Accountability


[Potentially triggering material.] 

People are capable of committing crimes even when they’re not aware that what they’re doing is criminal. I think this is often the case with rape. Because our baseline for understanding rape as a crime starts with extremes (e.g. blood, violence, force, use of a weapon, threats of harm or even death), there is so much that falls into a so-called grey area of what Latoya Peterson calls “not-rape”.

“Not-rape was being pressured into losing your virginity in a swimming pool pump room to keep your older boyfriend happy.

Not rape was waking up in the middle of the night to find a trusted family friend in bed with you– and having nightmares about something that you can’t remember during daylight hours.

Not-rape was having your mother’s boyfriends ask you for sexual favors.” (from “The Not -Rape Epidemic”, as included in Yes Means Yes {2008}).

Which is probably why Brad Perry, whose essay in Yes Means Yes appears directly before Peterson’s, wasn’t able to label his own behavior as rape. I suspect that perhaps, in the course of studying feminism or rape theory or, at the very least, laws concerning sexual assault, he at some point came across some definition which revealed the illegal nature of his past behavior. Maybe that’s partially why he became an anti-rape activist, in the first place. Yet in spite of the fact that he educates young people on “healthy sexuality”, he trivializes the seriousness of his own behavior.

In “Hooking Up with Healthy Sexuality: The Lessons Boys Learn (and Don’t Learn) About Sexuality, and Why a Sex-Positive Rape Prevention Paradigm Can Benefit Everyone Involved”, he recounts an experience from when he was thirteen. A brief summary is as follows: he and a few other 13-year-old male friends wanted to “get some” (his ironical phrasing) from their female peers, and so invited three girls out to an empty construction site to drink beer. (“All rape is premeditated”…?) After “his girl”, Janice, had had three beers, Brad (on the advice of a friend’s older brother) decided this was the time to “make his move”, beginning by putting an arm around her. When she didn’t seem averse, he then touched her breast. Janice “sat up straight as soon as I did it, but kept talking with me as if everything was okay,” which he “interpreted…to mean, Go for it!” And he put his hand under the waste band of her pants and underwear.

Janice, evidently, was very averse and immediately took his hand out of her pants. When he tried to do it again, she removed his hand again. Finally Brad got the hint and stopped.

Now, 13-year-old Brad could have had no idea that (in my state and many others) you can go to jail for said behavior. Obviously for minors the sentencing is less severe, but the act is no less criminal. But the 30-something Brad who wrote this piece calls what he did “uninvited touching” and believes that “Janice didn’t seem to hold [it] against [him]”.

There are a couple of points that really stand out to me: the first and most obvious is that he minimizes his own actions as merely “uninvited touching” (recall my definition of rape, “Any unwanted sexual touch”, and you can start to see why I find this problematic). I can hear him, upon confrontation, defending himself, “Hey man, I was thirteen, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” That’s true, but your 30-year-old self has every clue as to what your past self did.

The next stand-out point is actually what’s missing: Janice’s interpretation of the experience. Of course, most girls (and not just boys like Brad) are socialized to believe that this kind of “uninvited touching” is normal and expected and you just have to giggle and take someone’s hand out of your pants (even if you are REALLY uncomfortable or even shocked and humiliated), but it’s in no way, shape, or form equated with rape. So perhaps Janice took this as a mundane part of the world she grew up in and put it out of her mind.

On the other hand, maybe this early sexual experience changed the way she was to look at boys and sex and touching and consent. Or maybe it warped her image of her own body or damaged her self-esteem. Maybe she would no longer be as trusting of all male friends in the future, even though not all of them were/are abusers. We really can’t know, because her tale is not told. Brad’s is.

And according to Brad, we can call him “badly-behaved”, “misguided”, “self-centered”, and even “a dick”, but we shouldn’t call him an abuser. Or a rapist, for that matter.

Can I blame him? Of course not. Who the hell wants to self-identify as a rapist? Or an abuser? Or even call something that they did, say, sexual harrassment? Even though most people have at some point done some behavior that was sexually abusive, harrassing, demeaning, coercive, or manipulative.

I can understand that. It is difficult. It has taken me a long time to acknowledge that I have used coercion and manipulation to “get” or try to “get some”. This has included pressuring (asking again and again), testing established boundaries (“I know you said no, but are you sure?”) and pouting (reacting coldly and distancing myself after being told no)… THAT SHIT IS FUCKED UP!

