by Trista Renard
*Note: Trigger Warnings for those who have suffered sexual assault.
When I was in my early twenties, I had been dating a guy for a year whose dad was a Protestant minister. We had a lot in common, and we liked a lot of things about each other. At one point, he told me that he “used to be gay” when he was younger, but had “outgrown” it. This outgrowing happened after one of his cousins came out as gay; his own parents sat him down and let him know that this was a sin. They would still love him if he were gay, they told him, but he would burn in hell and they wouldn’t be able to save him from that.
“But I don’t really think that’s something you can outgrow, though,” I said.
He started screaming at me; I let the subject drop. Who was I to define his sexuality? Maybe he was bisexual.
Two weeks later, I had my first and only experience with Bacardi 151. I passed out in my boyfriend’s bed (he was sober, the DD that night). I woke up to him violently assaulting me. I cried while he pulled my hair and hurt me. I threw up afterwards in the bathroom. He fell asleep before I made it back to the bed. I threw up for the next three days. I told my three closest friends and no one else. We broke up shortly thereafter, but I never put into words what he had done to me, nor did I find any other way to confront him about it.
I expected my friends to believe me. I would not have expected people who knew neither of us to immediately believe me, especially if I had publicly named him while withholding my own name and any details of the incident. I still feel this way today. It is not that I do not deserve to be believed; it is that I am asking too much of strangers by giving them a single piece of vaguely-worded information — this specific person hurt me, somehow, whoever I may be — without any context. And anyway, to be honest, I don’t give a shit if strangers believe me. And I don’t believe that the person who chose to hurt me to prove his hetero-male-ness to me is “my” rapist or “my” anything else.
And what he did to me does not define me. I am not “his” victim. I am not anyone’s victim. I am a human who was treated cruelly in a vulnerable moment by another human. But we are all that. And we are all, I would hope, more than that. I am more than that.
I would like a cultural conversation that reflects how much more than that we are.
In my late twenties, several of us were hanging out in a bar. One of my best friends had a recent ex-girlfriend who was hanging out in the same bar. We paid her no attention. She left at some point. Eventually, much later in the night, someone found her in the parking lot. She had crawled into my friend’s car and cut herself all over, had burned herself with cigarettes. She told the person that my friend had done this to her. Had assaulted her. My friend had been sitting next to me the entire night, so her false accusation was easily disproven. But what if he had gotten up and gone outside alone to smoke an extra cigarette? Or to take a phone call? What if he had decided to step outside to, god forbid, talk to her? What if he had been the one to find her in his car at the end of the night? What then?
I want a cultural conversation in which we can acknowledge that it wasn’t that long ago in our country that black men were lynched over false accusations of rape made by white women (and/or their white husbands). I want a cultural conversation in which we can admit that having two X chromosomes does not mean you never behave in a cruel or vicious way, nor that you never tell lies about another person. These things do happen.
It is evident to me that in our culture, women’s identities are forcibly bound up with their sexuality in a way that men’s identities are not. I can’t tell you how many men I’ve heard say some female actress is a poor thespian or unfunny, “but hot,” as though this redeems her value as an actress. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a dude acknowledge that Courtney Love is a brilliant performer and musician, “even though she’s ugly as sin,” as though her talent must somehow override the fact that they don’t find her physically attractive. When so much of our respective identities are pre-defined for us as sexual, our power and autonomy become conflated with our sexuality and our perceived desirability. It does not seem surprising to me that, in today’s world, a woman who wants to access agency in a situation she cannot control will sometimes resort to making allegations that push a narrative of her vulnerable-and-attractive sexuality to the forefront of the situation. This is the power many women have been trained (and trained, and trained) to understand their access to.
All of this doesn’t mean we should do anything other than listen to anyone who alleges assault. But it does cast this notion of default belief into rather harsh perspective. Shall we automatically presume every accused person a criminal via word-of-mouth? And if so, what then? Shall we publicly pillory them? Does this help reform them? Does this help their victims? Does it not re-traumatize many people who witness it and remember their own assaults (or, to use the term de rigueur, those who “are triggered” by witnessing this fallout) with no warning, no agency, no end in sight?
