Warning: Rape, Anger, (Long)
This is not an attempt to equivocate. The victim of an assault is the victim and nothing anyone ever says can or should reduce in any way the victim’s subjective assessment of what they’ve experienced.
That means nobody gets to come along and say “suck it up” or “it’ll be OK.” I’m afraid that the best you can do is help them heal however you can, and show them that you respect their choices and try to understand.
Some of what I’m going to talk about, I’m going to skate by details. It’s not because I don’t know the details, but because the details are victims’ stories, and not mine to tell. One thing I absolutely do not tolerate is when someone is assaulted, and another person tries to minimize their experience, or – worse – to imply, sneakily, that maybe they are just mis-remembering or exaggerating, or maybe it was not that bad. Let me be completely clear about this: if you say something like that around me, my mental imagery becomes sticking a long, sharp, knife into the speaker’s stomach, and whispering, “minimize this” in their ear. Because, like a knife in the guts, a person’s experiences are entirely subjective – unique to them. I know a guy who got shot in the neck in Vietnam and he said it wasn’t bad [sazz]. I know a woman who was sexually assaulted by someone who was supposed to be watching over her, and it devastated her mind and she says it took her ability to love anyone ever again. Read my words carefully: I am not saying either of those wounds is worse. I’m saying you can’t put wounds on some kind of spectrum and tell someone to “suck it up” or “snap out of it.”
With a very few exceptions, every woman I know has been sexually assaulted.
I was talking the other day with a friend and she said she didn’t consider herself to have been sexually assaulted because she was never held down and raped or anything like that. She just had to deal with teenage gropings, shouted abuse, and (thanks to intersectionality I can now understand this better:) racialized verbal sexual aggression. She only had to “deal with” a lifetime, so far, of that. Others of the women I know had different experiences. There was the one who, at the last minute, didn’t show up for an event I invited her to – an old friend, I had hoped to see – it turned out that she had been dragged off at knife-point and raped, and couldn’t come to my silly party because she was in the emergency room and police offices, getting interrogated dismissively and scornfully by cops. We had been lovers, once, and I remember there were some things we did, once, that made her suddenly lose focus, go cold, and turn away. I assumed I’d made a conventional mistake (you know, like putting all my weight on a full bladder, or farting, or something) but it wasn’t until years later that she told me I had accidentally done something that reminded her of the man who raped her when she was a child. Often, I wonder how many times we men think we’re just awkward lovers, or even inconsiderate or incompetent, lost in our own haze of excitement and aspiration, but we don’t realize our partners are threading through mine-fields of repressed memories. They’re not telling us “don’t do that” because they want us to not have happy fun-time in bed, they’re telling us “please.. don’t even make me…” because they have repressed memories that are painful or enraging as a combat veteran’s. Here’s the first point, which I did not understand back then: men’s tendencies to rape were reaching into our relationship and complicating things. I didn’t know – she didn’t tell me – and it should and always should have been her choice – but it was something that was there that affected us both.
Again, none of this goes on Anubis’ scales: I’m not saying that what happened to her affected me more or even anything close to it. It’s not on a spectrum like that. But her rapist, whoever he was, was part of our sexual life. When you read the Schrodinger’s Rapist piece [sr] that’s what it’s talking about – people that have been targeted for rape are going to see potential rapists differently. That affects the victims, and that affects the perfectly decent person who tips their hat and offers to hold a door for a complete stranger: their experience is subjective and it’s only theirs – if I’m the person offering to hold a door for some woman who has a bag full of groceries, I may be completely innocently replaying the exact gesture of the last person who raped her. That person’s ghost, the remnants of their cruelty and selfishness and sickness, is reaching out from the past, into both our lives, and changing what happens. I’m going to be completely frank: if I offered to hold a door for a woman who had a big bag of groceries and – instead, she maced me – I’d try to understand, and I bet I’d know why. We big, looming, guys full of privilege have to be careful what we do and it’s not the women’s fault: it’s their past assailants’ fault. We don’t get to loom over and hold the door and then say “sheesh, chill out…” if we catch a threatening look.
It may not be our fault but it’s our problem. And that’s why I am writing this. There are a lot of men who are minimizing and sticking up for douchebags that are making our world worse, too. Because we live in a world that is twisted by the consequences of their cruelty, selfishness, and sickness. I’ve dealt with it, and if you’re a cis/het man reading this, you may have/probably have, too. If you think you haven’t, start asking your women friends if they’ve ever been assaulted. Make sure you are sitting down.
