Sitting on a coffee shop patio, facing toward a busy street, absorbed by thoughts of my own little life–relationships, reflections, resentments–I am suddenly struck by the realization that I could be murdered at any moment. At any second, someone could decide to drive up, walk up, appear with a weapon, or with nothing but their hands and their rage, and take my life away from me. Unbidden. Unjustified.
This may seem a paranoid realization to have on a sunny, summer afternoon whilst sipping on a dopio espresso. Morbid and bone-chilling, certainly; but not unwarranted.
I live in a world–we all live in a world–where the following facts hold true:
1. According to a review conducted by UN Women in 2013, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.
2. Between 2008 and 2012, over 45K people were murdered with the use of firearms in the United States.
3. Recently, there have been a staggering number of tragedies involving gun violence and the targeted murder of women at the hands of men (more specifically, upper-middle class white men).
On April 25th, 2014, sixteen-year-old Maren Sanchez was pushed, choked, and stabbed to death by a male classmate after refusing to be his prom date.
On May 23rd, 2014, in Isla Vista, California, a 22-year-old white male shot and killed six people, injured thirteen others, and subsequently committed suicide. Two of the perpetrator’s victims were female university students who had been standing outside their sorority house at the time of the shooting. Before committing these crimes, the perpetrator published to the web a 140-page manifesto of his fury and his motives revealing his intent to seek vengeance on women for withholding themselves from him romantically and sexually. In this manifesto, the perpetrator details his desire to quarantine, starve, and eradicate the women of the earth. He describes women as a plague, depraved and “everything that is unfair with this world.”
On May 26th, 2014, in Stockton, California, three women were shot at by a man after refusing to have sex with him and his two friends in their apartment. The women fled, and no one was injured.
On June 16th, 2014, in Louisville, Kentucky, a woman was shot in the face by her ex-boyfriend while holding her four-year-old child. The shooter had been threatening and harassing her in previous weeks. A 19-year-old male bystander was killed by the shooter.
These are just a few examples of the violent crimes against women that have been occurring at an alarmingly high rate in recent months, but from these examples, we can already see a pattern forming. Each one of these instances bears the element of men punishing women for withholding themselves sexually and/or romantically. The men who committed these crimes apparently ascribe to the belief that women owe themselves to men, and that for a woman to deny the unwanted advances of boyfriends, classmates, or even complete strangers, is punishable by violence and death.
The Isla Vista Massacre has by far been the most publicized of these instances. The massacre has garnered so much attention not only because of the undeniable heinousness of the crimes (unlike most gendered violence, these crimes were committed at random), but because the perpetrator chose to make his intentions unmistakably clear. He wanted the world to witness his hatred for women. He wanted his crimes to become a symbol–a symbol of vengeance, of malformed justice, of putting women in their place. In the stomach-churning words of the Isla Vista killer, “If I can’t have them, no one will.”
Like most of us, I was raised in a culture of fear, cripplingly aware of my mortality, of the fact that at any moment, my life could be cut short. This fear was nothing more than the anxiety instilled in us all by worrisome parents and fear-mongering news anchors. After all, I was only eleven-years-old on September 11, 2001, so, much of my upbringing involved swimming through a sea of fear rhetoric. But until recently, this awareness of imminent threat did not interfere much with my day-to-day life. I could go about my business, run errands, wander through massive crowds of strangers in cities I’d never been to, without feeling a significant amount of fear. Now, whenever I’m in a public space with men present, I walk around feeling like I have a bull’s eye tattooed on my forehead. How do I cope with this? I stay vigilant, I limit the amount of time I spend in public spaces, and, for the most part, I avoid cities.
Women should not be responsible for altering their behavior to appease their oppressors. To respond to a problem of violence by advising potential victims to stay indoors, arm themselves, and travel in groups is a form of victim-blaming that our culture is all too familiar with. Rather than acknowledging that violence against women is a problem of men’s behavior, we remain focused on women’s behavior, insisting that tighter vigilance will correct the issue. That if women were simply more careful–in the way we dress, the places we go, the people we choose to associate with–that our need for concern would evaporate. This belief is not only false, but it’s abusive, manipulative and pathological.