I would like a cultural conversation in which we are not the judge, jury, and executioner. And do not want to be. Because we realize it is not a productive approach.
I grew up with one particular priest very close to my family. My family was half-Catholic and with no extended family in a small, very Catholic town in a rural part of the country — the kind of town where everyone has lots of extended family. We attended the local Catholic school because my parents didn’t like the public school we lived near, didn’t have time to home school us, and when they tried to send me to the local “alternative” private school where there were essentially no rules, I gave them a “hell no” and made myself very difficult. My mother didn’t want to send me to boarding school. So we attended Catholic school with essentially five families of cousins. We did not identify as Catholic. We had no relatives in the area. My family was very liberal, and the community we existed in was deeply conservative and fairly xenophobic. It was not a kind time. More than once, I had rumors started about me that I worshipped the devil, because I was openly pro-choice and wore crystal jewelry (it was the 90s). On top of all this, my brother has special needs.
This priest was a teacher at our high school and was universally beloved — he was sarcastic, edgy, funny, cool, but also incredibly human. He was an advocate for gay rights (in a small, conservative, Catholic town, well before it was a fashionable political cause with which to ally oneself); he was outspoken against racism, sexism, and all forms of bigotry. He preached, and practiced, kindness. He helped my brother a great deal, and sheltered him from a ton of abuse from his peers.
I absolutely hated the Catholic high school I attended, but this priest was one of the few people I spoke of glowingly, without fail, over the years, because I knew him to be an absolutely wonderful human being. The sole reason he did not perform my wedding was due to logistical obstacles — my now-husband and I had relocated outside of our home state.
And then, about six months after we had moved, we learned that our beloved priest and dear friend had been arrested on several counts of possessing child pornography. His own diocese had turned him in to the authorities; he confessed, and was found guilty. There was no room for doubt. I feel sick whenever I think about him choosing to consume material that he knew was produced by torturing innocent children. I believe that pedophilia is mental illness, and yet after I learned for certain what he had done, I could not bring myself to speak to him (or, really, even about him).
And yet the evil he has done does not undo the good he has done at other points in his life. It does not make it not count.
Rape and abuse are never OK. Never. Obviously. But, while many an enlightened person has begun to grapple with the difficult idea that such abuses are committed by ‘our fathers, our brothers, our sons, and our friends,’ it seems that what we really mean is that cruelty is perpetrated by other people’s fathers, sons, brothers, and friends — people we recognize, but only from a safe distance. We cannot believe these things about our own people. And when we are forced to, a cognitive dissonance occurs. How can a person we know to be good and true and kind and genuine also do something so monstrous?
I am not certain whether doing something monstrous makes one a monster. I am uncertain of whether I can forgive such abuses, in terms of — I don’t want to be around anyone whom I know has committed such abuses. I can’t bear it.
And yet: this priest’s kindnesses to me, to my brother, to my family, and to countless others exist in the real world, and in my heart. Perhaps this makes me a hypocrite: I don’t know how to reconcile my love for what I knew of him versus my revulsion at what I later learned of him. But his earlier kindnesses continue to exist as much as his evil actions do. What is good about him will never not count toward who he is, or what lives he has shaped for the better. This seems to suggest that retaining, or recovering, his human identity is somehow a possibility. Which in turn seems to suggest that some sort of forgiveness is, on my part, a possibility. And yet I can’t quite find my way there in the map of my brain right now.
I had been living with my then-partner for over a year when I was diagnosed with female dyspareunia. It was hormone-based; I would eventually recover. At one point, very shortly after this diagnosis and before I had begun to recover, he started having sex with me when we were making up after a fight. I tried to go along with it at first, because I really wanted to make up, but eventually I started giving mild signs of resistance, which he ignored. Eventually, I started crying because it hurt so much. He still didn’t stop.
“You have to give me at least a little,” he said.
I kept crying. “I really want to stop,” I said.
