… acts of a madman…
What is madness? If I had to capture it in a few words, I’d say it’s anything that is so far removed from the reality of the “norm” that it becomes incomprehensible to the “normal.”
If you followed the news over the weekend, you know what this post is about. Only I don’t want to talk about the act itself; I don’t feel like wasting any time on a person, by all accounts a human, who already got more attention through his acts that he was ever deserving of. Instead, I’d like to talk a little about the narrative that followed, which once more contained references to mental illness, personality disorders, and so on. Because I’d like to posit that at heart, this act was not far removed from the norm at all – that is, if you’re a woman who’s been paying any attention to the culture in which she lives, breathes and exists.
Let me take you back to when I was 14 years old and trying to make some summer spending money and build character by delivering magazines in a neighboring neighborhood once a week. It was relatively warm and I was wearing a shirt and tank-top. I usually delivered these magazines with my best friends; sometimes we’d walk together, but if we wanted to be done quickly, we’d split up, which we did that day. A man, a grown man, walked by and told me how sexy I looked. I, being 14 years old, kept my head down and quickly made an exit. Though this is the first encounter with street harassment I can remember, I know it wasn’t actually the first one, because I wasn’t surprised. But the thing is that usually, teen and preteen girls travel in packs, so on previous occasions where I was approached by strange men, it had happened with friends nearby – friends who were able to deflect and protect. That same summer, there was a young man who frequented the same swimming pool my friends and I did, and he took an interest. Sometimes he’d let me hang onto his car window while I rode my bike, so that I’d be home faster. He wanted to kiss me, but with friends usually around I managed to avoid that.
This was the summer I realized once and for all that this was a thing now. Men would be approaching me, and if I wasn’t interested (and I usually wasn’t, even though like many teenage girls, I still found older guys fascinating), I would have to find a way to turn down their advances or to avoid their advances altogether. I’m not alone in these experiences. In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey describes a workshop that Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, did with 200 women. Wiseman asked them to write down when they first “knew they were a woman” and Fey notes that the answers had a “very similar theme” despite the women’s varying ages and backgrounds: “Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them.” From this moment on, whether it happens at age 10 or 14 or 17, I would posit, most of us start developing a sixth sense for male sexual attention: wanted and unwanted. The unwanted sexual attention, whether they’re looks or comments or acts, starts popping up on our Creep Radar. This radar is not built overnight. It develops through experiences like making out with a 23-year old cop, who then wants to date you, at age 16, and being secretly relieved when your mother tells you that is not a thing you need in your life. You hone your skills by noticing whenever strange men look at you a little too long, have their eyes linger on certain parts of your body, turn their heads to check out your ass. And by the time you hit college, your Creep Radar is somewhat operational.
Cue the culture that birthed Men’s Rights Activists. MRA’s are the opposite of feminists, in that they actively advocate against women’s rights in favor of the rights of men, whereas feminism focuses on equal rights for all genders. Many, if not most, of the men in this group consider themselves victims of women who have turned down their advances, who have not traded sexual favors for the dates these men paid for, who have – in short – asserted their right to be in control of their own personal lives and of their bodies. These men, as a group, generally believe that there are certain instances when the woman they’re interested in, or women in general, should just “put out” (to put it nicely): if the guy treated her well, if he paid for something, if he was nice. They generally refer to themselves as nice guys but provide very little evidence. They tell, but fail to show. In short, these are men with a dangerous, transactional, entitled approach to women and dating. As such, they will show up on any Creep Radar that’s even halfway functional.
MRA’s are not a fringe group: they’re very much a product of our culture, in which street harassment is an everyday occurrence for many women, in which sexual assault has taken on pandemic proportions, in which there is somewhat of an epidemic of men murdering their ex (and children, if they happen to be around) because they feel like they’ve been wronged or failed in their masculinity. Violence against women, in a variety of shapes, is rampant. Women are aware of this, because generally they’ve been told that it is their responsibility to make sure these things don’t happen to them. Don’t go out alone late at night, bring pepper spray, know self defense, know the statistics, check the backseat of your car before you get in, if your boyfriend hits you make sure you leave him or all the times that follow will be your fault as much as his, put your keys between your fingers so you can lash out with something pointy if need be, don’t leave your drink unattended, pay for your own food and drinks on a date if you don’t want any awkwardness at the end of the date because you weren’t into him, just say no, don’t get too drunk, don’t wear a short skirt, don’t, don’t, don’t…
With so little of the responsibility and the blame placed on the shoulders of the perpetrators, it’s no wonder a large subsection of men feels entitled to things they have no business feeling entitled to. Similarly, it’s no wonder a large subsection of the male population doesn’t call their male friends out on their sexist bullshit. This is all left to the women. We avoid, we behave, we deflect as best we can. We use our Creep Radar to help us avoid both the dangerous and the irritating. We use our headphones to cut us off from strangers trying to hit on us. We accept (even if we’re not interested) or decline a drink offered to us at a bar depending on what we think the person’s response is going to be. We don’t respond to men we’re not interested in on dating sites, because we know that a polite “thanks, but no thanks” ends in a vitriolic message about how we’re “an ugly/fat/undeserving slut anyway” about 80% of the time, and no response ends in a similar message maybe 25% of the time, if that.
Now put together a young female population who’s been brought up with the belief that it is their responsibility to avoid dangerous men and have developed good instincts to help them out and a young male population that, through a toxic cocktail of cultural messages about women, believes it’s okay to treat women as objects they’re entitled to use as they see fit. Is it any wonder that in a world with millions of men in them, some of them stop at harassment or assault, while others work their way up the scale to murder? Is this something which is so far removed from our reality that we can consider it outside the norm and it is, thus, mad?
Or is it, might we say, considering the central place of violence in our culture and media and the pervasiveness of misogyny in the same, par for the course?