CW: Sexual assault. The intended audience of this letter does not include recent trauma survivors. My heart is first and foremost with you.
Almost a year ago now, my Facebook newsfeed was flooded with “Me, too” statuses written to draw awareness to the scope and magnitude of sexual violence in our culture. I have grappled with whether or not to publish this letter, and ultimately decided it is an important piece of the puzzle. I revised this today, because I’ve done a lot of critical thinking in the past ten months. This letter is the result of that emotional labor, labor that, for me, resulted in more freedom and more lightness of being. For that, I am proud of myself. Disclaimer: In this letter, I focus on the endemic nature of male rape culture specifically. To all survivors, no matter your gender or the gender of your assaulter: I believe you.
A few Saturdays ago, after a party, no one knew where you went. I found you absolutely plastered in a mutual friend’s bedroom, half passed out. He had lent you his bed for the afternoon. I sat on the edge of the bed and asked how you were doing. You put your arms around me and pulled me down so I was laying on top of you. You sloppily rubbed my back and face. You felt sad and lonely, so I lay there and affirmed your feelings. I didn’t want to make you feel worse than you already did by pushing you away even though I felt uncomfortable. When I tried to get up, you grabbed the strap of my tank top and pulled me back down.
Had we not had a recent conversation about the platonic nature of our friendship, I would have been terrified. Had you been a stranger or a new friend or a boss, I would have been terrified. I eventually managed to pull your arms off of me so I could sit up, bring you a glass of water, watch to make sure you didn’t choke or spill on yourself while you drank it and insist you go back to sleep.
This is rape culture. This, and you, are how rape, assault and sexual objectification happen. The #MeToo movement shocked and appalled many people in my life, who posited the question, sometimes directly to me, “Where do these awful men come from?”
Rapists do not come crawling from the gutters, eager to ravage people. Rapists are not born; they are made. They are constructed by the cultural expectations they feel.
Rape culture begins by emotionally isolating men like you. Rape culture has taught you that female emotional intimacy must always be convoluted by potentially complicated sexual expectations. It has taught you that male emotional intimacy can be perceived as gay and as cause to be bullied and ostracized. It has taught you that attaining sexually and romantically intimate relationships with women is the only way for you to experience emotional intimacy without sacrificing your masculinity. It has also taught you that your validity as a man depends on your ability to obtain relationships with particularly beautiful (the capitalist, racist, cis-hetero, American standard of “beautiful”) women.
You have been programmed to scan every room you enter for legs, thinness, whiteness, breasts and hair. You see sex objects first and women second. Throughout our friendship, you have asked me, “Is she single?,” upon the sight of almost every woman you have encountered who meets your criteria. I’m neither blaming you entirely nor seeking to excuse your behavior. Unfortunately, you’re far from alone.
We all take cues from our environment, and sexual objectification permeates every nook and cranny of our culture. It is hard to see people before seeing sex objects when every ad we encounter features legs, thinness, whiteness, breasts and smooth, shiny hair. To make matters worse—to make matters violent—ads and movies also teach us that sexual aggression is the means through which people obtain relationships with women. These expectations have been deeply ingrained in your psyche. They have been ingrained in mine, too, and I fight them every day. I have struggled for years to see myself as a person first, and legs, thinness, whiteness, breasts and smooth, shiny hair second. I fight every day for my agency. I continually battle the internalized notion that I am meant to be passive.
The day after you were physically aggressive with me, you texted me, sad and wanting to talk. You told me you had done regretful things the night before. You told me you had gone to your fraternity house and drank more. You told me you had hooked up with someone. You told me you were worried you might have crossed a line and made her uncomfortable. Based on your total lack of memory that you had done anything to make me feel uncomfortable that day, I have no doubt that you did cross a line with whomever you even slightly remember making uncomfortable. I neither want to be a passive bystander, nor take a story that is not mine and make assumptions, but you left me with one half of a story—the half of the potential perpetrator. You left me grappling with your hazy uncertainty. You left me wondering what to do. I write because I feel it is necessary to say something to you. I write because I’m sure I am not alone in struggling to determine my role in ending this abhorrent violence, as the friend of a potential perpetrator.
Remembering this encounter was hard for you. Hard because of the alcohol, and hard because you were in disbelief that you could have assaulted or did assault someone. I know it is not easy to own up to being a source of hurt.
Frankly, though, I’m realizing my empathy is not enough. If you, despite your best efforts, find it difficult to prevent yourself from assaulting people, I do not know how to be in your life. I do not know how I can negotiate my emotional boundaries with you. When you prioritize your own feelings, you put me and others in a position of having to justify your wrongful actions to you.
Understanding the line between platonic intimacy and sexual aggression may be difficult for you, asking for consent more than once may feel strange to you, and rejection is painful, but assaulting someone is unacceptable. I feel like an enabler if I empathize with your difficulty to repress sexually aggressive urges.