“You owe me this,” he said.
“Please. It hurts too much,” I said.
“You have to give me this,” he said, and then he came.
I didn’t tell anyone about this because I am not sure what good it would do to publicly humiliate him. I don’t think I would gain anything from it. I don’t want him to lose his job. I don’t want him to be accosted via social media, or in a bar somewhere. Probably the one thing I want is for him to feel shame about that act, and become a person who won’t do that kind of thing again. I think the only way he would feel that is if his mother believed he had done something like this, and forced him to confront it. She is the only person whose reprimands I have ever seen elicit from him an honest sense of shame or regret for shameful or regrettable actions. I have only seen it happen once or twice. It usually has to do with hurting her feelings in some way.
Of course, the issue of belief is at stake here: I am very certain that his mother would never believe he could have done this. And, although I do not like her very much as a person, it’s hard for me to fault her, entirely, for the fact that she would refuse to ever believe her son could have behaved in this way. Her experiences with him and of him are very different than mine. Although as a teenager he did attack her once in a fit of rage, and would not stop hurting her until he was punched out by his father. She made excuses for him, then.
As I think about this, now, I realize that she actually makes excuses for him relatively frequently. She makes excuses for her other son, too. When my ex-partner and his brother were children, the brother urinated multiple consecutive times into a large container, and then drenched my ex-partner in his urine. She made excuses for the brother when he did that, and did not reprimand him at all. It became a family joke, the time one brother pranked the other while they were having a childish fight. She was still making excuses for the brother, about this same act, twenty years later. Her latter-day excuses stemmed from a sense of embarrassment when I was let in on this family joke: I am sure my face telegraphed my shock and discomfort at one child being allowed to treat another child this way.
I think this pattern of excuse-making is why I believe she would be unwilling to ever entertain the possibility that one of her sons has sexually violated someone. I suppose extreme excuse-making and outright denial are not exactly the same thing, but they feel rather closely related: they are ways of avoiding painful realizations about people we love, and they are ways of avoiding the discomfort of considering what our own responsibilities might be to resolve a situation in which someone we love has behaved abusively.
I believe that perhaps this is a common phenomenon. I believe that the angry women I encounter on the internet who insist on a system of default-belief regarding assault allegations are perhaps reacting to the proliferation of this sort of stonewalling reaction from mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends of men who have hurt other people. My own frustrations cause me to empathize with their stance on this issue. But I cannot bring myself to believe that it is valid or rational, or that it is effective in addressing/repairing/preventing harm. It is a stance that lacks nuance, and that lacks any acknowledgment of why and how nuance is necessary to navigate almost anything in this world, let alone such particular and complex situations in which at least one person has already been very hurt.
In the end, I suppose it’s moot whether my ex’s mother would believe me or not. Given the chance, I don’t suppose I’d tell her about it — even if I thought she would believe me. This is because I am not sure her reactions would be productive. I am not certain she would be able to have a measured interaction with her son if she allowed herself to believe this about him. I think perhaps it would destroy their relationship, and would also fail to change him in the necessary ways to prevent him from doing it again.
I do not think I am an abuse sympathizer or a rape apologist because I do not want anything particularly bad to happen to him. I think of this as grace. And because I do not experience this attitude all the time — even when sometimes I really wish I could summon it — I think of grace as a gift. I am not in the habit of rejecting valuable gifts.
Sometimes, on the internet, women will say things to me like, “I am not a survivor of sexual assault, but I know how important it is to believe victims.” They will say this as part of what my best self believes is a well-intentioned lecture about why I have to default-believe any woman who accuses any man of sexual assault. They assume, I suppose, that they have the right to speak to me this way because they assume that they know something I do not. They want to help me. To educate me. To fix me into their version of What A Feminist Looks Like. The women who have treated me this way are usually white and bourgeois. They usually have a certain educational background. They are frequently straight. They are nearly always cisgendered and able-bodied. They seem to think that they speak for a wide range of oppressed people. I suppose it’s not up to me to say whether they do or don’t. But I know how it feels to hear, “I’m not a survivor of sexual assault, yet I can tell you the one true way to respond to accusations and/or narratives of sexual assault.” It feels very wrong to me.
