Lizard Women

Lizard*Enormous trigger warning.*

One of my favorite conspiracy theory sub-types is the idea that powerful figures – Hillary Clinton is a favorite in this genre – are actually strange, humanoid lizards wearing people skin suits. It’s just ludicrous enough to be hilarious, harmless, incontrovertibly false to any reasonable person.

A little over a year ago, though, I found myself engaging with the concept in a new way. I found myself wishing that somehow I had the capacity to unzip my face and pull it from the nape of my neck and over my scalp to reveal scales, teeth, flat nostrils.  I added details from childhood nightmares, pictures on book jackets, horror films – row upon row of teeth serrated like steak knives; eyes with serpentine pupils; jaws dripping venom, the latter preferably some unpleasant shade of chartreuse.

Imagine, I considered, the possibility of unzipping that face to a man. Not harming him – not even touching him at all – but watching him step back in disgust, in terror, in fear. He would know on sight that he had no hope of escaping or overpowering the lizard woman. Perhaps he’d lose control over some or all of his person at the unexpected grotesquerie of it all.  He might freeze, hoping that he wasn’t about to meet an untimely and entirely gruesome end. After a few eternal seconds for him, I’d zip my face together and depart untouched.

He, on the other hand, would be haunted forever. The face would appear in his nightmares. He’d imagine it following him in the dark. He would wonder if each and every one of the women he met hid the same lethal-looking maxillary teeth for as long as he lived. Every interaction alone would hold some measure of uncertainty.

He probably would take the secret to his grave too, never telling a soul.

Lizard Women aren’t real, you see, so no one would believe him.

Undoubtedly, most readers have at some point in the last few paragraphs asked themselves what the hell kind of sociopath thinks like this. A fair question.

I met the man who would ultimately spur these thoughts in my classes in grad school. He knew and was friends with people I knew, he worked in my department. He seemed a little ridiculous to me, but that wasn’t unusual. When he was pushy about my boundaries on our first two dates, both times meeting up at his apartment, this too did not seem unusual.  I’d grown up Mormon, and the only Mormon man I kissed that I remember being truly respectful of boundaries – the one who didn’t so much as try things I wasn’t comfortable with, much less try them twice after being initially rebuffed – was the one I later discovered liked men.

This grad school man, the one in my department, knew I had been Mormon, and he knew I hadn’t had sex before.

I reminded him all the time. I reminded him at every interaction, clearly and unambiguously, that we were absolutely, under no circumstances, never at all, going to have sex.  We had two dates where I played goalie for my own body quite a bit, but he seemed uninterested in pushing for the final score (sports metaphors are fun, aren’t they).

Our third date began with the same. I remember repeating again, early on, that I would not have sex with him, and even asking him to confirm verbally that he understood and could accept that. He did.  Not half an hour later, he laid himself on me using the at least 60 pounds by which he outweighed me, and he physically initiated sex. I told him to stop. He tried again. I told him to stop. He tried again. I stopped telling him to stop.

I was entirely sober for each date and every moment.

The things I recall believing about this incident after – for months after – seem extraordinary to me now. I believed I had consented because I stopped telling him no. I believed it was normal that I bled (because virgins lol amiright).  I believed that there was no point in refusing him again. I believed I would be an inexcusable liar for using the deep ugly sickness I felt regarding it to tell – well, to report to – someone what had happened to me. I believed that I would be one of those girls who ruins peoples lives out of regret.

One thing I believe then that I still believe now: this man did not at any point consider that what he was doing was wrong at all. This man, if accused of doing what I said he did, would not only deny it but be entirely baffled that I would accuse him of such a thing. This would partially because what he was doing was clearly unremarkable to him at the time, and no one remembers the unremarkable.

I told two friends who lived far away, a man and a woman. The man, with whom I would subsequently have a relationship and much later still would learn had multiple girlfriends during our relationship, asked me why I went to this apartment in the first place. I didn’t have an answer. I felt like a moron – a slut and a moron. I reminded myself again that reporting this man would harm him unfairly for what was ultimately my own breech of judgment.