If, on the other hand, I drop you as a friend, I still feel like an enabler because I can no longer talk to you about consent and about the pressure you feel. I can no longer work through your problems with you. I recognize that this is not my job, especially as a sexual assault survivor, but honestly, I worry that if I don’t step up to work with you on this, no one else will, and you’ve proven to me through your words and actions that you are incapable of doing the work on your own.
No matter what I do in this situation, there will be hurt. You will suffer if you feel your complicity in rape culture. You worry your complicity brands you as a bad person, incapable of change. Acknowledging your complicity, however, is not acknowledging something inherent in you; it is acknowledging your responsibility to own up to your actions and to do better. I will suffer whether or not you acknowledge your complicity, because you have left me with the reality that one of my most trusted friends can be and was sexually violent.
If you don’t acknowledge your complicity, the burden of this truth falls entirely on my shoulders. I am left not knowing how to tell our mutual friends that I no longer feel comfortable around you. I am left not knowing whether it would be a breach of your privacy, or more importantly, the privacy of whomever you likely assaulted, to do so. I suffer when it becomes my responsibility to educate you with extreme sensitivity and understanding, or else risk the loss of your willingness to listen. I also suffer from the fear that, if I don’t take on the task of educating you, you will assault someone.
The work of confronting your sexual violence is hard and we both will feel pain; there is no way around that.
I was assaulted in high school by a boy who probably to this day does not know he assaulted me. I have recently come to terms with the idea that he likely had no malicious intent. He likely was under a tremendous amount of sexual pressure because he was taught to be insecure in his adolescent masculinity, taught that if he wasn’t hooking up and having sex with girls, he was behind or falling behind. He was taught, through media and peer pressure and cultural norms, that not hooking up would make him less of a man. Being perceived as less of a man could mean social ostracization, especially in high school. It could mean being less likely to receive opportunities for real, not forced, intimacy—intimacy so many of us crave. The night he assaulted me, he must have felt scared. He must have felt his emotional safety and security at risk. In trying to secure safety and belonging for himself, he took a piece of mine.
You might abhor sexually aggressive qualities in yourself. You might be trying your hardest. Sometimes trying is not enough.
I know asking for consent sometimes feels like a sexual buzzkill for you because you told me it does. It doesn’t have to, but our public school system does not teach adolescents sex-positive consent, so I understand why that knowledge might be new to you.
I know that when you explicitly ask for consent, you worry you’re more likely to be rejected than when you just act, and I know this feels scary to you. But the alternative to being rejected is not sex; it is sexual assault. It is sometimes rape. I know you do not want to assault. You want physical intimacy. You want human connection.
I do not want to publicly name you in such a way that you might be cut off from emotionally fulfilling relationships. I do not want to accuse you of having done something you did not do. Still, I fear speaking honestly about exactly what you did with me and said to me. I fear speaking honestly about the fact that you could have assaulted and likely did assault someone. I do not want you to feel branded as threatening.
But I’m being told, through accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s assaults, that this is also how rape culture happens—that my refusal to name you or speak openly about this makes me complicit.
What do we do when people we know and love are responsible for rape culture? Can we ethically judge people who are formed within a culture that purports toxic masculinity as the only way for them to obtain worth? Do we ostracize men who are assaulters or potential assaulters, and how many people must they have assaulted before we act? How do we negotiate the extent to which we empathize and the extent to which we push away? How do we know which tactic will be more helpful in preventing further assaults on our bodies and the bodies of loved ones? How do we know what will result in the least emotional damage to ourselves and the least disparity in emotional labor among genders? I do not wish to excuse violence, but easy answers evade me here.
I do not know how best to help you in your fight against your own sexual aggression, or if I should feel guilty for wanting to help you at all. I do not know how to prioritize my own feelings, as a survivor of sexual assault, in this situation.
You are not responsible for the culture that raised you. Neither am I. But both of us are responsible for its reproduction. I know it is not my responsibility to educate you, empathize with you, or to single handedly fix this. Ultimately though, this becomes your responsibility and my responsibility, or else rape culture continues. I am not asking you isolate yourself or to rid yourself of sexually aggressive and objectifying urges overnight, but I am asking you to deliberately and persistently fight those urges. I am asking you to recognize the context through which sexually predatory instincts arise. I am asking you to own up to your actions, instead of putting your emotional labor and your shame on others. I am asking you to not assault. I am asking you to try, as hard as you can, to intuit through empathy when you’re making people uncomfortable, and to err on the side of not making people uncomfortable, even when that feels isolating or difficult for you. Because when I am the one who is made uncomfortable, I feel violated.
So many of us have no choice but to expend emotional energy every day negotiating this problem. We continually reflect on our complicity in this culture and our responsibility to prevent sexual violence. This work is necessary, and it is your privilege to have led much of your life unaware of its existence. If you truly wish to stand with survivors, I impel you to join us.