The when I’m in

(For Bill, among others)

 

One day, perhaps

I will lay down my arms and my words

One day, perhaps

I will not need them anymore

Perhaps there’s a time coming

when the words are common

and the arms have rusted from disuse

in some old cellar I don’t yet own

… but that day is not

the when I’m in.

 

One day, perhaps

girls won’t still be taught

that if they don’t

dress how they ought

then they’re asking for something

they only barely understand

waving the red flag of their flesh

in front of the animals who can’t help it

and the boys and men

who aren’t animals at all

won’t be taught

that they’re too weak to resist

the temptation to take

to coerce

to chase

to push

won’t be taught that

it’s only in their nature

to pursue the things they want

even when those things are not things

but people who

do not wish to be

pursued

 

One day, perhaps

those boys won’t know

what it is to taunt each other

to destroy one another’s humanity

for show

no one will say

“Man up”

because no one will have taught them

that feelings are unmanly

or that all things feminine

are worth about as much

as tits on a rooster

…but that day is not

the when I’m in

 

Perhaps

One day

the norm will be

to teach little children

boundaries and agency

to tell them

that their tiny

growing bodies

belong to them and them alone

and that nobody gets to tell them

when they should be touched

that nobody gets to make them

give hugs to be polite

suffer slimy

wet

uncomfortable kisses

from aunts who wear

too much lipstick

or grasping

groping

squirm-making hugs

from the uncle nobody likes

just to spare their

oversensitive entitlement

Perhaps one day

no woman will reach adulthood

without being shown

that it is okay to say no

and mean it

and not back down

no matter how they are pushed

no matter how they are cajoled

no matter how very rude

they might seem

to the person hearing.

One day, perhaps

boys will be taught

to hear a no

as something more

than a challenge

…but that is not

the when I’m in

 

Perhaps one day

we won’t ask

how much she had to drink

or why she wore

whatever she had on

because we will be too busy

demanding of him

the origin of his conviction

that she ever said yes

that she wanted to be there

with him

doing that

to her

for even the thought

of her attire

to come to mind.

And perhaps one day

sexual will not

equal shameful

when we talk to our children

our partners

our peers

so that we can be honest

instead of posturing

be safe

instead of threatened

be fulfilled

instead of obligated

without shame in our pleasure

without justification for our need

without fear of speaking up

when somebody turns our pleasure

into their weapon against us

…but that just isn’t

the when I’m in

 

Until it is

I’ll keep on standing

right on this spot

where everybody can see

I’ll keep right on shouting

about the things

they don’t want to hear

because they are

too uncomfortable in the silence

to care about anyone’s pain

 

Until the when I’m in

looks more like the way it should be

than the way it once was

(back before we understood

that woman doesn’t equal weak)

 

Then I will stand

here

loud and proud

in this when we’re all in

until I can help to drag us

forward into the now

that we should always have known.

 

One day, perhaps

I will give up the ghost

for good

and stop making waves

making people uncomfortable

with words that expose

the danger and wrongness

Because I can’t change the world

but maybe only one part

here

and another

there

and perhaps one day

that will not be enough

 

…but that is not

the when I’m in.

That day is not today.

 

 

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Allies, privilege, amplification, and self-care

Yesterday, New York Magazine went live with an article which was focused on amplifying the voices of 35 women. These women are only a portion of the total number of women who have come forward in recent months, detailing the sexual assaults they suffered at the hands of Bill Cosby. The cover photo, seen here, shows each of the 35 women, sitting in a chair, in stark black and white. There are 36 chairs. The last chair in the image is empty. That chair is haunting. That empty chair sparked a hashtag on twitter, #TheEmptyChair, which has become a platform for women who feel like that chair belongs, at least in part, to them. A platform from which they are telling their stories, explaining why their chair is still empty. At least one man on Twitter, Elon James White, offered his own profile as a part of that platform. He invited victims who felt the need to tell their story to send him private messages, which he would then post without their names, twitter usernames, or identifying information.

It probably won’t come as a surprise that his inbox was immediately flooded with responses. Accounts of some of the most vile bits of humanity, repeated and expanded upon beyond the capacity that any one human brain can reasonably hold. He will never know what it is like to be a woman in America. The best he can do is listen to the people who do know, and believe what they tell him, and magnify their voices from his male-privileged position. That isn’t as dangerous for him as it is for those women.

In the last few years, institutionalized racism has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the light. Into a place where even the most isolated, oblivious white person can’t possibly be unaware of the inexcusable, abominable acts being perpetrated on black people by a white-dominated society. In the wake of Michael Brown’s murder, and the fallout in Ferguson in reaction to that murder, and the seemingly endless murderous rampage of the US police force, directly after, I stopped just shaking my head, then turning away. I spent days watching the live feed videos from Ferguson and St Louis. Watching police hit peaceful, law-abiding protesters with pepper spray, rubber bullets, tasers, and various other military operational equipment. What we were being shown on mainstream media was an unruly crowd of mostly black youth, vandalizing and burning shops and police cars. What wasn’t being shown, on most TV stations, but was being shown in a host of live streaming feeds on the ground, was an entirely different story. Police inciting, rather than responding to, outbreaks of violence. Protesters demanding justice they wouldn’t receive, and being taunted, derided, ridiculed, infantilized and demonized in the press and by law enforcement in the streets.

I watched until my eyes hurt from weeping. A human being had been murdered. An innocent black man shot down by a white cop in the streets of his own hometown. And the mainstream media was undeniably bending over backwards to excuse it, to justify it, to explain it away. Pundits debating the existence of racism, as if there was any doubt that it still exists.

