As a nation, we are reeling. On Friday, December 14, 20 young children—12 girls, 8 boys—and six female teachers and school administrators were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in one of the most harrowing acts of gun violence in this nation’s history. After a year of some of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history, Newtown’s was among the most sickening in large part because the majority of the victims were young children between five and seven years old. A number of writers have begun to offer policy suggestions to outline, as President Obama called it, “meaningful action” on gun control.
To truly address the problem of which Newtown reminded us in the most horrific way, gender, and its entanglement with culture, poverty, and mental health requires serious attention in addition to gun policy reform. On NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, Shankar Vedantam pointed out common characteristics of gunmen in the most recent gun massacres including Friday’s in Newtown:
“[I]f you look at the series of incidents that have happened in recent years, there are several things that stand out in terms of patterns….the shooters have always been men.”
Why is the gunman always male? After the Aurora, Colorado shooting during the opening of the Batman: The Dark Knight Rises Premiere in July, Feministing ran a piece by Eesha Pandit, Executive Director at Men Stopping Violence. Pandit wrote:
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
What we are missing in our collective understanding is the gendered nature of mass homicide…the acknowledgement of ‘male violence’ without conflating it with all different kinds of violence is particularly useful, because it helps us contextualize the violence in our society as a function of patriarchy and sexism.
On its face, the patriarchy and sexism about which Pandit writes seems to be rearing its head here. In this instance, the gunman, Adam Lanza, chose to first murder his mother and then drive to a nearby school where he massacred women and young children. At this time, there is no proof of gender animus as a motive specifically in this event. But the facts—the gender identity of the shooter and the gender identity of the victims— underly why policy solutions should include greater examination of gender, men’s relationship to women and to each other, in addition to advocating greater gun regulation. This event alone, along with domestic violence trends generally, makes clear that male-against-female violence persists and emerges in frightening ways.
Also important, Pandit pointed out that violent behaviors are deeply rooted in economic, health, and cultural factors, and that this context also tends to be underacknowledged in society generally.
“We have to name male violence as a socio-cultural phenomenon—one that occurs in the context of race, class, gender, citizenship, ability, sexuality and so on,” Pandit pointed out. “To name it without interrogating [these intersections] won’t take us far.”
In other words, there are ways in which gender interacts with multiple other phenomena in manifesting violence. Pandit also points out that “ability” is a factor—mental illness in particular, and its connection to gun violence, requires greater attention. In addition, Richard Florida wrote in the Atlantic that gun deaths are positively correlated with poverty.
Setting aside the horrific massacres of Newtown, Aurora, Columbine and all the others, many acts of violence are not typically shootings en masse: they are perpetrated by men toward other individuals or small groups, and quite often against other men. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in most instances, the victims of male violence are actually other males.
The CDC also reports that among youth in grades 9 to 12, 40 percent of young males report having been in a physical fight, while 24 percent of females report having been in a physical fight. There are cultural/economic/gender questions that are relevant to both the massacres and to all violent incidents, and those must also be addressed with rigor and with attention to how they vary.
One of the most intuitive, immediate policy solutions to the gun massacres seems to be restricting access to automatic weapons. There also needs to be heightened focus on untangling gender specifically from all of this. How are we choosing to socialize boys and young men, are we helping them achieve health and wellness, and how can we reform current practices to help prevent massacres like Newtown and smaller-scale acts of violence? Whether we are aware of it or not, we built our gender practices and identities, and we too can reform them.
Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.
Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.
The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.
A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.
There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.
When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”
Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.
This isn’t the story I wanted.
Unlearning My Training
I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.
If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendencyto demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.
On top of that, the biblical literalism frequentlyrequired by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.
Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”
Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.
But Some Habits Die Hard
Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.
When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.
He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.
When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.
So…I brought him home.
This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.
That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.
Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.
As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?
When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.
I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!
If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.
That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.
He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.
Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.
Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”
With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.
I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”
“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”
Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.
It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?
Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.
I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!
All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.
The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are
Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.
Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.
It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.
Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.
So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?
Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.
Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.
We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.”Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.
So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.
Gov. McCrory’s claims to want to protect North Carolinians are not holding water if he and state Republicans continue to ignore policies that will keep all citizens safe and healthy and, instead, show support for legislation that would make it easier for people to access guns.
This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
We all watched the news of the Pulse nightclub massacre in horror.
In my state, on June 13, one day after the shooting, the North Carolina General Assembly moved forward on reading an amendment that would lift restrictions on our right to carry a concealed weapon. Currently, people have to take classroom training and pass a background check. The new measure would allow concealed weapons in public without many requirements. While it’s unclear when state legislators will take action on this bill, it’s troubling to know that some state leaders are not bolstering comprehensive gun control in light of the massacre.
These same legislators claim that they are supporting and passing policies that will keep citizens safe. But at the same time that hate has fueled deadly shootings in this country, state Republicans have introduced anti-trans legislation that has coincided with a wave of violence against trans people.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
Earlier this spring, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law a much talked about bill that discriminates against transgender people in the state, a group of citizens already at risk for violence and harassment not only in bathrooms, but in most public places.
While there is no clear link connecting the shooting to these discriminatory bathroom policies, we know that hateful beliefs and violent actions preluded the brutal killings in Orlando, and that intolerance can fuel laws like North Carolina’s HB 2.
Just this week, state lawmakers were considering revising the law, but those changes would effectively privilege trans people who are able to, or wish to, have gender reassignment surgery over other transgender or gender-nonconforming people. Rightly so, advocacy groups were quick to criticize the proposals, which would do nothing to allow individuals to use the bathroom of their gender identity.
Gov. McCrory and state leaders talk about protecting women, but they should be concerned with protecting the safety of all residents, especially the most vulnerable: transgender residents. HB 2 puts transgender individuals more at risk of violence in public spaces. We cannot continue to have these safety and privacy arguments at the expense of transgender North Carolinians.
This cannot be overstated: There have been no incidents of transgender individuals attacking people in public bathrooms. However, there has been an uptick of attacks in public bathrooms in response to the fear HB 2 has incited. The disgraceful conversation about “scary” trans women in women’s bathrooms has people mistaking cis women for trans women and harassing them in bathrooms. A woman entering a Walmart bathroom sporting a short hairstyle was told by a stranger, “you’re disgusting!” and, “you don’t belong here!” Trans women experience this quite frequently, which is why Charlotte passed the ordinance to allow North Carolinians to use the bathroom of their gender identity, to keep trans women safe in public spaces. But then HB 2 gave license to individual citizens to police who enters public bathrooms, adding to the violence marginalized groups already experience—not reducing it.
As actress and activist Candis Cayne explained on CNN, “[HB 2] will stop people from being comfortable in this society. It will stop people from wanting to leave their house, because going to the bathroom is such a natural function. You leave your house every day. You want to go shopping. You want to go to the post office, but if you have to go to the bathroom along the way, you’re not allowed to. It’s a bill that’s really kind of making people in my community have to stay home, have to not be a part of our society.”
After Gov. McCrory signed and was heavily criticized for HB 2, he claimed that the state government was looking out for women’s privacy.
His claims have been debunked over and over again, and based on past legislation, we can see that state Republicans have not prioritized the needs of the state’s most marginalized populations over their own need to breed intolerance and government interference in the health and well-being of those populations.
I’m sure many of Rewire’s readers remember HB 465, signed into law last summer. The law stipulates that women must wait 72 hours to access an abortion. The medically unnecessary legislation directly contradicts McCrory’s statements in support of the anti-trans law HB 2 about the need to protect women’s privacy and safety, considering doctors are now required to send private ultrasounds of women who have had abortions to a governmental agency. North Carolina pro-choice advocates have been pushing that this stipulation is unnecessary and downright creepy. It also fuels stigma around a basic health-care service. That law went into effect January 1, but if McCrory and other legislative leaders truly believed in women’s privacy, they would look again at HB 465.
While we’re on the subject of privacy and safety, state Republicans leaders have forgotten that a great way to keep women safe is to ensure their economic sustainability. Many have noted that HB 2 not only affects those who can or cannot enter a public restroom, it takes away municipalities’ power to raise the minimum wage. Who will be most affected by this stalemate? Women, of course, who make up two-thirds of the people who work minimum-wage jobs.
A couple of years ago, the North Carolina state budget also reduced after-school care for children. Does this policy protect women and families? No. Not only that, it further stigmatizes low-income mothers, who are hard-hit by such budget cuts. For North Carolina women, the fear is not in bathrooms, but in the low-wage positions we are placed into.
Gov. McCrory’s claims to protect North Carolinians are not holding water if he and state Republicans continue to ignore policies that will keep all citizens safe and healthy and, instead, show support for legislation that would make it easier for people to access guns. We haven’t expanded Medicaid, we have continued restrictions on reproductive health care, and so many North Carolina women don’t make a living wage.
Trans-inclusive policies, like the Charlotte ordinance that intended to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their gender identity, are not a threat to the safety of North Carolinians, but lifting gun requirements may threaten our safety. It’s time for state Republicans to give North Carolinians what we are demanding: an inclusive, safe, and healthy state that we all want to live in.