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Things Nice Girls Don’t Do

February 16, 2010

I was on my knees in front of her, my wife of (then) several years. We had talked about this, walked through this moment in concept. In theory, it was simple enough. She could slap my balls, squeeze my balls, hold and punch my balls, and now she would kick my balls. But when she swung her foot, it just stopped, like someone reached out a hand and blocked it. Not through any volitional cause; my tongue was almost hanging out in anticipation, and she was really intrigued by the sense of power in that moment, and yet …

I read months ago (and ever since have not been able to find) a post about women who can’t, who want to but literally are unable, to scream when raped. They want to, need to, and their survival may depend on it, but conscious mind and rational calculus be damned, rote learning of social rules takes over. These mental blocks can’t just be discarded. They can sometimes be unlearned, overcome, broken: but they cannot be ignored. Just because they are in women’s heads does not make them any less real.

I’ve heard (and probably read, but again I can’t seem to find where) that one of the toughest things for many women in self-defense training to overcome is the reticence to make noise. The socialization of the good-girl role, the selfless role, the not-making-trouble, not-taking-up-space role, starts early and never stops and that conditioning runs deep. (Harriet Jacobs’ original post is great, but I believe it is now behind a wall.)

Those blocks are real.

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37 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2010 5:50 pm

    I’ve read the same thing about how socially conditioned passivity makes it very hard for many women to defend themselves, so I don’t doubt you a bit about saying that many women can’t bring themselves to make noise when a rapist is attacking them.

    But what does that have to do with your wife being unable to kick you in the scrotum?

    This reads like two separate articles badly edited together – a piece on women’s self defense and a piece on BDSM (and, unlike the chocolate and peanut butter mix of a Rieces Pieces, these do not go together!)

    Was the idea to have your wife kick you in the balls as a training method, to prepare her to defend herself against a rapist?

    If so, an extra paragraph in the article explaining that might have helped.

    – Gregory A. Butler

  2. February 16, 2010 6:17 pm

    Both mental blocks against acting contrary to gender socialization. The story about ball kicking illustrates that the mental blocks are not simply freezing in moments of stress due to fear, but are in fact gender socialization at work.

    • February 16, 2010 6:24 pm

      I don’t see the connection.

      Maybe your wife didn’t want to kick you in the scrotum because she loves you and doesn’t want to inflict extreme pain on you.

      That’s night and day different from her not being able to kick a rapist in the scrotum – THAT is indeed a problem and is indeed based on a mental block with it’s roots in female socialization.

      But not kicking a loved one in the balls is just common decency that I would hope every person would show their partner.

      • February 17, 2010 5:40 pm

        …unless said loved one has a pronounced interest in CBT; then kicking them in the balls would be the nicest thing you could do for them.

  3. February 16, 2010 9:42 pm

    Dude, you’re full of shit. Really.

    • February 17, 2010 8:24 am

      I just let this through for shits and giggles. It seems our “friends” the MRAs at Antimisandry are scandalized by my sexual activities.

      I’m a lot of things, mister, but full of shit I’m not. What does it say about you guys that your worldview requires you to believe that I’m lying?

  4. February 16, 2010 11:42 pm

    Periodically, I have dreams where something bad is happening to me (not usually rape, but maybe someone following me or something like getting hurt and nobody is around) and I can’t scream. In my dreamworld, it’s like I’m tongue-tied. And I realized that it has started to manifest itself in my real life – like if I’m walking alone, I have to remind myself that I can indeed scream, since I’m so used to not being able to in my dreamworld. It’s strange, and it’s definitely got something to do with what you’re getting at here.

    Also, this is my first comment but I’ve been reading this blog since it’s inception, and I love it. THank you for it.

    • Kyra permalink
      February 21, 2010 8:47 pm

      When I was being harassed by an entire classful of (male) industrial arts students in high school, I had nightmares where I tried to hit them but the force, the momentum, the speed, would go out of my arms and by the time my fists hit them it was barely a tap, while they taunted me for being weak.

      • March 1, 2010 2:12 am

        I have dreams like that ALL THE TIME. I hate it.

