And how to interrogate if you are one.
TW: Sexual assault, transphobia, racism
In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s very delayed, but now very public shaming for repeated acts of rape, harassment, and sexual assault, men are being called out and dressed-down for their inaction. This often happens after a serial predator has been outed. After games journalist Nick Robinson stepped down from his post at Polygon this summer, amid numerous complaints of sexual harassment, the sub-cultural reaction was much the same: men were cautioned to listen to women, and to think about whether they’d given male friends a pass for bad behavior in the past. This is as it should be.
Public discussions about sexual assault have evolved, even while the actions of certain predatory people remain primordial as ever. Men are now urged, repeatedly, to trust and listen to the concerns of women. Men are dressed down, eventually, for refusing to acknowledge when their buddies have been repeatedly making people feel unsafe. In the more enlightened corners of the web, men are now called to interrogate, proactively and personally, whether it’s possible any of their best-good friendos might just maybe be a rapist whose crimes they’ve been ignoring.
All of these are great signs of progress, though we need these standards to be more widely adopted. And as a multiple-times survivor of sexual assault, at the hands of some men who were superficially charming, fun, and nice, I agree that all dudes should concern themselves with the conduct of their buddies. It’s vital that they do so. I just want to take it a bit further:
I think all men should interrogate whether they are rapists themselves. I also think all women and nonbinary people should.
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Committing sexual assault does not require an unusual level of evil or duplicity. It is not a rare event. Some of the most traumatic sexual encounters I have experienced were initiated by a person who does not, even now, have any idea he did a thing wrong. And it’s not because of an especial lack of awareness or emotional insight on these dudes’ parts, either.
When young men are taught about sex, it is often billed as an achievement to “get”, or a need to fulfill, urgently; it follows that very few men are taught to carefully prioritize their partners’ desires when seeking it out or engaging in it. Sexual agency and open communication of boundaries is not taught or celebrated in most parts of our world. It follows that many people who are sexually assaulted freeze up, fake pleasure, shut down, or float away mentally during the event, as to avoid causing trouble.
One person who raped me thinks, I’m pretty sure, that he was giving me the intense BDSM experience I’d always wanted. Another person who raped me thought he was negotiating whether we had to use a condom or not. He thought he’d simply won the argument. Another person who mistreated me sexually just thought he was reviving a romantic bond that had gone cold. All three of those people were wrong. They were rapists. But it’s not entirely malice that’s at fault.
I’m a social psychologist, and I’m inclined to look at the societal factors that worsen human problems. Rape is a very large-scale problem. It’s not a rare event committed by a uniquely depraved breed of human. It happens a lot. A lot of the time, the people who commit rape think they were being seductive, or wily, or appropriately masculine; they don’t think of themselves as agents of trauma or life-ruiners. When they find out, if they find out, they don’t relish the fact. They might doubt the accuser, or get defensive, but that’s partially because they cannot process the guilt that comes with awareness of what they have done. Lots of men rape. Lots of people rape, period. It’s not a problem that can be solved with simple vilification of the perpetrators.
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I have a friend who is a charming, bro-y guy in his 40’s. He’s a bit flirty, takes conversations to a sexual pace kind of quickly, but he’s a good guy. He loves to drink and tell jokes, he hates rocking the boat. He told me he used to catcall women because his uncle taught him at a young age that women like it. It took a few pissed-off girlfriends for him to learn it wasn’t a cool move. He learns, he changes, but he’s absorbed some messed-up ideas.
He’s the type of guy who almost certainly has a friend or a friend-of-a-friend who has raped people. He probably just thinks the rapist-friend is annoying, kind of a jerk but hey, he’s alright. My friend has probably covered up for, or ignored, the sins of people he cares about. Most of us do that from time to time, in various ways, of course. We look away when someone starts a racist joke or we groan at a predatory act instead of kicking the mother fucker to the curb. We all have such faults in our histories.
