Almost two years ago, I wrote about being sexually assaulted by a male friend — let’s call him “Brad” — who stuck his fingers in my vagina when I was drunk. Since then, I’ve done a lot of “personal work,” as they say, and I’ve basically reached a place of peace about the whole thing. But, for me, the final step was unexpected; it was understanding my own capacity to hurt other people.
When I began dating again, this one memory kept resurfacing for me in a way that was very disruptive. It was a memory of drunkenly making out with a girl when I had one of my hands on her leg, and I was slowly moving it up her thigh. “Oh, no,” she said, and I removed my hand and we continued making out. For months, this memory kept resurfacing, and I wondered— why is this memory coming up? I did nothing wrong, I listened to her when she said no. I’m not like Brad, I told myself. I didn’t assault her. I didn’t actually put my fingers in her vagina.
I’m not like Brad. I’m not like Brad. I’m not like Brad.
Yet, some small part of me couldn’t help but wonder; if I’d had two more drinks, could I have been like Brad? If that girl and I had been as drunk as Brad and I had been, could I have assaulted her?
I kept searching and searching for some clue, some concrete piece of evidence, that would exonerate me and I kept coming up short. And, eventually I came to terms with a very difficult belief I now have; it was simply circumstance that separated me and Brad. There was no deep evil in his heart, nothing terrible about him and nothing good about me. I had the same capacity to assault someone that he did, but the circumstances of the nights in question led to two different outcomes.
Once I accepted my potential culpability, I began to wonder to myself, what were the circumstances that made that event feel fucked up? Why did that night keep coming up for me as I was working on my sexual trauma?
One of the first things I observed, is that this girl had been very conventionally attractive. “Straight hot,” as the un-pc would say, or perhaps skinny, blonde and femme would cover it. And… I wasn’t really that into her. But I wanted to hook up with her anyway because I thought it would make me awesome. I could like, casually drop that I’d hooked up with her to my male friends and blow their minds. And even if I never told anyone about it, I’d know I’d done it, and this would feel like being “successful” in some way.
I’m sorry to say, this has been a repeated feature of my sex life. Any time a “straight hot” blonde chick wants to hook up with me (which has maybe happened, like, 3 times) I *always* go for it, and I basically never get turned on. But I get such an ego boost from being asked that I roll with it.
And, part of what was creepy about that night, is that I was hooking up with that girl for social status, not to connect with her. Of course I was tuned out to what she was feeling sexually; I was completely numbing my own sexual desires in pursuit of ego gratification. I wanted the feelings of success that would come after hooking up with her, but wasn’t much interested in the feelings of connection that came during hooking up. I wanted to fuck her as quickly as possible and get it over with just so I could say that I’d done it.
This revelation helped me answer one of the most painful question that had been haunting me; how can men be sexually gratified by me when I’m hurting? How could my sexual assaulter have gotten any gratification from fingering me when I was so drunk I was blacking out? How could my ex come inside me after I told him I didn’t want to have sex? Why did people get angry with me when I asked to stop sexual activity that was hurting me?
How could people enjoy, and demand, being sexual with my body when they could knew it was hurting me?
The answer, I believe, is that they were in pursuit of ego gratification. They were disconnected from what we both were feeling, and were instead focused on the “accomplishment” of hooking up with me. The gratification they wanted wasn’t the gratification of connecting with another human, but rather achieving something in the eyes of society.
Understanding this helped me come to terms with my own feelings of worthlessness and unlovability. For so many years, I looked around at other people — other women — and asked myself, “what does she have that I don’t?” Why does someone love her, and why does no one loved me? And, I think these feelings were caused by the visceral experience of callousness, and at times anger and resentment, by my partners in what were supposed to be “the most” intimate moments of my life. Some part of me felt like there was something wrong with me that led to other people being cruel to me when they were supposed to be being nice to me.