      • March 17, 2010 3:53 pm

        I have those dreams, too. I hate them.

      • Luke permalink
        April 7, 2011 10:56 am

        That’s normal for dreams, almost nobody can hit someone in their dreams; it’s because at the moment you are trying to hit someone the “excitement” makes you almost wake up and you become subconsciously aware that you are not moving.
        It has nothing to do with the mental blocks described here.

  5. February 17, 2010 7:52 am

    lol. at your last line Gregory Butler. And great site you have here Thomas. Came across it thru a link on Shakesville.
    I can relate to this article though. I had a near-rape incident in college where i was saved by a curious college security officer who demanded to see the occupants of the car.
    The one thought that bothers me, 9 yrs after is, ‘couldnt I have done more to save myself?’, cause at a point I had blanked out and accepted it as fate. I never screamed, scratched or bit. I only kept saying No till I realised my mild struggling movements were exciting him the more. then I stopped and just lay there like a sacrificial lamb.
    Even now, in ordinary circumstances, I can’t throw an object directly at another human. I intentionally curve my hand or aim at some innocuous place. I dream of defending myself from a would be attacker by throwing a knife, shooting a gun, kicking hard, scratching their eyes out but deep inside I wonder if i can overcome this ‘mental block’ you have talked about.
    ….maybe acknowledging it is a step in the right direction.

    • Kyra permalink
      February 21, 2010 9:19 pm

      I’ve had some similar experience with such blocks, and have gotten past some of them, for the most part, by learning the moves from a point of having control over how much damage to do—how much force and where to aim to distract and temporarily disable, rather than maim or kill.

      There’s a sense of level-headedness, of cold rationality, of being in control of the situation, that is enhanced by tactical planning of where to strike, with what, how hard, so as to control the damage. Knowing the body—what hurts, what injures, how long various injuries take to heal. How much force does what damage, causes what pain.

      It’s another feeling of not-in-control, the use of force when you’re not familiar with it. A gun or knife can do a terrifying amount of damage unrelated to the level of intent behind it, and even kicking or punching, if you have no idea how much damage will be done . . . it’s kind of like operating a powerful machine that you’re worried might run away with you (I had this problem with an ATV once), you’re not confident of your ability to control it, so there’s a strong impetus to back the fuck off. It might be the same subconscious process that tells you that a lion through cage bars, or a roller coaster hill, or a bungee jump, or a nearby tornado, or whatever else, is a REALLY BAD IDEA. Different effects with different people, some get it worse than others, but there’s sometimes a part of your brain that simply overrides the logical, conscious, normal-prioritizing bits that say “It’s tested. It’s behind two different fences. It’s WAY OVER THERE. It’s justified. It’s needed. It’s safe.” and goes “all stop, no effing way.” It recognizes consequences, and recognizes your ability to control them. Changing your ability to control them, the damage your actions would create, might help with this.

      I couldn’t shoot somebody in the chest or head, but I could manage their shoulder. I can’t crush somebody’s windpipe but I can break bones. I can create healable wounds, and I can do this, I think, because I am confident that that’s all I’ll do if that’s all I want to do.

      I don’t know if it will help you any, but it might be worth a shot.

  6. February 17, 2010 8:14 am

    We’ve been doing heavy BDSM since the month we met. She, in fact, likes doing things that hurt me quite a bit. We’ve discussed her initial inhibition to kicking me in the balls, and she also attributes it to gender socialization. It’s certainly not some subconscious aversion to hurting me, which she’s quite good at.

    Gregory, when you say things like “not kicking a loved one in the balls is just common decency,” I’m sensing that you’re generally uncomfortable with BDSM. Whether you’re able to or even want to get over that is up to you, but since the inception of this blog, and really as long as I’ve been in the feminist blogosphere, I’ve written a fair amount about BDSM and often used my own life as material. That’s not something I’m going to change.

    • February 17, 2010 9:25 am

      You didn’t explain that it was a BDSM thing, that you WANTED her to kick you in the scrotum.

      That’s different – and, had I known that, I would have responded differently.

      Kicking somebody in the balls in a BDSM context – with all of the rules and safe words that I understand that you folks use to stay safe – is one thing, but just randomly kicking somebody in the balls is a whole different ballgame.

