By Mihret Yirgeta, September 19 2022—
From the time that we are little girls, we are told what to wear, where to go, who to talk to and never to go out late at night. You are told to cover up since a particular male relative or friend is coming over. That used to always make me wonder — if you knew your friend or relative would act in a way where you feared for your daughter’s safety, why would you invite him over? Instead, she bears the responsibility to ensure her safety from a predator in her own home. It should then be no wonder that most sexual assault cases are perpetrated by someone the victim already knows.
Women and femme presenting people share strategies to keep each other safe outdoors as well. We move in groups because there’s safety in numbers, we don’t exercise at night for fear of bumping into someone who might harm us. We are constantly aware of what we are wearing, which streets we are walking down and which neighbourhoods we are in. We take self defense classes, carry pepper spray and walk with our keys between our fingers until we get to our cars. When we see young girls in buses and trains looking uncomfortable and afraid, we go up to them and pretend to be their friend to remove them from the situation. Yet, when we hear stories of a woman getting attacked or assaulted we hear questions like “What was she wearing?,” “Why was she out so late?,” “Why was she drinking?,” and “Why was she alone?”
Society moves to question the victim rather than the perpetrator. Why don’t we ever ask “why was he pressuring her when she was drunk?” or “did he ask for consent?” We do not question why he followed her to her car or didn’t respect that she said no.
The most glaring example of how much personal safety weighs on women comes from an internet phenomenon in 2020. People across the internet were asked some variation of “what would you do if men disappeared from earth for 24 hours?” The responses were incredibly saddening. A majority of the responses were variations of “I can go jogging/walking at night,” “I can put both my earphones in as I walk” or “I can wear whatever I want.”
Just mundane everyday things that men usually don’t have to think about. To add insult to injury, there were men in those replies commenting that “not all men” were perpetrators of assault which dismisses the everyday experiences of women. If you’ve been on the internet over the past few years, you will have heard that phrase floating around. This is almost always in response to a woman or female presenting person’s story of trauma that involves men. You will hear someone share a story of how they were abused or assaulted or treated awfully by a man and the response in the comments is “yeah, but not all men.”
This is incredibly invalidating to someone’s experience, and also a jarring response to hear in the face of vulnerability. Why are you defending the men that did not commit the abuse or assault? No one is saying all men are terrible or monsters, people are sharing their experiences with the men that have hurt them.
This phenomenon illustrates how deeply ingrained the patriarchy is in our society. Men are asking to be put at the centre of a conversation concerning women. The phrase “not all men” redirects the conversation and makes it about the men rather than seeking accountability for the victims. It’s the equivalent of saying “Yeah, but I am not like that!”
Yes, I’m aware, I wasn’t talking about you. Additionally, it shows their discomfort at addressing issues that strongly affect women. They want to absolve themselves of blame before they continue the conversation, refusing to reflect on their own past behaviour and completely erasing the lessons they could have learned.
A brilliant analogy I came across on the internet really illustrates the ridiculousness of the “not all men” narrative. The first lesson of gun safety is to treat all guns like they are loaded because you cannot look at a gun and see if it’s loaded or not. Women are using the same logic because you cannot just look at a man and see if they will be your assailant or not. To tell someone speaking about sexism, misogyny and assault this is the equivalent of telling someone who was shot “not all guns shoot people.” Congratulations, this has added nothing to the conversation and has just invalidated the experience of someone who went through these things.
All of this stems from the patriarchy. Men are raised to believe that they are entitled to the world and some of them cannot wrap their heads around being told no. They are socialized to believe that sex is how they “become a man” and that women owe them sex. This way of viewing the world is precisely why all of the onus is on the victims to protect themselves. When you are socialized to believe your needs are more important than another person’s, when you get congratulated for harassing women until they give in to your demands, when you get convenient ways to exonerate yourself by blaming her clothing or behaviour or the time of day then why would you ever want to change that?
Unless we go to the source of the issue, the actual perpetrators of assault, there won’t be a change to the situation. We need to teach young boys and men about consent, bodily autonomy and respecting the needs of others. Otherwise, we are just providing a convenient way to blame the victim and excuse the behaviour of the aggressor.
Yes, men are not the only people who commit sexual assault, women are certainly not the only victims, and sexual harassment is a huge issue that we need to work on regardless of where people fall on the gender spectrum. However, when 92 per cent of victims of reported assault cases are women, we need to address that as soon as possible. Men need to be educated on the statistics surrounding assault and need to unlearn their misogynistic ways of viewing the world.
This article is a part of our Voices section.