Passing the torch to the next generation of feminists.
A few months ago, while on the train to Princeton, New Jersey, I was seated next to a middle-aged woman with whom I quickly struck up a conversation. Our discussion ranged from our religious identifications to my social life at college. She asked me whether students go out to parties in groups or with just one other person. I told her I often go out in groups or sometimes with just one other girl.
She was surprised by this.
She explained that in her time it was common to have a first date at a party, so she often would go to parties with guys she barely knew. In return, I was completely shocked. I replied to her that young women of my generation don’t commonly do that because such a situation can be a potentially dangerous setup for sexual assault.
The woman was surprised to hear how scared and wary women of my generation are of being vulnerable to assault in those situations, because she and her friends never talked much about the possibility of assault or their experiences with assault. At the same time, she also told me that when discussing the Kavanaugh confirmation and Ford’s testimony that described her assault by Kavanaugh in high school, every single one of her friends said they experienced something similar to that of Ford’s testimony.
Still, during this woman’s college years, it was very uncommon for survivors to discuss their experiences openly.
This is a serious problem. To the women of previous generations (from activists to homemakers, baby boomers and beyond): thank you for your service as feminists, but when it comes to talking about sexual assault, you were wrong. I quickly learned from the woman on the train that in the past, assault was treated with silence and suppression, by both the women who experienced it and their female peers. I understand that this silence wasn’t the fault of survivors or women at large. In the past there has been a frustrating lack of awareness on what defines assault and a social climate that did not give survivors safe enough spaces to be open and honest about their experiences. Overall, women had to fight too many battles at once. But now, as Millennial and Gen Z women, we are in the midst of a revolution.
As children of the digital age and the #MeToo movement, thousands of women’s stories of sexual assault are at our fingertips. And, personally, the abundance of these stories has scared me. I have been wary and terrified of assault since age 12 when I first learned about “sexually-based offenses” through Law and Order: SVU. At age 14, I started reading Twitter posts about safety tips for women (e.g. when on a first date, I should intentionally spill my drink after coming back from the bathroom so I can order a new one in case my date slipped something into my drink.) When I told my mother of all that I had learned from Twitter, she looked at me in startled fear and asked me why I was reading that kind of material. She didn’t want me to be exposed to this alarming problem—she thought I was too young to worry about assault.
But what women of previous generations don’t understand is that our fears are warranted and have been rightfully translated into sharpened awareness of the prevalence of assault. My fears have turned into preventative actions—I have indeed put all of those Facebook stories and Twitter tips to use. I have never gone to parties alone, I monitor my drinks, and I often keep my location shared with friends. Many women of my generation are similarly aware and prepared, and are even organizing against assault on college campuses and nationally through programs like Rainn and No More.
Young women are preventing, fighting, and resisting, and we need to keep doing so.
I first noticed this shared awareness when my friend mouthed to me “Are you okay?” at a party when a man was aggressively talking to me as I was trying to exit the conversation. She made an excuse for us to take off and we quickly left the venue. The woman on the train would have labeled our actions as driven by fear. She wouldn’t be wrong. I and countless other women tremble at the thought of being the next victim, or the next number in a statistic about assault. But this digital-age-induced-revolution has prepared us to protect ourselves and talk about our experiences.
Fear and awareness derived from social media have developed into action. Young women are preventing, fighting, and resisting, and we need to keep doing so. What I learned from speaking with the woman on the train is that my generation has cracked open the conversation around assault wider than ever before. Including my conversation on the train, this worldwide dialogue is unbelievably real and increasingly representative as it includes more kinds of people and experiences (from harassment to assault to rape) than ever.
This is a conversation that we need to continue. However, many women, especially those of older generations, continue to be obstacles in our path. These are the women who didn’t believe Dr. Ford’s testimony, who voted to confirm Kavanaugh, or who tell us that we are being too afraid or too sensitive.
Perhaps women of older generations still do not conceptualize a valid definition of assault because so many behaviors that constitute as assault in today’s terms were normalized into their culture as acceptable. In fact, many women who experienced assault in the 1980’s did not even know that they were assaulted. Only in recent generations has the point been clarified that women do have the right to deny any unwanted sexual advance, and that there are no excuses for ignoring the role of consent in any encounter.
I want women to be armed with stories and facts about assault and violence prevention so that we can continue this fight. Awareness is key. Today 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will experience rape at some point in their lives. The #MeToo movement has made significant strides, but there is still more to be done. Don’t get me wrong, women of previous generations moved mountains so that Millennials and Gen Z’ers could have the political and social platforms to speak on these issues, and older women can still be our allies in this fight. The spark that the women of second and third wave feminism ignited in the 1960’s and 1990’s has been slowly growing into a fire. Now it is up to us, the young women of today, to carry that torch and feed the flame.
Illustration: Diane Lin