Stories about extreme violence and brutality against women have been in the news lately. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Why do we only react when things get so, terribly, painfully bad? Violence doesn’t just start with a horrible incident on a desolate highway. Violence is ambient. Violence starts with the little things. Violence happens to every woman. Everyday. And no, it’s not about what we were wearing, who we were with, or where we were.
The other day I nearly got groped on a bus. Again. A few minutes before my stop, a man who had been ogling me, tried to lean into me, all while making sexual smacking noises with his mouth. In moments like this, I freeze. Danger was a few inches away. Danger was a set of hands. In a few seconds he was towering over me, his arms positioned to block me from moving. I noticed him licking his lips, his eyes rowing up and down my body, staring through my clothes. His shifted his hands, trying to brush against me. I wanted to scream, to hide, to be anywhere safe. I guarded myself with my bag and immediately got down at the next stop. By the time I reached home, I was a mess of emotions. I felt tired and violated. Tired of feeling violated. Even though I was now home and safe, my heart was still hammering with fear. I could still see him inching closer to me, his drunken eyes slick with lust and peering into every inch and curve of my body.
My first thought when I got home was that I needed to change my clothes. I pulled off my pretty outfit and changed into something loose and dull. After all my feminist education, I still blame myself. Blame my clothes, my body for being too provocative and sexual. I couldn’t bear to be in the same clothes that I was violated in. I couldn’t even bear to be in the same body. I blamed myself over and over again.
And this is where things have to be different. Emotions like shame and guilt can be strong. But imagination is stronger. Imagine a city where the late-night bus has as many women as men, where streets are well lit and no woman is ever the only woman at a seedy, dim bus-stop. Imagine a country where the sexual culture is open, curious and compassionate- compassionate enough for men to see women as human beings, and express their desires in a healthy way without violating women. If sexuality is normalized, it will be seen as just another facet of a human experience, not something shameful or illicit that has to be acquired through crime, deception and violence. Imagine if everyone saw sex as something people share joyfully, not something that has to be taken by force.
Imagine a future where I am empowered enough to respond differently- where I shout, talk back, yell or slap the men who violate me. Imagine a world where the prevailing frameworks for therapy, medicine, justice, law and urban planning all sufficiently understand sexual violence and work together to enable safety, justice and care. Imagine a school system with flourishing sex education, where young people are actively taught about consent, empathy and sexual pleasure. Imagine all of this.
The problem is, I cannot imagine any of this. I don’t think any of us can. Institutions today are fragmented, corrupt and fail to come together under a common goal of a secure and fair future. Instead of being restorative, pro-active and preventive, most social frameworks today are retributive, lazy and curative, which does little to end sexual violence. Our imagination fails women. Our actions fail women. So no, it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t because my top was a little too tight, or I was out a little too late. It is because women are systematically subject to sexual violence, and men are systematically desensitized to it, by sexist upbringings and from being discouraged to express any emotion other than anger.
It is because objectification takes place everywhere- through advertisements, movies and a culture of modesty that automatically divides women into either ‘prudes’ or ‘sluts.’ Then no wonder women in public spaces are seen as objects, moving targets to be preyed on, instead of a living, breathing, traveling human beings. It is because in relationships it is assumed that men ‘take’ sex and women ‘give’ sex, instead of rightful equals. So the answer isn’t for women to cover up more, and be out less. That is only a flimsy band-aid over a festering wound. The answer is that we need radical sexual equality. Now. And all of us, in our personal and political capacities- as friends, parents, lovers, citizens, teachers and employers, need to strive towards this.