rape culture

Rape Culture and Everyday Life: We Grew Up With This | Comment

Sian Norris on why Donald Trump’s comments about women caught on a ‘hot mic’ and revealed by the Washington Post on Friday may come as a shock to some men, but less so for women. For, as she explains, the kind of rape culture his comments and the press response exposes is something most women have grown up with.

I haven’t blogged for ages. Partly because I’ve been getting more commissions to write elsewhere. Partly because when it feels like the world is going to hell in a handcart, it’s hard to know what to add to the general chorus of mind-boggled despair. And partly because after nearly a decade of feminist blogging, it can feel hard to say the same thing, again, and again.

I’ve also not written much about the Trump “thing”. You know. The thing that is Trump. The racism and the cruelty and the whole surreal shebang of a man wholly unqualified, wholly inexperienced and wholly awful suddenly a few points away from being one of the most powerful men in the world. What does one write about that? Better writers than me have tried.

Today’s different.

I can’t remember the first time I was groped. I know I was a teenager. I know it would have been around the time I was standing at bus stops in my school uniform while men beeped their horns and made obscene gestures, and I realised what being a woman was going to be like. I remember it happening in Paris – in fact I was still travelling into Paris, all excited and wide-eyed about my first holiday on my own; another time when a much older man “gave me a hug” and stuck his face between my adolescent tits; another time in a club, in a bar… A hand going up my leg on a plane, being chased off a train, another time in Paris… The ones I remember, the ones that are a blur of forgetfulness.

There’s a dull litany that every woman carries with her of those hands moving into spaces that don’t want them. The pushing away of hands. The lifting off of hands. The tight smile in response that means you don’t want to make a fuss but you also don’t want those hands on you.

We grew up with this.

We grew up learning that our bodies are public property. Fair game. We grew up with our mothers whispering in our ears about men and their hands. We grew up thinking about what we wore and what it meant. We grew up being told to be nice to men, not to think all men are dangerous, while simultaneously being told to be wary of men, because some men are dangerous. We grew up struggling with that balancing act of being nice and receptive to men, while never leading them on. We grew up trying to master this juggling act, because we grew up knowing we could always be blamed.

We grew up learning a woman’s place is in the wrong.

According to my Twitter timeline (never an accurate barometer of social thought it’s true, as proven in May 2015 and June 2016!), men have been shocked by Trump’s comments.

Women aren’t.

We aren’t shocked because we know what some men do. We know what it feels like to have our pussy grabbed, our arses groped, our tits pinched. We’ve always known.

We know what it’s like to to smile that tight, polite smile.

We know what it’s like to feel you can’t walk away.

We know what it’s like when someone reminds you that your body is not your own.

We grew up like this.

In their increasingly dumb-founded realisation that they’re stuck with this guy, Republicans have started falling over one another to condemn Trump’s sexual assault of women.

They tell us that his actions demean ‘our wives, our daughters, our granddaughters’.

Because women are only worth anything in our relationships to men.

The idea that it is wrong to sexually assault a woman because she is a person with a body that is her own – with her own feelings and fears and humanity and autonomy – that’s beyond their comprehension. The idea that a woman shouldn’t be assaulted because she is a woman, her own woman. They can’t imagine.

But that’s rape culture, right there. That’s rape culture talking in the same breath as the one they use to try and condemn sexual assault.

Because rape culture says that women’s bodies don’t belong to us. They belong to the men who assault us. Or they belong to the men we’re related to. Rape culture tells us that women’s worth is measured on her being a daughter, a sister, a mother or a wife.

Not on being a woman.

Not on being a person.

We know that.

We grew up with this.

So while outraged Republicans are trying to persuade us they care about women because they have female relatives, other commentators are trying to tell us that grabbing women by the vulva isn’t sexual assault at all.

And that’s rape culture too, right?

To say that violating a woman’s personal boundaries is a clumsy attempt at seduction. To say the comments are lewd – as if speaking the word pussy is beyond the pale but sticking your hand on one is a-ok. It’s not sexual assault, it’s just what guys do. Boys will be boys. Top bantz.

Women know this. We know what it’s like to be told not to complain. To keep quiet. Not to make a big deal out of it. We wouldn’t want to upset him, after all. We wouldn’t want to get him into trouble over just a bit of sexual assault. We wouldn’t want to make a fuss. It’s just a slap on the ass, a pinch of your tits, a hand on your thigh, a hand up your skirt. He didn’t mean it. He didn’t mean it. It was just a joke. It was just a clumsy attempt at seduction. What, are you going to criminalise flirting now?

Shut up like a good girl.

I didn’t even go to the police when men set my hair on fire.

Why would I?

The only thing that surprises me about the Trump story and its fall out is that any man is surprised.

Because women knew.

We grew up with this.


Sian Norris is a novelist, short story writer and poet. Her first book, Greta and Boris: A daring rescue was published in 2013 by Our Street. She is currently working on a novel based around Gertrude Stein’s circle, which in 2016 was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish prize. Sian’s the co-editor of the Read Women project and the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. Her non-fiction has been published in the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman, 3am magazine and Open Democracy.

This article first appeared on Sian’s blog on Saturday 8th October 2016.