I’ll start with a TRIGGER WARNING. I will be discussing sexual violence and coercion in this post.
This blog post is spurred by the recent “Me Too” posts on social media. The campaign is meant to give women an opportunity to come into the light about being victims – and survivors – of sexual violence. The idea is to highlight the widespread nature of crimes committed against women.
But, there is an implicit invitation in these stories. The invitation is for abusers to come forward and name themselves as perpetrators in these crimes. Too often women suffer this pain in silence, because there is a very real and justified fear that naming the men that assaulted them will result in blame and shame against the victim of the violence.
So, I am issuing my own invitation: I demand that we take responsibility for our own actions. I demand that we discuss – openly, painfully – our behaviors as men. How have we been complicit or active participants in this culture of sexual violence? Why did we think that it was okay? How can we ensure that our sons – or the many other young men in our life – don’t continue this awful and destructive cycle?
When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was in a long-term relationship with a very nice young lady. We met through a relative and attended the same church. I made a decision to go to the same college.
She made it clear to me, at the beginning of our relationship, that she intended to abstain from sex until she married. I told her that I respected her decision, and that we would abstain together.
It wasn’t an intentional lie. I didn’t have nefarious motives or a detailed plan to make her have sex with me. I just changed my mind by degrees.
First, I decided that I would be the one to marry her – a decision that was sincere, and that we discussed – and that I would honor her decision to abstain.
Next, I decided that we didn’t need to wait. After all, if we were going to get married eventually, why not just start the sex now? I was sure that, in the eyes of God, it would be alright.
So, I began to push. I pushed verbally, slowly making most conversations about sex, trying to convince her that it would be great for us to do it before marriage. I pushed physically, never forcing myself on her completely, but always trying to move our physical relationship just a bit further. I touched her in ways that she wasn’t comfortable with. I always took the “no” seriously, never trying again right away. But, I never took the “no” as permanent either.
Eventually, we broke up. I couldn’t wait, and she wouldn’t compromise her principles. For years, I convinced myself that it was her fault, that she was being unreasonable, that my desire for sex was natural and her abstinence was just puritanical religious brainwashing.
However, that year and a half of my life has taken on a new meaning for me in the last few years.
I realized that what really happened in our relationship was that I decided I had more right to her body than she did. I decided that I knew better than she did what was best for her relationship with herself, and her relationship with me.
I never forced, but I coerced. I used emotional manipulation to obtain sex.
I committed a form of sexual assault.
It’s both freeing and shameful to type those words. I grew up with the idea that sexual assault dealt exclusively with forcing intercourse. Whether explicitly or implicitly, I was taught a concept of sexual assault that didn’t include coercion, manipulation, or failure to gain affirmative consent.
I knew that uninvited groping was inappropriate, but I always assumed that it was mostly innocent – as long as I respected the “no” that came after.
I knew that “no means no”, but I also thought that the lack of a “no” meant “yes.”
What I now think of as “coercion”, I used to think of as “persuasion”, part of the process of any relationship with a woman.
I thought of women as conquests to be won, and sex with a woman as the “final battle”.
And, I don’t know whether my behaviors as a teenager and a pre-marital young man are more damning of me or of the culture that I grew up in, because I wasn’t abnormal in my attitudes. I look at myself back then, and I see a rape waiting to happen – because I didn’t understand that sexual violence was far, far more than just physically forcing a woman to have intercourse with you.
Every time that I touched or groped a woman without waiting or asking for consent, I was committing sexual violence.
Every time that I waited until a woman was drunk to try and gain her affections – even if those affections were never more than making out – I was committing sexual violence.
I wonder if any women out there think of me as their “me too” experience.
I don’t know how exactly I came by those attitudes and behaviors.
Perhaps it was the culture at large that made me think that I knew better than the women I interacted with what they wanted to do with their bodies.
Perhaps it was a poor interpretation of Scripture that led me to think of women as nothing more than receptacles for my penis.
More likely, it was a combination of factors.
But, it stops with me.
Several weeks ago, I began explaining sex to my “tweenage” son in multiple short installments. My first discussion was just a quick rundown of what is meant by the word “sex.” What is the purpose of sex? When is it okay to have sex?
As I talked to him, I realized that the most important thing that I could say was this:
“Son, people can only have sex if both of them agree to it. That goes for any kind of sexual touching. If they don’t say yes, it means no. And, we call unwanted touching ‘rape’ or ‘sexual assault.'”
We talked about situations in which sexual touching is never okay: when someone is underage, when someone can’t say no.
He didn’t seem shocked or confused by this conversation, because I have been teaching him for his whole life about bodily autonomy and consent. You can say no to any kind of touching, even if it’s a hug or good-natured tickling from a family member. You don’t have to hold my hand, unless it’s for safety. When you say “no” to any kind of affection, we will stop.
We have to teach our sons that women are individuals who make decisions for their own bodies – but we have to start by teaching them that they also have bodily autonomy. This way, when our boys become young men, they understand both sides of a sexual assault.
Women aren’t just victims; men are perpetrators. Women aren’t just sexually assaulted; men sexually assault them.
Jackson Katz says this best, and I believe that I will close with his quote:
“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.”
“So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction; there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them… Men aren’t even a part of it!”
It needs to stop with us, men. Because, “Me Too” is also an accusation of “You Too.”
Final Note: I understand that sexual violence is also perpetrated against men. It is not my intention to ignore or minimize this. I choose to talk about assaults against women because it happens at a much higher rate than it does to men.