I wrote some things, like you do. I talked to my friends, and lamented the fucked up state of the nation. I cried some more. I agonized over what I might be able to do, from my perch as a disabled woman in a small town in the racist-as-fuck south.  I debated with my partner. I listened to black people. I asked questions. Then I listened some more. I’m white. I have white privilege. These are undeniable facts. I will never know what it’s like to be black in America. The best I can do is listen to the people who do know, and believe what they tell me. The best I can do is amplify their voices, to help the things they say be heard by people who may not listen to them. I can argue against the people who may not even give them the time of day, because of the levels of melanin in their skin. I can use my white privilege to speak to intractable, ignorant white people. That won’t be as dangerous, for me, as it would be for a black person.

Look, I’m what the relentlessly oblivious refer to as an SJW. A “Social Justice Warrior.” They mean it as a derogatory term, an insult that usually implies some sort of weakness, some sort of bleeding-heart liberal status that is, in their terms, indicative of a “pussy,” a “bitch,” a “beta.” I don’t care how they mean it. I am a Social Justice Warrior. To me, it means that I refuse to limit my noise-making and calls for attention only to problems that affect me, personally, or people like me. Intersectionality. It’s a thing. There are so many justifications for oppressing people, so many ways people are held down due to factors beyond their control or agency, and I’m not okay with any of them. I’m not affected, personally, by racism. It can still fuck right off. I’m not personally affected by transmisogyny or cis-sexism, but that can fuck in the general direction of off, as well. I will speak out against oppression, wherever I see it, in whatever form, no matter who I see perpetuating it.

I do it because I actually believe that human beings are all equal, and all deserve equal rights, equal treatment, equal representation, equal consideration. For me, that’s not just some easy history class recitation. It’s immutable fact. I have empathy for my fellow human beings who are being oppressed, no matter what form that takes. That empathy requires me to stand up when and where I am able. That may not mean much, all by itself. It’s a very small droplet in a very large ocean, especially when the town in which I’m frustratingly stuck is practically Wonderbread, USA. But it still matters.

I may be disabled, but I can still amplify the voices of black people who speak out on the various social media sites I utilize on a daily basis. Perhaps I expose one white person to something that makes them unpack their own privilege, or previously unexamined ignorance. Perhaps I get one previously cis-sexist person to recognize the harm they’re doing to transpeople. If I’m very fortunate, I can manage that much. In the meantime, I can keep on speaking out, keep on amplifying.

I may not get out much, or see many people in real life, but my biological family is almost entirely made up of a bunch of people who are bigoted at pretty much every point on the axes of oppression. At Christmas dinner last year, when the talk turned to Ferguson, the things my father and aunt were saying made me physically ill. We left, and they were informed as to the reasons why we refused to be around anyone spouting such insidious justifications for hatred. Maybe I didn’t change their minds at all. I kind of doubt it. But I can absolutely refuse to associate with anyone who behaves this way. If they care about me, they’ll be willing to have a conversation, and examine the reality from outside their normal lens.

I can call out any and all instances of racism, transmisogyny, and other bigotry and prejudice and unexamined privilege I see, in online forums. I can educate.

But, as Elon Jame White mentioned in the ThisWeekInBlackness Prime broadcast dealing with #TheEmptyChair, this shit is exhausting. There is such a dizzying array of rampant oppression going on in our country, and it never sleeps. When you step in to speak against it, you will meet resistance. You will have your resolve and will and empathy tested, again and again. You will tire of hearing the same horrible stories. You will tire of arguing the same tired old oppressive rhetoric that the oppressors have been using since time began and an ‘other’ existed. You will be attacked, shouted down, spoken over, condescended to, and bullied. It is inevitable.

It is okay to take a break. 

I know, we often have to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. Individual stories of oppression only get traction through publicity for so long. It’s understandable to feel the need to run yourself into the ground, trying to stay right on top of every tweet, every DM, every news story, every untold horror. Sadly, though, no matter how many of these stories you amplify, there will almost assuredly be more, in the next breath. You can’t stay on top of it every waking moment. All that’s going to do is invite burnout, and then someone, somewhere has lost a valuable, meaningful ally. You can take a step back, take a breather, get some rest, and do whatever you need to do to recharge your batteries, before wading back in. Unfortunately, racism isn’t going anywhere, not in the time it takes you to eat, shower, and sleep, or even take a vacation and unplug for a bit. Rape culture isn’t going anywhere. Misogyny isn’t going anywhere. Cis-sexism isn’t going anywhere. Ableism isn’t going anywhere. You’re not going to hurt the progress of any of these social issues that much, by taking care of you for a minute. Or a week. Not doing so, however, could take you out of the equation, entirely, much sooner than you may have bowed out, otherwise.

So, no. Don’t just care about and speak about the issues that affect you, but do make sure that you take the time to deal with the ways in which all of the issues affect you. We all need those voices being amplified.

A response to “We don’t teach men to rape.”

Originally posted elsewhere, August 5, 2014


I posted most of this as a comment on a post, elsewhere, in response to another comment. (What follows has been slightly edited, and expanded from the original.)

The comment basically said that men who rape are abnormal, and that what they do isn’t a learned behavior.

I beg to differ.

I would agree that no man who molests children is ‘normal.’ As to the men who rape women, well, I see that a bit differently. Some of the men who do these things aren’t normal. But not all, by far. Many of them are as normal, as statistically average in every way, as they can possibly be, and are simply the end products of societal conditioning that shows them, over and over and over, that they don’t have to be held accountable for their aggressive behaviors when it comes to relating to women, or transpeople, or anyone who isn’t a man.

See, we (society) have this picture of “RAPIST” that is the stranger lurking in the bushes, or behind a parked car, waiting to jump out and attack us, and drag us off into some dark, dank space to have their way with us. We (society) have this picture of “REAL RAPE” as something that is always a violent attack, with brutal, aggressive force, weapons, masked men, which takes place between strangers in dark alleys.

The statistics do not support that picture. The vast majority of rape is perpetuated by people known to the victims, trusted by the victims. It is more likely to be coercive, or the result of more subtle intimidation and power-play, than brute physical attack.

