Rape, and love.

I’ve been reading a lot about rape, as I try to finish my thesis, which deals with sexual violence as well as institutional violence. I’ve listened to and read a lot of survivors’ accounts of these types of violence. It’s too much at times, because this is how I spend my academic life, my intellectual life, but it’s also on the news all the time. It’s in songs, in movies, on TV, in teen fiction, in casual jokes and everyday conversation, in political discussions.

There was a time not so long ago (2008, 2009) where I would’ve been astounded and pleased to see nation-wide media discussions about sexual violence. So much changed in the time I was gone. It still blows my mind that we are including things like bystander intervention training in college freshman orientations, or that the FBI updated its definition of consent to condemn sexual acts against an unconscious or drugged person as rape. This seems like massive progressive. Seems like we’re headed in the right direction. Then why the fuck am I filled with anxiety, why am I drawn tight like a bowstring whenever sexual violence arises as a topic of conversation, a court case, a news story, a song lyric, a painted subject. Is it just because I’ve experienced it? Is it just PTSD, blah-dee-blah? Something tells me otherwise.

At certain times in the history of feminist theory and activism, some feminists have voiced the opinion that rape is a crime of violence, only, not a crime of sex. Susan Brownmiller has been cited as supporting a view of rape as a being about violence, not sex (see Cahill 2001, 16-28). While I was a SAC advocate and crisis counselor at the Listening Ear, I shared this view of rape. “It’s not about sex,” so the line goes, “it’s about power and domination.” Of course, this is coming from people who either cannot fathom an association between power, domination, violence, and sexual arousal, or who cannot admit to themselves that for many people, such a connection exists.

There are many people who associate violence, sex, and power. Sometimes this is enjoyable, and sometimes it is born of traumatic experience—undoubtedly sometimes it’s both. Many kinksters associate pain and pleasure and derive enjoyment and arousal from playing with power dynamics. However, kinky sex is not rape, due to the fact that communication, consent, and mutual enjoyment are central tenets of BDSM and fetish practices. Rape happens when genuine consent is absent, whether when a person says no, when a person is silent, or when a person feels that they cannot say no (e.g. because they are being coerced, threatened with the end of a relationship, etc.).

Something that strikes me is that among all these discussions of the relationship between violence, rape, and sex, something that never seems to come is the subject of love. Now, we know that the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by people known to their victims. In fact, they are often the closest people to us. They are our friends, our parents, our pastors, our teachers, our siblings, our neighbors, our lovers, our partners. They are people for whom we often feel a great deal of trust…and love. This doesn’t strike me as coincidental. It is the people whom we love the most that can often get away with doing the worst kinds of things to us, because we cannot admit to ourselves, let alone anyone else (e.g. a court of law), that they would do something to us that contradicts our understanding of their love for us. This seems to cross boundaries of all kinds of love. The love felt between parents and children, teachers and students, spouses, siblings, and so on—these are all very different kinds of love. But it seems to me that all of these kinds of love (perhaps all kinds of love) are founded upon trust.

This is what makes rape so devastating. It is a violation of bodily autonomy, it is a violation of the mind, and it is a violation of trust and love. Even where trust is broke, even again and again, love remains… Maybe it gets chipped away, maybe it wears like beaches shaped by waves, maybe it erodes into nothing, over time. But when it comes to the people we love most, we will suffer the worst kinds of betrayals, even more than once. We tell ourselves whatever is necessary to endure this kind of abuse: we put the people we love before ourselves, that is what true love is; we keep faith in them even when they fuck up, because love conquers all, and through love they will change and improve; love doesn’t always come easy, sometimes it requires work, maybe it even requires sacrifice; we can’t betray love, even when the people we love betray us.

I feel compelled to say something that I have suspected before, that makes my stomach turn and that I know the thought of which makes many people feel ill. Rape and love are connected. I won’t claim to understand their relationship. Either rape and love are connected (hence why it is most often the people we love who perpetrate our rapes), or we do not yet understand rape, or love. Quite possibly I think it is both. I suspect that until we better understand both rape and love, sexual violence will always be a normative aspect of our culture. Even as we say, “Rape has nothing to do with sex, rape has nothing to do with love,” we lie to ourselves that our rapists—our parents, our pastors, our best friends, our partners—love us. Maybe it is not a lie… Maybe they do love us. Maybe we do love them. Then we’ve got it wrong… Rape and love have something to do with each other. It seems fucked up, it seems unimaginable. But we also say that rape, itself, seems unimaginable. We say bizarre things about rape: “I’d rather die than be raped”; “I’d kill anyone who raped you/me.” We say sensical things about rape: “I can’t believe that person committed rape”; “I don’t understand how that person could have rape their best friend/spouse/child/classmate.” All of these utterances seem to me to indicate a serious lack of understanding about rape, but also love.

