The Whole Thing Is A Trigger Warning

Rape is a terrible thing. So first of all, this whole very long piece is a trigger warning. Cause I’m gonna talk about rape.

I can think of few other things that can cause such trauma and shame, wrapped up in anger and fear. And I can think of few other things that quite likely induce similar feelings, though perhaps a mirror version of those feelings, in the perpetrator, unless that perp is an actual sociopath. In fact, I believe that many men may hold each other in collusion around issues of sexual assault because the cognitive dissonance of the question, “Have I done anything like that?” is extremely hard to bear.

I believe the majority of people, male or female, haven’t done anything like that, but given that we live in a world where the dynamics of dominance and subordination play out, collusion is possible and what’s been called “gray area rape” happens more often than ever realized. So too, there are female perpetrators of sexual assault and rape, and men who have been victims and survivors of it, and the damage that is done is also incalculable, perhaps even more so, since myths exist that disallow for the possibility of female rapists and male victims.

Because rape is such a terrible thing, and because the topic is so emotional and fraught, and because the dynamics around sex are so repressed, difficult, and confusing to many decent people, discussions around rape become very difficult. Survivors are triggered. The perpetrators are triggered, at least I believe they are, though in a different way. Those who have not been raped, but who are terrified of the possibility of it are triggered. Consent as a tool to avoid rape is taught all over campuses, but still there are assaults. Drug and alcohol use play a huge role in this BUT what else, wrapped up in all the triggers, education, fear, mythology and lack of cultural competence, what else? Can we ask those questions?

Alyssa Royse wrote an article for Good Men Project, as well as XOJane asking those questions (she notes a friend of hers who raped a woman as she slept as he believed–or said he believed–that she would want him to have sex with her during a night in which drugs and drinking were occurring. Alyssa attempts to breaks down dynamics she wonders might have played a role in that rape) and the subsequent reaction to her piece has been extraordinary, with hundreds of comments per article and several follow up articles on other sites by other authors.

Joanna Schroeder wrote this piece for Good Men Project in response, as did Ally Fog. Both take different angles on the issues, and dig into the ideas beyond consent, even as there were disagreements between authors.

Lynn Beisner offered a completely different view on why consent isn’t the end all be all in determining rape, in a piece that is extremely difficult to read, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

All this in a space of a few days, and as I mentioned, hundreds of comments (many of which were mine) and arguments, questions, all spanning across that confusing world that is the internet. Extraordinary.

And hard… On Twitter, in comments, and in other articles such as this one from Feministe, Alyssa has been called a rape apologist for her POV on the topic, for discussing possible reasons her friend might have raped his partner.

She stated several times the act was rape, but allowed for the possibility that other dynamics lead him to believe this, that his intent wasn’t rape even as his impact was rape, and that her actions and the preliminary flirting they both did, etc combined with drink and drug, combined with a culture that at it’s very core doesn’t truly teach how to talk about sex (or how to have it without liquid courage) were a part of the system within which assaults like this occur.

I argued strenuously. I disagreed that he was incapable of reading the signal of “no” and still believe that, and I tend to line up pretty closely with Mythcommunication on that, that people see the “no” but do what they want anyway, hiding and justifying their actions through denial. I believe that drug and drink play a huge role in assaults. I believe that a culture that at it’s very core is sex negative and repressive (it’s a horrible dirty thing you save for someone you love!) damages men and women to a level we don’t really begin to comprehend and this effects how we treat each other and ourselves.

But I believe that someplace inside this man, this friend of Alyssa, this nice guy (and what nice is is a whole other article), knew what he was doing was wrong.

Here’s why I believe that (and FYI I’m using with a male/female dynamic because it was the core of her article, but I believe firmly that this dynamic can and does play out in all gender combinations).

One of the reasons that kind of rape happens is because many men, but obviously not all, may have internalized a belief that their sexual needs/wants take precedence over a woman’s bodily autonomy. So while they might be kind, polite, giving, etc in nearly all areas of their lives, at a particular point (as her friend was) it becomes pretty easy for them to justify the action of taking what they believe is/has been granted them. “Well, she was flirting with me and talking about sex work and we were making out and we were drinking and I couldn’t help it.”

After the sex is taken without consent, I suspect the cognitive dissonance of knowing that what they did was to act on internalized privilege becomes really hard to bear psychologically for them (and for the women in their lives and often the victim) and so they find a place to put the blame-mixed signals, drinking, “she didn’t actually say no.”

Penetrating a sleeping person without consent given prior is just flat wrong and indicates either a momentary (due to so much intoxication you aren’t seeing the other person as really there) lack of understanding of yourself and motivations, not having healthy boundaries to the nth degree, and/or a willingness to take what is wanted based on justification.

