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A Compendium of Stuff I’ve Had to Write In Response to the Aziz Ansari Thing.

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[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:

Consent Deserves a New Definition

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.

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What It Means To Believe The Victim, and How To Do It

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[Trigger warning: discussions and descriptions of rape, sexual assault, and victim-blaming. Also, there will be no GIFs in this post. Sorry, friends.]

I have a difficult relationship with music. Because sensory overload is one of the things that exacerbates my bipolar, I have a really hard time finding artists whose work doesn’t hurt my brain. Anyone who knows me will tell you that my only sure bet is Sufjan Stevens.

And then came PWR BTTM.

I listened to PWR BTTM compulsively throughout the breakup described in my last post, a little over five months ago (eventually, I will updated you on that, as well). There was something so, so comforting about a queer artist singing truthful depictions of queer heartbreak. I didn’t love all of their songs, but the ones I loved, I truly fell in love with. It seemed like I had finally found someone to join Sufjan in the “this doesn’t hurt my brain” club.

Look, a picture of me dressed up as a douchebag, wearing PWR BTTM merch:

[Picture: A man with aviator sung-glasses and a bright pink PWR BTTM tank top, taking a picture in a bathroom mirror]

This tank top has been cropped to remove the band name.

And… then came PWR BTTM’s sexual assault allegations. Oh, and some pictures of one of them next to a swastika. (I’m Jewish and my grandparents are Holocaust survivors).

And then came PWR BTTM’s two (2!!) weak-ass responses to the allegations, in which they managed to simultaneously “take these allegations very seriously” and not do anything substantive about them. As one astute Facebook commenter noted, Ben and Liv’s statements essentially amounted to: “I believe victims, but not when they’re my own.”

Ouch.

I have been thinking a lot — before these events, even — about what it means to believe victims of sexual assault and rape. I’ve been thinking things that make me uncomfortable, because that’s how we learn, and because I needed to understand my own discomfort around believing an account of events that I didn’t bear witness to, and of which there is no corroborating proof.

Because that’s the truth about sexual assault and rape: they tend to happen behind closed doors with no physical struggle. There’s not a whole lot of forensic evidence available to those who wish to investigate allegations of sexual assault, which is one reason why people who commit sexual violence so rarely face any consequences. We’ve all seen crime procedurals on TV: in a court of law, a crime must be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt. Sexual assault and rape happen in the shadows.

But here’s what I’ve realized: while it’s quite hard to prove a crime, it’s pretty easy to prove that harm was done. And isn’t that what matters?

When we stop looking for evidence of criminality and start looking for evidence of harm, a whole lot of things start to make sense. The first thing that clicks into place is the victim’s behavior. Many sexual assault investigations go nowhere because the victims’ statements fall apart, the victims drop charges, or the victims refuse to testify. In a criminal investigation, this makes the victim look suspicious, uncommitted to the charges, or manipulative.

Viewed through the lens of trauma, however, this makes perfect sense: trauma messes with our memory and causes us to act erratically. Any mental health professional worth their salt will tell you that trauma can disguise itself as insubordination, lethargy, poor recall, and many other behavioral and cognitive impairments. In other words, the behaviors used to discredit victims is almost always evidence that harm was done.

Speaking of which: I keep using the phrase “harm was done.” Why? Why not say that they were sexually assaulted or raped? If I truly believe the victim, why am I focusing on harm and not the specific nature of it?

To answer that question, I need to tell you another story, and this one is about me.

During the summer of 2013, while I was doing an internship in Nicaragua, I met a man through some travel buddies of mine. He was a gay man who worked for a feminist NGO. It was exciting to meet a queer Nicaraguense, someone who I could look to for advice about this country that I was fumbling my way around. We met for dinner, and then he asked if I wanted to go back to his place and chat.

You probably see where I’m going with this.

After I was assaulted, my boyfriend-at-the-time was insistent that I pursue criminal charges. I resisted, knowing instinctively that the Nicaraguan criminal justice system was not going to investigate, charge, and convict a man-on-man sexual assault case with zero witnesses. But I also resisted because it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to go over the details with a thousand bureaucrats. The details, frankly, didn’t matter to me. I was hurt. Harm was done. Justice wasn’t about punishing the man who assaulted me; it was about getting my fucking life back.

That wasn’t the only time I’ve been assaulted. But it was an instructive one, because I got to go home, far away from the man who hurt me, far away from the country where it happened. Back in the United States, I sought therapy and my life returned to me, slowly but surely.

Most people don’t get that opportunity. Most people do not get to escape the circumstances of their assault. Most people have to see the person who assaulted them on campus, around town, at the office, in the park. And, once it becomes clear that nobody is going to jail or punish the accused, it seems like there’s nothing left to do. This is life now: you are hurt, and the world has said, “Sorry, there’s not enough evidence that you were hurt in exactly the way you said you were hurt, so we don’t care.”

