In his award-winning book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes continually about “the body” in ways that perplexed many white readers. It is an extended letter to his fifteen-year-old son, in which he writes, to take one example: “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed.”
The difficulty many readers had with Coates’ insistence on the body, I think, comes from a lack of understanding about how racial relations translate into physical fear for African Americans. But here, all women have at least a bridge of comprehension. If you are a woman, imagine walking alone at night on a dark street in an unfamiliar part of town and hearing heavy footsteps behind you. Your heart beats faster; your breath quickens; you tell yourself not to whirl around, that it is just another person out walking. But every sense you have is quickened, signaling danger. In your worst nightmare, it’s a man behind you intent on taking your body, dragging you into an alley or car, raping you, perhaps leaving you for dead. You are vulnerable, because unless you are very unusual physically or prepared with a self-defense course, he will be bigger and stronger than you are.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and the scenario above is the classic, and for a long time the only, image of sexual assault. And it has been and continues to be all too real. African-American women have the worst and longest burden here: They were physical property to be used at will by white man, with complete impunity even long after slavery was formally abolished. Yet as women have gained power, including power to shape the laws, the world is coming to understand it much more broadly, understanding the ways that seemingly consensual relations are not in fact consensual.
One of the challenges of talking about and building norms and laws against sexual assault is the importance of allowing women full agency even in situations in which they are often victims. I am the mother of two college-aged young men; they could find themselves in a situation in which an accusation of sexual assault could mark their lives and careers permanently. Women are not angels; they can lie and twist the truth just as men can. To think otherwise is to deny women full and equal humanity, good and bad together. Chloe Safier explores how a holistic approach to sexual violence prevention must go beyond the dialectic of "good men" and "bad men." Tools and campaigns that push men to think about their complicity, their accountability, and their role as allies will have a more tangible impact on preventing assault. I suggest that we need to go beyond simplistic images of women as victims and accusers as well.
Cultural images and practices are important and deeply ingrained here. Jeff Back explains how the sexual violence we see perpetuated by men at schools starts long before students step on campus—it's part of a far deeper culture of the unbridled privilege and power, including over other people's bodies, that society gives to many men. There is complexity here, of course: Boys are bullied for being different in many ways, from being “girly” to “nerdy”; men of color who must learn practices of submission early; weaker male prisoners must submit to rape by stronger prisoners. Many men enact the practices they have endured on others, but seeing men only as perpetrators and not also as victims will not solve the problem.
We need better images of women and men alike. Jo Johnson investigates how the power of the new television series Big Little Lies lies in its ability to portray strong female characters who lean on each other for support and ultimately fight to regain control of their own lives, without sugarcoating victims' stories. We also can usefully deconstruct our notions of men and women as binary categories. Brandon Tensley speaks with Sarah McBride about her work with the Human Rights Campaign and how the landscape of advocacy for transgender women has changed since her widely-lauded speech at the Democratic National Convention last year. Can a transgender woman be sexually assaulted? Obviously yes, indeed all the more harshly and violently because of what is so often perceived as gender transgression.
Confronted with a more complex gender spectrum, thinking about sexual assault should invite us to think about the violence of humans against other humans that exploits our most intimate parts in ways that leave us spiritually as well as physically violated. That is why sexual assault is worse than other kinds of assault, and why it is so often the way the powerful choose to remind the powerless of their position.