People say that the behavior hasn’t been taught to them. Actually, it has, in many, many cases. Sure. Someone, somewhere, told them “don’t rape.” Maybe. But the real messages coming from society aren’t so black and white. They are taught, over and over and over and over again that their aggressive sexual behavior is either perfectly okay, or not their fault or responsibility. That they can’t be expected to control their sexual impulses or desires, because … cavemen, or something?

  • If she was wearing a short skirt, or tight jeans, or a revealing top, or makeup, she obviously wanted to draw attention from men. So, if they catcall or approach her, if they get all up in her personal space, she must have wanted that, right? Because she wore those clothes that drew their attention, so that’s her responsibility.
  • If she went to a bar and sat down to have a drink alone, she obviously wanted their ham-handed come-ons and PUA bullshit. She obviously wants someone to pursue her, even if she says no. She couldn’t just be there to enjoy a drink, either alone or with her friends.
  • If she’s rejecting their advances, she doesn’t really mean it. She’s only saying no to be a tease, to make them pursue her, to play hard to get, to tantalize and inflame men’s desire for the chase. Because her behavior is all about them, doncha know.
  • If she’s passed out drunk, or so intoxicated that she slurs her words and stumbles when she walks, then it’s all on her if he has sex with her. She shouldn’t have had so much to drink.

See, ^these are the things we have really been teaching men. That “boys will be boys,” and aren’t responsible for their behavior. Look back, really LOOK, at all of those scenarios. In each case, someone is acting, and someone is being acted upon. Yet, in each case, society tells the person who is acting that it is the “personal responsibility” of the person being acted upon to play gatekeeper. To not wear the clothes or the makeup that ‘entice men.’ To not have a damned drink in a bar. To be blunt to the point of cruelty if they want their rejection taken seriously (which can then bring on even more aggressive, violent, threatening behavior).

But we absolve the person who is acting, in each scenario, of any accountability whatsoever.

So, yeah, in many cases, they ARE being taught that it’s okay to ignore boundaries. That it’s okay to push past them. That it’s okay to get in someone else’s personal space, even when the person is expressing distaste or unease or discomfort or outright rejection. They are being taught that it is not their responsibility to not rape. They are not being held accountable for acting, and they are being shown, repeatedly, that when they do act, the responsibility for their behavior is on the person at whom the behavior is directed.

Under the he-had-a-weapon-and-was-a-stranger-and-she-was-beaten-into-submission model, sure. Very few men do that.

But LOADS of men who don’t fit that “REAL RAPIST” false archetype are raping women. They rape their wives and girlfriends. They rape passed out girls and too-drunk-to-consent women at parties. They refuse to take no for an answer, and coerce and intimidate and bully and push and push and push until she gives in, not actually consenting, but unable to withstand the onslaught.

And we (society) overwhelmingly blame her. Even though he was the one pursuing, he was the one acting, we blame his victim. And he knows it. He may not think that he’s raping someone. He may think this is just how sex works. HE. IS. WRONG. And so is the society that teaches him that he isn’t.

No. We may not explicitly teach men to rape. We just teach them that, if they do, it’s perfectly understandable, and not their fault. Which amounts to the same damned thing.

How rape gets its foot in the door

Summer of 1994. I was fifteen years old. Like thousands – perhaps millions – of teenagers before and since, I lied to my parents. Told them I was going to the beach with my friend – we’ll call her Brittany – and her family. It was only a partial lie. Her brother and his fiancee, age nineteen, were our dubious chaperons. Her mother even lied to my mother, for us. Told her she was driving us down to the coast for a week, when she never planned to leave her home.

Instead, we rode down with the brother’s low-rider club. A bunch of ratty teenagers, looking for a good time. There’s never been a worse idea than a six hour road trip in a miniature version of a pickup truck, the vast majority of its suspension sacrificed for the low profile, except, perhaps, for cramming as many kids in every tiny cab as physics would allow. By the time we arrived, every single joint was buzzing, every muscle tight and achy.

But we were fifteen and easily passed for nineteen. We were at the beach, had money in our pockets, and were pretty much on our own, so who cared? Every day, we got dressed up, debated this top with those shorts, hands in or out of pockets, hair up or down. Does this makeup look too slutty? Does this bathing suit make me look fat? Is this too much cleavage, or too little? We’d stroll up and down the beach, or shop on the strip, or pour quarters into the crappy little bar tables and well-stocked jukebox at the arcade.

We bungee jumped off a crane, without ever showing our IDs. We got our belly buttons pierced.

We behaved like teenagers.

Only a couple of days left in our trip, Brittany and I had a falling out. I honestly don’t remember why, but we were pretty angry with one another. We’d told her brother we wouldn’t go out alone. That we’d practice the “buddy system.” And she was going, whether I wanted to, or not. I was firmly in the “or-not” camp, but I pulled on clothes and followed her onto the strip, anyway. She was walking quickly, and had a head start, so I was struggling to keep up, and maybe forty yards behind her. As we were walking towards one of the many aquamarine-painted-concrete motels, two things happened simultaneously. A young man in an orange VW Beetle pulled into the parking lot ahead of me, effectively cutting me off from my friend, and started to flirt. About the same time, a group of older boys and young men walked out from the motel itself, and started talking with Brittany, also effectively halting her.

I didn’t want to be rude, so I talked with the young man in the beetle. I didn’t find him attractive, and didn’t really care about hurting his feelings, as I’d been taken completely off guard. I was anxious, and unnerved, and worried about Brittany, who was suddenly surrounded by strangers. But I knew being rude could cause even more problems. I chatted – politely – for a moment, then told him I was sorry, but I couldn’t talk, because it looked like my friend needed me. I shuffled quickly around his back bumper.

By the time I caught up to her, Brittany was being … herded… towards a room in the motel. I jumped in, and tried to extract her from the situation, but she was still angry with me. She said she wanted to party, and they were having a party. I told her we could party back in our room, but by then they were ushering her through the door. My choices were to follow along, or to go back to our motel and try to find her brother. I’d promised not to separate from her.

