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There’s No Such Thing As The Breastplate of Righteousness

May 29, 2010

One of Jezebel’s headlining articles today is about the general disgustingness of the recently released Kendra Wilkinson sex tape.  I won’t go into all the details here because the original article expresses all the disgust that needs to be expressed.  What I want to riff on is the stuff going down in the comments.

If for some unreasonable reason you don’t read the OP, the point is that a 17-year-old Wilkinson is video taped doing a litany of things that she very clearly does NOT want to do.  And the dude who makes her do them, and any dude who thinks the vid is sexy, is clearly a class-A douchebag.  Very quickly, and very understandably, the comments become a space for women to confess their similar experiences, and their horror at what happens to Kendra.  Commenter titchytiny’s response is fairly typical:

I think most people can relate to this feeling, sexually or not. I know with one particular ex-boyfriend he always pushed me into doing things I wasn’t comfortable with. “Don’t you want to make me happy?” or “Come on, just try it, you’ll like it,” are lines that so many girls hear and obey because they don’t want to make the man upset or whatever. And it’s a girls job to make sandwiches and please in the bedroom, right?

Commenter starfishtat is not far behind her:

I want to add my voice the chorus and say that this happened to me (minus the video camera) several times in my early 20s. I still carry on incident, in particular, with me every day.
In many ways this is the first time I have acknowledged that. There is something that exists on the continuum between rape and consensual, happy sex, and it is damaging to young women. How strange that Kendra may inadvertantly be the person who helps launch a dialogue about this.

And she’s right.  It is a veritable chorus of voices chiming in, sympathyzing with one another over shared experiences of douchebags and abusive exes and just generally nasty experiences.  Women need more communal spaces like this, ones in which talking about our bad experiences in bed doesn’t lead to slut-shaming or victim blaming.  We need to draw back the curtain on the sheer masses of women who have had experiences like Kendra’s, experiences in which our bodies and our minds and our desires are blatantly disrespected in favor of a man’s boner.

What we don’t need is for those safe spaces to turn into opportunities for victim blaming, for other women to hold themselves up as examples of perfection simply because they have not experienced what so many of us lay claim to.  But that’s what always happens.  Because on the internet, commenters are always keen to make their experiences known, even when those experiences are not necessarily 100% relevant to the topic.  Even when the airing of those experiences is nowhere near respectful of others in the forum.

I realize that commenter sheleftyouasong probably didn’t intend her comment to be taken as offensive.  But when I read it, with the mindset of a woman who has been victimized over and over and over again, I couldn’t help but get a little angry.  Here’s what she has to say:

I just want to say, since so many people have had uncomfortable sexual experiences:

I have always been in control of my sexuality, and everything I have done has been on my own terms. I’m very proud of that.

It is possible. I think it relates to the self esteem I’ve always had, which relates directly to my amazing mother. I believe it’s our job now to ensure, regardless of our own experiences, that the next generation knows the kind of power they do have over their own bodies and their own choices, and that they are intelligent, talented and beautiful (in that order, intelligence should always be stressed above physical beauty, yo).

Like I said, clearly not intended to be offensive.  She’s right on about the importance of teaching young women to love themselves, to recognize their own intelligence and beauty.  And I’m glad – very glad – for her that she hasn’t had the kinds of experiences I’ve had.  I’m glad that she doesn’t have a whole history of abusive men and ridiculous cretins to lay claim to.  I would never wish that on anyone.  What I resent, in her comment, is the implication that those men have been absent from her life solely because of her high self esteem.

Let’s take a look at her wording again:

I have always been in control of my sexuality, and everything I have done has been on my own terms. I’m very proud of that.

It is possible. I think it relates to the self esteem I’ve always had, which relates directly to my amazing mother.

As a person who hasn’t always been in control of her sexuality, who didn’t have an amazing mother, and who has dealt with rape and abuse and general douchebaggery pretty much all my life, these words break my heart.  They make me choke back my own tears and fall into an awful shame spiral.  Because they suggest that if I’d just had a different kind of upbringing, or if I’d only had more self esteem, if I’d only loved myself a little more, maybe I wouldn’t have been knocked around by manipulative men.  Maybe it’s my fault after all.

“Self esteem” is a very popular term, and it’s bandied about fairly frequently in articles/books/tv shows that seek to give relationship advice to women.  My recent ex – the awful one I wrote about in my previous post – was fond of telling me how much of it he had, and how little of it I had.  That was one of his methods of making me believe that I deserved absolutely everything he did to me.  He would tell me that I just needed to learn to respect myself more, that I didn’t love myself enough.  He was very fond of saying, “I have a strong will.  I’m never going to change myself,” and implying that what I needed to have, in order to be happy, was an even stronger will, an unwillingness ever to bend.  It was my fault I was unhappy because I wasn’t strong enough.

I realize that our Jezebel commenter is not the same as my ex, and that her motives are undoubtedly not the same.  However, I do think that the language of her comment deserves some attention, as it points to a problem common in feminist discussions of abusive relationships and the women who inhabit them.

We don’t really understand what causes abusive partnerships.  We don’t really know why some women enter into them and others don’t.  And we’re horrified that they exist at all.  When we’re faced with a flood of confession like the one on the Jez post, we’re at a loss for words.  What can we say to such an enormous group of women in order to give them hope?  What can we say to ourselves, in order to prove that these types of situations aren’t inevitable, that they won’t happen to us, won’t happen to the people we love?

