‘As a man’ is not a confidence-inspiring start to a piece on rape culture, let me be the first to acknowledge that. Straight white men, as a demographic, don’t have the best reputation for sensitivity in this area. Historically, we are more problem than solution. I’m not even talking about the vile extremes of the ‘meninists’, or the self-caricaturing alt-right drivel that takes up far too much online airspace on this issue. Just your garden variety ignorance. An everyday lack of compassion and awareness. I’ve been guilty of it. I’ll get to that.
Nonetheless, as a man, I want to dislodge some of my own ignorance and start a conversation with my fellow fellas, however clumsily. And hopefully galvanize a few of you to do the same—because it’s worrying how many of us appear to still be not fucking getting it. Even if we’re fundamentally decent. And we are, aren’t we? Like Brock Turner. “A fundamentally good young man from a good family with a record of real accomplishment who made some bad choices,” his lawyers said. Just kidding. Most of us are not Brock Turner, obviously. But it strikes me as a bit too easy to consolidate our outrage around the obvious villains. It is more difficult, and more necessary, to be honest and upfront about the ways in which we contribute to maintaining a culture in which sexual violence against women flourishes.
The callous disregard exhibited for the victim by Turner, and subsequently his lawyers, father, and Judge Aaron Persky, was shocking—but if you ask any woman, all too familiar. And this is what we should all be angry about. Not just women. Although, if anger is fear brought to the boil, as Caitlin Moran points out in 12 Things About Being a Woman that Women Won’t Tell You (which, by the way, should be compulsory reading), raw fury is inevitable. Rates of sexual assault are harrowing. In the United States, one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives. Nearly one in ten women will be raped by an intimate partner. One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college, but more than 90% of victims on campus do not report the assault. 63% of all sexual assaults in the U.S. are not reported to authorities.
Let that land on you.
Don’t get defensive. Don’t reach for an excuse. Just absorb that brutal truth—that there is a pandemic of sexual violence towards women at the hands of men.
And we are, as a gender, still woefully failing to listen to what women are telling us.
Chloe is a friend of mine. Years ago, we were both part of a large group out drinking. Far too much. And as the end of the night approached, a handful of people came back to my place to crash. I passed out on the couch. So did another friend. One slept on the floor. Another made a nest in the wardrobe. The bed went to Jeff, another of the group out that night, who had hooked up with Chloe. I learned the next day that after we were all asleep, they had sex. We were young, Chloe was only 17. They were both single and it was a rowdy night. I never thought anything of it.
Years later, I made a frivolous comment to Chloe about Jeff that night. A throwaway remark in intention, but it struck a nerve. Chloe revealed that she was never remotely interested in Jeff, and certainly not in having sex with him. Not in having sex at all. It wasn’t the casual, free-spirited fling I had merely assumed it was—quite the opposite. When she told me, I was shocked. Sickened. How could I—how could all of us—have misread the situation so badly?
I email Chloe and ask her if she would be willing to have another conversation about that night. I explain that I am trying to address some of my own blind spots about rape culture, and explore how consensual situations, though not technically criminal, might still be uncomfortable. Messy and ambiguous. She writes back. She is happy to be interviewed for the article, but disagrees with a couple of things in my email. We talk the next day and I begin by asking her what she disagreed with. “My response to what you were saying…wording [of] things being messy and ambiguous, blurred lines… Well, whose experience has blurred lines? From my point of view, any ambiguity was only a lack of education about what consent actually was… It might have been messy, but with time to reflect, there was actually nothing ambiguous about what happened.”
Messy. Ambiguous. Not technically criminal. Uncomfortable. Words that I thought represented a sensitivity to the complexities of the issue, are perhaps merely a string of linguistic excuses. It reveals to me that I haven’t tried hard enough to understand what this issue really means to women, and shake off the inertia of my straight-white-male background.
“If you look at the actual definition of consent, if someone is intoxicated they cannot consent. So even legally speaking, there’s nothing ambiguous going on. It feels like it’s cutting the rapist some slack to be like, ‘oh, these blurred lines, it must have been so confusing for him.’ But it wasn’t. To do what he did, there’s nothing blurry in that, you know? So…‘not technically criminal’… Well, actually…not prosecuted maybe, and not chargeable, but that doesn’t mean not criminal.” Why, so often, do we receive accusations of assault with incredulity or denial, rather than instinctively starting from a place of belief, compassion or understanding?