Once, I was having a beer with this friend in a gay sports bar (god bless Chicago) and he confessed that sometimes he worries about whether he’s ever assaulted somebody. He didn’t have a specific memory of wrongdoing. There was no particular crime to confess. He just spoke about how he’d grown and changed over time, and how the world was different when he was younger, and his thoughts about sex were different then, and so it was possible he’d missed a cue of discomfort, or applied pressure without realizing it, and he hoped that wasn’t true, but it was possible that maybe, God, he had raped somebody.
I looked him dead in the eyes and said, “It’s good that you think about that.”
It’s important for men to question whether there are rapists in their midsts. But good men, really feminist men, need to go even further: they need to question whether they have ever been rapists themselves.
It is possible for a good person to have committed a sexual assault in the past. We don’t teach young boys how to not rape, not really. That doesn’t absolve them morally for committing the crime, but it does partially explain it. And if we’re really going to make progress in combating rape culture, good feminist dudes will have to develop tolerance for the idea that they might have been rapists at one point or another themselves.
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A lot of men shut down when confronted with conversations about rape culture. They say it’s too hard now to date anyone or show any interest. That men’s sexuality is policed entirely too much. Some men, especially older ones in my experience, say that too many things are perceived as rape these days. That people are too sensitive.
When men protest like this, what they’re really saying is clear: I have done some rapey things in the past, and I’ve never realized before that they were rapey.
Good men must accept that some of their past behaviors might have been rapey. Getting a girl to pity fuck you is rapey. Whining or cajoling someone into sex is rapey. Ignoring a wince of pain or a dull, faraway expression can be rapey. Not checking in on a silent or still partner is rapey. Prioritizing getting laid above all else is rapey. Lots of men do these things. Lots of good men have done them. They need to confront the fact that they’ve done them, must confront the possibility that they have something to atone for.
And most of all, good men must confront the fact that they may never know for certain if they’ve raped somebody or not. Your victim is unlikely to call you up and tell you. My good friend, the charming 40-something, will never have an answer to the question that vexes him. That is okay. It’s the asking of the question, and the tolerance of ambiguity, that is important.
Of course, I’m still not going far enough. This isn’t just about men. It’s about power, and prejudice, and the rights of all people.
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I have a friend who is not a man, and who is part of a marginalized group that is often unfairly accused of being predatory. This person says they fear being falsely accused of sexual assault. They worry that someone will make up false claims about them in order to defame and ostracize them. They say they want to be held accountable for all wrongs, of course, but that they’ve seen how things can escalate when someone in their group is accused.
This person is a wonderful person. They are an advocate for all kinds of people. They interrogate the unfair advantages they’ve gotten in life. They are sensitive and easy to admit fault in most areas of their conduct. And it’s true that they belong to a group that is unfairly portrayed as perverted, entitled, creepy, rapey. From Emmett Till to Ally Steinfeld, this is the kind prejudice that kills.
Of course, it is still possible for a person from a marginalized group to be a rapist. How to balance the desire to trust a victim with the desire to protect the marginalized from prejudicial claims?
I don’t know the answer to that one. I’m not in a position to answer it. I have no right. I’m not in any of those groups. Because I was assigned female at birth and don’t look very masculine, and because I have light skin, I am unlikely to ever be accused of assaulting somebody, even if I actually did commit such a crime.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Only a select few groups of people — trans women, black men — receive sexual assault accusations that stick. White people and cis women can go around committing as many atrocities as they like and people will seldom take victims’ claims seriously.
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In college I knew a woman with the initials JY. She identified as a lesbian, but dated trans men primarily. She was also a sexual assault survivor. And she was a rapist. Time and time again it would happen; an ex-partner of hers would divulge, in secret and in shame, that JY had forced sex upon them using a prolonged campaign of emotional manipulation, guilting, and physical assault. She used her own trauma history as a means of manipulating trans men into sex they didn’t want. She insisted on touching them in places they didn’t want to be touched; made them engage in sex acts they didn’t want to engage in.
None of her exes wanted to be the one to come out publicly against her. She was the founder and charismatic leader of an organization for women who had survived sexual assault. She was an outspoken activist, a leader in her community. She was open about being a victim. Anyone who accused her of assault could easily have the tables turned right back on them. Especially if the person was seen as, or identified as, a man. Men were the predators and women were the strong, recovering victims, after all. Women were standing up for themselves. Especially white ones. Men were expected to lie down and take it.
