Boys Get Hard and Boys Get Hurt

I’ve got a rare Sunday post up at Good Men Project this week: Yes, Rape Victims Get Erections, Too. I look at the myths we have about boys who are sexually abused by older women. Excerpt:

The myth that men are invulnerable to sexual victimization at the hands of women is a powerful one. It sits alongside several other myths. For one, we have a hard time believing that grown women could be attracted to adolescent boys (while we accept as normal the idea that grown men are sexually fixated on teen girls.) Second, we have a hard time acknowledging that guys are every bit as emotionally vulnerable as their sisters, just as easily traumatized by a predatory adult. Young men may indeed be horny (as are more young women than we sometimes admit), but a strong libido doesn’t functional as psychological armor.

But perhaps the most enduring myth brought up by cases like this is the idea that pleasure is incompatible with victimization. Real victims only feel pain, never arousal – or so far too many people still believe. An erection, or better still, ejaculation, functions as proof that a boy wasn’t really harmed. Most predators who molest children and underage teens know this; many sexual abusers go to great lengths to try to arouse their victims. The child’s pleasure functions as a kind of absolution in the mind of the abuser; “I can’t be that bad if I made them feel good!”

But of course, an orgasm isn’t evidence of consent. As decades of research have shown us, a surprising number of male and female victims of sexual abuse do report having experienced some physical pleasure while they were being molested. That memory of arousal can lead to greater feelings of guilt, as it seems proof in a child’s mind that he (or she) was somehow complicit in what happened. “Part of me enjoyed it, so I must have wanted it,” the thinking goes. Some therapists who work with survivors of abuse say that these cases are often the most difficult to treat.

Policing, Prisons, and Privilege

Good Men Project is running a special section this week on men and prison. My contribution is They Always Call Me Sir: Policing, Prison, and Privilege. Excerpt:

As someone concerned with sexual justice and ending rape, the reality of a racist justice system has shaped how I think about solutions to the problem of violence against women. Feminists and their allies have fought hard to stiffen penalties for domestic abuse and sexual assault. Getting law enforcement to take sexual violence seriously (and to stop slut-shaming survivors) is tremendously important. But while rapists deserve punishment (and, if possible, a chance for restorative justice), we should all be concerned that those punishments will be meted out more severely to poor and dark-skinned men.

The struggle to end sexual violence can proceed simultaneously on many fronts. We need to change hearts and minds as much as laws; we need to rethink our dim view of the male capacity for self-regulation and our outdated obsession with what rape victims wear. But ensuring that rape is taken seriously as a crime involves shifting the views of cops, D.A.s, and judges as well. If those of us who advocate for the victims of violence don’t remember that the prison-industrial complex punishes some perpetrators much more severely than others, we’re trying to solve one problem while compounding another.

Read the whole thing.

An accidental rapist?

The Good Men Project put together a powerful package on rape and sexual violence today. I recommend the particularly powerful pieces from GMP CEO Lisa Hickey and my wonderful colleague, Emily Heist Moss. My offering is called The Accidental Rapist. It begins:

“Sometimes I say ‘yes’ when I’d rather say ‘no.’”

It’s been nearly 25 years, but I can still remember the beautiful Berkeley fall afternoon when I heard those shattering words. Katie and I were sitting in a coffee shop just off campus. What had started as a “friends with benefits” situation had blossomed into a sophomore year romance with this dark-eyed dance-and-philosophy double-major. Katie and I had been sleeping together for more than two months—and saying “I love you” for about a week—when she summoned up the courage to bring up this one very painful truth.

At first, I didn’t know what she meant. She spoke so softly I had to lean across the table to hear her. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” she said, “but sometimes I really don’t want to have sex. Sometimes I do, but not as often as you want it. And sometimes I want to tell you ‘no,’ but I can’t bring myself to do it. So I try and send you signals, hoping you can just tell how I’m feeling. But that doesn’t work, so it’s… it’s just easier to say ‘yes’ or just say nothing at all.”

