“That totally happened to me, too!”: The Urge to Relate

A lot of what happens in therapy should only happen in therapy. (I’m looking at you, folks who oppose trigger warnings because “exposure is very important for overcoming trauma.”) But a lot of other things that happen in therapy are very applicable to the rest of our relationships and interactions. One of those is the tension between normalizing someone’s experience and validating it.

Normalizing someone’s experience essentially means helping them feel that their experience is normal. Short of memorizing statistics, the easiest way to do that is to relate what they’re telling you to something that’s happened in your own life. This is a very common conversational move. Someone tells you about a bad breakup and you say, “Oh, I totally went through something similar recently. It can be really hard.” Someone tells you their NYC subway horror story and you respond with one of your own. (We all have an arsenal of those.)

Validating someone’s experience is a more complex conversational move. To validate means “to demonstrate or support the truth or value of.” In the context of therapy or supportive conversations between friends, validating someone’s experience means letting them know not only that you believe them when they say that it happened–which can be particularly important when someone discloses, say, sexual violence or mental illness–but also that you affirm this as an “okay” thing to talk about or think about. The opposite of validating is to say “That’s not that big of a deal.”

Obviously, you can both validate and normalize someone’s experience in the same conversation. Therapists frequently do both.

However, the way of normalizing that we most frequently use in casual settings–relating someone’s experience to our own lives and selves–can get in the way of that.

For instance, someone says, “I’m having such an awful time getting out of the house this winter.” If you immediately jump in to say, “Oh, me too, it’s so awful, I couldn’t even make myself go to my friend’s birthday party because it was so cold out,” you may succeed in helping them feel like it’s okay to be having this difficulty, but you may also miss an opportunity to affirm the fact that their own unique experience is legitimate and difficult for them.

I get this often with fatigue. I try not to talk about being tired very much because I don’t like “complaining,” but sometimes I do mention it, and people usually jump in immediately to talk about how tired they are and how they only slept four hours last night and so on. But the thing is…my tiredness is a little different. I sleep at least 8 hours almost every single night, and have been for years. If I let myself, I would sleep 10 or 11 or more hours. I don’t know what it means not to want to sleep. Every day I daydream about coming home and going to sleep.

Of course my friend’s experience is also legitimate, and it sucks to only get four hours of sleep and feel shitty. But for them, not feeling tired as often as simple as finding the time to sleep enough. For me, absolutely nothing I have been able to try without medical intervention has helped.

So when I mention being tired and people immediately jump in to relate, I feel like I can’t talk about how extensively awful it is for me, because everyone feels tired! Feeling tired is normal! That’s just how life is! (Deal with it!)

On the other hand, some things feel bad not just in and of themselves, but also because of the shame and isolation that surrounds them. Mental illnesses are often like this because few people know a lot of people who are open about it (though that may now be changing). When I was first diagnosed with depression, I didn’t know even one other person who was (openly) diagnosed with it. I thought everyone else had it together and I alone was a failure. I saw the statistics on how common depression is, but they did nothing for me. What helped was to start meeting other people who struggled with it. Depression still sucked, and still does, but I no longer had to carry the burden of Being The Only Person In The World Who Can’t Even Be Happy.

How can you tell what someone needs in a given moment? How do you know if it’ll be more helpful to normalize their experiences, or to validate them?

Often there isn’t really a way to tell. In sessions with clients, I rely a lot on intuition and previous experience. But there are some things that people say that can serve as hints as to what they might need from you.

For instance, when people say things like, “I can’t believe I’m having trouble with something so simple,” or “I’m such a failure; I can’t even find a job,” or “Nobody else has all these problems,” that can be a sign that normalizing might be helpful. It can reassure them to know that other people do have trouble with these supposedly simple things, or that other people do actually struggle a lot with finding a job, or that other people do have these same problems. Sometimes what the person is dealing with really is shitty, but it feels a lot shittier than it has to because they think they’re the only one who’s so pathetic and incompetent as to have that problem.

On the other hand, when people say things like, “I know it shouldn’t even be a big deal, but–” or “Everybody probably deals with this but–“, pay attention to those but‘s. The part after the but is the part they have trouble accepting as valid. Everybody deals with it! It’s not a big deal! Therefore, what right do I have to even complain about it?

When someone says things like this, sharing your own experience and relating to them might not be as helpful. What they really need to hear at that moment is that their unique version of that probably-common problem is worthy of paying attention to and talking about. They might know perfectly well that other people have similar problems, but it still feels bad and that’s the part they want to hear acknowledged. Yes, everybody hates winter, but here’s how it sucks for me. Yes, everyone is tired, but I almost passed out after climbing a few stairs. Yes, I know you probably miss your family too, but I just really really miss mine today.

“Common” problems are easy to relate to. Most of us have had bad breakups or manipulative family members or really exhausting days. But rushing to relate your own experience closes off the possibility of learning more about their life. When you feel an urge to share your own experience, instead, try asking more about theirs and seeing if your experience is still as relevant as you thought.

With certain types of issues, relating your own experiences can also easily come across as one-upping even when you don’t mean it to–although, to be real, sometimes that’s exactly how people mean it. Please don’t one-up people. There’s no need. There is not a limited quantity of sympathy in the world, so there is no need to compete for it.

