Sexual assault, things we do, and who we are
I'll start with a story, something that really happened though I changed the names and some details for anonymity. Ella was good friends with a couple, Bob and Cate, and they flirted and kissed. Sometimes they attended the same sex and BDSM parties and scened with each other. One time, years ago, at such a party, Ella was having sex with someone and Bob came over. While she was giving the other guy head, Bob went down on her after what he thought was a nonverbal okay from her to join in. Ella actually would've rather he didn't, but she didn't think she minded much and she was having too much fun to interrupt what she was doing and tell him to stop, so she just enjoyed herself and let it go. Later, however, she realized that it was more of a problem for her than she knew at the time, and it made her feel icky and a little bit violated. Wanting to keep her friendship with Bob healthy, she told him about it. Not only did Bob get defensive, but Cate really freaked out. She seemed to interpret this as an attack, an accusation that Bob was a bad person, and she knew he wasn't! They weren't able to reconcile this and the friendship fizzled.
It's been on my mind lately, partly due to attending the "Addressing Sexual Harassment in Our Communities" panel at Arisia and the hours of fascinating post-panel conversation with a few people. Not long after Arisia, a friend told me about finding out from someone close to her that, a long time ago, she'd had sex with the person thinking it was consensual when actually this person did not want to and wasn't able to tell her so and just went along with it. I've long known that it's possible that I've done something like that sometime in my past, despite trying to be very careful never to do so, and I might've really hurt someone, and if it has happened, I may never know. In fact, after that post-panel discussion, I told one of the people I'd been talking about one instance where I worried, after the fact, that I might've made a mistake and crossed someone's boundaries even though the interaction seemed good while it was happening. It's on my mind because I know that any of us - including most of you who read this - may possibly have done this to someone, and may never know for sure.
My reason for writing this post is my belief that our very efforts to combat harassment and assault and rape are exacerbating this aspect of the problem, and I want to explain why, and what we can change to stop doing this. Here's another anecdote to help me illustrate what I'm about to say...
A guy I know, Ian (again a pseudonym), is thoughtful and gregarious and well liked in his group of friends. Once, someone new in that social circle told someone else in that social circle about getting into a conversation with Ian at a party, where due to his body language and mannerisms, he effectively backed her into a corner where she felt she could not easily get away, and it made her feel uncomfortable and a bit scared. Although he responded well upon finding out, and apologized, and said he didn't intend that and would pay more attention in the future to try to avoid making someone feel trapped at a party like that, getting the message from her to him was challenging. In the ensuing discussion, I noticed and pointed out an element that I thought was problematic: the use of the term predator, and the idea of identifying someone who did something bad as "someone who does bad things". I made the analogy to the way conservatives like to label "someone who crossed a border without authorization or who overstayed their visa" with "an illegal" - it's not about a thing they did, it's about who they are.
Now I want to be clear: there are sexual predators. They exist, and talking about them is important. We have studies and surveys that begin to help us understand some things about them, and one piece of the emerging picture is that while predators are a relatively small subset of the population, they repeat what they do so often, and are able to get away with it so easily, that they account for a very large proportion of assaults and rapes. So we do need to pay attention to them and figure out ways to disarm them.
However, another piece of the emerging picture is that the large majority of people who assault - not necessarily the majority of incidents, but the majority of people who do it - are not repeat predators. Many of them, and possibly even most, are clueless, or naive, or even good thoughtful people who made a mistake that one time. It's them who I'm writing this post about. By which I mean, it's us who I'm writing this post about.
While some people avoid the issue or don't think about it much, some of us want to make an active effort to prevent this from happening - and we can. We can learn, and pay attention, and adjust how we act, and greatly reduce the probability of hurting someone in this way in a sexual or intimate interaction, or violating their boundaries. We can't reduce it all the way to 0, though. And worse: there's an obstacle that many of us put in our own path towards preventing: Our dichotomy of predators vs. good people.
In this dichotomy, those who rape or assault or harass are the bad ones, the predators, the creeps; those who are good, who are working to prevent rape and assault and harassment, they don't do it. Ergo, if someone does it, they're in that first set - it's not something they did, it's how we identify them. chaiya rather powerfully presented at the Arisia panel the dissonance and conflict caused when one of our friends is revealed to have done something like that, and we feel like we have to mentally reclassify them into the bad set in order to deal with it. That is why it was so hard to tell Ian about the relatively minor mistake he made at that party, and why the discussion around it was so fraught.
Bob and Cate got caught in this trap. They didn't hear Ella telling them about a mistake Bob made, so that he'd know and correct for it; they heard Ella accusing Bob of being a creep and a rapist, and they recoiled. They strove to redefine what happened rather than redefine Bob. Since Bob and Ella had a pattern of sexy play together, and she seemed inviting at the time, and she could easily have objected and he certainly would've heeded her objection, it couldn't have been a serious transgression, right? Lost on them was the fact that Ella actually wasn't claiming it was a serious transgression; she accepted it as an honest mistake by a well meaning person who she wanted to remain friends with, but they didn't seem able to see that. Our dichotomy of goodguys and predators doesn't leave any room for something being both "unwanted sexual contact" and "honest mistake by well meaning person". Since those two things cannot overlap, Ella's insistence that this was in fact unwanted sexual contact was a horrifying accusation they rejected wholly.
