What Empathy is Not

Empathy is not compromise, and empathy is not sympathy.

The empathy I have developed for men has grown from the abuse I have received at their hands. It is also what I get the most hate mail about. I am called a rape denier, an apologist, a misogynist, a transmisogynist, and all sorts of stuff. People really, really dislike me for empathizing with rapists. And, that’s fine. I can empathize with the people who dislike me too.

What most people don’t see, is that the path to my personal liberation was paved with my empathy for those who have refused to see my humanity. This doesn’t mean I like them; I don’t. I fucking hate them. But, I do understand why they think what they do. I understand where their rejection of my humanity comes from.

To be clear, I don’t advocate empathizing with people who oppress you because it makes you a good person or because it makes the world run more smoothly. I advocate empathizing with people who oppress you because, in my own experience, understanding why some people don’t see me as human has helped me more fully understand that I really am human.

First off, let’s start with the difference between empathy and sympathy because I think people are often confused on this point. Dictionary.com’s blog defines it as such:

To sum up the differences between the most commonly used meanings of these two terms: sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.

Empathy vs Sympathy

So, when I say “I empathize with rapists” I don’t mean I feel sorry for them. I don’t mean that I am sad when bad things happen to them, or that I pity them for whatever life conditions caused them to be rapists. I mean, I try to think of their motivations for doing what they did, and I try to imagine how life brought them there. For me, empathy is in many ways a somewhat emotionless affair; I rarely share the emotions of the people I am empathizing with.

Some of the most difficult, and personally important, empathetic work I have done is the work around empathizing with the man who sexually assaulted me 5 years ago. I’ve told the story a few times before, but to quickly summarize again: I got very dunk, went home with a trusted friend, and he put his fingers in my vagina when I was on the verge of passing out. I regained enough consciousness to ultimately stop him, but this event had lasting repercussions on me that has played into my current inability to work as a programmer, and the persistent difficulties I’ve had forming romantic attachments. (I have had other abusive instances from men my life, so I don’t want to blame it all on that one night when the truth is complicated.)

There was a process I went through around coming to terms with that event. Initially, there was a long period of denial when I not only didn’t acknowledge the significance of the event but I hardly even remembered it. It wasn’t like I forgot, exactly. It was just like I never thought of it. For several years following that night, I didn’t like being touched, but I had no consciousness about where this aversion came from. Just, every time someone went to touch me, I would feel creeped out. When people tried to touch me, I would tolerate it so as not to offend anyone, but eventually I started structuring my life so that people would touch me less. This involved some degree of social isolation, or attending events with strong rules around touch (I found a lot of refuge in the Zen center during this time.)

Eventually, during my first meditation retreat, I came to terms with the fact that this was a big event in my life and that was terrible. I cried so much during that retreat; it just felt like a deep, wordless pain that was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It wasn’t grief, it wasn’t sadness. It was just…. pain. Then, one day, it stopped. There was no catharsis, no release — just, where there had been pain, there was nothing.

After that, I could remember that night with more clarity. I could think back to what happened, and remember the events without my emotionality getting in the way. It was during this phase, I developed empathy for the man who had put his fingers in my vagina. Why would he do that? Why would he want to be sexual with someone who was unconscious? What possible pleasure could be derived by fucking someone who didn’t want to fuck you back?

It was around then that I remembered that he was in a period of emotional crisis himself. He was in the middle of a family tragedy, and his body was probably constantly flooded with negative emotions he was numbing himself from. I also realized (by the fact that he started with his fingers in my vagina and not his dick) he would ultimately probably lie to himself about my feelings on the matter. He would probably remember me being more conscious than I really was, and having a better time than I really did. He would probably remember that night as a night of connection, and I would remember that night as an assault. This would be highly consistent with the mindset of other men who have abused me; one of the most painful things for an abuser to come to terms has historically been the fact that I don’t love him. He cannot stand to accept my dislike of him.

The deepest pain I have ever felt around any sexual abuse is, essentially, an internalization of the belief that male objectification of my body is legitimate. In other words, I have often believed that how other people experience my body is more important than how I experience my body. This is a terrible belief because it means if I feel pain and I think someone else (usually a man) is receiving pleasure, I will not stop their behavior. As long as I hold this belief, being around other people is dangerous for me because I will give them too much free license with my body. Hence, my tendency toward isolation. However, when I understood that male entitlement to my body was based on lies about my lived experience, that these men were pretending to themselves that I was feeling some kind of pleasure or love I wasn’t actually feeling, I fully internalized that these men were not entitled to my body.

I think, for a long time, I was afraid to really consider the point of view of my assaulter/friend because — deep down — I was afraid that by opening myself up to his experience it would justify the pain he caused me. I was afraid I would realize his experience of my body really was more important than my experience of my body. Or, perhaps, that understanding his point of view would mean coming to some sort of “compromise” or “middle ground.” Like, yeah what he did was bad, but he was going through a difficult time so I should’t make such a big deal of it. I should just suck up my pain because he was also in pain.

