The Reality of Having a Female Body

The internet was abuzz a few weeks ago with the story of a feisty woman that shouted down a man who sexually assaulted her on the subway. This, and the uproar surrounding the new TSA policies have created an opportunity for increased awareness and greater discussion about the reality of sexual harassment and sexual assault that all women face.

If statistics are to be believed, 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. That number is probably much higher due to under-reporting. Indeed, each of us probably has an experience where we have been harassed, assaulted or touched without our consent.

My first experience came the summer I was 14. I was back-to-school clothes shopping with my parents and had left my dressing room to show them an outfit I had tried on. Upon returning to my dressing room I found a naked man standing fully erect and masturbating into my clothing. If ever there was a time I am grateful for my profound ignorance about sexuality, this is it. In my naive child’s mind, I assumed I had walked in on somebody trying on underwear. I quickly returned to my parents, my face beet-red and told them ashamedly what I had done. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon, after further probing, that my parents figured out what had actually happened. They called the police but were told there was nothing to be done about it. My parents tried not to make a big deal out of it, saying sometimes these things happen and it wasn’t my fault. As horrifying as this experience was, I’m not sure what else could have been done. If my parents had freaked out the experience would have become much more traumatizing for me. As it was, I escaped unharmed and have not suffered any long term psychological effects.

What I lost, though, was innocence. I, like many women, have accepted the inevitability of sexual harassment. When I get catcalls or unwanted comments about my body, I generally roll my eyes and move on. I rarely get upset and I never fight back. I suppose this is the coping mechanism I have adopted to deal with the reality of being a woman in the world.

But it is a tragic one. Never should I, or any other woman have to quickly usher her children out of the neighborhood park because some men are making sexually violent comments about her. A woman should be free to ride the subway without being groped or flashed. And it should go without saying that all women should have the right to choose who and how often they have sex. But this is not reality. The reality is that the majority of violence perpetrated in this world is on and against the female body.

To not be acutely aware of this fact is to be privileged indeed.

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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28 Responses

  1. Alisa says:

    I am disturbed how in the cell phone video from the subway incident, everyone is laughing at the woman. She’s left to look like she’s completely crazy. The bystander shooting the video is laughing and saying, “I’m going to put this on youtube.” The public reaction to this, the desensitization it shows, is alarming.

    • mraynes says:

      You’re absolutely right, Alisa, the reaction of the other people in this video is horrifying! It is yet more evidence that violence against women really isn’t taken seriously. People saw this as a big joke, “look at the stupid man who got caught and the lady who went bat-sh*t crazy on him.” We’ve got a long way to go for our society to recognize how seriously damaging sexual harassment and assault are to women.

  2. prairiegirl says:

    I don’t even remember the “first” time I had to deal with sex. Luckily I had parents who educated us early (as in, by 5 I knew the “basics”). But butt pinching, cat calling in middle an high school, etc. was the norm.

    Here is the reality though–that people often do not realize. It was not I–but my sisters who were severely sexually assaulted. Severely enough–to leave psychological scars–on ALL of us. I remember reading a blog entry somewhere recently trying to explain that, as a woman, any man who purposefully tries to force their will on a woman, is basically practicing how to “sexually assault”. LDS young and older men are just as guilty, if not MORE of this, than many other men I’ve had to deal with. And, unfortunately, many of them are stupidly naive to the fact that when they “keep tickling” after a woman has told them to stop, touches a woman, when she force-ably moves away, or tries to physically force her to do something she does not want to do (even if it’s playing ping pong) he is forcing his physical and emotional will upon a woman, violating her freedom and rights, and violating her in an uncomfortable (dare I say sexual) manner.

    We also need to remember that sexual assault affects all women–including siblings. Although I did not physically go through what my siblings did–I emotionally went through it! I have yet, in all honesty, to have met a single (as in not married) LDS man who grasps this concept at all!!!

