I’m frequently silent due to a fear of being wrong.
It can be a virtue, when it comes to opinions and ideas: religious, political, philosophical, or otherwise. I like to believe it helps me find my answers in listening, reason, and evidence, and not confirmation bias. I like to think it prevents me from missing truth by sitting obdurately in my wrongness and being wrong (to borrow a phrase from both a friend and the good President Jed Barlet). I like to assume that it keeps me from wasting my lungs angrily defending my own foolish id.
Unfortunately, like essentially everything in this universe, this trait can be a negative, a hindrance, a personal failing.
Allow me to say that whether by way of the virtue or the failing, I’m afraid to say what I’m about to say here.
I’m scared and I’m sick and I’m exhausted by the story that’s been up, down, and backwards on my newsfeed the last three days. I feel a little broken reading any more about the former Stanford swimmer, the sentence, the event, the “action”.
It’s all ugly, and I’m not sure that there’s anything I can say that hasn’t already been said by more capable hands or tongues. The survivor’s statement alone is a tour de force, a redoubtable call to arms, and I wish her healing, happiness, autonomy, independence and any freedom she can find from the whole of it.
In all that has been said, there’s one idea that sticks, that drags my thoughts into a nauseous orbit: this is a normal kid. This guy probably thought and thinks of himself as a nice guy. His father clearly did and does. This is the kind of guy I know. This is the kind of guy I’ve had classes with, talked to, been on dates with. Reading all of it gives me the peculiar impression that this kid, particularly as he made that decision one January night, thought of himself doing something that was roughly the equivalent of pirating media.
I mean that as an absolutely direct metaphor. There seems to be this sense that this particular kind of rape (where both parties are drunk, but one is much more so) is technically “wrong”, but come on, demands the universe. Is it such a big deal? Artists like people listening to their music, don’t they? This is one time and one song and it’s on Youtube anyway. People like having sex, don’t they? If this girl was willing to dance with him, follow him there*, but she passed out before anything good happened*, and to top it all off he was drunk and couldn’t control himself, is it really such a big deal if he continued what they started?
The analogy continues in that both offenses are accepted as being so ubiquitous as to make it possible for them to be done with impunity. Drunk people have sex all the time and it generally isn’t called rape and charges aren’t filed. So she passed out – drunk people do that, too. People steal music all the time, but come on, does anyone, ever, really ever get caught for that?
This – “but is it really THAT bad?” – sings like a discordant overtone through the father’s letter, through the media references to the perpetrator’s bright future, through the rapist’s intent to give campus seminars on sobriety.
If the father thought his son was guilty of something that was the equivalent of illegally downloading music or buying movies off the street, sure, he’d write with sorrow about the change in his son’s demeanor at having to be branded for the rest of his life as a terrible criminal. If a judge felt that this was essentially the same thing as a Napster account, sure, six months in county jail would seem to be more than enough, and after all, hasn’t this kid suffered enough? Look at what he’s capable of, why would we take that away from him over this?
They believe it wasn’t that bad. He believed it wasn’t that bad.
I don’t have another explanation for how a normal kid can look something like rape in the face and choose it, even if he’s drunk. Even if he’s THAT drunk. This girl was out cold with him very much conscious on top of her when he was yelled at by passing students. He tried to run – some part of his brain registering this as at least technically wrong – but he was clearly undeterred by the technical wrongness of his actions until involved witnesses appeared.
From Mary Pipher: “Young men need to be socialized in such a way that rape is as unthinkable to them as cannibalism.” I think we’re making some very slow progress on this front – most well-adjusted people, to the best of my knowledge, would not perform an act they would categorize as rape. The problem is that I’m not sure that at any point that night this kid ever thought of what he was doing as rape. The fact that it was just continuing an action that began when the subject was conscious* made it the equivalent, to Brock Turner, of Limewire, of Winamp, of Kazaa, but not of rape.
It would be one thing if all I had to fear were men actively intending to harm me. It’s quite another to know that a relatively normal man can treat a woman like a blow-up doll and not fully realize what he’s done, and that his father cannot seem to grasp the enormity of his son’s actions, and that after more than a year of trial in criminal court, a judge can hand down a sentence that I can only describe as one leaving room to believe that this kid made an honest mistake.
I’m so miserably, horrifically scared.
It scares me more that I see it in my own life. I grew up Mormon, and some 95% of the guys I’ve kissed have been Mormon. There’s plenty on the continuum of handshakes to sex that I haven’t experienced, and generally, religion has made it a foregone conclusion that intercourse is off the table and another forty degrees of longitude away.
