Male Survivor Executive Director Chris Anderson pleads with Richard Dawkins to stop diminishing the experiences of other survivors.
I hope this reaches you. This marks the 2nd time I’ve found a need to address your comments on victimization. As a fellow survivor of sexual abuse myself, I am loathe to be critical of any survivor. However the open statement published recently on your website calling for people to “manage disagreement ethically” stands in such stark contract to the Twitter tirade you went on shortly thereafter that I feel it necessary to address you directly.
You clearly feel that any attempt to say that all perpetrators are equally evil, or harmful, or monstrous is a logical error. On this point we agree. I also fully understand that you feel that the impact of the abuse you experienced as a boy was “mild.” I am sincerely glad that you do not sense that the “touching up” you experienced in your youth significantly harmed you. I take at face value your assessment of the incident, as you are the only person who can speak to your perception of what was done to you and how you have processed that. I would respectfully ask the same courtesy of you. When I choose to express the harm that I have experienced, I do not wish to have the severity of the abuse I endured placed on an arbitrary scale. I respectfully request your attention as I lay out my arguments for why I believe such scales have no place in our social commentary, and that they can inflict additional harm to survivors.
You deemed it necessary to establish a hierarchy of rape based upon what you declare are the varying degrees of severity of rape. Although you claim that you were not making a point of stating which kind of rape is worse, the fact is that you have stumbled into minefield of unintended consequences. To suggest that, since your intentions were pure, the outrage it sparked is invalid is a little like saying, “I didn’t mean to break his leg. His bones are so brittle why should I be punished so unjustly because I stuck my leg out to trip him?” The overwrought emotions that you so passionately decry in others cannot be simply silenced by judicious application of reason.
Reason is not a tonic that repairs the harm caused by trauma. We are thinking AND feeling creatures, and have evolved massively complex neural structures that process life on both levels. While it’s certainly appropriate to call into question decisions and policies fueled by an overly strong influence of emotion, or laws that are passed based on more on speculative fears than definitive proof, it is just as flawed to demand reason be the ultimate guide and arbiter for our ethics. By so doing, you are establishing 2 principles that are logically unsupportable and potentially profoundly harmful.
First – you are mistaking your subjective experience as objective knowledge. This is all too common a trait in survivors of significant abuse and/or trauma, especially when experienced at a young age when our prefrontal cortexes have yet to fully develop. Many of us struggle with seeing the world objectively outside of our own elevated sensitivity to danger, threat, and pain. To cite a personal example, I have long struggled with the self-perceived certainty that I am a flawed, broken, and incapable person.
These subjective feelings persist in spite of many years of hard work in therapy, the love and support of many people, and in spite of all objective evidence to the contrary that I am, in fact, a well-adjusted person in spite of the things I have lived through. The abuse I experienced at a young age (I have an Adverse Childhood Experiences score of 5) laid down deep grooves in my psyche. The neurological impact of these traumas profoundly impacts how I perceive both myself and the world. Many survivors face similar struggles. It is possible that you have been impacted in ways by the traumas that you have experienced throughout your life, perhaps to the point where you cannot distinguish between your subjective views and the objective evidence of how your behavior impacts others. As such, on this point you have my empathy as opposed to my criticism.
But the important thing to stress here is that you have not been a victim of many of the kinds of rape that you used as examples. Therefore your subjective assessment of what kinds of rape are more harmful does not lend itself to objective declarations that rape X is worse than rape Y based solely on the external evidence of what was done by perpetrator A to victim B.
Your second mistaken premise, however, is more egregious and damaging than the first error. By stating flatly that there are varying degrees of severity of rape, you are creating a harmful principle. And here, let me be clear so that you do not draw erroneous conclusions about my meaning – I am not suggesting that you are tolerant of or condone any form of rape or abuse. The harmful principle you are espousing is this:
By establishing that rape form X is more severe than rape form Y, you are creating out of whole cloth a measurement of harm based not on the experiences of the victim, but rather on the actions of the perpetrator.
Doing so is harmful because it inevitably creates an environment where victims are permitted to declare only as much harm as the severity of the rape they suffered will allow. If you think this is an unlikely outcome, I would direct your attention to the recent “Lucky Bastard Syndome” skit on Bill Maher’s program. In addition, it places the focus of our assessment of the level of harm done on the actions of the person who harms, rather than on actual harm endured by the victim. Doing do creates a perpetrator centric system of assessment, rather than a victim-focused one.
