True story. Last month, a group of friends was enjoying a fine old time at a favorite bar when they were suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with a symptom of rape culture.
They were playing Jenga, and each piece in this particular set is scribbled over with fun, taunting messages and dares to make the game more college-town appropriate. After masterfully pulling a wedged game piece from the tower, a young woman in the group read out the message: “It’s only rape if she reports it.”
Should she laugh it off because it’s so obviously inappropriate? She’s there to have fun with her friends, so why not ignore such B.S. and just toss it into the used pile? But…no. Nope. This is bull. So she stood up, made her way downstairs to the bar and handed the game piece to the manager. She told him why the game piece needed to be replaced and then walked back to the game. All done, and it took her about two minutes.
Can making a reaction be that simple? Yes, it can — unless it’s the rest of the time — but it actually can be as quick, pleasing and simple as that. Really, the priority is to just get comfortable with asking questions:
- Is this rapey message cool to remain in your Jenga game? No? Then kick it to the gutter, you rockstar.
It’s good to start practicing now, because life never misses the chance to give you more complicated opportunities to either react to or ignore a problem. You will be tempted to ignore it, walk away (and sometimes that is the best decision where safety is concerned), or just laugh it off to appear like nothing’s wrong. Ignoring a problem like this has a way of haunting us, though.
There are times I’ve made myself proud; like in junior high when I put a bully in his place and helped a classmate pick up his scattered homework, or the time I loudly criticized a man with a joke after he’d spent five awful minutes loudly describing lewd sex acts in derogatory terms while everyone stood — silent and red-faced — in a crowded line.
Events like those hardly cross my mind afterward, but I often remember the times I didn’t react. I didn’t report an economics professor (at another school, I promise) who regularly humiliated a young foreign exchange student at every opportunity. Instead of taking a stand and reporting this behavior, I just stopped going to his class entirely (an easier choice since all homework and exams were done online). I didn’t speak up after a high school teacher acted inappropriately toward me, because I didn’t want to take on the burden (risks) of seeking accountability against him. Not at the time.
Those instances can bother me, because I wonder if my decision to ignore the problem left other people vulnerable. Then again, I’m not perfect. I’m a person and I just wanted to pass those classes and be done with it. I was also younger then, and felt less assured in questioning the actions of authority figures. A few years after the incident in high school, two different teachers at that school were revealed to have engaged in sexually abusive relationships with students and another was revealed to have child pornography on his school laptop. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark.
I understand now that position is too often mistaken for authority, and that has the power to chill the questions that need asking — that you and I need to ask.
Recently, on October 26th, about 60 women got in their cars, drove down the street and made international news. The most amazing part is that they didn’t actually do anything except make a quick drive across town, and it wasn’t even in a dramatic convoy (which is the best method of travel, really). They were just breaking the law in Saudi Arabia and resisting the kingdom’s ban on issuing driver’s licenses to women. No picket signs, no rallies, no (reported) arrests, even. These women made a reaction just by going for a nice drive to blow off some old patriarchal steam.
This time last year, Australia’s prime minister checked some blundering misogyny of the house speaker in a 15-minute speech that went viral (over 2 million views), not because of the house speaker’s misconduct (he was also being sued for sexual harassment) but because of the skillful way in which Julia Gillard skewered the speaker’s sexist bully-tactics in his politics. The video is jaw-dropping.
In mid-2012, a Los Angeles woman reported that she had been harassed by low-brow comedian Daniel Tosh during his rape-joke comedy routine. The woman said she’d listened silently to a few of the jokes until she felt “provoked” to question him. She called out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”
I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.
After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing I needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there.
Although this woman’s decision to question Tosh resulted in her immediate bullying, her reaction sparked a huge backlash against Tosh. It prompted international discussion of the issue, a tweeted apology from Tosh and whispers of frenzied content editing to his upcoming pilot series.
Reacting to problems like these can be as easy as handing back a botched game-piece, or as difficult as breaking the law in Saudi Arabia. Taking a stand doesn’t always need to be ground breaking but the opportunities will find you regardless, so do what you can.