I told a therapist I had in Baltimore, downplaying the man’s clear refusal to pay attention to what I asked (because I must have been egging him on for him to act this way, and I didn’t want to privilege my side of the story), and playing up the fact that I stopped saying no (because again, who could blame him for interpreting that the way he did). She told me that we should delve into the fact that my Mormon shame about sex had clearly colored the encounter, making me think of it unfairly negatively. I disagreed with her analysis, but I doubted my credibility and my self-knowledge, so I said nothing. She had the degree, and I did not.

Because he and I were in the same department, word got around quickly that we’d been involved, despite my telling no one. Most people seemed to think it was funny, with friends joking with me about how absurd he was, and how we all spend time with regrettable people. Someone asked me whether he was good in bed. I began to learn about his generally ghastly behavior, which included childish brags about picking up women more than a decade his junior and claiming that girls hit a peak of attractiveness at 18 or 19 and become less appealing every year after. I told none of my friends who lived in Baltimore.

Despite the fact that I went home for my first grad school Christmas just days after it happened, I didn’t tell my family, and I especially didn’t tell my parents. I expected that at least some of them would think that if I had not decided to stop being Mormon – if he had only been a Mormon boy, perhaps if I had had a religious instead of a personal reason to get him to stop – it never would have happened. I certainly didn’t want to answer more questions about why I’d been there, why I’d been so stupid as to believe that someone wouldn’t have sex with me when I told him not to. There are some family members that I still wouldn’t be surprised to learn would not believe me at all, perhaps believing what my therapist did from the opposite direction: I regretted my whorishness and had convinced myself it could be cast as someone else’s criminality. It wouldn’t be the first time my family members accused me of failing to take responsibility for my own choices. It wouldn’t be the first time my family members believed that my own pain was both overstated and more my fault than anyone else’s.

It was months before I even thought about the fact that he had penetrated me after I said no, and had done so more than once. I had focused so much on my lack of no’s exonerating him that I didn’t even consider that that part should be wrong under any circumstances. It began to weigh on me.

Betsy DeVos’s proposed changes to the Title IX system started filling the news. I read them all. I wrote a lengthy email in response to one such piece in the Atlantic, detailing my story in defense of the preponderance of the evidence standard in such proceedings. I cited the fact that I had no proof except my word and his. I received no response. I later edited it and sent it in response to a similar piece in Politico. I believe the response was something along the lines of “Yeah, we’re gonna pass on this one.”

I began to think about my lizard face on my walks home.

I thought of reporting it to police. I read Maryland’s sexual assault laws and found them gravely disappointing. Rape, according to Maryland state law, can only occur if a weapon is present, if the victim is too young to consent, if the victim is physically and/or mentally incapacitated, or (peculiarly) if some other crime like burglary is committed simultaneously.  What happened to me was a sexual offense in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor with a year long statute of limitations and punishable by a fine of no more than $1000 and up to a year’s jail time.  Maryland does not have strong rape shield laws, which protect victims from questioning regarding their sexual histories and time spent with the perpetrator after, which I had done. I didn’t see any reason to spend money I didn’t have in order to retain a lawyer and present the meager evidence I had in order to be publicly shamed and discredited.

I began to imagine the profile of my lizard teeth as I tried to fall asleep.

I wrote state legislators – more than five or ten of them – about the rape laws and in some cases, about my experience. One of them wrote back excitedly about changes from their most recent session to the state’s sexual assault laws. In 2017 they had managed to remove a requirement that victims establish that they “resisted” in order to convict a rape, and removing the statute of limitations for felony sexual assault.  The requirements for rape were otherwise unchanged. My experience was a fourth degree sexual offense under the law, a misdemeanor, and its statute of limitations remained at one year.

I began to think of the way that no one would ever, ever believe a man like this man claiming to be terrorized by a woman with fangs and scales.

The Weinstein story broke, and I felt like I was being stalked by my own memories. It was everywhere and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. To be fair, I read every piece I could hover a mouse over. I learned that corroborating the evidence in allegations with only two people present is most often done by producing witnesses who were told when the story happened. I read about people proposing the use of escrows at an institutional level, where more than one victim is required to report in order to take action against an individual.

I began to enjoy the idea of frightening a man like this man in a way that would prevent his story from being shared – to cut him off from the rest of the world – forever.