You might also accidentally relate to only a very small part of what they actually said, leaving them feeling misunderstood or unheard. For instance, if I share a story about a classmate saying something very hurtful and ignorant about queer people, and you share a story about a classmate saying something very inaccurate about cell biology, you may have missed the fact that the relevant part of my story wasn’t “a classmate said something silly” but rather “a classmate made a homophobic comment in class that impacted me personally.”

The urge to relate to someone’s experiences comes from a lot of places, I think. It’s a common way of trying to show someone that you understand. Showing someone that you understand them is a common way of earning their trust, respect, and affection. It indicates that you have things in common.

In therapy, of course, things are different in that the focus should always be on the client and their needs. But therapists do sometimes share stories from their own lives, and the purpose is slightly similar to how it works in casual conversations between friends–it’s a way for therapists to signal understanding of their clients, and also to let them know that they are not alone in some of their experiences. Sharing a personal story can be more powerful than simply saying something like “You’re not alone in that,” because it gives something more than a reassurance: it gives evidence. (Anecdotal, but still.)

Yet both in therapy and in life, sharing one’s own experiences can get in the way of fostering a better, deeper understanding of another person. It can also make it difficult for them to tell you more about their experience, because you’ve now turned the conversation back to yourself. It can seem very disingenuous if it’s clear to the person that you don’t actually understand very well at all.

And while we often tell ourselves that we relate to others in order to make them feel better, there sometimes is some selfishness in it. We want to prove to others that we “get it” so that we feel better about ourselves and our ability to understand and connect with people. A natural impulse, but that doesn’t make it necessarily helpful or productive all of the time.

I see this often in conversations about injustice. A marginalized person shares an experience they have had with discrimination or prejudice, and a person who is categorically unable to have the same experience nevertheless tries to relate something from their own life. Sometimes they relate an experience of being treated badly in a way that has nothing to do with their societal position, and sometimes they relate an experience that has to do with another dimension of identity.

There are definitely some important similarities in the ways in which many different marginalized groups are treated, but that doesn’t necessarily always mean that we can relate. The presumption of understanding can easily get in the way of actual understanding when a white woman assumes that her gender helps her understand someone’s experience of racism, or when a gay man assumes that his sexual identity helps him understand a trans woman’s marginalization. I mean, maybe it does, in a few limited ways. But we should always strive to learn more before assuming we “get it.”

I think a lot of people experience the urge to relate. I’ve definitely felt it. For instance, once a friend of mine who is Black was sharing some experiences of racism they had had, and I suddenly noticed a little gear turning in my brain trying to generate similar experiences from my own life that I could share. I thought, wait a minute, I never told my brain to do that! That wouldn’t be helpful right now. How could I listen fully if part of my brain was so busy trying to connect my friend’s experience to my own? How could I even come close to understanding their experience if I was already biasing that understanding by thinking of my own interpretations of my own experiences, which had nothing to do with racism?

This, I think, is what drives a lot of the confusion and miscommunication that happens around issues like race and gender. For instance, suppose a Black woman is telling me about how her coworkers and supervisors always assume she is angry and hostile when she isn’t. I start thinking about times when I have been assumed to be angry and hostile, and how that hurt, and how I dealt with them. Maybe I dealt with them by adopting a more friendly and cheery approach, and that helped. Awesome! I’m going to tell my friend about My Experiences and What Worked For Me!

Except that What Worked For Me is very unlikely to work for someone who is not white. As a white woman, I am not automatically assumed to be angry and hostile no matter what I do, generally speaking. So adjusting my demeanor, even though I felt that I was behaving appropriately before, might help change others’ perceptions of me in a substantially helpful way. A Black woman can be as painfully polite and deferential as she possibly can and yet she’s still likely to face that sort of stereotyping. Maybe if I’d listened rather than spent all that brainpower thinking about my own life experiences, I would’ve understood that.

(See also: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.)

Likewise, when I talk about feeling threatened by a man in public and men jump in to tell me that I should’ve Just Punched Him or Just Told Him To Fuck Off, they are thinking of their own experiences and how they might’ve reacted in that situation (for better or worse). A man who decides to Just Punch a man who is being offensive to him may end up getting hurt in a fistfight, but the consequences would be much more severe for me if I tried the same thing.

(See also: “Just call the police!”)

So, what do you do when someone shares an unpleasant experience and you have no idea whether or not relating something from your own life might be useful?

Here are some scripts:

  • “Do you think it might help to hear about something similar I’ve dealt with?”
  • “I’ve gone through something that sounds a lot like that. Feel free to ask me more about it if you want, or to just talk about your own stuff.”
  • “I know this may not necessarily fix the problem, but something that helped me with that was _____.”
  • “That sounds really hard, but you’re not alone in dealing with that.”

Alternatively, it’s almost always a good idea to ask them more questions (with the caveat that they don’t have to talk about it more if they don’t want to) so that you can understand what they’re going through better.

In social work school, we learn a lot about the importance of being very aware of what’s going on in our own heads as we’re trying to help others. That’s useful for any sort of interpersonal situation. It’s a good idea to go into these types of serious conversations with an awareness of what you’re bringing to the table, including your own needs and desires and biases. Many of us want to feel competent when it comes to understanding and helping our friends. That’s commendable, but it too easily turns into a search for affirmation from people who are busy trying to share their own troubles.

