[Trigger warning: discussion of violence, sexual assault.]
About a month ago, I was traveling. Whenever I travel, I hunt for books. The title of one particular book screamed at me from a shelf in the Harvard Co-op: Men Explain Things to Me. I dove for my credit card.
Men Explain Things to Me is an anthology of essays by San Francisco journalist Rebecca Solnit. The title comes from the first essay, a 2008 Internet classic that I’ve referenced before, but hadn’t read in full until I bought the anthology. In it, Solnit relates how a resolutely clueless man cornered her at a party, pontificating to her about a book he had not read but that she herself had written, all the while ignoring a friend who kept saying, “That’s her book.”
Solnit observed: “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about.” Her sentence inspired a neologism: “mansplaining.”
Men Explain Things to Me is my current commuter-train reading. The passage that’s given me the most pause so far is one I read last night. It comes from Solnit’s 2013 essay “The Longest War”:
Rape and other acts of violence, up to and including murder, as well as threats of violence, constitute the barrage some men lay down as they attempt to control some women, and fear of that violence limits most women in ways they’ve gotten so used to they hardly notice–and we hardly address. There are exceptions: last summer someone wrote to me to describe a college class in which the students were asked what they do to stay safe from rape. The young women described the intricate ways they stayed alert, limited their access to the world, took precautions, and essentially thought about rape all the time (while the young men in the class, he added, gaped in astonishment). The chasm between their worlds had briefly and suddenly become visible.
The young men gaped in astonishment. The chasm had become visible.
One of my great revelations in recent years (and for me it must necessarily be a revelation, because I will always be in some sense on the outside looking in) is that women must negotiate an exhausting, well-nigh ceaseless series of boundary violations from men. Being liberal didn’t mean I already grasped it. And I still have more to learn.
Many violations are direct, concrete, horrible, personal. Many others are technically at one remove from the personal, but hardly so much. (In “The Longest War,” Solnit cites a piece by British columnist Laurie Penny, who wrote that having an opinion “is the short skirt of the Internet,” inviting abuse and physical threats from “an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers.”) And many everyday, run-of-the-mill impositions would fit smoothly into Solnit’s title essay, alongside the genial, overpowering bloviating from the man she calls “the idiot in Aspen.”
Sometimes those who impose on women are creeps who want “theirs,” whatever “theirs” means at the time. Other times they are men who know not what they do, because realizing your sense of entitlement is like learning to see the air. But creepiness and blindness reinforce each other to create a toxic society.
In theological terms, this is the “real reality,” a sobering “sign of the times.” Solnit writes: “There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed.”
In this context, think of what it means that God is officially still “He.” (“Two men and a bird,” as theologian Sandra Schneiders quipped.) Think of what it means that priests, the “other Christs,” are still “Father.” Think of what it means that the Prologue of the 2001 Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam (which, among other things, nixed inclusive language in liturgical texts) uses the words “man,” “himself,” “him,” “he” and “his” a total of eleven times in the first three sentences. Yes, this is exclusion and invisibility. But it’s also somehow darker and more menacing.
Pope Francis has said we need a “new theology of women.” What we really need is for the pope and bishops, together with the clergy and all Catholic men (including me), to sit in that classroom Solnit describes in “The Longest War.” We must all gape in astonishment at what we hear. We must realize the chasm that so starkly divides our parallel universes.