What actually happened, however, was empathizing with him further strengthened my belief in my own bodily sovereignty. I saw there was no possible way for him to draw the comfort he was seeking using the means he was using. He needed a real connection, and a real connection is impossible based on lies.

I saw it wasn’t about him getting what he needed at the cost of my getting what I needed. I saw that neither of us could get what we needed under those circumstances. When you empathize with those who oppress you, you see how their oppression traps them as well. You see how protecting yourself from oppression isn’t a selfish act; it is a gift you give the world. It is not a gift that is always appreciated in the moment, but it is a gift that will be vindicated with time.

However, I understand why people get spooked by demands for empathy and I should have been more mindful of that in my previous snarky piece. It sounds like what’s going to happen is some sort of compromise — like, ok, you think you think you’re a person, but your oppressor doesn’t so we’ll come to an agreement that you’re, like, half a person. OK? Or — in my experience — I was afraid if I opened myself up to the pain my assaulter had been feeling at the time of the assault, it would justify what he did to me. That it would be my obligation to absorb pain so he could feel less.

However, this fear was based in a belief I had already internalized. I already acted as if I should absorb pain for men. And, that’s what I did that night, by the way. I tried to minimize the assault when it happened. I slept next to him afterward, and gave him a kiss on the head when I said goodbye because I didn’t want him to feel bad. Then, I never spoke to him again. Trying to empathize before I had fully acknowledged my pain would have been counterproductive, because the only way I could acted on my “empathy” would have been to further lean into my internalized belief that I must suffer so men can feel better. I wasn’t even conscious of this belief as I lived it, and that’s what made it so dangerous.

So. In the wake of a Trump victory, I keep seeing calls for empathy for Trump voters, and then people being like “hell no, I want no fucking empathy for Trump voters.” And… I wonder if these people are like me, if they’re struggling with internalization of toxic cultural beliefs. I mean — I don’t know. I don’t want to force anything on anyone.

But — sometimes— when people are have trouble with empathy, I think they are paradoxically having trouble with validating the legitimacy of their own humanity. As angry as I was with my assaulter for not viewing me as fully human and for not caring about how I experienced living in my own body, I didn’t see myself as fully human either. I delegitimized my own lived experience over, and over again. And that was a damn painful thing to come to terms with.

I tried to ignore the assault. I tried to pretend like it didn’t hurt as much as it did. I tried to forget about it, to push it out of my consciousness. And when I did acknowledge it, I was deeply ashamed of the pain it caused me. I was deeply ashamed of my own sadness because I felt like it shouldn’t have been that big a deal. I felt like I was over-reacting. I’m still ashamed of that. I’m ashamed I’m out of work because I men in tech trigger me right now. I’m ashamed I haven’t been able form a romantic connection in years.

I still hold the belief it shouldn’t have hurt me this much.

But, it did. My assaulter wasn’t the only person lying to themselves about how much that night hurt.

So anyway; I take back my calls for empathy. I still hold it as an ideal eventual goal, but I think it is premature. I think, what people need to do right now, is acknowledge the depths of their own pain. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, and any form of discrimination I have missed; these things are so much worse than we give them credit for being. These things are so much worse than most people who have experienced them are even willing to admit to themselves.

But, when we do admit the depths of the terrible we have experienced, it becomes apparent that the only ethical form of action is to save ourselves, then save others, from oppression. It’s not about being on the “right side of history” or “fighting for justice.” It’s about pouring water on a burning building. And like, maybe your little bucket of water isn’t going to do a damn thing, but once you understand the building is on fire, you have to try.

Anyway. I advocated empathy because I thought that understanding the mindset of the oppressors would provide us the quickest path to a solution. However, the more I read, the more I think we’re not even there. I think what we need is a more full explanation and acceptance of the legitimate pain of the oppressed. (And, I simplify this into “the oppressed” and “the oppressors” but I would be remiss as a white woman to not acknowledge we occupy different roles in different contexts, and that many of us will need to work on this problem from both sides.)

We have to make space to hear the pain of others, and we need to communicate our own pain. We especially need to express the depths of our own pain, even though we may feel embarrassed or ashamed of ourselves for feeling that pain so acutely. It is in these moments, I think, where we tend to turn on others. It’s easier to enforce infinite rules of political correctness and tell other people they’re wrong for not obeying them than it is to admit how badly we’ve suffered for the conventional narratives of society. But, if we don’t admit our pain, we will get stuck. If people don’t understand that the house is on fire, they won’t reach for a bucket of water. And, one bucket of water may not do a damn thing, one million will.