    • mraynes says:

      Wow, what a great comment, prairiegirl! I believe that all women share in a common sisterhood where fear of attack against our physical bodies is our commonality. Regardless of whether we self-describe as feminist, whatever our race, class or cultural background is, all women know what it is like to fear for our physical safety from men. That’s why I say it’s a privilege not to be aware of the potential danger you’re in all of the time. And unfortunately, a lot of men just cannot understand this; they haven’t lived an existence where their bodily autonomy is called into question and so they will perpetuate practices that continue to make women feel vulnerable. It’s an incredibly damaging cycle for all involved.

      I find it interesting that in your experience Mormon men are less understanding of this and push boundaries more than other men do. While I haven’t personally experienced this, I wonder if this isn’t due to our rhetoric surrounding modesty and chastity. Namely, women are the gatekeepers and men are not explicitly given any responsibility for keeping themselves in check. It’s a fascinating parallel. Thanks again for the comment!

      • Dora says:

        I find this a very pertinent observation. I have had a few experiences where LDS guys really pushed the envelope with physical intimacy. Not so far as to get their temple recommend revoked, but far enough that I think they would be outraged if the girl were their mother (sister, child, etc). And while there were times that I was not a reluctant participant, I never stayed in these relationships longs. It all seemed a bit too desperate and selfish.

    • Carla says:

      Great comment!

      It’s hard to make someone see how their actions are harmful, especially if they view them as playful and friendly. I’m sure there are many men who wouldn’t see tickling as a precursor to assault, because they can’t see how the seemlingly innocuous can lead to more serious violations of a person’s rights.

  3. Caroline says:

    My first incident with real fear of rape came when I was studying abroad and visited a friend in Paris. We were going home after a late dinner on the uncrowded subway, and a man started following us. When others weren’t looking, he’d remove his penis and start masturbating. We’d get off at a stop and try to lose him. He’d follow. We’d get back on. He’d follow. He was slowly getting closer and closer to us. Finally we leaped out of the subway doors at the very last second and lost him. And then as we walked home, another man began following us. Turned out that guy was just trying to pick up on us, but it was all a pretty frightening experience.

    The next year when I got home from Europe, I took one of those self defense classes where you beat up on the guy in the pads. It was empowering to know a few moves. But I still am pretty confident that if a guy really wanted to rape me, I wouldn’t be able to get away.

    • mraynes says:

      What a scary experience, Caroline. I’ve heard that France is one of the worst places to visit as a single woman due to the constant sexual harassment and threat of assault. It is amazing to me that even though we are in the 21st century, the idea that women should have autonomy over their bodies is still a radical idea. I can’t think of a more basic human right. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Kmillecam says:

    The first time I remember being sexually threatened was by my father when I was a child, around 6 or so. I wasn’t actually sexually abused until I was 8, but I remember the threat being there before anything “happened”. To live with a threat like that in your own house is stressful. I remember worrying if I would be left alone with my father, or asked to go somewhere with him without anyone else. A child should not have to worry about those kinds of things.

    • mraynes says:

      Oh, K, I’m so sorry for what you have experienced. Every child should be born into a home where they are loved and protected from this kind of evil. I can’t imagine how vulnerable you must have felt and I know that abuse still has ramifications. I am in awe of the strong woman you’ve become and your ability to overcome these horrible experiences.

  5. Anon this time says:

    For me, the hardest things to deal with was the sexual harassment at work as a teenager. Of the 4 jobs I held as a teen, I was sexually harassed at 3 of them- and in none of the situations did I actually do anything about it- and one was by an older female boss. You’re supposed to just laugh those sorts of things off because you don’t want to look like you can’t “take a joke.”

    At BYU, a guy who was over at my apartment took out his penis and started masturbating in front of me when my roommates were out. And I didn’t do anything because I felt guilty for allowing myself to be alone with a guy in my apartment.

    My sister was raped at a youth stake dance when she was 17. It was in the stake center- and unfortunately, the church discipline surrounding it let him off, as well as the legal discipline.

    And I don’t know a woman who hasn’t ever gotten cat calls while walking home or jogging, but what can we do? Anyone have any idea other than to keep walking?