Don’t let your need to demonstrate your understanding get in the way of actually understanding.

Therapists Can Be Wrong

Therapists, like many professionals who work directly with clients, need to present themselves confidently in order to be effective, even when they’re not feeling very confident. It can be difficult for therapists to admit that they have or could be wrong, or that they don’t know everything. Like doctors and teachers and others, therapists worry that acknowledging their own limitations will erode their credibility and trustworthiness. When your livelihood depends on people finding you credible and trustworthy, that adds to the aversion of being wrong and admitting mistakes that virtually all of us already experience.

Yet we have to learn how to admit and accept that we are sometimes wrong–not only because it’s a foundation of accountability and ethical practice, but also because clients can often see through that facade, and they won’t like what they see. It’s difficult to trust someone who will never–can never–admit that they’re wrong.

This was going through my mind as I read one of my required texts for school, Psychiatric Interviewing: The Art of Understanding“Psychiatric interviewing” is really just a term for the process of therapists asking their clients questions, so the book covers a lot of very important ground. While I’ve found it useful so far, a few things irk me about it.

For instance, the author has a strange preoccupation with labeling clients using the article “the” in a way that implies uniformity. The text is laden with references to what “the paranoid patient” may do or how “the guarded patient” may behave in an interview. This type of language is not only dangerously vague (who qualifies as “the paranoid patient” as opposed to “a person who has some paranoid thoughts”? Who gets to make that determination, and using which measure(s)?), but stigmatizing to therapy clients and a potential source of bias for therapists. If you’re a young therapist who reads this book and gets all these ideas about what “the paranoid patient” may do, you may project these assumptions onto every client you work with who struggles with paranoia or expresses thoughts that seem paranoid to you. Assumptions are not necessarily a bad thing–and may even be useful in some cases–but you need to be aware of them as you work. Thus far in my reading of this book, it has not provided any cautionary notes about making assumptions. Even in my classes, in which we are often told not to make assumptions, provide little if any guidance on learning to actually notice these assumptions in practice.

Shea also recommends a few other techniques that I find excessively presumptuous. Take this example dialogue from the book:

Pt.: After my wife left, it was like a star exploded inward, everything seemed so empty…she seemed like a memory and my life began to fall apart. Very shortly afterwards I began feeling very depressed and very tearful.

Clin.: It sounds terribly frightening to lose her so suddenly, so similar to the pain you felt when your mother died.

Pt.: No…no, that’s not right at all. My mother did not purposely abandon me. That’s simply not true.

Clin.: I did not mean that your mother purposely abandoned you, but rather that both people were unexpected loses.

Pt.: I suppose…but they were very different. I never was afraid of my mother…they’re really very different.

A lot of therapists, especially those in the psychodynamic tradition, are understandably attracted to the idea of making this sort of “insight.” As Shea points out, when you get it right, it can build a lot of trust because the client feels understood in a very special way. It feels good to feel “smart” and insightful, to be able to read people like that. It can remind us that there really is something special we can do as therapists that others cannot. It probably doesn’t hurt that this, the therapy-via-Sudden-Brilliant-Insight, is usually the only kind we see represented in the media.

But a lot of the time, there really isn’t enough information to reach this conclusion. Therapists may make these leaps based on hunches, but that doesn’t mean there’s data to back it up. Sometimes the client will tell you so, but I think that a lot of the time, they will say, “Hm, I suppose you might be right,” because you are an authority figure and they want to believe you have the answers.

From the information given, you can’t reasonably jump to the conclusion that the client felt similarly when their wife left them and when their mother died. Those are very different types of loss, and even similar types of loss–two breakups, two deaths in the family–can feel very different.

Certainly there can be conceptual similarities between losing a spouse to divorce and losing a parent to death. It might even be worthwhile to explore them, but the therapist need not assume they felt “so similar.” If I were the client, I would’ve liked the therapist to say something like:

Between this and your mother passing away, it sounds like you’ve been dealing with a lot of loss. I’m wondering if losing your wife is bringing up any memories of losing your mother.

This resonates with me; it might not with other clients. That’s why sometimes the more important thing as a therapist isn’t what you say, but how you respond once you realize you’ve said or done something that strains the connection between you and your client. In this case, a responsive therapist might say something like:

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make assumptions about how you’re feeling. Can you say a bit more about how this loss feels different for you?

The client is the expert on their experience.

But instance, in the dialogue, the therapist doubled down on the (mis)interpretation, attempting to justify their response to the client’s disclosure. This leads the client to double down as well, justifying to the therapist why the losses feel different. They shouldn’t have to justify themselves that way.

Here is the thought I had, as both a provider and a consumer of mental health services, when I read Shea’s example dialogue above:

The failure mode of Brilliantly Insightful Therapist is Arrogant, Presumptuous Therapist.

Now, I don’t know if Shea is arrogant or presumptuous; I don’t know him but I would hope he isn’t. I do know that refusing to acknowledge missteps and misunderstandings can lead one to across that way, though. And that’s exactly what Shea refuses to do both in the dialogue itself and when he analyzes the dialogue for the reader:

Needless to say, this attempt at empathic connection leaves something to be desired. The patient’s attention to detail and fear of misunderstanding have obliterated the intended empathic message, leaving the clinician with a frustrating need to mollify a patient who has successfully twisted an empathic statement into an insult of sorts.

