Crimes against women – such as domestic abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment – are extraordinarily widespread. Statistics say that the majority of women, quite possibly the vast majority of them, fall victim to at least one of these crimes. Their prevalence is so high, that the cumulative effect can only be compared to the suffering of a population of a country engaged in total war. Except this war, the war against women, has been going on without a ceasefire since the dawn of time, has been directed at half of humanity at any given moment, and is completely one-sided.
How can one explain the “normalcy” of this phenomenon, the way it is so integrated into the fabric of our daily lives? It may be easier to explain this for societies where these crimes do not “exist” as crimes, where they are considered normative. But their extent and scope are also massive in societies which have laws against them, and where polite conversation does not allow for their legitimation.
One explanation is something I call “the but factor”. Societies that nominally condemn sexual crimes often employ this device: “yes, these crimes are awful, but…” What comes after the “but” can take various forms. Sometimes it is “she brought it on herself”. Sometimes it is “what about men who are wrongly accused”. Often, you hear “but there are more important/heinous/troubling crimes” or “this is not relevant for the issue we are discussing”.
Another popular mechanism to suppress this discussion is to think of it as somebody else’s problem; or worse, as a tool to make it somebody else’s problem. Yes, people say, “they” constantly commit crimes against women; how good it is that “we” never do that. This is just another demonstration of how wonderful “we” are, and how terrible “they” are. Such people will not stand for sexual violence, and demand a respectful discussion of this issue, only when it can be used as a battering ram to demonize the members of a rival group.
What these rhetorical devices have in common is that they are actually methods of not speaking. They are not ways to address the issue of crimes against women, they are means to avoid this discussion altogether. Often, people dispense with both, and just remain silent. They know that this man, a prominent figure in their group, sexually harasses women. If asked, they will say this is wrong. But they do nothing about it. We do nothing about it.
There are exceptions, of course. There are those who speak out, who disrupt this perfect, pleasant silence. When this happens, you almost never see people engage them in conversation, respond to their stories and arguments. Eye-rolling, exasperation, boredom, and sometimes rage, are the most frequent responses.
The last sentiment is especially prominent when the issue of the silence itself is brought up. People can tolerate condemnation of men who attack or harass women. But when their, when our, own passive acquiescence with this phenomenon is mentioned, this can evoke truly dangerous and violent retorts.
The first step in the struggle against violence toward women is to delegitimize silence and passivity on this issue. No one can become an activist that tackles every wrong. We choose our battles according to a variety of reasons. This is a necessity of life, not something to boast about. At the very least, I would expect those of us that have chosen to disengage, when the issue hits too close to home, to accept that they will be fairly criticized for doing so, that we will be fairly criticized for doing so.