I gained weight. I expect my mother would be very pleased to learn that I have an excuse for this, one that wasn’t due to a failure to remember her teachings, that men will never be attracted to me if I’m fat. I dragged myself to class and to work, and performed noticeably, inexcusably poorly in both – eventually leaving the lab I worked in when it happened because my work was so sub par. I wore only hoodies and leggings for months. I read feverishly about Title IX procedures, including every person claiming that rules outlined in the Dear Colleague letter were a disgrace to due process and obviously, incredibly harmful to those who were accused. I read about those saying that Title IX shouldn’t have a right to adjudicate such allegations at all. I read about those saying that Title IX ruined the entire lives of young men.

I mentally designed my ghoulish reptilian appearance even as I weighed the question of whether my experience and my pain was worth more than this man’s education and his life thereafter.

I called the Title IX office from some semi-secluded woods in a nearby park, my heart hammering, feeling like an enormous liar, like an opportunist, like the ugliest incarnation of a deceitful Eve, but simultaneously reminding myself that inserting your penis into someone who clearly told you not to is unequivocally wrong, and that I was hoping to save someone else from the same fate.  I declined to give my name or his, but I told my story. I asked what they would choose to do next, despite having read every link on their website about process. I told them I had compiled screenshots of every message between my friends and I from the day and months after the incident – just as I had read about reporters doing in the recent allegations. They told me I could set up a time to talk to them in person, but that they wouldn’t demand it, and that even if I came in, I wouldn’t be required to give my name or his, and that my privacy would be protected. Feeling great doubt, I made the appointment.

After this phone call – less than an hour after – I reached out to this man on messenger. I asked him if he remembered my telling him not to have sex with me. He said no. I asked him if he remembered my telling him to stop. He said no. I asked him if he remembered much about that night. He said no, because it was almost a year ago. Funny how time flies, he said. It was the last word either of us exchanged in the conversation.

I ended up deciding that my suffering did not deserve institutional address, but that I wanted to attempt to protect others from him. My best solution for this was the escrow from my reading – to give them my name, his name, and the story, and to request that no action be taken unless someone else came forward to their office and reported him. After some deliberation, the Title IX office agreed. I tried to avoid thinking about the fact that my solution required that someone else be violated in order for him to see consequences.

I transferred to another campus. He’s there too. I’ve seen him four times since the incident almost two years ago, when I’ve believed I don’t deserve better. My friends still joke about how incredibly awful he is. I laugh because I don’t want to upset anyone with the ugliness of my story.

My mother wrote on Facebook this week, referring to the Kavanaugh nomination debacle, that she is “literally praying that truth and justice will prevail.” I’m fairly confident I know what she believes to be the truth about Brett Kavanaugh. Sometimes I disgust myself with the idea that I can easily imagine her posting and thinking the same thing of me in twenty years, if this man were to be considered for a position of enormous power and I attempted to tell gatekeepers what I know about his character now.

I don’t know what happened to Dr. Ford, but I know what happened to me.

The most interesting thing about the lizard analogy, and the reason it’s ultimately unsatisfying, is the manner in which it is incomplete. Of course, no one would believe a man who told of a lady who spat acerbic-smelling venom. But that man still wouldn’t have gone his entire life being told that being confronted by a squamate tongue in the head of a perfectly ordinary-looking woman was so obviously what happens to men that he would have to spend his whole life avoiding it. He wouldn’t go around thinking that he was stupid for letting himself be exposed to fangs in a human head.

We tell women that rape is so built into men as a whole that we’re willing to call women foolish if they fail to avoid it. We then tell women that if they declare that it happened, they are more likely to be lying about it than the man they accused.

Unfortunately for me, Lizard Women aren’t real. Lizard Men, on the other hand, are inescapable, but you’ll never find a soul who knows one.