This probably infuriated me more than anything else in this text. Here, the failure of the interaction has been blamed entirely on the client. Shea has assumed that the client has taken his statement as an “insult” when there is no evidence of this; the client is merely correcting the therapist’s misinterpretation. It reminds me of how, often when I tell people they’ve made inaccurate assumptions about me, they respond by shrieking about how “upset” I am and how I take everything as an “insult.” Correcting someone is not the same thing as being “insulted.”

If this situation is “frustrating” for the clinician, then, I can only imagine how much more so it must be for the client.

There is no room, in this approach, for any acknowledgment that the therapist’s interpretations might simply be wrong. No room for the possibility that it’s not the client’s personal characteristics (“paranoid,” “guarded,” “histrionic”) that made this interaction fall flat, but the therapist’s presumptions and subsequent refusal to step back from them.

I discussed this particular example because it’s what came up in my reading, but it’s hardly the most egregious thing of this type that happens. Therapists who cannot conceive of the possibility that they’re wrong not only fail to help their clients, but can actually hurt them.

Since there are probably a lot more therapy clients (or prospective therapy clients) reading this than there are therapists, I want to be clear about why I wrote this. It’s not to discourage people from seeking therapy, but to arm them with the knowledge and language to advocate for what they need from their therapists, and to find therapists that suit their needs.

That last part is important. Some people may want a therapist who makes bold interpretations and takes that authoritative, explanatory sort of role. Personally, I think conducting therapy in this sort of way opens practitioners up to all sorts of bias and errors, which is one reason I want to avoid it both as a client and as a therapist. But if that’s the approach that resonates with you, then it’s likely to work a little better for you, because the most important factor is the client-therapist relationship.

Aside from that, the reason I write about problems in mental healthcare is the same reason I write about problems in feminism or atheism–to hold my own communities accountable. Anecdotally, I know that this sort of thing makes it difficult for some people to benefit from therapy, or even to want to access it to begin with. I’m not the only person who dislikes having an authority figure tell me things about my life without bothering to find out if their assumptions are even accurate.

I trust people more when they admit their mistakes.

 

How To Get People To Care When It’s Not Personal: On Rob Portman

I’m going to talk about Rob Portman now even though that bit of news is pretty old at this point. (Hey, if you want to read about stuff in a timely manner, go read the NYT or something.)

Brief summary: Portman is a Republican senator from Ohio (yay Ohio!) who used to oppose same-sex marriage but changed his mind when his son came out as gay. He said, “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like [my wife] and I have had for over 26 years.” Portman is now the only sitting Republican senator to publicly support equal marriage, although there are other well-known Republicans who do.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way first, I’m very glad to hear of Portman’s change of heart. Really. Each additional vote for marriage equality matters, especially when it’s the first sitting Republican senator to do it. That’s cool.

However, this really doesn’t bode well for our politics. Most legislators are white, male, straight, cisgender, rich, Christian, and able-bodied. Unless they either 1) possess gifts of empathy and imagination more advanced than those of Portman or 2) have family members who are not those things, they may not be willing to challenge themselves to do better by those who aren’t like them.

Some identities are what writer Andrew Solomon calls “horizontal” identities, meaning that parents and children typically don’t share them–these include stuff like homosexuality, transsexuality, and disability. So there’s a decent chance that a given legislator may have someone with one of these identities in their family.

But other identities are “vertical,” meaning that they tend to be passed down from parents to children, whether through genetics, upbringing, or some combination. Race is obviously vertical. Class and (to a lesser extent) religion tend to be as well. How likely is an American legislator to have someone in their family who is a person of color? How likely are they to have someone in their family who is impoverished?

In fact, some of the most pressing social justice issues today concern people who are so marginalized that it’s basically inconceivable that an influential American politician would know any of them personally, let alone have one of them as a family member–for instance, the people most impacted by the war on drugs, who are forever labeled as ex-cons and barred from public housing, welfare benefits, jobs, and education. It’s easy to go on believing that these people deserved what they got–which they often get for crimes as small as having some pot on them when they get pulled over by the cops for no reason other than their race–if you don’t actually know any of these people. (Well, or if you haven’t read The New Jim Crow, I guess.)

Even with horizontal identities, though, relying on the possibility that important politicians will suddenly reverse their positions based on some family member coming out or having a particular experience or identity isn’t really a good bet. First of all, coming out doesn’t always go that well; 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, and the top two reasons for their homelessness is that they either run away because of rejection by their families or they’re actually kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fact that one of your parents is a prominent Republican politician who publicly opposes equal marriage probably makes you even less likely to come out to them.

And even if the child of such a parent comes out to them and nothing awful happens, people still have all sorts of ways of resolving cognitive dissonance. To use an example from a different issue, pro-choice activists who interact with pro-lifers have noticed a phenomenon that’s encapsulated in the article, “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion.” Basically, when some pro-life people find themselves with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, they sometimes find ways to justify getting an abortion even though they still believe it’s morally wrong in general.

