On unlearning Rape Culture

[Trigger Warning: Talk of rape culture, violence, adolescent stupor]

I’m a sensitive guy. In grade school, I was known to turn on the waterworks quite easily. I always sided with my cousins Caroline and Rachel over the boys when spats broke out. I saw Titanic in the theatre three times. Once with my mom. Twice by myself. The first time I tried to forge teenage male friendships I invited some guys to go see the classic yet oft-forggotten Kevin Kline coming out comedy In & Out. I spent my formative teenage years in female dominated afterschool drama and mediation programs.

Needless to say, I’ve rarely been concerned with how the world perceived my lack of traditional manliness. Acne notwithstanding, I was comfortable in my skin and cared little about assumptions on my sexuality or gender identity. Not everybody like I did to intimidation, but let’s be clear that the onus to change should be on the aggressor and not on the aggressed.

My yearbooks were often littered with homophobic and sexist comments. I sensed that they were written in jest and, sadly, I probably engaged in such repugnant traditions myself. Talk of rape was also prominent – either in avoiding it over the summer or as encouragement to do well during exam season. I’m infinitely more bothered by these scribbles now than I was 15 years ago. 15 years ago it was par for the course. 15 years ago it was part of my initiation into Rape Culture.

Feminism is a radically simple idea. Women have historically never been treated equally and have been subjected to mass economic and social injustices at the hands of the patriachy and white supremacy. Injustices that are substantially accentuated for indigineous women, racialised women and trans* women. In Canada, the rate of murdered indigenous women is nearly 7 times higher than that of non-indigenous women.

Women aren’t treated equally and they should be. This requires signifant sustained organising, both inside and outside the work force. C’est tout.

Despite this simplicity and my innate sensitivity, it wasn’t until I neared the end of my University degree that I began to identify as pro-feminist and understand what feminists movements were working towards. I may never have gotten to that point had it not been for my former partner and Womens’ Study major with whom I often engaged in your typical debates on the subject. It wasn’t that I had a problem with feminism, you see, it was women were using the wrong term. Humanism was really what they were fighting for, so they should really consider rebranding the whole thing. Because most people weren’t having any of what they were spewing.

I gag thinking of that past self that was so callous, cocky and disconnected. I’m extremely thankful to my then partner for tolerating years of cliché and facepalm worthy mansplainin’.

I’m even moreso disturbed by past behaviour when I consider that I occupied representative roles on both my faculty and university-wide students’ unions. Places that must strive towards creating safe, equitable spaces and that need representatives that have deep understanding of social and labour movements and are familiar with anti-oppression practices.

There used to be a line in one of my plays Return to Sender that I absolutely loved. The play tells the tale of a Russian mail order bride and her hapless would-be husband. In trying to explain to him what the world she came from was all about, she tells him that « he doesn’t know what it’s like to be raped by dawn. ».

When I wrote it a decade ago I was so proud of telling this quirky feminist tale. I was such a cool dude and look at me being poetic and give me a pat on the back, yes? Years later I found myself somehow in a small cabin in the woods in Northen Saskatchewan, and when I shared the line to a feminist friend and writer, she shuddered.

« I don’t like to casually use that word in my writing, » she told me.

I thought she was being over-sensitive. It was poetry. Damn good poetry at that.

I was wrong. Rape is rape. Everything that isn’t rape should never be compared to rape. The same concept applies to slavery and genocide. Casually using these terms for poetic or political reasons is triggering and far from inclusive.

But here I was, a radical and sensitive 23-year-old University graduate still not understanding Rape Culture or my complicity within it.

Since then, I have had the privilege of accessing spaces, conversations and friendships that have helped me unlearn a lot of the hogwash that is deeply ingrained in us from birth. It’s a constant process and there’s no magic finish line that I expect to cross and be rewarded with some medal for being the quintessential pro-feminist cisgender male ally.

Even within the last year, I’ve become more familiar with the idea that ‘yes doesn’t always mean yes’ and that power dynamics perverse consent. These are newer concepts to me, ones that I am still learning, and that I am very grateful to the writers and thinkers out there who are dedicated to expanding our understanding of consent.

This is a long way from that pimply faced 15 year old who found a ‘no means no‘ button at La Ronde and used to crack jokes about it with his buddies while riding the monorail through the amusement park all day long. The same 15 year old who used to be part of casual conversations on whether ‘no’ actually meant ‘try harder’.

I hesitated to publish this today, as I don’t think IWD needs to include the ramblings of another white cisgender straight man. But I’ve been extremely preoccupied by the recent violent sexual threats made against my dear friend Anne-Marie at the hands of her colleagues Pat Marquis, Alex Larochelle, Alex Giroux, Michel Fournier-Simard and Bart Tremblay, and what appears to be a greater willingness by the public-at-large to discuss how Rape Culture plays out in our day-to-day lives.

Because if this sensitive, progressive, gentle boy with stellar parents could be so ignorant about feminism and Rape Culture for nearly a quarter century, I’d speculate it means we are doing a great disservice to our children and our society. These discourses need to be opened up beyond the walls of our post-secondary institutions and various progressive circles. They need to be started young and we must be aware of how our own behaviours are reflected in those that look up to us. We need to actively talk about the portrayal of women, women’s bodies and consent in all forms of media. We must be ready to be called out and to call out others. Especially our kids, they need calling in more than we realise.

So on this IWD 2014, I wish to thank those who have done so to me. Those who have given me hell for calling them ‘sweetie’ in an argument, or expressed discomfort at my nonchalant poetic use of the word rape, or expressed frustration when I dominate a conversation or take up too much physical space. Mostly, I wish to thank the women from the past and the present of the student movement who have signed on to this beautiful open letter in support of Anne-Marie. They have been friends, mentors and the most inspiring of rabble rousers, and I’ve learned more from them in the last 7 years than I knew possible.