I walked into the women’s restroom today between classes and was faced with an ugly scrawl of black sharpie staring back at me from the inside of stall door. “Nathan Walker is a rapist. He works at Tiger Mountain. Protect each other, ladies!” A little dumbstruck, I gingerly pushed open the other stall doors and was faced with the same message again and again and again. The same desperate bulletin tattooed on every single door in a hand that wavered a little over the Ns and As of their attacker’s name, violently underlined his crime, and urged me to take care of my own in capital letters.
My undergrad’s lunch of ramen noodles and cookie dough disagreed with me suddenly, and the next thing I knew I was sinking down into a squat, lightheaded as I ran my hands across my face. I tried to make sense of it, thinking up stories about this girl’s motivations. Maybe she was a rape victim who had latched onto a likely suspect and was lashing out against him the best way she knew how. Maybe she was a jaded ex-girlfriend slashing her beau’s reputational tires; girls took breakups pretty seriously in the South. Maybe she was one of the schizophrenics I had met living in the dorms; girls who lived in realities that fractured at the edges and mingled freely with nightmare and fantasy.
But that’s the thing isn’t it? My first assumption about the graffiti was that Nathan Walker was the victim, not the perpetrator of violence. I assumed that a woman screaming out against a society that silenced her, desperately pleading with college girls to guard their hearts and bodies was a liar, or unstable, or delusional. In that instant, I, a self-proclaimed feminist and victim’s ally, was perpetuating rape culture, My last realization should have been my first instinct, that Nathan Walker is in all probability a rapist, and that sadly, that we ladies need to protect each other.
This widespread cultural message could not be clearer: Men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable and therefore not their responsibility. It’s a fairly insulting view of male morality and sexuality, but it’s also one that allows the culture to put the blame for men’s bad (and criminal) behavior on women’s shoulders.
But making women responsible for men’s sexuality isn’t just about excusing rape and sexual harassment. It’s a cultural rule that enforces the idea that this is a man’s world—women just live in it.
When Stuyvesant says that women’s dress and bodies are distraction in a learning environment, for example, what they’re really saying is that they’re distracting to male students. The default student we are concerned about—the student whose learning we want to ensure is protected—is male. Never mind how “distracting” it is to be pulled from class, humiliated, and made to change outfits—publicly degrading young women is small price to pay to make sure that a boy doesn’t have to suffer through the momentary distraction of glancing at a girl’s legs. When this dentist in Iowa can fire his assistant for turning him on—even though she’s done absolutely nothing wrong—the message again is that it’s men’s ability to work that’s important.