Similarly, if you’re a homophobe and someone you love comes out to you as queer, that absolutely doesn’t mean you’re going to end up supporting queer rights. You might end up seeing that person as “not like all those other gays,” perhaps because they don’t fit the stereotypes that you’ve associated with others like them. You might invent some sort of “reason” that this person turned out to be queer, whereas others still “choose” it. You might simply conclude that no matter how much you may love someone who’s queer, it’s still against your religion to give queer people the right to get married.

Of course, when it comes to marriage rights, it’s not really necessary for that many more Republican lawmakers to suddenly discover that the queer people in their families are human too. The GOP will begin supporting equal marriage regardless (or, at least, it will stop advocating the restriction of rights to heterosexual couples), because otherwise it will go extinct. That’s just becoming the demographic reality.

However, equal marriage is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abolishing a system that privileges straight people over queer people, and most of those causes aren’t nearly as sexy as equal marriage. Just look at the marketing for it: it’s all about love and beautiful weddings and cute gay or lesbian couples adopting children. Mentally and emotionally, it’s just not a difficult cause for straight folks to support. Who doesn’t love love?

The other issues facing queer people aren’t nearly as pleasant to think about. Who will help the young people who are homeless because their families kicked them out for being queer? Who will stop trans* people from being forced to use restrooms that do not belong to their actual gender, risking violence and harassment?

And, to bring it back to my earlier point: how likely are any Republican senators to have family members in any of these situations?

I don’t think Portman is a bad person for failing to support equal marriage until his son came out. Or, at least, if he’s a bad person, then most people are, because most people don’t care enough about issues that aren’t personally relevant to them to do the difficult work of confronting and working through their biases. And anyway, I don’t think that this has anything to do with how “good” or “bad” of a person you are (and frankly I hate those ways of labeling people). It’s more that some people are just more interested in things that don’t affect them personally than others.

Our job as activists, then, is to figure out how to get people to care even when the issue at hand isn’t necessarily something they have a personal connection to, because that won’t always be enough and because defining victims of injustice by their relationships to those who you’re trying to target has its own problems (which doesn’t necessarily mean we should never use that tactic, but that’s for another post).

I’m still trying to figure out how to do that, but I do have my own experience to draw on. As a teenager, I didn’t care a bit about social justice, but I did care about culture and sociology and how the world works. In college, I started to learn how structures in society affect individuals and create power imbalances, and I found this fascinating. It also brought into sharp relief the actual suffering of people who are on the wrong side of those imbalances, and before long I was reading, thinking, and writing about that.

Although nobody intentionally argued me over to this worldview, the courses I took and the stuff I read online seemed to take advantage of my natural curiosity about how society works, and eventually they brought me into the fold.

If you have any stories to share about how you started caring about an issue that doesn’t affect you personally, please share!

Inside the Mind of a Serial Rapist

In case it’s not obvious, MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING for this entire post and all outgoing links. Even if you’re not a survivor, you’re going to find a lot of this extremely uncomfortable and upsetting so please take care of yourself.

r/AskReddit, a section of Reddit in which people can ask each other questions, recently had a post with this title: “Reddit’s had a few threads about sexual assault victims, but are there any redditors from the other side of the story? What were your motivations? Do you regret it?

Reddit has what I would call, bluntly, a woman problem. Reddit’s users are 74% male, first of all–the highest percentage of all the well-known social networks. Many of its subreddits, such as r/MensRights, r/Atheism, and, of course, r/AskReddit, are notorious for general misogyny, rape apologism, and, at times, even tacit (or not-so-tacit) approval of violence against women, pedophilia, child pornography.

So, nobody familiar with Reddit will be surprised at the kinds of stories and comments that this AskReddit thread has attracted. However, it’s worth talking about for several reasons, which I’ll explain later.

The thread has nearly 13,000 comments as of this writing, so I couldn’t possibly read them all. (I’m pretty sure I’d lose my mind long before I finished, anyway.) However, there’s one particular comment that I want to examine:

First off, I must say, I was at a dark and horrible place in my life, that I’ve since grown from. I’m ashamed of the person I was, if the people who I’m close to now knew who I was, I would be ruined. I’m known for being a great guy, friendly and easy to get along with, a community/political activist, a fervent volunteer in the community, and a person who rises through the ranks quickly due to successes at work. That was my mask, and I was good at it, so good that maybe I convinced myself along the line that was who I could really be, and that may of helped me change, and stop doing what I did.

I’m somewhat remorseful for what I did to those girls, but I don’t think I could ever face them to apologize. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had this certain insatiable thirst that brought me to do what I did. I didn’t know how to stop, and just when I thought maybe I could, I’d find myself back in my pattern, back on the hunt.

Several things immediately jump out at me. First of all–and this will be a common theme throughout the post–this person seems very invested in his positive self-image, despite his supposed remorse. He makes sure that we know that he’s known as a “great guy,” that he’s friendly and easy to get along with, etc. Second, although he says he’s ashamed of who he was back then, the rest of this suggests that that’s mostly because he wouldn’t want to be found out. The creepiest part is definitely this: “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had this certain insatiable thirst that bought me to do what I did.”

