CW: sexual assault, consent culture, #YesAllMen
[Original Facebook post from 12/13/18 here.]
This post isn’t going to be perfect, but it is going to be honest. There’s a lot in here, so please read the whole thing if you can; it should take you around 4–5 minutes.
Two and a half years ago I had what I believed at the time was a wholly consensual encounter with a woman named Lynne (I’ve linked to her Facebook page at her request) at the end of a second date — we came back to my place and made out for a couple of hours, and then she went home. The next day she let me know that she hadn’t been comfortable with everything we did, and two weeks ago she told me that our encounter that night has caused her a lot of trauma over the course of the last two and a half years and detailed some of its impacts on her life since then. When I realized how much harm my actions had caused her I asked her what she wanted from me to support her healing, and writing a public post about it for accountability purposes was one of her asks for me, which is why I’m writing this now. As part of taking full responsibility for my actions I want to honestly relate my experiences and realizations since that night. Before I do that, though, I’m going to start by linking to three of Lynne’s public Facebook posts from the last two years that talk about this directly (all of which I read for the first time two weeks ago at her request, and which I’m sharing here with her permission), to ensure that you’re able to start with her words:
- From November of 2017.
- From July of this year.
- And from two weeks ago, in between my asking her what she wanted me to do and her response (we’ve stayed in communication via text since then).
In August of 2016 Lynne and I went on a second date that ended with the two of us going back to my place. I remember being excited to make out with her but also aware of the power dynamics between us (she’s 8 years younger than me), and wanting to be sure that I wasn’t taking advantage of her, albeit without a clear plan for how to accomplish that. I didn’t ask for her consent before we started making out because I was confident that I could read the situation properly, and also because I assumed she would let me know if she wasn’t comfortable with anything I was doing. I remember that I gradually escalated things, that I thought she was enjoying herself as much as I was, that every time she moved my hand away or gave me direct feedback I always respected it, that I stopped to check in at one point halfway or so through the evening out of what I saw as an abundance of caution, and that I intentionally didn’t try to have sex with her. When she left to head back home at the end of the night I thought we’d just had a lovely experience together; I had no idea that I’d done anything without her consent.
When I texted her the next day to make further plans, though, she told me that she was surprised at how physical things had gotten so quickly the night before, and that she wasn’t comfortable with it but didn’t know how to express that in the moment. I still remember how guilty and ashamed I felt at having misread the situation even while actively trying to do everything right, but I was honestly also somewhat relieved that nothing more serious (as I saw it at the time) had transpired between us. I knew that I’d made a mistake, but I had no idea what the impacts of that mistake had been on her, and because I didn’t feel like I had any right to ask that of her if she didn’t decide to share it with me, I took her text message at face value (it was very short and matter-of-fact, and it started by thanking me for taking her out the night before and ended by saying that she was sure we’d see each other around) and tried to tell myself that it probably hadn’t been a big deal for her. The uncertainty stayed with me, though.
I did a lot of work in my own life in the intervening years (including continuing to go to therapy, reading what women were sharing online/reading more female authors generally, talking to friends about these issues, and re-evaluating the ways that I engage with women in a dating context) to try to ensure that I never put another woman in a situation like the one I put Lynne in. When the #MeToo stories about powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer committing sexual assaults started to come out I thought about her, but I also never saw myself personally in the stories of any of those men; I was able to see them as monsters who had done something that was clearly very harmful and very wrong. I went back and forth about whether to reach out to her to tell her that her words really had made an impact on me and caused me to change my behavior, but I erred on the side of caution — I saw this as my work to do, and I didn’t think it was fair for me to intrude on her life if she didn’t want me to.
When Aziz Ansari’s story came out, though, that was a different matter — both because it took place in the context of an initially consensual romantic encounter and because I recognized his surprise at receiving a text message from “Grace” the following day letting him know that she’d had a very different experience from him the night before. I still told myself that I never had and never would treat a woman the way that he had; but I imagined Lynne reading the reactions of prominent pundits attacking the credibility of “Grace” and thinking about me, and I sent her a text apologizing again for not ensuring that she was totally comfortable with everything that happened that night, thanking her for having the courage to have reached out to me, letting her know that her actions really had made a difference in my life, and expressing regret that the lessons I’d learned had come at her expense. I told her in the text message that I wasn’t looking for or expecting a response, and I didn’t receive one.
During the Kavanaugh hearings earlier this year, a good friend of mine said publicly on Twitter that a sitting state Senator had raped her in 2007. I reached out immediately and began helping her with support and with advocacy in Olympia. As part of that work I talked to her about my experience with Lynne, to ensure that I wasn’t holding anything back from her. I thought about our encounter in 2016 a lot while I was doing that work, and at one point I considered reaching out to Lynne while we were working with the Seattle Times to publish an op-ed that I’d co-written, to ensure that she was comfortable with my putting my name out there in that way on behalf of my friend.
I ended up not reaching out about the op-ed, but unbeknownst to me, some of my other advocacy on behalf of my friend did end up deeply re-traumatizing Lynne. Two weeks ago she reached out to me to tell me more about the impacts of my actions on her over the course of the last two years. In her words, I took her clothes off without asking her that night; as I understand it from her text messages and reading her public Facebook posts, she didn’t feel safe being able to say no in the moment because of a combination of not knowing how I would react if she did, being afraid of the physical difference in our size, trauma from her childhood, and societal expectations of what women “owe” men for dates. She told me that the trauma she’s experienced since then as a result of our encounter caused her to feel unsafe at a local politics event a few months later where she thought I might show up. It also caused her to quit a job at one point because of PTSD; and then last month it all came flooding back to her as a result of my advocacy work, and that was when she reached out to me. I’d tried to imagine what those impacts might have been many times since August of 2016, but the reality (as described above) was worse than anything I had imagined.