      As i said in my first comment, you left out the paragraph where you explain that you and your wife are in the BDSM scene.

      Had you included that paragraph, that would have set a context where your wife kicking you in the balls in a controlled safe setting would have actually made some sense.

      Honestly, I thought you and your wife were doing some kind of DIY martial arts self defense training, and she held back from kicking you in the balls in that context.

      BTW you’re totally sensing wrong about my feelings on BDSM – I’ve never discussed the topic, so you really have no way of knowing what I actually think.

      I actually like how the BDSM community – at least as looked at from my outsider perspective – has all these rules and stuff and puts a great emphasis on communication in sex (non BDSM folks could learn a LOT from that).

      And I hate to say the whole “some of my best friends are…” line but, on the real, there are people I’m very close to who are involved in BDSM – they happen to be some of the most awesome people I’ve ever met, and they’ve been kind enough to teach me a bit about that world.

      I’d never in a million years judge them for what they do, nor do I judge you.

      I just didn’t know what you were taking about in that context and I really didn’t know that you were in that world.

      Gregory A. Butler

      • February 17, 2010 9:59 am

        Sorry, I thought it was clear from the context. I wrote:

        “We had talked about this, walked through this moment in concept. … She could slap my balls, squeeze my balls, hold and punch my balls, and now she would kick my balls… my tongue was almost hanging out in anticipation, and she was really intrigued by the sense of power in that moment …”

        Also, the post was tagged “BDSM” among other topics.

      • February 17, 2010 10:16 am

        Actually, it wasn’t at all clear from the context – and I never read the tags on blogposts. As I said, another ‘graph, explaining that you and her are in the scene would have helped. And no need to apologize.

      • Wendell permalink
        February 17, 2010 12:31 pm

        “I actually like how the BDSM community – at least as looked at from my outsider perspective – has all these rules and stuff and puts a great emphasis on communication in sex (non BDSM folks could learn a LOT from that).”

        Agreed, G.A.B. I’ve learned a lot about communication about sex/-uality from the posts here (and the book!), and have found what I’ve learned to make experiences better for me and my partners (though I’m pretty vanilla). I’m an occasional shy guy with a taste for clear, straightforward communication, and have found being coy and/or relying in innuendo doesn’t work for me. I recommend checking out the archives of posts tagged with BDSM. Useful things abound. :)

      • February 17, 2010 5:42 pm

        What does it say about me, then, that my mind immediately went to BDSM as soon as anything about blows to the scrotum was mentioned?

        I guess subjectivity is key, here, since I felt like it was very clear from the context.

      • February 17, 2010 8:33 pm

        It really, really was clear. Let me put it this way. If the SAT was way cooler than it is, you’d get marks off for not choosing:

        B. He was excited at the prospect of being kicked in the balls.

        Because of this phrase:

        “my tongue was almost hanging out in anticipation”

        That’s what a Princeton Review study book would point out as the absolutely obvious signal that this was a bdsm moment.

      • February 18, 2010 9:22 am

        Melina,

        Your class privilege is showing.

        I never took the SAT.

        I went to a public high school in the hood, attended a public college for a year (CUNY does not require the SAT as a condition of admission), went to trade school for carpentry and then learned journalism “the hard way”, through an unpaid part time apprenticeship at a small left wing newspaper.

        So maybe to folks who spent a lot of time in SAT Prep classes, that was easily understandable.

        I’m not one of those guys.

        I learned how to write the “inverted pyramid” way – put all the important information towards the front of the article, with the remaining info put in order of importance in the rest of the piece – I also learned how to write feature articles with an introduction, the body of the story and a conclusion.

        Simple, and perhaps crude, but those writing skills have served me well the last 18 years and have led to me having 2 books in print and one more on the way and ready for release this spring.

        To me, Thomas’ story read like a fragment of a much longer article – and it assumed that you knew that Thomas was into BDSM, which is a big assumption, because most folks aren’t.

