Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bang and Blame

Hold Her Down - Toad the Wet Sprocket (mp3)
Bang and Blame - REM (mp3)
I was a virgin until a month before my 21st birthday. I was on my second date with a guy named Craig, a 20-something blond surfer type who got my number after I made him a chai tea to go at the coffee shop in his neighborhood where I worked...
...I felt him enter me and it hurt like hell, but I was flying high on the notion that I had finally conquered two fears — the fear of having sex and the fear that I never would. Afterwards, I was a little embarrassed by the spotting of blood on his sheets — should I offer to wash them? — but I still couldn’t contain my excitement.

“I can’t believe I’m not a virgin anymore,” I marveled, my head laying on his furry blonde chest. I had told him how inexperienced I was on our first date, two days before, when we were hooking up on this same bed after a light sushi dinner and a bunch of beers had put me just past the point of sauced. He, like the few other guys I had gotten intimate with, appeared impressed that I had waited for so long. I wondered if he felt special that I had chosen him as my first.
“Um, are you serious?” he asked incredulously. “We had sex two nights ago. Didn’t you notice?”
Thus begins one of the most powerful and controversial personal narratives I’ve read in a long time.

Titled “I Was Date Raped When I Was Drunk” on the grrl-powered site TheFrisky.com, the piece is frank and honest, horrifying and brave. Its unintended coda is a mesmerizing, mind-numbing 492 comments, mostly from women aggressively or angrily defending Ms. McDonnell-Parry’s take, but some from those begging to differ.

All too frequently, women comment on their similar traumatic experiences, a reminder that no matter how many women we think have had these living nightmares, we're guessing low.

Date rape is too important for us to ignore.
It’s too real for us to shy away.
The discomfort, the fear, the murkiness of the topic and the grey area of judgment are, none of them, sufficient excuses for avoiding the conversations.
My fear of being accused of insensitivity or ignorance isn't an acceptable excuse.
Especially if more conversations might reduce the numbers of encounters like Ms. McDonnell-Parry's.

Although I am grateful for her account, I disagree with her conclusions and find them to be dangerous, one more reminder to the troubled male half that no matter what we do short of signing contracts, we’ll be seen as the instigators, the aggressors, the bad guys.

To be certain, the history of humankind is about men getting away with most anything they did or do to women. It's still true in most of the world. But justice does not mean switching the gender target of injustice.

In the world of gender equality, the drunk man cannot be at fault for his inebriated actions while the drunk woman escapes all scrutiny.

You can lead a man to your private parts. You can tell him to ravage you with every inch of himself that’s not his reproductive organ, permit him to be completely naked with you where his hips and your hips are in close proximity if not direct contact, and even permit him in such a position to insert items that might or might not approximate the girth and feel of a penis... but only the male is at fault if you are both drunk and he actually inserts himself?

The male in her tale is no hero. He is not blameless. If she confessed to her virginity and her desire to hold onto it, then her granting of consent should probably have come through more clearly and directly than a drunken moan. But if hers is a cut-and-dried story about a male criminal and a female victim, then it’s patently destructive to the world of mutual responsibility we need.

Please understand: I don't claim to be indubitably right; this topic does not afford such simplicity. As a male defending a male, my motives could be suspect. Worse, anyone who has watched “Mad Men” or “Rescue Me” or any other hard-edged TV show knows that rape can occur with a fiance, a husband, an ex-husband, or even a trusted best friend. Women are never 100% safe, which is heartbreaking to type, since I believe deeply in myself as a 100% safe male.

I found comfort reading Emily Yoffe (“Dear Prudence”) at Slate, whose response to a woman in a similar situation feels more reasonable and less like an excuse to unflinchingly and in all situations blame one gender for the problem.

But if we can’t debate date rape, if we can’t have honest, hard, ugly discussions about this, then it’s because men are not allowed to question, which means the female controls and decides every bit of what is “truth.” Which means the female can control the narrative and free herself from responsibility.

Most men want to do the right thing, want to be the good guy. We cannot afford a culture where the female’s perception of all sexual encounters is the sole perception that counts, because it makes all of us males feel damned if we do or don’t. Sex cannot become a kangaroo court.

As my daughters get older, and as All Things Sex become increasingly impossible to avoid or ignore, I will have loads of advice about building trust, about moving slowly, about the penis’ ability to dictate the entirety of a man.

I’ll advise her that every additional drink she downs places her at greater risk of bad things, and that friendships and “situational awareness” are her best allies. Eventually, after I’ve steeled myself with a stiff shot or two, I’ll explain to her that letting a guy go down on you, while you're both drunk, on your first or second date, and letting a guy’s naked hips nestle directly next to your naked hips when you don’t even really know what he does professionally (or what his major might be), might not be the best way to protect yourself from catastrophe.

