The Law is Not on Our Side

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

Many brave writers have described what happened to them when they reported gender-based threats and violence to the police. Occasionally the outcome is positive, but often nothing at all happens and often something terrible happens.

Here are two recent examples I’ve read. The first is by Heina of Skepchick:

When the officer called me in, I was shaking a bit, but spoke as clearly and calmly as possible, presenting my evidence and voicing my fears. He responded with laughter.

Taken aback by his trivialization of the situation, I asked him if he could look at my evidence. I knew who the guy was, I pleaded. Couldn’t he, as an officer of the law, do something? Take the guy to task for threatening me somehow? At least take down a report so that if something happened, there was a record? He replied with an incredulous no to all my inquiries.

Out of the blue, he asked me if my picture included my face. I said no. He asked me how I expected to attract responses with a picture that didn’t include my face. Before I could respond, he answered his own question: it was a sexy picture, was it not? Feeling shamed, I was unable to speak and merely nodded.

“Don’t worry about it, then,” he chuckled. “Go home.”

What choice did I have other than to begin to gather up my things and prepare to leave? Before I could make my exit, though, he told me that he often visits women-seeking-women for the pictures, winked at me, and expressed his hope that he would see me on there sometime. Taken aback by the lechery in his tone, I half expected him to take a swat at my ass as I walked out the door.

The second example is even more jarring and painful to read, and deserves a strong trigger warning. It was a comment by EEB on a post of Jason’s, and Stephanie reprinted it with permission:

Two male detectives arrived at my house. I stammered out a request for a female detective; it was denied. (I learned later that they violated procedure by not accommodating the request.) They made me go through what happened. I was in excruciating pain and dripping blood but they didn’t want to take me to the hospital just then, and said the hospital “wasn’t ready” anyway. So I described the rape. Then they asked if I was taking any drugs. Well, just my medication. I thought it was strange that they literally spent more time asking about my mental health history and the types of medication I took, instead of the rape, but at the time, again, I was in shock, and not thinking much.

[…]Over the next few months, I submitted to multiple, horrific “interviews” that really felt like “interrogations” as time went on. I was also dealing with a serious medical condition at the time (I almost died; my intestines ruptured, but was almost certainly not a result of the rape, just bad timing). But I still believed in the system. I still didn’t want the man who raped me on the streets. I did everything they requested, answered every invasive question (the were really focused on my mental health history!), even got on the ground and acted out the rape for them, with the head detective on top of me acting out the part of the rapist. Not only was I absolutely hysterical by the time we were done, I’m positive that aggravated my PTSD for a long time after.

And after all that, I was called in for an “interview” to discuss “a new lead in your case”. They didn’t let my rape counselor in the room–again, against the law, I found out later! For about an hour (I think; my sense of time was not that great) they were no longer even pretending to be supportive. They accused me over and over of making it up. They had very flimsy “evidence” (which I won’t go into because it’s both complicated and ridiculous) but mostly it was their “instinct”.

Because I have a mental illness. Because I was hospitalized after attempting suicide. Because I “claimed” I had been sexually assaulted in the past. Because I was crazy, and he was sure I was just looking for attention. He had a bipolar ex-wife, you see, and she made his life a living hell. He told me how he understood mentally ill women, and how we need to create drama. How we’re liars, and we crave attention.

And over and over they accused me of lying. Alone in this tiny room with two large, angry men, I was doing everything I could to keep from having a panic attack. I couldn’t respond to what they were saying; again, I think I was in shock. And they threatened me with jail time, with a felony on my record, destroying my family, public humiliation (he threatened to call the papers–something he did anyway, because, quote, “the community needs to know there was no threat to public safety”). They said I would be charged with a false report, with terrorizing the public (there was a public awareness campaign initially after my attack, though I didn’t have anything to do with it. After the rape, I did everything I could to maintain anonymity, and only told two people–beyond my family and the cops–hat I was attacked. But…I did it for attention, which was why I didn’t tell anyone? I’m just sneaky like that, I guess!). Accusations, threats, anger, pounding the table, over and over and over.

The detective looked at me. His whole demeanor changed; he tried to seem kind, avuncular. “Tell me you made the whole thing up. This whole thing will disappear. Nothing will happen to you. You can leave, if you just tell me you made it up. Tell me you made it up and you’re sorry for lying, and I’ll let you leave.” I tried to hold out–but I didn’t last long. Honestly, at that point, all I wanted in the entire world was just to get out of that room. There are very few things I wouldn’t have done, if I could only leave. So I looked at him and lied. I said, “I made the whole thing up. I’m sorry.”

Through both of these examples, we see that women who are marginalized along other axes besides gender face additional injustice–cruelty, even–by law enforcement officials. Heina’s sexual orientation was used against her both by the man she reported for threats and by the cop who was supposed to be helping her. EEB’s mental illness was used as an excuse to abuse her, accuse her of lying, and ultimately coerce her into recanting her accusation despite overwhelming physical evidence that it was true.

