Rape Culture and the Complexity of Consent

November 16, 2017

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I have to believe all these news stories coming out about sexual harassment and abuse are triggering some deeply held trauma by millions of women. As we know from Kevin Spacey’s reign of terror, not all the victims are female. (Terry Crews recent disclosure is a powerful example.) But it’s mostly women. We know this. For every Harvey Weinstein and Judge Roy Moore, there are countless women who must shudder each time this expanding story is reported. (Al Franken? Really, dude?) For some it takes them right back to that moment. Listening to Beverly Nelson’s account of Moore’s assault is like listening to someone frozen in a moment for 40 years.

I asked my wife how she was hearing these stories. Like most women, she has her own experience of abuse. I was worried it was bringing up difficult memories. Her emotional response was anger; that this sexual abuse was so widespread and that the conspiracy of silence surrounding it has allowed even more women to become victims. I wonder if that’s as common a response as the feeling of emotionally crumbling yet again.

A few years ago I was giving a lecture on the under-reporting of rape to my criminology students at the University of Oregon. It was a giant classroom in McKenzie Hall and I was being very social scientific about the reasons sexual assaults are not reported to the police, including the finding that 78% of rapists are known to their victims. In the middle of me laying out all these horrible facts, a young woman in the front row burst into tears and ran out the classroom. I never gave that lecture the same way again. I know when I’m talking about sexual violence, there are going to be victims in the room. I know there are victims reading this.

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I’ve written plenty about rape culture in this blog. From fraternities to #metoo, and probably too many references to Game of Thrones. As a feminist, I’ve lectured for decades that the normality of rape reinforces patriarchal power. To men, it’s an invisible reality. But to a female, every time they are in a bar, or walking to their car, or watching the local news (or Game of Thrones), there is a constant reminder that they are a potential target. And there’s a good chance that it’s already happened. Every woman understands the “rape schedule.” Few men even know what it is.

That’s why this blog post is going to push some buttons.

The complex nature of consent

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In the early 1990s, universities across the country were finally having real conversations about the epidemic of “date” rape on college campuses. As a graduate student at Emory University, I made “Fraternities and Rape on Campus,” by Patricia Martin and Robert Hummer (1989) required reading for my students. The mantra came down from on high that, “if she’s too drunk to consent, it’s rape.” It didn’t end predatory males from pouring 100 proof hunch punch down young women’s throats, but it planted the seed that the rapist isn’t just the stranger in the parking lot.

But after that clear and important message, it can get confusing.

Female agency and sex-positive feminism

Sally and Biff both get shit-faced at a party and then hook up. Did Biff rape Sally? Or did Sally rape Biff? Or was there just drunken sex with no rape? And can I even ask this question without forfeiting my membership in the National Organization of Women?

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Another book I assigned to my students, in the early-2010s, was Shira Tarrant’s Men and Feminism (2009). Dr. Tarrant was in Portland, speaking about campus rape at Reed College, so my girlfriend and I headed down to catch her talk. Reed had had it’s own issues with sexual assault by male students so the main theme was the revisiting of the “if she’s too drunk, it’s rape” mantra. Again, it’s in important message to get to young college students but I was in the middle of a much different situation with a stalker who was using her femaleness as a defacto victim status to upend my life. (Think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987).) So, feeling like some complexity was needed, during the Q&A, I asked this question:

“My mom likes to tell the story of how my dad didn’t want kids. One night she cooked my dad a big dinner and opened a bottle of Chianti and got him drunk and that was the night I was conceived. My question is, am I the product of rape and should my mother have gone to prison?”

You could hear a pin drop and then you could hear heads explode. I should point out that this story isn’t exactly true (as far as I know), but the scenario introduces something debated in feminist circles, that women have their own sexual agency. I’ve had women tell me that they got drunk with guys as an excuse to have sex with them. “If it turns out bad, I can just blame it on being wasted.” I’ve had women tell me that they slept with their professors in college like it was a sport. “We all got points for bagging Dr. So-and-so in the English Department.” I’ve had many of these conversations but I didn’t want to share them with the audience at Reed College.

We took Professor Tarrant out for a beer afterwards and talked a little bit about my situation (and my question). She admitted that when talking to undergrads you really have to start at the beginning of the issue in an attempt to keep college women from becoming victims of date rape and the spiral of consequences that follow. The more nuanced stuff must come afterwards. I’m glad she’s out there on the front lines doing this work. I’m looking for the return of the sex-positive feminists to add to the discussion.

