Please Stop Raping Us: an Open Letter
To whom it may concern,
I do not think I can overemphasize the role that stand-up comedy has played in my life thus far. I listened to it nearly every single night as I fell asleep from ages 12 to 18; it was a good distraction from the many racing thoughts that would, and still do, pass through my head every night, making it nearly impossible to fall asleep. I stopped once I was assigned a roommate in the dormitories when I started school at UC Berkeley in 2015. I sensed it was off-putting to her when she would hear an occasional laugh from me, seemingly unprompted, at 1 AM, so I switched podcasts. Regardless, I still listen to stand-up on a near daily basis, and it’s one of the pieces of culture I feel I have grown closest to and the most familiar with over the course of my life.
Because stand-up comedy seems to gravitate toward topics that are often seen as uncomfortable to speak about openly, it served as an easy segue for me into exposure to different conversations surrounding various social, cultural, and political issues. I listened to comedians like David Cross, Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., John Mulaney, Tom Segura, Patton Oswalt, and many more night after night for six years. The stories they shared, the opinions they espoused, and the values they represented had a significant impact on me. I do not mean to imply that these people indoctrinated me into any type of view (unless the “sleep teaching” method in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World holds any water); their perspectives and commentary just provided a starting point from which to build my own opinions and political values. I feel compelled to point out here that I do not agree with every comedian I have ever listened to, if only to make that clear to any reader who may have already jumped to that conclusion.
Like John Mulaney, I also have two lawyers for parents, one of whom is liberal and the other of whom is conservative, so I grew up what I like to refer to as a “politically enriched” home. Unsurprisingly, political science presented itself as an obvious choice for me when I was was choosing what to major in at Cal. My field of study soon led to my internship during the summer of 2016 with the Democratic Farmer Labor Party in St. Paul, Minnesota. During my time there, I got the chance to meet Senator Al Franken, with whom I am pictured above. This picture was commented on by a family member of mine at the dinner table on Thanksgiving. I was asked, “Hey Kathleen, did Al Franken grab your ass when you took a picture with him?”
I said no, which was truthful. I let it go. It was a flippant remark that I know was not intended to hurt me, so I held my tongue and waited until I got to my room after dinner to cry. Very ladylike.
After studying political science in an elite academic setting, as well as (unintentionally) memorizing myriad stand-up comedy albums that exposed me to anecdotal political commentary, I feel fairly well-equipped to discuss uncomfortable topics such as the one brought up during this year’s Thanksgiving dinner. When I first heard about Franken’s sexually aggressive behavior toward women, I was disappointed, to say the least. To say the most, I was devastated and depressed that a man who had served as a representative of my home state for years had inflicted the exact type of pain on women that he claimed to advocate against. This past spring, I was offered an internship position from Sen. Franken’s office in Washington D.C. to last over the summer. After careful deliberation, I turned the offer down, recognizing that I needed to turn my attention to restoring my mental health more than I needed to feel like I was being “productive” in the sense that it is understood in undergraduate institutions. How, then, could this family member at dinner prompt me with such an offensive question when they knew how close to home it hit? I even took improv classes when I was younger at Brave New Workshop, the comedy theater Franken used to write for in Minneapolis. How could this conversant not realize how hurtful his comment was?
Although I am reluctant to admit it, I know the answer to my question. The person who asked me about Franken at Thanksgiving dinner did not know that I, too, am a victim of sexual assault. I had hid it from my family and many of my friends. I feared judgement and pain. I know that person loves me deeply and would have never asked me that question if he knew how much it would hurt me, so I kept my response short, mostly because I knew I would “ruin” dinner for everyone had I voiced how I truly felt. But how could he not have known? Why was it not intuitive to him that the question was inherently terrible, and that it would be hurtful to me regardless of whether or not I had been affected by sexual violence first-hand? That exchange forced me to face the harsh reality that keeping those experiences a secret had already hurt me, and that facing a conversation about my unfortunate past might actually be healthier than repressing it all. Big shock, I know. But it is difficult to see those truths sometimes.