The more intersecting marginalizations you have, the less likely you are to be treated fairly by the police. This is, sadly, nothing new at all, and it’s not limited to sexual violence (see: Trayvon Martin, stop and frisk, queer people being arrested for being queer). So why do people still insist that 1) survivors of sexual assault have a moral duty to report it to the police, 2) if the police do not prosecute a rapist, that means that no rape occurred, and 3) if a survivor chooses not to report, then they do not deserve any accommodations from their communities, and those communities must pretend that nothing ever happened?

EEB’s story, in particular, suggests that at least some false rape accusations are not actually false rape accusations. More research is urgently needed to determine how common this is, but my fear is that it is not uncommon. This story also shows how ableist ideas about mental illness–that people with mental illnesses are just “crazy” and “delusional” people who make shit up to ruin people’s lives–prevented a survivor from seeking justice and allowed a rapist to go free.

I used to be sympathetic to the idea that people should report sexual assault to the police, but I’m becoming less and less so. While I think we have an imperative to reform this system and make it work, for now, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable for a survivor to choose not to report. If I were advising a survivor, I’m not even sure that I would feel comfortable encouraging them to do so.

And, dudes, next time you show up demanding to know why so-and-so didn’t report if they were “really raped,” I’m going to link you to this post. Remember that feeling safe around police officers is a sign of privilege, as is the belief that they will treat you fairly.

Flirting and Sexual Harassment: Not Actually the Same Thing

I could do a whole series on harmful and irrational responses to sexual harassment claims. First we had the “but it’s a learning opportunity!” defense, and now there’s this sort of thing: “But people are going to flirt. We’re all sexual beings*. We’re all adults here and should be able to deal with some harmless flirting. Grow up.”

Let’s be clear: flirting and sexual harassment are not the same thing. I have been flirted with many times. I have also been sexually harassed many times. The difference is whether or not the person is treating me like a human being with her own agency, with her own preferences and desires.

If you’re cornering me at a bar or party and leering about what a “dirty girl” I must be and we’ve never spoken before, you’re sexually harassing me. If we’re acquaintances and meet up for lunch and you smile in that particular way and say, “You know, you’re really pretty,” you’re flirting. If you’re my friend–just a friend–and I ask you to help me carry some boxes and afterward you say with a knowing smirk, “So, don’t I get a little something in return for this?,” you’re sexually harassing me.

Different people may have different boundaries. You may not know what those boundaries are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or that you have no responsibility to figure out what they are, or that the people you’re attracted to are required to be okay with any sexual comment or approach you choose to make because “we’re all adults here.”

In communities of geeks, nerds, gamers, atheists, and others who have probably been social outcasts at some point in their lives, accusations of sexual harassment often lead to defensive claims that it was “just flirting” and that the person being accused of harassment is actually just socially inept and didn’t realize they were doing anything wrong. It’s easy to use social awkwardness as a cover for predatory behavior. We’re just awkward! We didn’t really learn social skills as kids! We didn’t do this whole dating thing until our 20s! And so on.

First of all, it’s crucially important to understand that playing innocent is something sexual harassers do to hide their tracks. When caught in the act, they protest that they were “just flirting” and it was “all in good fun” and that they “have no idea what [target] is so upset about.” They pretend to be socially awkward and inept, and that they just “didn’t realize” that their actions would make others feel violated and uncomfortable. They claim that there was a “miscommunication,” although evidence suggests that people are quite good at communicating about boundaries, even if they do so using veiled language.

Accepting prima facie this idea that claims of sexual harassment result from one person being “awkward” and the other person not giving them the benefit of the doubt is harmful, because it allows predators to use awkwardness as an excuse.

But let’s for a moment grant that some people may genuinely not realize that what they’re doing constitutes sexual harassment. They just have bad social skills or learned all their flirting techniques from Mad Men or read a few too many PUA forums. What now?

Well, here are some ways to tell if your “flirting” is edging into sexual harassment territory. It’s not an exhaustive list, and answering “yes” to some of these questions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re harassing someone. It just means you need to be careful and self-reflective.

  • Is this person someone you’ve never interacted with before?
  • Is your “flirting” overtly sexual (i.e. making explicit comments about their appearance, talking about what you’d like to do with them sexually) even though this person has never expressed sexual interest in you?
  • Are you the one doing most of the talking? Is the other person turning away, looking around for other people, giving you monosyllabic answers?
  • Are you in a position of power or authority relative to the person you’re talking to? Are you a conference speaker or organizer, a well-known person in the community, a manager or supervisor at work?
  • Do you have the ability to create consequences for this person if they don’t return your interest? The question isn’t whether or not you will, because they can’t read your mind. The question is whether or not you can.

