Browsing Tag

bystander effect


despair and fury: being a woman in rape culture

[content note: rape, sexual assault, depression]

This is an extremely difficult post for me to write. The words have been simmering inside of me for a long time, and I hope that getting them out of me will … help. I wrote a post a little while ago that talked about the depression I’ve been struggling with, and as you can probably tell from my lack of regular posting, the past two weeks have been rough.

I consider myself fortunate in that my depression has always been situational– while it certainly isn’t fun, that it’s been a rather normal reaction to life events means that when life settles down, so can I. I’ve never worried about being depressed because I knew there would be a bend in the road, a light at the end of the tunnel, and I’d come out of it. Eventually. All I had to do was buckle down and muscle through it.

This time, though … I’m not sure how to get around this depression because while it’s still situational, the “situation” isn’t ever going to go away. This time, I’m depressed because rapists get away with it.

I don’t think that’s a fact that’s going to change at any point in my lifetime … and that’s just fucking depressing as shit.

I came to the realization of why I’m depressed shortly before Christmas. I was speaking with my partner about a man we both know to be a sexual predator when I just … snapped. I was remembering all of the times this person had grabbed my ass without my permission or the times I’d watched him drunkenly grope and forcefully kiss his way through a party– and the fact that he was surrounded by a community of men who find this behavior acceptable and will call any woman who complains about it a “bitch.” And, suddenly, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I’d removed myself from that group of people, but the group still exists and that behavior still happens, and nothing is ever going to happen to him.

I hid myself in the closet and beat my head into the wall until everything in my vision was a little fuzzy and dark; I wanted to claw out of my skin, to rip my heart out of my chest so it would stop hurting so badly. My rapist, the last time I heard anything about him, was a youth pastor, and married to the woman he’d cheated on me with– a woman, because of what he told me, I suspect he might have assaulted. By all accounts he’s happy and successful and chances are he will never be brought to justice for all the women he’s harmed. And that … was overwhelming in a way that I can’t put into words. That night, I hated this world and everything about it. I was hysterical with fury and pain.

Since that night I’ve been struggling to deal with this reality that I’ve been able to emotionally ignore for so many years. I can’t escape it now, and the burden of waking up to a world where the men I know to be rapists are happy and hale and will– almost absolutely– never see the inside of a prison makes me want to shrink as far into my bed as I can bury myself.

Today it took me three hours to drag myself out of bed, and all I ended up doing was moving to the couch, cuddling with Elsa, and crying myself to sleep again. I thought I might be getting better, that surrounding myself with tea and good books and good movies and cuddling with Handsome was working.

But, last Wednesday, I was riding the DC metro and I watched a man violate every single one of a woman’s boundaries while she was helplessly trapped on a train with him with no where to go. I stood there, helpless and enraged, not knowing what to do, while I watched him slowly escalate his behavior until he attacked her and she tried to fight him off and I start yelling at him to stop, but he ignored me until Handsome grabbed his shoulder. And then he spends the next five minutes yelling at every single last person on the train about the “dumb bitch” who interfered.

And I stood on that train until he got off, and I sobbed, because I saw that other people had noticed, and I and Handsome had been the only ones to even move when he attacked her. I cried harder when another passenger confronted my partner and told him that he should have “left it alone.”

I don’t know how to live on this planet. I don’t know how to live on a planet where Fifty Shades of Grey is a box-office success and women tell me that I need to take responsibility for being raped because obviously I ignored the many neon-billboard signs that my rapist was an abuser because I thought he was hot. I don’t know how to live in the same country as a woman who tells rape victims that they need to repent. I don’t know how to live in a world where it’s rare and unusual for someone to step in, even when a sexual assault is obviously happening right in front of them.

And while I know this is a bit melodramatic… I feel like Elijah saying “I am the only one left.” And of course that’s objectively ridiculous. There are so many incredible people out there fighting for the same thing I am, who speak up when they see something happening. It’s just difficult to remember that when you’re the only “bitch” at a party telling someone to quit it, or the only person on a train willing to speak up.

It makes me angry, too, because it’s not as though being a feminist takes any of my fear away. I am just as embarrassed and awkward and afraid of rocking the patriarchal party boat as anyone else. I am just as terrified of confronting someone on the train and making myself a target. The difference is that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t do something, and it infuriates me that so many know that people around them are being harassed and assaulted, and they care … they just don’t care enough.

In the end, that is what I find truly depressing.

So, I’m throwing this post out there, hoping that it could make someone understand exactly what is at stake when they keep their head down and “mind their own business,” when they are bothered by that guy at a party who just won’t leave that woman alone but don’t want to get harassed for saying something about it. If these words do anything, I hope that it convinces at least one person that taking all the heat and flack and cursing and raging is worth it.

Art by Liza


standing up for women in public


I was at a birthday party for two of my friends. It had already been going on for a few hours– a riotous game of beer pong had been going downhill for a while, a few people were in the middle of a jam session, and then there was the usual scattered groups of people milling about the living room, the porch, the kitchen . . .