Assuming consent

Every time I kiss my wife, I’m assuming her consent in the matter. Am I wrong? Am I sexually harassing her? Does our marriage provided a “reasonable presumption of consent”? What about marital rape? Ivanka Trump alleged that her husband raped her. Was Donald just invoking a “reasonable presumption of consent” due to their marital status? In the wake of all the recent revelations, I’ve been think about this a lot. Deep in my heart I believe I’ve never been in a romantic or sexual situation that wasn’t completely consensual, but probably most of that was based on assumptions I made at the time. Was that wrong? I’ve been very explicit the last few weeks. “Dear, my I grab your ass?” All I manage to do is annoy her with the constant request for consent.

To be clear, the cases in the news are pretty clear, including the Al Franken case. These women clearly did not want this contact. The Lewis CK case is slightly more murky. And then there are lots of cases that might be put down to misread signals and honest mistakes. Those situations really need a closer look instead of the broad assumption that all men are abusers.

When the discussions about consent and date rape started hitting college campuses in the early-1990s there was, of course, some blowback. The “masculinists” were lining up to shut down feminists. I remember one “consent” document that hit the Emory campus that laid out each of the four sex bases and required a signature from each participant on each base before moving forward. “Do both parties consent to moving to second base? If so sign here.” Talk about taking the fun out of life, liberty and the pursuit of shama-lama-ding-dong. It looked like soulless feminists were out to ruin the joy of sex. Of course it turned out the form wasn’t from the university HR department, but some dudes in a frat. Well played, assholes.

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Human sexuality is incredibly complex. Some (male/female) people like to be aggressively taken and bent over the office desk. Some (male/female) people are gold diggers or just want to bed (male/female) people who are more powerful than they are. Some (male/female) people want to have sex with (male/female) people they admire and others prefer (male/female) people that repulse them. That’s called the Louis CK dynamic. If it’s consensual, who cares? Every relationship has power dynamics at work. (How many times do I have to say that?) Philosopher Michel Foucault wrote a great deal about how S&M mocks the power-dynamics in “normal” sexuality, but it’s easier to find a dominatrix than it is a dude to whip you. (Safe word: post-structuralism)

Keep your dick in your pants, just for a minute

This is in no way meant to delegitimize the deep trauma from years of abuse that has been brought into the light this fall. Harvey Weinstein needs to go to prison and Roy Moore and his creepy “evangelical” crowd needs to be shunned by the nation as a whole. (Please Neil Young, give us a new song about Alabama). And every man in this country needs to take a deep inventory of his past behavior to figure out if there some “me too” stories that are being told about him.

I know you dudes might feel emboldened. You’ve got a president that brags about grabbing women “by the pussy,” and alt-right Proud Boys who have declared open war on feminism, but here’s the secret I leaned along the way. Listen to women. Before you  unzip your pants and start masturbating in front of your dinner date, listen to women.

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Women seem so much better at reading the clues in intimate situations. Maybe it’s having to have their rape-threat radar on 24-7. But women are in the game that most men only think they are. I know it’s hard for men to ask for directions and shit, but just keep you dick in your pants for a minute and follow her lead. Try it. If she wants you to throw her up against the wall and go all 9 1/2 Weeks on her ass, she will make sure you know. It’s worth it, bro.

There was a moment in the 1990s when it felt like the third wave feminist movement was fully present. Power feminists, like Naomi Wolf, were taking “victim feminists” to task for negating female agency and erasing women’s sexuality. And Madonna gave them their soundtrack. (Ready to feel old? “Erotica” came out 25 years ago.) I think they hadn’t yet dealt with the intransigence of rape culture and the real rape (and rapist presidents) it has produced. Bill Clinton’s icky-ness might have given us an “opportunity” to talk about power dynamics but Donald Trump’s cult has no time for any of this “political correctness.” Maybe after we get through this new opportunity to cut the rapists and sexual harassesers off at the knees, we can at least again have this conversation.

 

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Me, too, Harvey Weinstein, me, too: Undoing the Normality of Rape Culture

October 24, 2017

Women in Manhattan seem immune to the world’s noise. I’m back in New York, parked at Patti Smith’s haunt, Dante’s on Macdougal Street in the Village. I’ve been trying to shake the weight of daily news but I just happen to be here to do an interview for CBS News. Seeing New York women, badass in black, feels like an opposite reality from the exploitation capital of Los Angeles, but I don’t doubt that most of these women (Is it okay to use the term “broads” in NYC?) have plenty of #metoo stories, as well. Isn’t this the birthplace of the catcall? Or was that Mainstreet USA?

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, one thing is clear. Okay, two things are clear if you count how right-wingers have used Weinstein mess as a sociopathic attempt to go after Hillary Clinton while pretending to care about the victims. Where were these faux feminists when the similar charges were being levied at Donald Trump and half the male personalities and leadership at Fox News? Liberals in Hollywood ran Weinstein out on a rail and the National Organization of Women is demanding his arrest. Bill O’Reilly paid out millions in settlements and is still a conservative hero. And Trump. Oh, all those women (going back at least to 1992) must all be lying.