In social work and advocacy circles, there’s a term called “crazy-making.” Crazy-making is the tendency for an abusive partner to make the abused partner feel like their own behavior, their own thoughts, their own misunderstandings, are the source of their turmoil. That if only the abused partner could see how naive they were being, the issues–whatever they may be–would all melt away. Our culture, particularly right now, in the wake of everything that has happened in these past few months, is engaged in “crazy-making” en masse. Women are angry, scared, and confused, increasingly so, as we continue to witness the violence committed against our community by violent men, and in response, we are told that we are overreacting and making the problem worse with our fury.
This is crazy-making. To assert that a community of people is “making the problem worse” by reacting with anger, sadness and frustration to systematic, identity-based violence is manipulative, narrow, and abusive.
Our communities are experiencing trauma. Frequent, violent, gendered trauma. And to assert that anything less than fury and desperation would be an appropriate reaction is dismissive of the very nature of human emotion. When people die, other people grieve. And when people die for no reason other than the vengeance and frustration of deeply troubled aggressors, the communities surrounding those people get angry.
I have personally been told by men bearing witness to my emotional reaction to the Isla Vista Massacre that my frustration and anger equated to “poison.” That if I, and all of the other people infuriated by this tragedy, would simply calm down and shut up, that “the whole thing would probably blow over pretty quickly.” Here, I was being told in no unclear terms that the issues regarding the Isla Vista Massacre resided not in the actions of the murderer, not in the damaging and violent beliefs of the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) which supported him, and certainly not in the pervasive acceptance of aggressive male dominance in our culture, but in my own anger, my own sadness.
I want to make it very clear that violence against women is not a new issue. Violence against women is an ancient issue, one that has plagued our culture and many others throughout the world for as long as recorded history can attest to. I also want to point out that violence against women of color, trans women, and trans women of color (not to mention homeless women, incarcerated women, the list goes on) is particularly pervasive in our culture. But because we tend not to view these identities as legitimate, we also tend not to report on or hear about these instances of violence as frequently. (According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, people who identify as transgender are 28% more likely to be victimized by physical violence than those who identify as gender normative.) The full-body fear that I have only just recently begun to experience–the fear of becoming a potential target of random violence at any moment–is an experience that women of color, trans women, and trans women of color have been familiar with for generations.
As a middle-class, young, white woman, I belong to a class of women that have traditionally been seen as “worthy of protection” by the dominant culture. Men hold doors for me. Cops are nice to me. Shop clerks give me the benefit of the doubt when I’m wandering through a store carrying a large purse. All evidences of my privilege. But because the recent, highly publicized acts of mass violence against women have been aimed, for the most part, at women in my particular demographic, the fear of being victimized feels more palpable, more imminent, than ever before. In fact, the very reality that these instances of violence, the Isla Vista Massacre in particular, have been so widely publicized can be attributed in part to the demographic of the victims–upper-middle class and white. If the crimes committed at Isla Vista had taken place in the inner city, and if the victims had been any race but white, I guarantee that the media coverage would have been much less frantic.
So often these days I hear people touting from all directions–from news outlets to living room gatherings–that feminism is old news. That the fight for women’s rights is irrelevant because women already have equal rights. This misinformed belief is not only frustrating, but objectively false. (If you don’t believe me, look up the Equal Rights Amendment on Wikipedia. Spoiler alert: according to the U.S. Constitution, it doesn’t exist).
Consider the following scenario:
If you are a straight, cis-gender (non-trans) man in the United States and you are sitting on the patio of a coffee shop, alone, at the end of the day, when the only other person on the premises is a petite blonde woman making coffee inside, and a woman, a stranger, sits down at the table next to you to drink her iced coffee, not even a tinge of fear will enter your mind. Not for a second will you even dream of thinking that you might be in danger, that this woman might have lascivious intentions. That she might be planning, behind her dark sunglasses, to follow you to your parked car and threaten you with physical violence, or corner you in the bathroom when the barista’s not looking and force herself on you. None of these thoughts would cross your mind.