My face flushed. I felt nauseated. I thought instantly of the previous night, where we’d grabbed what I thought was a hot half-hour when my roommates were both gone. Katie had seemed so passionate when we’d been making out, but then gotten very quiet once all our clothes were off. I’d told myself she wanted to have one ear cocked for the sound of a key in the door. I hadn’t considered—or hadn’t wanted to consider—the more obvious possibility: she was trying to tell me that she didn’t want to have sex.

I looked out the window. I couldn’t meet Katie’s eyes. My gaze fixed in the distance, my voice trembling, I asked what seemed the only possible question: “Are you trying to tell me I raped you?”

Read the rest here.

DSK and the “only good girls get justice” narrative

Things are changing fast, but it appears that the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is collapsing due to the unreliability of his accuser.

We don’t know what we don’t know. But what we do know is that women who lie on asylum applications can still be rape victims. Women who have shady drug-dealer boyfriends can still be rape victims. Women who themselves deal drugs, or who work in as prostitutes, or who commit fraud can still be rape victims. Yes, in a court setting, a pattern of dishonesty on the part of the accuser will undercut a prosecution’s case. But we need to push back against the developing narrative that only a “perfect victim” (virginal, middle-class, impeccably honest) deserves the protection of the legal system.

Women shouldn’t have to be flawless — or even all that “good” — to get justice.

UPDATE: I’ve been waiting for Jill Filipovic (an attorney in New York City as well as a feminist blogger) to weigh in. And she doesn’t disappoint. See There Are No Perfect Accusers.

UPDATE #2: Waking up this morning to more than two dozen comments in moderation on this thread, almost all from Men’s Rights Activists in gleeful, vengeful tizzies, I’m closing this thread altogether.

Let’s let the rest of the story come out.

Standing with the Sluts

This past Sunday, the world’s first “Slut Walk” took place on the chilly streets of Toronto, Canada. The official site is here. The march was organized in response to the infuriating remarks of a police constable, who told a safety workshop at a Canadian university that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” (The officer has apologized, but it’s evident that his trogolodytic view of sex and responsibility remains widely held.)

I’ve written many times in support of women’s right to wear what they want in public without fear of harassment or harm. This includes both revealing and concealing clothing; I’ve written in favor of the right to go topless in public and in opposition to bans on headscarves and burqas.

There are so many things that trouble me about the obsession with regulating women’s bodies. But as a man, I am particularly exasperated at the assumption that lies beneath the insistence on modesty: the myth that men cannot control themselves. As feminists often point out, the real “man-haters” are those who promote modest dress for women out of the belief that men lack self-control. There is nothing more contemptuous than the suggestion that those of us with penises and Y chromosomes are prisoners of our biology, liable to rape or commit infidelity at the first sign of cleavage. The myth of male weakness sells us woefully, heartbreakingly short.

I honor SlutWalk for many reasons. But I appreciate one assumption that the organizers made in particular. Though what constitutes “slutty” clothing is obviously open to debate, SlutWalkers believe in men’s capacity to do two things at once: be aroused by what we see while honoring the humanity of the woman whose body attracts our eye. The most pernicious of all lies about men is that because of our make-up, lust and empathy can’t coexist within us. If you want kind and compassionate men who will respect women’s boundaries, the myth suggests, those women will have to conceal the parts of themselves that will turn men bestial and irresponsible.

We present women with a brutal binary: hide your sexuality and be respected; show your sexuality and be slut-shamed, harassed, or worse. But if ever there were a false dichotomy, rooted in ignorance about male identity, male biology, and male potential, this is it. While none of us want to live in a culture where women are compelled to display those parts of themselves they’d like to keep private, none of us should settle for living in a society where women are compelled to conceal those parts of themselves they’d occasionally like to display.

Men rape and harass not because of biological imperative but because of cultural permission. To paraphrase George W. Bush, we treat men with the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Of course, the real price for those low expectations is paid by women, who become responsible for managing and redirecting what we refuse to expect men to manage for themselves.

As a feminist, as a man, and as a father to a daughter, I stand with the “sluts of Toronto” – and with women everywhere who demand the right to be treated with decency regardless of their attire.

Third Party Harassment, Third Party Complicity

My friend Emmylou wrote me after my Jezebel post appeared last Friday, noting that we need to remember the problem of “third party harassment”: the impact that the problem can have on witnesses.

