To the Men Unnerved by #MeToo
TW: includes descriptions of rape.
Rape, sexual assault, harassment: it’s about power, right? These are crimes which use sex as the weapon. The stories are pretty similar: someone in power coerces “favors” from a subordinate, or a date refuses to take “hell, no!” for an answer. Fail to comply and your career, or your research project, or your social status suffers.
Over the years we’ve learned a lot of things about rape and assault and harassment. It’s rarely a stranger in an alley. If you’re not a cis-male, you’ve most likely experienced it. Boys are almost as likely to be victimized as girls, and men are beginning to speak out too. There’s no “ranking” of event types to dictate how a victim should respond, and pursuing justice nearly always includes re-victimization, and rarely results in any justice.
And, of course, the unifying thread: power. Harassment requires a power differential. Rape and assault are about power, not sex. Power is the difference between you asking a co-worker on a date, and your boss making his assistant stay late, alone.
In addition to the flood of #MeToo, I saw something entirely new yesterday. Until yesterday I knew only one man who had publicly admitted — once — that he might have crossed that line when he was younger. He approached me later, privately, to ask if I thought he should try to find her and apologize.
Yesterday I watched a dozen men confess, using hashtags like #IDidIt or #GuiltyToo. Most confessions followed the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur, when we admit to the sins of the community without individually claiming them. “Like many men, I’ve contributed to a sexist workplace” one comment began.
A few of the apologies were of a wholly different nature:
#Ididit and it’s indefensible, and I think about it often: about how to make amends, about whether making amends would just open old wounds that have (hopefully) long since scarred over, and especially about how I best can check myself to make sure I never do it again. — a man
In a single day the number of men I saw admitting they may have committed specific sexual crimes went from one to a half dozen. Most were open-ended, like the example above, but they were personal, not general. I watched through the day with increasing discomfort. Some asked whether they should seek those women out to apologize. I didn’t answer.
I’ve been raped three times, so far.
The first time was statutory rape. I consented reluctantly, and I was only 14, but I did say ‘ok’ and he thought I was 16. Society had taught me that walking away made me a tease, and being a tease was Very Bad. It was worse than letting a man I barely knew, half my age again, have my virginity, and so one of my earliest sexual experiences went too far because I didn’t know I could stop.
I don’t really blame Greg. Like me, he was doing what society told him: persistently seeking what he wanted. If I’d been older and more experienced, he’d have faded into a sexual history pockmarked by occasional bad dates and bad sex.
The second time I was raped, I was 15. My friend’s college boyfriend was in town, and his friend didn’t want to be a third wheel. When my date drove me home, he noticed no one was home. The last clear memory I have is of insisting that he couldn’t come in, and then of him backing me down a hallway. I remember deciding I’d rather be a slut than a rape victim. If I didn’t say no, he didn’t have the power to rape me. He didn’t use a condom, and I got an infection. The risks of being a slut, amiright? I didn’t hang out with my friend after that.
The third time I was raped I was 17, and I got blackout drunk. At least, I think I did. I’d never heard of rohypnol in 1988. I vaguely remember my college roommate asking if I was ok and half dragging me to a dorm room being used as a coat closet. I don’t remember anything else until morning.
Two days later, a piece of condom floated out of my body. As the semester ended, a boy I’d repeatedly turned down for dates leered at me from his car window yelling that he’d “gotten what he wanted” as he drove away forever. Violating my consent was a power trip for him, and I was his witness.
There’s a fourth story that seems relevant here. I was sixteen, and I was dating a nice boy we’ll call George. He said he was saving himself for marriage, but I didn’t believe him. Along with “don’t be a tease” and “rape destroys you” and “if you get drunk, it’s your fault” I’d accepted “all boys want sex” without question. George invited me to spend a weekend alone with him. I took lingerie, obviously.
Here’s the hard part: George really didn’t want to have intercourse, and he said so. I still didn’t believe him. Men’s bodies are notorious for not caring what men (or women) want, but happily for me his body enforced his wishes. I didn’t become a rapist.
But I could have. I coerced George as surely as Greg coerced me.
Does truth rest with the intent of an action, or the perception thereof? — Reg Kittrell
What I did to George, and what Greg did to me, wasn’t about power. This is what we all know, but aren’t allowed to talk about: sometimes it really is a mistake.
Yes, all rape is bad. No, the intention of the rapist may not matter to the victim. Victims deserve our belief and our support, and their experience is not defined by the intention of the person who assaults them.
What this victim-identified truth misses, though, is that to stop rape we have to talk about rapists, not victims. We do know this — we all know we need to teach our children about consent, right? We don’t want their lives destroyed by a mistake! But by ignoring intent, we’re left treating Greg (and me) and the Bill Cosbys of the world as the same problem. Bill always knew it was wrong to secretly put drugs in women’s drinks. Bill didn’t make dozens of identical mistakes spanning decades — Bill craved the power.
For predators, it is about power. If they weren’t harassing you for sex, these people would be demanding the keys to your new motorcycle for a test ride. What they really want is your subjugation. Sex is just the medium.
The male predators in your office put the power dynamic behind the jokes at work. While you’re telling lewd jokes over lunch, they’re leering at the new girl behind your back. You aren’t telling the jokes to disempower her, but it still happens. He knows he can invoke your guilty conscience to cover for him, because you knew that joke was a little naughty, didn’t you? The new girl knows, too.
If you’re a woman trying to be “one of the guys” at lunch, or if you gossip about the new girl’s skirt, you’re guilty, too. Women don’t get a pass. While we’re more likely to be victims than predators, we cover for them, we blame victims, and sometimes we grin behind the cover of our gender as we hunt.