This is wrong. This is so wrong. Because if you believe the victim — if you believe that harm was done — you don’t need a criminal conviction or damning evidence to move forward. If you believe that harm was done, you don’t need to know the specifics. But you do have a responsibility to support the person to whom the harm was done. Regardless of whether or not the “facts line up.” Regardless of whether or not it is logistically or financially convenient. Regardless of who the victim or the perpetrator are, and regardless of how they live their lives.

Which brings me back to PWR BTTM. What could PWR BTTM have done to make this right? For that matter, what can anyone do when they find out that they have caused harm?

The first thing is to believe that harm was done. Maybe you don’t agree on the details; maybe your memories conflict with the memories of the person who is hurt. That doesn’t matter. Someone is hurt, and it involves you. Don’t you care about that?

The second thing is to figure out if the person who is hurt wants to engage in some sort of therapeutic, restorative justice process involving you, or if they simply need to not see you or be reminded of you for a while. It’s their choice, and you have to honor it. It doesn’t matter if you were planning a big tour or if it’s the middle of the semester or if you were planning on living near the person you hurt. Cancel those plans. Disappear for a while.

The third thing is to go to therapy. Find someone who is used to working with perpetrators of sexual violence. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you committed sexual violence. Actually, scratch that. The fact that you don’t think you committed sexual violence is what allowed you to commit sexual violence. Stay in therapy, and stay in self-examination mode, until you understand exactly how you caused harm and until you know how to move through the world without causing harm. This might take a while. You’ll get there.

If the person you hurt is willing to engage in some sort of restorative justice process… you are lucky that the person you hurt has anything but rage to give you. Enter that process believing that you have a lot to learn. Leave facts, figures, and timelines at the door. Enter that process believing that you caused harm. Enter that process believing the victim.

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It Is Your Job To Stop Orlando From Happening Again

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I spent today not looking at Facebook. It was too much.

Truthfully, I don’t know what to write. I had a very different post planned for this week. I spent a couple of hours on Saturday writing it, and it was good. I was excited to share. And then I woke up this morning to a nondescript New York Times update on my phone about a “club shooting in Orlando.”

I braced myself for the thing that happens when people shoot other people in America: politicians start talking about me. Well, not me, but mental illness. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a little less than three years ago, and there’s nothing like a mass shooting to get people talking about my health care.

I logged onto Facebook and I did find people talking about me. Well, not me, but people like me. Queer people.

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Why Does Sex Turn Us Into Awkward Fools?

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Usually when people ask me about sex, they’re concerned with mechanics (how to make the tingly feelings happen) or communication (how to have good sex). The other day, however, I was asked a question that wasn’t as easily categorizable: “Why is it so awkward when you see someone you’ve had sex with?”

Truthfully, I have no clue. In an ideal world we wouldn’t feel awkward; we’d be able to acknowledge our sexual experiences, learn from them, and then move on. That’s certainly how I try to operate. But even so, seeing past partners often makes me feel weak-kneed, ill, and over-caffeinated. My stomach feels like it’s about to implode. My linguistic powers dissolve into a particularly unpalatable form of word soup and the most I can muster is usually a forced, “Hihellohowareyouokaynicegoodbye.”

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What is Good Sex?

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Happy New Year, folks. Now that the ~*holidaze*~ are past, I’ll be more diligent about posting here. Today, though, I want to talk to you about a little-known secret: good sex is simple.

It is!

Hey, I never said it was easy. Hear me out:

Good sex does not have to be great sex. Great sex leaves our bodies and minds fulfilled–fantasies are realized, parts fit together, the earth tremors, the gods smile. Good sex, on the other hand, doesn’t have to feel amazing. It just has to be fun for everybody involved.

I make this distinction because it’s impossible to have great sex every time you have sex. It’s especially hard to have great sex with a new partner, and (because bodies and minds are unpredictable) it can even be hard to have great sex with a long-term partner. Aspiring to great sex is fine and good, but expecting it–or needing it–sets us up to be disappointed in our bodies, our partner(s), and ourselves.

Realistically, it’s pretty hard to have good sex every time. But that’s why you’re here, right? The good news is that good sex is… yes, simple. Here a few tips:

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Good Sex, Bad Sex Ed, and the Virgin Mary

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It seems fitting to begin a sex advice blog just before Christmas.

See, I teach sex education to high school students. On my first day of class I pose a fairly standard question to my students: “Where do babies come from?” They blink back at me, unsure what sort of answer I’m looking for, so I finish the thought for them. “Sex,” I say. “Babies come from sex.”

One boy raises his hand. “What about the Virgin Mary?”

I scratch my head. I’m Jewish, so Mary and I don’t have much of a history. “Well,” I say finally, “I guess she skipped the fun part.”

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