Whether Mr. Catastrophe, who misunderstood silence for consent in a drunken tryst, is a criminal might be debatable; that the girl is another victim will become fact.

"Maybe" might mean no, but any woman who puts all her chips on that rule is tap dancing in a mine field.

Being safe and careful and wise is no guarantee of protection, I'll tell her, but it will greatly increase the odds that she’ll have at least most of the control over her own sex life. And playing odds is the best we can do, because human beings sometimes misunderstand one another in critically awful ways, and because men are sometimes big strong seething piles of shit.

The more we as a culture talk about this horrible stuff, the more these nightmares aren't just shared on message boards and comment sections but discussed as a real part of the real past of real people... maybe we can actually help young women -- and men -- learn how to better protect themselves and one another.

12 comments:

Sara C said...

Once again, I have to stand up and congratulate you on a thoughtful and reasonable response to an issue that is often lacking in both thought and reason. You impress and inspire me with your willingness to broach the difficult subject here, Billy. Good work.

BeckEye said...

Very good post. I don't even have anything to add!

Bob said...

"In the world of gender equality, the drunk man cannot be at fault for his inebriated actions while the drunk woman escapes all scrutiny."

If he remembers it and she doesn't, as in the example you start with, that suggests to me that the playing field in question was not level and that the fault does aim his way. A woman that drunk does not send mixed signals; she sends the very clear signal that she is way too drunk.

Billy said...

@Sara & Beck - Thanks.

@Bob - She was not too drunk to permit him to go down on her and insert digits in her. But when it comes to his penis, that's completely his fault because she was too drunk? (If you read the story, she wasn't passed out; she merely thought he was using his fingers and not his dick.)

I'm not sure we can culturally afford to label this guy, in this set of circumstances, a felon.

Bob said...

Okay, but 2 things:

1. If her version is true, there's no gray area at all. She had told him NO before (enthusiastically); she had never said MAYBE, and he didn't ask: "Instead of explicitly checking with me again for verbal confirmation that it was now okay to stick his penis inside me, he just went for it. And I, in my drunken state, confused about both what was happening in that dark room and trusting that enthusiastically not giving consent only 30 minutes earlier would be taken seriously for the duration of our hookup, did not know that there was something to stop. That apparently, I needed to say no again."


2. Also, though you mention "this world of gender equality," we are not there yet. Maybe when we are...

cinderkeys said...

Ick. Just ... ick.

Captain Awkward and the commenters say it better than I can: Rape: Still Awkward, or, Dear Prudence: You Suck

cinderkeys said...

Nope, this is still bugging me.

But if we can’t debate date rape, if we can’t have honest, hard, ugly discussions about this, then it’s because men are not allowed to question, which means the female controls and decides every bit of what is “truth.” Which means the female can control the narrative and free herself from responsibility.

But women DON'T control the narrative. More precisely, the people who hold strong anti-rape beliefs don't control the narrative.

Ask somebody who's been raped about reactions of friends and family. She (usually she) will recount instance after instance of Dear Prudence-like responses: "You were drunk, and you didn't use judo or an automatic rifle to defend yourself, so you couldn't have really been raped, right?"

In the world of gender equality, the drunk man cannot be at fault for his inebriated actions while the drunk woman escapes all scrutiny.

Absolutely. If two people get drunk and have consensual but ill-advised sex, and then one of them regrets it after sobering up, that wasn't rape.

But if one person said no while drunk, then let it happen because she (or he) was too drunk to make it stop, or even to quite be aware of what was happening?

I have to wonder what part of McDonnell-Parry’s conclusion you disagree with.

Consider another scenario. You stumble out of a bar, and into a bad neighborhood. Unsteady on your feet, you sit down and fish your cell phone out of your pocket to call a cab.

Some guy walks up to you and asks you for your cell phone. You say no.

Then you pass out. The cell phone drops out of your hand. The man picks it up and walks away.

Was it a good idea to get drunk and wander around alone? No.

Is it your responsibility to make reasonable attempts to keep yourself out of dangerous situations? Sure.

Does that mean that when the guy took your phone, it wasn't theft?

Billy said...

@cinder - I agree with much of what you say at the onset, actually. Women don't seem to control much the narrative once it enters any kind of criminal investigation phase (Bob makes this point as well, and you are both right), and possibly in general opinion, although that's tough to see based on the reader commentary I've read online.

Further, if there's even the hint of struggle, hesitation, fear... any direct sign that what is happening is not wanted, then reasonable minds would likely agree that the woman need not judo chop or shoot someone for rape to have occurred.