Which is a common and understandable reaction, and possibly the biggest reason why Ella was the exception; most people in her situation don't tell. Whether they understand this reason for it directly or not, they know on some level that telling isn't likely to lead to anything good, most of the time. It'll be awkward, possibly scary; they'll offend people, and they'll lose friends, and they won't be easily believed. Someone who hears this kind of thing needs to be skeptical of the complaint in order to avoid being forced to think of themselves or their accused friend as a creep or a predator. The way we talk about these issues forces that choice on them, one or the other: either your friend (or you) are a monster, or the complaint has to be minimized and dismissed.
You can see how this makes it harder for us to improve. Harder for us to learn how to better prevent making mistakes that hurt other people. When we're not ready to hear about what we've done wrong, and about what our friends and colleagues have done wrong, we coerce those who know - those who've been hurt - into not telling people about it. Then we don't learn from it, and we're more likely to do it again, and still not realize it.
Another anecdote. Recently in a group discussion, a friend commended me in everyone's hearing for the time that she and I were in bed together, turned on and both wanting each other, and I told her that I would not have sex with her because her consent seemed ambiguous to me, and I was not convinced that she knew how to say no. It's something I've done a number of times with a number of potential partners, actually. In telling people about it she was sending a few messages to the group. Among those messages, intentionally, she was letting them know that I take extra care about consent and that I'm safe. [Edit: another overt message is "here's something you too could do", a way of both praising and describing good practices.] Unintentionally, she was making it even harder for anyone to whom this message spread to ever tell me, or any of my friends, about any occasion in which I didn't take enough care and got it wrong. Because they know that other people may perceive me as safe and good to a greater than normal extent, they also know that it's even less safe to make accusations about me to people who have that impression. People who will go further to protect their idea of me, by attacking someone who says something that would redefine me. In other words, I'm in a position of power - part of it unsought and mine by default, and part of it legitimately earned through actions and effort over time - and that position of power stands as an obstacle that can prevent me from finding out the very things that would help me improve.
I certainly didn't always know that when someone initiates sexual activity and says "yes", and I really want to have sex, it's possible that she is conflicted and following through would hurt her. It's something I learned, as an adult, after I'd already had sex many times with several people. I'm glad I learned it, and I know it has helped me prevent harm, but learning it also lets me understand how I might have caused harm in the past in situations where I would not have understood that it was even possible. What's more, I'm still learning. I'm still getting better at this. Which means, I'm quite sure, that there are things I don't yet know.
Going on this learning journey requires understanding that we all have some power, to varying degrees, to harm people, and that our responsibility isn't to be innocent. What we actually want to do is connect with people, and have sex, and have powerful and positive sexual and intimate interactions, and at the same time prevent to the best of our ability the harm that we risk when pursuing those things; harm both to ourselves and to others. We need to learn what our power is, and what it can cause, and strategies for mitigating risk and preventing harm. We can't do that if being innocent of wrongdoing is our goal, because the only way to be sure to be innocent is to be ignorant.
For the past few paragraphs I've been talking about people who actively want to learn, and the obstacles that this predator/goodguy dichotomy causes for such people. But it's the people who aren't actively trying who are at much higher risk of harming their partners and others, and the obstacles we're creating are much higher when it comes to getting through to them. Innocence through ignorance is the common defense against being a creep, predator, or rapist, when it comes to people's personal identity. If they don't know their power and they don't understand what mistakes they might make, they can keep their self-image on the good side of that hard line, the side where they've never done "it", where the monsters are other people.
People go to great lengths to protect this innocence through ignorance, and I believe that's the main reason why there's so much resistance to education about sexual assault and rape, and to many related parts of feminism as well. Particularly when it comes to gender relations (though not just when it comes to gender relations), a lot of this is about the power men have and how it hurts women. In order to accept this, men have to accept the idea that they do have this power - even though they didn't consciously seek it - and the possibility that through this power, they have in fact hurt women, though they may not have intended it. Going down that path leads to the thoughts I talked about above, and they're not comfortable. If you're steeped in a predator/goodguy dichotomoy, going down that path is not possible, because you'd have to re-classify yourself as the predator. Most people will never do that. So they have to defend themselves, just as Bob and Cate did, and as Ian's friend's struggled with, and for a lot of people, that defense means rejecting the whole cluster of associated ideas.
To put it another way, if my goal is to be innocent, and someone tells me I violated someone's boundary when I didn't think I'd done that, my priority is to dismiss that claim, because I know I meant well and I know I'm good. Hearing what I did wrong will threaten that image of myself. It's only when I know that I can mean well and be good and still fuck up and that doesn't create a new identity for me, and when my goal is not to be innocent but to learn how to do better, that I can hear what they're telling me and learn from it and adjust accordingly for the future.
If we want to move forward, I believe we must reorient how we talk about these issues, not only to accept that someone who does a bad thing isn't automatically a predator, but to actively encourage the thought that most people who do these bad things are good people who need to hear constructively about what they did and how to avoid repeating it. At the same time, we need to still be clear that some people are predators, and they repeat these actions without changing, but that it takes more than an occasional mistake to cross that line of identity - it takes a pattern. We need to create space, both in ourselves and in our communities, to welcome hearing about these mistakes, apologize for them, learn from them, and change what we do to avoid repeating the same ones... without that preventing us from calling out actual predatory behavior. We've been focusing a lot on the latter, and it's understandable, because it's been a hard thing to do; predators have a lot of social support. But while working hard on improving one side of the problem, I think we're making the other side worse, so let's think about how to integrate our approach and move forward on both.
Edit: Several commenters are getting from my post ideas about there being a range rather than black/white, and that's part of it, but my real emphasis is the distinction between talking about actions and how to change them, vs. labeling people and treating actions as identity.