Lindy West is known as a leader in the feminist blogging community. She’s a staff writer for Jezebel, and has contributed to MSNBC, Slate, GQ, and many others. At 32 years old, she is about to become a stepmother to two girls, ages 10 and 12. It is this new chapter in her life that inspired her to create the Tumblr, I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault.
“For most of my career I’ve focused on humor and pop culture — even when I’ve covered serious issues like body image and rape culture I’ve always couched it in humor as a defense mechanism,” said Lindy via email, “so there’s something really vulnerable and exciting about I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault (IBYINYF), because it’s 100 percent sincere and earnest. Not that jokes aren’t allowed on the site, no one’s required to be anything. I feel like this is a cliched way to put it, but it’s very raw.”
Check out my Q + A with Lindy below!
ACT: For young people, the term “rape culture” can actually seem pretty vague. Can you give our readers a few examples of the systemic impact of rape culture?
Lindy: Well, in the context of IBYINYF, rape culture manifests in things like mothers asking their sexually abused children, “You enjoyed the attention, didn’t you?” and sexual assault victims being told they “shouldn’t have made a scene” by speaking out, as though ASSAULTING SOMEONE doesn’t constitute “making a scene.” To me, rape culture is the expectation, accepted as fact, that rape is just a natural, inescapable part of life–that it’s not something perpetrators can help, and therefore it’s the victim’s responsibility to avoid it. To tell [victims] that “don’t get raped” is our only viable rape prevention tool is to tell them that their assault was a personal failure. They didn’t not-get-raped well enough. Well, what were they wearing?
Meanwhile, women are awarded to men as literal prizes at the end of every movie and every video game; in film, only 30% of speaking characters are women and a third of those are partially naked; there are studies that show that sexual objectification causes our brains to see women as a lesser form of human; aggressive male entitlement is coded as “heroic” while male victims are coded as feminine and weak. Those are cultural phenomena, not natural ones. People choose to enact them. Yet, somehow, we couldn’t possibly change the culture and start teaching young people that women are full human beings and their bodies are not public property? Bulls***.
LINDY: For me personally, it grew out of conversations that have started coming up with my stepdaughters over the past couple of years, where they’re running into these really heinous problems for the first time — slut-shaming, victim-blaming, peer pressure — and not having a vocabulary to talk about it. And that’s with ME as a parent — shouty, feminist, loudmouthed me. So I think about some of their friends at school who don’t have adults in their lives who can (or who want to) contextualize these issues in a compassionate, supportive way. It’s so easy for those kids, if they’re victimized, to internalize the idea that they shouldn’t have “made a scene,” and that the next time their boundaries are breached they should just go along with it. And it breaks my heart. So I wanted to do something for those kids in particular.
ACT: IBYINYF seems to focus on letting young women know that they are not alone in their experiences of assault. In a society where 1 in 4 women is assaulted in college, what is something young women can do to feel empowered, as opposed to becoming an eventual statistic?
LINDY: I think the simplest, least risky, and most readily accessible (thanks to the internet) thing anyone can do is find a community. At IBYINYF you don’t have to speak to anyone face to face, you don’t have to leave your room, you don’t even have to identify yourself–you can present your story to the entire world, and be met with a mountain of solidarity and support from people who’ve lived through similar traumas, without anyone ever knowing who you are. This is anecdotal, but personally, since I’ve started spending time in supportive, positive, safe online spaces where boundaries are revered and defended, I can feel it changing my brain and the way I move through the world. I trust myself more. I don’t waste my time responding to bad-faith arguments. I call out oppressive behavior without equivocation. So, hopefully, once people find online spaces where they feel comfortable telling their stories, they can move on to real-life spaces, and reporting incidents to police, and speaking out on behalf of other victims. Community-building is one of the most powerful tools we have.
Photo: Lindy West
ACT: Do you think that the fact that 1 in 4 women is assaulted in college has an impact on women joining traditionally male-dominated fields, such as STEM, later in life? Do you think rape culture prevents women from “leaning in”?
LINDY: Sure, these things are all interconnected. The fetishization of male aggression and female submission is as relevant to office politics as it is to rape culture. Men are “assertive,” women are “bitchy.” On an even more basic level — and I’m starting to deal with this with my kids — we teach women that their main job, their top priority, is to be decorative. To pour all of their time and money and emotional energy into this one metric of value. It’s not a coincidence that boys aren’t told to do this — that boys, instead, are encouraged to be doctors and scientists and entrepreneurs. It’s not a coincidence that our political, business, and STEM landscapes are drastically skewed toward men.
ACT: It feels like we are talking about issues of misogyny, assault and rape culture more than ever (especially after #YesAllWomen). If this is the case, how can young women go from just talking about it with their female friends to actually demanding that changes be made — not just at a higher level — but more directly, with their fathers as well as male peers, bosses, teachers, clergy, etc.?
LINDY: A huge part of this fight is just reminding ourselves of things we already know. There are so many voices saying, “You’re wrong about this,” “This is your fault,” “You’re imagining things.” Even if you intellectually know what’s right and wrong, it’s really easy to let that get through. And it takes constant repetition and reinforcement to remind yourself that this stuff is real, it’s wrong, you’re not imagining it, and it needs to change.
I think sticking to those convictions, calling out oppressive behavior and thinking when you see it, and enacting genuine consequences if people violate your ethics and boundaries (i.e. if you don’t respect women, you’re not my friend) needs to become the rule rather than the exception. But also, not everyone has the luxury of being vocal and demanding. And there’s no shame in being silent, compliant, invisible, or whatever you need to do to survive until you can take control of your life and leave.
ACT: Do you have a good example of a way to respond to someone who has just told a sexist/rape joke?
LINDY: I find that just a calm, simple interrogation is really effective. “I don’t get it.” “What’s the joke?” “No, but what’s the funny part of the joke?” “What’s the joke about?” And make them say, outright, that their “joke” is at the expense of rape victims, or women, or whatever marginalized group they think makes a good punchline. If you feel like it. At this point — unless it’s a well-meaning friend who just made a mistake — I mostly roll my eyes and avoid them forever.
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