Someone asked me today for my thoughts regarding one of the high-profile sexual assault revelations. I’ve been meaning to post for a while, but to be honest, I’ve needed time to think through what I really think on the subject.
Let me preface this by saying that my default is to believe people who come forward with accounts of sexual assault — given our society and its prevailing treatment of sexual assault survivors, it seems vastly unlikely that people will invent such accounts. It may happen on rare occasion, but the extreme majority of accounts I am sure are entirely accurate, so defaulting to believing them seems simply logical. (This is hard, when it’s regarding someone you’ve admired, or loved. Hard, but necessary.)
And I don’t think there’s a lot of question about how to handle the more extreme cases — violent assaults, pedophilia, etc. Arrest them, prosecute them. If they’ve somehow managed to gain public office, throw them out. People vote you into office after assessing your character, among other things, and if you’ve deeply misled them as to your character, they have every right to demand your resignation from office.
(I see some arguments that Democrats are hypocritical when asking for this, given that we’re generally the party of more sexual freedom, but there is a vast difference between freely chosen sexual activity between adults and non-consensual sexual abuse. We should, of course, hold our own to the same standard that we would hold Republicans.)
All of that is clear to me. But then we enter the murk. Specifically, what do we do with the fact that we live in a society where sexism and sexual violence is utterly endemic? Is it fair or appropriate to hold people in power to a standard that is so much higher than our everyday standards for sexual activity?
I once had a conversation with Nalo Hopkinson, where she said racism was like a sea of shit that we were all swimming in; if you swim in shit, it’s inevitable that some of it will stick to you. I think that applies equally well to sexism. We’re all swimming in that shit.
Men I know, men I love and trust, have done things that pushed sexual boundaries. I’m honestly not sure I know a sexually active man who hasn’t done such things. And I undoubtedly know quite a few women who have as well, and while I don’t *think* I have, I can’t swear to it. I try to think back to college, to grad school — did I ever push someone to do something they weren’t comfortable with? Did I cross a line? I don’t think so, but maybe.
(I’m not much of a drinker — if I were, then I’d be much more worried about what I might have done while under the influence and either not remembered it afterwards, or miscast events in a way that let me think my behavior was entirely appropriate. Alcohol use, and abuse, is endemic in our society too.)
We live in a society that tells men that they’re supposed to be aggressive, they’re supposed to push for sex. That if a woman resists initially, it’s just ‘part of the game,’ that she really wants it, and that if you’re a real man, you’ll know that, and give her what she wants. Our society tells women that they’re not supposed to want sex, that if they do, they still need to be coy, to pretend that they’re ‘good girls,’ and that they’re overwhelmed by the man’s needs / lust / etc. in order to justify actually having and enjoying sex. It’s a poisonous and pervasive script.
Fall quarter freshman year, four different freshman women told me they’d been sexually assaulted, all by men they knew (and were sometimes dating). I knew some of the men in question, and while I can’t swear to any of them for certain, I am guessing that if you asked them, they would say that of course they hadn’t assaulted these women, that the women had never said ‘no.’ They might, if pressed, admit that the women had gone still, gone quiet, seemed reluctant. But the women hadn’t said no, and they hadn’t complained to the men afterwards. There are conversations between women that never make it to men.
As the mother of a son, this terrifies me.
This is basically why I started writing erotica, why I wrote it for a decade in my 20s. Because so much damage was being done by the way our society treats sex, by the silences it demands from women, by the posturing and pushing it trains into men (and the silences there too). I couldn’t think of any way to address it other than encouraging people to speak more, to reduce some of the taboo around sex.
Did my efforts help? I have no idea. But when I started writing erotica, in 1992, you couldn’t go into a normal bookstore and buy an erotic novel — you had to go to a skanky men’s shop to find such a thing. But then we had Susie Bright with her Best American Erotica series, and Down There Press with their Herotica series, and eventually that lead to people reading 50 Shades of Grey on the subway, unabashed. Maybe we helped a little, bringing some of this into the light.
But there’s so, so far to go. I play this game, Pandemic. You run around the world with your friends, trying to find cures for deadly disease, while treating outbreaks of the disease. You hope to find the cures before the outbreaks kill too many people. That’s where we are right now, I think — running around, treating one case or another, piecemeal, while the disease is running rampant through our cities. But there’s another version of Pandemic, one set earlier, that adds an interesting game mechanic — you can purify the water, slowing down the spread of disease. Water purification was a massive step forward in infectious disease treatment. It changed the world.
That’s what I want — I want to clean the water. This sea of shit that we’re swimming in — let’s filter some of it out, day by day. Let’s raise boys who have been taught to see through and resist some of the violently sexist messages that our sick society keeps pushing on them, boys who wouldn’t want a partner unless she was enthusiastically, eagerly consenting. Let’s raise daughters who don’t buy into that dynamic either.
It starts in the home, it starts with the conversations we have with our children. While we’re exposing and prosecuting and shunning the predators, let’s think about the ways that we’re all complicit in the lesser (but still damaging, still so painful) versions of these abuses. It’s time for some serious soul-searching, people.
And if we love someone who has behaved badly — well, we can still love them, but we can also expect them to understand how they’ve hurt people, and to sincerely apologize for it, and to put all their effort into doing better.
We can all do better.