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On the Affordable Care Act’s Contraceptive Provision

I probably have a condition called endometriosis.  I say probably because a conclusive diagnosis requires laparoscopic surgery [1], and my symptoms have not justified such a procedure thus far, because they are more moderate than those of many with the condition. Those symptoms have affected my life heavily since I was young – excruciating, sometimes immobilizing pain for a day or two a month.  It’s caused me to miss days of school and work sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, when the intense twisting in my pelvis has left me unable to concentrate.  I’ve vomited because of it, spent hours on a bathroom floor unmoving because of it, and driven home a scant four miles terrified that I wouldn’t make it safely, so distracted due to agonizing abdominal pain as to be barely capable of focusing on the road.  I’ve taken hospital dosages of over-the-counter pain medications for several days of every month just to be able to function. Again, my symptoms are mild to moderate on the spectrum of endometriosis [2] – many women are unable to treat their symptoms with easily available medication, even if taken 800 mg at a time.

The most common first treatment for this condition is to be put on some form of hormonal birth control. My practitioner suggested either an intrauterine device or a standard dual hormone oral contraceptive, when I went in a little over a year ago after almost fainting at work.  I’ve been on the latter since that time, and my symptoms have dramatically decreased.  I don’t often require ibuprofen to get through the work day, and I have not experienced pain which prevented me from going to work or school since I began taking it.

This post begins with the hope of broadening our understanding of the reasons women require hormonal birth control – the kind religious objectors often find most unacceptable, believing it to cause the loss of fertilized eggs [3], [4].   Many studies have confirmed the effectiveness of hormonal contraception for non-contraceptive purposes, including polycystic ovarian syndrome, primary dysmenorrhea, endometriosis, and other hormone-related irregularities [5], [6], [7]. I’m not remotely unusual in taking advantage of these benefits – a 2011 study found that “more than half of pill users, 58%, rely on the method at least in part for purposes other than pregnancy prevention.” [8]

Clearly relevant is the current effort to roll back the portion of the Affordable Care Act mandating that contraceptives be covered without copay [9].  I understand and am receptive to arguments against the constitutionality of this provision [10]. However, I would point to the 2013 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Case, which applied the accommodation for religious institutions and religious nonprofits to closely held for-profit companies: “Under this accommodation, the insurance issuer must exclude contraceptive coverage from the employer’s plan and provide plan participants with separate payments for contraceptive services without imposing any costsharing requirements on the employer, its insurance plan, or its employee beneficiaries.” [11]

It’s critical to understand precisely what was ruled in this case – that such companies were afforded the right of exemption to providing contraception or paying for it for their employees.  Those companies filed paperwork stating their refusal, and the insurance issuer paid for and provided the contraception.  These companies were no longer paying for their employees’ contraception. This compromise was insufficient for a number of organizations, who protested that filing paperwork allowed their employees to receive contraception and thus still constituted a burden upon the religious rights of the employer.  The Supreme Court in this case requested a new accommodation be found [12], but the Obama administration concluded without a new accommodation acceptable to both parties.

I may not be significantly affected by the new, considerably broader exemption for the ACA contraceptive provision: as a grad student with healthcare through my university, I am unlikely to lose access to birth control, and as my stipend is over 200% of the poverty line [13], I might be able to justify the cost out of pocket [14].  I’d probably, however, assume that going through a few bottles of ibuprofen a year was cheaper, despite the potential for high-dosage use to do long-term damage to my stomach [15] and stop using the prescription.

This change will, however, significantly influence the lives of women poorer than myself.  If I had to pay $50 a month not to be in pain, I might fork it out, but I’d think twice about it on my salary.  A stipend with a few thousand dollars less a year and I can guarantee that there would be no contest – the cost wouldn’t justify it.  This extends beyond the net of women taking contraceptives to address medical issues: those who wish to decrease the rate of abortion would do well to understand that one of the strongest correlations for abortion is that of low income –  a 2014 study found that 75% of women who received abortions fit this description, to wit: “49% living at less than the federal poverty level, and 26% living at 100–199% of the poverty level.” [16]  Abortion rates are currently at a low not seen prior to Roe v. Wade [17], and although there is dispute as to why [18], the correlation between access to no-cost-to-consumer birth control and fewer unintended pregnancies is difficult to ignore [19].

We may not agree that there is a compelling government interest to ensure that women receive contraception without a copay, but surely anyone who wishes to see the number of abortions decrease (and pro-life or pro-choice, that describes a majority of views) should think carefully before knowingly increasing the cost of birth control for at least some women, especially when economics have a strong correlation to a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy. This is particularly true when the exemption is broad enough to be applied to any company with a “moral objection”, not just a provable religious one [20].