Primarily, sexual harassment is not about your intentions. It’s about how others perceive your intentions. Others may perceive your intentions as being creepy or dangerous either because they actually are creepy or dangerous, or because you’re not doing a good job of communicating your intentions. And that’s on you. If you’re concerned that people will misread you as being creepy, communicate! Say, “So, I find you really attractive. Want to come back to my room later? If not, no worries.” And then let them say no.

Good flirting requires being good at reading people–their tone, their body language, their word choice, their facial expression. Some people are not very good at reading people. That’s okay! Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. However, the fact that you have a particular weakness does not mean that it’s other people’s job to deal with and work around that weakness. If your social awkwardness makes people feel uncomfortable and violated, it is your responsibility to change your behavior, either by learning better social skills or by communicating more clearly so that people don’t get the wrong impression of you.

This is why it’s so infuriating to hear people making excuses for themselves or their friends that go like this: “But he’s just really socially awkward; it’s not his fault.” “Give her a break, she’s just kind of a weird person.” No. Give people more credit than that. People can change.

For instance, here are some great resources for people trying to develop their social skills, especially when it comes to flirting and dating:

(Feel free to leave more in the comments.)

It’s not always clear where the line between appropriate and inappropriate flirting lies, but that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. If you’re trying to flirt with someone and you don’t know where that line lies, it’s your responsibility to find out. (“Hey, is it cool that I said you’re really pretty? I can totally stop if it’s weird for you.”) It’s not the other person’s responsibility to alert you once you’ve already crossed it, made them feel unsafe, and ruined their evening.

I think the most difficult thing for people to understand about this is that it’s not about intent. When someone with whom you’re not close starts hitting on you, you can’t possibly know how they will react if you ignore or rebuff their advances. You can’t possibly know if they’re just hitting on you for innocent fun or if they’re going to try to get you in bed by whatever means necessary.

Anyone who blames you for not knowing and refusing to assume good intent is being creepy. They’re saying that not hurting someone’s feelings matters more than keeping yourself safe. It does not.