    • mraynes says:

      I’m so sorry for what you and you’re sister have experienced. The question you ask is a hard one because these situations are often so complex. It might put you in danger to yell back so then you’re only option is to keep walking. I’ve read, though, that when it’s safe to do so, being aggressive and emasculating the harasser is a very effective way to take power back. Mostly these men are bullies and cowards and are looking for power over people who they see as more vulnerable than them. If you confront them, often they’ll run away like the cowards they are. It sounds good in theory but I have never been brave enough to do it.

    • SilverRain says:

      Generally speaking, the kind of guys who catcall are the same who are insecure about their sexual orientation. Otherwise, they’d have no need to make it so public.

      You can use that, just be careful.

      • Alisa says:

        It’s impossible to reason with cat callers. I tried to do this after the Counterpoint Conference put on by the Mormon Women’s Forum. I walk out on a total feminist high, and there’s a tailgater at the U of U, a man in his late 30s, repeatedly calling me “Sugar.” I turned and told him that I’m a mom, in my 30s, who just had a baby (and I was carrying a computer and heavy stuff to my car, not really a “workin’ it” kind of gait). He said he’s a dad in his 30s too. It was just something I would expect out of someone 20 years younger (or more). Pathetic.

  6. Oh my goodness. These stories are horrible. I’ve only experienced anonymous verbal abuse (while jogging or across public places), but I think any kind is wrong. Where in the world do men learn that it’s okay to whistle at or yell at someone when in reality it’s completely ridiculous?

    I’m sorry for all of those who have been physically, sexually abused. I hope that we can raise our children to be better than those who went before and that we can have high expectations of society in general.

  7. annie says:

    When I first heard about the statistics of 1 in every 4 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, I was surprised that the number was so high, especially when people don’t necessarily seem to talk about these things.
    I was sexually abused within my family of origin. It is still very hush hush. I have heard people excuse it left and right. But wrong is wrong. And since speaking out about this experience, I have found my voice to speak out when it happens in other ways.
    I left a job a few years ago because I was being sexually harassed at work. I went to the HR partner at my firm and he quickly dismissed my concerns and told me I was being “overly sensitive.” I went to another partner in the firm and he did nothing either. So I left. I am still convinced that at one point, some girl will sue this firm and win BIG.
    My wish is that people will find a voice with these issues and make the world notice. We don’t deserve to be treated this way.

    • kmillecam says:

      Good for you Annie, I applaud your courage to stand up for yourself. I also know how hard it is to come to terms with abuse within your own family. It’s easy to see how wrong something is when it’s outside your own circle, but it’s a lot harder to acknowledge what has happened within that circle. It sounds like you have come to see what things really are, a difficult feat indeed.

  8. Angela says:

    When I was a teen and in my twenties I never understood what about a guy friend tickling me and continuing even after I was no longer laughingly telling him to quit, but hysterically screaming, bothered me so much. I explained it to myself that I just don’t like to be tickled (which I do not). But after more life experience and even reading Bell Hooks (among others), I understood. Those friends denied my rights over my own body. Their actions told me that I had no say in what others chose to do to me.

    Some of those who tickled me relentlessly are still my friends. They are some of the most loving, funny, gentle men I know. But…it took them a while before they attempted to comprehend how that behavior could breed distrust and insecurity in me toward them and our friendship.

    Now, some of them have children, and they would never condone anyone doing that to their daughters. Would they feel the same anger if their sons behaved like that? Do they express to their daughters their feelings about males overpowering women? I don’t know.

    I think that while this world continues to spin, women will always contend with having their womanhood used as a weapon against them. Sexual assault has been and is now very effective terrorism. We have to speak out and speak up. Be ok looking like “the crazy bitch” who can’t take a joke. Teach our fathers, brothers, friends, husbands, sons, and every male we know that it’s not ok. And teach our daughters as well.

  9. Corktree says:

    I’m reminded of the fact that in many war torn areas (Africa especially) the threat of sexual assault can be a more powerful weapon than even mass killings in gaining control. “Half the Sky” describes well the power that mass rapes can have on the psychology of a whole group of people.

