This post is a long time coming but with #MeToo filling my social media feeds today, I felt the need to write a response that started with a conversation when #NotOkay was circulating the same social media feeds exactly a year ago this week. Remember that? When an Access Hollywood tape exposed the man who is now our President as a sexual harasser? For those who are upset with Harvey Weinstein but defended President Trump, let that sink in for a moment. Talking about grabbing someone by the pussy and actually grabbing someone by the pussy (and other body parts) are in the same ecosystem, whether some people want to excuse “locker room behavior” or not.
When #NotOkay was my status in October of 2016, an old friend reached out to inquire about what I thought about what was happening in the media given my experience with sexual assault. I didn’t ask his permission to share this but I’m also not revealing his name, so – friend – if you see this and don’t like that I posted it, please let me know!
I’ll be posting a few of these this week and am bolding which portion of his initial inquiry that I’m addressing in each post.
You guys… I am NOT an expert. I am simply a woman who has been affected by sexual assault, so I have some pretty strong opinions. It’s okay if you disagree with me, but let’s dialogue instead of argue… That was the intent of this original email from a male friend with strong opinions who didn’t want to do damage with his thoughts or his words and for that, I am grateful.
October 12, 2016
Here’s my question…
I’d love for you to correct me where I’m wrong, because I do want to be sensitive and fair to others, believe it or not, regarding the following: It is my contention that when people use terms like “rape culture,” and when they say that some of the way men talk (like Trump on tape) is the cause of or perpetuates “rape culture,” and when they refer to any comment or action by a man that wasn’t specifically invited by a woman as “sexual assault,” that it really ends up trivializing true sexual assault and rape.
I’m a married man, so I don’t do or say anything that is even really flirty with women. Heck, I don’t even really lean in too long for hugs, or rub a woman’s arm, or whatever. But I also feel like putting some of that stuff in the same category of what you went through is insulting and crass and dismissive of just how horrifying your experience must have been. And I feel like many women are trying to latch on to your true victimhood by saying, ‘I’ve been assaulted as well; I’m a victim of ‘rape culture’ as well,” when in reality, the stuff they’ve experienced isn’t even in the same galaxy as what you experienced. Am I wrong? I genuinely want to know.
Here was my general response, greatly edited and updated because I’ve had a lot more time to think about it:
My thoughts are this…
This is a really, really hard conversation. It’s difficult to pick it all apart because the conversation has a lot of nuance and each woman (or man) will have a different perspective based on their own situation and experience.
I would say that many people (I’m including men in this) who have been sexually harassed or assaulted would “rank” their experience. Frankly, this may not be helpful but it certainly is human. I believe we naturally want to figure out where our stories fit into the overall system. We do this when we compare ourselves in anything.
Where I agree with your position is this…being catcalled is a far cry from being raped in any circumstance. Being harassed by someone at work is different than one’s life being threatened. I don’t think, though, that any woman who has endured harassing language would compare it to physical violence. But I can speak as one woman who has endured physical violence to say that I’m not concerned about people trying to “latch onto my true victimhood”. I’m not even sure what that means. If someone perpetrates something against you, are you a true victim regardless of the circumstance?
I think, yes.
On the other hand, I’ve had instances when people have shared their stories with me and equated their experience with mine when maybe they shouldn’t have, which has an effect of distancing two people rather than bringing them together in solidarity. “I know just how you feel” is not usually helpful and it’s almost always wrong.
I’ve also had people share their stories with me and minimize their own pain because they believe that “it’s not as bad as” what I (or others) have gone through. Both of these, in my opinion, are unhealthy positions.
And in all of this, even I can acknowledge that as bad as my experience was, there are far worse ways to be treated.
It’s complicated. And then again, it isn’t
Maybe a better place to land is #NotOkay because none of it is okay.
Maybe a better place is #MeToo because we can feel more secure when we know we are not alone.
I’m seeing women, right now, come to public realizations that they indeed have been mistreated in ways they’ve not paid attention to because we learn to swim in the water of culture that surrounds us. And that water is riddled with unexpected sharks. Women can be made to feel uncomfortable but tow the party line of writing it off as “boys will be boys” as much as any defender of Brock Turner did. This is how we’ve been trained to navigate our experience of the world.
We have seen evidence and heard tales of what happens to women who tell the truth and they are tales that keep other women in the dark.
To be completely honest, for many years in my own recovery, I was pretty judgmental about whether someone’s experience was bad enough to warrant a certain level of complaint. I don’t think I ever said this out loud but I sure felt and thought it.
Because of my unique circumstance, it was years into the process of therapy and re-learning how to feel safe in the world before I met a friend who had been in a situation that felt relatable to me. Until that moment, I didn’t know anyone I felt could understand. And until I really found healing, I was – probably more often then I’d care to admit – quick to judge “lesser” experiences, sometimes finding myself in the camp of “well, if you wouldn’t have…”
But I “well, if you wouldn’t have’d” myself as well.
If I wouldn’t have gone to film school, if I wouldn’t have gotten out of the car, if I would have kept screaming, if I would have fought…
And, in that, there is a clue to the real issue.
How many times do women say to themselves “if I only I would or wouldn’t have…”? How many times do we say it about other women? How often do we blame the victim or blame the experience on “misunderstanding”?
I have plenty of friends and former students and some family members who have been assaulted by men in many ways. They’ve been pinned down in backs of cars, raped by boys on (yes, even faith-based) college campuses, drugged and taken advantage of while unconscious, inappropriately touched by youth leaders, not listened to by dates or boyfriends when they’ve said no or changed their minds, touched inappropriately while walking through crowds or riding on public transportation, catcalled, stared at… It happens in unexpected places.
Are there different categories/levels of sexual harassment and assault? Yes. Different categories, so to speak, but all victims suffer – embarrassment, shame, fear, retaliation… The suffering is as individual to the personality of the women as it is to the offense against her. And many women hide it or stuff down the emotion for just as many reasons. There is no way to categorize individual situations without knowing the story and history of the individual because all of our nature and nurture come into play as well.
I believe intent or, maybe more accurately, perceived intent is a key element. Let’s take your example of rubbing a woman’s arm…an action that would be considered “less invasive” (for lack of a better way of saying it). Someone could rub a woman’s arm and it could mean nothing, or it could be accepted flirting, or it could be a sinister activity. Let me tell you that if Harvey Weinstein rubbed my arm, I would not be pleased.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that does not always encourage a woman to honor her instinct about a person. We’re told that “it didn’t mean anything” in times where our guts told us that it did. In addition, it’s not unusual for women that say no to an unwanted “innocent” behavior to be treated worse or called names, so sometimes we laugh it off and take it while secretly feeling unsafe. I’m happy to show you some responses I’ve received from men who I’ve said “no thank you” to if you don’t believe me.
So…should all harassment and assault be lumped into the same category?
Probably not but then again, yes.
Should someone who experienced a “lesser offense” feel that she (or he) should not be able to speak up?
To answer your question of whether I feel that someone who shares that they’ve been sexually harassed in non-physically violent ways dismisses or insults my own experience of pain…
I don’t. At least not any more. My pain is was my own.
To answer your questions of whether I think their experience falls in the same galaxy as mine…
It might be a different planet but galaxies are wide.
The response to and categorization of such events is complicated.
The fact that they should not occur (and I’m sure you agree) is not.