In any case, consensual, mutually enjoyable flirting is a really fucking awesome thing. Let’s not devalue it by pretending that sexual harassment falls under its umbrella.

~~~

*We are not all, in fact, “sexual beings.”

On Sexual Harassment and “Learning Opportunities”

[Content note: sexual harassment]

The skeptic/secular community is blowing up with the sadly-unsurprising news that at least one Big-Name Skeptic has been sexually harassing women. More accusations keep pouring out, though some of them have been stifled with legal threats.

I expect (and hope) that this is something we’re going to keep talking about for quite some time.

I’m already noticing several familiar themes in the reactions to these stories. For instance, one common response to demands that a known perpetrator of sexual harassment (or even assault) be removed from an organization, group, or community is to claim that the perp needs this “learning opportunity” and should therefore be allowed to stay. Ze will learn from zir mistakes and not do this again. We should show mercy, thereby encouraging zir to change.

This claim plays to some of our strongest desires as activists. We want people to learn and change. We want people who do wrong but properly atone for it to be reintegrated into their communities; otherwise, they’ll just keep offending.

There are, however, a number of fatal flaws in this claim.

First of all, removing a harasser from your group and giving that harasser a learning opportunity are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Losing a valued job, volunteer position, leadership role, or group of friends can be a very poignant wake-up call and an indicator that you need to change your behavior. It doesn’t mean you’re screwed forever. It means you need to understand what you did wrong, become a better, more ethical person, and try again.

Second, sexual harassment and assault are common partially because they are so unlikely to be reported, and even if they are reported, they are unlikely to lead to any serious consequences for the perpetrator. People who harass and assault others know this. That’s why, if they do get caught, they get teary and claim that there were just “miscommunications” and this won’t happen again and they totally understand. Then they harass or assault again, perhaps while bullying the victim who dared report them. Knowing that nothing serious will happen to them if they get caught ensures that they’re going to keep doing it.

Third, the only reason harassers would need a “learning opportunity” to understand that harassment is wrong is if they don’t know that it’s wrong already. But they do. Often, sexual harassment takes place behind closed doors or at crowded social gatherings where nobody can hear. Harassers purposefully harass such that others won’t notice, or that those who do notice won’t be the people who would care. Why hide your behavior if you honestly don’t see anything wrong with it?

Fourth, and most importantly, when you say that a harasser deserves a “learning opportunity” that allows zir to remain where ze is, what you’re implying is that it’s acceptable for zir victims to have to keep working with zir, probably while continuing to be harassed, if it means that the harasser gets zir “learning opportunity.” You’re implying that it’s acceptable for these victims to be the guinea pigs on which the harasser practices not being a terrible human being until ze finally learns how. You’re implying that if a victim of harassment can’t keep working with someone who harassed them, either because they feel violated and unsafe or because the harasser is continuing to harass them, it’s the victim’s job to leave.

You’re implying that it’s more important to give the harasser this “learning opportunity” than it is to support victims and create a welcoming, productive, and safe environment at work, at school, or in your social group.

A system that prioritizes perpetrators over victims is a morally bankrupt system.

We do absolutely need to get harassers to stop harassing. However, the goal shouldn’t be to teach them that harassment is wrong (this they already know), but why it’s wrong. Giving a known harasser a slap on the wrist by making them take a sexual harassment training isn’t going to cut it, except perhaps for the small minority of harassers who are genuinely clueless enough about basic human interaction to think that making crude sexual comments to a coworker is okay. Giving them a stern talking-to isn’t going to cut it either.

Teaching a harasser why harassment is wrong is a whole other ballgame, because it requires teaching them to understand power dynamics, sexism, microaggression, sexualization, and a bunch of other complicated things that aren’t as simple as “yo don’t tell your employee they have a nice ass (or at least don’t do it where anyone will hear you and make sure they don’t feel comfortable telling on you).” This is not a job for the harasser’s workplace or school or organization or group of friends. This is a job for a professional educator. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that we really have an infrastructure right now for mandating and facilitating this type of education effectively. We don’t even have that much research on how it can be done.

Creating real consequences for harassment does not mean ostracizing people forever. It doesn’t mean that punishments have to be extremely severe and vengeful. It doesn’t mean that we can’t be compassionate. It doesn’t mean that harassers are inhuman monsters who can’t get better.

Regardless, letting harassers remain where they are without facing any consequences is not the answer. Privileging their need to “learn” over their victims’ need to be able to work, learn, or hang out safely is unjust.

A system that prioritizes perpetrators over victims is a morally bankrupt system.

Harassment Is Not An Isolated Incident

The reason it’s so hard to get people to take harassment seriously is because it looks so different from the outside than from the inside.

Here’s an example many of us are probably viscerally familiar with.

There’s a group of kids at school who don’t like you. They try to trip you every time you walk by, and whenever you try to join their kickball game at recess they suddenly decide they don’t want to play kickball anymore. They even have a nickname for you–“Piggy,” because you’re fat–and whenever the teacher calls on you in class they laugh and make snorting noises. They find out that you have a crush on another kid in your class and they get that kid to pass you a note. You take the note; it’s folded up and has your name written on it with hearts drawn around it. You get butterflies in your stomach. But when you open it up, it’s a picture of a pig.

Imagine trying to tell your teacher (or even your parents) what’s going on. “They keep trying to trip me!” you say. “Oh, come on, I’m sure they didn’t do it on purpose. The hallway is crowded. It must’ve been an accident.”

“They always stop playing kickball right when I try to join the team!” “You’re taking it too personally. I’m sure they just got tired of playing that game.”

“They keep laughing and making snorting noises whenever I have to answer a question!” “It probably has nothing to do with you. They’re just kids having fun.”

“They got so-and-so to pass me a note with a pig drawn on it!” “So they drew you a nice picture. Why do you have to get upset by everything?”

There’s nothing you can do to explain it. You saw the look in his eyes before he tripped you. You know that she passed you that pig drawing because “Piggy” is what they call you. You know they stop playing because of you. What are the odds that almost every day at recess this school year, you just happened to try to join the game just as they got tired of playing it? When they were clearly having fun right before you showed up?

Come on.

It doesn’t make sense to look at harassment as a few isolated incidents. How hurtful is it really for someone to trip you once, maybe accidentally? So what if someone giggles when the teacher calls on you one day? Maybe you did just have the bad luck to try to join the kickball game right as everyone decided to go play something else.

But as a pattern–as a series of tiny acts and gestures that build up over time, intended to make someone feel unwanted, threatened, afraid–harassment can be devastating.

The same thing happens to us as adults, in the digital age. “So they tweeted some random insult at you, who cares?” “I’m sure they didn’t know you didn’t want to be tagged in that photo.” “Yeah, there’s a few assholes on the Internet. It’s not a big deal.”

It’s hard to get people to see that if these were really “Isolated Incidents,” you wouldn’t be so upset. It’s not about the individual little annoyances. It’s about the whole damn thing. It’s about the straw that broke the camel’s back. And while you sit there, sputtering, trying to explain why it’s so hurtful that someone tweeted at you telling you to shut up, they get to lord it over you how “overly sensitive” you are and how you’re just “looking for things to be upset about.”

Sexual harassment works the same way. So some guy on the street told me I have nice tits. Whatever. But some other guy says it when I’m on my way back. Another one says it tomorrow. Another says it on the subway. Another gets off the subway and tries to follow me down the street saying it. Another leaves it in a comment on my blog. Another sends it to me in a message on OkCupid.

And another sits there smirking and telling me it’s not such a big deal, just ignore it.

The fact that it’s so easy for outsiders to deny the painful reality of harassment is not a bug. It’s a feature. This is why harassers harass. Because they know that when you try to do something about it, people are going to throw their hands up wondering why you’re so upset over some random tweet or blog comment.

Another reason harassers harass is because they know microaggression works better than macroaggression. If someone attacked you physically or heaped verbal abuse on you, it would be (more) obvious to you that they’re in the wrong. It would be easy for you to write this person off as a bully.

But harassment is more insidious. It makes you ask yourself if you’re just crazy to be getting so upset over these “little things.” It makes you blame yourself for having annoyed the person to begin with. It makes it that much harder for you to get support from others. Everyone knows what a black eye looks like, and everyone (read: all reasonable people) knows that heaping verbal abuse on people is wrong.

But what about tweeting at them when they’ve asked you to leave them alone? What about making photoshopped images of them just for fun and sharing them? What about tagging them in a photo you know they’d be upset to see? What about giving them “compliments” that you really know they wouldn’t appreciate because it would make them uncomfortable? What about talking about how much you hate them where you know they’ll overhear (or oversee)?

It doesn’t make any sense to look at harassment, sexual or otherwise, as a series of isolated incidents, or else you’re bound to misunderstand it and try to minimize what the person who’s being harassed is going through. Harassment only makes sense as a pattern–a targeted campaign of bullying against a person, the point of which is not just to hurt them directly with words or actions, but also to make them feel like they’re “overreacting” and merely imagining that this is happening to them.

That’s a cruel thing to do to a person.