Something that we fail to talk about and to really seek to understand are the motivations of rapists. We pass them off as deviants, as psychos, as one-offs, as aberrations, as monsters under the bed, as strangers in the shadows. When it’s the people we love who fit this description, it’s like they become unknown, unknowable to us. It stops making sense. Our relationship stops making sense. Love stops making sense. Our bodies stop making sense. Our will stops making sense. It’s unfathomable, it goes against everything our culture has taught us about love, it goes against everything we feel and understand about love, about relationships, about ourselves, about the people we love. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s incoherent, it’s like living in a horrific faerieland where nothing makes sense, nothing ever coheres.

It makes no sense to me whatsoever that a person whom I love and trusted very much raped me repeatedly. They made me feel like I was wrong for refusing them. They made me feel that I was saying “I don’t love you” whenever I said no. They made me feel that I was hurting them by saying no. They made me feel that they had a right to my body—more than that, they had a right to my bodymind and they had a right to believe I enjoyed it. Eventually I ran away from them because I felt like I was going to die—on some level I believed that it was me, or the relationship. One of us was going to end. I had come to believe that it was my destiny to kill myself, and that I wasn’t deserving of love, and I believed everyone who made me feel that my partner was ‘putting up with me’ and that I was abusing them. Probably most of those people had no idea what my partner did to me for more than two years. Sure, a lot of them knew that that person had jerked me around and gone out on me, had manipulated me and lied to me and so on and so forth. All part of the game that is college relationships, I suppose. But they didn’t know that my partner would touch me against my wishes, even in public places, like work. My partner wasn’t afraid of consequences, I think; I suspect that they felt they were in the right. They made me afraid to be alone at work with them. They made me afraid to walk up the stairs first. Eventually I couldn’t let anyone walk up a flight upstairs behind me, because I’d start having a panic attack. Of course, I wouldn’t figure out for a long time that that’s what they were.

Despite all this, I loved my partner so much, I couldn’t imagine my life without them. They were so smart and considerate and creative and funny and good-looking, they were going places, they had a good head on their shoulders, they were kind, everyone said so. Many people said I was lucky to be with them. I believed this. But in order to keep my partner happy, I had to do what they asked. If that was holding hands, or kissing, or letting them touch me, or having sex, then that’s what had to happen. It took almost four years for me to figure out that all of that was wrong, was not my fault, and the sex we had wasn’t ‘sex’, it was rape.

The part that is now very difficult for me to get my head around is that that person thinks they didn’t do anything wrong. No, scratch that, I can get my head around that. We live in a culture that tells some groups of people they’re better than other groups, that they are entitled to things from groups which are beneath them. Shrug. I can understand that. I read books and shit. What I can’t understand is how that person can live with themself, because they work in a place that is directly involved in people’s sexual health. What makes them think that they have even a modicum of understanding about sexual health? They made me feel that there was something wrong with me, with my body, when I didn’t enjoy having sex with them. Having sex you don’t enjoy over and over again—this is the opposite of healthy.

Writing helps… I’m feeling a bit better for having written this. Writing is a Lens of Clarity in faerieland. Maybe now I can get back to my thesis…

How We Read

Today at work, while I was running the register, a girl of about 6 or 7 wondered aloud to her mother, “Is that a boy or a girrrrrl…?” Since this has happened to me about a million times (to be fair, Cambodia about tripled my score in this count), I was neither offended nor caught off guard, but I did do something a bit different than I have usually done. Before her mother could scold/shush her, before she could apologize to me, I smiled slyly and said, “What do you think?”

“Ummm…” said the girl.

“It’s okay, you can take a guess.”

“Ummmm…. A girrrrrrl?” posed the girl.

“Close enough,” I said.

The girl, whose named turned out to be Moon (it wasn’t actually, but to protect her identity I’ve swapped it out for something equally celestial), seemed quite delighted and gratified. What surprised me, though, was her mother’s reaction. She was neither embarrassed nor angry, not awkward, not anxious. She seemed perhaps relieved, or even glad. She said, only mildly apologetically, “When she wants to know something, she just asks!”

I praised Moon for her bravery in asking questions, and encouraged her not to be afraid to be curious. They went off to have their breakfast.

Later on, while making coffee, I got to have another short conversation with Moon and her mom. I said I liked her name, it was quite unique, and mentioned that I coincidentally had a friend named Sky, which really got her excited. She confided loudly that there was a boy at her school named Creek (also not his real name, but similarly earthy), and that he liked her and wrote her love letters. But she didn’t like these love letters, she exclaimed! She always threw them away, but he wrote her persistently, anyway.