I was put in touch with Sarah, who at 22-years-old, was raped by two men while asleep in her bedroom towards the end of a party at her house. Eighteen months later the case went to trial. “What it came down to is that in any kind of rape, or sexual assault, there’s rarely ever a witness. It was my word against theirs. While there were other people at the party who were able to speak about their predatory behavior that night, no-one actually witnessed them raping me. Was it consensual? Was I awake? Or was what I was saying true? In the end it was a hung jury.” Only three out of every hundred rapists will ever spend even a single day in prison, according to a 2012 analysis by RAINN of Justice Department data. The other 97 will walk free, facing no consequences for the violent felony they have committed. Because rapists tend to be serial criminals, this leaves communities vulnerable to repeat attacks. Even within college statistics, 63.3% of men at one university who reported having committed acts qualifying as rape or attempted rape admitted to repeat offenses. (And this data only accounts for those men who had admitted to such offenses…)
After her case became public, Sarah was inundated with calls, messages, emails, even letters of support from women who had similar situations in their histories but had previously not spoken out. “The fear of speaking out is very common. We all have girlfriends who have been sexually assaulted and haven’t spoken out, because of the fear or the shame, that this might reflect badly on me. Or that no-one will believe me.” There were people on the other side, for instance, lining up to deny her version of events—from the defendants, all the way down to comments from people she knew. “I remember one of my girlfriends said to me afterwards, and this was one of my oldest friends, “But you know, Sarah, you are a flirt…”
She also described how men she was close to in her life had been uncomfortable hearing about it. “I think that it makes men very uncomfortable. Even male friends and boyfriends that I’ve had, even my husband feels very uncomfortable hearing about what happened to me. To think that a woman they love so much has been raped or violated. They don’t want to think about it. ‘I can’t think about it, it’s too awful.’ They don’t want the details. And then the second part of it is, it’s too close to home, because they’re a man. And it reflects too badly on the male sex.” I think about my own reaction to hearing the grim details of Sarah’s story. I had closed my eyes, even though we were on the phone. I had winced. I had not wanted to imagine it too clearly. Is that just another form of denial?
But look, you probably understand consent already. I get that. I get that you’ve likely seen the Cup of Tea analogy. I’m sure you’re not one of those heinous goblins muddying the conversation with justifications, denial, and counter-accusations of falsehood and misandry. (Yes, sometimes accusations of rape are false. Roughly between 2% and 10%, which means that as a man you’re statistically as likely to be the victim of sexual assault than be falsely accused of one. It’s not a useful contribution to the conversation. So let’s stop making it.) And, as Chloe puts it, “There’s a huge line that needs to be crossed to get to sexual assault. It’s not a majority of guys [who think], oh, my bad, it’s so confusing, it was so confusing when she was vomiting, I thought it meant put my dick in her, you know what I mean? A majority of people do enable that culture that allows it to happen, but there’s only a few guys that, because of that enabling, go that far across the line.”
But fair enough, isn’t it, to raise the complexities of subtle, nuanced, adult relationships? What about non-verbal consent, right? Implied consent? Cathy Young wrote an excellent piece in response to the Cup of Tea analogy, arguing that the appropriate metaphor was not tea, but cake. “If someone offers you cake and you don’t really feel like eating it but say, ‘Sure, I’d love some!’, because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, that’s also consent. If you’re drunk (but sufficiently in control of your faculties to eat cake…), that’s also consent. If you weren’t thinking straight and ate so much cake you were sick the next day, chalk it up as a valuable learning experience.”
A learning experience, sure, but shouldn’t we still be worried that there’s an epidemic of people feeling pressured to eat fucking cake they don’t actually want, even if they agree to eat it?
If the argument is that sexual situations are often more complicated than not, rife with subtlety and nuance, then how about we apply a little more of it ourselves? If circumstances are ‘ambiguous,’ why can’t that make us more likely to be careful, rather than less? Rachel, 33, described numerous situations in which she and her friends had found themselves and that she felt were ambiguous in terms of consent. “I was a pretty free spirited party kid at times. If you infuse it with alcohol, it becomes very murky. There’s a lot of shame involved. You also have that thing in dating culture, the expectation of women that they should be almost like men. They should be so empowered, that you’re meant to be cool with everything as well. We’re meant to think like a man in the dating culture. So you can feel shame for feeling vulnerable, and also for fearing that bravado. You can feel shame for saying no.”