I don’t like it when women who haven’t suffered what I’ve suffered try to tell me what I have to think about anything — particularly this kind of suffering. To be fair, though, I don’t like it when even women who have suffered what I’ve suffered — or who may have suffered worse — try to tell me what I have to think about anything. I will listen to them discuss their own positions and ideas and beliefs, based upon their own experiences. I have an indelible respect for that sort of honest and genuine exchange. I can’t think of anything more human than learning from each other in this way. But I don’t like it when anyone makes the presumption of telling me what I have to think.
I have seen women tell other women, “You aren’t a feminist,” because they disagree about issues surrounding sexual assault and abuse. Sometimes, this is followed by ad-hominem attacks against the woman accused of not being a feminist (even if this woman strongly self-identifies as a feminist). I have seen such ad-hominem attacks involve verbal abuse, sexualized insults, and wishes for something bad to happen to the woman who has just been informed that she is not a feminist.
I believe that when one person attempts to obliterate another person’s self-identity and tries to replace it with their own, that is a very destructive situation. I believe that that is a very dangerous and objectionable action to take against another human being. I believe it is in large part what worse acts of abuse are predicated on: the feeling of entitlement to obliterate another person’s identity and self-determination — their volition over who and what they are — and replace it with your own definitions of who and what they are.
I have seen other people make excuses for this kind of behavior. I believe that this impulse — to make excuses for this particular strain of abusive behavior, as a third party — usually stems from a desire to be kind and empathetic. I have frequently heard people chalk up this particular strain of abusive behavior to any given perpetrator having PTSD. I have remained silent when I have heard this, because I do not want to make kind-hearted people uncomfortable. I do not want to quash or belittle or otherwise inadvertently demean their efforts towards empathy. But right now, it feels important to me to tell the truth about my own PTSD. I was diagnosed with it after leaving an abusive marriage.
When you have PTSD, sometimes it goes like this: something a normal person literally wouldn’t even notice will set off a visceral, unstoppable, blinding spasm of panic in your brain — a series of such spasms — and even though you are washing dishes alone at your sink, you are also living out another moment from your past, or many moments from your past all at once, and even though you are fine now you are still trying to survive. And defend yourself. And find your way out. Your hands will shake so badly that you’ll accidentally break the glass you’re washing, and the shards will cut through your cute-pink rubber gloves so cleanly that they’ll cut through your hands, too, before you can even react, and you’ll rush yourself to the ER to stop the bleeding. You may laugh sarcastically and inappropriately when the doctor says that you’re lucky because there won’t be any scars.
This is one episode from a life with PTSD. It is not an excuse to be cruel or abusive to other people. I lived those moments, and yet even then I expected better of myself than to be vicious towards others. I still expect better of myself. This does not mean that I never fuck up; but it does mean that it isn’t OK when I fuck up. It isn’t OK when I say something unkind to someone else, and I try to prevent myself from ever doing so. When I fail, if it is pointed out to me in a decently civil way, I will apologize immediately.
I find exactly nothing exceptional about this set of expectations. This is how many people close to me live their lives, despite their traumas and the things they continue to survive.
No one is entitled to take away my agency over my own mind, any more than any of the men who have violated me were entitled to take away my agency over my own body.
No one has the right to obliterate my self-identity (which is in part comprised of my reactions to things, the thoughts I develop, and the beliefs I hold) and replace it with their own definition of what my identity should be.
I do not deserve abuse for disagreeing with others.
I will not abdicate my right to think for myself.
I can say I don’t know if I goddamn well please.
I do not have to lie in order to come up with a more definitive answer in a situation I did not create.
I am not NOT believing victims if I say I don’t know what I think in this situation. I can listen to someone’s stories without immediately capitulating one way or another. I can empathize and show support and kindness and love to someone who says s/he has been abused, without immediately assuming anything about a third party (the accused).
