The other night I went out clubbing with some of the girls from my pole dance studio, and I had an interesting revelation. Walking through Farragut North, a relatively safe area of DC—well-lit, with lots of people around—I realized that I felt incredibly vulnerable. In my high heels and fancy club-wear (albeit fairly modest by the standards of those around me), I felt unnaturally like a target. Moreover, I felt that I lacked the ability to defend myself.
Perhaps in this regard I am actually luckier than most. I walk through dangerous neighborhoods as a matter of course for my work, sometimes quite obviously lost, and have never feared for my safety. I have been able to trust in my wits, my strength, and the goodness inherent in people around me to keep me safe. For many women, the vulnerability I felt walking around in my high-heels is a daily occurrence. They dread catcalls and leering strangers, men in large groups, and unfamiliar streets. They feel unsure of their ability to fend off the manifestations of rape culture which surround them.
I’ve written about rape culture before: the behaviors and attitudes that perpetuate a society in which rape, harassment, and belittlement of women (and non-cisgendered people) exist and thrive.
In many cases, rape culture’s most insidious aspect is how it is insulated by people who have become accustomed to its effects. Cliff at The Pervocracy writes excellently on this phenomenon, which she calls “The Missing Stair:”
Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? ”Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”
Some people are like that missing stair….
Everyone who says “I don’t want to be a victim-blamer, but girls should know frat parties aren’t safe places” is treating rape culture like a missing stair. Everyone who says “it’s an ugly fact, but only women who don’t make trouble make it in this business” is treating sexual harassment like a missing stair. Everyone who says “I don’t like it either, but that’s the way things are,” and makes no move to question the way things are, is jumping over a missing stair somewhere.
In this way, the missing stair (ie: rape culture) is not the only problem. The people who continually ignore or apologize for rape culture begin to perpetuate, and in some instances worsen the problem. And it usually takes drastic measures to shake that kind of apathy. If someone fails to jump over the missing stair, falls and breaks zir ankle, zir friends will suddenly be up in arms and protesting that the stair must be fixed. Similarly, people who know family or friends who have suffered sexual assault at its most violent are quick to take up the cause and fight for justice.
But those that just barely graze the edge? Whose feet are beginning to slip, but caught their balance at just the last moment? Who endure catcalls and uncomfortable advances in bars? Whose breasts are grazed in the subway, but convince themselves that it was just an accident? Those people don’t often recognize rape culture. They don’t fight the injustices that they deal with bodily on a daily basis.
Instead they have set ups like the safe call. A safecall is an arrangement that you make to check in with a trustworthy person when you’re meeting with an acquaintance or someone new with whom you haven’t yet developed trust. Your trustworthy person should know where you’re going to be (specific addresses), who you’re going to be with (real names), and what time(s) you will be checking in. If you don’t check in, they’ll assume something has gone wrong and will contact the local authorities.
I don’t want to dissect the safe call here, because I think it is an incredibly valuable tool to protect yourself in potentially dangerous situations (and I urge all of you to read this article). However, I think it’s poignant that such a practice is both necessary and widely practiced as a way of ensuring an individual’s safety. It brings to light the extent to which many individuals acknowledge the bodily dangers of rape culture (and the necessity of precaution), without examining the structures which make these situations dangerous.
Thus, I return to Friday night, walking to the club in Farragut North. I felt at once absurd and humbled by my realization of vulnerability. I felt vulnerable because I was dressed up, drawing attention to myself, and I was hobbled by heals. Why did I feel like a target because of this? Did I expect sexual assault from these behaviors? The answers aren’t so simple, but it made me realize how frightening it must be for people who feel vulnerable like this all the time. It reminded me that there is so much work to be done in dismantling rape culture, and that I have not even begun to scratch the surface.