“Starless” and the non-fiction reality of violence against women: #couldbemetoo

Since my day-job focuses on trauma and violence, my off-the-clock reading tends towards fantasy and science fiction. I tell people this is my escape, though fantasy and science fiction often reflect back our day-to-day world in stark and profound ways. I was reminded of this recently while reading Jacqueline Carey’s Starless

Starless opens as you meet Khai, who has been raised as an “honorary boy” in a brotherhood of warriors. At birth, a set of circumstances (read the book) revealed that Khai’s destiny would require him to be a warrior. Raised by the brotherhood, he becomes a skilled fighter by a young age, and a blooded-warrior after killing in battle.

Not until after he becomes a blooded-warrior does Khai learn that he was born a girl and raised a boy. While the length of the novel grapples with what this means to Khai, one particular sentence captivated me. Khai describes:

…I hugged my knees to my chest, unconsciously protecting a body that felt considerably more vulnerable than it had yesterday.”  

Khai’s observation reveals much about the gendered nature of vulnerability in our non-fiction world. Vulnerability isn’t inherent to a female body. Rather, it is born of the historical and current reality that violence against girls and women is horribly common. One in four girls are sexually abused in childhood. One in five women are raped in their lifetimes. An average of 137 women are killed each day by family members or partners around the globe. Black trans women are disproportionately likely to be killed. And gender-based violence often goes without accountability for offenders or justice for survivors.

These statistics are brought to life in stories that have been shared for centuries among girls and women, once over clotheslines and today across #metoo posts. Each #metoo is a testament to survival and a reflection of a persistent reality for girls and women: that it could be you too.

What happens if we name this vulnerability? Maybe something like #couldbemetoo.

With a name, we can start to see the long shadow cast by growing up with awareness that it #couldbemetoo, affecting how girls and women organize their lives. From opportunities they do and don’t take to how they navigate homes, schools, and offices.

When women are victimized, they are often blamed for the violence they experienced. The implication is that they were supposed to know the #couldbemetoo risk and plan accordingly to avoid being victimized. They shouldn’t have dated that guy, had that drink, taken that job, gone to that school, worn that outfit, worked at that time of day. The list is wearying and suffocating.

All this got me thinking about questions I sometimes get when I talk about gender-based violence that go something like: Aren’t boys and men victims too? (Spoiler alert: Yes.) Then, why talk about gender-based violence? What’s gender got to do with it anyway?

Boys and men are victims of violence – and all intimate violence, regardless of the survivors’ gender, is preventable and unnecessary. Focusing on girls and women is not a negation or effort to ignore boys’ and men’s experiences. Rather, it’s a recognition that girls and women are disproportionately victimized by intimate partners. And that there are dynamics — due to the gendered nature of intimate abuse and the gendered nature of the world in which we live — that warrant attention.

Naming gender helps us recognize the vulnerability of living life knowing it #couldbemetoo, borne primarily by girls and women.

In fact, our country communicates every single day to girls and women that #couldbemetoo is a routine part of life and a burden they must shoulder. We communicate this each time that under-resourced communities can’t offer prevention programming. Or waitlists drag on for crisis services and interventions. Or offenders are not held accountable. Or Congress fails to re-authorize the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) to expand protections for Native, immigrant, and LGBTQ women.

The effect of our collective action (and inaction) is captured so poignantly in that moment when Khai expresses that to be a girl is to be vulnerable to assault, no matter how strong and well trained you are. Even if you’re a warrior.

In tolerating gendered violence, we let the shadow of knowing it #couldbemetoo stretch into the future, dimming the potential of a new generation of girls. We have to do better.

Of course, re-imagining and re-creating a world that is intolerant of violence against girls and women is daunting. Don’t worry, though – Khai has plenty to teach us about working together to change the world. So go ahead, read the book. And take some notes because tomorrow we have to get up and start building a new world where girls get to grow up expecting to be safe in their bodies.

AcknowledgementsStarless by Jacqueline Carey was published in 2018 by Tor Books; quote p. 127. Thank you to Naomi Wright, Susan Buckingham, Julie Olomi, and Lindsey Feitz for comments on an earlier draft.

Published by Anne P. DePrince, PhD

Author of "Every 90 Seconds: Our Common Cause Ending Violence Against Women" (Oxford University Press), Anne is Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Associate Vice Provost of Public Good Strategy and Research at the University of Denver. She directs the Traumatic Stress Studies Group.

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