When I was nineteen, I took a class called Female Biology. I don’t entirely remember why, but I do remember that I was one of four men in a class of around fifty students. One of our assignments was to write a sexual history. The women students could write about themselves, but, not surprisingly, the professor didn’t think that men’s sexual histories really pertained to the subject of the course, so I and my three compatriots were asked to interview a female friend. I had just made a new friend, a really interesting woman whom I’d met in an English class. When I asked if I could interview her, there was doubt and fear in her eyes. But for some reason she decided to trust me.
It turned out that she had been raped when she was thirteen, at camp, by one of the guys working in the kitchen. I sat and listened to her describe the rape, and the subsequent years of self-doubt and sexual fear, and I felt angry for her, and saddened by what I’d just learned about the world. A few months later she invited me to take part in the first Take Back the Night rally that the campus had ever held. It was a massive rally, hundreds of people walking together, students, faculty, and staff, many women and some men. I marched and chanted and, for the first time, felt the power of a crowd. We ended up in front of the concert hall, where microphones had been set up for a Speak Out. I stood and listened as woman after woman got up and told the story of her rape. And I felt myself alter, become outraged, and burn with a real desire to change society.
But that wasn’t the full introduction to evil. The next day I went to my job in the dining hall, where I served eggs and pancakes to the other early rising students. I shared the shift with a friend, a girl who I never saw outside of work but who I’d gotten to know quite well in the seven months we’d been working together. I began to tell her about the rally, and my outrage, and she looked at me carefully, as if deciding to risk something. “If you feel that way,” she asked, “why do you have those things on your key ring?”
At that time, in the early nineties, people would take the tabs off the top of soda cans and put them on their key rings, one for each person they’d slept with. It was a way of bragging about sexual conquest. I had about fifteen tabs on my key ring, and their presence there was a lie. I’d had one girlfriend at that point in my life, and she was the only person I’d ever slept with. But I had wanted to brag. So I had cluttered my key ring with tabs, a sign of my foolishness and insecurity, but also a sign that I had accepted a certain way of thinking about the world and sex.
My co-worker’s question made me realize that there was a continuum, leading from the tabs on my key ring to the experiences of the women I’d heard talking about being raped the night before. Behind both, there was an assumption about sex and conquest and masculinity. Having sex was something to brag about, having lots of sex with many partners was more impressive than having little sex with one partner, and at the far end of this spectrum was rape, a crime of violence, but one born out of the impersonal, head-hunting manner in which men were being taught to approach sex in the first place. My friend in the dining hall was right. I couldn’t be outraged about what I had heard at the Take Back the Night rally and keep those tabs on my key ring.
I believe that rape is evil. I’m not saying that the rapist is beyond redemption. But his action is evil, and should be named as evil. That’s the easy evil to name. But what about the evil that I was caught up in when I put those tabs on my key ring? Misogyny is a slipperier evil, one that many people will resist calling evil, because to do so would be to implicate themselves. Like racism, almost everyone is caught up in the web of this evil and its very hard to break through. But I find it helpful to call it evil nonetheless. By doing so, I ensure that when I engage in it I will be reminded of its ultimate results. I will be reminded of my friend’s story, and the stories of all of those women at that rally. I want to name it as evil for the simple reason that doing so helps me to resist it. And I decided, back when I was nineteen, that there were certain things that I would have to resist in order to be the person that I wanted to be.