        Again, maybe to YOU it was clear – but not everybody is you.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • February 18, 2010 9:32 am

        Melina,

        Sorry, didn’t mean to be such a smartass in my last post – but, honestly, to me, his article wasn’t clear at all, and assumed you knew that he was into BDSM (a huge assumption, since BDSM is a sexual minority).

        And, again, honestly, some of us never took a Princeton Review class or the SAT (I didn’t even know what Princeton Review was until I’d already dropped out of college!)

        I came to writing the hard way – and I came to have a hard won respect for the written word.

        I always carefully explain to my audience what I’m trying to say, and never make assumptions about what they know.

        You have to understand, to somebody who’s not into BDSM, being kicked or hit in sensitive areas is something they would NOT want from a loved one – I sure as hell know that’s how I feel and that was my gut reaction to the piece (and how I’d feel if somebody I loved tried to kick me in the balls).

        Again, no offense intended, and sorry for snapping at you in the above post, but, really, not everybody took the SAT (I know most of the construction workers who read my political blog posts and who buy my books sure as hell didn’t!).

        Gregory A. Butler

      • February 18, 2010 10:00 am

        I’m sorry I used the SAT as a way of meanly disagreeing with you. I guess where we disagree here is that I think half a sentence is sufficient explanation about the intent of the exercise, but you think there should have been more.

        I have to admit that I was coming at you with such nastiness because I had pent up annoyance over replies of yours on a different post about homeschooling. So yeah, I was being passive-agressive and mean and classist and I’m sorry. I should have known better.

      • February 18, 2010 10:04 am

        Melina,

        Apology accepted – and I’m sorry for snapping at you too.

        Gregory A. Butler

      • rebeccacityofladies permalink
        February 18, 2010 7:05 pm

        Also, if you read this blog, yes, you know Thomas is into BDSM.

      • February 19, 2010 10:27 am

        Rebecca,

        i read a LOT of blogs – and I don’t remember every little biographical fact about every blogger I read. Just like I don’t expect my readers to memorize every fact about my life. It’s better to err on the side of assuming that some of your readers don’t know/care about the details of your life, and to explain yourself thoroughly. At least that’s the rule I follow when I write.

        Gregory A. Butler

    • visitingalien permalink
      March 14, 2010 5:49 pm

      Thomas writes:

      We’ve been doing heavy BDSM since the month we met. She, in fact, likes doing things that hurt me quite a bit. We’ve discussed her initial inhibition to kicking me in the balls, and she also attributes it to gender socialization. It’s certainly not some subconscious aversion to hurting me, which she’s quite good at.

      Ah, there’s a difference between inflicting pain and/or inducing submission or expressing dominance, and doing irreparable damage.

      If she feels comfortable with discipline play, but not with potentially rendering you sterile or at least getting you hospitalized with a ruptured testicle or even a herniation, you might want to be grateful.

      However your politics (or anyone’s politics) might incline you to attribute it, probably it’s best described as her having enough sense to stop and have second thoughts before she does anything irreversible. I don’t know if that puts her into the category of “nice girl” with or without societally acculturated internal conflicts. I suspect it does put her into the category of people who have reasonable doubts and an unconscious that can restrain them before doing something harmful.

      I mean, would you think it was a bad thing if someone found themselves incapable of firing a handgun at someone if the situation didn’t actually require it?

  7. February 17, 2010 4:36 pm

    That’s always been my fear. If I’m ever raped, I don’t know if I’ll be able to scream because I do not make noise–there’s no social situation in which it is really, truly okay for girls to scream at the top of their lungs; I don’t even know what I would sound like if I did.

  8. Butterflywings permalink
    February 21, 2010 7:15 pm

    Good post.
    Sammy, I used to have that dream as a kid about being unable to scream. Like, about age 6 to 10. And some people deny gender socialisation happens.

    Emily, I can reccommend yelling away somewhere no-one can hear you, or into your pillow if you can’t get somewhere that far from people. It is very, very therapeutic.

  9. Kyra permalink
    February 21, 2010 9:23 pm

    Interesting concept.

    I took tae kwon do for a year or so (ironically enough, stopped because I was so shy it was too stressful for me at that point in my life), and one of the things is there was an emphasis on yelling, a certain syllable/word as you did certain moves, or at certain points in a sequence . . . and I was never comfortable yelling.

