Rapists and Changing Rooms
Yesterday a judge in Hull sentenced a man to five years for rape and reassured him he wasn’t ‘a classic rapist’. He did have a previous conviction for battery, and he did that fairly classic thing of taking a woman out for drinks and having sex with her after she’d thrown up and passed out. The judge says he “lost control of usual restraint,” because she was a pretty girl. Could happen to anyone, yeah? Of course, the last time I suffered a lapse of restraint, I made a lasagne, but gender differences and all that.
This cast light, for me, an another link I clicked this morning, about a trans woman who was let down by a lingerie shop, which wouldn’t arrange a fitting or use of the changing rooms. The shop would only allow penis-free people to use all their facilities, and wanted a ‘delicate conversation’ about their new customer’s genitals. Understandably, she thought her privates where, well, private. The shop said they wanted to protect their staff. Others are rightly pointing out that trans women are more sinned against than sinning, when it comes to violent encounters, but the problem wasn’t that she was a trans woman, the problem was that she may have had a penis.
As women, we’re constantly assessing the signification of situations and actions. Not whether someone is dangerous—how on earth are we meant to know that?—but whether our actions could be twisted into a story which involves an invitation or a ‘loss of control’. Our first jobs, in shops and bars, are often where we train in this. My first lesson in pulling a pint taught me a lot: don’t let a man instructing you stand behind you or guide your hands, because when he gropes you, it seems like you should have stopped him earlier, and he can use the excuse that he was overcome with desire, in that position.
There’s a special logic that men use to get you into this situation. The man who wants to walk you home, to get you into his car or the stock room, will imply that you’re accusing him of being untrustworthy if you hesitate. Do you think he’s one of those awful men who’d grope you in a stockroom? Of course he’s not, it’s insulting that you would think that! Unable to justify your reticence—because what would constitute proof that this is the sort of man to grope you in a stockroom?—you have to go along with it. Then, somehow, the meaning of your action is retrospectively changed. It was an invitation, you got him in a position where he was overcome by temptation.
A man offers you a lift, for example, saying it’s not safe walking home by yourself. If you find a polite way to say, “maybe it isn’t safe with you, either,” he’s wounded. He’s one of the good guys. You get in his car. He doesn’t take you straight home, don’t you want to have a drink at his place/his mate’s place/this bar? Insisting on going home is hard, you don’t know where you are so you’re in his power. If you make a fuss, all friendliness will go, and he’ll be insulted by your lack of trust in him. If you go for the drink, it makes a statement (see the rape case above). If you don’t, you’re still going to have that awful moment with his hand on your leg, but you must have wanted that, because you got in the car with him, and it’s hard to resist when your leg’s only a handbrake away.*
This method works so well because while it’s easy to think an unknown stranger could do terrible things to you, it’s hard to tell someone he’s that stranger. We all learn to do it, in time, and we learn the cardinal rule: never be alone in a small space with a man.
I want to be very clear here, that this isn’t about sexuality, it’s about signifiers. I’m sure there are evil lesbian gropers out here (if you are one, please do get in touch, I wouldn’t mind a bit of evil lesbian groping), but being in an enclosed space with a woman doesn’t mean the same thing. The woman who got someone drunk and raped her wouldn’t be told that she just lost normal restraint.** In our culture, the penis is the great, overriding excuse. It’s not a good one, but it’s almost universally accepted. That weird belief some men have that gay men are liable to jump on them and begin doing unspeakable things at any moment? It comes from the same place.
What has this got to do with some poor woman’s bra fitting? Well, if you put her in the penis-owning category, it looks an awful lot like the process I’ve just described seedy men executing. What she’s asking for is to be alone in an enclosed space with a woman. She says you can trust her, she’s insulted that you don’t. Trans supporters online point out that she can’t be in that category, because she identifies as a woman, and trans folk are the victims, usually, not the perpetrators.
That’s a much more logical argument than any the seedy men normally give, but is self-identification a better system than the penis/no penis one, for working out when you’re in a dangerous situation? Those men self-identify as “good guys” almost every time. I don’t think that, on the self-identification standard, we’re going to have a surge of men turning up at lingerie departments self-identifying as women in order to grope the staff, but I’m still not comfortable with it. When your thoughts about yourself trump my thoughts about us when deciding my actions for my safety, I have no power. I’m not signing up.
I understand being angry about being turned away from a lingerie shop, I would be, too. I suspect that the truth is there aren’t enough visible trans women walking into shops to be factored into the system. Given that the safety of women is at stake, though, I think we need a better argument than ‘she identifies as a woman’. My preferred approach would be stomping on the ideas of men like that judge in Hull with big, snakeskin heels until sixteen year olds don’t have to learn how to avoid being groped by middle aged men and women don’t have to avoid mixing alcohol and male acquaintances. That project’s been going for a while, though, so I doubt it will be finished in time for the next trans woman who wants a bra.
What can I say? We’re all trapped here. The women who have to avoid being alone with men and trans women, the women who are excluded from changing rooms, the men who cross the road five times on the way home to avoid walking up behind a woman like an attacker in the night. Don’t get any with shop owners, get angry with the people we’re guarding against. Get angry with the people who make us live in fear.
*Mandatory disclaimer: not all men.
**What the lesbian rapist would be told is interesting and irrelevant.