I won’t go into many details, here, but we were both gang raped that night. Filled with booze, and possibly more, used, and quite literally dumped on a curb, wearing someone else’s clothing.

And it started with street harassment. It started with a demand for attention.

Rape got its foot in the door, the moment those boys and young men cut off our route, expecting us to be polite – and we were.

Really, though, rape got its foot in the door in so many ways. Ways that started long before that orange Beetle and that sleazy motel.

Rape got its foot in the door when our parents, who should have been teaching us about boundaries, who should have been keeping us safe, taught, instead, for us to be polite.

Rape got its foot in the door when we were forced to endure cheek-pinching from that dreadful great-aunt who smelled like mothballs and wore too much rouge.

Rape got its foot in the door when we were made to understand that it didn’t matter whether or not we wanted to hug the uncle who always hugged just a little too tight, held on just a little too long, we were going to hug him, and smile while we did it.

Rape got its foot in the door when those young men were little boys, being told by older boys, and sometimes even fathers, uncles, and other authority figures, that girls play hard to get, so “no” just means you’re not trying hard enough, not doing the right things.

Rape got its foot in the door when we were told that good girls didn’t enjoy sex, that sex was shameful, that talking about sex was bad, that learning about sex was tantamount to actually engaging in it. When we were only told that it was off-limits, while the boys were being told it was their job to talk us out of our “no.”

Rape got its foot in the door when we learned we were only allowed to have boundaries if they didn’t make other people feel bad.

So don’t tell me street harassment is a compliment. Don’t tell me it’s no big deal. I have seen and felt, firsthand, where street harassment can lead. It’s not a compliment; it’s a threat. It’s rape, shoving its foot in the door, demanding access. If some strange man shoved his foot into my home in that way, I’d be baffled to find a single person who thought it was then my job to make the invader’s feelings my first priority, my job to be polite to someone who was intruding on my home. In fact, there are laws on the books in most states in the U.S. that grant citizens the right to use up to lethal force, if they feel their home is being violated. And we’re talking about houses, here. Brick and mortar, wood and stone. Things.

How, then, can you excuse someone commandeering my agency, and tell me to be polite, lighten up, it’s just a compliment? Maybe not every stranger who shoves a foot in your door is a threat. Could be a salesperson, or someone handing out religious literature. Are you willing to take that risk, and welcome them in, once they’ve shoved a foot in there? Once they’ve pushed past polite, as if they were entitled to access to your home, are you willing to then offer them tea and cookies, just to be polite? Of course not. The very notion is absolutely absurd.

And so is the notion that we should have to be polite to those shoving their feet into the door of our very ability to determine to whom we wish to speak, or how we wish to spend our time, or whether or not we wish to have company at our table, or at the bus stop, or on a stroll. Whether or not we’re okay with you standing so damned close. Whether or not we want to have a drink with you, or hear your opinions about our bodies. When you assume you are entitled to someone’s attention, and demand that without concern for what they want?

That’s rape, shoving its foot in the door. And we have every goddamned right in the world to crush its fucking toes, as we slam that door in whatever way we choose.

The word is the problem? (tw: rape)

audio


Let me tell you about
the power
in a word
because the word
IS
a problem
just not the way
you mean it

The word
is a problem
because it does not travel
alone
or arrive
with courtesy
because it doesn’t always
give forewarning
before
it brings in all its baggage
before
it rips you back through
memory’s door
puts you in that flesh again
in that fear again
in that shame again
in that moment
when you
became a vessel
and nothing more

Back
to that moment
when some small
desperate piece
of your mind,
insistent,
whispered
But I
I am more
I am more than this
to the next moment
when you shushed it
gagged it
strangled it
killed it off
in order to fucking survive
when they made you
a sin eater
to carry all the fucking guilt
and the shame
and the pain
of the wrong
for the rest of your days
because you know
he never will
and no matter
what pretty lies
you tell others
or tell yourself
that small dead part of you
which insisted
it was more
will haunt you with guilt
and shame
in the quiet of those infinite
sleepless nights
for always

Because once you know
that word
once you really
get acquainted with it
once it’s pushing
into your mind
every time
he
looks at you
across the baked chicken
and mashed potatoes
in the way he ought only
to look at your mother
as he sits
right beside her
and she pretends
not to see
and you know
that it could be coming
you know
that there is
not enough vigilance
in a whole fucking army
to keep him from being
the first
if he wants to
because he is patient
and will wait
for his optimal moment
like a hyena waiting
hunched over and drooling
in tall grass

So you make the decision
at fourteen
years
old
to keep that one small bit
to lay claim to
that one experience
to have that one piece
be yours
your choice
to steal away his chance
by giving what’s left
of your innocence
to the boy who looked
like Kurt Cobain
but cleaner
to the boy
you didn’t love
but who had a dimple
in his chin
and the name of a
famous funk singer
and the boy
treated you
with kindness
with gentleness
and awkward
fumbling sweetness
but all you could think
the whole time
was
HA!
He doesn’t get to take
this part from me
too…

Not realizing that
is exactly what happened

Once that word is pushing
into you
on heavy
humid
waves
of burrito-scented breath
and the smell of Cool Water
against a cheap bed
with a broken spring
while you lie
still as you can
still as you can
addled by booze
and maybe a little
something extra in the solo cup
lie as still as you can
and wait
for it all to just
be over for them all
to have their turn
because when
you tried to run
naked
out the door
three of them
pulled you back in
and the sound
of the door closing
was the sound of
you
fifteen
giving up
pretending to like it
so they wouldn’t hurt
anymore

and later
your best friend
and her friend
beat you
in a convenience store
parking lot
for not protecting her
from the same fate
while it was happening
to you…