We can come up with reasons.  We can try to invent explanations that suggest there’s something we can do to keep bad men from preying on us, on our daughters.  (Sheleftyouasong seems particularly concerned with the latter, as her comment is mostly about teaching younger women to have Big Self Esteem.)  But what we always need to keep in mind is that anytime those reasons have more to do with the woman being abused than they do with the man doing the abusing, all we’re really doing is maintaining the status quo.  We’re telling young girls that, no matter how much they might think they love themselves, if they’re being abused then that love isn’t strong enough.  If they’re being abused it’s because there’s something wrong with them, with the way they’re doing things or the impression that they’re imparting.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fix myself, trying to figure out what inside me was broken that made these particular men choose me as their prey.  You know what I think the answer is?  I was there.  That’s all it takes, ladies.  Sure, there might be some things about my personality that made me a little easier to manhandle.  But some of those things are the very same traits that play a big part in my self-esteem.  I’m accommodating.  I’m positive.  I’m caring as all hell, and I’m sensitive.  Yes, there are probably times when those aspects of myself helped someone to take advantage of me.  But those are also some of the traits that set me apart, that make me an individual.  Those traits help me to write.  They helped me to teach.  And when I embark on my new career (in the nursing field, I hope), I imagine they’ll help me in that endeavor too.  I’m not changing those things.  Not for anyone.  And fuck all those guys who tried to use those things to their advantage.  In the end, they end up losing.  They end up with themselves.  And that makes for pretty poor company.

It’s wonderful to teach girls the importance of confidence.  But all of the confidence in the world won’t stop abusers.  That isn’t how it works.  And putting out the message that “self esteem” and a good upbringing are the things that will stop abuse – well, that’s just plain wrong.  More than that, though, it sends abused women the message that if they’d only loved themselves a little more they never would have gotten hurt.  And as a woman who loves herself quite a lot, I’m pretty sure that just isn’t true.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. marybullstonecraft permalink*
    May 29, 2010 7:24 pm

    Too true. People often think that because abusers exploit vulnerability, it must mean that people who are abused are too vulnerable. But the thing is, ALL people have vulnerabilities that can be exploited–it’s just that some of them are fortunate enough (through whatever combination of reasons) to have avoided abuse.

  2. Melissa permalink
    May 29, 2010 10:10 pm

    Great post. And I definitely agree that any sort of strategy for preventing abuse which puts the responsibility is wrong…even when the victim-blaming is shrouded in a relatively feminist disguise. After all, if abusers would just STOP ABUSING, then it wouldn’t matter a whit whether their potential victims had self-esteem or not. This is the proper conversation to be having–not whether the victim having self-esteem could have prevented the abuse, either by the abuser not being attracted to her in the first place or by her decision to leave the relationship before it escalated.

    That being said, as someone on your end of the spectrum (I’m a veteran of an abusive relationship, a rape, and a second sexual assault, all by different men)…sometimes you’ve gotta wonder. Not if I shouldn’t have “put myself in that situation” or anything. Like you, my decisions were based in qualities that I like about myself and have no interest in changing. I’m empathetic, I assume the best in people, and I am very trusting. So I’m not saying that I should have known, should have gotten out of that relationship at the first sign of trouble, shouldn’t have been alone with my rapist or the other attacker. But what I am saying is…I feel like it can’t be an accident that victims of these crimes tend to be repeat victims. These guys must sniff us out somehow. They FIND us. They can sniff out the vulnerability. Somehow they can tell. And that’s what scares the hell out of me.

    • Melissa permalink
      May 29, 2010 10:11 pm

      *puts the responsibility on the victim is what I meant in the second line

    • June 2, 2010 1:27 am

      I’ve been thinking a lot about what you’re saying here, and about how it relates to my own situation. And I wonder if maybe the answer isn’t that, once you’ve been abused once in some way, the time and effort it takes to recover from that abuse DOES leave you exceptionally vulnerable. And maybe that’s the common denominator, for those of us who have patterns of abuse in our history. All it takes is that one time, and then you suddenly have a lot more on your plate than you bargained for. That in and of itself opens you up to being victimized or taken advantage of. I know, for example, that my abusive relationship and my rape are in some ways connected. I was still nursing lots of wounds from the rape when my ex came along. I didn’t realize until I was already living with him, several hundred miles away from friends and family, that he was picking open those scabs, that they were making me easier prey.

      So yes, it scares me too. It scares me a lot. And there are times when I’ve wondered whether I’ll ever break my damned pattern. But you know what? I also know a lot of women like me who’ve overcome the things that happened to them, who are with perfectly wonderful people right now, who are being treated like the beautiful women they are rather than like punching bags. And that’s what I think doesn’t get discussed enough – the success stories, the people who make it.

      What’s really important, though, is that we remember that it wasn’t our faults. I keep telling myself that, but some days I believe it more than others.

  3. May 31, 2010 8:49 am

    Victim-blaming is so upsetting to me. What bothered me (besides the fact that the post was EXTREMEMLY triggering for me, and there was no trigger warning on it) was this statement by the author of the article: “This isn’t rape – not even close.” Maybe not in the typical sense, no, but what I read sounded a lot like non-consent, coercion, and manipulation. And coercive rape is a very real thing, too. I feel like the author completely missed an opportunity to talk about how coercive rape happens, what it looks like, and how common it is.

    • marybullstonecraft permalink*
      June 1, 2010 12:25 pm

      I totally agree about the “not even close” statement. I was pretty surprised that the OP could simultaneously suggest non-consent was happening and claim that this was “not even close” to rape. Also, thanks for letting us know about the trigger issue. I’m sorry we didn’t flag it; we’ll be more careful in the future.


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