World·Point of View

Rebecca Solnit: A 'breakthrough' in tackling violence against women

Rebecca Solnit's new book, "Men Explain Things to Me," looks at sexual entitlement, rape culture and the feminist response. For her, North American society is going through a turning point on an "ugly subject."

Q&A with Men Explain Things to Me author about slut walks and #YesAllWomen

A memorial service at the University of California Santa Barbara honors the victims of the Isla Vista rampage in Santa Barbara. Linking that massacre to 'sexual entitlement' gives us 'compelling new ways to frame the situation and talk about it in ways we haven't before,' Rebecca Solnit says. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Author Rebecca Solnit sees something "tremendously exciting" underway when she considers the "ugly subject" of violence against women.

She  even calls it a breakthrough.

In her new book, Men Explain Things to Me, and in a feature interview with CBC News, Solnit describes what's changed in recent years.

For Solnit, the spark may have been the response three years ago to what Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti told York University students about how they should dress: women responded with slut walks around the world. "Young feminists are a thrilling phenomenon: smart, bold, funny defenders of rights and claimers of space — and changers of the conversation," she writes.

That spark became a flame the next year following a brutal gang-rape murder on a New Delhi bus. Now, rapes in India and elsewhere are no longer treated as isolated incidents, and misogynist acts like the shootings in Santa Barbara on May 23 are being seen as rooted in the culture, and therefore a problem for everyone to deal with.

Solnit, who lives in San Francisco, has written 15 books, including A Field Guide to Getting Lost, The Faraway Nearby and A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She has co-authored a bunch more.

CBC News: The phrase "sexual entitlement" shows up in the discourse following the gang-rape murder on that bus in India in 2012. But it's not that the male idea of sexual entitlement hadn't been linked to violence against women for eons, right?

Rebecca Solnit: The term had been used, but it didn't become part of the public discourse. I don't think "sexual entitlement" really caught on until this last month.

That's Elliot Rodger and the Santa Barbara massacre?

Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me and 14 other books, including A Paradise Built in Hell. (Jim Herrington/Courtesy Haymarket Books)

Solnit: Yes. He's one particular person with one particular psychology, etc. But his manifesto, the autobiography he wrote just before, is a sort of extreme version of "women must meet my needs, I have the right to punish any woman for things other women have done" — this complete objectification, complete dehumanization of women as playthings, there to service him and who he had the right to hate for not servicing him, according to his expectations.

Of course, those expectations were shaped by a particular extreme version of the mainstream. What feminists really began discussing is that mainstream, because it’s not just one mass murderer, one dead kid, it's really pervasive in the culture that women are here to serve men's needs. That men have the right to control women, they have the right to have sex with women, whether or not women consent.

Which is the context in which I first heard "sexual entitlement" as a phrase, in this remarkable study coming out of Asia that looked at rape in five Asian countries and concluded that a lot of men raped because of exactly that sexual entitlement belief system.

"I have the right to have sex, you have no rights in the matter, it's entirely up to me, you have no say."

UCSB students stand at a drive-by shooting crime scene as they march in a protest against sexual violence and hate crimes, in the Isla Vista neighborhood of Santa Barbara, Calif., May 26. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Which is basically saying, "my rights are very, very important, your rights are non-existent."

That's a really ugly, scary, weird thing, except that it's mainstream reality. Look at the fact that marital rape was a non-existent category, and a woman was considered to have consented by marrying her husband.

Essentially the law said that he owned her and had the right to use her. And you see that in so many things: the 16-year-old girl who got stabbed to death for saying no to some guy who asked her to the prom.

There's now a Tumblr site where women are posting stories about horrendous things that happen to women who said no. Sexual entitlement is a new term and it's an extraordinary useful one, giving us really compelling new ways to frame the situation and talk about it in ways we haven't before.

When it comes to violence against women, something seems to have changed, and it changed globally. Is it that rape and other sexual violence aren't seen as isolated incidents?

Solnit: Exactly. And that's been such a breakthrough! I remember when we talked about racial crimes or homophobic crimes and one thing would happen.

[In 1998] Matthew Shepard would be murdered in Wyoming and people would say this is part of a pattern, it suggests problems in the culture, we need to go deep and uproot the problem in the whole culture.