There’s another side to that coin, too, which is also wrong: when you are not the one trying to “get some”, but the one from whom another person is trying to “get some”. This could look like teasing– for instance, knowing when another person desires your sexual touch, and deliberately convincing them that you might give it to them but withholding it for the sake of obtaining and exercising power over them. It might also look like laughing at– humiliating– another person’s sexual desire. “Hah, you want me and I don’t want you, haha!” Also really really messed up.

So, I get it… Owning up to our own revolting, messed-up, sickening sexual behavior and past acts of violation is not easy. It’s hard, really really hard. But necessary. If we’re not honest with ourselves, we certainly can’t expect those people who view this behavior as normative and culturally-acceptable to change. Anti-rape activism and transforming the rape culture begins with activists and supporters, themselves.

It’s hard to blame a 13-year-old kid for the manifestations of culturally-engrained behaviors and attitudes. But it is a very different story when his 30-year-old self refuses to take on the full weight of those prior actions once it has become understood. In order for him to be the most effective anti-rape activist that he can be will require a change of mindset within himself before he tries to instill that change in others. Especially children.

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7 thoughts on “Accountability

  1. Dear Lee, I shall try not to become an ‘internet troll’ but I have found a number of your entries fascinating. This piece is particularly gripping because it has just labelled me a rapist. I am happy with other people’s definitions – as we must all be in a world where every individual is (rightly) the agent of their own boundaries. That thirteen year old children were imbibing alcohol is troubling enough (you Americans! – I jest; Ireland is much the same), but a child putting his hand inside another child’s underwear is horrific. These are not toddlers. Yet your definition of rape; “Any unwanted sexual touch,” has just landed me in the ‘sin bin.’ My first kiss. I was about the same age, sitting next to the girl I liked at school, when I leant over and kissed her cheek. I had not thought of whether she wanted to be kissed or not. All I knew was that I (selfishly?) wanted to kiss her. A few days later she kissed me back. So how does one get ones’ first kiss without committing rape? There was no way on this earth I was going to open up a discussion about it, “erm, excuse me Fiona, I was… I have been thinking… your cheek looks very… erm kiss-able. I was wondering…” As far as I remember the event it took me about six weeks to work up to that ‘big moment.’ It has been one of the very few kisses I have had from girls/women other than my mother, aunts and grandmothers – so please tell me that there is a get out clause. I so dearly want it to be a good and innocent memory.

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    • I wonder how you feel about owning the label of “rapist”?

      I want to clarify a few points…

      Most people see the event described in Perry’s essay as trivial, laughable, normal. They really don’t see “what the big deal is”. Perhaps this is because we live in a world devoid of consent a la Catharine MacKinnon. But you actually have brought to the surface that which needs to be changed in order for consent to truly exist: “I had not though of whether she wanted to be kissed or not.”

      It’s generally thought that children are myopic and self-centered and unable to empathize at the same level as adults, as highlighted by your recollection– but I would ask, aren’t they merely socialized that way? Yes, childhood is for learning and growing, but most children learn very early on (long before the age of 13) that certain behaviors are a “no no”, others are “okay”, and yet others fall into a grey area where one can test boundaries.

      “There was no way on this earth I was going to open up a discussion about it.” Why not? I won’t assume your reasons, but ultimately this is PRECISELY what needs to happen– between children and children, adults and adults, men and women, men and men, women and women, etc etc. Also in Yes Mean Yes is an essay titled “Reclaiming Touch: Rape Culture, Explicit Verbal Consent, and Body Sovereignty” by Hazel/Cedar Troost. In it she describes how she, post-conference where the idea was introduced, asked everyone to ask her before touching her– every time. Not just in terms of “sexual touch”, but any touching, at all. At first I was repelled by this idea; isn’t that a little extreme? But she makes her argument very persuasively. I won’t plot-spoil in case you want to read it, but it led me to understand that it is completely possible for two people to touch each other where one believes it to be nonsexual and the other believes it to be sexual. But extending beyond this problematic situation is the idea of “body sovereignty”, or personal autonomy, which to me is crucial in ending rape culture. I would highly recommend this essay to you.

      “It took me about six weeks to work up to that ‘big moment’.” I won’t say what I said in the post (“All rape is premeditated”?)… I will just say that I recognize that this is a good memory for you. The girl kissed you back (which I don’t suppose she asked you first?), but that doesn’t indicate much in the way of an understanding of her autonomy or yours, her sexuality or yours, her consent or yours… That’s the trouble with young people. They aren’t often given the space where their concerns, desires, and questions about sex, sexuality, and the body can be safely voiced. Obviously I can’t quote a “get out clause”– only the girl you kissed could give that to you, by telling you she wanted it, or she didn’t in fact want to be kissed. At the least, I think it’s healthy that this memory arose for you when hearing the definition “unwanted sexual touch”; most people within rape culture would not be able to see it as anything but “What’s the big deal?!”