Unfortunately, with the kind of commentary I see on TheFrisky and CaptainAwkward, I worry that giving women total control of the narrative would just create a flip-sided version of injustice every bit as destructive as the version we have now.

Again, I don't understand how McDonnell-Parry is sober enough to consent to a guy doing everything but penile-vaginal intercourse on a FIRST DATE with a dude she hardly knows, yet incapable of being responsible for that last detail. In her narrative, even she doesn't believe he was under the impression he stole something from her.

Or, to add nuance to your cell phone metaphor.

If you tell the dude you just met he can play games, send text messages and make phone calls so long as he doesn't take any pictures, but then he takes pictures anyway, and if you were wide awake when he was doing it -- and he was taking pictures of you! With the flash on! With YOUR phone! -- and you didn't seem to object, well I have trouble solely blaming the guy.

I'd also have to wonder why she trusted a relative stranger with so damn much of her phone in the first place instead of just protecting the phone and keeping it to herself, at least until she got to know him better. I mean, if the phone was important to her.

Again, none of my version makes the guy "good." Or "blameless." But to make one side a potential felon and the other a simple victim is to oversimplify a very complicated and difficult situation.

cinderkeys said...

Women don't seem to control much the narrative once it enters any kind of criminal investigation phase ... and possibly in general opinion, although that's tough to see based on the reader commentary I've read online.

My guess is that the angry reader commentary is a reaction to to where the narrative goes the second a woman tells anyone -- including friends and family -- what happened.

At any rate, my point isn't that we should give one group or another CONTROL over the narrative. I'm presenting reasoned arguments about why the angry commenter narrative is more accurate than the dismissive Prudy narrative.

Unfortunately, with the kind of commentary I see on TheFrisky and CaptainAwkward, I worry that giving women total control of the narrative would just create a flip-sided version of injustice every bit as destructive as the version we have now.

See above re control. But beyond that, you're mistaken. Nobody is saying that accusation should mean throwing the accused in prison without trial. Due process is a good thing! Presumption of innocence in a court of law is a good thing!

Captain Awkward is pointing out, however, that a conversation with a friend is not the same as a legal trial. Listening to your friend and sympathizing doesn't make the potential rapist go to prison.

Again, I don't understand how McDonnell-Parry is sober enough to consent to a guy doing everything but penile-vaginal intercourse on a FIRST DATE with a dude she hardly knows, yet incapable of being responsible for that last detail.

No? She told him she wasn't ready. He didn't disagree with her at the time she said it. Why does consenting to some things mean you're automatically consenting to everything? And why does the fact that "everything but" on a (gasp) FIRST DATE) change anything?

FWIW, I was the queen of "everything but" for a good long while. Every guy I was with respected that. This isn't so very difficult.

In her narrative, even she doesn't believe he was under the impression he stole something from her.

I agree. He didn't believe he was doing anything wrong. He probably would've stopped if she'd been with it enough to realize when he'd crossed her line and asked again. That doesn't mean he didn't cross a line.

If you tell the dude you just met he can play games, send text messages and make phone calls so long as he doesn't take any pictures, but then he takes pictures anyway, and if you were wide awake when he was doing it -- and he was taking pictures of you! With the flash on! With YOUR phone! -- and you didn't seem to object, well I have trouble solely blaming the guy.

The metaphor is breaking down a little here, as stealing a phone is (like rape) a crime, and taking pictures with somebody else's phone isn't. That said, why would you have trouble solely blaming the picture-taker?

I'd also have to wonder why she trusted a relative stranger with so damn much of her phone in the first place instead of just protecting the phone and keeping it to herself, at least until she got to know him better. I mean, if the phone was important to her.

Trusting somebody you shouldn't have trusted isn't a crime. Having sex with somebody without their consent is a crime.

It's not really all that complicated.

Sara C said...

Maybe that's exactly the problem - maybe this kind of "sex with somebody without their consent" shouldn't be criminalized on the same level as predatory and violent rape. I'm NOT sure I agree with this suggestion nor am I even hinting that the turmoil the victim feels is less (although I would argue it is substantially different) in one case or the other, but the issue of intent and blame are drastically divergent in the two cases and should be classified accordingly.

cinderkeys said...

Is the kind of sex-without-consent from McDonnell-Parry's blog criminalized at the same level as the kind involving violence and threats? Seems unlikely, but correct me if I'm wrong.

Billy said...

Hope this isn't glib, but this kind of discussion is precisely what seems to be lacking. Honest disagreements about the issue doesn't magically make it go away, but it's at least a necessary step in the right direction.