All of these thoughts have crossed my mind. Today. Just before I began writing this article, when a man, a stranger, sat down at the table next to me to drink his iced coffee. And it’s not because I’m crazy that I thought these things. I am not a particularly paranoid or anxious person. I find myself, in fact, to be fairly trusting of people. I’ve hitchhiked alone, I’ve traveled to other countries alone, slept in strangers’ houses. Hell, I play music on the street corner for money when I can’t afford to put gas in my car. I place my trust into the hands of other people, of strangers of all genders, young and old, on a regular basis. But now, because I live in a culture where a war on women has ensued, physically, politically, emotionally, and socially, I am terrified.
Something that frustrates me most about all of this is that, throughout my years navigating the complicated terrain of my feminism, I have vociferously identified as an ally to men. In my critiques of patriarchy, I always create space for the acknowledgement that people of all genders, men very much included, are negatively affected by the social order. I viscerally empathize with the men in my life who have been barred from the chambers of their own tender souls by the forces of conventional masculinity, and by the abusive belief that to be a man means to be cold, callous, and unyieldingly strong. I condemn patriarchy in its tendency to oversimplify the identities of all people–to disregard our complexities, to ignore our deepest, most human needs. I rail against the patriarchy not because I believe in the superiority of women or the inferiority of men (these assumptions about feminism are archaic and false and must be done away with), but because I believe in the potential for goodness and beauty and worth in all people.
So, admittedly, I feel betrayed. I feel disappointed. Not because I know any of the men who have committed these most recent aggressions (I’m lucky enough to live in a community with many gentle and compassionate men), but because I’ve poured my faith into a demographic that I now find myself, unfortunately but necessarily, fearing. I don’t want to regret the hours upon days upon years that I’ve spent contemplating the deleterious effects of patriarchy on the psyches of men. And certainly, I don’t. But I want to feel, even for a moment, that my awareness of and compassion for these issues is good for something.
I am not surprised at the state of things. I am heartbroken, afraid, and shaken, but I’m not surprised. We teach boys and men in this culture to be angry, to be aggressive, to be ready for a fight, to not take shit, to be tough, to be strong, to decide what they want and go take it. These are the lessons we teach. Some of us more enthusiastically than others, but we all participate. When we tell a young boy to stop crying. When we turn a blind eye to, or even encourage, our sons chasing girls relentlessly on the playground. When we shame our male partners for crying, for showing weakness. When we continually expect men to act as pillars of strength, impenetrable and unchanging. Innocuous as they may seem, these are the ways that we perpetuate cycles of violence, aggression, and an ideal of manhood that involves predation, stoicism, and the unconditional assertion of power.
Emotion requires attention. When we feel, we are being asked to focus, to give mind to what we are experiencing, to allow our psyches and our selves to be worked over by whatever it is that we’re feeling. When emotions are ignored, repressed, or shamed, they do not disappear–they find some dank, dark corner of our souls in which to hide, only to reemerge a little further down the road, stronger and full of spite. So, when we continually erect barriers between the emotional interior of a human being (in this case, man) and that human being’s ability to freely express their emotions, we are creating a potentially dangerous situation for that person and for their community. We are damaging that person’s psyche and soul by limiting their scope of expression, heightening their sense of shame, and reinforcing feelings of helplessness and desperation.
I fear that we have created a culture in which anger is regarded as the only appropriate outlet for the expression of male emotion. Where sadness and defeat are only accepted when the bearer of tears also comes bearing breasts and soft skin.
I want to live in a world where emotion–with all its soft, wet, tender faces–is welcomed. Where people are courageous enough to uncover the weeping and neglected creatures that reside below their anger, the forgotten mothers who, in their disregarded pain, gave birth to bilious frustration.