The post continues:

I’m a good looking guy, and I can get girls pretty easily. I’m currently married to a beautiful woman that I met during this time of my life (not someone I raped, but someone who knew my mask during this time). So, anyways, after a while it became boring to go after the sluts and sorority girls that would easily throw their cunt after you. I wanted the thrill of the chase, and that’s what led me to forcing myself on girls. I would find attractive girls that were self-conscious about their looks….Hopefully a girl who was a bit damaged, had a shitty ex-boyfriend, or family issues, came from a small shut in town, that sort of thing. So, when I showed interest in them they’d be completely enamored, they’d almost be shocked that a popular, good-looking, and well liked guy would be talking to them.

Note that, once again, he mentions his good looks and that it’s easy for him to “get girls” (present tense). His misogyny becomes apparent in his language here (“sluts and sorority girls that would easily throw their cunt after you”).

The man then describes how he would meet these girls and invite them over to watch a movie. His need to have total control over the situation is very apparent: “They would come over, and I’d always make sure it was real cold in the room, cold enough so that when we started watching the movie I’d say something about being chilly, and grab a big fleece blanket for the both of us.”

After kissing and putting his hands under their clothes (without consent, obviously):

It was then that I could turn around and get on top of her. The girls usually didn’t know how to respond. Some of them were into it, and those nights were usually consensual and boring sex, sometimes followed up by a few more nightly visits before getting the boot. However, the great nights were the ones who squirmed, ones who didn’t want to give in. I’d have to shush them down, and try to work on them slowly enough so they didn’t know what was going on until it was pretty much already happening. I’m a muscular guy, over 6′ around 200 lbs. and most of these girls may have been 125-130, really tiny and easy to pin down. To be honest, even remembering it now, the squirming always made it better, they didn’t want it to happen, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Most girls don’t say no either. They think you’re a good guy, and should pick up on the hints, they don’t want to have to say “no” and admit to themselves what’s happening.

[…]Some girls left after about 15 minutes after. Some girls would stay until the morning and then leave. A few tried to call back, maybe blaming themselves for what happened or something. I never worried too much about being caught. Everyone knew me, and I worked with the police a lot, with administrators, and campus officials. I was on first name basis with the Chancellor and the President of Student Affairs, so if anything came down to a he/she-said I figured I’d be in the clear.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is rape culture: the fact that this man knew he was unlikely to be brought to justice because he was so respected and popular at school, the fact that he admits that some of the women probably blamed themselves, the fact that he knows that they don’t say no out of fear and not because they consent.

The man later edited the post to explain that he had answered questions posed by commenters and that he was deleting this account (it had been made only for this purpose, though, anyway). He also added this:

Let me leave you with this message, you never know who someone truly is, so be careful. I’m going back to my main account to do normal reddit looking at cats and posting pictures of bacon, and I think it’s kind of funny that no one will ever know if the person they’re talking to on reddit, or someone who moderates their subreddit, is me on my main account… just food for thought.

Most of the comments to his post were very angry, and many were basically homicidal. One person said, “You are why my daughter will be armed, to deal with filth like you.” The man responded, “Teach your daughter to be a strong willed, independent woman, and hopefully she’ll never attract the type of filth I was at that point in my life.” In other words, even though he claimed to be “remorseful,” he admits that he sought out “weak” women and seems to believe that it’s women’s responsibility to be “strong willed” enough for men like him to leave them alone.

In the midst of the angry comments, though, there were many that seemed steeped in admiration–or, at least, respect. References to the OP’s “bravery” were common. Here’s one: “Thank you for sharing. This is what I came to this thread for. You are brave to talk about it. Here is an actual look into how the predator feels.” Here’s another: “I just wanna say, thank you for posting this. It seems that every other guy in this thread is trying to guilt shame you but I’m pretty sure a total of none of them could possibly empathize with you.” And another: “I admit you are a really smart guy. I bet you know it yourself and probably are ashamed of it since you used it to do this. You are also really brave for sharing this story and being here to take the generic ‘fuck you’ from the mass.”

There seems to be some confusion on the part of these commenters about what “brave” means. What’s brave is getting up the next morning after you’ve been raped, and getting up every day after that. What’s brave is telling people about your sexual assault, knowing full well that they might ask you what you were wearing and if you’d been drinking. What’s brave is trusting another person sexually after an experience like that. Using a temporary, anonymous account to tell some people on the internet about what a Big Manly Man you are is not “brave.”

As a survivor of something much less horrific than what these young women went through, but scarring all the same, I can’t see the telling of this story as “brave.” Perhaps that’s just my bias talking.

Also disturbing is the fact that many of the commenters refuse to believe the story. One even asked the OP if he’s “a female IRL trying to make a point with this.” Others laugh it off. Their disbelief reveals their privilege. Most women will tell you that there is nothing unrealistic about this story, because they have either been victimized by men like this, escaped them narrowly (as I did), or have friends who did.

Finally, and unsurprisingly, several commenters jumped to the man’s defense, explaining how “difficult” it is to be a man and to interpret women’s signals and to get women to sleep with you, period. One comment:

This isn’t rape. This is the story of a guy who studied and played the game well. He went after certain girls and worked those angles to get laid. Some people will feel this is underhanded, sleezy, wrong. Others will praise him.

[…]These girls aren’t victims. OP’s behavior may be considered unethical, immoral, and wrong but that’s only moral constructs perceived by others looking at OP. I’m not a player these days but those of you blasting him for rape need to read some player’s books and websites. He did exactly why most players do.