She describes a date with a man which ended with them going back to his house, “even though I’d made it clear I didn’t want anything to happen. I kissed him, but that was it. He said he was too drunk to drive me home, but I could crash in his bed. This was pre-Uber. So I stayed, clothed, on top of the covers. He still tried to get his hands down my pants. And I still felt that even though I’d said no, I must be in the wrong.” Sarah relates to this: “Too many of my girlfriends have this ‘busy hands’ story, of waking up to a guy trying to put his hands down our pants. We had a housewarming. I went to my bedroom, closed the door, and went to sleep. I woke up. One of my friends, in my bed, trying to finger me. This is a really, really, really, really common story. And that’s blurry because, well, it’s not rape, but you’re trying to…what do you call it? You’re violating me. While I’m asleep.”
Here’s another problem. In eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the person who sexually assaulted them. Are we listening, now? Sarah says, “There’s this whole other thing. Telling your friends that something inappropriate happened with a guy, who might also be in the same friendship group. That’s really difficult. The number of people I’ve heard from, stories from girlfriends over the years about men that I’ve known that have done this to them. The person who did that [‘busy hands’ while sleeping] to me, I know you know, for instance. And if I told you who he was, I’m sure that you’d be shocked.” Chloe agrees: “People like to think that rape is only this big scary thing, where someone grabs a woman in an alleyway or something, but it’s not. It can be what your mate’s doing to your other mate.”
Perhaps we need better, more specific language to discuss these different situations. But to get too caught up in splitting hairs misses the point. Across all the women I spoke with, the experience of being in a compromised situation with a man, or a circumstance in which they felt uncomfortable or coerced, was universal. Absorb that too, gentlemen. Universal. Situations that, even if they didn’t necessarily constitute as rape, were definitely not okay by any measure of basic human standards. Story after story. It was overwhelming. The first time I had properly understood that #yesallwomen is not a symbolic hashtag, but a literal truth. And a recurring theme in many of those situations was that they had not wanted to say ‘no’ any more vociferously because of fear of making the man angry, because they felt ashamed they may have led him on, or even that it was easier just to go along with it than risk violence.
Jennifer, 30, said that there can be an idea underpinning the consent of “this is just easier. If I just… It’s not that bad, let’s just do it, I’ve led him on this far, let’s just… It’s ten minutes, just go. That happens all the time. All the fucking time. And tied into that is an element of fear. What’s going to happen if I don’t? Which is potentially a lack of communication on both sides, let’s be fair. But it’s grey.” There is a significant correlation between reasons why a woman might not feel able to say ‘no,’ and the reasons for which sexual assault is often not reported to authorities: fear of retaliation, uncertainty about whether a crime was committed, fear of disclosure or public shame, even loyalty to the offender.
How often might a man walk away from a situation unaware of the turmoil or trauma he has inflicted on a woman? This leaves me asking myself some hard questions. Who out of my friends and family is capable of assault? Who might have placed a woman in a disquieting situation, or pressured her excessively? Or done so without even realizing it? Does everyone have it in them to do it? Do I? Have there been any situations in my own sexual history that may have felt problematic for my partner? I certainly hope not—but if this experience is ubiquitous for women, are we creating murky situations without even realizing it?
Chloe links this lack of awareness to differences in sexual narratives between genders: “I think women are a little culturally better at talking about this stuff than men—the sex discussion with men seems to be more framed in terms of ‘yeah, awesome,’ whereas women talk more about the negative sexual experiences they’ve had.”
I went to an all-male high school and two different universities, and at these institutions, the macho culture among male students, when it came to women, was very much about sexual conquest. The focus was not on the potential vulnerability of the partner. “I think probably any time a woman has been described as some kind of conquest, I’d say it’s probably a pretty bad sign. It’s a much bigger rape culture thing, where pop culture and porn and other dudes in the world teach you that women are not as valuable as other human beings… It’s sexism in action. Everything teaches you that women aren’t as smart, or as worthy and of course people end up acting that out. The narrative of every movie is that if a guy wants a girl, if he really wants to have her, then he’s going to get her and he deserves that, and she’s his prize, so of course guys then enact that in real life, and then the girl is like, ‘oh, no thank you, I’m good.’ I think people don’t hear that,” Chloe adds.
Jennifer brings up cat-calling as a contributing factor. “I went to a meeting the other day. I parked my car two blocks from the place. It doesn’t actually matter what I was wearing, but I was wearing black jeans, boots, a shirt buttoned up to the collar. You could literally see my head and my hands. Six times, I was cat-called. ‘Hey baby…’ Between my car and the place. And I didn’t think they were going to attack me, and I didn’t think that was going to happen, but I also didn’t know. So you think, I’m just not going to say anything, but then you think, fuck, if I don’t respond, are they going to get angry?”