Even after multiple claims from multiple victims came to light, JY continued on in her activist career with relative impunity. The accusers were mostly ostracized or ignored. JY never once seemed to open her mind to the possibility that she was a predator. How could she be? Men were the enemy. They were the problem.
— — — —
After sex, a partner once told me I’d been doing something that physically hurt him. I had no idea. I wasn’t upset or surprised that he hadn’t told me. I understood it completely. I’d sat in silence through sexual pain before; sometimes out of fear, sometimes because I didn’t want to be a burden.
It felt horrible to know I’d put someone else through that. I felt shame for missing his nonverbal cues. I felt guilt for putting someone in the position of having to disconnect and endure something that should have been pleasurable and affirming. I felt deeply responsible for having done harm. I also felt, with certainty, that all these bad feelings were correct and right.
I learned from that mistake. I never did that thing that hurt again. I got better at asking questions about the person’s comfort level; made sure to check in. And I also learned to accept the essential truth that I could be guilty of sexual assault; all it would have taken was a bit more intense pain, a bit more obliviousness. It can happen just like that. For any of us. We must accept that truth with a sense of clear-eyed responsibility. We must shoulder that ambiguity and carry it with us, forever. That is the only way to end rape.
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Men sometimes think that their friends can’t be guilty of rape because their friends are nice and fun. Women often think that other women can’t be rapists because women are often victims, and because women are wonderful and giving and kind. White people often think that other white people can’t be rapists because white people are safe and civilized. This kind of thinking leads to lynchings and stabbings and immolations of trans women’s bodies. It is inexcusable.
And it’s just as dangerous when we extend that logic to ourselves. Even if we are nice people, or feminists, or victims of sexism, or otherwise downtrodden, we are all capable of mistreating other people. And we all struggle to face that possibility. We are all capable of being rapists. We all have been exposed to the social toxins that can infect and fester, causing sexual disorder. The cure for this disorder must be societal. The sickness cannot be purged by isolating a few extremely infectious cases. A lot of us carry the sickness, unseen.
That doesn’t mean all people are equally likely to be rapists, of course. Those of us who have been given more social advantages are more likely to feel entitled to others’ bodies. This week, Terry Crews came forward about a past experience of sexual assault. A white executive fondled him at a public event, out in the open, and Terry had to go home and keep it a secret. He never told anyone until now. He was aware of how bad the optics were for him. He’s a large black man; he had no doubt that in accusing his assailant, he would be vilified and doubted.
Crews’ story joins the dozens and dozens of other stories of assault that have gotten public attention of late. Ben Affleck harassed a TV host on Total Request Live. His brother has been accused of rape multiple times. Amber Tamblyn publicly shared her experience of being preyed upon James Woods when she was still a teenager. Rose McGowann tried to warn people about Harvey Weinstein for years.
So yes, all kinds of people can rape, but there are trends we can’t ignore. Men often feel entitled to the bodies of other people — not just women, people of all genders. White people often feel entitled to black people’s bodies, and the bodies of other people of color. We white people hyper-sexualize people of non-white races to excuse our entitlement to them. Cis people often think they have a right to personal information about trans people’s bodies, to see them nude, to fondle them, to rape them, to destroy them, especially if the trans person is a woman. Abled people frequently treat the bodies of disabled people like objects.
And on and on and on it goes, people with social advantages tending to think they deserve access to others’ bodies, that others’ bodies are sexual objects that exist for their amusement and pleasure. People with disadvantages have a tough time safely saying no, pointing a righteous finger of accusation, or escaping an accusation if it is pinned on them. This dynamic is complicated by intersecting identities, but the broader fact remains: all of us are capable of mistreating other people. None of us were taught how to fully respect the sexual needs and boundaries of other humans. It’s not as simple as men being pigs. We all have the capacity to be predators. We must all accept that, and interrogate that, deeply, if we are to move forward. Not every rapist is a dastardly, malicious serial offender. A lot of guilty folks don’t fit the profile. Sometimes a predator is just a nice person with a few bad ideas and some selective obliviousness.