But, when I remember that night with the pretty blonde girl, it’s now so easy to see there was nothing wrong with her. I don’t believe she was unlovable; just that, in that moment, I was so selfishly focused on my own ego that I was unable to show genuine affection for her. Even if I didn’t do anything to her without consent, I think what I did was bad for her. I think I hurt her. She would have sensed I wasn’t really into her when we were making out, and that probably added to her own feelings of worthlessness and unlovability. I did to her what so many men have done to me, and for that, I am truly sorry.
One thing that #metoo hasn’t addressed is — what do we do when we realize that we are the guilty party? What do we do when we remember incidents in our past when we weren’t as good to people as they really deserved? Because, well before we get to “illegal” sexual behaviors, there are a whole slew of “harmful” sexual behaviors which many (most?) of us are guilty of.
I feel somewhat frustrated with our current demonization sexual assaulters, because it reminds me of the way I kept telling myself “I’m not like Brad.” It reeks of societal denial. We pull out the worst, most over the top cases of high profile men who assaulted many victims over years, and demand justice without ever investigating our own culpability or participation in a corrupt system. We retain a comfortable ignorance of our own attitudes and own complicity by vilifying the most odious as we secretly assuring ourselves we’re not like them.
One of my male facebook friends noticed that nearly all his female friends were participating in #metoo, and he wondered; have most men participated in an act of harassment, or are a small number of men harassing a lot of women? He assumed it was most likely the later, an assumption backed up with these high profile cases that target many people.
However, I think most of us *have* participated in the culture of sexual harassment in one way or another. There is not a sharp divide between the “evil” men in the headlines and a mostly innocent public; rather there is a spectrum that we will all find ourselves on.
Common ways I believe many people participate and perpetuate sexual assault culture:
- Objectification of women, and congratulating those who are sexual with conventionally attractive women.
- Dismissing the pain caused by a sexual assault by examining the motivation of the perpetrator. The fact that I can relate to the motivations of the man who assaulted me doesn’t make my pain any less severe. A well intentioned miscommunication is not necessarily less painful than an intentional violation.
- A focus on punishing perpetrators and celebrating their downfall rather than helping victims heal.
- Not admitting the things we or our friends do wrong.
My main frustration with me too, is that it’s making #4 harder and harder. Ultimately, as a culture, we’re going to have to admit the things we have done wrong. We’re going to have to admit the mistakes we have made, and examine the causes and conditions that led us to make them. We’re going to have to own up to the pain we caused other people, and this is going to involve feeling the pain that comes with fully acknowledging how you have hurt people.
We’re going to have to stop pretending the sexual assaulters are out there, that they’re committed by horrible people with horrible minds and repulsive sexual urges. Sexual assault is a natural and obvious extension of our culture. It is a natural extension of values that we all have internalized.
And, we’re going to have to figure out what to do about that. Right now, we seem to punish assault by calling people out on social media, shaming them, and make them un-hirable (if we can’t arrest them.) But, are we going to do that to everyone? What about the people who only did it once, a long time ago? What about the people who are combinations of victims and perpetrators? What about the people who did things that are kind of sketchy, but not fully criminal?
Our current methods of correction can’t be applied to the entire population, yet our entire population is culpable in this problem (which, is why basically *all women* have experienced it.) We must stop trying to confirm our own innocence, but rather consider the ways that we’re contributing to the problem. Because this is a very difficult task, I recommend starting with the easiest questions.
Have you ever looked away, or dismissed, someone’s experience of sexual pain — even a little bit? Even just in your head? Even online?
Have you ever felt flattered by, or craved, the attention of conventionally attractive people that you weren’t personally actually attracted to?
Have you ever called women “hot” as a way of connecting with straight men?
Have you ever shamed non conventionally attractive people?
Have you ever shamed anyone for being sexually inexperienced or a virgin?
Have you ever shamed anyone for having non-standard sexual desires?
I’m guilty of most of these (at some time in my life) and usually because I wanted social acceptance. Part of what I try to do now is accept a wide variety of people socially, to help mitigate the conditions that would lead to them being cruel to other people. Truly fighting rape culture will require large changes across the board. It will require being nice to adolescent boys. It will require creating space for a non-sexual kind of femininity.
It will require a culture that grants basic respect and dignity to all people, just because they are people.