No matter his intent, the impact was assault. His desire to push it away stems either from sociopathy or a level of cognitive dissonance so painful that he cannot hold that he, a good person, did a bad thing. He knows what he did was a terrible thing, but can’t square that with seeing himself as a good human being. Shame and fear trump vulnerability and responsibility, and so the cycle keeps going.

Much like whites can and do carry deeply buried and internalized dynamics of racism and white privilege? So too can men over women, and in a culture where dominance and subordination is everywhere, I can’t see myself changing my mind on that one.

A friend of mine at SJTI said racism (overt and internalized, for all races not just whites) was like having your mind colonized, even if you don’t consciously believe you are superior, that dominance dynamic is in you unconsciously. His words were amazing to me, genius. That means that rape situations like this are in some ways more horrifying to me than a “man in a bush with a knife” because the level of willingness to take what he wants and to justify it by saying, in essence, “I really thought she wanted it and that was the outcome of our flirting,” means that he’s completely oblivious to his own stuff, his own willingness to take what he believes (even in an unconscious way) is owed him, his own complicity in the system. And also why women can and do collude.

To just seek to explain it through culture does (and can) appear to be colluding with that system. I don’t believe that Alyssa meant to do that at all, but I think there are pieces of the work that inadvertently did do just that, but what I give her credit for is risking the conversation at all. I personally think that many women can play a role in collusion out of that same cognitive dissonance (he’s my friend! I know he’s a good guy! It can’t happen to me!).

The experience was triggering for me. About violence and how we do it to each other. Watching the comments explode on the internet, with camps arising, accusations that Alyssa was a terrible person, a rape apologist and more, was disheartening. That the poles are so far from each other that any attempt to dip into a place of questioning is interpreted as betrayal. That all of us may do more violence and oppression then we ever realize, entering into a house of mirrors projecting our own fears and anger onto each other and back again. It’s a wonder any of us attempt to discuss anything ever and we have to discuss it, really talk, really listen, really ask, really being willing to change our minds, admit wrongs, not just accuse.

Do I think she made missteps in her article? Yes, absolutely and I told her so. But does that mean I don’t want to know more from her? To ask her more questions? To determine where my own responses are coming from? No. I do want to know more. I do want to sit, face to face, with her and others I was arguing with and deepen the conversation, not cut it off with determinations of her place in feminism.

As I said, I give her credit for risking the conversation. And to to Amelia McDonnell-Perry for heading into the fray and deepening the questions.

I also am not sure (after my very personal face to face experience at SJTI) that the internet is ready for intensive social justice work, mostly because because we now have to do the work of writing and speaking have to do that work with the new tools and new spaces for the work (the internet) while we attempt to change the dynamic of a system that poisons all of us. And we have to do it while we are in it and poisoned by it, and that is very very hard hard to do.

And I’m doing it right now, on the internet. Maybe I’m not ready to do social justice work on the internet. I’ll own that much. But it’s here and well, it’s what I got.

I know I’ll feel triggered by all of it. That I’ll be misunderstood and not asked questions of, and I’ll probably not ask questions. That the limits of technology mean the less I know people or they know me, the less compassion or empathy might exist between us. That the speed of the Net moves so fast that there is no time for actual reflection in the work and that the way to get out there as a writer is to write fast and process later, a method that I find nearly useless in how it leaves a lot of damage it its wake, people feeling as if there were violence done to them while they are talking about violence done to others, violence begetting violence of all kinds, micro and macro, emotional and physical.

Alyssa’s friend raped a woman. And for some reason, he decided to believe that what he did wasn’t wrong when he did it. Drug and alcohol, flirting and expectations, may have played a role (I don’t think they did) and Alyssa asked those questions of him and to the world. The Internet exploded a bit.

For me personally, the most important question to ask is: why do we focus on dynamics that harm others as external cultural forces like drinking and lack of sex ed or policies or rules, and not that dynamic itself that is the biggest violence of all– that there may be, and likely is, an inherent expectation in our current culture that the one taking is better than the one being taken from, that the weak are at fault for their victimization, not the strong. That dominance means rightness and we are so inculcated with that dynamic that we push our anger anywhere but where it needs to be.

This is the dynamic that enables rape, racism, homophobia, ageism, sexism and more. And we have to talk about that.

Can we ask these questions? We have to (especially the ones that lead us to the big one), even if the internet explodes. I wish it wouldn’t explode quite so much, but that’s all I got right now, and if that’s what it takes, I suppose that’s what it takes.

I don’t know if I’ll get comments on this, but I expect us all to ask, listen, and engage in as compassionate way as possible even if we strongly disagree. Which I’m guessing might happen.



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2 responses to “The Whole Thing Is A Trigger Warning

  1. Alyssa Royse

    It has been an honor to dialog with you Julie. It gives me hope that we can carry this conversation to a place where change actually occurs. Really.

  2. Pingback: If We Are All Online, How Do We Do The Work Online? | Julie Gillis

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