On Rape Culture: What Bill Cosby Has to with Breast Ironing in Cameroon.

***Trigger warning: recollection of body mutulation and rape***

When I was a little girl back home, I witnessed a practice called breast ironing. It’s a practice done to girls when they hit puberty and mothers press down their growing breast with hot (nearly burning) stones, in order to stunt the breast growth. The hope is to delay womanhood as long as we can because they know what happens when a girl shows signs of womanhood. She become vulnerable to men who feel entitled to a woman’s body simply because she exists. You might be led to say “not all men”. don’t. Understand that sexual assault is prevalent enough, and goes unpunished enough, that body mutilation is considered a valid practice. I witnessed breast ironing, held a girl’s hands while she cried, saw the burn marks.

I was young but I remember it being my earliest evidence that my body wasn’t mine to own. It was my earliest understanding that a girl’s voice is often not the priority, that she likely won’t be believed anyway, and from then on I saw evidence that a man’s reputation had priority over a girl’s body and it’s violation. I learned to keep quiet when men fondled my teenage breasts. I learned to keep quiet when an old man forced his lips on mine when he met me in the kitchen where I had gone to get a glass of water for him. I learned to laugh off the wandering hands of my math tutor, because he was a respectable man. I learned to trade off stories of sexual assault with my friends, as if we were just sharing tips on the best pads to use for our period. That was the rite of passage. Get your period, get excited about buying the training bras, and learn how to keep quiet about men who feel entitled to your body. Silence is a skill you learn quickly.

People will read this possibly be outraged, and call my culture primitive for the burn marks on our girl’s breasts. But please don’t, because I see here in the U.S.  too, the ways in which we’re told our bodies and our voices don’t matter and don’t belong to us. I immediately think of Roxane Gay’s latest book Hunger; in it she writes about why she kept quiet for so long, about her gang rape at 13 years old.  She writes,

“I wasn’t a girl to them. I was a thing, flesh and girl bones with which they could amuse themselves. later, those boys told everyone at school what happened or, rather, a version of the story that made my name “slut” for the rest of the school year. I immediately understood that my version of the story would never matter, so I kept the truth of what happened a secret and tried to live with the new name”.

Roxane echoes the message that countless sexual assault victims/survivors have internalized along with the atrocity they endured. I see the 60 women who accused Cosby and were vilified for destroying his reputation, because bodies matter less that a TV legacy. I see the woman who was raped and the judge decided to give her rapist Brock Turner a light sentence, so as to not get in the way of his budding swimming career, and his father said his son’s life could be ruined because of “20 minutes of action”.  I see Daniel Holtzclaw who managed to sexually assault up to 36 women, carefully choosing the type of women who don’t fit the “respectable woman” profile, women whom nobody would believe anyway. I see POTUS 45. I see the insults when we don’t respond to your catcalls. I see you guys who refer to our sexual history as “mileage”, to devalue our bodies. I see your anger when we say no. I see you telling us we’re asking for it. I see you telling us that sex is our marital duty. I see you and the way you see us.

image courtesy of ABCgo.com

And when I read a headline about Bill Cosby wanting to teach men how to not get accused of sexual assault, I realize he still doesn’t care, and wants to trample on the bodies of the women he’s already violated.  And what of the rest of you who will either endorse this initiative, or pretend it’s an innocent attempt to clean his image. Girls and women are watching you attend class on how to get away with murder. How to mutilate our bodies and suffocate our voices.

I just want to know, what does it look like to live in a society in which a woman’s body is really hers, not the land of men’s Manifest Destiny fantasies. What’s a world in which Bill Cosby’s TV legacy doesn’t take precedence over justice? What’s a world in which a girl’s breast don’t have to be burned to protect her from predatory men?

Do better. Do better. Please do better.