I know I’m writing this from the viewpoint of a cis/het man, because that’s what I am. I have a good imagination and I have a vague notion of the tip of the iceberg of unpleasantness that goes along with this stuff – religious indoctrination, gender identity, body dysmorphia, bullying, maybe just not being interested, parental abuse – there is an entire, profound, shit-show of human experience that, thanks to toxic masculinity and rape culture, most cis/het men like myself are sheltered from. We are occasionally challenged to think “how would you like prison rape?” or whatever, but it’s stupid – it’s like asking someone to think about life-and-death moral issues using the Trolley Cart Problem: reality is a whole different thing and your lived experience does not, ever match your imagination. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but the reality is always purely subjective in the mind of the person who experiences.
A few years ago I was in love with a young lady who had already been assaulted and abused and who was dealing (pretty well, I thought) with a load of post-traumatic stress issues. We had tentative little hopes for maybe building some kind of future on our shared interests; I loved the way her eyes lit up when she took care of her pets, or we went out junk shopping (romantic pack-rats!) but then something bad happened to her that really threw her off her balance and she resorted to sleep aids in order to sleep and a “friend of the family” talked her into coming out with him even though she was already half unconscious on ambien – and he took her to a special place he had, and raped her at length. She didn’t want to tell me but the next time I saw her the light in her eyes had been shuttered and all of her body language was a jumble of contradictions. I had no idea, but I asked because I could see something was wrong and naturally I had my head up my ass and thought that whatever had happened was something to do with me. The story came dripping, then tumbling out. Basically this guy had reached into her life in the most personal way possible, and just did whatever he wanted. From that, events cascade like some kind of evil domino theory. I could tell he was experienced at it – he had a loft somewhere (I never learned where) and he did stuff like made sure she showered before he took her back and gave her her cell-phone back. So: memory, fragments, triggers – now you know why I go incandescent with rage when I hear about someone like Bill Cosby, who developed trade-craft around his rape method. Guys like that perfect their technique, they even know how to build plausible deniability. This guy, apparently, texted her several times over the next few days referring to a “drunken little tryst” and “would you like to meet up again?” Nice trade-craft, huh? Make it sound like a one-night stand. Blurring those lines – the lines an apologist would straddle, while raining skeptical challenges down upon a wounded woman.
She told me it would be OK, it had happened before and she was used to it.
Men, when you tolerate rape culture, and don’t come down like 16t of lethal rage on rapists and abusers, you’re letting snakes like that slither around in the foundations of your life. It’s worse for the women, but if you love the victim, you’re going to bleed, too. If you tolerate them you’re playing a numbers-game, basically, because – as I realized pretty quickly in the case of my lover – if it wasn’t her, it would have been someone else. Somewhere, he has a hard drive of pictures of all the “someone else”s that he honed his technique on. Every one of these guys’ actions affects not just their victims, but anyone who loves their victims, or who will ever bump up against the victim’s reaction to their unknowable subjective experience. It’ll mess with your subjective experience, as well: there are things that happen when someone you care about is raped – and they will change you permanently. There is a reason why cultural media have this trope of the “angry dad” who hunts down and metes out horrible vengeance for the injury of a child. I understand that, in a way I never wanted or expected to. But that’s one of the side-effects that we have to take into account whenever we try to dismiss or minimize an assaulter’s actions: it’ll always be somebody else. That’s why some cultural responses to assault (“don’t wear short skirts”) are a fail-move: if the person you love wears a long skirt, it will just be someone else’s daughter, friend, lover, mother, sister, who gets attacked.
One of my former friends asked me “how do you know it wasn’t a consensual one-night stand and she was just lying to you when you caught her?” I never have spoken to them again, but I should have said, “because when you’re not trying to hide that your body is covered with bite-marks, you’re not trying to hide.” Maybe someday they’ll stumble across this and understand; I don’t care. I suppose I could chalk that friendship, also, up to being a casualty of rape, but for them to understand me so little, it wasn’t enough of a friendship to worry about, anyway.
