One of the keen realizations one should have as a male athlete is that we seldom have to worry about who’s following us on the roads or trails. The risks to men while out training are far smaller than those faced by women, who must be more concerned about sexual assault.
Fear of assault is obviously not limited to women who run. Statistics on sexual assault on college campuses, for example, present a sobering picture. One in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime.
A world of targets no longer
Those are discouraging facts. Yet we don’t want to discourage women from pursuing such healthy interests as running, riding or swimming either, especially on grounds that it is a threat due to greater risk of sexual assault.
The response to such statistics can often be seen on the trails. Many women train with partners, be they male or female. The great equivalency that has emerged from long, steady increase in the number of women runners is that gender barriers between men and women training together as athletes has fallen away. In fact, it no longer exists at the practical level of track workouts or long training runs. Women run right alongside men and there are almost no concerns over who is running faster than who.
So the threat to women either in terms of casual harassment from within these sports is at least partially reduced. Perhaps not eliminated entirely, but reduced. Men and women now sweat and train together, and sexual tension or gender awkwardness is not the problem it once was. Equality stems from shared experiences.
Cultures of dominance
It is where women are isolated from these supportive environments, or where they confronted by groups aggressively embracing dominance that problems arise. Thus where college fraternities develop cultures where women are viewed as objects of conquest or worse, as disposable forms of entertainment, that rape and sexual abuse become perceived as acceptable or expected expressions of manhood.
Troubling as those trends seem, the greater culture in America has threads of these mindsets running through it as well. We can only imagine the workings of the disturbed male mind at work, who calculates or stalks an attack on a female runner. But it happens too often to ignore or write off as an inevitable product of the male psyche and sexual aggression.
The presumptive, controlling and aggressive nature of rape has been analyzed from both a sexual and criminal perspective. It is difficult to separate the two, but it is critical not to dignify the violence of rape with the excuse that it is merely sexual desire gone out of control. Even in the context of a relationship, rape is always a violation and a form of violence.
Cynical statements such as “You can’t rape your wife” do an injustice to all women. Then there’s the old joke that says “Do you know the difference between rape and rapture? Salesmanship.” Just as bad.
Fortunately, through hard work and advocacy on behalf of women’s rights, those attitudes are being pushed back by a culture that is growing in maturity toward the rights and perception of women. Yet American culture remains highly sexualized, and women are still struggling to own their own bodies and not be victimized by stares, lust or the controlling instincts of men. And avoiding rape.
Harassed and sick of it
Sexual harassment laws are deemed by some as too politically correct and restrictive in the workplace and beyond. But talk to any women (or men, for that matter) that have experienced sexual harassment and you will learn that it is a damaging, distracting force in your life. And it still goes on.
The harsh reality is that these primeval attitudes about what constitutes fair and reasonable behavior are not only extant in business and society, they are also canonized in some wings of politics, where control of women’s bodies and reproductive rights are still considered the province of men. These anachronistic tendencies, often to the point of misogyny, closely parallel the approach of rapists who force themselves over the rights of women to control their own bodies. We could legitimately argue that the former even leads to the latter.
The ugly truth is that this aspect of patriarchal control, ownership and exploitation of women hearkens all the way back to the bible. And for evidence let’s start with the ostensibly Virgin Mary.
Patriarchal societies treated women as property and were threatened by the notion of a sexually mature and active female. That is why the mother of Jesus is depicted as a Virgin, to uphold the dualistic idea that no man ever touched her, and that God the Father through the Holy Spirit was the parent of her child. Talk about layers of jealous fear!
Ancient Judeo-Christian authors had no problem projecting their jealous views of womanhood on the mother of Christ. But there are questions to be answered in this process. Was Jesus later profaned by the fact that his mother had children through the womb that bore him, and through normal sexual means? And did her womb, having received semen from a man, become a place of defiled grace?
One could excuse all the Virgin talk by claiming that it didn’t matter what happened inside Mary’s vagina after she gave birth to Jesus. But that’s just a convenient rationalization of the patent jealousy and fear. The made-up story about Joseph almost disowning Mary thanks to pregnant state is just another assuagement of patriarchal guilt.
Rank and file
This false brand of reverence actually does damage to our perception of women. If giving birth to a child through sexual means is considered beneath the dignity of a woman, what message are we sending to women throughout history about their value and role in culture? The corresponding fear of menstruation expressed in early scripture also isolates women as unclean creatures. These false standards create unnecessary taboos.
And these taboos have a violent nature to them as well. Some men can’t handle the richness and symbolic virtue of women and the female body. In some dark way the breaking of that taboo becomes an obsession. Sexual impulses may drive it, but it is ultimately an angry fear of having to respect a woman that drives so many men to rape. Consent is the obstacle to which rapists do not want to submit themselves.
Strange games and repressed desires
I once met a man who insisted that he would never allow himself to come inside a woman because he believed it gave her power over him. He’s probably right, to some degree. But that’s precisely the point. All meaningful sexual relations require some level of submission to the will and care of that other person. Rapists somehow can’t negotiate that brand of submission. As a result they ultimately choose to force themselves on their subjects, without consent.
Prison rape is another example of that force of will. Any sexual or physical dominance of another individual is a sign that there is both lack of respect along with an operative fear of rejection in the mind of the individual committing the rape. They predictably have little self-respect to offer, and thus offer none of it to others.