~~~

*Edit* More on the street harassment bit of this. People may claim that because it’s different guys each time, it’s just “random” and “isolated incidents.” Really, though? You think it’s some huge coincidence that every time I leave my house this just happens to happen? Some might say that it’s because “that’s just how men are” (some real misandry if I ever heard it), but what’s more likely is that this stuff just doesn’t get challenged enough. Most of us learn by 5 or 6 years of age that it’s not appropriate to just shout at random strangers what we think about them.

Further, take that guy who said “nice tits” to me on the street. You really think I’m the only woman he’s ever said something like that to? Street harassment may be perpetuated on the same woman by many different men, but although they may not realize it, they’re acting collectively, taking pleasure at the thought of making a woman feel violated and afraid. That’s why it’s harassment. That’s why it’s never an “isolated incident.”

[guest post] Also Known as the Argument from “Gotta Get Laid, Amirite?”

Mitchell of Research to be Done has a fantastic response to my recent post!

Let’s talk about street harassment. Actually, since Miri has covered the bases very well in her last post on street harassment, let’s talk about something that came up in the comments, and that tends to come up now and then in conversations about accosting or complementing women in public. I’m going to call it the Argument from Sociopathic Cost-Benefit Analysis.

It’s roughly this: “Well, some women do appreciate those compliments from strangers. Sometimes they lead to making a connection, or dating, or sex, etc., putting those of us who don’t accost women that way at a disadvantage with women!” Some people will take it further, and add that this means hitting on women in public is naturally selected for and therefore impossible to eliminate because evolution and such (the “EVOLUTION IS MAKING ME DO IT!!” argument).

Hoo, boy! So there are a few problems with this:

First of all, there’s the sociopathic part. Let’s grant for a moment that men who routinely hit on women in public have the world’s greatest sex lives as a result of it. That doesn’t change the fact that there are lots and lots of women who are incredibly uncomfortable being hit on in public. It doesn’t change the fact that if this is your reasoning for hitting on women in public, you are deciding that your ability to get laid matters more than the discomfort of all of the people that you make uncomfortable in the process. It doesn’t change the fact that your argument boils down to, “I don’t care about your feelings as long as I get laid.” If you don’t care that that’s what it boils down to, then by all means keep making the argument, I guess, but I sincerely hope you aren’t ever mixing it up with the, “But I’m really a Non-Creepy Nice Guy” argument, because newsflash: you definitely aren’t*.

Second of all, no, you are not allowed to say that hitting on women in public is selected for by natural selection. First, you don’t know if it’s heritable. Second, you don’t know how the selective pressures in our evolutionary history might have contrasted with those acting on random people on a city street today. Third, you do (I hope) know that our society in its present state hasn’t been around long enough for such a specific act to be selected for on a scale that even remotely resembles the scale that this phenomenon occurs. Fourth, you don’t have any actual evidence that it correlates with reproductive success in the first place. Fifth, even if you could show that evolution selected for this behavior, that isn’t an argument. It’s like saying that because gravity pulls us all toward the center of the earth, we all have to spend our lives burrowing toward the center of the earth (“GRAVITY IS MAKING ME DO IT!!”). The fact that external forces act on our society and ourselves doesn’t mean we are obligated to do exactly the same thing those forces do.

Third (jumping one level up in the nested iterations of points, here), why are you so concerned with missing out on the things that could happen between you and the particular subset of women who don’t mind being hit on in public? Undoubtedly, there are plenty of women you will miss out on interacting with as a result of being the type of person who regularly hits on women in public, also. Why are you not concerned about missing out on interacting with them? What is it about this one particular avenue of interaction that makes missing out on it so tragic?