That’s the personal, subjective, side of my attitude when I hear about people who flip over to protecting their rapists and abusers against retaliation from people who would be legitimately angry:
I thought I was protecting everyone. I was protecting my dad’s career. I was protecting Kevin, who my dad surely would have tried to punch. I was protecting myself, because I thought one day I’d want to work with this man.
That’s what Richard Dreyfuss’ son said about Kevin Spacey. [et] Here’s the sad thing, if the father, lover, sister, brother, whatever – of the first of Bill Cosby’s victims had gone over there immediately and stomped him to within an inch of his life, Cosby would have probably stopped. He might have gotten the point. If someone had kicked the shit out of Kevin Spacey soon enough, he probably would have stopped early enough and I might still be able to enjoy season 6 of House of Cards. Instead, I look at Spacey, and Weinstein, and Louis C.K., and Roy Moore and all I can think is that they needed a bloody and traumatic reality check that would be what they would think of the next time they thought of something like that.
I thought all this through; that was my conclusion: the guy who did that to my sweetheart had done it before, had an M.O. and trade-craft, and was going to do it again and again. The obvious solution was to meet him with something that would give him such horrible PTSD of his own that he’d never be able to think of doing something like that without bursting into tears that he couldn’t explain to anyone. He wouldn’t be a threat to any other women, after that. Frankly, I’m still there: think of it as a “missed opportunity to learn something important about body autonomy.” That is why guys like Weinstein, Spacey, Louis C.K., Bill Cosby, etc., surround themselves with protection and security – even if they manage to successfully bullshit themselves into thinking it’s OK they know that, lurking in the wings, there’s always the ugly potential for it all to catch up with them. From my perspective, the men I just named, they’re lucky: they’re still rich and if they’re not unutterably stupid they’ll change their names and go re-invent themselves as a retired bachelor somewhere … like Roman Polanski did. What surprises me is that guys like Polanski feel they can walk around without an itching feeling all the time at the base of their spine. Polanski should be living in the bottom of a bunker somewhere, not being invited to parties.
She told me it would be OK, it had happened before and she was used to it.
Once something horrible happens to someone you care about, all you can really do is try to do everything you can to support them, to recognize that their subjective experience is different from yours, and to shut up and listen and do whatever they want. That’s another way that the actions of assailants wound us all: this thing they have chosen to do reaches right into the heart of every relationship the victim has, and forces some kind of re-writing – either by their having to pretend nothing happened, or by having to decide over and over again how to come to terms with it. Maybe 20 people have come forward about Kevin Spacey but that means he affected at least 100 lives. Probably many many more. They damage is/was entirely Spacey’s fault: his selfishness, love of power, lack of caring for his victims – all are Spacey’s fault, but the damage gets compounded over and over and it would have been better for many if one of Spacey’s early victims had blown the roof in on things. For one thing, most abusers and rapists develop an M.O. and, if they learn early-on that it works and they get away with it, they become more polished and self-confident. I’m not saying that one of Harvey Weinstein’s early victims should have kicked his ass, but rather I am saying that if Weinstein had the benefit of an ass-kicking early in his cycle, the whole story might have stopped, there. I can even make an argument that doing so would have been to Weinstein’s benefit as well as to the victims that were never victimized. Before you say, “that’s immoral, Marcus!” remember: 1) I reject morality as a useful concept so that accusation doesn’t bother me and 2) appeasement doesn’t work, it just delays conflict until your enemy has grown more powerful and set in their ways or has perfected their trade-craft. Perhaps: 3) I didn’t join Freethoughtblogs to tell people what I think they should do; I’m just concerned with what I think I should do.
The part that leaves my mouth tasting of bile is remembering how she said “It’ll be OK.” And how she told me that she wouldn’t tell me anything more about the guy, and she wanted me to stop trying to figure out his identity. I remember how she cried while she protected him and I felt something tear permanently apart between us because my attitudes had forced her to that realization – that she was protecting him. Looking back on it, I know it was a lose/lose situation all around and, if I could replay it over and over, changing my decisions slightly, there was probably no path that would end with the two of us still being happy romantic pack-rats together. And that wasn’t entirely her choice, or entirely my choice – but it was entirely a consequence of his choices. Either way, she couldn’t be the same, and neither could I. So, eventually, I became part of the baggage of that bad memory, and that was the end of that.
