When Will We Stop Putting the Onus of Sexual Assault on Girls?

As this mother knows, the language we use to reinforce rape culture doesn’t start with adulthood, it goes all the way back to the womb.

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“I used to think I’d want a girl,” my co-worker said as we walked back from the breakroom to our respective desks, “but then my husband told me a boy was better.”

As a feminist with a daughter of my own, I couldn’t help feeling miffed. “Why’s that?” I asked. “With a boy, you only have to worry about one penis,” she said, holding up a single glossy lacquered nail. “But with a girl, you have to worry about all the penises.” Her broad gesticulations suggested a vast number of troublesome penises out there. “It’s just so much more work and worry,” she sighed.

“She could be a lesbian, you know,” I responded immediately. As she took her seat, she said, “That’s true,” in a tone that made it clear she’d never considered that before.

Like a tongue persistently working at dislodging a phantom chunk of food between two back teeth, I found myself coming back to this exchange repeatedly, trying to pinpoint precisely why it irritated me so much. To be sure, her future child’s presumed heterosexuality bothered me, but there was more to it than that. After reading New York Magazine’s powerful piece on 35 of Bill Cosby’s alleged victims coming forward together to be photographed and tell their stories I realized, the sentiment she shared with me is by no means unique to this couple, but is part of a broader social dialogue and understanding surrounding women, men, and rape culture—and reflective of just how warped and stunted it really is.

It’s not that I begrudge people their baby preferences. When I was pregnant, I actively wanted a daughter (though I knew that wouldn’t guarantee she’d necessarily grow up to identify as female). As an incest survivor who was routinely abused by my older brother, I worried about bonding with a son. And even though I worried about the idea that my daughter could one day be sexually assaulted (and still do), equally agonizing to me was the notion that a son could sexually violate someone. 

I’d heard comments like my co-worker’s while I was pregnant with my daughter, and I continue to do so. Both expectant and established parents typically enjoy discussing these types of things. I feel confident that these sorts of statements stem more from the fear of unwanted teen pregnancies rather than the fear of sexual assault. But intentionally or not, these sentiments implicitly reinforce rape culture by holding women accountable for men’s actions. They do so by subtly acknowledging that there is an inherent risk in being female as well as acknowledging that men can be predatory. These statements also function to distort public understanding of who has access and/or control over those bodies.

In the seemingly innocuous exchange with my co-worker, the male baby is more appealing than a female baby because he doesn’t require the same sort of vigilant worry and protection that she does. The postulation that a girl child means “worrying about all the penises,” as opposed to just one, shifts the accountability and responsibility for those penises and their actions from their male owners or caregivers to the females and their parents.

This is precisely what rape culture does, too—it erodes male accountability by making women responsible for male behavior through the blaming and shaming of female victims.

On the surface, this may seem like a far-fetched comparison, but there are undeniable similarities—and they come into even more crystallized focus when Cosby and his alleged victims are thrown into the rhetorical mix. Whether discussing babies, adults, or the Cosby debacle, in each instance, women, rather than men, are responsible for men’s actions. Moreover, and maybe most importantly, it is vital that we remember none of this happens in a vacuum—all of these things comprise the context in which we live—and what we say matters and has very real implications for victims and perpetrators alike.

One of the primary ways we perpetuate rape culture is through discourse. In Cosby’s deposition, he admitted he pursued sex with the women he allegedly assaulted using Quaaludes in the same way others might rely on alcohol. Likewise, Cosby’s deposition makes clear that he didn’t consider his actions rape. His deposition suggests he felt that he had a right to their bodies (despite the women’s protestations or incapacitation). Even though 14 women in the previous decade have spoken out against Cosby, the infuriating fact of the matter is that it took a male standup comic’s flippant remark about him to validate their claims and ignite real concern. Misogyny, power, and Cosby’s own “Every Dad” mythology aside, another element of what took these accusations so long to surface is the fact that many of his own victims held similar beliefs about rape.

Consider the things people routinely say about girls and boys, and the way they align with existing stereotypes about male and female adults. It’s not uncommon for people to make comments about girls that focus on the protection girls will require once they come of age. People have said things about my daughter like “You better get a shotgun—you’re gonna have to watch out for her” and “You’re gonna need to lock her up in about 14 years.” Meanwhile, parents of sons hear things like “Boys will be boys” and “He’s gonna be such a stud!” Ostensibly harmless alone, the cumulative effect of these types of comments portrays women as provocateurs in need of saviors and men as hormonally driven, albeit mostly harmless, dolts.

Yet from watching your alcohol intake to ensure no one drugs it to always traveling in groups, women are constantly told that self-monitoring behaviors will help minimize (yet not eliminate) our risk of assault. Most problematic about this “logic” is, of course, that the problem lies with men, not women. Since statistics show that one of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, it’s clear that the strategy of teaching women how to avoid being attacked isn’t working.

My abuse history perhaps makes me more attuned to my daughter’s safety than parents without similar trauma. Being forced to watch and reenact pornographic videos with my older brother ate away at my self-esteem and self-worth—and still does, nearly 30 years later. It colors every conceivable aspect of my life. Yet it also gave me an undeniable gift: I don’t have the luxury of ignoring accusers or assuming their claims are made for financial or social gain, because I know firsthand how hard it is to reconcile reality with what you want to believe. I know how terrifying it is to speak your truth—especially when no one wants to believe you. But unlike Cosby’s wife or fans—or my parents, who didn’t fully believe me until my brother admitted it—I don’t have the luxury of believing only what I want to believe.

Despite all this, I’d be willing to wager that most, if not all, parents of girls understand and live with the fear of what horrors could befall their daughters. But there is no analogous, widespread worry that sons could grow up to become perpetrators of sexual violence—and that is something I simply cannot wrap my mind around.

This is not to say that parents of sons are less conscious or caring, or that there aren’t thoughtful parents of boys that don’t have or express these worries about what their sons could grow up to become, nor is it to say or suggest that sons aren’t wonderful in their own right. This is about the widespread cultural narrative surrounding daughters and their safety and is one way we, as a society, keep the focus on protecting girls from perpetrators, rather than on creating boys that don’t become abusers. The glaring absence of male accountability from broader social dialogue is part of what keeps the onus of responsibility for sexual assault and victimization on women; it also functions to maintain victim blaming and shaming.

Although acknowledging and changing the way we talk about gender and babies won’t miraculously eradicate rape and rape culture, it can make it more apparent that none of us exists outside of it. Because we are all part of rape culture, it also means we also have the means to dismantle it. In this case, we can stop reinforcing it before babies are even born—and ideally, work to create a common dialogue that is ultimately conscious and productive in dismantling rape culture.


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