    My first experience with bodily threat was similar to Caroline’s. I was alone in Paris waiting to meet up with friends. A man approached me and started a (seemingly friendly) conversation. I wasn’t shy or naive, but in the course of the conversation, he took my hand in such a way (along with an assertive invitation to come with him) that left me paralyzed mentally and physically. We were in a crowd, and for a moment, I actually didn’t feel that I had any choice or control over myself. I fortunately regained and re-engaged my brain to get away to safety, but I’ve always remembered that experience as an example of the power that men can exert at will, and that it’s often the *threat* of force that scares us into submission. It helped me to understand the perspective of victims, where I had previously wondered why more assaulted women don’t fight back enough. Very disturbing and eye opening at the same time.

  10. spunky says:

    Excellent post. Like so many other of the Exponent II posts, I tagged this on my facebook profile. Too good to not share.

    Like seemingly everyone else, I have been grabbed, flashed and verbally harassed, mostly when I was younger and probably more of a target. It might make an interesting poll to see if the Exponent II readership matches or disagrees with the 1 in 4 stat… i.e. something like I am a convert and I have/have not been grabbed, assaulted, etc. and I was raised in the church and have/have not been etc. I also wonder how many of us have been assaulted or touched inappropriately at church or a church activity, including verbal assault which may have taken place at a bishop’s interview. As a naive 12 year old getting my first recommend, the counsellor asked me if I was into petting. I didn’t know what petting was, so he told me. In detail. It shocked and scared me to the point that when I was supposed to meet with this same counsellor for a calling, I just said no because I didn’t want to be alone in a room with him. I know I was very innocent and shy, but still… I think it was wrong of that counsellor in so many ways. I was also sexually assaulted by a Teacher when I was a Beehive, but I won’t go into that here. Rather ironic that his title then was “teacher”. Ugh.

    • Caroline says:

      excellent idea, Spunky, about the poll. We’ll work on that.

      Your experience with that counselor is disturbing in the extreme. Your anecdote highlights one of the reasons I am a huge advocate of having women and YW go into these interviews with another female present.

      • amanda says:

        THANK YOU! I pointed this out to my husband and he’s in disbelief that either of us would ever need to sit in on any interview of one of our children, even though it was my husband who told me that this “explaining” happens often. I have been able to convince him. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who feels this way. None of my children will ever be alone in those interviews if I have anything to do about it.

  11. Dora says:

    Part of the time I was in Nepal, I spent with a group of international tourists. Gorgeous Germans. Amicable Austrians. Audacious Australians. One of the last nights out, a few of us went to a reggae bar. One of the girls, encouraged by her drinks, started talking about how one of the older guys in the group had been very touchy-feely with some of the younger girls (in their 20’s), and had been taking video shots focusing on specific parts of their bodies. She related that she had started to call him out on it, and had refused to sit near him anymore.

    Now, clearly, she was getting drunk. And her friend was asking her to lower her voice. And I confess to being embarrassed by the situation. But this courageous girl stated (and repeated!) that, he’d been harassing them, and she no longer cared if he felt uncomfortable, since he had been making her feel so uncomfortable for so long. She was taking a stand. She spoke out. She talked to one of the more strongly built married couples to ask them to be a barrier between this guy and the girls he was harassing. A few days later, when I was on my own, I wished I had told her how proud I was of her for taking a stand.

  12. Nichelle says:

    I am SO happy that you posted that link to the woman on the subway because I haven’t heard anything about it. I just watched it and I don’t think I’ve been more proud of someone in a long time. What a strong and clear headed woman, I wish all women could react that quickly and be thinking so clearly in such a traumatizing situation. I have had multiple traumatizing sexual abuse situations in my life, some much more serious and life altering than others. I don’t wish to share any of them because it only forces me to revisit lots of ugly emotions. But I do want to echo what Corktree said:

    “He took my hand in such a way that left me paralyzed mentally and physically.”

    In all of my experiences with sexual abuse and harassment, I’ve always been left paralyzed mentally and physically. I don’t know why that happens, but I suspect it is a very common reaction among most women. You are so in shock that you’re brain or body doesn’t even know how to take the next step of thinking or doing. That is why I am so in awe of the woman on the subway. Her brain knew exactly what was happening, and she knew exactly what she felt and what she was thinking in that very moment. I wish I and more women could have such a healthy and quick reaction in the moment trauma occurs. Her outrage, anger, and sadness came so immediately and I am a little jealous that my brain and body didn’t perform as well as hers.