I am not under any obligation to re-traumatize myself in order to satisfy anyone else’s needs or desires; I don’t have to listen to anything I choose not to listen to — that is also my right.
I would like a cultural conversation in which we are allowed to say I don’t know in response to a confusing, upsetting situation, without fear of reprisals from vicious-minded people who willfully and aggressively lack basic human kindness and try to call it victim advocacy or feminism. I would like a cultural conversation in which we can admit that sometimes the truth is difficult and messy and unclear.
When I was in my late teens, I studied abroad, doing archaeology field work for classroom credit. I attended through my then-boyfriend’s university, as an exchange student. One of the elder professors on the trip repeatedly invited me to his room during the siesta hour after our midday meal; I never went. He kept offering me things he knew I wanted, but had ‘forgotten’ in his room — protein shakes he’d had shipped to him from the States, a designer purse he’d seen me admire in a nearby boutique — and none of these gifts ever materialized outside of his room, but I was promised them if I would just come by during our siesta hour to pick them up. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being lured; I never went to his room because I was afraid. I was ashamed for feeling afraid, for suspecting what I suspected. I never told anyone about his invitations.
At several points on the trip, this same Professor groped me and some the other girls. Sometimes, it was physically gentle and visually subtle — Did he really just cup my rear end? I thought, more than once. Maybe I bumped him or something. But there were other times when it was really obvious. He cupped one girl’s breast openly in front of several people at the dig site. I think he figured he wouldn’t get in trouble because the Dean, who was on the trip with us, knew she was putting herself through college as a stripper, as well as an RA and a TA. All at once. She was tough. She had a lot of drive. She came from a very economically disadvantaged background. She was bound and determined to take care of herself and her mother. She was very smart.
Mostly, we made fun of this Professor. The girls, I mean. I know this isn’t the narrative that anyone wants, but that’s what we did. In all honesty, I thought at the time that I was probably more upset and squicked out by his behavior than the other girls. In retrospect, I’m not sure whether that was true — they may all have been as bothered as I was — but I was several years younger than they were and perhaps not yet as tough as they had become. I put on a good face, though.
One day, some local officials came to inspect our dig site. One of them made some comment about me being cute. The Professor made a joke about how I should only be allowed to come to the dig site dressed in kinky lingerie for him and the others in my work group (all of whom were male). All the male students laughed along with him — including my then-boyfriend. I was mortified. One of the officials chuckled uncomfortably, and the other looked awkward. No one actually said anything to me.
At breakfast the next morning, my friend who was putting herself through college as a stripper (and an RA and a TA, all at once), and who had already taken endless verbal abuse from the men in my group for working as a stripper, offered to sleep with him to “take the heat off” the rest of us. She laughed like she was joking, but she looked at me with concern when she said it.
The next semester, back home at my own university, I had a professor who referred, in a deliberately inflammatory way, to the few female students in his classroom room as “bitches.” I went to his office and told him how offensive I found it.
“You’re more privileged than about 90% of the world,” he said. “Are you really going to get that upset about a word?”
“Yes,” I said. “I am upset about it. Not because of the word, but because what it tells everyone in the room that you think that of me, and — since they look up to you — what they should think of me. And you know what? I actually really like you. I love your class. And I don’t actually think you think that of me. But I don’t think all those guys who were laughing know that you don’t really think that.”
“Do you really think anyone has the impression that I find you inferior in any way?” he asked.
“I do,” I said. “And this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened to me. And last time, I didn’t stand up for myself.”
And then I told him about my semester abroad.
He was absolutely horrified.
“I had no idea,” was one of the things he said.
“You could get someone fired for something like that. And I’ll vouch for you,” was another thing that he said.
“That’s absolutely unforgivable,” was another thing that he said.
“But I don’t want him to get fired, though,” I said. He regarded me for several moments without saying anything.
“I’m sorry,” he said, after the silence. And he meant it.
This man became my mentor. We developed a very intellectually intimate relationship. We wrote letters — most of them philosophical arguments, but the productive kind. I truly came to love him, and seldom have I received more respect or felt more esteem for an intellectual/academic colleague. He died very suddenly during my last semester of college, and I was devastated.