Bobbing along in the wake of such heart-wrenching violence, we must resist the urge to act tough or to bite our tongues. To pretend that we are unaffected by the reality of senseless violence in our communities. This is a time to bear our hearts to one another like never before. To the extent, even, that we feel terrified of our vulnerability, unfamiliar with our openness of heart. Only when we have begun to build a culture that welcomes, or even tolerates, tenderness on the part of all people, will we regain the hope of putting an end to gendered violence.
In the profoundly simple words of bell hooks, “hurt people hurt people.” This phrase has been ringing through my head endlessly over these past few months, and I think its meaning is particularly indispensable to us now. People who commit acts of violence, however large or small, against other people, do not do so out of innate, cold-hearted malice. They do so because, somewhere deep and hidden in their hearts, they are bleeding, suffering from unspeakable pain.
Assuredly, I will take criticism for this perspective. I will be regarded by some as a tolerator of abuse, an MRM sympathizer. But I assure you that these things are not true. I do not sympathize with acts of violence, with victimizing another human being for the sake of expressing frustration with life. What I sympathize with are the broken, abused, crying souls living, hidden and caged, within the bodies of men, of people, who commit violence. And I emphatically believe that the only hope I have to outlive my fear, is to open my heart even wider, and to implore that others do the same.
I do not, even for a second, deny my rage. I am unapologetically furious at the lot that women–and all oppressed peoples–have been dealt, and continue to be dealt, by a badly broken system of culture and politics, of racism and sexism and capitalism, and all the rest. But I am also wholeheartedly committed to my compassion, to my belief that problems are always more complicated than they appear on the surface and that the only productive reaction to hatred, however difficult it may be to muster, is love.
An Addendum to Love
I expect that the question gaining traction in everyone’s minds now is, “How exactly can love combat the forces responsible for gendered violence?” Admittedly, “love” as a response to a broken society has already been tested. The 1960s ushered forth tides of hope and idealism for the Western world, with the then-radical proclamation that “love is all you need.” Consequently, during the 1970s and 80s, the United States and its Western counterparts underwent a massive cultural disillusionment at the failure of this flimsy anti-battle cry. Love, it seemed, was powerless in the face of war and an emerging oligarch.
So, how are the ideas espoused here different from those proliferated during the free love revolution of half a century ago?
The love I insist we so desperately need is unlike any that we have seen before. The love we need is organized, systematic, unconditional, radical–truly radical–and unafraid.
Where for so long we have lived within and upheld a system of institutionalized sexism (racism, classism, environmental destruction, spiritual upheaval), we must now begin to institutionalize our love. Where once we created an atmosphere of limitation (to identity, to opportunity, to expression), we must now insist upon an atmosphere of boundlessness. Where once we otherized, now we must systematically empathize. Where once we closed our eyes to the plight of those who struggle, now we must institutionalize our compassion. Where once we erected barriers between our hearts and our communities, let us shatter every brick for the sake of true communion.
How do we begin such a process? How do we replace one ideology for another? We enter schools, classrooms, prisons, townhalls, even cafes. We talk about violence. About the fear surging like a flame in the hearts of women, girls, and anyone who dares to subvert gender. About the silent pain festering in the hearts of men and boys, transmuting into anger. We insist that basic lessons regarding gender dynamics, gendered violence, and the concept of social construction become mandatory curriculum in the education of our children.
We listen. Fiercely and with our whole selves, we listen to sadness and pain just as we would joy and accomplishment. We celebrate tears, no matter who sheds them.
We acknowledge that when a person is behaving aggressively they are masking their own pain, and we create space in which to honor, receive, and address that pain. We insist on a generation of young people who can authentically express, rather than obediently behave. Who are unafraid to be seen and who know that someone will see them, hear them, and understand them when they need most to be understood. Most importantly, we must institutionalize our love so that we can cultivate a future of individuals who will acknowledge, embrace and respect the humanity inherent in all people, regardless of gender, of sex, or of any other arbitrary marker of identity.