I was talking to a woman I’d just met, Lisa*, who was in another graduate program at my university. Without warning, someone I’d also never seen before stumbled into the middle of our conversation, obviously drunk.

“I’m Todd*! What’s your name?” He looked at both of us, but then fixated on Lisa.

“Lisa,” she said, and I gave my name.

“Lisa! Is that how you normally introduce yourself, or do you normally say ‘Hi, I’m Lisa, and I’m exactly the right height?'” As he said this, he made a sloppy hip-thrust and pointed at his crotch.

I stared at him, agape, then turned to Lisa, raising my eyebrows, silently asking if she wanted me to step in. She shook her head, giving me the smile that said “don’t worry, I got this.” She raised one eyebrow, staring him down for a long moment while I stared down into my white Russian and tried not to laugh. Eventually he merely shrank away, completely cowed. We laughed, and I offered my hand for a hi-five.

There’s probably something that you should know for this story to make any sense.

Lisa is a little person.

But, in this story, she was a little person and a woman, and that made her very existence fair game to Todd– nothing more than the butt of incredibly crass joke. Both Lisa and I had to navigate complicated territory in that moment when he opened his mouth; because we were both women, our options as to how we could respond were incredibly limited. The most socially acceptable option is to laugh awkwardly and then earnestly hope that he leaves you alone. Doing anything that strays from that– calling him on his ass-hattery, for one– is usually pretty frowned upon, and would quickly relegate any woman to the label of bitch.


I’ve been working on research for a while, including reading books like Transforming a Rape Culture and The Purity Myth

First, I highly recommend The Purity Myth— for everyone. Everyone.

Anyway, all of this research has been . . . illuminating and infuriating. Handsome joked today that “my default state is angry,” and right now, he’s right. A few weeks ago I spent two days–two days, I tell you— just watching Simon the Cat videos and eating cookies just because I couldn’t handle anything else. But there is . . . so much injustice.  So much.

But, books like The Purity Myth have done a lot to completely rip off any blinders I might have had about violence against women– how pervasive it is, how often it happens, and how people in power rarely seem to bother to notice. And yes, I’m angry. Every once in a while, though, I get hopeful– when I find something I can personally do, I latch on to it. I want to make a difference. I want to fight this darkness. I want to hope that this can change, that violence against women can end.

A moment like that came when I was watching a TEDx talk put on by Mentors in Violence Prevention about the bystander effect.” You should watch the video, but the essence of it was this: when you see violence happening, say something. It sounds so small, but it’s huge. In some social situations, it’s monumentally huge– insurmountably huge. Just speaking up and saying something sometimes mean that you’ll be punished severely by everyone you know.

Watching that video reminded me of the night I met Lisa– not even half an hour after Todd had cracked that horrible joke, he had accosted me again and started telling me how fuckable I was, that obviously he could just tell that I wanted him so badly. I insisted that no, I was most definitely not interested in him at all on any level, but he continued following me around and harassing me for the next hour. I was neck deep in his shit by then, so finally I snapped. I turned to face him, head on, looked him dead in the eye, and told him that he was being disgusting, that it was inappropriate what he had been doing for an hour, and that I was sick of it and if that he came anywhere near me again I’d knee him.

He did, finally, leave me alone, but seconds later one of my friends came up to me. “Why did you do that? Todd didn’t deserve that– I mean, I know he can be kind of an ass sometimes, but you were really bitchy just then.”

I was speechless. Part of me was angry– why weren’t they taking my side? Did they not notice that he’d been harassing me for over an hour? But the biggest part of me– the part of me that took over my mouth and apologized– was ashamed. Ashamed for speaking up for myself. Ashamed for not acquiescing. Ashamed for making a scene.

After I watched the TEDx talk, though, I decided– never again. If I hear sexism, I’m going to say something. If I hear something– no matter how “innocently” the people around me think it was meant– that encourages violence against women, I am not going to be quiet anymore.

I was talking about this epiphany with Handsome– and I specifically gave the example of something that a lot of people in our peer group are quite comfortable with saying: “I’ll make you my bitch” or “you’re my bitch” or “we just got raped” when what happened was they payed too much for tacos. I told him that if I heard someone in our peer group casually use a phrase that has violence against women at its heart, I’m going to say “That is sexist, it is not appropriate, and please don’t ever say something like that in front of me again.”

Handsome disagreed. “No, you shouldn’t do that. That would completely humiliate them. That’s totally not ok– that would be bitchy, Sam.”

I looked at him for a long, drawn-out moment, silent. Finally– “It’s only ‘humiliating’ because violence against women and sexism is normal and accepted behavior, Handsome.”

He stared back.

“Holy shit… you’re right.” He paused. “If we were in a room with black people, and some white dude started using the N-word, and a black person called him on it, we’d all be cheering and clapping.”


That’s why this it is so important to not let any of this slide anymore. We have to make sexism obsolete. We have to make violence against women be something of the ancient past. That can only start when one person at a time stops tolerating all the tiny, supposedly “insignificant” ways we commit violence against women every day.