“You don’t have to put up with that, Moon,” I assured her. She assured me that she could stand up for herself. I believe she can. Remarkably, through most of the conversation, Moon’s mother let her talk for herself, occasionally contributing but never overriding or trumping Moon’s voice.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t mind ambiguity; in many ways, I despise it. But in reading the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, Donna Haraway, and Riki Wilchins, I am more and more interested in the power of ambiguity to disrupt and confuse our cultural tendency towards binary thinking, dichotomous worldviews. Dichotomies relieve the frequently awkward, at-times painful tension of ambiguity; much of our modern-day logic wouldn’t function without what Patricia Hill Collins calls “either/or thinking”. Everything in our world should generally be called one thing, or another, but it must be one or the other and it certainly cannot be both.

Every human being must be male, or female, but they cannot be both and of course cannot be something else entirely. Why are we so utterly disturbed by this notion? Why is any transcendence of the binary sex construct considered heretical, perverse, unnatural?

Why are children more easily able to cope with this ambiguity? I didn’t give Moon an answer; I let her think what she wanted to think, which could have included not making up her mind, or not caring. For most adults, not making up our minds or not caring are quite implausible in regards to sex/gender: we need to know, we need certainty. A lack thereof, the presence of ambiguity is weird, disconcerting, frightening, even angering.

I’m not going to suggest that ambiguity in all situations is positive or appropriate, but I will say that most cultures could do with a higher tolerance for it. After all, the notion of the ‘false dichotomy’ is sort of redundant in the sense that most dichotomies are false, perhaps the most pervasive of those being ‘male/female’ and ‘black/white’. For Moon, I fell into enough of a grey area that it prompted her curiosity; her reaction was neutral, or maybe even positive by some views, but unusual, regardless. What if more of us were curious about the grey area? What if more of us embraced living in the grey area? How might that begin to affect the currently [harmful] dichotomous worldview we insist on passing down to future generations?

Fresh Bites

Olympic archery is cool!

Kawanaka received a bronze model for her part on the women’s team in archery.

The commentators…not so much. One of them (a Brit whose name I haven’t been able to lay my hands on) kept referring to Kaori Kawanaka of Japan as “the Japanese girl”, while her Russian competitor was simply “the Russian”; yet all of the male archers were referred to by their, er, names (such as Marco Galiazzo, Michele Frangilli and Mauro Nespoli of the Italian team, whom he called by their last names).

I thought commentators received training about that sort of thing? Not that it’s needed; most people probably don’t notice it as it’s so taken for granted.

From ESPN, a great article on the hypercompetitiveness of kids’ sports. Since ESPN is kinda an authority on these things, I appreciate their position: kids should be having a least as much fun as they are focused on winning.

Also, people really really do not know what rape is. Really. Men who rape, women who rape, the people who are raped, and a large number of bystanders– people are very confused about how to define rape. (That’s why I’m glad I have such a simple, straightforward definition, though admittedly rape is much more than a physical phenomenon.)

Pussy Rioters get jailed in Russia for blaspheming god Putin and being feminist (which really are the same thing, in fact).

A fun post on English language idioms.

Michiganians compete in the London 2012 Games!

An interesting blogger with a knack for limericks.

The Guardian has this cool chart which shows LGBT equality/lack thereof in the States.

And queers are going Alice Paul on MI politics in metro-Detroit.

(I know nobody cares except CELTA trainees and applied linguistics nerds, but this phonemic chart “keyboard” is so neat! And it’s saving my life, since MS Word is annoying and doesn’t have all the necessary symbols for writing in phonemic script, unless you know all the magic key combinations.)

The Importance of Being Earnest (at least digitally-speaking)

Lately I feel very interested in the secrets and secret thoughts people have, especially about other people, particularly as relates to sex and/or violence.

Usually one is hard-pressed to get earnest, open insight into such secrets, thoughts and fantasies, but thanks to the [seeming] anonymity of the Web, sometimes such honesty just comes pouring forth. It’s hardly tempting to hold back the thoughts which would always be checked in, er, polite company when there is no one to police you (e.g. peers, friends, family members, etc.), or when there is an [again, seemingly] infinite barrier of cyberspace between you and the Real World. I think there is also a Web-induced narcissism at work; people feel not only obliged to throw in their two cents, but also entitled to do so, exacerbated by the great ease with which one can do so on today’s Web. (See me demonstrate this phenomenon as we speak.)

Reading up on the Secret Service scandal in Colombia, I noticed just such a treasure trove of open, honest remarks in the comments section. Find a few of my selected favourites below.