On Friday I was crossing the street when I saw a man in a large panel truck inch up in his lane so he could stop and look down at a woman in the next car. She was in the passenger seat and never looked up and to her right as far as I could tell. While walking by, I saw she was wearing a tank top with some cleavage showing and the perv staring hard…not an appreciative look at all. Once I passed them, I turned around and yelled at him. “I know what you’re doing, creep! Stop staring at her!” She didn’t react but the truck driver did. He was both shocked and angered by my calling him out on it.

She didn’t know. But I did and I was offended by it and put off. Someone might say it is none of my business since it didn’t happen to me, but I think it is. It isn’t only the recipients of this kind of behavior who get to be outraged. I think if my goddaughter or nieces had been with me. They have every right in the world to not be exposed to this kind of lecherous behavior. And so do boys.

It isn’t just the one-to-one impact. It’s the example and influence on display for everyone else to see…

Emmylou is right on the money. Street harassment teaches all who witness it lessons about men, women, and sexuality. When children witness adult men leering and catcalling, they learn a lie about male desire. They learn a truth about our collective hostility towards women, and the way in which we use harassment to display power and to slut-shame. Harassment — even if it’s only a prolonged, silent, penetrating gaze — impacts everyone close enough to see it take place.

I’m perhaps too quick to bring up the unethical aspects of my past, but I’ve got some familiarity with this concept. As I’ve often written, I slept with many students during my early years at PCC. All of these relationships, however unethical, were consensual and not in violation of college policy — because the college had no policy against profs and students engaging in “mutually desired amorous relations.” But of course, I was about as subtle as a Labrador in a flower bed, and many of the women I was with “talked.” And as I learned, this all-too-true gossip proved shattering (or at least upsetting) to many other students, who not only lost respect for me but felt as if the classroom had now been sexualized. Indeed, the only people who ever complained to the administration were not the women I was involved with — but others who “witnessed” the behavior in one way or another. Arguably, the greatest harm I did during those years was not to my student lovers, but to those “third parties” who felt unsafe and confused when they found out what was going on.

Third party harassment is widely acknowledged in law. But while it is used in litigation in corporate settings, we don’t often talk about it when it comes to something like street harassment. But we need to remember that harassment is didactic: it’s meant to teach a lesson. The woman being harassed is being reminded that she’s vulnerable, that her body is public property for men to leer at and comment upon. She may be affluent or poor, she may be in a short sundress or in sweats — it doesn’t matter. She’s being “taught a lesson”, and it’s not a complimentary one. And when we hear it or see it, we’re being taught a toxic lesson as well.

My friend Emmylou made the courageous decision to “teach a lesson back”. Not everyone can be expected to do as she did; harassers can turn violent when called out. But where we can do something, we should. This is especially vital work for male allies to do. As I always tell my students, the litmus test of a male feminist is not just how he treats women, but how willing he is to challenge other men on their words and attitudes. As we know, harassment and sexual assault thrive in a culture that normalizes and accepts that behavior. Every rapist or harasser has someone in his life who is complicit in his behavior, who gives tacit approval to his actions. And make no mistake: harassers and abusers invariably interpret the silence of their friends and family as an imprimatur for their behavior.

Without completely disregarding personal safety, we need to be aware of our opportunities to be like Emmylou this week, finding ways to challenge those who make our public — and our private — spaces unsafe.

For more on ways to fight back (whether you’ve been harassed or have observed it as a third party) check out the international Hollaback community.

Fondling the “brave” White Swan

As you can see in the photo below this post, Eira and I went to a Purim party on Saturday night, dressed as the “Black Swan” and the “White Swan.” Though my wife didn’t like the film, she was more than happy to go along with the costume idea that came into my head not long after seeing the movie for the first time. (Here’s my review of the picture, which I thought was the best of 2010.) I already have the obvious idea for next year’s party, which is to come as the Swans again, this time with me in the darker shade.

The costumes took a lot of time and work; the basic corsets and tutus came from Trashy Lingerie (on La Cienega), the tights and slippers from Capezio, and my wife’s red contact lenses from a specialty store in the valley. My mother-in-law, a seamstress, added sequins and fake feathers and made my headpiece; my brother-in-law, a make-up artist, did our faces. We were a big hit together.