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But the other thing that is clear is that, once “Me, too” started popping up on people’s Twitter and Facebook feeds last week, this issue was not just a Hollywood casting couch story. It was an American story. I don’t think I have a woman in my life that doesn’t have a sexual harassment horror story, including my own mother. Nearly as many have rape and sexual abuse stories. If anything, thanks to social media and a hashtag, the lid has been blown off the worst kept secret in America. The disempowerment of women and girls by men and boys might be systemic, but it plays out daily on a personal and personally devastating way with no systems involved.

I have no way of knowing how much of a sea change this is. It feels huge. Just hearing conservative women say, “Me, too” is significant. My hope is all those anecdotes are being read, heard, and processed by the boys and men whose eyeballs they pop up in front of. It’s certainly impacted me. There is the anger, of course. My wife posted a story of a male friend who tried to take sexual liberty with her in Seattle. We had just started getting to know each other, but I hopped in the car and drove three hours so she didn’t have to ride back with the creep. Not a rescuer, more like a dude who doesn’t mind three hours on I-5 to help a friend. I’m far from a heroic knight. My armor is tarnished.

That’s because the other emotion has been shame. In the Weinstein stories and the “Me, too” posts I’ve heard echoes of my former self. Nothing as extreme as Harvey whipping out his schmeckel and masturbating into a potted plant or O’Reilly offering to give a sexual massage with a falafel, but there might have been a moment here and there when I assumed consent, reading the subtle signs in the dance of intimacy. There were certainly things I shouldn’t have said, that, upon reflection, were probably a bit creepy or suggestive in the wrong context. And no doubt there was the minimizing of women’s concerns and a few “Don’t be so crazy”s. The fact that I can’t remember any reflects more about the normality of that kind of behavior. Weinstein tried to frame his abuses by writing, “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” He got a lot of shit for that (as he should), but if you were there (or even if you just watched the first season of Mad Men), you know he’s sorta right. That was the (rape) culture then, and that’s it now. But the times they are a changin’.

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My late teens until about 30 when I began dating my first wife, I was pretty much a heat seeking missile. As a kid who grew up learning that sex was the end goal, once it became available, it seemed like there were few limitations. My freshman dorm was the center of a lot of young men and women unchecking their libido. There was a sense of liberation from parents and the sexually repressed Southern culture on the skids. Then the punk rock scene, then going on tour with a band who, once a video became a hit on MTV, had groupies. I’ll never forget kicking a young woman out of our hotel room in Minneapolis who screamed, “You can’t kick me out, I’ve been with Winger!” That was a more clear-headed act in a world with a lot of the opposite.

I’d like to think I was the sober, respectful guy through all that, but was I? What if there was a woman who posted “Me, too” last week and her story is about an asshole she met at a show in Asbury Park, New Jersey who was relentless until she gave in? Again, I don’t think so, but maybe.

I became single again in my late-30s and forties and still had that 20-something drive as I rejoined the world of dating, hooking up, and “Hey, do you want to stay over?” As an academic feminist, I was keenly aware of power dynamics and the unspoken reality that a lot of my fellow feminists won’t acknowledge – Every single relationship has a power dynamic at work. In patriarchal culture, there is always a power dynamic between males and females. Even two same-gender twins will have a power dynamic. Just ask the one who was born second. You cannot avoid power dynamics. Sorry HR people. The issue is how you respect those power dynamics. Do you leverage them to your advantage? Harvey Weinstein sure did. But did I? Ever? Just because there were broken hearts on both sides doesn’t mean I wasn’t a dick at some point. Often?

Founding sociologist Emile Durkheim argued in 1897 that is deviance is functional because it allows for the evolution of society. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience and criminality facilitated the national conversation about civil rights and allowed the country to evolve. We should thank him for breaking unjust laws. Weinstein is no King, but this national conversation he has caused will help us to evolve away from the normality of sexual harassment. “Hey, asshole, don’t be a Weinstein!” I can here it now (and I might have needed to hear it then).

The men who hear and read “Me, too” need to more than say, “That sucks,” or post a sad-face emoji. They need to reflect how they have participated in similar harassment and sexual aggression, perhaps without even recognizing it. And certainly how we excuse our male peers from the ease of sexual domination. A big part of (male) privilege is that the behaviors that reinforce it are often invisible to those who do it (but not to those whom it is being done to). But when the recipients of that aggression, backed by the weight of centuries of male power, are half of our species, it’s time to see it, acknowledge our part in it, and stop it. Just stop it.

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