My friend Leslie, noting my recent postings about my consent workshops and the issue of men’s role in sexual assault prevention, sent me a transcript of a recent Dan Savage podcast. Dan, one of America’s best known and respected sexual advice columnists, authors, and speakers, took a call from a guy whose most recent love interest had broken up with him after she had been sexually assaulted by another man.
Iâ€™ve been trying really hard to be supportive of her even though honestly I donâ€™t really know how to be. She sort of shut down emotionally, socially, as I guess, is kind of expected. But sheâ€™s lost trust and comfort in hanging out with guys of any sort, which includes me, and maybe especially me, considering our history includes taking things a bit far, or further than what was really comfortable for her, for either of us. Anyway, like I said, Iâ€™ve been trying to be supportive and helpful, but she recently told me to kind of back off as far as that was concerned because she doesnâ€™t really feel comfortable talking about whatâ€™s going on with any guy. So my problem is that Iâ€™m still really interested in this girl, but I donâ€™t know what my next move should be or how I can show this girl that Iâ€™m supportive of her without crossing any comfort lines, or basically how I should handle this kind of touchy situation.
Dan, bless his heart, reads the caller the riot act, calling him out for the bit about a past history of “taking things further than what was really comfortable for her.” Savage also makes two points that I think are hugely important, and are sufficiently universal as to be applicable to a great many men in situations not dissimilar from the caller.
First of all, Savage points out that many men find themselves interested in women who are survivors of sexual assault. He commends the caller, and other men like him, for the desire to help their current or prospective partner heal. But he also points out that trying to help a woman heal from what happened while also trying to get her into bed is at best working at cross-purposes and at worst indefensibly predatory. And though he doesn’t name it as such, Savage also touches on the “knight in shining armor” fantasy with which so many well-meaning men who are partnered with sexual assault survivors struggle. It’s incredibly easy for the line to be blurred between a compassionate desire to assist in another person’s healing and the narcissistic desire not just for sex, but to be the hero, the one who gives a traumatized woman a chance to “believe in men” again.
We say it over and over again in men’s work, particularly when the topic of male feminism comes up: “you don’t get a cookie.” What we mean is that despite the relative rarity of sincere, pro-feminist men, those guys who are “walking the walk” as well as “talking the talk” don’t deserve a special reward merely for doing what women have a right to expect. Past a certain age, we don’t get applause for using the toilet rather than wetting our pants; we shouldn’t expect “applause” or a “cookie” merely for treating women as human beings. Playing the ‘rescuer” flatters our ego, allows us to posit ourselves as “good guys” in opposition to the “bad men” who hurt and mistreat women. But if we imagine, as Dan’s caller imagines, that there’s some way to pursue our own sexual agenda while simultaneously helping a rape victim to heal, we’re engaging in some pretty ugly hubris. Bottom line: if the caller wants to support the woman in his life, he can’t do that effectively or decently while also trying to get her into bed.
Savage also notes that men — the sort often called Nice Guys(tm) — frequently become enraged when what they see as their efforts to play the hero aren’t sufficiently appreciated by the women whom they are trying so chivalrously to rescue. Men’s rights groups and Seduction Community workshops are filled with fellows still struggling to cope with their own rage at having what they thought were their well-meaning attempts at people-pleasing spurned. Hang around these guys, and you’ll hear the same tired thing over and over and over again: “I tried for years to be a good guy, polite and respectful. And you know what? I got shit on and manipulated. Fuck that, I’m not taking it any more. From now on, it’s all about me.” The rage is real, and the hurt that undergirds it real, but the target of the anger is the wrong one. Not only are these lads very rarely as altruistic as they imagine themselves to have been (white knights tend to expect wide-eyed gratitude and perpetual sexual availability from their formerly distressed damsels), they fail to see how so much of the behavior that they decry in women is in fact a rational response to men’s abuse. Savage:
God it sucks doesnâ€™t it- sexual assault? Doesnâ€™t it suck the way some men ruin women- for other men too? Doesnâ€™t it suck the way women are abused sexually in our culture and the way theyâ€™re treated, and the damage it does and it flows out in big ripples. Or maybe itâ€™s not big ripples; maybe what these are are aftershocks. Sexual assault is the earthquake, there are aftershocks, more people get hurt in the aftershocks. And you may be a victim of this sexual assault too. And it would be great if more men realized that male sexual violence directed at women doesnâ€™t just impact women, it impacts ultimately men too. And the good guys do realize that and the good guys try to do something about it.
From a feminist standpoint, there’s a lot that’s problematic about what Dan says. Positioning the caller as a “victim too” comes dangerously close to a false equivalence; hell, it is a false equivalence. Men’s pain at being judged “guilty until proven innocent” is hardly comparable to being raped, and it’s unacceptable to even hint that it is. But at the same time, Dan’s right: rape and assault and harassment hurt everyone, tearing the fabric of our society and alienating us from each other. Not all men are rapists, but all men pay a price for rape.
It’s not enough for “good guys” to plead to the women in their lives “but I’m not like other men”. That line carries no weight; what matters is redirecting that anger away from women and towards an entire culture that doesn’t take women’s bodily integrity seriously. Millions and millions of women and girls are sexually assaulted in this county, and it’s not as if 300 ambitious predators are solely responsible. It takes millions and millions of men — friends, brothers, husbands, teachers, sons, co-workers, teammates — to commit those rapes. And it will take men holding other men accountable, publicly and courageously and unequivocally, to change our culture. If a genuine desire to end women’s suffering isn’t enough, then perhaps Savage is right: appealing to men’s own self-interest, as mercenary as it may seem, may be a vital tactic in transforming a society that as yet does not fully understand the devastation that sexual violence wreaks in all of our lives.
But we can do better than that because we are better than that. Dan gets two cheers, but not three.