It’s generally a real pleasure to have you as a friend on Facebook. I appreciate that I can keep up on what the kids are listening to these days on Spotify and I thoroughly enjoy eyeing pictures of high school ragers. But I’ve noticed that lately your taste in “likes” has changed. It’s out with Bieber, in with Tosh.0.
You’ve indicated that you will be attending “Booty Slap Day” and have started to share videos of young men running up to women they don’t know in order to grope their behinds, run away and laugh—videotaping it all for hilarious posterity.
Now, I hate to get all Aunt Feminist Killjoy on you—but I love you and it’s my job. And I imagine you care about me too, at least enough to read on.
Here’s the thing: those guys running up to women just to grab their ass? Stuff like that happens to women all the time. It’s happened to me. When I was your age, guys—from boys in school to men on the subway—used to grope and touch me against my will too. I don’t know if any of them videotaped it or if they did it as a “joke”—all I know was that it was really scary.
Once it happened on my way to school on the train. I was wearing a dress because it was my seventeenth birthday. The subway was crowded and a man—I never saw his face—put his hand up my skirt and grabbed my ass right over my underwear. The memory of it still makes me feel like vomiting. This was just one incident—it’s happened to me at least a dozen times. The girls you know at school—girls you’re friends with?—I’m betting it’s happened to them, too.
Being touched against your will has become a twisted rite of passage for American females. It’s a reminder that you’re never safe anywhere. That your body is not really yours—but instead public property, there to be rubbed against by an old man or pinched and videotaped by a young one.
I know that a quick click on the “like” button may not seem like a big deal to you—but it scares me to think about the larger implications. I think about the high school kid in Steubenville, Ohio, joking and laughing about the unconscious teen girl in the next room who had just been raped by two of his classmates. That may seem a million miles away from “liking” a video—but it’s all part of the same world, the same culture that devalues women. Even laughing at a joke about rape supports the idea that women are less than and makes rapists think that you are like them. And the more you laugh at this stuff, the easier it becomes to take the ideas you’re laughing at more and more seriously.
Listen, I don’t think you’re an asshole who thinks it’s funny to do something that women find scary. You’ve been raised to think that this sort of stuff is all in good fun. Not by your parents necessarily, but by culture. You’ve grown up in a country where a Super Bowl commercial for Audi suggests that girls your age actually like it when a guy they don’t really know grabs and forces a kiss on them. (Seriously—they won’t like this.) You’ve been raised in a culture that positions women as existing just for sex, for humiliation, for objectification.
So please understand that I don’t blame you for partaking in the only kind of culture you’ve ever known. At least, I don’t blame you yet. Because here’s the thing—if you didn’t realize before that this kind of stuff is harmful and hurtful to women, now you do. So think of this as a chance to make a decision about what kind of man you’re going to be.
As you continue to grow up, you’re going to have plenty of opportunities (too many) to laugh at women’s pain, embarrassment or the sexual harassment and assault we face. These moments will define you. Will you laugh along? Share a video, like a status, laugh at a joke? Or will you say “no,” tell a friend that’s a fucked-up thing to say, and walk away?
Yes, if you choose the latter—the undoubtedly more difficult path—your friends may give you a hard time. They could laugh, call you a “pussy” or accuse you of not being able to take a joke. I’m sure that will be a pain. But it’s still the right thing to do. And you can be secure in your decision to stand with women—to stand with me—because you’ll know that you’re better than all that. Media, sexism, misogyny—all of these structures are depending on the idea that you won’t think deeply about the messages that are sent to you, that you’ll just accept them without consideration or critical thinking. But you’re better than the culture says you are. You’re smarter than that and you’re kinder than that. I know you are.
So please, the next time you’re considering sharing a video or laughing at a joke or saying something unsavory about a female peer—take the action seriously, think about what it really means. And consider your Auntie Feminist who loves you very much.
Read Jessica Valenti’s address to staff and supporters of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in Houston.