      Looking forward to reading your blog,
      Lee

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  2. Dear Lee, ha! I had expected a rhetorical response such as, ‘how do you feel about owning’ such a title. Personally (subjectively), I reject it. By my ‘definition’ what happened was not rape, but a healthy expression of childish innocence; in complete contrast to the example of Brad. Though I have said that I am more than willing to respect and entertain (and not trivially) other people’s definitions. ‘What’s the big deal?’ attitudes certainly have to be interrogated and transformed. With you I am sure that there is a big deal. Anyone familiar with autism will know that touch and eye contact can be and is a ‘big deal.’

    As for the having of conversations about kissing at twelve and eleven – you make a good point and one which I intuit to be perfectly valid. This is the ‘real world,’ however, and if I am anything to go by at twelve, these children simply lack the emotional and maturity tool kit to enter into such a conversation. There may be incidences when parents have introduced their children to such openness and discussion, but so far as a safe environment can be created (and this IS important) for and around young people – innocence is important.

    You may not find anything of the same zest in my blog I am afraid. Nothing more than my own forms of theological escapism.

    Jason Michael

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    • Mm, interesting you mention autism; that is a case in which the blame for upsetting a person with touch would fall on the “toucher”, not the “touchee”, as it is well-known that many adults and children on the autism spectrum have issues with touch. My mom has worked with autistic children in schools for about a decade now, and she’s shared many of her insights with me on that. I think there are lessons to be learned for the population at large from autistic individuals (e.g. perhaps our default setting should not be “It’s okay to touch another person whenever I feel like it”).

      I strongly disagree that children could not have a conversation about touching. For one thing, it is an almost universal underestimation, what a child is capable of understanding. In any case, ideas of autonomy and consent and respect for them should be taught early and often, and I believe there are healthy and informative ways this can be done. Adults must first be willing, though– which of course means confronting their own “emotionally mature” assumptions and beliefs. The latter, I think, is the hard part…

      I read a couple of the recent entries on your blog– it’s fortuitous, actually, because I have recently lamented my lack of interest in, er, spiritual learnings. I was once Christian and was also once very, very interested in “spirituality” and understanding the Universe, but long ago closed the door on that. I really do think this is a shame, because I believe there’s a lot to be learned there, if I can just get over myself (my jadedness and bigotry, specifically). Maybe your blog can help me ease myself back into it. ;)

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      • We must never touch anyone whenever we ‘feel like it.’ Touch is essential to the communication of human care, but it is about the service of needs. Am I touching you to serve my own needs? If so this is abusive. When I visit the sick or the dying I touch to serve them and show love and heart-felt pain. In this sense I walk with them to their healing or their departure. On the issue of children’s discussions, I shall readily admit that I am no expert, but there is touch and there is ‘touching’ – Oh how modern scandals have robbed us (thankfully and sadly) of our innocence. Yes children must be aware, and I am sure good parenting and guidance is more than capable of this, but not all touch is abusive. Children touch children – we are apes after all – and there is still space within a safe place for children to be children in this regard. And YES, adults must always challenge themselves and be challenged to investigate their assumptions.

        You were once a Christian? Poor you! It really is a curse, isn’t it? You must tell me to where you wandered. By all means post me something of your journey over on my blog – it does get lonely in the blogosphere world of my own meandering thoughts (I liked that turn of phrase, I must use it again). I did my ‘spiritual learnings’ in hell – Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles, where I saw religion tear communities and indeed bodies apart. I have often wondered what exactly I ever learned. Many times I have thought of jacking it all in and getting a real job. I don’t know. Sometimes it seems like I am hiding here, but with a look at the ‘religious’ and the ‘christians’ I see around me I think that if I leave I will be leaving god in some pretty rubbish company.

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  3. hi, i know you wrote this ages ago but just wanted to say that i found it immensely helpful (if somewhat painful) and very well put. i think you’re 100% right that anti-rape activists do really need to go back and look at their own past sexual behaviour and scrutinise it. anyway, thanks this helped me make my mind up on Brad Perry’s article and other things.
    Paul

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    • Hi Paul,

      I’m so glad to hear that you find it helpful! I’m grateful for your comment. It’s surely not an easy subject to contemplate, and can be very painful, indeed. I’ve had to take a long hard look at myself, which has been painful at times, but

      I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on the Perry article or any other gender-related topics in the future.

      ~Lee

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