Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A new study on young women and sexual violence, and some thoughts on language

This report, by ChildTrends.org, is incredibly upsetting, but hardly news to those of us who have some familiarity, either personally or professionally, with sexual assault. While conservative statistics about rates of incidence of rape tend to put the figure at around 1 in 6 (North American women, at some time in their lives), I think it's becoming increasingly clear that, to get a real feel for how many women have experienced sexual abuse in their lives, the terms need to be broadened. This new study suggests that 18% of women aged 18 to 24 have had forced sexual intercourse. That's more like 1 in 5, by around the time most of us are finishing college or getting our first "real" job.

Which has got me thinking (again) about the role of language in how we talk about sexual violence, and about our experiences more generally.

There's a reason we say "sexual assault" and not "rape," why we say "survivor" and not "victim" or "accuser," and why we let women tell us when it was rape and when it wasn't, rather than us telling them. This is all Sexual Assault 101.

But in this specific context (meaning a blog generally, and a personal-politics blog more specifically), I think there's something else going on.

A few days ago, my dad and I got into a very heated conversation about the American election. At the end of a long series of frustrating back-and-forths, he informed me that Michelle Obama is going to cost Barack the election, because she's just so *aggressive*. "I heard her speech at the DNC, and I couldn't believe how aggressive it was."

I had kept my cool through the conversation until this point - through accusations that I was relentlessly partisan, that I had a personal vendetta against Palin, that the idea that Palin was anti-woman was laughable, that McCain's POW status prevented all criticisms of his foreign policy approach - and then I flipped my shit. With tears in my eyes and no embarassment, I told him that when you hurl a word like "aggressive" at a woman like Michelle Obama, you're hurling it at all of us. Us. Us. Me. Me as a professional-to-be. That word tears down my future. Mine.

And then I realized I should have been saying this all along.

Sometimes objectivity is necessary and helpful. Sometimes it's the only path to the truth. And sometimes it's not.

This isn't a newspaper, or CNN, and I'm not a politician. When I talk on this blog, or with people in my own life, I have no professional obligations to be neutral. I'm not campaigning, trying to win people over to my side with diplomacy. I have no obligation to be neutral when I have something at stake, or to try to make myself seem rational by going out of my way to grant points to the other side, even when they make me wince.

My attempts at objectivity, at not taking things personally or getting emotional, enabled my dad to treat the misogynistic language of this election as a purely academic issue. I enabled that with him, as I have in many other conversations. That might be a disservice to him, but it's definitely a disservice to me. I, and women in general, are not a theoretical concept. Once I teared up and said my bit, he refused to continue the discussion "if I was going to get all emotional about it." The truth is, I wanted him to see the emotion. I didn't want him to have the luxury of treating sexism as a purely rhetorical problem, when we are living it. I wanted to break him out of those habits of thought and into my world. It's not that he doesn't care, he's just never had it made real in this way by someone he loves.

Which is why I'm rethinking the way I talk about women's issues on this blog and in general. Let me take one more stab at introducing that new Child Trends.


By the time we are 25 years old, 1 in 5 of us will have experienced forced intercourse.


Because it's us that I really want to talk about.

(h/t to Feministing.)

1 comment:

Leimomi said...

People should read this.