Thursday, March 21, 2013

In The Wake of Steubenville

I'm going to be honest. I've had a pretty serious case of feminist fatigue as of late. I've identified as a feminist for two of three decades of my life. In the past 5 years, thanks in large part to taking on a Women's Studies minor in my undergrad work, and in large part to the feminist circles I run in on these here internets, my knowledge and awareness of feminist issues has exploded. Things like blatant sexism, subtle rape culture, and internalized misogyny are visible all around me, everywhere I turn, hanging over everything I see like a thick, dark, foul-smelling cloud that won't lift. It's hard to take pleasure in watching a television show or movie anymore, because it's rare that more than a few seconds go by without an example of one or the other of the above, marked by a simultaneous heavy sigh from me and a cringe from my husband, who is starting to see it everywhere now, too.

It is so, so big. And dark. And smelly.

And it's just not going anywhere. It's not budging. And I'm sick of it. And I'm tired. And when I speak up, I'm preaching to the choir. And the people who aren't in the choir think that the music doesn't exist and that the singing is a bunch of crazy nonsense.

And then news of the Steubenville rape started to spread a few months back, and now this week, news of the outcome of the trial. The "justice". I'm too tired to link to the articles that I think do the best job of describing the events, but if you're reading this, you're surely familiar. Some high school boys (two were charged) dragged an unconscious (or barely conscious) high school girl from party to party, sexually violating her, photographing and videoing their assault on her, circulating the photos and videos online, and laughing and high-fiving one another about it. And it's highly unlikely it's the first time this particular group of boys has done such a thing. And because they were hot shot high school football players, the whole thing got pretty much swept under the rug, until it got drug out again and they were forced to face what they had done. And they were found guilty for what they provided photographic and video proof that they did to that girl.

Then the media talked about what a sad and tragic and life-altering thing it was.

For the rapists.

The rapists who raped someone.

And there is outrage. Justified, angry outrage. I share in it deeply. I am angry at those boys. I am angry at their parents. I am angry at their friends for not stopping them. I am angry at their coaches and their school for looking the other way. I am angry at the people who are feeling sorry for them. I am angry at the society that would bring them up to not realize that what they did was wrong.

As angry as I am, I am far more sad. Defeated. Hopeless.

This is the world I have brought two children into. This is the world I have brought a girl and a boy into. A world where my daughter gets messages from every direction that she is an object. That her worth is based on what she looks like. That whether or not she will be violated and attacked will be partly her responsibility, based on her behavior, her clothing, or her level of intoxication. A world where my son gets messages from every direction that women are a commodity to be consumed by him, a possession he is owed by virtue of owning a penis. That he is not expected to be in control of his actions or desires because boys will be boys.

As I sat taking in some of the thoughtful, angry, absolutely necessary and appropriate reactions to it all, I sat nursing my sweet baby boy. I looked down at that innocent little baby boy, and a wave of love for him washed over me, and I thought of the mothers of those boys that raped that girl, and how their sons were sweet little babies once too. And I cried.

We are failing our daughters; and we are failing our sons.

So in the wake of all this that weighs so heavily on me, and with this dread that this world simply won't change fast enough for it to make a real difference for my children, I'm left wondering what I can do that will make a difference for them.

What I can do is everything in my power to teach and guide them, and to be an example to them.

I can teach them that they have value and worth, and that all other people do, too. When I chose to give birth to them, I granted them full status as human beings. They have a say over who touches them and how, and nothing they do, or wear, or drink, takes that say away. I can teach them that "no means no," but that more importantly, the default is "no," and that "the only yes is a yes." A person who hasn't said or who can't say yes has said no, whether they've heard it or not.

I can teach them that it is never, ever, not at all their fault if someone hurts them. I can teach them that it is always, every time, 100% their fault if they intentionally hurt someone else.

I can teach them to treat alcohol and other substances with respect and to consume them carefully. I can teach them that alcohol can be dangerous, and not because abusing it can get you raped, or can cause you to rape someone, but because abusing it can lead you to make bad decisions or even to become addicted.

I can teach them to take care of each other and the people around them. To speak up when people say hurtful or dehumanizing things about others. To step in when someone might hurt someone else. That if if they are scared to step in or it isn't safe to step in, they should get help from someone who can. I can teach them that they can call me or their father, in any situation, without fear of getting in trouble, and that we will help.

So for a brief moment, I am hanging up my "angry feminist" hat on this one, and I am letting my very capable sisters (some of whom I'll link at the end of this) carry that torch. I will cloak myself instead in the warm and varied garments of  "mother with lots of feelings." I will relish the bursts of oxytocin as my son drinks in his nourishment from my breasts, relish his smiles and his inquisitive eyes, and I will be thankful that today, no one will hurt him, and he will not hurt anyone. I will delight in my daughter's laughter and her songs, in her passion for creating elaborate train tracks, and I will be thankful that today, no one will hurt her, and she will not hurt anyone. I will make smiley face breakfasts and change diapers and will this time in which my children's lives are so simple to last forever.

I will feel sad for the little girl who got hurt. I will feel sad for her mommy. I will feel sad that those little boys somehow missed the message, as they grew into young men, that people have value, and that they are not entitled to use people for their own amusement or enjoyment. I will feel sad for their mommies.

And it won't be long, I can almost guarantee, before I put that angry feminist hat back on and resume preaching to the choir. If the swelling crescendo of the chorus in response to the events of Steubenville has shown me anything, it has shown me that little by little, person by person, day by day, the choir grows. Every day more people are hearing the music for the first time; they are realizing that the music is indeed real, and that singing is worthwhile, and like I did, they are joining the choir. We will keep singing, louder and louder, and we won't stop until the whole world joins in our song.


Here are some important things to think about, from women who said them better than I could have, even I'd had the energy:

A Letter to my Sons About Stopping Rape
I am not Your Wife, Sister or Daughter. I am a Person.
Modern Sexism
So You're Tired of Hearing About Rape Culture


  1. This just makes me want to bawl for its truthfulness. "...the people who aren't in the choir think that the music doesn't exist and that the singing is a bunch of crazy nonsense." This world just sucks sometimes doesn't it Joella?

    Sometimes it seems like there's nothing more we can do outside of teaching these little ones, but I guess that's pretty damn important in the grand scheme of things. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Thank you so much. This has all been very disturbing to me for so many reasons. I am with you...

  3. Thank you so much for sharing. My heart breaks along with yours. I take comfort in the fact that there are people like you in this world who will do their part to help make a better world for the future.

  4. This was a really good read, and I absolutely agree with everything. The sad thing is, is that I'm noticing a lot of parents - especially a lot of young parents, aren't bothering to teach their children anything. More and more parents are relying on the school system to teach their kids what they need to know and everything else is "kids will be kids". Not only do we need to educate our children, but we sincerely need to educate parents as well.

  5. I have been feeling similarly. And feeling so scared for my little girl and baby boy. And sometimes powerless to stop all of it.


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