On Being Aware

Mood: poached

AT THE COMEDY CLUB last night, the comic was heckling a young woman in the audience who apparently had drunk between two and four long island iced teas.  I remembered a time when I drank between two and twenty long island iced teas at the bowling alley, and let me tell you, those shoes can get really slippery.  Anyway, when the comic asked who was driving her home, the three gentlemen at her table all raised their hands, and the oh boys, you’re in for a fun night comment would have been funny if it had stopped there. But when he went on to tell this young woman that she’s just asking for trouble by drinking that much and he won’t feel sorry for her if he sees her on the six o’clock news after getting raped or murdered or whatever by those three men, it just rubbed me the wrong way (no pun intended).

I wondered if he would be saying those things if she were his daughter. Oh yeah, she’s drunk, she’s in your hands now, boys.  Do with her what you wish.

I was torn between wanting to run out of the club screaming STOP BEING IGNORANT and wanting to keep my mouth shut because whatever I did wouldn’t have made any difference anyway.  Would it really have done any good to stand up and pontificate in front of a crowd of people who were just looking for a laugh? Lighten up.  Learn to take a joke. What if I dropped our favorite catch phrases—slut-shaming, victim-blaming, rape culture? But maybe it would have made a difference, at least to that young woman.  Statistically, there is a good chance that woman had been sexually assaulted at some point in her life, and when somebody reaffirms what you feel to the very core of your being—that it was your fault, you were asking for it, you deserved it—it feels like dagger slowly shoved into your gut, twisting and turning to methodically destroy you from the inside out.

As many qualms people have with the term “rape culture,” it does exist in a pervasive and insidious way.  When I hear people say things like, “The Chicago Bears got raped last week,” or “These credit cards just rape you with interest charges,” I don’t think they’re trying to be insensitive or personally offensive to anyone. If they really understood the connotations of their terminology, they wouldn’t use that word so nonchalantly. I’m glad that for some people, rape is an abstract idea, but for way too many people, rape is a reality, and the casual usage of the word just reinforces the feelings of loneliness and shame and trivializes tremendously painful experiences. Using the word rape out of context reaches far beyond respecting any victims who might be within an earshot—the word’s improper usage contributes to the societal lack of understanding and awareness of these issues, and it certainly contributes to victims not wanting to come forward out of fear of not being taken seriously, being ridiculed and ostracized, or because they blame themselves.

I know I might be beating a dead horse (ugh, that’s not the best phraseology either is it?), but we still just aren’t getting it—just because somebody drinks too much or wears short skirts or walks alone at night, doesn’t mean he or she deserves whatever attack might ensue. We might knowingly or unknowingly put ourselves in dangerous situations, but that still doesn’t make it our fault that we were attacked. While it is prudent to be aware of unsafe circumstances, the assailants are, and will always be, the ones responsible for an assault.

So there’s my April-is-sexual-assault-awareness-month post. I used to scoff at these [insert important issue] awareness campaigns—of course we are all aware of abuse and disease. But the importance of advocacy is not only being aware of the existence of the problems of the human race, but being aware of the true nature of those problems in order to make progress toward improving our conditions.  So please, let’s hold the perpetrators, not the victims, responsible for their attacks, let’s help people who are in vulnerable situations, and for the love of kale chips, let’s stop using the word rape out of context.

Apryl Pooley is a neuroscientist at Michigan State University where she researches the effects of trauma on the brain. She is author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir.