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The Truth As We Know It

By Vancouver Rape Relief Collective
The relative power of men compared to that of women is profoundly affected by sexist violence against women. Men have, and do use, this violence to get or keep control of women as a display of power. More than the individual exchange is affected; the power of all men over women is increased. Virtually every woman fears male violence at some time.

Because we know to fear sexist attack, the other tactics that men use to get what they want are more forceful than they otherwise would be. When a man puts his fist through the wall when he is angry, the woman that he is angry with is anxious that he not get that angry – she could be his next target. The verbal abuse or angry silence of a lover may be motivation for her to comply with what he wants. How far will he go if she doesn’t? And even when she thinks he won’t be physically violent, we know it is because he is choosing not to… and we can only be sure of this time.

On the street, when a man is walking behind a woman, she has to assess whether or not she is being followed and plan how to fight hack or escape. Usually it is a man walking too close to her, oblivious of her fear. But sometimes it’s not, and there are no guarantees.

When women call the crisis line after an assault, their reaction is frequently “What did I do wrong?” She weighs and measures what she will do to protect herself and is left with the knowledge that she can decrease her chances with common sense but ultimately she cannot control whether or not she is safe.

The reality of male violence against women is too disturbing for many people to believe. No woman wants the fear of rape to interfere with her life or that of her daughters and friends. Many women hold fiercely to the belief that we can and will have control.

“As long as I (fill in any behaviour), I will be safe.” This system has advantages: reducing fear and increasing the determination to win against sexist attack. Some of the behaviours really do decrease the opportunity for assault. However, if a woman is raped while operating outside of the system, it becomes her fault. Male responsibility is taken for granted, minimized or even excused. “Men will be men” and, given opportunity, this is just what they do.

It is more frightening and difficult, but in the long run more effective to recognize that all our systems are only half measures. Rape will only stop when men stop raping. If men didn’t do it, women’s responses would never be in question.

Men too want to believe that women control whether or not they are raped, battered. It absolves them of responsibility for their own actions and those of other men. It protects some men from owning up to their own violent acts and other men from the knowledge that they have, on occasion, been guilty of rape. Kinsey reports a study in which 85% of his male subjects admitted to this kind of “soft” rape.

Virtually all men want to be treated by women as if they were in the category of protecting us from those “other” men. They expect us to begin with an assumption of trust. In a media interview last year, Lee Lakeman from Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter stated, “Every man is a potential rapist.” There were several letters to the editor in response – all from men – disclaiming their responsibility for rape, insisting that they can be trusted, calling for men’s liberation and declaring Lee a “menace to her own cause.” Whenever this statement has been made, the response has been similar.

Women take the responsibility of evading attack seriously. It is a difficult job. The dangerous men are not visibly identifiable, have no distinguishable traits, fit no particular group. We know they can be fathers, brothers, husbands, teachers, doctors. They can be small, large, rich, poor, black or white. The only thing they have in common is that they are men who rape and batter women.

To say that every man is a potential rapist is not to say that every man rapes. It is a caution against falsely categorizing men and taking unwitting risks as a result.

It is overwhelmingly white men born into rich families who hold the positions of most power in this society. They make the rules and social policy for the rest of us, including the large numbers of the poor, women and people of colour. There is overwhelming evidence that men rape within the same class or race and down. Although we know that violence against women is perpetrated by men of every race and class, the jails are disproportionately filled with native men and poor and working class men.

Racism has always drawn strength from its ability to encourage sexual coercion. While black women and their sisters of colour have been the main targets of these racist inspired attacks, white women have suffered as well. For, once white men were persuaded that they could commit sexual assaults against black women with impunity, their conduct towards women of their own race could not remain unmarred. Racism has always served as provocation to rape, and white women in the U.S. have necessarily suffered in the ricochet fire from these attacks. (Angela Davis)

In Canada, the effect of the black experience reverberates, and we have our own as well. The Indian Act of 1880 proclaims that all but Indians will be defined as persons, at a time when the rape of native women went unchecked, native land was usurped, and native peoples were forced into a dependency on this government. The implications for a native person leaving the reserve, as defined by the Indian Act, is to effectively deny being Indian. Native women are at increased risk of sexist violence by white men as a racist/sexist attack. They are less likely to report to a court that has a long history of working against native people. When native women are attacked by native men, they may want to protect him from the racist “injustice” system that is likely to punish him, not for the assault, but for being native.

In the Lemieux agreement of 1908 between Canada and Japan, the immigration of adult males was severely curtailed but placed no limit on the number of wives entering Canada. Through the exchange of photos men arranged for brides to be sent from Japan. In 1913, a peak period, some 300 or 400 women arrived via this arrangement.

The practice continued until 1928. Other less fortunate women were brought over to serve in brothels that existed as early as 1890 in Victoria, Nelson, Cranbrook and other mining and rail-roading towns. They were usually young, illiterate women from poverty stricken villages sent to earn whatever they could to support their families in Japan.

At the advent of the Second World War, Japanese Canadians were deemed a threat to national security and placed in labour camps. Their homes and businesses were taken over by the government and never returned.

Canada continues its racist and sexist immigration practise of importing women for the purpose of domestic labour. In recent years, the women are mostly from Central and South America. Combined with unfair labour practises in this kind of work, these women too have little opportunity to learn about the language and their few rights. They continue to be vulnerable to sexual exploitation and work under conditions that sometimes amount to slave labour and even sexual slavery.