At the party, I got a lot of compliments on my “courage.” (And when I posted photos on Facebook, more of the same.) I was surprised; we were at the Kabbalah Centre in West Los Angeles, hanging out with an ostensibly liberal, artsy crowd. In 2011, I wondered, does anyone think it’s particularly brave for a man to dress as a ballerina in L.A.? If I were a high school boy going trick-or-treating and wearing the outfit in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, that might be gutsy — but with my wife, in the 310 area code? It’s evidence that the bar is still set so disappointingly low for men; performing public sexual ambiguity shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is.

I also got grabbed. A lot. On the crowded dance floor, drunken men and women alike squeezed the top of my corset, fondled my butt, lifted up my tu-tu. None of it was terribly aggressive, and all of it was done by people I know — and whom I knew to be intoxicated. I didn’t feel threatened, but I was exasperated. I knew damn well why they were doing it, because it’s happened to me every time I’ve cross-dressed for parties. They were grabbing me because they could, reminding themselves and me of my maleness. (Like it or not, we ascribe the willingness to be grabbed to men.) They were engaged, whether they knew it or not (almost certainly the latter) in “gender policing”. And they were grabbing me because it was a kind of safe transgression for them — an assault on something that was feminine without being female.

Of course, in real life, women are groped all the time, on dance floors and elsewhere. Though I didn’t need the reminder of that painful truth, it’s what I got on Saturday.

“A regressive change in service of a regressive change”: the looming disaster of H.R. 3

As a number of outlets in both the feminist and mainstream media have reported, the Republican-dominated House is considering new restrictions on abortion funding. The so-called “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” is bad enough on its face for those of us who believe that the right to choose an abortion goes hand in hand with the right to access a full range of reproductive services. The truth is, it’s worse than it sounds.

The most devastating aspect of the NTFAA is its unmistakable redefinition of rape. What does that have to do with abortion? A great deal, when you consider the politics around “exemptions” for rape and incest. Many who oppose abortion support exceptions for cases of rape and incest (as well, at least some of the time, for the life of the pregnant woman). Those exemptions are popular, and only a small committed core of far-right political activists oppose them. (One thinks of the execrable but entertaining Alan Keyes, the clownish former presidential candidate, who was fond of asking “How dare we sentence a child to death for his father’s crime?” whenever the subject of these exemptions arose.) Smart pro-lifers know better than to take the radical Keyes stance, so they call for “reasonable” limitations on women’s right to choose, admitting to the wisdom of rape and incest exemptions.

But the NTFAA’s authors want to make sure that those exemptions are defined far more narrowly in the future. As reported Friday:

Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.” This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion…

“This bill takes us back to a time when just saying ‘no’ wasn’t enough to qualify as rape,” says Steph Sterling, a lawyer and senior adviser to the National Women’s Law Center. Laurie Levenson, a former assistant US attorney and expert on criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, notes that the new bill’s authors are “using language that’s not particularly clear, and some people are going to lose protection.” Other types of rapes that would no longer be covered by the exemption include rapes in which the woman was drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol, rapes of women with limited mental capacity, and many date rapes. “There are a lot of aspects of rape that are not included,” Levenson says. Bold mine.

As any historian of women’s rights will tell you, the struggle against sexual violence and the struggle for reproductive justice are intertwined. The right of a woman to say “no” to sex and the right to say “no” to an unwanted pregnancy both rest on the same principle of sacred autonomy. Feminists fought hard in the nineteenth century for statutory rape laws that raised the age of consent. One hundred years later, we fought for women’s right to withdraw consent once given, and for the common-sense principle that intoxication vitiates consent. What we’re working towards is a culture that sees rape as defined not solely by the presence of life-threatening force but by the absence of enthusiastic consent. By insisting on the antiquated and inadequate definition of “forcible rape”, the House Republican majority seeks not just to limit women’s access to abortion, but to undo decades worth of expanded protections against sexual violence.

This is, as Thomas at Yes Means Yes put it, “a regressive change in service of a regressive change.”

Please contact your Congressperson, and urge that your representative to vote no on this unconscionable threat to women’s lives and safety.

That’s not hyperbole.