If you think Jennifer’s description of being cat-called is even remotely an exaggeration, take two minutes to watch that viral video out of New York, whereby a woman with a hidden camera in her backpack walks around the city for an entire day and is continuously cat-called.
One friend I spoke with pointed out that even if the intention behind a comment, or a cat-call, or a shout of admiration from a passing car is, as is so often argued, harmless or even complimentary, it is still a visceral, gut-level reminder of the threat of sexual violence to women. “The scariest thing with cat-calling,” said Jennifer, “is that it’s men saying, ‘We claim this space, we own public space, and you are in it. We’re going to let you go through, but only if you look good to us, and we’ll let you know about it, and if you’re not smiling we’ll tell you to smile, because this is my zone, and you can come into it, but don’t feel like it’s yours. Don’t get too comfortable. And that’s kind of reinforced by everyone. You see it all the fucking time.” Sarah agrees: “From a very young age, we [girls] are socialized to role play along with misogynistic interactions. So when being cat-called, it’s almost instinctive to politely oblige the attention—however uncomfortable it may make us feel. The same can be said for sex.”
Let’s consider that for a minute, too. Even within the confines of a loving relationship, can you say for certain that your wife or girlfriend or partner hasn’t had sex with you because she was sick of you pestering her for it? Or because she didn’t want to offend you? Or make you angry? Can we all acknowledge the elephant in the room—that there are fundamental attitudes maintained by men, as a group, towards women, as a group, that underpin every single one of these situations?
So, boys, where does all of this leave us? I’ll tell you: If you don’t believe that you hold these attitudes, if you don’t believe that any of these situations apply to you, then speak up. This conversation needs more from those of us who consider ourselves good men. Most of the women I spoke to said that it was something they had opened up about to other women, but not necessarily discussed with their male friends. When I asked Rachel, she said, “I’m kind of surprised to hear myself say no. Even guys I would sob to, and be specific about my relationship highs and lows. Even someone that I feel respected and loved by, like a brother….I had to play it cool, talking about anything that wasn’t a deeper relationship, because I felt too vulnerable, because it is too muddy. Because if I felt like I’ve been taken advantage of, maybe I deserved to feel like this.”
Jennifer feels that it is becoming easier to talk to her male friends about this, “but only kind of recently. I didn’t realize it wasn’t something that they knew. I just assumed that they would know. But people are not so afraid to talk about it any more. The Brock Turner case was a huge one. I think her victim statement was really effective to a lot of people, but I know for me, and the women I’ve talked to, how could you think it was anything else? How could you assume someone who got raped, when she was passed out behind a dumpster, would be anything but that intense? It’s not that hard to put two and two together. For most women anyway. Maybe not for guys?”
So how about it? Let’s stop making excuses. Let’s start being brave enough to call out misogynistic behavior when we see it, instead of excusing it just because we’ve got a dick between our legs too.
And if you are reading any of this thinking that I’m being anti-men, you are fucking kidding yourself. This is about being pro-woman. This is about being pro-human. I’m not suggesting you never look at a woman again. Or never talk to a woman in a bar, or a cafe. Far from it. That would be an absurd interpretation of this article. I’m not suggesting that we stop being men. I’m suggesting we can all be better ones. This is about how we do things, not the things we do. Conversation, flirtation, sex, and love are among the best things in life. So why don’t we raise the bar by caring more about the well being of our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends, and female friends, and see that they are having as great a time as we are? If she makes it clear that she’s not interested, take her at her word and move on. If she’s wearing headphones and doesn’t want to talk to you, don’t keep trying. If you make a sexual overture and you’re rejected, take it like a man and deal with it. Don’t make it her problem, because for her, it’s a terrifying one. And if things appear ambiguous, better to interpret that as a hard ‘no’ than a ‘yes’. Don’t hassle women. Don’t objectify them. Don’t assault them. Don’t rape them. Don’t abuse them. Don’t coerce them. Don’t pressure them into sex. (Is that really how you want to get it anyway?) Don’t defend your right to be an asshole. Don’t disbelieve them when they tell you what they are experiencing. Because a lot of these things are invisible in our world, but a constant threat in theirs.
And if anything I’ve said here is going to ruin your fun, you might just be part of the problem.
Are we awake now, lads?
Feature image source: huffingtonpost.com