There are, in fact, a large number of other ways to meet and interact with women. There are ways that don’t involve nearly so much risk of making people uncomfortable. Invariably, no matter what approach you take, and no matter what context you do it in, your approach will appeal to some people, and not appeal to others (the same way that some people may appreciate getting hit on in public, and other people probably won’t want anything to do with people who do hit on people in public). What is so amazing about hitting on people in public that the interactions you might start that way carry so much more importance, and the people you make uncomfortable carry so much less importance than in other situations where you could meet people?

In summary, the Argument from Sociopathic Cost-Benefit Analysis is sociopathic, not at all based in evolution or science of any kind, and, for a line of reasoning that is apparently about not missing out on interaction with women, ignores the fact that there are plenty of other ways to interact with them, and that no matter how you choose to do so, including hitting on women in public, you’re going to miss out on interactions with someone. In light of that, why not pick a context and style of approach that requires no sociopathy at all?

*You’re basically a less extreme version of the guy who thinks Louis CK should’ve just gone for it on the off chance she was into that shit.

Mitchell Greenbaum is a geeky, poly, kinky, skeptic blogger who writes about social justice, relationships, depression, and chronic pain at Research to be Done, and engages in a wholly excessive amount of… auto-metacognition? Or does it make more sense as meta-auto-cognition? He isn’t really sure, but playing with prefixes is fun and writing bios is hard. True story.

Consent Does Not “Ruin the Moment”

People who oppose sensible things like anti-harassment policies at conferences keep bringing up the same tired myths about dating, sex, and romance: that it’s very important to have “mystery” and that making things clear and explicit “takes away the fun” and, worst of all, that asking for consent “would ruin the moment.”

I encounter this myth a lot in my work as a sexual health peer educator. When I talk to people about sex, I always emphasize the need to ask for consent whenever you’re doing Sexual Stuff with someone, and I am often asked, “But wouldn’t asking permission for stuff kill the mood?”

Sometimes I wonder what planet such people are living on, and whether or not they have, in fact, ever had sex. Because to me, there’s nothing hotter than asking someone if they want me to do [insert sexy thing here] to them and being answered with “Fuck yeah!” or “Yes please!” or, you know, just doing that thing.

For the vast majority of the people you will encounter sexually, there are two ways asking for consent could go. One is that you ask for consent and they say some equivalent of “Fuck yeah!” and you get to do that thing with them, knowing that they’re as into it as you are.

The other is that they tell you no, and then congratulations, you’ve just avoided assaulting someone. And with luck, you’ll find something else that you both want to do, or you’ll have a great conversation about your boundaries, or you’ll realize that this person isn’t into the things you are–or they’re not into you–and you get to move on before any feelings are hurt.

And if the person tells you no in a mean way or if they make fun of you for asking or tell you that it’s a turn-off, then guess what? The problem isn’t you, or the fact that you asked. The problem is them.

Of course, there are people who prefer not to be asked. A friend told me that she likes it when partners push the boundaries a bit without asking, and she tells them no once they’ve tried something she doesn’t want. But here’s the thing:

  1. People Are Different. My friend does not represent all people or all women, and anyone who assumes that she does is making a mistake. You can’t generalize from a single person you know, or even from all the people you’ve slept with in the past. There’s no such thing as What Women Want or What Men Want or What One-Night-Stands Want or What Spouses Want.
  2. If you are like my friend, you can negotiate this with a partner from the beginning–i.e. “I want you to do what you want to me without asking, and I’ll tell you if I want you to stop.”

Also, not all ways of asking for consent are equal for everybody. Personally, for instance, I find it really hot when someone is direct and confident–not aggressively confident, but assertively confident. For instance, “I really want to fuck you. Can I?” I find it much less appealing when someone clearly lacks confidence and stammers out something like “So um, do you think we could like, have sex now?” To me, that says that the person is asking not necessarily because they care about my consent, but because they don’t really believe that anyone would truly want to have sex with them.

But the beauty of this is, that’s just me. My desires are not everyone’s desires. My turn-ons are not everyone’s turn-ons.

You can ask for consent in a myriad of ways, many of which will be appealing to plenty of people. You could use my “I really want to fuck you” example. You could simply tell the person what you want to do and see how they respond. You could make a motion indicating what you want to do (such as reaching for their zipper) and ask, “Is this okay?” You could even take some of the pressure off yourself by asking them what they want (never a bad idea).

Some people protest that it’s ridiculous to explicitly ask for every single touch no matter how extensive a sexual history you have with someone. While most of them probably understand that you should ask for consent when it comes to penis-in-vagina intercourse (although, of course, there are quite a few people who still don’t get that), for some reason they don’t think that this same courtesy should be extended to other types of sexual contact. But there’s no reason intercourse should be categorically different. For many people, in fact, it’s not the most “intimate” possible act, and that’s not even to mention the fact that not everyone even does it (because, you know, non-heterosexual sex is a Real Thing). Furthermore, just because hugging or kissing someone who doesn’t want it isn’t “as bad” as penetrating someone who doesn’t want it does not mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent the former, too.

