I often check out a very popular blog on my local online newspaper. Written by Meredith Goldstein with comments by often hundreds of readers, “Love Letters” usually is smart, funny and wise. However, one recent letter-and-response set me back on my heels.
A woman wrote in to complain that her longtime boyfriend was selfish. When they went out, they tended to go where he wanted to go; he wasn’t much help around the house; his opinions seemed to matter more than hers, and so on. She highlighted her dissatisfaction with an anecdote: recently he had wanted sex when she wasn’t feeling in the mood. Apparently he wheedled, whined and pouted until she gave in. Her point was NOT that he in any way threatened her, or used force or coercion either physical or verbal — there was no hint of anything of that nature. Her issue was that such tactics didn’t work when she used them: when she wanted sex and he wasn’t keen, all of her wheedling, whining and pouting came to naught.
Okay. The guy did sound self-centered and a little piggy. However, I was not prepared for Goldstein’s advice, which characterized his behavior as assault and included a suggestion that the letter-writer might consider calling the police. In other words, rather than suggesting that the woman learn to say no — to sex when she didn’t want it, to places she didn’t want to go, to doing all the housework herself, etc. — and risk, perhaps, losing a relationship with someone unwilling to compromise, Goldstein in effect turned the incident into rape and the woman into a hapless victim.
Is that what we women are: weak and helpless, unable to stand up for ourselves, so fragile that the least bit of turbulence breaks us in two?
Let me be clear: real violence against women is utterly unacceptable. Women who are raped, battered, oppressed, psychologically abused, denied equal opportunities and equal pay, mocked and belittled, and turned into sexual objects are deserving of our full support and action. Physical vulnerability is one thing — most women I know would not be able to fend off a 200-pound man without very special training. But when an incident such as the letter-writer described is designed “rape,” what do we call it when a woman is genuinely violated, perhaps in fear of her very life?
The tendency to treat women as intrinsic victims seems to be growing. A professional women’s organization to which I belong recently advertised a meeting featuring a local journalist who is outspoken about women’s rights. All to the good, I thought. Then I read the description of the talk in which several rhetorical questions were posed:
- The New England Patriots recently signed Albert Haynesworth, who had pleaded no contest to a 2003 domestic dispute — should they have refused to hire him? (In other words, should Haynesworth forevermore be denied access to his profession?)
- The Boston Bruins, who had improbably won the Stanley Cup this year, inspiring great multi-gender elation in Boston, held their victory parade on the same day as a women’s march for peace — should the Bruins have deferred? (One might note that nearly every day in Boston there is some sort of political or charitable event and sports championship celebrations are always scheduled for a day or two after the winning game. Nearly 1.5 million people showed up to cheer the Bruins and among the throngs were as many female faces as male.)
- Should Strauss-Kahn be prosecuted for rape despite serious and legitimate doubts about the accuser’s credibility? (In other words, is an accusation by a woman about a sexual violation in and of itself evidence?)
Finally, I remembered a very heated online discussion a while back among members of a feminist media group to which I belong. You might recall when Al Gore was accused of sexual assault. Many of the group passionately advocated for publicizing the accusation in every outlet possible, denying Gore whatever protection his fame and reputation might offer and basically skewering him with the blade of feminist solidarity. When it came to light that the accuser was very likely a liar and that Gore had not done what he was accused of doing, suddenly the conversation dried up. Nobody suggested that Gore’s exoneration should be given the same attention as the accusation against him.
I’m a woman and I believe that in our indisputable strength, resiliency and compassion lies our salvation — and our ascendancy. To encourage women to feel helpless, to depend upon others to be forthright and make difficult decisions, to retreat into the role of victim when it’s convenient or likely to attract sympathy, is, for me, the ultimate abuse. Yes, of course we need to fight violence against, and oppression of, women wherever we find it. But let’s deplore any attempt to keep women down by glamorizing weakness. This crazy, threatened world needs women — needs us as warriors, not wimps.
Photo from Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games via flickr creative commons