I don’t write to provide a full-throated rebuttal of the newer, broader contraception exemption.  Reasonable minds may conclude that the government interest in assuring accessible, free-to-the-consumer contraception is not outweighed by its interest in protecting the right of companies to refuse to provide insurance coverage for it, whether their objections are personal or demonstrably religious, without guaranteeing a workaround. I do, however, wish to see this debate held with several facts understood:
– Many women take contraception for reasons unrelated to their personal life choices
– An accommodation has previously existed which allowed companies to be exempted from providing their employees with contraception or paying for the same, while ensuring that women maintained the same access to contraception
– Proper contraceptive use is one of the best insurances against abortion
– Women in indigent circumstances are most likely to receive an abortion, and most likely to struggle to pay for birth control without this provision.

I believe that the better we understand the nuances of the problem, and the more honest we are of the costs in both directions for our solutions, the better our solutions can be.

[1] The Mayo Clinic: Endometriosis – Diagnosis & treatment
[2] The Guardian: Women discuss endometriosis: ‘No one believed I could be in such pain from a period’
[3] Life Site News: All the pro-life facts about hormonal contraception (that you probably don’t want to hear) – Part I
[4] Document: Kathleen Sebelius Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al., Petitioners v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., et al.
[5] Int J Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Winter; Non-Contraceptive Benefits of Oral Hormonal Contraceptives
[6] Minerva Ginecol. 2010 Aug; Non-contraceptive benefits of hormonal contraceptives.
[7] Panminerva Med. 2014 Sep; Combined oral contraceptives: health benefits beyond contraception.
[8] The Guttmacher Institute, Nov. 2011; Beyond Birth Control: The Overlooked Benefits Of Oral Contraceptive Pills
[9] The New York Times: Trump Administration Rolls Back Birth Control Mandate
[10] The Federalist: Ham: Contraception Isn’t In The Constitution But Religious Freedom Is
[11] Document: Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Service, et al. v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., et al.
[12] Document: Supreme Court Decision, multiple cases including Zubik v. Burwell
[13] US Dept. of Health and Human Services: Federal Poverty Guidelines
[14] CostHelper Health: Birth Control Pills Cost
[15] Science Daily: High Doses Of Ibuprofen Cause Significant GI Bleeding, Despite Safety Profile
[16] The Guttmacher Institute: Characteristics of U.S. Abortion Patients in 2014 and Changes Since 2008
[17] The Guttmacher Institute: U.S. Abortion Rate Continues to Decline, Hits Historic Low
[18] The LA Times: U.S. abortion rate drops to a new low, but there’s a fight over why
[19] National Women’s Law Center: The Affordable Care Act’s Birth Control Benefit Is Working for Women
[20] NPR: Trump Guts Requirement That Employer Health Plans Pay For Birth Control

Sheath

Pretty, jeweled, golden scabbard

To keep the edges sharp

To place when the action ends

To house

To quiet

They can be very beautiful, you know

And functional, too

Swords wouldn’t be much good without them

Isn’t it lovely and mysterious

The way they complement each other

No Bad Can Come From Good

Let’s talk about Boromir.

Character profile: an upstanding man of Gondor, oldest son of the steward Denethor, in line for the position himself after his father’s death. Personally volunteered to be part of the Fellowship and protected the Ring as promised for most of his time as part of it – fighting Orcs in Moria, carrying the Hobbits down Caradhras when they met terrible snow, even sacrificing his own life in defending Merry and Pippin.  By almost any measure, Boromir was every bit the noblest example of the race of Men that his father thought him to be: trustworthy, loyal, courageous.

But that’s really not how we talk about Boromir, no? Boromir’s weakness to the power of the Ring is the moment that defines him as a character for most readers. It contributes significantly to the dissolution of the Fellowship itself.  Words like loyalty fit Boromir awkwardly; he is not often remembered as a character who can be trusted.

I consider this exchange particularly revealing:
” ‘I think I know already what counsel you would give, Boromir,’ said Frodo. ‘And it would seem like wisdom but for the warning of my heart.’
‘Warning? Warning against what?’ said Boromir sharply.
‘…Against – well, if it must be said, against trust in the strength and truth of men.’
[The next is found in a lengthy defense, made by Boromir, of doing brave things no one else is willing to do:]
‘…True-hearted men, they will not be corrupted.'”