But regardless, these people are also misconstruing the argument. There are certain ways to consent nonverbally–for instance, if I move in close to someone and put my head on their shoulder, that probably means it’s okay for them to put their arm around me–and partners who have an established history can build up enough trust and knowledge of each other that they don’t need to ask about every single thing.

But many (if not most) sexual encounters are not like that. Unless you’re certain beyond a doubt what someone wants–and, honestly, it’s difficult for me to think of a situation like that except when explicit consent has been given–you should ask.

Consent doesn’t ruin the moment. Assault, however, definitely does.

Consent Does Not "Ruin the Moment"

People who oppose sensible things like anti-harassment policies at conferences keep bringing up the same tired myths about dating, sex, and romance: that it’s very important to have “mystery” and that making things clear and explicit “takes away the fun” and, worst of all, that asking for consent “would ruin the moment.”

I encounter this myth a lot in my work as a sexual health peer educator. When I talk to people about sex, I always emphasize the need to ask for consent whenever you’re doing Sexual Stuff with someone, and I am often asked, “But wouldn’t asking permission for stuff kill the mood?”

Sometimes I wonder what planet such people are living on, and whether or not they have, in fact, ever had sex. Because to me, there’s nothing hotter than asking someone if they want me to do [insert sexy thing here] to them and being answered with “Fuck yeah!” or “Yes please!” or, you know, just doing that thing.

For the vast majority of the people you will encounter sexually, there are two ways asking for consent could go. One is that you ask for consent and they say some equivalent of “Fuck yeah!” and you get to do that thing with them, knowing that they’re as into it as you are.

The other is that they tell you no, and then congratulations, you’ve just avoided assaulting someone. And with luck, you’ll find something else that you both want to do, or you’ll have a great conversation about your boundaries, or you’ll realize that this person isn’t into the things you are–or they’re not into you–and you get to move on before any feelings are hurt.

And if the person tells you no in a mean way or if they make fun of you for asking or tell you that it’s a turn-off, then guess what? The problem isn’t you, or the fact that you asked. The problem is them.

Of course, there are people who prefer not to be asked. A friend told me that she likes it when partners push the boundaries a bit without asking, and she tells them no once they’ve tried something she doesn’t want. But here’s the thing:

  1. People Are Different. My friend does not represent all people or all women, and anyone who assumes that she does is making a mistake. You can’t generalize from a single person you know, or even from all the people you’ve slept with in the past. There’s no such thing as What Women Want or What Men Want or What One-Night-Stands Want or What Spouses Want.
  2. If you are like my friend, you can negotiate this with a partner from the beginning–i.e. “I want you to do what you want to me without asking, and I’ll tell you if I want you to stop.”

Also, not all ways of asking for consent are equal for everybody. Personally, for instance, I find it really hot when someone is direct and confident–not aggressively confident, but assertively confident. For instance, “I really want to fuck you. Can I?” I find it much less appealing when someone clearly lacks confidence and stammers out something like “So um, do you think we could like, have sex now?” To me, that says that the person is asking not necessarily because they care about my consent, but because they don’t really believe that anyone would truly want to have sex with them.

But the beauty of this is, that’s just me. My desires are not everyone’s desires. My turn-ons are not everyone’s turn-ons.

You can ask for consent in a myriad of ways, many of which will be appealing to plenty of people. You could use my “I really want to fuck you” example. You could simply tell the person what you want to do and see how they respond. You could make a motion indicating what you want to do (such as reaching for their zipper) and ask, “Is this okay?” You could even take some of the pressure off yourself by asking them what they want (never a bad idea).

Some people protest that it’s ridiculous to explicitly ask for every single touch no matter how extensive a sexual history you have with someone. While most of them probably understand that you should ask for consent when it comes to penis-in-vagina intercourse (although, of course, there are quite a few people who still don’t get that), for some reason they don’t think that this same courtesy should be extended to other types of sexual contact. But there’s no reason intercourse should be categorically different. For many people, in fact, it’s not the most “intimate” possible act, and that’s not even to mention the fact that not everyone even does it (because, you know, non-heterosexual sex is a Real Thing). Furthermore, just because hugging or kissing someone who doesn’t want it isn’t “as bad” as penetrating someone who doesn’t want it does not mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent the former, too.

But regardless, these people are also misconstruing the argument. There are certain ways to consent nonverbally–for instance, if I move in close to someone and put my head on their shoulder, that probably means it’s okay for them to put their arm around me–and partners who have an established history can build up enough trust and knowledge of each other that they don’t need to ask about every single thing.

But many (if not most) sexual encounters are not like that. Unless you’re certain beyond a doubt what someone wants–and, honestly, it’s difficult for me to think of a situation like that except when explicit consent has been given–you should ask.