I mentioned my fear of speaking up when I’m wrong. I’ve wondered sometimes, when men have tried things I wasn’t comfortable with, if it would be wrong to stop them. I’ve had my lips on someone’s face with my brain performing the cost-benefit analysis of having to argue that whatever they were doing was bad enough to demand cessation. Obvious infractions I’d stop. Anything that made me uncomfortable that I couldn’t make a good argument for being “wrong”, I’d let them continue. Always, I was surprised that they didn’t seem to think that their action was as wrong as I thought it was. Always, I was surprised that their attempts to take things further than I wanted were so nonchalant as to seem subconscious. Their confidence cemented my silence.
You can argue, of course, that it’s my fault such things happened if I did nothing at all to stop them.
Within the last six months, I kissed a guy. He was a returned missionary – someone I knew when he was a missionary, in fact. I heard him say more than once that he’d never sworn in his life. I saw him warn on Facebook that parents shouldn’t take their kids to Deadpool. I texted him late one night knowing that he’d want to kiss me for the first and last time that night and intending to do so.
It didn’t matter how hard I pulled on his wandering hands; he put them wherever he wanted to. It didn’t matter how emphatically I pressed his hips away from mine – the tendons in his forearms stood out as he pulled me closer to him anyway. I’m only lucky that he had no intention of doing more than that.
I wondered if I was wrong. I was bound and gagged in my uncertainty. This was a normal kid, a funny kid, a nice kid. There was no way he didn’t feel me dragging his hands off my person. There wasn’t a chance he was unaware of it. But. But. It was absolutely obvious from his actions that he was thinking of this as something we both agreed to and something that his physiology and the situation demanded, and that what he was doing was a kind of persuasion intended to change my mind. I was unnerved and undone and I felt powerless. I shrank from the idea of being called crazy or prudish if I said something – heaven forbid, if I used all the pretty colorful words I’d have liked to – when he so clearly thought it wasn’t a big deal. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal, because he didn’t think it was.
The next day, this guy posted a picture of his four sisters on Facebook, saying, “I’ve never posted a #WCW but I figured it would only be fitting if I threw a shout out to all of my beautiful and lovely sisters! How blessed I am to have 4 sisters to have to worry about and be the protective brother over. They are 4 of the biggest blessings I have in my life! Love you guys ❤ :)”
If this note ever found its way onto his screen, I’m fairly confident that the only way he’d know I was talking about him is that specific quote. I’m not sure that even reading it as I’ve written it would make him aware of the crevasse of irony between that post and his behavior with me.
These guys don’t fully know. They don’t fully understand. They act the way they do because they don’t think “rape”, they think, “eh, probably shouldn’t, but whatever.” Their judges and parents and partners see that misunderstanding and think that it’s tantamount to an excuse – or worse, perhaps judges/parents/partners too, think, “eh, he probably shouldn’t have, but whatever.”
Uglier still, perhaps the reason we have this cultural idea that women flagrantly throw around false rape accusations is because the men on the receiving end never ever thought what they were doing was rape. “Like, yeah, she passed out when we were having sex, but I didn’t rape her.” “Yeah, she was hella drunk, but she was flirting with me, I didn’t rape her.”
What – what – can we do as a society to prevent this from happening?
What can we do to teach more clearly the line between rape and consent?
What can we do to teach that cajoling until someone gives in or pressing until someone gives up is absolutely unacceptable?
What can we do to teach that no amount of horny is an excuse for ignoring an indication that someone doesn’t want physical contact – even if you don’t and aren’t planning to have sex?
What can we do to teach that sex with or penetration of someone too drunk to consent is solidly in the realm of malum in se – wrong in and of itself – and not just malum prohibitum – wrong because someone made a law saying it is?
That it’s not wrong only if you get caught?
That it’s not wrong only if someone other than the girl you touched told you it was?
I’m out of answers. I’m out of energy. I’m miserable, frankly.
But I’m done being silent out of fear of being wrong.
*I’m aware that these details represent conjecture on my part. I wanted to examine this case with the kind of what-ifs and what-abouts that I’ve seen so often discussed regarding rape, both here and elsewhere (i.e. “what if she really did say yes at some point before passing out” “what if he didn’t know how drunk she was” “what if she only passed out half-way through” “what about the fact that she was drunk” “what about the fact that they danced together”, etc.).