The Age of Vulgar Enlightenment: Thoughts On “Me Too”

Let me start by saying, me too. Keep what I’m about to say in mind as you read this essay. I have been sexually assaulted several times. This being said, not all experiences were the same. I was assaulted as a child and then as an adult by partners on two separate occasions. I’ve also had sexual experiences while intoxicated, some which I have regretted, and others on which I look back fondly. Those which I regret vary as to why I look back on them with mild disgust. Some of them I label assaults due to the particular natures of the encounters in question. However, I consider them assaults without assailants. This seemingly contradictory term, “assailiantless-assault,” I use with some very real trepidation, for my biggest fear is that my words will be co-opted by groups which I find deplorable. This is not written in support of the MRA. I’m writing this as a human being living in a cultural system which is choosing to polarize distinctions, ambiguities, vagueness, and agnosticism into nonexistence, and it is for this reason that I present to you the aforementioned term.

If a human being feels violated, feels assaulted, feels raped, then they have been. I believe and support victims. period. However, I believe there to be certain cases where a human being feels violated, feels assaulted, and even, in very particular cases, feels raped, and therefore, has been violated, assaulted, and/or raped, at the hands of an individual who, due to lack of malicious intent and often to misunderstanding, cannot rightly be labeled according to the victims experience of the event in question, and furthermore, who cannot rightly be held responsible in the ways we speak when we do of responsibility. This is to say, there can be an x without an x-er. There can be an assault without an assailant.

You may wonder why I am taking the time to draw a distinction regarding such a cruel subject. I am doing so precisely because sexual assaults are so very common and so very cruel, and I am doing so because I am worried for the health of our culture. Ambiguity is being erased from discourse in popular culture as a response to real and systemic problems in an effort to right societal wrongs. At times, I worry that our insistence on ignoring our ambivalence in an attempt to be in the moral right is impoverishing us as human beings living in a semi-shared reality.

Take, for example, one of the many cases of sexual assault being narrated in response to “me too” from a self-labeled assailant. My Facebook feed is almost exclusively “me too” stories written by victims, and “it was me” stories written by self-identifying assailants. This particular story is told by a man who, after having sex with a woman following a night of moderate drinking, was confronted by her days later accusing him of sexual misconduct. I know this man and I know this story because I was that woman. What he leaves out of his Facebook accounting, and rightly so, for this is not the time nor place, is his own devastation and utter confusion. This lacuna is a nasty symptom of our vulgar enlightenment. That he merely labels himself a rapist without giving a full account, without detailing the minutia of which this encounter was made, is not only heartbreaking, but it is an inaccurate representation of his character, and evidence of the enfeeblement of our cultural moment. It is my best guess that he feels he would be even more of a monster if he were to try an explain.

My account of the events goes like this: we were both drunk, I did something I wouldn’t otherwise have done, I felt that there had been sexual misconduct, and I was assaulted. However, this man is not my assailant. He had no intention of harming me, nor of making me uncomfortable. He forced nothing upon me. We both made uncharacteristic decisions, decisions which, with a clear mind, disgusted me. At the time of the confrontation, I believed in the binary which I am now trying to dismantle. I wish, instead, that we could have talked about what happened without accusations. I wish I hadn’t reacted as I had.

We have created a climate of mere back and white, right and wrong, good or evil, and frankly, this is not how existence typically plays out. Of course, all of these extremes are represented. Things occur and actions are carried out which are indeed bad, and so much so, that any case made for the good of said action or occurrence would be in bad faith. This is to say that not everything is ambiguous. But for the sake of those actions which are, we ought to take care when choosing our words and when describing our experiences so that we may accurately represent our lived events while not inaccurately representing another’s.