Once that fucking word is pushing
into you
on a dark gravel road
while your nose
bleeds into the dirty
bed of the pickup truck
tailgate biting into your hips
and you’re saying no
no
no
no
no
no
no
with every thrust
until the word no
loses all meaning
and becomes just a
strange heavy shape
on your tongue
rolling out
like a boulder
but landing like
air against stone
and the one
who was your friend
acts all magnanimous
when he finally
hears the litany
of negation
and pulls out
of your ass
and
without pausing
pushes into
your other hole
with a, There.
Is that better?
and keeps on
plowing away as if
the continuing no
was just an
expected noise
that comes with each thrust
and you’re thinking
you’re thinking
the strangest things
like how
will you ever
get the blood
out of that skirt
before your grandmother
sees you
how will you ever
sneak your swollen face
and your shame
past her wakefulness
and why
is it so dark out here
and suddenly
there’s nothing
blissful oblivion
until you’re walking
dazed
bloody and alone
down a street
in the three a.m. dead
of a small southern town
and you stumble
the miles
to your car
in the dark
hoping against hope
that no one sees you
that no one knows…

Once that word is pushing
into you
in your home
in your bed
because he finally
got fed up
with all the no
no
no
and threatened
not to pay the power bill
while your baby girl slept
just down the hall
so you rolled over
and you stared at the
incidental faces
made by the
cheap
fake grain
of the cheap
fake paneling
you surrendered
with an insult
because it was all
the dignity
you could manage to preserve
to say
Fine
Fine
Whatever.
but do it from behind
because I’m watching TV

and you never
call it what it was
because you can’t
you never
call it what it was
because there’s too much
hanging on it
because the escape
and the education
the scholarship
the full ride
that disappeared
five weeks later
in a stream of piss
and two pink lines
became a child
a child
whom you love more than life
and you know
deep in your dark places
you know without a moment’s doubt
you have to hide that word
hide that truth
until you love that small
helpless thing
with the fierceness of a bear
protecting its cub
so you bury that word
you bury it deep
under years of denial
and decades of less than
and you love that boy
you love him
you love that boy
who looks
so very much
like his father…

Because once you know
that word
once you really
get acquainted with it
then you know
that the word
is legion
like that demon
containing multitudes
containing memories
memories you would rather
not possess
containing you
containing others like you
behind walls of
should have could have
why-didn’t-you
changing everything
irrevocable
making of you
nothing more than a vessel
no matter how much
that small voice
insists it isn’t so

Once you know
that word
you know the just world
is a shit-stained fantasy
and that the people who deserve
good things
sometimes get bad
while those who deserve
badness
take whatever the fuck they want
by whatever means they must
but as long as we
call it by
some other name
they don’t have to feel bad
they don’t have to carry
that shame
that guilt
that knowing

So

Yes

That word is a problem
but not in the way you think
and I will be damned
if I will sugar-coat it
with some euphemism
to make it easier
on the ones who want to say
that it wasn’t what it was
– if I was drinking
if I gave in
to keep the heat on
for my kid
if I went to that party
or wore that dress
or let him kiss me
or stayed with him after
or had his child –
I won’t call it something
other than what it was
to make it
more palatable
to those who want to claim
they did not know better
because they once believed
they were entitled
to my body
my agency
and my silence

Because why
should the power of the word
only ever be
felt
by those who-
like me-
really got
acquainted with it?

Why
is the word
only a problem
when it makes those who
don’t know that shame
who may not
back then
have known
but left us with the after
anyway
who don’t want to see
that the things they may have done
back before they knew
fit the definition
why is it only a problem
when they
feel uncomfortable
in their complacence
or complicity?

I will call it
by its goddamn NAME
until it’s a problem
that everyone
understands
that no one
denies

Until the ones who do it
are the ones who
carry the shame
instead of those of us
who carry it now.

Until no one
can say
they don’t know better

Until the power
of the definition
becomes a deterrent

Until nobody else
has to be
like I was

Alone
in my acquaintance
with the power
of the fucking word.

The Direction of Shame

Shame is an emotion with which we become familiar at a very young age. It’s used as a tool, in everything from parenting to education to employment to business to healthcare to social media.

A small child learns about a parent’s displeasure, and begins to associate the language, tone, and nonverbal language of disappointment or condemnation with (hopefully) maladaptive or dangerous or unhealthy behaviors.

School-age children are shamed for their antisocial or dangerous or disruptive behavior every day. Names are written on the board, or behavior cards are “turned” from green to yellow to red, as publicly visible indicators of whether or not the children have been well behaved.

Employers will often post notices, or send out memos, naming the people who, for instance, haven’t completed their work by a specified deadline.

Businesses post signs that draw attention to impolite customers who talk on their cell-phones while conducting transactions, and employees are told to ask offenders, in front of other customers, to step out of line until they’ve finished their conversations.

In each of these cases, shame serves a purpose, both to the individuals, and to the social groups in which the shaming takes place. Individuals learn about unacceptable behaviors, and that engaging in those behaviors can lead to scrutiny and discomfort. The social groups benefit when the individuals behave in the ways that are most beneficial to the group, as a whole.

Of course, that isn’t the only way shame is utilized. It is all too often treated as a weapon. Slut shaming implies that women who enjoy their own sexuality, on their own terms, are somehow dirty, immoral, and lewd. Body shaming plays on the insecurities of other people, with digs at their worth as humans, based on some physical characteristics.

And, of course, there’s victim shaming. This is a form of weaponized shame that targets people who have already been harmed by the behaviors of others, based on a nebulous and unconquerable list of dos and dont’s, shoulds and shouldn’ts, and personal strategies generalized to entire populations. It comes in so many different flavors, it puts Baskin-Robbins to… well… shame.

At its base, victim-shaming is placing the onus for feeling bad about what was done on the person who was acted on, rather than the person acting.


