TALKING TO AMERICA ABOUT SEXUAL TERRORISM
Carole J. Sheffield
Copyright © 1995. All Rights Reserved.
On September 1, I taped an interview for a television news program, "American Journal," on my research on women's experiences of obscene phone calls. In the week or so before the interview, I tried to anticipate all the possible and probable questions that might be asked. I thought about it in the shower, in the car, at the pool; I thought about it all the time. As the interview came to a close, the journalist posed the one question I had not anticipated--and would not have thought of if I had had a year to prepare: If you could say anything to the American public, he asked, what would you like to say? Now, many of you know I am never at a loss for words. But this time I was stunned--not so much by the content of his question, but that he would ask it at all.
Inviting me to speak out in this way was so profound that, for a few seconds which seemed like a few hours, I felt as if I couldn't breathe. As a teacher and scholar on the subject of male sexual violence, I am used to being told to shut up. A typical example: last year, at a lecture I gave at WPC, a man in the audience told me that I provoked men's anger by speaking about rape, woman-battering, incest, sexual abuse of children, murder of women and girls, prostitution and sexual slavery. He told me that if I would just stop talking about these things, men wouldn't be so angry. I've heard this sentiment expressed in one form or another throughout the twenty years I have been teaching and writing about the phenomenon I call sexual terrorism. Sometimes this attitude is expressed out of naivete, denial, misinformation or even fear; more often it is tantamount to a threat
The words of singer/songwriter, Stephen Stills echo in my head as I continue to think of the question raised by the journalist. Over twenty-five years ago, for another time and another reason, Stills wrote "It's time to stop, children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down." His message was that it was time to reflect and to analyze as well as to act. It was also the time for courage in the face of adversity
America, we must stop and look and listen and question--and change. Women and children are being sexually hurt, maimed physically and psychologically, and murdered everyday in the name of male power, male supremacy and male hatred of the female sex and the feminine. Sexual violence is pervasive in our society, by whatever measure you accept. (A week's worth of careful reading of a major newspaper will confirm this.) It is a "commodity" that is marketed for mass consumption. It is an idea, an image, a value, a way of life that is used to sell everything from perfume to stereo speakers. It is so much a part of our national psyche that we have trouble recognizing it. It is ordinary. It is commonplace
The ordinariness of terrorism is not a new idea, nor is it unique to sexual terrorism. The Dutch historian, W. A. Visser't Hofft, in exposing "the terrible secret" that Nazi Germany had already killed half the Jews in Europe by the end of l942, explained that "people could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror... they did not have the imagination, together with the courage, to face it. It is possible to live in a twilight between knowing and unknowing.
We have lived in the twilight for too long. America's (and indeed the world's) terrible secret is the sexual brutalization of women and children. Women "know" this secret; our everyday lives are bounded by sexual terrorism. Men "know" the terrible secret when they laugh and joke about it, when they use it for poster-art and for power
At the same time that Senator Robert Packwood resigns in disgrace for his sexual misconduct, Congress moves to slash funding for the Violence Against Women Act--demonstrating once again its penchant for living in the twilight
We must gather the courage to face sexual terrorism, to understand its many forms, and to eliminate it.