Consent doesn’t ruin the moment. Assault, however, definitely does.

[storytime] These Streets Are Mine: On Street Harassment

I got sexually harassed today.

Actually, it happens all the time. Like, almost every time I venture out on the city streets for longer than ten minutes. It’s kinda like when you have to drive in the city and you can never find a good parking spot, or when you’re stuck behind a group of sluggish tourists on the street.

You know, annoying stuff that happens when you live in the city.

Except this is different. Because this only affects people who are (or appear to be) women, and because this is a conscious, purposeful attempt to make us feel unsafe and violated. It is not a compliment. It is not “boys being boys.” It is harassment.

This time, I’m on a dark El platform at 10 PM. I’d just been out with a friend and had a great time. I’m wearing a nice dress, same one I wore to work, not that it’s any of your business. An old man calls something to me from 10 yards away; I ignore him.

A few minutes later he ambles over, passes in front of me so close as to brush against me, and says, “Mhm.”

He stands on the other side of me until the train comes and gets into the same car as me. He doesn’t get a seat near me because there are too many people, but I see him looking over.

I slowly reach into my bag and pull out my pepper spray, letting it dangle from my fingers. And I look up with a face of stone, and he knows that I know what he did.

I am attractive. You can think I’m vain for saying that, but I don’t really care what you think. It’s hard not to know you’re attractive when you’ve been told from birth. My parents always say, “You’re so beautiful, you can get any guy you want if you just stop being in such a bad mood all the time.” They say, “Make sure you have a guy walk you home.” They say, “Try to find a job where your boss is a man. It’ll be easier that way.”

In the past, when I had friends who didn’t get it, they did it too. They thought I couldn’t possibly have any trouble in my love life. They thought I couldn’t possibly have a problem with the number on the scale.

Beauty carries a lot of privilege in our society–and, really, in any human society, although standards of beauty vary. But, unlike most kinds of societal privilege, this one comes at a cost. I’m not particularly interested in debating who has it worse, but suffice it to say that I would rather not have strange men brushing up against me when I’m trying to take the train home at night.

And no. I will not demand that my male friends take me home; that’s not their job. I will not dress in ugly, baggy clothing. I will not stop leaving my apartment in the evenings. I will not stop taking public transportation. I will not stop walking down these streets, because these streets are mine.

I’m not afraid. Not because I have no reason to be, but because I couldn’t keep living if I were. I can’t keep crossing the street every time I see a man. I can’t keep wincing visibly every time I hear their slurred come-ons. I can’t keep tugging at my clothes in front of the mirror, trying to figure out how to cover up what I never chose to have in the first place.

I’m not afraid. I’m angry.

A while back, the writer Norah Vincent dressed as a man for a year and a half and wrote about her experience. This is what she said about the first time she went out in drag:

I had lived in that neighbourhood for years, walking its streets, where men lurk outside of bodegas, on stoops and in doorways much of the day. As a woman, you couldn’t walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren’t pretty. But that night in drag, we walked by those same stoops and doorways and bodegas. We walked by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn’t stare. On the contrary, when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly, and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.

They can choose to look away from women, too. But our society teaches them that women are there for their eyes.

There are things I can do. And I’m not talking about the “don’t go out alone” types of things. I find that anger deters these pathetic men more than anything else. They don’t want a woman who’s going to cause trouble, who’s going to whip around and snarl, hit, tell them to fuck off. They don’t want a woman sitting straight up, glaring, with a can of pepper spray ready in her hand.

Nine of out ten of them will stop at that.

As for the other one, well, I suppose that’s a risk I have to take if I’m going to fight for my right to walk down the fucking street.

Just like any man can do.

For more information: Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment

Sunday Link Roundup

So I’ve decided to dedicate one post each week to sharing all the awesome things I read elsewhere on the Internet. Hopefully I actually remember to do this each week. :)

1. On the benefits of psychiatric labels. I’ve written about this before, but this blogger says it beautifully: “My labels have freed me to live in better harmony with the person I wish to be.”

2. On sexual harassment as an exercise of power.

3. On casual sex and how, for some people, it’s just not that great. I can really relate to this.

4. On “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting in life. This super-controversial post uses video games as a metaphor for privilege. It’s been accused of ignoring issues like class, but I think we can all agree that Metaphors Are Imperfect.

5. On the (in)visibility of bisexuality. Also, everything else on this blog is fantastic.

6. On Mitt Romney as a bully. I wrote about this too, but this post explores more facets of the story. “The fact that so many responses to Romney’s abuse categorise it as pranking or fun rather than bullying says a lot about why this country has such a big bullying problem. The refusal to identify what he did as wrong, and to connect the dots on what it means politically, speaks to dangerous social attitudes.”

7. Last but not least, this blogger dedicated an entire post to why my blog is awesome. Needless to say, I feel really really special. :D