As they are the most common target (or, at least, the most commonly targeted victims I’ve seen), all of my examples will be focused on abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or rape victims. Also, I will be using gender-specific pronouns. This does not mean that I believe that onlywomen are victims of rape, abuse, or victim shaming, or that only men are rapists or abusers, or that people who identify with something other than binary gender roles cannot be either, and is only used for the sake of (relative) brevity (HA!) and simplicity.

  • She wore something that exposed too much skin.
  • She was walking alone at night.
  • She was walking alone during the day.
  • She was in a bad neighborhood.
  • She was in a frat house.
  • She was in a dance club.
  • She was at a bar.
  • She didn’t practice the buddy system.
  • She had too much to drink.
  • She was in a relationship with an obviously bad person (because “good” people don’t do these things, and it’s really easy to tell the difference without long-term acquaintance).
  • She was too dependent on him.
  • She was too independent, which threatened his masculinity.
  • She was too meek, and let him walk all over her.
  • She was too outspoken, which was antagonizing to him.
  • She presented a front of a happy partner/spouse to everyone else.
  • She complained too much to everyone else about the relationship.
  • She smiled at him, which means she was giving off the wrong signals.
  • She didn’t smile at him, which means she was being rude.
  • She was too friendly with him.
  • She wasn’t friendly enough.
  • She rejected him.
  • She didn’t overtly, or explicitly, reject him.
  • She didn’t leave after the abuse started.
  • She tried to leave, and it made him angry.
  • She allowed herself to be alone with him.
  • She didn’t explicitly say “no.”
  • She didn’t say “no” loud enough.
  • She didn’t physically fight him off.
  • She didn’t physically fight hard enough.
  • She didn’t learn self defense, beforehand.
  • She antagonized him into escalating the violence, by fighting back.
  • She didn’t have pepper spray, a taser, or a gun in her handbag.
  • She shouldn’t have been carrying a weapon he could take away and use against her.
  • She didn’t report the abuse/rape to law enforcement.
  • She didn’t report the abuse/rape soon enough.
  • She didn’t get the precise timeline and/or every detail letter perfect, in the midst of processing the trauma, so…
  • She was exaggerating/lying when she reported to law enforcement.
  • She didn’t cry or seem visibly distressed when discussing the abuse/rape.
  • She was overly dramatic/overly emotional when she discussed the abuse/rape.
  • She got over it too fast.
  • She didn’t get over it fast enough.
  • She didn’t process it the way x person thought she should.
  • She refused to share details with uninvolved people.
  • She aired too much dirty laundry.
  • She won’t shut up about what happened.
  • She won’t talk about what happened.
  • She won’t shut up about the other people who are suffering the way she did.
  • She doesn’t do enough to protect other possible victims.
  • She’s focusing too much on the people who do bad things to others.
  • She won’t move on with her life.
  • She’s a “perpetual victim.”

Whew. That was depressing to type. And exhausting, both mentally and emotionally. What’s worse, that is by no means a comprehensive list of all the shaming tactics that victims of abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or rape routinely face. Personally, I don’t know a single survivor who hasn’t faced at least a half dozen of them.

As a reminder, all of those are tactics used to shame the person who was ACTED ON, rather than the person who acted.

As a culture, we expend an awful lot of effort and energy on these types of things. Why? How do we, individually or as a culture/subculture, benefit from them?

We don’t. Go back through that list. As you read each of the things listed, as yourself three questions:

1) How does this other person doing this thing, in response to being victimized, impact the quality of my life?

2) How does this other person doing this thing, in response to being victimized, impact the safety of the social group/subculture I share with them?
3) Am I, or is that social group, harmed or made less safe in any way that is actually the fault of either the person who was victimized, their behavior before/during the assault/rape/abuse, or their response to it?

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the answer, across the board, is a resounding NO.

Yet we continue to shame them.

Now, ask yourself if your social group or subculture is harmed, or made less safe, by the rapist, the abuser, the harasser, or the perpetrator of sexual assault. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Oh. You’re done, already? Well, of course you are. Because the answer is pretty obvious, isn’t it?

So, instead of shaming the victims, why are we not shaming the people who acted on them? Why are we not shaming the behaviors that actually cause harm? Why are we so very hesitant to call out the harmful behaviors, and the bits and pieces of our culture which contribute to them? Why is there so very much pushback against that kind of shaming, and so very little against the rampant victim-shaming?

Of course, some of us are. Some of us are trying very hard to tilt the balance in that direction. And we face an awful lot of criticism and anger and shouting and pontificating and name-calling, and, yes, even shaming, for doing so.

Again… why?

I think it has to do, mostly, with fear.

Fear is not a rational emotion. It is instinctive, and often illogical, especially when we’re not discussing immediate physical threats to our own individual well-being.

I think, perhaps, that there are two types of fear that contribute to this shame-the-victim-but-never-the-perpetrator ethos.

One is the quite understandable fear of becoming victims, ourselves. It’s understandable, because it’s a very real threat. The problem isn’t that we’re afraid of being victimized, it’s the way we are responding to that fear. We’re responding by telling ourselves that there are things we can do, or avoid doing, that will render us invincible to becoming victims, or becoming victims again, in some cases. We want to believe that we have the ultimate power to keep other people from doing bad things to us, so we convince ourselves that this is true.

We convince ourselves that if we follow a list of dos and don’ts, if we are “resilient” enough, if we simply choose not to be victims, then we won’t be. We convince ourselves that we are, therefore, enlightened, and more protected, than those “perpetual victims” who don’t think like we do. We convince ourselves that some combination of behaviors and attitudes can work as an incantation to ward off the evils of the world.

Unfortunately, that isn’t true. Unfortunately, there is NOTHING we can do, individually, that will make us invincible to others who want, or do not know better than to cause us harm. No amount of resilience or confidence or preparation or prevention can change that.