It’s important to note that Boromir, as far as he was concerned, never actually stopped being the good man of Gondor.  He never stopped having noble intentions or believing he was doing the right thing.

Instead, he made the mistake of believing that his goodness made him incapable of being corrupted, of being harmful to the cause, of being prey to other forces.

Boromir is dangerous because of pride, certainly, but pride of a specific kind: he thinks he’s unequivocally good and well-meaning, and doesn’t bother to monitor his actions for the possibility that they might become otherwise. His danger, however, doesn’t end there.  Note his reaction when Frodo betrays concern about Boromir’s sudden change in demeanor:
‘Why are you so unfriendly?’ said Boromir. ‘I am a true man, neither thief nor tracker. I need your Ring: that you know now; but I give you my word that I do not desire to keep it.  Will you not at least let me make trial of my plan? Lend me the Ring!’

Boromir is affronted at Frodo’s fear, but worse, he attempts to use that affront to change Frodo’s mind – he is, after all, a ‘true man’. Who could argue with him? Boromir has proven his bona fides as a trustworthy fighter and companion for several hundred pages worth of story at this point.

Let’s imagine that Boromir lives today. Boromir would still be a good guy who did good things.  No, an incredibly good guy, working hard for justice.  He would still be a loyal friend, a trustworthy person, a person actively invested in good causes he believes in.

That might let him imagine that if someone felt bothered by something he did, it was probably their problem.  He might think that it’s impossible for him to do things that any friend would read as threatening or harmful.  He might even think that it’s impossible that he would be actually guilty of harmful, threatening, or harassing behavior.

That’s not ideal, because if the person he’s with gives him the impression that they’re uncomfortable, he should stop – he shouldn’t tell them that he thinks they’re over-reacting.  If he’s accused of something he doesn’t think he could be guilty of, he should reflect, self-examine, and give the other person space. If the other person doesn’t want Boromir to take something of theirs, he really shouldn’t try to talk them into doing it for several pages, after reminding them of what a good person he is and how their words have therefore offended him.

He did, though.  And believe me – Boromir is still, by every other measure, an incredibly good person.

People who consider themselves good people are unlikely to mistreat others on purpose. We would do well to remember, though, that if we make someone feel bad for being honest about how we made them feel, we make it a lot easier for someone with worse intentions.  We’re reminding them that our conception of ourselves as good people takes precedence over their real feelings in the moment. In the future, in a situation with someone genuinely threatening, they will remember being punished for being honest about their fear.  They may even take the chance that this person is as good as we claimed we were, because after all, we didn’t hurt them.
We should be cognizant of how harmful bias about our own goodness can be, not only because goodness doesn’t mean we’re incapable of bad, but because of the chilling effect such attitudes can have on problems we care about. This behavior weakens people’s inclination to give voice to issues, both as they happen privately and in seeking to solve them publicly.

Being a good person for more than five hundred pages didn’t make it impossible for Boromir to screw up an entire quest in five.

Don’t be like Boromir.

On the Soul of Man

[A note regarding the title of this post:

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the
roads.       He smelled a familiar smell.       It was
the Sphinx.       Oedipus said, “I want to ask one question.
Why didn’t I recognize my mother?”        “You gave the
wrong answer,” said the Sphinx.      “But that was what
made everything possible,” said Oedipus.     “No,” she said.
“When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
Man.      You didn’t say anything about woman.”
“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you include women
too. Everyone knows that.”       She said, “That’s what
you think.”
– “Myth”, Muriel Ruckeyser]

I like David Hume’s conception of human malleability.  He holds that we are solely the sum total of our experiences, almost infinitely changeable by new information and ideas.  I have mangled this to my own ends and stapled it to my conception of myself, for I am irresistibly drawn to the idea of my soul as a living, breathing, mutable thing.  Screw Myers-Briggs; today I am ENFJ, tomorrow INFP, the next, however I’m feeling that day.  Unsurprisingly (given my so-liberal-as-to-be-only-kind-of-recognizable interpretation), the very idea that allows Hume to postulate this is one I reject out of hand – Hume doesn’t believe in the permanence of a soul.