People do things wrong sometimes. People are cruel. Sometimes they learn from those mistakes. Sometimes they learn from others’ mistakes.
I don’t know whatever happened to that other professor. I remember him as a dirtbag, truth be told. But I know it’s possible that he, too, may have learned from his mistakes later in life.
But I don’t think seeing either of them publicly pilloried would have made me happy. It wouldn’t have helped me, and it wouldn’t have helped them learn any better.
I would like a cultural conversation that focuses on helping victims by educating people — and education happens in all different kinds of ways — so that our social system(s) ultimately produce fewer victims. Because we have fewer people behaving in ways that create victims.
There are countless other stories, even just from my own life (nevermind the myriad similar experiences others have had, and worse), that I could choose to share here. I don’t want to, at least not right now. I’m exhausted. And I think I’ve shared enough to help illustrate the points I felt I needed to make, in an attempt to contribute to the conversation at hand.
Based upon my own personal experiences and what I know to be true: the way we understand sexual assault and the way we respond to it have to change.
We can’t be productive if we can’t adapt.
I don’t think this is a bad thing, or a thing about which we should feel ashamed or regretful. This is not a sign that we have done something wrong, at least not exactly. Knowledge is imperfect. A lot of the evolving we do as humans is spiritual and cerebral. I think this is why art and social customs and literature and science all continue to evolve. They have to. Because we have to. We expect it of ourselves. And it is in our nature.
I think we also need to be patient with ourselves as we go abut the hard work of social, spiritual, and intellectual evolution. I find myself frustrated when conversations about this seem to boil down to a, “Well, so what should we do, then?” request for a bullet-pointed formula to follow, handed down from some sort of imaginary public HR office. It reminds me of students who would come into the composition classes I used to teach and, during the first couple weeks, would usurp classroom time to demand I tell them How To Get An A in This Course. This is how I handled that attitude, back then:
Student A: Professor, can you please tell us how to get an A in this course? Can you just tell us what we need to do on our papers to get an A on each paper?
Me: Well, as we’ve already discussed a little bit so far, displaying strong critical thinking skills and crafting a cogent argument will take you a really long way towards an A, but —
Student A: Right, I know, but can you just give us, like, a list? Of things the paper has to include.
Me: Are you asking for a surefire bullet-point list of procedures to follow for crafting an A paper?
Student A: ::nods::
Me: No. I’m sorry, because I know that’s probably a frustrating answer for you to hear right now. Let me try to explain a little better. Does anyone in this room speak a language other than English, as their second language?
::hands go up around the room::
Me: OK, you, there. Student B. What’s your second language?
Student B: French.
Me: Great! I speak German and Italian and and I can read French, but I can’t speak it. Not yet. But I really want to learn. So, can you please teach me right now how to speak French?
Student B: ::flustered and stammering, usually blushing a little::
Me: Come on, I want you to teach me French, right now. We’re ahead of the game, because I can already read it a little bit. So I want to go home today being straight-up fluent in French.
::students begin to all giggle self-consciously::
Student B: I can’t. I mean, I can teach you a few grammar rules, or some words right now, but . . .
Me: But you can’t make me fluent in French today?
Student B: No.
Me: Of course you can’t! Because learning a foreign language is a really complex, arduous process, right? Like, a lot goes into it? You can’t just absorb it and know everything all at once?
Student B (relieved and giggling): Yes.
Me: Good. Well, learning to write a really strong academic-style essay is kind of the same. Obviously, everyone in this particular class speaks English very well, so you aren’t literally learning a new language — but academic essays are a new way of thinking. It really is almost like learning a new language, because your brain has to learn to think in different patterns. It has to find knowledge and find techniques for acquiring and expressing knowledge that you don’t even have yet. That’s the whole point of our project this semester in this classroom. So if we’re all patient and work hard, there will be a lot of As. And I’m here to help you. But I can’t teach you in the last fifteen minutes of today’s class How to Write an A Paper.
