Lessons from the unthinkable
June 3, 2014
The recent tragedy in Isla Vista, California, in which a young man attacked and killed six people allegedly to punish men who earned the affection of women and to punish a woman who rejected his attempts at affection, sparked a huge response. For many, this tragedy is bringing victims of man-on-woman violence together to share their experiences and create awareness. Others, however, are taking to social media and placing blame on women, saying that this is what happens when women reject the advances of men.
I’ve never considered myself knowledgeable about gender violence issues until this past year, when I took a job in Boston teaching girls self-defense. Every Tuesday, I took a 40-minute bus ride into Dorchester, Massachusetts, to teach a group of 13-year-old girls about physical and verbal self-defense along with conflict resolution and self-awareness. A large part of our time was spent reflecting on past experiences and how we, as young women, present ourselves and how others perceive us.
One discussion with the girls stuck with me and spurred me to begin remembering, and later noticing, certain instances in a different light. We talked about the pressure girls and women face to protect themselves against harm — particularly in how they carry themselves in public.
On my return trip to school that evening, I waited at the bus stop and kept my head level — avoiding eye contact with everyone. I got on the bus and took a seat in clear view of the driver’s rearview mirror, next to a mother and her young son. I walked swiftly and purposefully through campus with the keys to my apartment clenched tightly in my fist.
I do all those things and more on a daily basis because I, and most other women, have, in essence, been programmed to believe that we are not safe alone outside our homes. It is normal for us to walk down the street paranoid and suspicious of everyone around us. We are taught that men can and will take advantage of us and that it is our responsibility to ensure that does not happen.
I wonder if my male peers have had the same ingrained understanding about respecting women as I have had about preventing assault.
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The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that every 90 seconds, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted — usually a case of man-on-woman violence. One in four women experience some form of sexual assault in college and girls ages 16-19 are four times more likely than anyone else in the population to become victims of sexual assault. According to the Department of Justice, only six percent of rapists will ever spend a day in jail.
When I hear those statistics, paranoia seems like a rational response.
And here lies the problem. We have an absurd amount of sexual violence against women and the solution seems to be to teach women how to avoid inviting it. We are taught that if we don’t show too much skin and we don’t smile or attract too much attention, we won’t become targets for assault. Women are taught that we are responsible both for our own sexual morality and for the sexual morality of the men around us.
Instead of teaching women to do everything they can to avoid sexual assault, the focus should be on teaching men that women are not objects to target and they are not people to conquer. A school official shouldn’t publicly call girls out on wearing tops seemingly cut too low or shorts just a tad too high. Saying a girl’s body is distracting and that other people have the right to dictate what she wears reinforces the objectification of women.
The man who killed all those people in Isla Vista was motivated by the fact that he felt he had never received the affection of women — and that he felt he deserved the affection of women. No man deserves the affection of a woman just like no woman deserves the affection of a man. Affection, much like respect and trust, is earned and cannot be taken.
Erin Carmichael is a 2012 graduate of Park City High School and a student at Northeastern University. She is a summer intern for The Park Record.
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