There is a number of great #MeToo posts this week, all warmly recommended. For me, an older straight white male who grew up in a non-Western society, the issues of sexual harassment were nowhere on the list of the topics that bothered me growing up. No one groped me, no one tried to force sex on me, no one talked to me about being sexually abused. I knew, theoretically, that rape was a thing somewhere, mostly in the books and in a far away reality, but certainly not in the life I or my friends or classmates were living. It was sort of like homosexuality. Or mental illness. (Only much later had I learned how misguided those assumptions were.) The prevailing attitudes toward sex were quite paternalistic: men pursue, women play hard to get, and only by pushing hard on the automatic and expected “No” you can ever get to an implied, though almost never verbalized “Yes”. At least that was the stereotype. But that’s the thing about stereotypes, they are generalizations from common experiences. Often unjust and sweeping generalizations, to be sure, but not without a basis. And so I would like to write a post about #MeToo from the other side of the experience.
Not that I had been groping every girl on my path. Far from it. I did not have a girlfriend until I was 21, and we got married soon after and stayed married for over 30 years. But, looking back, there were at least a couple of incidents I remember, that in today’s world would count as violations of consent, or worse. I remember a roommate on a week-long river cruise when I was probably 17 or so, whom I had tried to touch and didn’t stop after the first “No”. The unfortunate one-time encounter lasted maybe a minute in total, and, from what she told me later, she was rather used to refusing unwelcome advances, so hopefully it was not anything traumatic to her. But I cannot be sure. The thing about trauma-causing events is that the person, or, dare I say, the victim, may not even realize the severity of it in the moment. It can take time for the emotional trauma to express itself. Or an ostensibly minor event can turn into the proverbial last straw. I have no way of knowing.
To be fair, no adult ever talked to me about proper and safe “courting protocols”. There were no sex ed classes, my parents and grandparents pretended that sex did not exist, and that I was found in a cabbage patch. I did not learn that “fucking,” a dirty shameful activity, was related to procreation until I was maybe 12. I did not know what to expect from puberty, and my very first ejaculation was a surprising and weird experience, and it took some thinking for me to eventually connect the dots. Similarly, relating to other people’s feelings was not something that came to me naturally, or was being taught in school or anywhere else. And I was certainly not an exception there, but rather the norm. So, in retrospect, it is not at all surprising that my emotional development was a little bit stunted. And so was the ability to understand how my actions may affect another person’s feelings. Incidentally, this trouble predicting another person’s feelings pretty quickly became an issue in my marriage, and flared up from time to time, and contributed to the eventual breakup. To be fair, once again, my feelings were habitually invalidated, and at the time I did not even know that invalidating one’s feelings was not how things were supposed to be, and certainly did not have the vocabulary to describe what was going on, or what I was feeling. It’s just how things were.
I recall a couple of other situations in my late teens where my behavior was pushing instead of asking for consent. I wish it didn’t happen. I wish I knew better. I wish I gave it some thought ahead of time instead of going with the flow (of blood to my penis) in the moment. I like to think that that was all, but human memory is a fickle thing, and I may well have forgotten something that the other party could have remembered for a long time.
And if this wasn’t bad enough, here is the controversial part. I do not blame myself for what happened. I do not feel guilty. I can’t even say that I feel ashamed. I regret it, definitely, but, knowing what I knew then, feeling what I was feeling then, being the person I was then, I understand why I was acting a certain way. I would certainly apologize profusely and sincerely if one of the people… uh… let’s call a spade a spade, one of the… victims confronted me and told me that my behavior hurt them. I would not make excuses like “everyone was behaving that way” or “that was nothing” or anything similarly lame and self-serving. I would feel empathy for them, and try to do what I could to help. Yet I would not feel guilty. My partner often comments on my refusal or inability to feel guilt for any of my actions that may have proven harmful but had no harmful intent. My guess is that this particular boundary comes from having been made feel guilty for something that wasn’t my fault for years and years by the people around me and close to me. My grandmother. My mother. My ex. But that’s a topic for another post.
And now, having written all that, I might get even more controversial. I realize now that, when it comes to sex, my consent has on occasion been violated, as well, though not overtly. More than a few times I was not feeling it when my partner was, but had to go along with their wishes to avoid them making a passive aggressive scene by picking on an unrelated topic to relieve their sexual frustration. Eventually I had learned to push away whatever was on my mind and focus on them and their pleasure, in order to “force” the mood, as it were. High sex drive helped, of course. But the lingering resentment of being manipulated into sex persisted. It is nowhere near the trauma that real sexual assault survivors go through, not even close. There is no comparison. I just wish for the world where no one would be forced into sex, being subjected to non-consensual encounters of any kind, or manipulated into participating in one. But this is not the world we live in. And, while in many areas we have advanced far from the days of my youth, and, thanks in large part to the #MeToo movement, the consent violations by those in the position of power are much harder to get away with, a lot of work still remains until everyone feels safe to be who they are. And some of this work starts by looking into the mirror and noticing one’s own blackface.