    I don’t know if I would be today.

  10. Chris permalink
    February 22, 2010 4:50 am

    An inability to scream during a sexual assault indicates the woman might have been sexually abused/assaulted prior and has a learned “freeze” response.

    • March 1, 2010 2:28 am

      I hope you’re not implying that this is the ONLY reason why a woman would be unable to scream. Because, seriously, the whole lifelong “socialized to be quiet and nice and ladylike” thing really does make an impact and accounts for this reaction perfectly adequately.

      I’ve never been sexually assaulted per se. I HAVE been trained, pretty much from birth, that avoiding social awkwardness is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WHOLE WORLD. And by this I mean that it’s super-duper important to make sure others feel comfortable at all times. The fact that *I* might be uncomfortable is irrelevant.

      Goddamn. I think I’m gonna go make a voodoo doll of my mom and stab it in the face a few times.

    • visitingalien permalink
      March 14, 2010 7:28 pm

      Ah, no.

      A woman I know, who I’d consider both expert and thoughtful on all sorts of issues ranging from “tarting for beginners” through “legal reform for rights of sex-workers”, informed me about a phenomenon called “rape paralysis”.

      It’s not learned, and it’s not something that you internalize from society. It’s closer in origins to phobias, but it’s not something (obviously) that is ameliorated by repeated exposure to the stimulus in the way you treat arachnophobia by playing with plush spider toys.

      It seems to be a built-in survival reflex comparable to an opossum being scared and becoming so paralyzed that its respiration drops nearly to zero and the body temperature falls. It’s also possibly related to a dog’s submission reflex. No dog has to be taught to roll on its back, and almost no dog can attack a dog giving this submission display.

      Send your imagination back to the days when warfare consisted of small bands of invaders who came to loot and pillage and do other things as well. A woman who fought well might very well die. A woman who could not even try to fight would probably wind up pregnant. To the modern moral perspective this is abominable. To darwinian evolution, to whom survives by whatever means goes an opportunity to have grandchildren.

      To the modern moral perspective, this is all the more reason for a man to wait for a statement of “yes means yes”, for direct and articulate invitation.

      To digress for a moment, there’s a fairly common condition in which people — usually women with northern-european ancestry — blush furiously at the least little emotional disturbance, whether positive or negative or mixed.

      But what, I may wonder, should be the moral position of a man who discovers, deep in foreplay or even just heavy petting, that the woman he’s with experiences rape paralysis. He notices the indicative stiffness, decline in skin temperature, inability to articulate, and — as one poster above mentioned — “mild struggling movements that only excite him more”, combined with a “lordosis” or “lordotic reflex” spasm that causes pronation and vulvar presentation.

      Horrified by what he’s almost done, the man stops. His girlfriend recovers and tells him “I really do love you, honey, and I really do want to have sx with you. Ignore my oversensitivity and ignore my rape paralysis.” Again, what’s the proper moral position and actions of the man?

      If she can’t say “yes”, and for that matter can’t say “no” nor much of anything — women reporting rape-paralysis to researchers often used phrases such as “I screamed and screamed but not a sound came out of me” — how can the man legitimately proceed, even on the basis of prior admonishment to ignore the symptons? Because, you know, she might have changed her mind.

      “Wait for a yes, please” as a unilateral policy will result in women who are capable of rape paralysis being, as an inheritable trait, being bred out of the species. But what if that trait is present in a majority of any given ethnicity, or across the average womankind as a whole?

      (I expect certain “rough play” elements of the BDSM community to go nuts over this. Let the flames begin.)

      • Wendell permalink
        March 19, 2010 1:26 pm

        I like how, above, you imply Thomas should be grateful. I’m pretty sure being grateful is something between him and his wife, not including you or me.

        Regarding “Darwinian evolution,” you seem to be drawing upon evolutionary psychology, the fundamental postulation of which is unprovable–that is, the psychology of homo sapiens back when they were small “bands of invaders” is the most important era as far as influence on our current psychology. Your use of the word “imagination” is telling here, in that all too easily we project our current personal and societal notions of gender, sex, sexuality, etc. on the humans a long time ago without taking these notions into account. When factoring in how societies themselves shift and evolve, as well as neuroplasticity and mirror neurons, evopsych has little going for it.