It is not just women who suffer the consequences from lack of self-control and self-respect, especially linked to sex and sexual identity. The correspondent fear of homosexuality among so many people in society is driven by fears as well. Even the intimation that some aspect of behavior is “gay,” is enough to offend some, or give them reason to lash out in verbal or violent ways.
The idea that someone can be “made gay” through an encounter with a gay person is just one of many such fears, for it has long been promoted that being gay is somehow a sign of lack of strength or self-respect. Neither is true, of course, but that’s how fear and projection work in tandem.
We should understand that the Bible codifies such fears in stories such as Sodom and Gomorrah. In that passage we learn that Lot defends comes to the defense of two men rescued from the streets after dark and brought inside his house. He protects them from a madding crowd that wants to “know” them in the streets. In other words, the men might be subjected to abuse including gang rape.
This scene is often depicted as a sign that homosexual activity is a sin. But in truth, the threat to the two men is not in fact homosexual by nature, but indicates instead the very real violence being aimed toward a stranger in the community. Proving this point, Lot offers up his own daughters who “have not been with another man” as an attempt to draw off the violent, selfish temper of the crowd. If the crowd was only interested in having gay sex, why would Lot offer them his young daughters?
Instead the story is about the sins of control and violence, not homosexuality. It is also about rape, but not by a specific gender of another. So we see that rape and sick desire for control and abuse of others is a sign of morally compromised individuals and a disturbed society.
Tradition gone awry
Yet people have been taught so forcefully through use of this story from the bible that homosexuality and rape go together, they cannot conceive of loving homosexual relationships. As a result, they also cannot conceive of gay marriage as a responsible way for gay people to live together and fulfill roles in a functional society.
Do you see how culture becomes twisted by these patterns and trends in thinking? The seemingly diametric presentation of the (temporarily) innocent Virgin Mary juxtaposed with the ostensibly horrific behavior of the crowds at Sodom are actually far more closely related that many might think. Our taboos become confused by these presentations of extremes. As a result, normal human functions such as having sex between two consenting individuals can be turned into ugly notions that drive deep fears into the minds and hearts of individuals.
At the other end we wind up with men fearing women so much they can only think to rape them in order to gain control or have some way to process the taboos we’ve created and imposed through our traditions.
And yet another layer of confused ideology is that those who profess a literal interpretation of the Bible fear that belief in science or evolution will result in animal behaviors. There is absolutely no proof of such contentions. In fact the opposite is true. Science and knowledge of biological, social and cultural interactions all contribute to a more civil, better-functioning society because they reduce our fears. Meanwhile, anachronistic religion and a patriarchal worldview play on fears of emasculation, immorality and loss of control.
So the answer to the creepy question of “Who’s following me?” turns out to be one of a surprising nature. The creepiest aspects of society are hidden in traditions that serve up the taboo as norms for a healthy society. These taboos turn normal inside out.
That’s how men come to think of rape as a viable or acceptable form of behavior. Their minds are preoccupied by the will to dominate the feminine ideal or their own repressed urges. Anything that is mysterious, vulnerable or unavailable to them becomes something to abuse and kill. We see the same sick mindset at work in people who abuse or torture animals.
So it turns out these creepy attitudes follow all of us, and everywhere. They are woven even through our politics.
The only way to stop the pattern is to confront those following us around while spouting creepy anachronisms and engaging in sexual harassment or rape. We need to turn and face the anachronistic fears and beliefs that drive them.
We could start by demanding that college men learn what respect for women really means. Every college freshman should be required to take a course in civics, social ethics and sexual politics. No excuses. And if fraternity and sororities continue to be a wellspring for bad behavior, ban them. They’re unnecessary and in some ways anachronistically based as well.
Then confront the failure of society to grasp that homosexuals and all intergrades of orientation and gender identification are a natural part of human evolution. This idea that the bible should dictate what constitutes normality in modern culture is outdated, timeworn and twisted.
Not the final authority
The bible, it turns out, is not our best or final authority on these issues. Not if left to its literal devices, where it can literally become the creepiest book around. If we abided by some of the creepier laws laid out in the bible we’d still have slavery, among many other things to worry about.
Admittedly, these misappropriated messages of bible are difficult to contravene. Its’ seemingly wholesome––yet ultimately creepy––literal messaging is woven through the culture of the world in so many ways it can be difficult to root them out.
That’s because many of the patriarchal, violent messages still have mass appeal to millions around the world. Just look at the violent world of the NFL, where men are often destroying their very minds and bodies for millions of dollars while scantily clad women dance around on the sidelines for almost no pay at all. It’s a sickness of the mind, yet the NFL is one of the most popular sports leagues in the world.
Real faith in humankind
Fortunately, Pope Francis is trying to lead the Catholic faith toward a more enlightened worldview. But his conservatives opponents within the church and those with political motives that benefit from protecting the patriarchal worldview of a male-dominated society are trying to undermine the good work he is doing.
The ultimately creepy answer to the question “Who’s following me?” can be found hiding in plain sight. It’s all those people who want to rape your rights based on a fearfully founded worldview rooted in biblical literalism and the taboos of ancient times.
And that’s the creepiest notion of all.