A TOUGH READ
I don’t watch those videos of police or racist violence against Black people any more. It hurts my soul. I have no need to plant those images in my brain. I also don’t read the more detailed accounts for the same reason… my imagination is pretty good at creating images from words, and those images are too heavy to carry. It doesn’t help anyone for me to be weighed down by that imagery. I’m already fully involved in the fight for racial justice, and self-care is important.
Since Harvey Weinstein’s accusers finally starting being taken seriously by the media and our society in general, I’ve experienced a similar dynamic about the allegations of sexual harassment that have surfaced. Some are horrifying in their violence. And if you want to avoid coming to the conclusion that humans are basically horrible, don’t visit the comment section. Just don’t. A good friend, male, posted a link to the account by Ms. Lumet of her assault at the hands of Russel Simmons. His post said “A tough read.” A tough read. My mind filled in the blanks, it must be a story of horrific violence. I knew that Simmons had (sort of) accepted that he had done wrong and resigned from active leadership in his companies. So I felt that I didn’t need to read it. I just don’t need any more images of violence against women clogging up my brain. Our culture already traffics in such images as entertainment, they are unavoidable. Another friend, a woman, posted a link to the same article. She asked every man she knows to read it. So I found a quiet space, took a deep breath, and started in.
It was a long account of a quasi-professional friendship that involved something that seemed like an innocent if annoying crush. Notes and balloons and such. Given the power dynamic, creepy, but not terrifying. And then it changed. And there was a description of a sexual encounter that from the writer’s perspective was filled with threats of violence. Dread. Fear. I hesitate to even call it a sexual encounter because sex is supposed to be a pleasurable exchange. Or maybe a commercial exchange. But in any case, an exchange where all parties are there because they freely chose to be. And this wasn’t that. When I first read the article, it didn’t strike me as a particularly tough read. The horrific violence that I had expected didn’t appear. But the article stayed with me. It lurked at the edge of my conscious. It kept me from falling asleep.
There’s a thing called strong armed robbery. It’s when a physically stronger person or group “asks” a physically weaker person for something of value. The perpetrator doesn’t have to demand or make an explicit threat. The difference in physical strength, in context, is a sufficient threat. Bobby Knight (who has proven himself repeatedly to be an abusive ass) once said something like “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” It was a disgusting thing to say. And it was incorrect in conflating enjoyment with rape. But the disgusting bit of truth that he inadvertently let out is that we know what a strong armed rape is. It’s when a physically powerful person (usually a man or several men), gets someone (usually an individual woman) into a context where the victim perceives that their safety is in jeopardy. The “request” for sexual contact (verbal or otherwise) is perceived as a threatening demand. The victim might even be asked for consent, but in context, where they are under threat, no consent can be freely given. And therefore such “consent” isn’t meaningful. From Simmons’ perspective, I can see how he might have thought he didn’t do anything wrong. Lumet never said no. She didn’t physically resist. She didn’t scream or run. She didn’t even loudly insist that she be taken home rather than to his place. He might have even thought that his seduction game was on point. But he did do wrong. He ignored her twice made request to be taken to her home. He ignored her apprehension. He waited until he had her in a vulnerable position before even hinting at his plans to have sex with her. He planned this. It was rape.
What’s tough about this read for many men is that it calls us to think hard about all of our past sexual contacts to make sure that we are clear about whether we always had consent, freely given. It is critical for men to read this account. We need to understand that no means no is not sufficient. We need to understand that the only real consent is enthusiastic and freely given. We need the heavy weight of the image of a person too terrified to say no lodged firmly in our heads. We need that to cause us to slow down, to perhaps see through a drunken haze.
And if that image doesn’t work, perhaps we need the image of a career in ruins, a trial and a prison sentence to keep us on the straight and narrow.