[…]Overall OP isn’t a rapist, he’s a player who feels bad about how good he was at the game.

Another: “What the hell. You’re NOT A RAPIST! The didn’t say no. They wanted it. You’re a player. Actually, they should thank you because that’s probably the only sex those girls will get. You gave them a life experience and you should be proud about it.” And this: “I’ve been told this by female friends – girls purposely put up a bit of a fight before sex to not seem easy, even if they want sex, and they enjoy the back and forth and having the guy ‘try’.”

And one more:

Not defending his actions, but nearly every 19 year old college kid with a dick and a heartbeat is trying to get laid, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM has some sort of game plan they employ to coerce women into advantageous situations that their female counterpart might not want to be in, or otherwise find themselves in. Whether its through physical force or mental manipulation, some game plans fail miserably and some work every time. Some guys are obviously better than others at getting what they want, and some of course cross the line.

There’s many, many more where all of these came from. There was also the comments from rape survivors, to one of which the OP responded with some explanation followed by, “Anyways, fuck off you twit.” (How about that remorse?)

I should point out that this particular man’s post, and the responses to it, are unusual for several reasons. Most of the other people who disclosed having committed sexual assault (including some women) were more remorseful and generally did it only once. Some told stories of having nearly done it but stopped themselves. And the comments on those posts are much less condemnatory, and more full of apologism and praises of the rapists’ “bravery.”

Jezebel has a post about the thread and why we should listen to the rapists’ explanations. The article makes a good point in that the thread shows many of the reasons why rape happens and goes unpunished, and the cognitive fallacies that rapists subscribe to.

However, the article fails to note the negative consequences of sharing these stories on a site like Reddit. As I mentioned, Reddit users have a tendency for rape apologism. Many of the people who confessed having committed or attempted sexual assault said that they felt terrible for what they did, but commenters told them not to feel bad. The stories of backing off rather than raping elicited lots of “Congrats, you didn’t rape her!” comments–as if that’s something worthy of a gold star. One comment to such a story reads, “Shitty situation, man. Good on you for realizing what was up and pulling yourself out of that.” Another: “You aren’t a rapist, or close really, don’t beat yourself up about it.”

In other words, men (they were almost all men) who come to this thread with genuine remorse receive dozens of comments patting them on the back for not going ahead and sticking their penis into an unwilling woman–all the other nonconsensual stuff they did leading up to that, apparently, doesn’t really matter. (Although some of these commenters insist that the women couldn’t possibly have been hurt that much by it because they weren’t “actually” raped, I can speak from experience and say that attempted rape (or rape threats, or sexual harassment) can be traumatizing too.)

Furthermore, some of the apologism is directed at men who did actually commit sexual assault, and it really scares me that these men are getting the message that what they did was “not rape.”

It’s taken me a while to write about this because it’s been difficult to come up with any takeaway other than aisfa;ifja;sdfjas;df. However, now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I think there are a few things to glean from this.

  1. Rapists usually know what they’re doing. Although there’s a pervasive myth that rape is caused by “miscommunication” (generally, women not being “clear” enough about not giving consent), this thread and this fascinating study show that this is completely false. They know what they’re doing, most of the time. But they don’t really care. They think they “can’t stop” because having a penis just “makes” you do these things. They convince themselves that the woman would say no (or say it louder) if she really didn’t want to do it. And so on.
  2. Rapists aren’t necessarily identifiable. None of the men in this thread seem like your stereotypical stranger in a dark alley type. Many of them have the ability to be very personable and likable, and they use this ability to their advantage. (This is, by the way, a symptom of psychopathy.) So, not only is the standard victim-blamey advice for women to avoid revealing clothing, bars, parties, etc. wrong, but it’s also ludicrous to suggest that women can avoid sexual assault by avoiding “certain types” of guys. Some victimizers (of any gender) certainly do give off a creepy vibe, but not all do.
  3. Sexual assault prevention is a very, very complicated thing, and I don’t think it’s as simple as “telling rapists not to rape.” As boys and young men grow up, they learn a series of messages about gender and sexuality, just like women do. If you’re interested in this, I’d recommend reading Brad Perry’s piece in the fantastic book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. The piece is called “Hooking Up with Healthy Sexuality: The Lessons Boys Learn (and Don’t Learn ) About Sexuality, and Why a Sex-Positive Rape Prevention Paradigm Can Benefit Everyone Involved.” (Holy shit that’s a long title.) You can read it here. The piece focuses on teaching sexuality to boys in a way that prevents rape and promotes a healthy approach to women, dating, and sex. Unfortunately, right now our country is still besieged by abstinence-only sex education, which promotes rape culture in a million ways that I don’t have room to discuss here.
  4. Despite all the comments that “well everyone knows rape is bad” and therefore we should stop shaming rapists, it’s clear that there’s a sort of doublethink going on here. Yes, almost all people, except the most psychopathic perhaps, know that rape is “bad.” But many convince themselves that things that are definitely rape are not. Cognitive dissonance does scary things to people sometimes–they want what they want at all costs, but they don’t want to believe that they’re Bad People (i.e. rapists). Nope, they’re just “playing the game,” or the victim “should’ve said no (louder),” or “she wanted it anyway.”

So no. Even decades after the start of the modern women’s movement, not everyone knows what rape is. And that’s how we know that our work is not yet done.