  13. Jessawhy says:

    Great post.

    For me, it all comes back to the fact that the men who do these things see women as objects, not people.

    My other reaction to this post is “Why?” Why would God create men who are so visually stimulated and also physically stronger than women? It’s as though the system was set up for women to be abused. It confuses and upsets me immensely.

    However, it does make me grateful for the good men out there who don’t hurt women.

  14. Amy says:

    Those are terrible statistics. I was also exposed at a young age. A friend and I were walking home from the swimming pool one afternoon and under the bleachers an older man had exposed himself and was wanting us to come touch it. I just thought he was really weird and we were polite and left as quickly as we could. When I told my parents, they didn’t overreact, but they did call the police. I wondered what the big deal was. I don’t think they ever caught him, but I am grateful, first, that the Lord was watching out for us, but secondly, that my parents didn’t make a big deal about it in front of me at that age. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the gravity of the situation- thankfully. I didn’t have nightmares or fear because my parents reacted calmly. I hope to be able to maintain that kind of calm and control for any victim I may come in contact with.

    • Alisa says:

      I think you make a great point about staying calm to not traumatize a child unnecessarily. It’s a good lesson.

      Forgive my little nitpicking, but a way you phrased it give me a question: I want to ask of you and people here generally, do you believe the Lord was watching out for you and that’s why something bad didn’t happen? If the Lord hadn’t been looking after you, would something bad had happened? I also thank God when something that could be bad has been prevented, but then when something bad does happen to me or another person, I am left with wondering how God could stop looking for that person, particularly if it’s an innocent child. It’s something I legitimately struggle with, but I’m afraid there’s no good answer. (This sort of relates to Sunday’s poll about trials, I guess.)

  15. Whoa-man says:

    Fantastic post. Thank you! I often bring up this statistic as a way to encourage male leaders in the church to approach the subject of chastity interviews and sex education very carefully. Suggesting that a girl’s modesty determines male actions is NOT something that we want to be promoting especially to the 1 in 4. Interestingly, every time I bring up this statistic the men in the room automatically disregard my information as “just a statistic and probably not really 1 in 4 women” and every time I ask all the women in the room if they have ever experienced sexual assault and every time 100% of them have said they’ve been sexually assaulted to one degree or another. It might not work in every situation but it has been revelatory the few times it’s come up.

    I felt much the same way when I was first sexually assaulted. I just kinda froze, made mental excuses for the man, and just tried to politely excuse myself. When I came home and told my mom she said, “You should have screamed at the top of your lungs, ‘That’s the smallest penis I’ve ever seen.'” It was shocking to hear my conservative LDS mom say that, but it taught me a lesson. It gave me the tools I needed for the next time around. In my research on the topic, most people feel paralyzed when they are first assaulted. Sadly, it is through experience and training that they learn to communicate in assertive empowering ways.

    One of the best things I’ve ever done for myself is take a RAD (Rape Agreession Defense) class at my local police station. They simulate an attack and teach what to do. In the first attack almost everyone reacts the same way (even knowing that this is a drill)! They are quiet, they try not to be too aggressive, they assume the best of the other person, etc. Only after more training do you learn to yell, say no, be assertive, stand your ground, call for help, get out immediately, etc.

    I applaud the woman on the subway and believe we can ALL learn to be more like that. However, it breaks my heart to hear from people that regret being diminutive in past situations of sexual assault because to be honest if Stella’s recent post taught is anything it is that women are raised to be “good girls”, polite, respectful, to honor authority, and to see men as people who preside and are our heads. Well-behaved girls usually don’t have the skills they need to protect and empower themselves. To me that is the preeminent damage that gender inequality does to women. Maintaining the status quo in culture and religious communication will only perpetrate these behaviors and reactions. Change in women’s issues for me is important primarily because it would teach a new crop of women that you can be a “good” girl and still assert your voice.

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