        I may be misreading, but there seems to be an implication of “survival of the fittest,” (your “survive by whatever means”) something which Darwin never said, nor agreed with.
        The Wikipedia page on Evolution is pretty good–I recommend folks check it out for a good overview.

  11. visitingalien permalink
    March 14, 2010 5:07 pm

    Once, long ago, I used to have this idea that no man could possibly rape a woman without him knowing it. If she said “no”, and he didn’t stop, then it would be a clear cut case of rape.

    Then a feminist gal I knew acquainted me with the phenomenon of “rape paralysis” and the related phenomenon of “lordosis” and the “lordotic reflex”.

    Now, I am glad to see the widespread dissemination of the idea of “yes means yes, and the absence of yes is no”.

    Lordotic reflex is related to what happens to an American Opossum when you scare it badly enough. It falls over on its back, curled up as in the spasms of long-ago death. People call this “playing possum” but they do not understand: the possum is not faking. It is completely paralyzed. It cannot move. It has very nearly entered a state of hibernation, with massive metabolic slowing.

    This was probably originally a mutation, a defect where extreme fear caused paralysis rather than full speed flight. Yet for many predators on opossum, an opossum they did not kill is an opossum they will not eat. Thus the mutation spreads, and eventually almost every opossum will become paralyzed to the point of even lowering body temperature, when sufficiently frightened.

    Research has shown that in perhaps the majority of cases of forcible rape where the women were not much injured in the event, the victims reported a feeling of intense cold, numbness, and paralysis, particularly of the voice. A common phrase reported in the study was “I tried to scream but I couldn’t, I tried to struggle but I couldn’t, I couldn’t do anything at all”. Indeed, this feeling is widespread not merely through rape reporting, but much of Victorian and comparable literature.

    This has horrid implications to most thoughtful men and doubtless moreso to all women. But it points up that we men really do need to hear a strong “yes” before we proceed, and understand that because we don’t hear “no” does not mean that a horrified and paralyzed woman isn’t trying to say it.

    This is one reason that the studies are hard to find. Think about the opossum… and how that genetic trait got spread so far. Therein lies true horror when you think through the implications. And variations on these implications may explain why a “nice girl” can’t severely injure her mate: in the world of evolution, that might be assured to eliminate a trait for that capability, at least from that particular family line.

  12. whitebelt permalink
    June 17, 2011 6:44 am

    You know how they want you to scream when you punch things or shout in a powerful voice when you practice martial arts? I always felt so silly watching people do it, and when I joined my local Kenpo Shotocon class, I was expected and convinced into doing it. And when I did it, I felt embarrassed and stupid. They shrugged it off, told me I’ll get better, and were very encouraging instructors. They told me to practice things I had learned after class on days they weren’t available, and after I did the warmup (and I use that term loosely, as it was very hard to complete) and started practicing I was able to do it, in the comfort and privacy of my home where I wouldn’t feel silly doing it in front of other people. I still can’t do it a enthusiastically as I can at home, but when I do do it at home, it feels good, empowering, and stress relieving, especially when you’re in a stressful situation, like doing a heated workout routine and it’s getting incredibly hard to keep up.
    The next time you’re in a heated workout and you think you can’t keep up or you want to pause and stop extremely badly, just scream or yell, and keep going. Sometimes during the yell it feels like I broke a barrier with my voice and I can keep going, or that I actually heard the barrier break in the yell. It’s invigorating!
    My instructors told me something along the lines of releasing air, when you make contact, with an object or the ground, helps, in a way I can’t remember…
    I dunno, but all I can say is, that the socialization thing, it’s very very true. Even in a setting where in it’s encouraged, comfortable, friendly and accepting to make noise and be outgoing, it’s still uncomfortable and you still feel like everyone would suddenly turn and reject you socially for not being submissive, even though that was entirely false, in this situation. I’m still very fond of those instructors, and if I hadn’t had to move I would very much love to return to that place.

    -White belt

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