All I know is that we need real sex education, and we need it now. We need to start it early. We need to stop believing that teaching kids about safe and healthy sex will “make” them do it. We need to stop teaching them gender roles that put women into the role of sexual gatekeepers, always needing to push their male partners off rather than being asked for consent first, and men into the role of aggressors, always needing to coerce their female partners or face losing their masculinity.

Mostly, though, we need to teach empathy in general. Because that’s lacking in our society in every possible way.

And this needs to happen now.

Note: This has been really difficult to write for many reasons, but I felt that I needed to do it. There will be extra comment moderation. Anyone who comes on here to explain to me how I “don’t understand” these men and their actions will be sent on their merry way. Thank you.

Empathy and Leadership: Why Romney Would be a Terrible President

What do we look for in a presidential candidate? Political experience, intelligence, charisma, and confidence are probably high up on the list. Good looks and an adherence to Christianity clearly don’t hurt either.

But what about empathy?

What terrifies me the most about the scant possibility of a Romney presidency is not the fact that I disagree with his political ideology. Rather, it’s Romney’s seemingly complete lack of empathy.

This thought first occurred to me back when the “Seamus incident” made the news a few months ago. But one can easily argue that the incident doesn’t exactly prove that Romney is a heartless robot–after all, the victim in question was a dog, not a human, and who really knows how the dog felt anyway?

Slightly less ambiguous is this new bit of insight into Romney’s past:

Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

This is what Mitt Romney did to a classmate at his boarding school when he was a senior. The classmate, John Lauber, was presumed to be gay and wore his bleached-blond hair long–at least, until Romney decided to do something about it.

According to the Washington Post, this story was remembered and corroborated independently by five of Romney’s former classmates. Romney’s response:

“Back in high school, I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that…I don’t remember that incident,” Romney said, laughing. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.”

I think it’s interesting that, despite claiming not to remember this incident, Romney nevertheless seems to file it into that large category of Dumb Things Teenagers Do. We all have those things, of course. For me, it was writing bad poetry and crushing on unattainable guys. For more typical teenagers, it’s probably something like getting really drunk when their parents are out of town and throwing up all over the Persian rug.

For the teenage Romney, though, it’s assaulting a fellow student because he’s (ostensibly) gay.

(Incidentally, Romney’s campaign has apparently been trying to get other former classmates of his to speak up in support of him. Good luck with that.)

It’s easy to make the argument that this happened decades ago and that Romney is probably a Completely Different Person now. Perhaps. But one writer on Mother Jones, discussing what “Romney the teenager” can tell us about “Romney the man,” says:

Romney the man has denied, and repeatedly denied yesterday, even remembering this incident. Sure, it was half a century ago, but he led a posse of his friends, tackled John Lauber in a hallway, dragged him into a bathroom, and then chopped off his hair while he struggled in terror. Even if you grant that this kind of extreme behavior was more common in a 1960s prep school than it is today, it’s really not the kind of thing you’d forget.

 

At least, you shouldn’t. So either Romney has done this kind of thing so often that the Lauber incident just blends into all the others, which suggests a far more vicious childhood than he’s owned up to, or else he remembers it just fine and is simply lying about it.

Furthermore, Romney has made his position on LGBT people clear more recently, too. As Governor of Massachusetts, he abolished a group looking into the issue of bullying and suicide in LGBT teenagers. One of his spokespeople outed a transgender woman running for political office in the same state, ending her career. Romney has also signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge, stating that he would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and donated $10,000 to that organization to support Proposition 8 in California. Of his stance on gay marriage as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has said, “On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

So, while we can be reasonably sure that Romney wouldn’t physically bully anyone these days, I’m not so sure that his ability to empathize with people different from him has evolved at all.

Unfortunately for us–if Romney gets elected–empathy is essential for good leadership. (A U.S. Army Colonel makes that case very persuasively in this Washington Post column.) By definition, leaders are in a place of privilege compared to those they lead, so if they want to know how best to serve the people who elected them, they must be able to understand them and their lives.

For instance, take bullying. It’s one thing to take a stand against bullying because you were once bullied yourself, and another thing entirely to understand the harm that bullying does to individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole, without having experienced it firsthand. Since presidential candidates tend to be male, white, wealthy, Christian, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, and so on, they are unlikely to have experienced things like bullying firsthand. That is why having empathy is essential if they are to understand this increasingly politicized issue.

For a politician, being empathic doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a bleeding-heart liberal; it just means you have to be able to understand how people different from you actually think, feel, and choose. You could still, for instance, choose to limit government spending for economic reasons while acknowledging and genuinely regretting the fact that your choices may hurt some people. You could propose and support ways of solving issues like social inequality without increasing government spending.You could understand that poor people are not always to blame for their own predicament, even if you don’t think that bringing them out of it is the government’s job.

You could recognize that you disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but understand that not everyone shares your beliefs and not everyone should have to live by them. You could disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but realize that gay and lesbian teenagers still deserve protection from bullying.

You could, in other words, be a Republican with a heart.

In short, having empathy doesn’t mean being politically liberal. There are plenty of liberals who seem to lack empathy, and there are–hopefully–conservatives who have it. But Romney isn’t one of them. And that, much more so than his politics, is why I really hope he’ll never be President.