My religion is a tangled, unidentifiable flotsam these days.  Really, don’t ask about it. There’s much that I can’t confirm about what matters beyond what is currently measurable, but I can’t let go of the idea of a soul.  Or at least of something, something in us that lives and breathes with more than blood and lungs.  It is and has always been a powerful tenet in my schema for understanding other people.

My “soul” definition doesn’t even bother to conquer the fraught mystery of consciousness – I attempt to describe this thing I’m so determined to believe in and find myself simply thinking of people’s vulnerable, inner selves: their fragility, their insecurities, their fears, their goodness so pure as to require protection. It may not matter whether I can even define the soul well enough to defend it; it may only matter that this fragile, gated corner of ourselves is to a degree universal.  Friendships in my world are defined by a two-directional willingness to hold and accept what the general public is not gentle enough to engage with.  The general public doesn’t have to be cold or unfair or unkind to merit this hiding; portions of our minds are simply too delicate to be shared across emotional distance.  I live for the comfort of trusting someone else with my fragile pieces and for being trusted in return not to crack that in someone else which may have already been mended a time or two.

I find myself struggling with masculinity and with dating in equal measure because of the way they kick against my ideas.  There’s a soul in everyone that is fragile and vulnerable, but that found in a certain kind of man with certain ideas on what it is to be strong, powerful, valued, is buried.  It’s perplexing to me to try to unearth such a thing.

I subscribe to a philosophy that holds that a man’s inner world is equally complex and equally affected by emotional stimuli as is mine.  I further subscribe to the idea that we are, to a degree, failing men in the way we approach their emotions, their insecurities, their fears, and (this feels embarrassingly revolutionary to type) their tenderness.

The reason, some protest, that men don’t want to gab all day about feelings is that they are less emotional than women.  The reason men answer that they weren’t thinking anything when a significant other wants to know what’s happening in their head is that they truly weren’t thinking about anything.  The reason men cry less than women is because they don’t care about the things that women do – in fact, they may just care less about life in general.  The reason men are emotionally different than women is because in aggregate, men gravitate towards understanding the world through logic rather than emotion (and some would further argue that men have a better understanding of the world as a result).

We can lay aside, for a moment, what I prefer to think of as a false dichotomy between logic and emotions.  I understand why the above arguments are made, but I have questions.

How great a role does biology (and perhaps specifically testosterone) truly play in making men’s negative emotional expression, when it appears, gravitate towards violence and poorly adjusted sexual behavior before tears or talking?

Is there a possibility that societal influence encourages men to view violence or anger as an acceptable outlet, beyond biological predisposition?

Is there a possibility that traditional ideas on the stoic protector/provider encourage isolation, lack of introspection, and feelings of inadequacy?

Do we acknowledge that historically, we shame men more than women for tears, for fear, for anything soft or tender or emotional?

Do we imagine that that shame may negatively affect men today?

Is there a possibility that the closest thing to a positive, vulnerable, emotional outlet encouraged for men by society is sex?

Is there a possibility that in some measure, men gravitate towards misuse of pornography, cheating, or meaningless sex because it serves as an emotional comfort, to some degree?

Is there a possibility that the emotional pain men are trying to alleviate goes to a degree unknown by them – that they seek soothing for an issue they didn’t know they could suffer from in the first place?

Is there a possibility that their need for comfort and understanding remains unknown and unexplored even by them due to the expectations we set out for them?

Look, I’m not here to pretend that biological factors don’t play a role in how we experience life.  I’m a damn scientist.  They do.  But it would be just as foolish to pretend that societal factors don’t affect the way we act.  We are the fish and society is our sea.  I need us to start considering the brackishness of our water.

There is too strong a likelihood that a number of non-biological (and arguably inessential) factors encourage a stifling, a guarding, or worst of all, a self-inflicted silencing of these inner lives of men.  Navigating these factors can be baffling at best as a heterosexual female attempting to form romantic relationships.  It’s deeply troublesome as a family member and friend.  Above all, it’s of grave significance to me as a human being who believes in the value of a soul – and by extension, the necessity of an authentic soul heard, understood, and treated with gentleness and care.

 

Malum

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.).