This discourages compassion for victims and encourages a needless level of skepticism and withholding of support from victims until it can be determined just how much help the specific abuse they endured merits. While this may be necessary for assigning blame and establishing proper punishment/restitution in a court of law, I believe it is an ethically abhorrent standard to establish in all other areas of our social interactions. Compassion and support for those who have been hurt should not be a commoditized and rationed resource.
Why is it important to establish victim-focused inquiries into how harmful their experiences of abuse and trauma are? The emotional harm born of trauma and abuse does not admit of perfect alignment between action and reaction. Trauma does not give rise to a response that can currently be measured objectively. Therefore our only valid source of information on the emotional harm a person suffers is the subjective reporting of the victim him or herself. Survivors of rape may feel more or less pain based on a wide range of influencing factors including, but not limited to: the historical weight of previous traumas, the overall physical health of an individual at the time of the attack, the inherent resiliency of the victim’s body and mind, and the neurological functioning of a victim’s amygdala and higher level cognitive controls over startle response.
Again, to be clear, I am not suggesting that the criminal justice response be based upon the subjective level of harm that a person experiences. Doing so would punish people inequitably, and also force persons to serve out punishments for harms that they did not cause nor could they reasonably foresee. Neither am I in any way suggesting that you approve or condone any form of sexual violence.
What I am saying is that establishing a hierarchy of harm is the job of jurists, judges, and legislators, for use exclusively within the framework of criminal and civil law. Outside of those legal frameworks, an entire world of social support systems and responses exist. Applying legal standards outside of that realm sharply limits the compassion and support given to survivors overall, thereby creating strong disincentives for survivors to come forward and openly disclose the crimes and abuses they have endured.
Being told that some rape is more severe than others reinforces the harmful perception many survivors carry that the pain they endured is not worthy of being spoken, or perhaps even that what they endured could not possibly have been rape (or not that bad of a rape) because they were inebriated, or perhaps they were only bound but not gagged as well, or perhaps because they were a boy and the perpetrator was an older woman who took advantage of a vulnerable child to serve her needs, and as society tells so many boys – any sex with a woman is to be applauded.
In making the kinds of sweeping statements that you did most recently on Twitter, and in the past in response to valid critiques of your position on “mild” paedophilia, you have displayed a haughty arrogance that will permit no dialogue, no respect for the opinions or lived experiences of others, and most distressingly absolutely no compassion for those whose suffering is of a degree that you would deem unwarranted based on the degree of harm to which you feel they might legitimately lay claim. Even if that is not how you yourself actually feel, this is the unavoidable implication of your words and your actions, and it is precisely how many survivors perceive your position.
Your attacks on critics whom you think are distorting logic are needlessly vicious, and fly in the face of the tolerance that you make a point of calling out for in the statement you just issued on your website. You cannot expect to ask for fair treatment from others when you yourself are unwilling to extend that same courtesy. Even if you didn’t intend to break someone’s leg, when you stick your foot out and trip someone you own the moral responsibility for both the intended and unintended consequences.
I do not feel that telling someone they are wrong is ever a profitable exercise. And, again, I am loathe to criticize a survivor for any reason. But in this case I feel I must speak up. A scientist who demands he be seen as infallible or who refuses to acknowledge that he may be in fact, mistaken about something is no longer a scientist. He is a zealot. I fully recognize that I am placing you on the defensive and your past behavior indicates that you are not likely to receive criticism calmly and rationally.
I harbor no illusion that you are likely to change your behavior or recant your statements. Rather, I would hope that you might read this and consider engaging in a dialogue on the nature of trauma with those who understand this subject with a level of objective expertise that surpasses yours and mine combined. Also, it is my great hope that people, and especially other survivors, might see these words and recognize that yours is not the only perspective that matters in this dialogue. The lived experience of every survivor of abuse and trauma is unique, and equally deserving of the full measure of our compassion. I also hope that others who have had to walk paths similar to those you and I have journeyed might see this letter, and that it might help them know that they are not alone, and that healing is possible.
Christopher M. Anderson Executive Director, MaleSurvivor
Photo via Twitter