The flip-side of that fear is the fear that we might, ourselves, whether intentionally or through ignorance, cause or have caused that kind of harm in others. That our behavior, somewhere along the line, may have crossed the line. That other people may see us as rapists, abusers, violators. That we might have to see ourselves that way. And this is terrifying, to most of us. The idea that we might “be that guy,” even though, perhaps, we never intended to be.

This fear leads to a knee-jerk defensiveness and denial which, while understandable, is entirely counterproductive, and even childish. It’s the train of thought that says, I once had sex with a woman who was incapacitated. Only bad people rape. I’m not a bad person, therefore having sex with incapacitated people isn’t rape.

Because it’s easier to deny that a thing is wrong, emotionally, than it is to admit we may have done a wrong thing.

Because there’s a false association going on, that only “bad people” can do “bad things,” and that line of thought just doesn’t line up with reality. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all learn some busted things, at some point. We all keep learning, I hope, throughout our lives. Sometimes, we learn that the things we once learned were wrong, or flawed in some way. The appropriate response to that is not to deny the wrongness of what we once understood, in order to alleviate ourselves from guilt or shame. It is to learn from it, and grow, and become better human beings. People who don’t do the things we now understand to not be okay, even if we didn’t understand it, before.

And a part of that shift is shifting the shame. Instead of shaming victims, or their behaviors, or even shaming people, we need to be shaming the behaviors that are causing harm. The dehumanization of women and transpeople and people of non-binary gender. The marginalization of those who are “different,” whether that difference is race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, economic status, or some other thing altogether. The levels of culturally accepted aggression towards those people. The idea that the onus for halting any interpersonal contact is on the person being acted on, instead of the personacting. Victim blaming, silencing, and shaming. Brushing abusive behavior under the rug. Excusing or enabling abuses to continue. All of those behaviors are shame-worthy.

Being victimized is not.

It is far past time for us – ALL of us – to shift the shame to where it belongs.

No, Not YOU.

Dear Man,

I understand that hearing about the #YesAllWomen thing isn’t easy. I understand that hearing things about how the vast majority of violence is perpetrated by those humans of the male persuasion, and how people who are not men are sometimes wary of you, because you happen to share a gender with ‘those guys,’ can feel like an attack.

And you know what? I’m sorry. I’m sorry that it feels like an attack on you. I’m sorry that we don’t have a better way to frame it, than to talk about men doing bad things. I’m sorry that it makes you feel like you ought to feel guilty for simply being a man, because you shouldn’t.

When you read the thing about the 10% of these yummy candies that are poison, I actually do understand how that can feel kind of icky, for you.

Because (and I am explicitly not talking to that 10%, now), you probably aren’t ‘that guy.’ You probably read the things written by people who aren’t men under the YesAllWomen hashtag, and they are horrifying to you. You probably don’t yell out at random people who are not men on the street, DAAAAAMN! LOOKIT DATASS!! thus making them feel threatened and objectified and conspicuous and afraid without their consent. You probably don’t get someone drunk in order to take advantage of them. You probably never raped anyone. You probably never hit a partner without their consent. You were probably socialized to believe that it’s simply not okay to rape or abuse or harass or assault someone, and the very idea that someone might believe that of you, just because you are a man, is probably deeply hurtful and offensive.

And I get that. I really do. I actually ache for the good, innocent men who, hearing about all of this, feel somehow ashamed of themselves because they’re men.

What we need you to understand, though, what we’ve been trying really hard to explain to you, is that this really is not about you. Unless you are one of ‘those guys,’ who does those shitty, dehumanizing, abusive things, this isn’t about you. What we need you to understand is, we already know that it is not all men who are doing these busted things. It’s just, we thought that part went without saying.

The problem is, the people who do this sort of thing, the vast, overwhelming majority of the time, do happen to be men. And they don’t exactly self-identify. I’m pretty sure that never in the history of everdom has this ever happened:

Hi! My name’s JoeBob. Can I buy you a drink? Oh, by the way, before you answer, you should probably know that, last year I beat my ex-wife so badly that she spent six days in the hospital, and last month I raped my best friend’s partner, and just on the way over here, I loomed over a random chick at a bus stop, demanding that she reply to my crass and unwanted comments about her appearance, and I got some other chick so drunk she could barely walk, at this very bar, last night, then took her back to my place and fucked her brains out, and called her a cab and poured her into it before she could even sober up. And that’s kind of my plan for you, too. So… about that drink? And, hey. You’ve got a really tight ass.

See? That just doesn’t happen. Sometimes, months or years can pass without any indications, even. But we all know that the one-in-ten possibility for one or all of those things to be true exists. So, we’re afraid. Wouldn’t you be? Most of us spend the vast majority of our time in public and/or crowded places with that fear living like a little knot in our bellies. It may not be the top-of-the-brain thought, but it is never not there. It can’t be, because getting rid of that wariness, that caution, is dangerous, for us.

And that probably makes you a little sick. Sex, love, and (for some of us) kink, are freaking awesome. They’re kind of sacred in some way, to most of us. That this happens within those somewhat sacred spaces is probably enough to make your brains scream against the reality. And you probably don’t feel very good about seemingly being lumped in with ‘those guys.’

You may believe that the term “patriarchy” somehow indicates that you,personally, are actively oppressing women. You may have gotten the idea that the term “male privilege” is an insult which means you don’t get to have an opinion, or that it entirely neglects the myriad other disadvantages with which you may be faced.

The thing is, NONE OF THOSE THINGS ARE TRUE.

One, most of those of us who are speaking out in this way actually do understand that not all men do these things. Two, “patriarchy” doesn’t mean that ALL men have equal shares of the power and constantly oppress people who aren’t men, only that the society is, and has always been structured, by certain men, in such a way that it is undeniably and especially oppressive towards people who are not men, and that the culture, as a whole (not you, specifically), perpetuates that oppression, almost always in ways that benefit most men, at least in part. Three, “male privilege” is not an insult. Usually, when it is invoked during a discussion, it is because a man is trying to tell people who are not men that the validity of their actual experiences is questionable or invalid, because it doesn’t line up with the life he has lived. And of COURSE it doesn’t line up, because he hasn’t been on the receiving end of the assault, the harassment, the abuse, the hijacking of personal agency, that comes with being something other than a man. He doesn’t know that fear, or that sense of resigned inevitability.