I know I’m not the only man who’s seen someone he loved get suddenly sideswiped and had their life blasted apart out of a clear blue sky. If it wasn’t your lover, maybe it was your sister. Or maybe it was that girl who turned you down flat in spite of your sincere attempt to be friendly, just because you reminded her of the wrong person. By the time we get out of our teens, those of us who survive are already scarred veterans. By the time we are in our 50s, we’re tired and scarred veterans; we need to remember that everyone else is, too.
Don’t try to make excuses for the enemy. Not around me.
A side-note, I suppose is somewhat relevant. I don’t want this to sound like I’m disclosing some big secret or anything but, I have been known to enjoy playing dom/sub games and have been on the edges of BDSM culture (including things like teaching photography workshops at BDSM events, and doing photography, art, and play in that context). So I have a problem: am I part of rape culture or not? I know fetish philosophers who’d say that BDSM is all part of rape culture, and I would be hard pressed to argue that it’s not. I would, however, point out that one of the communities I know that is most attuned to issues of consent is the BDSM community – or, more precisely, the communities that don’t suck. I stopped going to events years ago, after the time at a rope-tying and photography workshop in Maryland, where a guy started doing something non-consensual with a play-partner, and a friend of mine and I (both bigger and much meaner than him) stopped him, asked his subject if she was revoking consent, and (while my friend was asking that) I was explaining that if she said he was crossing the line he was going to leave very quickly or he was going to get an idea of what non-consensual violence can feel like. He left quickly, she left in a taxi a few hours later after she had regained her composure. My friend, who is a genuine sadist (I am not) was disappointed because he was looking forward to beating the guy up; he’s gender agnostic and is happy hurting anyone. Anyhow, it’s interesting because when you’re playing dom/sub games the entire event rotates around playing with consent. You become, or ought to, extremely careful at reading your partner, and you have to discard the toxic masculine urge to be too tough to ask, or to yell “stop!” Some of my ideas about consent are perhaps not mainstream, I believe a lot of BDSM involves a problematic concept: giving limited consent to do things that would otherwise be non-consensual. In that context, I think that the burden of caution is entirely on the person who is given the limited consent, and they need to know that. There is also a confusing factor of role-play: what about someone who is pretending to be doing something non-consensual and both parties are mutually agreed to the play that is being acted? The thing is, all of my experience around BDSM fetishists has found me in an environment of people who are welcoming to unusual views and preferences, and who are very careful in ways that seem contradictory when you see them going on. I don’t intend this as a full posting for debating the topic; if collectively you wish to discuss the topic, I’ll do a separate posting.
There are at least 6 stories I could tell, to some degree or other, about how a past sexual assault reached forward with ghostly fingers of the past and showed it still had the power to hurt. That it always will have the power to hurt, and how that hurt affected a woman and all her friends and lovers. The damage is greater or lesser, but it’s still there – and it’s entirely the fault of the attacker’s selfishness, maliciousness, thoughtlessness, or cruelty. I won’t tell them all because I’d be here rage-thrashing my keyboard all night, but, you hear things about how women quit acting when they had a run-in with Harvey Weinstein: that was a life-altered. One of my friends was a cutter: she wanted to destroy the beauty that some asshole coveted and eventually went after because he wanted to possess it and wouldn’t take “no.” Another suddenly moved out of state; we had been seeing each other casually and I thought things were going great – naturally I thought it was my screw-up – but I learned years later that she had been assaulted and felt like she had to get every possible reminder of the event out of her life. These stories go on and on. Most men can tell a story like these. Think about that. We are letting too many men get away with this shit.
“A knife in the guts” – that’s how it felt to me. I was having a great day; it was beautiful fall foliage, I had just been flying some Fuel Rats rescues, and suddenly I got a text message that changed everything. In the last 5 years I’ve lost 4 friends to various cancers and most of them describe a similar feeling. My friend who got shot in the neck in Vietnam said, “suddenly there was a ‘crunch’ sound and everything was different.” Again, I am not trying to put injuries onto some kind of spectrum, they are always unique subjective experiences for the sufferer, but we use a common vocabulary for battle trauma and being sexually assaulted, sometimes.
I have been wanting to talk about this for a while but it’s hard to stay calm and focused. If you comment, don’t feel threatened that I will get angry at you, but bear in mind that I am deeply angry at someone. Many someones. If you want to start making their case, I’ll probably just ban you as a simple reply. This posting is pretty much all I want to say about this topic.