Besides committing direct violence, men and to a lesser extent, women, have the power to collude in building a version of this violence that holds women responsible. Collusory power is exercised by what is done to enable the violence to take place, by making escape or recovery more difficult or using powerful positions in the community to lie about the women who are attacked.

In a 1984 Vancouver divorce case, Joanne describes being hit by her husband, having her car sabotaged by him so that she couldn’t escape, and having her clothes burned in a fire that would have burned the house down if the police had not intervened. The judge commented that it was understandable that she was hit because she hadn’t made her husband dinner. He did not comment on the other acts.

Diana came to Canada sponsored by her husband of six months. She arrived to find out that he was violent an expected her to stay home alone, be there when he returned and to be sexually available to him at all times. He raped her many times in the first few months. She spoke little English, but found a way out with the help of a neighbour. But when she visited a social worker to get money, she was lectured about it not being Canada’s responsibility to support her. The worker wanted to know if Diana had spoken to her husband about his behaviour. The bottom line was that she could have a cheque if she went to a marriage counsellor with him. He had set up a few appointments and had seen a psychologist already. The psychologist wanted to talk about her behaviour when they were together. The husband translated for her in these sessions. The psychologist was to make a report to the financial worker.

Marianna was sexually abused by her father from age five to thirteen, and by her eighteen year old brother at age nine.

When she went for counselling years later, she was told that she had an unusually intense need for love that her brother and father had discovered and responded to in an unhealthy way. She was told to change how needy she was for affection.

Pornography, other media representations of women, insulting jokes and comments made to us or about us also contribute to this society which fails to disapprove of violence against women.

Men can stop the violence against women if they want to. They choose who to attack – a male clerk does not sexually abuse the woman who is his executive director, he chooses his co-worker.They choose how to attack – men are careful to bruise their wives only on the clothed part of the body.They choose when – when women are isolated or in some other way vulnerable. Men can stop and they must be encouraged, taught, pressured or ultimately forced to stop. The reasons they give for violent behaviour are many:

  • I was jealous. She is an attractive woman and I’m not the only one who thinks so. I was afraid she’s leave me and I wanted to force her to stay. I wanted to teach her that she could not fool around. I was sure that she was, although I don’t think so now, and I didn’t want to be duped
  • I was insecure. I wasn’t doing as well as I wanted to at work, or with my friends, and I just wanted to put her down, humiliate her and make her not as good as me. I could be better than someone if I did that. In hockey and other sports with men, that was how we solved things. The guy who won the fight was right, you know!
  • It didn’t matter which woman I picked, just that one that was close at hand when I decided to rape. Just the ones I could get away with it with- alone, nobody around to stop me. And she would be afraid- afraid of me.
  • To get the kind of sex I wanted. I’d go drinking with the boys. They’d say their wives and girlfriends did those things. I feared that I was being “pussy whipped”, that if I was man enough, she’d want to, so I made her do it.
  • So I didn’t have to do what she wanted me to..
  • In war – ransack the village, rape the women for fun as reward, emotional outlet, adrenaline rush; get at the men through the women..
  • To shut her up.
  • Because I didn’t want to be a father, cause she paid more attention to the unborn kid than me..
  • She’s a lesbian. All she needs is a good fuck..
  • I didn’t believe I had any control over it. I wanted to be the first to “have her”, teach her about sex..
  • She wanted it – children are sexual beings and they have rights..

You have probably heard versions of these excuses and many others besides. One possibility has commanded little attention to date, and that is child pornography for profit in Canada. Robert Willoughby, originally charged with 75 counts of sexual abuse of children, was convicted in 1985 in Terrace, B.C. of 25 sexual offences. One of the eight children reported having been photographed over 200 times, mostly with another child. While child pornography rings and networks are known about in the U.S. and other parts of the world, we do not know anything of that scale in Canada.

There are many things that men can do to help put an end to violence against women. Do not rape, harass, threaten or insult women. Challenge the men you know if you hear of them doing any of these things. Make sure that they know its not okay with you. Don’t buy or use pornography or condone your friends’ use of it. Sex with children is rape, and adults sexualizing children is promotion of rape. Get and give emotional support to and from male friends. Talk seriously about your own sexuality. Women-hating jokes are not okay, neither are racist remarks or comments made at the expense of poor people, gays, lesbians or disabled people. Listen carefully about what women have to say about their lives. Take them seriously as experts on sexism. Analyse your power position relative to women friends. You almost always have more. Find ways to equalize this as much as possible. Your sexual partners have a right to stop sexual activity at any point. So do you. Support your local rape crisis line and women’s centres with money donations.

Women can’t afford to expect men to stop violence against women, take on their share of social responsibility and give over their excess share of power quietly. Sometimes we work long and hard to convince a man to do just that and it is worth it. But that tactic only works when he wants to and moves fast enough to make it worth our while. Therefore, to add to our repertoire, women are:

  • exposing men and making them publicly accountable for their actions, sometimes through the court systems, professional associations, rape crisis centres and postering or confronting him
  • getting together to support each other in dreaming up ways to take him on and get what she needs;
  • developing safety networks in their homes and places of work
  • refusing sex with men as long as they read pornography
  • withdrawing emotional support and labour when he isn’t keeping his share of the responsibility; forming on-going groups or joining existing groups to fight for control over our reproduction, adequate childcare, enough money to live on, an end to violence against women and for free choice in our sexual partners.

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