That mistake you made in college, the night your date went kinda weirdly quiet, but you didn’t stop? That empowers the predator, too. He’s hiding behind your guilt. You went too far and you didn’t stop when your date froze, but he pushes her there on purpose. He shoves past “no” until she stops saying “no,” and then he pretends it was all a mistake, but it wasn’t.
I don’t know if the boy when I was 15 would have stopped if I’d screamed “Rape!,” or whether he would have laughed and enjoyed raping me all the more for my knowing. People don’t break down cleanly into categories, of course, and his actions went well beyond an understandable mistake. Still, I’ve always suspected he didn’t consider it rape.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’ve wondered whether I’d feel better if I knew, and which answer I’d prefer, but my experience of that night would be the same: a young man I didn’t know forced his way into my home and past my objections, and left me to clean up the mess. I don’t care why he did it. I do hope he’s stopped, or been stopped.
The predator wants to violate consent, and education won’t stop him. He’ll drop drugs in her drink even though he’s Bill Cosby and could have sex with enthusiastic partners all day long. He’ll make sexual service a condition of working for him, the way another boss might expect you to keep the coffee pot full. He’ll stalk the one cheerleader who turned him down. He’ll groom his niece for years. Decades later, he’ll groom her son.
If he does get called out, he’ll pretend he’s you. He might even call you for support, tearful or indignant at the accusation. Predators hide inside normal men’s fears that #metoo refers to that one unfortunate night. It might — all rape is bad — but if you want to never, ever make that mistake again, then you’re not him.
That doesn’t mean you didn’t hurt someone. It doesn’t mean you didn’t rape someone. It doesn’t mean they’re not posting #MeToo about you. You and I are each accountable for our behavior.
If you have deep regrets, then you likely were failed by the same culture that failed me, and education can whittle away at such mistakes until they finally, eventually, mercifully become rare. If you’re in the #IDidIt crowd, that education is already working. You wouldn’t do it again, right? I know I wouldn’t. Now about those lunchtime jokes…
If you would do it again, knowing what you know now, then you’re not really confessing. You’re bragging. Imagine the power a man might feel, posting #IDidIt, knowing his victim will see warm support rolling in for his brave confession. Predators love to take that last shred of power from their victims by garnering sympathy for “sex addiction” or “a witch hunt” or “changing mores.”
“I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. ” — Harvey Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein negotiated a contract that allowed him to buy his way out of sexual harassment problems. He premeditated rape, and made his company buy off on it. He pursued women over whom he exerted power decade after decade, well past any social ambivalence about those rules. He didn’t make a mistake, he engaged in a decades-long pattern of exerting power over women.
Now he wants you to think he’s just a confused guy. A victim, really.
Everyone in Hollywood knew about Weinstein. Cosby was an “open secret.” Polanski went a little too far… but he sure is talented!
Don’t you dare think it’s just Hollywood. We can all name men of both political parties, sport stars, and probably a few college professors. Maybe you work with someone like that. These guys aren’t confused. Don’t let their crocodile tears dazzle you.
Seeing #YesIDid on my wall yesterday felt like a turning point, but it falls short. I’m afraid most men think that most abuse is a fumbling mistake in the dark, because that’s what their own mistakes look like. Some of you are going to get a call from a guy you know this week, accused by a woman you know. Maybe it’ll be a real mistake, and that’s hard, but we’re responsible for our mistakes, even when we wish we could change them. That’s as true of sexual assault as it is of a car accident.
Some of those guys aren’t actually going to be penitent. They’re calling on the male circle to protect them. That guy is going to prey on your guilty conscience — it could have been you, bro! He’s going to blame the victim. He’s going to blame culture. Anyone could have made that mistake! When the evidence is overwhelming, he’ll claim sex addiction. If he’s rich, he’ll jet off for treatment.
We’re at a turning point: victims are telling our stories, so you’ll have to decide how you will respond. If you’re #GuiltyToo, you have to find a way to come to terms with your life story without burdening your victim. Talk to a friend you trust, or whisper it on the internet, but speak the truth. Say it out loud, even if only to a mirror at first. That’s how many victims work up the courage — alone, or with one trusted friend — and you can do it too.
I can’t tell you that owning your mistakes will go smoothly. It might not. What I can tell you is that we have to talk openly about the harms we’ve experienced, and the one’s we’ve perpetrated, to change this culture. If we don’t, another generation will make mistakes they’ll ultimately regret, and predators will continue to hunt in plain sight. Spend some time reading one of the dozens of sites with women’s stories — or men’s.
We have to stop pretending that consent is complicated. It’s not; we just didn’t learn about it. Those mistakes make us defensive, and the predators use that defensiveness as a cloak. We have to be able to admit that a culture so deeply dysfunctional around sex that we can’t even tell our lover what we want, is a culture where legitimate mistakes have occurred. We’re still responsible for our mistakes. Mistakes have consequences too.
And we have to accept that predators like Cosby and Weinstein knew exactly what they were doing, because it was never about sex. They were men who could have had willing sex from dozens of attractive women. Their actions were about power, and education isn’t going to stop them.
There’s a good chance you’re going to hear a story about someone in your community soon. Maybe someone you like, or someone with more power than you. Maybe he doesn’t match your stereotypes for a predator, and besides, you’ve never seen him do anything inappropriate. There are rumours, and a couple of your friends say they avoid him, but what if it’s all a mistake? Even if it were, he’d still be responsible, but it probably isn’t.
Remember how you never saw him do it? If he were socially awkward, he wouldn’t know to hide his harassment. You’d have seen him do it. If there’s a pattern to the stories, if the stories span time, if people in his target group all “seem to know,” or you’ve heard rumours before, or if he sets out to destroy his accusers, well, educating him isn’t going to stop him.
You have to do that.