Cross-generational discussions can be difficult - but we need to have them
I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t thrill at the prospect of spending time with extended family. But during a recent trip to Chicago—to move my little sister into college (!)—I think “family time” hit an all-time low. We’ve always known that older people have different perspectives on issues like women’s rights and sexual assault, but this weekend I learned just how short-sighted and narrow-minded our parents’ generation—i.e., the generation running our country—can be.
We were having dinner at a charming downtown bistro when somehow, toward the end of the main course, I ended up arguing with my aunt and uncle about sexual assault and famous people. At first, we were just talking rather generally about Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, and the ways that high-profile sexual-assault cases often played out. Then my aunt stated that most of the women who accused these famous men of rape probably hadn’t actually been assaulted; no, they were just out for money.
In my naïveté, I kind of thought she was kidding. I pointed out that the women who leveled such accusations were subsequently subjected to an enormous amount of media scrutiny and public abuse, practically tortured by rabid fans and turned into complete social pariahs. Is it actually worth a few thousand dollars, I asked, to go through that kind of ordeal? Aside from the Bryant and Roethlisberger cases, I told my aunt, there’s also Chris Brown: even though he confessed to having abused his girlfriend—even though it was an established fact—people continued to insist that he should not be punished in any way, continued to slander and harass Rihanna, continued to declare that she had deserved to be beaten, that it was her fault, that she’d brought it upon herself. These men are famous; they have both the media and the public automatically on their side. It is almost impossible to accuse a celebrity of sexual assault without having your life destroyed. As such, I told my aunt, I’m not sure you can say that most of these people are out for money: it’s just not worth it.
My aunt doesn’t really read the news, and she didn’t follow the Bryant, Roethlisberger, or Brown cases—she confessed as much—but she decided that my arguments were invalid because (for one thing) I’m a kid and (for another) “these people” are apparently wacked-out money-grubbing whores. “Maybe for a normal, nice person, it would be a deterrent,” she told me, “all that media coverage and stuff. But for these crazy sick women, it doesn’t matter—twenty, thirty thousand dollars? Of course that’s worth it!” But hang on, I said—I don’t know much about the legal system, but what’s the likelihood of a woman actually winning a case that she’d invented out of thin air? “That’s a ridiculous question,” she said. “These guys, they’ll just pay the women off, even though the accusation’s not true, because they don’t want it damaging their reputations.”
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m being partisan here: my aunt is a staunchly liberal, Democratic-voting woman with a post-graduate education. Nor do I want to portray her too unflatteringly—after all, she’s family. We had both had two glasses of wine, we were both tired, and the conversation was getting pretty heated. But when I continued to disagree with my aunt, she got uncomfortable. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Molly,” she snapped at me. “I was a lawyer.”
I had to dig my fingernails into my skin to keep myself from screaming across the table at her, “YOU don’t know what YOU’RE talking about! I WAS ASSAULTED!”
But I didn’t. Why not? Because I never told anyone in my family, not even my parents. And I never told them because I was afraid. Afraid either that they wouldn’t believe me, or that they would tell me it was my own fault. Afraid that their attitudes toward victims of sexual assault would be exactly the one that my aunt demonstrated to me this weekend: inherently skeptical, disdainful, dismissive.
Guess I was right.
As the conversation drew to a close, I said to my aunt, “I think it’s incredibly disturbing that you would believe a woman was lying through her teeth to get some money before you’d believe she was raped. Rape is the most underreported crime in our country, and I think I just learned why.”
I don’t think she got it. The moment passed. My aunt let it go. But a tight, searing knot of anger continued to burn in the pit of my stomach for the rest of the night, and I wondered—what kind of nation is their generation trying to build? One where people who have never been assaulted can claim that they have, and be rewarded with vast sums of money? So that, in turn, people who have been assaulted are afraid and ashamed to speak out about it, for fear that they’ll be hounded, harassed, blamed, and disbelieved? There may be a lot of crazy people out there, but I think it’s lazy and cowardly to blame the state of sexual-assault litigation on them. The fault lies with the system that my aunt’s and previous generations have created, and especially with their unwillingness to talk about “uncomfortable” subjects like rape over the dinner table.
Equal Writes is an amazing forum of intellectual exchange and development, a space for young feminists to discuss contemporary women’s issues like sexual assault. But most of our readership (and readers, we love you!) is young like us; our parents, aunts, and uncles—the ones whose worldviews we most need to alter—aren’t very likely to visit our site. Instead, I’m realizing, we have to force their generation to talk about issues like sexual assault. We have to dismantle their preconceptions, disrupt their complacency about the world they’re handing to us; we can’t let them push these things under the rug anymore. And even if their generation hasn’t wanted to talk about it, hasn’t wanted to fix it, fine. We will.