“Am I a rapist?” It’s a ludicrous question on one level. But I am sure that I am not the only man asking himself this following news of Weinstein, Louis CK, Cosby, Trump, and others. I am troubled by the possibility that I might have traumatized someone in ways I did not comprehend, and would never have intended.
Recently, I thought back to two dalliances I had decades earlier while I was bartending overseas. Until then, these were just unremarkable, unfulfilling hook-ups. Now, like a character in an Ishiguro novel, I worry that my memory deceives me, and wonder to what extent I can really know what happened.
In both cases, women I had met at the bar came back to my place and we had sex—no excessive drunkenness or physical coercion involved. I know I would have stopped had I suspected that the other person didn’t want to continue.
I never saw either of these women again, but when I think back to their body language, in the light of what we are hearing in the media, I can’t help but wonder whether their experience was quite different. Did they feel violated or traumatized? I simply don’t know: while I recall my actions generally, I don’t know how the women perceived them. I know that I was well-intentioned. I also know that I had all the sexual energy and naiveté of a young man.
I say all of this as a man who was potentially seen as an aggressor, but also as a victim. When I was 10 years old, while changing in the men’s room at a public swimming pool, a creepy man approached me and asked to see my penis. I said “no” very clearly, ran out, and told my mother.
I knew what he had done was wrong. I thought (naively) that I knew how to stand up for myself. To my mind, no lasting harm came from the interaction, and I did not think of myself as a victim of sexual assault.
In the second incident, when I was overseas bartending, a young woman came into the bar with a creepy, much older guy with a strange, thin mustache. She flirted frivolously with me the whole evening while he sat there smirking. When it was time for them to go, I showed them to the elevator (a normal part of my duties), and when we were alone in the elevator foyer, she approached me, grabbed me forcefully in the crotch, and stood on tip-toes to kiss me hard on the lips. All the while, creepy guy was just looking on, smirking. I eventually herded them into the elevator, smiling, bowing, and thanking them for their patronage, while she continued to grab at me.
Rather than feeling traumatized, it was just the material for a good story I’ve told many times. It has only recently occurred to me that this could qualify as sexual assault by any normal standard, very much like what Trump described in the Access Hollywood tape.
I don’t consider myself a victim of sexual assault, but this is completely dependent on my subjective experience of these incidents, not on the actions of my aggressors. In no way am I suggesting that we blame victims for how they experience events. Neither of the people who assaulted me was in the right, and the fact that I was not traumatized does not excuse their actions. But given the subjective judgment required to understand what is and is not kosher, I am left wondering how we can possibly stop sexual harassment and assault, and get justice for survivors.
Beyond education about consent, we also need to teach kids how easy it is for people to misunderstand each other, especially where sex, romance, and hormones are involved. This teaching is best done through the narratives we present in the media, in my opinion.
As David Wong so eloquently wrote recently, Hans Solo sexually assaults Princess Leia in Star Wars, and my generation, male and female, grew up with them as role models. We need to change how we define masculinity socially and in the media and arts. If I had seen Princess Leia traumatized after a disturbing encounter and Hans Solo as a creep, it is highly unlikely I would now be questioning my history.
In closing, I’ll note that men’s voices may not be the most welcome at this time, and nuanced discussion about sexual coercion, harassment, assault and rape may need to follow strong immediate responses to the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. But to stop sexual assault, we need boys and men to hear honest accounts from others about our experiences, and just how hard it is to understand and to be understood.
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