I want to state clearly here that although it’s been difficult, and I’ve resisted it along the way, over the course of the last two and a half weeks I’ve come to understand that what I did that night was sexual assault. That’s a term that encompasses a wide range of behaviors, and by calling it that I don’t mean to imply that it was equivalent to a rape or a violent attack or any of the other things that fall under the same category. But although I didn’t know it at the time (because she didn’t feel safe telling me), I was touching Lynne in a sexual way without her consent, and that is sexual assault. The impacts of my actions are what matter, not my good intentions in the moment. Until I as a man can learn to name the harm that I’ve caused, be aware of my potential to cause harm in every situation in which I find myself, and take responsibility for the times that I do cause harm, I’ll be guilty of upholding the patriarchal system that keeps women from feeling safe and allows those in power to ignore women like my friend when they summon the courage necessary to come forward. The process of writing this post and confronting what I’ve done has been a starting point on that journey for me.
Over the course of the last two and a half weeks I’ve had to redefine the way that I think about myself and my relationship to the world. Treating women with respect has been an important part of my self-identity since I was young, and as I’ve gotten older and learned more about all the ways in which women are systemically prevented from having the same freedoms that I as a man take for granted every day, and the ways that I as a man benefit from that system, actively trying to make the world a better place for women has become a more important part of my self-identity. Reading the message in which Lynne referred to me as her assaulter and described the impact my actions have had on her shattered that self-image and overwhelmed me with grief at having caused her so much pain, combined with panic at having done something that so completely violated every principle by which I try to live and knowing that there was no way for me to make it right. I’ve spent the last two weeks processing this on my own, with my therapist, with friends, with my family, and with a group of anti-patriarchy organizers I’ve done a little bit of organizing work with in the past year who I already had a budding accountability relationship with (Zarna Joshi and Yin Yu from Women of Color Speak Out, with support from Erik Molano), but I still have a lot more work to do. I regret that it took so much work on Lynne’s part to make me realize the impact my actions had on her and accept responsibility for them, but I’m also grateful that she put in that work, and I truly hope that some good has come of this for her, too.
When she asked me to write this post, I was overcome by dread at the idea of sharing one of my deepest and freshest sources of shame with everyone I know. I had to be convinced by friends who read the first draft to put my emotions into it at all, though, because Lynne’s emotions and her experiences are why I’m doing this, and I didn’t want to overshadow them. She’s had to go through so much more than I have, and I’ve only gotten a glimpse of what she experienced that night and what its impact has been on her for the last two and a half years. I know that I’ll never fully understand what this has felt like from her perspective, but it’s a source of deep and profound pain to know that I’ve caused her so much harm.
The #YesAllWomen movement in 2014 made me realize that there’s no bright line between “good men” and “bad men,” but I still believed that there was a bright line between “men who harm women” and “men who don’t harm women,” and that I was on the right side of that bright line. Over the course of the last two weeks I’ve had to accept that that bright line doesn’t exist either. We’ve all caused harm to others in ways we may or may not be aware of, and coming to terms with the various forms of power that we as men wield and learning to wield them more responsibly is important work for each of us to do. Where there’s a disconnect between our intentions and the impact of our actions, it’s the impact that matters, and that’s what each of us is ultimately responsible for.
As part of taking responsibility for my actions, I’ve committed to Lynne to back off of direct advocacy work in local politics, in order to ensure that she can feel safe engaging in those spaces without having to worry about running into me. I’ll still support the candidates and causes that I believe in through financial contributions, and work to support friends behind the scenes when they need me, but expect to see a lot less of me out and about in the political community, being quoted in news stories, etc, at least for the time being.
If you’re a man reading this who recognized yourself in my story and you’re wondering what you should do, I would encourage you to start by talking to your male friends and finding a good therapist so that you can begin to address the issues that all of us as men in this society have and need to surface and start to deal with. I started seeing a therapist after a big breakup in 2013, and it’s been hugely valuable to me in a number of ways since then; and I’m fortunate to have a group of close friends (both male and female) with whom I can talk about these issues. If you need someone to talk to, please feel free to reach out to me. Lynne also shared a great toolkit with me for both survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence that I read through in detail; I’ll post a link to it in a short “resources” section below, along with some other online resources that you can start with. I’m still very much figuring this out myself, but please do reach out to me to talk further if you’d like; I can at least help you with the parts of the journey that I’ve already been on.
One last note. I have no idea how people are going to react to this post, but I’ve been warned that when vulnerable people speak out they’re usually gaslit and disbelieved, whereas when someone with my many forms of privilege does the smallest thing we tend to be praised for it. If you’d like to reach out to me directly to discuss this further in any capacity, I would welcome that; but please don’t let your takeaway from this be that I’ve done something praiseworthy. Lynne is the one who deserves your praise, for having the courage to reach out to me and educate me about the harm I caused her and for asking me to learn.
If you’d like to engage in the comments, please treat Lynne with respect — I believe her fully, and you should, too. Also, based on best practices that have been shared with me by Women of Color Speak Out, in order to ensure that everyone who’s following this thread can get a sense of who’s saying what, I won’t be deleting offensive comments, so please think before you comment.
- The toolkit for both survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence that Lynne shared with me.
- Radiolab’s excellent “In the No” mini-series, which I truly can’t recommend highly enough: part 1, part 2, part 3.
- The first Consent episode of the Dear Sugars podcast, featuring Jaclyn Friedman, the author of “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.”
- An article by a psychiatrist about what men say about #MeToo in therapy, which I discovered through an episode of the podcast On Being featuring him and Rebecca Traister. Sample quote: “Shame is the emotional weapon that allows patriarchal behaviors to flourish”