I believe that our ways of understanding narratives of sexual assault and abuse need to evolve — in much the same way as learning a new language, because we need to learn to think in different patterns than those to which we have become accustomed. Right now, we all exist in a system that continues to create opportunities for abuse to occur. This is the system that we know. Most of our worst responses to this system are understandable and justifiable to some degree — we have a right to be angry, we have a right to express hurt and outrage, and we deserve justice and good treatment — but these responses are limited in how effectively they are allowing us to work together to solve really awful problems. They are very, very clearly not working. We need new ways of approaching our reality. Many of the operational binaries that our shared air is still thick with have largely outlived their respective uses: e.g., abuser or victim, aggressor or advocate, wrong-and-deserving-of-exile or right-and-deserving-of-a-monopoly-on-the-microphone. We need to learn to see ourselves as the conflicted, complex creatures of frequent vicissitude that we are. We need to stop wanting so badly to be Right that we trample over anyone whose difference of opinion feels like a threat that we could be wrong, or could be seen as wrong and thus lose some sort of hard-fought ground or cultural capital.
I say that we need new ways of addressing abuse because I believe that it is the only way that we can create a world in which human tendencies towards abuse and aggression and cruelty will all be curtailed as frequently and to the greatest extent and in as many different ways as possible. I do not believe there is a magic bullet to stop these tendencies entirely, but I believe we can do much better than we have done thus far. I believe the new ways of addressing abuse we will find — working together with respect and compassion and a willingness to resist just moving along with the loudest/easiest/most obvious social currents no matter what — will need to be more intelligent and better-intentioned (and, come to that, better-plotted) than treating the internet like a middle-school playground.
2 thoughts on “Seven True Stories About Sexual Assault”
Thank you, Trista. Thank you for being moderate, thoughtful, empathetic, honest, and, most of all, willing to stand in the very uncomfortable gray areas of life and beckon us into them. This is a beautiful, important essay and I greatly appreciate the time and emotional energy I’m sure it took to write it.
This is astonishingly thoughtful, nuanced, and just plain good. It’s so rare for political writing to combine commitment and anger with reason and compassion this seamlessly.
I think that I’m a feminist–at least I hope I am. I make a point of teaching my students about some of the forms male supremacy takes. I try to create a classroom environment where women students feel that they’re taken seriously, and I seize every opportunity to remind my male students that sexual assault and coercion are horribly damaging evils, no matter what their bros tell them. If the subject allows for it at all, I try for gender balance in my syllabi. Most of all, I try to be a decent human being to the women in my work and personal lives.
I also do arts work with prisoners. And though I don’t go looking people up in the database, I’m sure a lot of the guys I’ve offered support and encouragement to were convicted for sex crimes, and that many of those convicted actually did what they’re accused of doing. (I say “many” because I am also the family member of someone who did 20 years for a crime, not sexual in nature, that he didn’t commit. As a result, I keep a little window of skepticism open when talking about the justice system.)
And I’ve listened as more and more feminist voices adopt lines of argument in which a) accusation is conviction and b) conviction, at least of certain crimes, puts a person permanently beyond the scope of human decency or protection or concern. I’ve listened to some feminists advocate policies that will increase the power of the state and the reach of the prison-industrial complex. I’ve listened as some feminists adopt the tone and language (“scumbags!” “worthless!”) of war-on-crime Republicans and the penchant for you’re-either-with-us-on-everything-or-you’re-with-the-rapists epistemic closure of war-on-terror Republicans. I’ve listened as people pressure each other to believe in definitions of consent that make mutually consenting sex ontologically impossible. (Stages of any process are infinitely subdivideable, so requiring mutual verbal permission at every “stage” puts you in a Zeno’s paradox situation.) I’ve tried to figure out ways of saying all this that won’t be heard as “mansplaining.”
You have said it all better than I ever could have, and certainly with more authority than I could.
Also, do you mind if I steal that learning-another-language analogy? That’s so good. I’m kicking myself for not thinking of that.