It seemed everywhere I went I saw Rebecca Solnit‘s Men Explain Things to Me. Having recently read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and finding a kindred soul in Gay, I was excited to read this new essay that gestated the term “mansplaining.”
The essay which gives the collection its title, Men Explain Things to Me, is quite short. In it Solnit recalls a conversation with a man. She is telling him about a book she wrote when the man interrupts her to tell her about a seminal book on the same subject released that summer… And it’s her book but he is too daft to realize it, nor has he read this book he is telling her about. Solnit uses this incident to explore this phenomena of men explaining things to women that women already know. And of men telling women what is right (most often regarding our bodies).
“The Longest War” explores the war on women by the men who rape them. The statistics are staggering, the examples are overwhelmingly horrific. And as she writes of one rape/ murder trial after another, I remember them. I recall how I felt, and how society reacted: women on social media started to tell their own stories of harassment and how rape culture affects their daily lives. For me, feminists taking to social media was a watershed moment. It never occurred to me to voice my (what I considered ‘paranoid’) hyper-alertness. I used to get off work anywhere between 11pm to 2am. By the time they let us out, I was generally beat. I could barely move, but I knew I had to fake it. I walked quickly, with purpose, strong strides, head held high. Simultaneously, I watched out of the corner of my eye for anyone close by. I pretended to check out my reflection in windows when really I was checking to see if someone was following me. I made note of any building I could safely run into if someone came after me (a hotel lobby, a bar, a bodega). I never mentioned this because I thought I was being paranoid.
Once women started sharing their stories I realized, it’s not just me. This is the world we are forced to live in because of the obscene amount of violence against women. We know it happens. I finally realized I wasn’t the only woman to completely change her commute because one man harassed her and he was on the daily route. Women took to social media to explain what rape culture is—that women have to live their lives as though they could be assaulted at any moment.
While visiting my parents’ home when I was in grad school, I walked by the neighbor’s home, who had two teenage boys. One day there was close to a dozen male teenagers outside their home. They said to my face they wanted to rape me (up the posterior). As I walked by them, slowly, to my parents’ house, one house away. This was a dozen guys, watching me walk to my parents’ home alone (did I mention they were on vacation?).
This is the world we live in. I was fortunate enough to have a police officer believe me and insist he speak to the mother and teenager. The mother apologized and had no idea her sons had harassed me every time I walked past their house*. I just dealt with it. And I finally had enough when they actually said they were going to rape me.
This rape culture is reinforced by conservative politicians. Solnit notes that in the 2012 election campaign there was a “spate of crazy pro-rape things Republican men said… starting with Todd Akin’s notorious claim that a woman has ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of rape… Senate candidate Richard Murdock claimed that rape pregnancies were ‘a gift from God.’ (31) Solnit argues that our reproductive rights to birth control and abortion are under attack by the same men who defend rape culture. In taking away the power to defend our bodies, in removing the option to abort an unwanted pregnancy, these politicians are forcing women to live with their rape and rapists long after the violence has ended.
Rebecca Solnit’s eloquently written collection of essays draws from internationally known rape cases, such as French Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund who was accused of rape by a NYC maid who happened to be an immigrant from Africa. And later, of Anita Hill, and her bravery to testify that Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas harassed her. And of Dylan Farrow’s accusations that her adoptive father, Woody Allen molested her. From these larger cases she pulls apart the language that is used to “police” women, and the words that have been created to describe these situations that have always existed but never been so publicly acknowledged, such as rape culture and sexual entitlement. Journalists will vilify a woman that speaks out against a “popular” man. And that so many men thing they are entitled to what they want from women that the term sexual entitlement exists to define such a large-scale group of violent men.
Women like Rebecca Solnit are creating a space for further dialogue. She and so many other writers (or merely social media users) are talking about their daily routine, which to some men, is absolutely ludicrous. Comedian Aziz Anzari was shocked to discover how many of his female friends were harassed on a daily basis. That it was so routine they didn’t mention it until he asked. When we speak about rape culture, we inform others. Community-sharing strengthens not only the message but the people speaking. And it’s reassuring to know that you are not alone. Things need to change. They have changed significantly and yet we aren’t where we should be. But with all the great work feminists have done in the past we are that much closer. And the more we talk about it, the closer we get. So women, explain things to me.