None of those things is an attack on you, personally. Whether it feels that way or not.

But I do understand the need to distinguish yourself from ‘that guy.’ And there are absolutely ways that you can do that. It’s just that, jumping into a conversation about how all people who aren’t men have been at the receiving end of some such shittiness, and demanding that the conversation center around you, by telling us something that We. Already. Know, is not one of those ways, and not likely to convince anybody that you aren’t ‘that guy.’

See, that conversation has a point. The point is not to attack all men, or you, personally. The point is to draw attention to how very messed up it is that yes, all people who aren’t men have experienced these things, at the hands of people who are almost exclusively male. The point is to try to find ways to make that stop happening. And make no mistake, the decrease or cessation of that kind of outright or subtle hostility will be good for you, too. Because, on the glorious day when that becomes the reality (or, at least, more of the norm than the exception), you will no longer feel any need to remind us that it isn’t all men. Because it will no longer be that all of the rest of us are living in that kind of fear.

We don’t want to mistrust or fear or resent you, if you’re not ‘that guy.’ We get no fun or entertainment out of being constantly afraid to walk down the street alone, or to have a drink or three in a bar, or to open up our damned inboxes, or even to speak the truth about our experiences. Contrary to what some men (certainly ‘that guy’ types) want you to believe, there is no prize for being forced to go through all this shit.

The only way in which this conversation is about you, is that we’re asking for your help. If you aren’t ‘that guy,’ there are ways to put that across, as I mentioned before.

The first is really simple. Or, at least, it seems that way, in black and white.

Listen.

Yep. That’s the big one. Listen to what is being said. Understand that, while it may differ from the way the world reacts to you, that doesn’t mean it is inaccurate. Listen. Turn down the defensiveness, and turn up the empathy. Care about the perspective of the person who is speaking enough to not try and shift the discussion to how it affects you.

Generally speaking, if someone who isn’t a man is venting to you, about this, it’s because they trust you. Because they believe you aren’t ‘that guy.’ Because they feel safe and comfortable enough with you to tell you what it is like to be them.It’s okay to say, Fuck, that’s awful. It makes me feel really bad about the way that some men treat women. It’s not okay to say, Butbutbut I’M NOT LIKE THAT AND HOW DARE YOU ACCUSE ME!!! Because that’s reframing the conversation. It’s missing the point. It’s taking away the safe place to speak and be heard, and making it all about you and your concerns – almost always unfounded – about possible guilt-by-association.

So stop defending, and start listening.

The second thing you can do is to recognize that there is actually a problem, and it’s a gendered problem, whether we like it or not. There are threats to safety that we all face, as humans. This isn’t that. These are specific threats that happen so much more often to people other than men, it is obviously something that is directly related to gender. That is NOT to say that men don’t face threats. It is NOT to say that those problems aren’t worth addressing. It is to say that these discussions, difficult as this may be to accept, are NOT the place for those things. Again, that is shifting the focus, and this issue deserves its own space.

Third, while you probably aren’t ‘that guy,’ you probably know someone who is. And you know, that’s not just you. We know some of ‘those guys,’ too. And all of us have probably, at least at one point or another, heard the ‘that guy’ we know say some busted shit, or seen him do some busted shit… and said nothing. That’s the way it used to be. We’re trying to make that not be the way it is.

So, when that guy you know, who happens to be ‘that guy,’ harasses a woman at a bar because she told him she’s not interested, or turns around to follow someone who isn’t a man on the street, telling that person how hot they are, then berating them for not responding to his ‘compliments,’ or tries to coerce an inebriated person into having sex with him, when they’re too drunk to consent, or makes a joke about how it isn’t rape if she’s unconscious, or does any number of other things that you now know is oppressive or abusive or harassing to those of us who aren’t men, speak up.

You don’t have to attack. You can simply say, “You know, when you do those things, it makes me really uncomfortable. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do them, or at least didn’t do them around me.

Is that a really uncomfortable conversation to have? Of course it is. The thing is, we are having it, too. But ‘that guy?’ He doesn’t really listen much to those of us who aren’t men. So, your voices have more power, with him, more sway. Your opinion of him matters much more, most of the time, than ours does. You are less likely to face danger, and more likely to be heard, than we are. That doesn’t mean we’re lumping you in with him, or making you responsible for his behavior. It’s just that we’d like for there to not be any reason to keep having these discussions, too. And we think we hear you saying you’d like the same thing. And this is one possible way that you can help.

Can you face some repercussions for speaking up? Sure. People don’t generally like being called on their shit. You may face ridicule, or ostracism. They may question your masculinity. But if they’re the type of guy who believes that caring about other people makes you somehow less manly, why in the world would you want to maintain those friendships? You know, we face those issues too, when we call them out. On top of that, we face accusations of being irrational, moody, having our period, being bitches, being cunts, being too sensitive. We face possible harassment, stalking, threats of bodily harm or death, or actual bodily harm.

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them” – Margaret Atwood

Last, realize that, though #YesAllWomen isn’t about you, this is your issue, too. Jackson Katz has spoken about this far more eloquently than I can, so I’m going to drop his wonderful TED talk in, here. (I know, you’ve probably seen this link before, and not clicked on it, not watched the whole thing. I’m asking you, please,take the time to watch it from beginning to end. The message is so very important, and if you care about the people who are being hurt by this, you need to see it.)

Violence against women is a men’s issue

TL:DR

Yes, we know it isn’t all men. Telling us that, in the middle of the conversation, doesn’t convince anyone that it isn’t you.