[Trigger warning: rape]
Okay, yes, I have been ignoring this website for basically a year. Whoops. But the world is on fire and I’ve been seeing some Very Bad Takes on sexual violence, consent, and communication recently. I’ve been on Facebook yapping back and forth with folks about these topics, and I’m afraid that some of my thoughts will get lost in the fray. So I’m going to use this space to collect the most salient things I’ve written. I’m not going to spend much time contextualizing them, because most of them stand alone and should be applicable to a number of situations, not just the one at hand.
1. A link to a handy article about consent I wrote just before all of this blew up:
2. Why people use the words assault and rape to describe almost every instance of sexually inappropriate behavior:
(written on 1/14/18)
I need to talk about something I’ve been seeing recently in articles about #metoo and conversations about Whether [Insert Man’s Name] Did Sexual Assault. I’m going to talk about this in the context of Aziz Ansari, because that’s what people are talking about today, but it’s a much bigger phenomenon.
There’s been some discussion about what to call experiences like the one described in the article about Ansari. Lots of people shy away from words like assault and rape because they don’t want to conflate violent crime with violations that are ostensibly less intense.
Regardless of the so-called “severity” of the violation, though, it was clearly a non-consensual encounter. It wasn’t just a case of “misreading” a situation, it was a case of actively misinterpreting a situation. The woman in the article engaged in a number of explicitly evasive maneuvers and even found the courage to speak up and tell him she didn’t want to do stuff. So Ansari had more than enough data to surmise that this was a person who was in need of some care and safety.
It’s easy to read this and say, “Yeah, but that’s no reason to call him a predator or classify the experience as assault.” But here’s the thing: when people classify their experiences in the most dire terms, it’s an indication that they understand that nothing else will be taken seriously. In other words, we only get shades of grey when people people start taking seriously stuff that isn’t jet-black. (Pardon the extended metaphor). If this woman said, “I had a really bad experience with Aziz Ansari,” would anyone be trying to hold him accountable? The answer is no.
Basically, I’m fine with the colloquial definition of assault/rape extending beyond the legal definition, because right now those are the words that people will actually pay attention to. Everything else is treated as a “minor” offense (see: the terrible Andrew Sullivan article floating around the web right now). Until we actually have a widely-accepted, trauma-centered approach to assault-adjacent experiences, we should expect people to round up in order to gain access to the type of support and community that they need.
3. On witch hunts, McCarthyism, and the nature of false accusations:
A few things: First, the common thread between Emmet Till, the Salem Witch Trials, and McCarthyism is that they all co-opted cultural narratives about race, class, and gender to perpetuate oppression against the most marginalized people in society. #MeToo is a movement started by a black woman, which of course does not insulate it from ever having negative side effects, but I think you have to jump through some pretty intense mental hurdles to equate it to three situations in which white, straight men co-opted bigoted attitudes to excuse the murder and imprisonment of the marginalized. Especially since people aren’t actually being imprisoned or killed as a result of #MeToo; they’re usually just being asked to find a new job, go to therapy, or take some time off to consider themselves.
The other thing is that false accusations — which are already incredibly rare — simply wouldn’t happen if we properly supported victims. This is the point of my original post: when people can’t get support for other forms of victimization, they use the strongest language possible. By seriously considering how we can support people in ALL situations, we reduce the need to scale up to calling certain things assault and rape. But our culture doesn’t think like that. What isn’t criminal is considered acceptable in most cases, or simply unfortunate. This is a callous attitude which perpetuates oppressive stereotypes and causes as much long-term trauma/mental health issues as rape and assault do in the short-term.
4. In response to the idea that people’s interest in sexual violence is racialized and some thoughts on the proper way to act when someone is accused:
You’re absolutely right about the way race has interacted with this whole thing (esp. given that Tarana Burke keeps getting excluded from or marginalized within the narrative). I also think there’s an important distinction to be made between high schoolers and adults. People like Aziz Ansari, or basically any wealthy man, aren’t going to have their lives ruined even if they DO get fired from a gig/their job/lose some friends.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask for adult men to take some time off, examine their behavior, and lie low for a bit while the victim recovers (even IF the victim isn’t 100% truthful about the experiences). Young people who are accused of these things can benefit from family/therapeutic support and reflective time even if they didn’t actually do what they were accused of. Conceptualizing of this stuff as life-ending punishment isn’t super helpful because it encourages people who DO commit assault and rape to deny it.
5. In response to “she was sending mixed signals:”
(written on 1/16/18)
First, an article: https://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/…/mythcommunicat…/
Second, I want to relay a phenomenon that I have consistently witnessed over the course of 40+ consent workshops to hundreds of high school- and college-aged students. At one point in my workshop, I ask students to get up, walk around the room, and ask for handshakes from each other. The only rule is that you have to say “no” to at least one person.
At the end of this activity, at least a portion of the students have STILL not rejected any of their classmates. When I ask them why, they say, “I felt bad about it; I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.” Even though the RULES were that they had to do it. Even though there were no possible social repercussions.
Women are socialized to fear men’s negative emotions. Conversely, men are socialized to ignore their own negative emotions. This results in explosive violence and is one of the many reasons why the leading cause of homicide against women is intimate partner violence. These dynamics are so deeply engrained in the way women are raised that even when I create a simple, safe, low-stakes environment in which to practice saying “no,” many cannot bring themselves to do it.
tl;dr – It doesn’t matter if there’s any actual imminent threat of violence. The dynamic is so pervasive that saying no can be psychologically impossible even under the easiest of circumstances. Additionally, as per the linked post, men who say that they can’t read nonverbal cues are generally bluffing as a way of insulating the culture of permissiveness around sexual violence.
6. In response to this article, which asserts that she ignored his cues that he wanted to have sex:
(written on 1/16/18)
This is… a bad article? Ignoring a cue IS a form of response and it’s widely practiced by people who have reason to fear direct confrontation. A person shutting down is a pretty obvious sign that a their nervous system is going haywire and that they don’t feel safe; asking them to behave differently under stress is like asking them to have a different nervous system.
There’s also a false equivalence being drawn between “cues that mean I want to have sex” and “cues that mean I don’t want to have sex.” The former is active; the latter is defensive. The person who is putting out the active signals should be responsible for monitoring others’ responses; the person receiving those signals should expect that someone who wants to have sex will be actively attempting to figure out whether those signals have been received or not.
7. Why some men take pleasure in coercive/violent/non-consensual sexual encounters:
I think a lot of it comes down to narratives about masculinity. In my therapeutic work, I often have to work to figure out what sex means to my clients. For example: oftentimes, for men, sex is a validation of masculinity. This narrative is terrible on a social level because it doesn’t involve one’s partner at all, but also on a personal level because it makes sex an emotionally risky encounter — if something goes “wrong,” that is interpreted an indictment of one’s masculinity, not just a weird thing that happened because bodies are weird.
Additionally, masculinity promotes dominance and aggression. So what we end up with are men whose narratives about sex fail to include their partners’ experiences but necessitate feelings of dominance. Essentially, men who treat sexuality as a referendum on their own masculinity end up being more turned on by their own aggression/dominance than by the actual stimuli they’re encountering.
I will continue to update this page as long as I’m continuing to engage with people on Facebook.