in most cases. They may not feel they have much privilege. Even though they benefit from being straight white males, they’re not the alpha dogs leading the football team or sitting in the C suites. But you don’t need to be rich and powerful to have some degree of privilege.
But when they tell me they just don’t see what I see or that they think the “me too” movement and the conviction of Bill Cosby (how many times did that take?) are signs that things are getting better, it makes me feel dismissed and completely invalidated. Their gut reaction to defend themselves is an unconscious failure to believe what I’m saying. It’s exactly the “me too” issue on a much smaller scale, the initial tendency to doubt that women’s experiences could actually be true.
Acknowledging that these systems where people are being oppressed are in place, even if you’re not consciously doing the oppressing, is really uncomfortable. A lot of us think that if we’re not intentionally trying to hurt others, our work here is done.
But we can always do better when we just listen to and validate what people tell us. Just like when trans people take offense to unintentionally transphobic phrases some people throw around without intending harm, it’s hard not to feel defensive.
But being defensive is actually the worst thing you can do because it doesn’t indicate an open mind or a willingness to be educated. So many of the things we say and believe are based on unconscious beliefs, biases we were raised with, even cultural meanings that we never examined before.
This applies to me as much as it does anyone else in my life. Or anyone in society, really. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable when others tell us they feel oppressed. Because when you are in an oppressed group, that often comes with a lot of fear. There’s nothing to ramp up and make your fears feel justified like being told things aren’t as bad as you think they are, especially by the people you love most. If even your loved ones, your “safe” people, don’t take your concerns seriously, who will?
And that’s what I should have been modeling all along. I clearly had my own awareness to develop, which is still in progress. Instead of giving in to that innate human tendency to defend ourselves–especially when we know claims made against others like us don’t apply to us personally–it’s a lot more important to just listen. Take that defensiveness as a sign that you have a lot more to learn.
Those of us with some sort of privilege, even if it doesn’t seem like much, owe it to those with less privilege to at least validate what they’re saying. I hear you. I believe you. I’m trying.