Boundaries and consent featured prominently in my 2016, and I'm still unpacking those lessons. In future posts, I'll be talking about cases where there’s no clear answer, where tradeoffs are complex, and where my greatest hope is for compassion and empathy. Sometimes, though, things are clear. I want to share a profound experience about standing firm against abuse in one of those situations.
For a long time, I've believed that we have systemic problems that lead to sexism, sexual abuse, sexual violence and rape. We aren’t going to solve things just by treating each incident separately without also looking at the patterns and making systemic changes. However, I resisted the term rape culture.
One day last fall, A friend wrote to me and told me how she had stopped a rape from happening. My immediate reaction as I began to read her account was disappointment: why was she being so sensationalist? Why did she need to jump to the assumption that rape or abuse was likely? A little alarm bell went off in my head: we have similar views on consent. Why, without even reading the details, had I decided my friend was sensationalist? How would I feel if she were a victim of abuse. Interesting…if she was the victim, i would not doubt. I’ve been there trying to support friends enough times that it is easy to focus on being there for them as they tell the part of their story that they wish to share. It didn’t make sense to doubt in one circumstance and not another. I decided I did not trust my feelings and began to read the mail, trying to work past my prejudice.
The alarm klaxons in my head sounded for an entirely different reasons as an incredible story unfolded before me. I felt my anger rise as the victim was threatened and her boundaries violated. I did not doubt the story. Even so, I found my emotions swinging wildly between rage that someone would show so little respect and returning disappointment that my friend was using such harsh language in condemning the abuser. I couldn’t understand my reaction. One moment, I was furious. The next moment, as my friend was expressing exactly the same kind of feelings I had just been feeling, I felt she was over reacting. I knew my emotions made no sense. It would take a while to untangle them. I also knew I was proud of my friend for taking a stand and helping someone. Her intervention limited the damage in what could have been a really bad situation.
As the email drew to a close, the doubts began to resurface. “This all could have been a misunderstanding. How would you feel if you misunderstood someone’s willingness and you were labeled a rapist?” I stopped for a moment. “Could I have made this mistake? Was it really that easy that it could be a misunderstanding?”
I thought back over my recent past to see if there was anything similar and to think about how I’d acted. It turned out that I needed only look back one day to compare and contrast my actions. I was at a sex event, standing around a camp fire, making out with someone I had met. It was clear we had some chemistry. Unlike the abuser in my friend’s story, I cared about consent. Rather than using alcohol to help loosen up someone for conquest, I grew concerned that perhaps my make-out partner might have had enough to drink that I’d rather not proceed. I asked her. It turned out she hadn’t had very much. Even so, my question, or something around then broke the mood. Our cuddling adjusted to a friendly, but less intimate approach. It never crossed my mind to consider being less aware of consent and boundaries.
No, the situation my friend described was not a simple mistake. I was not going to make the mistake of ignoring how alcohol or other altered states affect consent. I might make a bad call in some corner case, but I sure wasn’t going to encourage someone to drink more or to go out of my way to approach someone when drunk. As I thought about the other details of the situation, I realized that it was preposterous to view that as a mistake I could have made. There’s no way I’d work to stop someone from leaving, interfering with their ability to call for a ride, after they had asked to leave.
I felt shame that I kept trying to explain away the abuse, to find a way to turn aside from what my friend offered to expose, to doubt her story. For the first time, rape culture really felt like it fit. Some deep cultural indoctrination was strongly shaping my reactions to doubt the idea that a situation could lead to rape. It had to be something really strong to keep diverting me away from accepting my friend’s story multiple times. I’m sure there had been countless times before when I didn’t notice what I was doing. This time, trust for my friend and our communication was strong enough to allow me to pay attention to my feelings and to realize that they no longer met my needs. I want to help respect people’s boundaries. I want to fight the shame we face when talking about abuse. I want to help promote a world where we encourage each other in our efforts to defend boundaries.
I’m used to being in tune with my feelings. It was unnerving to find that I trusted my emotional reaction so little. I felt betrayed. I was sad because I realized that this had made it harder for me to be there for people. I was already working to think more about boundaries and consent. Since then, that process has continued. It’s long and involved. Discarding outdated assumptions is hard; so is figuring out what I will replace them with.
A Glimpse into Conditioning
I suspect there’s no one element that creates this aspect of rape culture. I suspect over years we see those who talk about abuse (especially potential abuse or abuse that could have happened) ridiculed, and grow to internalize it. However as I was writing this post, I did get a glimpse into one experience from my childhood that helped shape my response.
My kindergarten teacher was abusing a number of kids in the class. I was not often a victim, although it did happen. I talked to my parents, and they talked to some of the other parents. I was lucky in one sense: they were ready to believe me. However, I found the entire experience more frightening than the abuse. They talked to me about how complaints of abuse could destroy my teacher’s career. They would support me, but they wanted me to carefully consider the consequences of my actions. I was frightened and scared. I was fairly sure I was being accurate in my descriptions, but I didn’t want to make a mistake that hurt someone. I didn’t want my teacher to stop teaching; I just wanted him to follow the rules. I found the process of reporting the abuse far more traumatic than anything that happened to me at least.
As a result, I walked away thinking that abuse was quite uncommon, and that it was a really big deal. I walked away believing that it was something you might be wrong about and that you should be careful and restrained in how you reported abuse. And I guess somewhere along the way, I learned to distrust people who didn’t fit that pattern.
And of course, like the most insidious traps, there are some grains of truth mixed in there. I still don’t have the answers, but at least I am thinking.