This anecdote serves as just one representation of the astounding obtuseness related to the culture of sexual violence in this country. I feel genuine pain as I read yet another headline exposing yet another politician, celebrity, businessman, and the like as having contributed to the rape culture by which I have been traumatized. But the shock that these headlines seem to be inducing about how deeply entrenched sexual violence is into our society, while encouraging, is simultaneously aggravating. While on one hand I am ecstatic to see serious attention being brought to an issue that has affected my friends and me so deeply, I am at the same time annoyed that people consider this news. None of this is news. Not in a temporal sense, at least. Sexual violence is absolutely, undoubtedly, 100% newsworthy, but rape culture has been present in some sense since literally the dawn of man, and it has been maintained by all kinds of men, not just those in positions of power. The only shock I feel when I read those headlines comes from my surprise that this issue is finally being addressed, but not because I was unaware it was happening.
As a young college female, sexual assault is practically an expectation. That is not news to me, nor to my female classmates. In fact, the majority of my female friends with whom I’ve discussed rape culture and topics like it have admitted that they, too, have experienced sexual violence first-hand. Not just some, not just a good amount, but the majority of my female friends have been sexually assaulted. My three best friends were all raped by age 19. I was first groped when I was in eighth grade, in my science classroom. And, as is reminiscent of a comment made by our dear, predatory president, I was aggressively grabbed by the pussy at a concert in San Francisco less than 4 months ago. I could go on. And each time I hear of a “new” sexual assault scandal, I cannot help but feel the sharp pang of disappointment that comes from knowing that the society in which I live has clearly been oblivious to something that has traumatized me, the people I love, and the country in which I live for so long.
Throughout my life, both consciously and unconsciously, verbally and physically, I have learned patriarchy and how I am expected to respond to it. Now, I am finding out that my senator who has shaped litigation in my home state contributed to the rape culture from which I have struggled to free myself, and the man whose jokes I listened to for years is, in some ways, just as disgusting as the men he reprimands in his material. What troubles me more yet, I know that these two men have positively contributed to my ability to share this story of mine. Louis C.K. is well known for broaching politically-charged or taboo topics unabashedly in his comedy, and after hearing so much of it, I feel more comfortable doing the same. Franken was one of my political inspirations, one of the reasons I was driven to study political science. Knowing that my life has been dramatically shaped by people such as these men makes me feel sick… But it is inescapable, it seems.
The culture and media I consume on a daily basis is shaped by people who clearly hold values that stand in direct opposition to mine. I am reaching the conclusion that I live in a world in which I might never be able to detach myself from the rape culture that permeates our society. Likewise, I might never know a man who has not been negatively influenced by patriarchal values, or who has not in some way been affected by the prison of masculinity into which we force our boys. Just as he might never know woman who has not been implicitly told to take up less space, to act more ladylike, not to make a scene at Thanksgiving dinner.
But while I may not yet be able to unravel the 20 years of damage this rape culture has inflicted on me, I can at least contribute my voice to this discourse from a demographic, meaning college-aged millennial women, whose stories seem not to have been sufficiently heard. In his poem, “O Me! O Life!”, Walt Whitman posits an answer to the question of why continue living a painful life, or perhaps why to write an article such as this one:
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
So, here is part of my verse. The conversation about the role of sexism and sexual violence in our country seems to be taken more seriously now, and it is crucial that this is maintained. And to any men who may read this, I cannot stress this enough: no one is out to get you. Stop getting so damn defensive when you read the short story “Cat Person” published in The New Yorker. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. A movement of women finally, after so long, reclaiming a piece of an agency that was snatched from them at birth, does not threaten you in any way. If anything, the #MeToo movement and movements like it will drastically improve your life by improving the world in which you live. Former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone summed this up well with his slogan, “We all do better when we all do better.”
While I cannot yet offer a holistic solution to this problem, my best suggestion perhaps comes from the last few lines of a speech about rape culture I wrote when I was 16: “If the issue of rape is ever to be solved, we must first hold ourselves as a nation accountable and admit these rapists are our sons. They are people who have been raised in our culture, in our schools, in our homes; therefore, let’s help our daughters understand that womanhood does not equal passivity, and let’s help our sons understand that masculinity is not consistent with violence or the victimization of women. Rape must end, and teaching our children about the inherent dignity afforded to every human being is one way to end it.”
I am tired of fearing for my safety when I walk home from campus. I am tired of having to be ultra-vigilant at social gatherings to make sure no one puts something in my drink. I am tired of not being heard or taken seriously when I voice my experiences on issues such as this one. Reader, I am so, so tired. I will leave you with one simple request: please stop raping us.