When Matthew Shepard was murdered, so was a young woman in the same town, and it was never an issue. There would be so many filler items in the newspapers, a rape, a murder, a man shooting his wife because she left him, a guy strangling his girlfriend because she left him. More rapes and more murders, it's such an epidemic crime and nobody would talk about it as a pattern.

Then I think it's young feminists, particularly the ones organizing around campus rape, and a lot of really remarkable feminist writers like Amanda Hess, Amanda Marcotte, Jennifer Pozner, really started to change the conversation.

Demonstrators in Kolkata, India on June 2 protest the rape of a minor tribal girl by her senior schoolmates in the eastern state of West Bengal, protesters said. The front banner reads: 'We condemn atrocities against women in Labhpur, Mohd. Bazar and other areas of the state.' (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

As far as I can tell, Steubenville [Ohio], and New Delhi at the very end of 2012, were when the mainstream conversation began to change, and people began to say "This is not an isolated incident, these last 10,000 horrific things, these five rapes every six minutes in the United States, are not isolated incidents."

We need to talk about the pattern and what causes it, and address the broad societal problems and I feel like, at last, we're doing that.

It's an ugly subject but the fact that maybe we're going to change it, maybe we're finally going to have an enlightened and transformative conversation about it is tremendously exciting.

So I was really exhilarated by the response that began at the end of 2012 and I feel like last month we took another huge step forward talking about the pervasive hate, in the context of the twitter handle #YesAllWomen — and addressing the twitter handle #NotAllMen — and discussing what sexual entitlement means and how rape culture is a really useful way to frame the problem.

In 2011 a Toronto police constable's comments led to the slut walks, and then on [May 30], CBC had stories about high school students in Newfoundland sent home because of bra straps showing and in Quebec because of too short shorts. Is society still blaming women for this violence?

The sign on the right says, 'This is not an invitation,' at a protest about violence against women in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Jan. 18. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Solnit: There are parts of the world where women are supposed to remain completely covered lest they tempt men. The burden of responsibility for male sexuality is handed to women over and over. So women are blamed for things men do, and for terrible things that happen to them.

"What was she wearing? Oh, she was asking for it."

"Why was she out there? She should stay at home, she shouldn't go out alone, she shouldn't go out at night. She shouldn't live in that neighborhood, she shouldn't take that job."

Women are constantly being told to contain themselves, to remove themselves, to suppress themselves. And we've only just begun turning the tables.

One of the very popular tweets in #YesAllWomen was, "Don't tell your daughters how not to get raped, tell your sons not to rape."

That's been a huge problem at universities where they have for many years been giving girls lots of helpful tips of the' carry a whistle, don't wear this, don't go there' variety, without telling their male students not to rape.

There's this notion that male sexuality is this out of control thing, this great natural force that women need to defer to.

Male behaviour varies widely from culture to culture; we're not talking about biology here. We're talking about culture, and culture can change. Men can control themselves and it's not women's responsibility. That's the message.

You spoke earlier about the response to Santa Barbara but in Men Explain Things to Me, you already wrote about the “thrilling phenomenon,” the response you’ve observed, especially with young feminists, towards, for example, that Toronto police officer or the actual violence against women. Would you say that the moment we're in now, with regards to violence against women, could be something of a pivotal moment?

Solnit: Absolutely. We won't know until we see whether what's happening now will have lasting consequences but the genie is out of the bottle and it's not going back.

Women have talked about things we haven't talked about before, not with this boldness, not in this way. A lot of people have gotten it this way, people who are potential allies, a lot of really amazing men who are engaging deeply. So it's not like forcing people who don't agree.

All of us are kind of deepening and broadening the conversation to understand how did we get here, how do we go someplace better. It's tremendously exciting.

I deeply wish that the massacre in Santa Barbara had not happened, but this conversation is happening also because women are so fed up with being in an atmosphere of violence, Americans are so fed with school shootings, with mass murders, with a ridiculous excess of gun violence.

And I think that just being fed up led to this breakthrough.

Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me gets its title from her 2008 essay. Solnit also explains the title in an interview with Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current.


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