The addict checks out: sex, rage, rape, and Adam from Girls

 

Since Sunday’s airing of “On all Fours,” the darkest and most troubling Girls episode yet, there’s been plenty of debate about whether or not what happened between Adam and Natalia was rape, bad sex, or something else that’s difficult to name. (I liked what Amanda Hess and Emily Heist Moss have to say.)

Like so many, I found the episode emotionally triggering to watch. Witnessing anyone — whether they’re friends or fictional characters of whom one has grown fond — relapse into destructive, humiliating, or dangerous behavior is painful. I have always had a lot of sympathy for the darkly brooding Adam (played so well by the magnetic Adam Driver), not least because he’s in recovery, having struggled with alcoholism since his teens. In this most recent episode, we see Adam make the conscious choice to drink again. As an addict who has been clean nearly 15 years (and who was in and out of Twelve Step programs for 11 years before that) I’m captivated by relapse. I want to watch it up close, partly because I will always be drawn to the fantasy of going back to drugs and alcohol, and partly because studying the mechanics of another’s fall is a kind of prophylaxis against making a similar decision.

What haunts me about Adam isn’t just that he’s a fellow drunk with a compelling mix of social awkwardness and sexually-charged charisma. It’s the way in which he externalizes his own self-destructiveness. Driver is a good enough actor that he’s able to show us two Adams at once: the disconnected narcissist and the vulnerable boy who knows that he’s capable of empathy if he can only, only get out of his own way. We never doubt why women fall in love with him, and we never doubt why they will invariably leave.

I’ve been Adam, both with the alcohol and with the sex. Watching him assault Natalia (I’m not gonna quarrel about words), I remembered how easy it is for the addict to use sex to disappear into one’s own pain, one’s own rage.   And I remembered — as Girls will surely show Adam remembering -the mix of shock and fear and disgust on the face of a woman who trusted me.  ”Where the fuck did you go?” one ex asked me in bewilderment and anger. I’d fumble with an apology, with remorse, with soothing words that always stood in painful contrast to what had just come before.  Like Adam, when I had sex high or drunk there was almost always this nearly instant post-ejaculatory regret, as if my orgasm had purged a demon and I could return to being present, empathetic, and tender.  (One reason I had to be celibate in early sobriety was to learn how to connect sexually, how to stay present even when my clothes came off.   That wasn’t an easy lesson to learn.)

It’s dangerous to over-identify with a fictional character. I’m not Adam.  But we’re similar enough that I was shaken to my core by the reminder of where it is I can go if I’m not “doing my work.”  I was also reminded that that destructive disappearing act, that vanishing into sexualized cruelty, had nothing to with the women I was with.  On Twitter, some of my friends were suggesting that what happened was partly Natalia’s fault for not understanding Adam’s peculiar kinks; “this is why Hannah was better for him,” they claimed.

Men don’t drink and disconnect and (yes) rape because they’re with the wrong partner.  It’s both a dangerous oversell of female power and a devaluation of men’s responsibility to suggest that a woman’s empathy — or sexual adventurousness — is enough to restore an addict to sanity.  Men like Adam (and the me that was) don’t need a particularly adventurous and understanding sex partner; we don’t drink and disappear into rage because we’re misunderstood.  The love of a kinky woman won’t save us for long.  We drink and disappear because we’re not working our program, because we’re not winning the fight every damn day against a disease that leaves us incapable of empathy, of sustained kindness.

The good news is that when we start to win that fight we change; we can become completely different people.  In sobriety, I learned how to be present, how to listen, how to play with humor and tenderness.  In the program, we’re reminded that we only have “a daily reprieve contingent on maintaining our spiritual condition.”  On Sunday night, I watched someone lose that “daily reprieve,” and inflict so much stupid, cruel, unnecessary pain as a consequence.

Monday morning, I called my sponsor.

On Guns and American Masculinity in Daily Life

At Daily Life Australia, where I’m now contributing occasionally, here’s Defending Masculinity with Guns, written in response to the Connecticut horror.

Excerpt:

The “Man Card” campaign can only work in a culture where white masculinity is seen not only as fragile, but under attack. The modern enemy isn’t King George III and his Redcoats; it’s the emasculating influence of a culture in which women and ethnic minorities have gained access to what were once all white, all-male preserves. (Though a “Bushmaster” refers to a kind of snake, the name instantly conjures up an image of an intrepid white male explorer in Africa, using his gun to fend off wild animals and natives.) The company is coy about what it is that young men are supposed to do with the gun once they’ve bought it, knowing that for many, merely owning it will be sufficiently “masculinizing.” The hope, presumably, is that young lads will think “as long as I own this gun, I am still an independent person, a force to be reckoned with, even if I never use it.” One gun is invariably an insufficient talisman, however. This is why so many American young men collect as many as they can afford, perhaps hoping to amass an arsenal to protect themselves against every imaginable threat (or, more honestly, against their own nagging self-doubt.) Adam Lanza brought so many weapons to the Sandy Hook elementary school that he couldn’t carry them all; forced to leave one in the car, he carried three, including his Bushmaster, on his rampage.

Fragile masculinity was not the sole cause of last Friday’s massacre. Lax gun laws (themselves rooted in our national myth of violent self-reliance) and mental illness also played a part. So too did class privilege: Lanza, like most rampage shooters in America in recent decades, had grown up in comfort in bucolic suburbia, the son of a vice-president at General Electric. Privileged white men aren’t the only ones to suffer from mental anguish, but as a result of our national history, they are disproportionately likely to imagine that they are entitled to foist their pain onto others in a terribly public way. Privileged white American men are also the ones most likely to feel the rage of “frustrated entitlement,” keenly aware of the disconnect between the affluence and autonomy they were taught was their birthright, and the anxiety and rejection that seems to characterize their daily experiences with others.

Mass Shootings and White Privilege at the National Review

In the aftermath of last Friday’s unspeakable tragedy in Connecticut, this July column is getting a lot of renewed attention. Today, I spoke with Eliana Johnson of the National Review about my contention that white male privilege is at least a contributing factor to the epidemic of rampage killings in the USA. Given that this is America’s flagship conservative journal, I’m grateful that her piece was as evenhanded as it was. Here’s Another Theory for Mass Murder: White-Male Privilege.

Excerpt:

Pasadena City College professor of history and gender studies Hugo Schwyzer tells National Review Online that he believes many crimes, dating back to John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, are caused in part by “frustrated white male privilege.” In recent years, according to Schwyzer, mass murders have increasingly been committed by “white males from bucolic suburban settings” who may be experiencing a form of cognitive dissonance; having been told “the world is supposed to be your oyster,” these young men are “miserable in the midst of abundance” and feel “powerless compared to everyone else around them.”

Read the whole thing.

I told Johnson that I’d been an avid reader since I was in high school, rarely agreeing but always enjoying the quality of NR writing.

Men, Misogyny, and Murder-Suicide

A new post at Role/Reboot today: Are Most Murder-Suicides Acts of Misogyny? Excerpt:

Though I remember only bits and pieces of the night I tried to kill my girlfriend and myself, I do remember that I felt no anger toward her or anyone else. Instead, I remember thinking that the drugs were giving me the courage to do something heroic for both of us. We had both tried suicide many times before; we were both addicts; we were both struggling with devastating depression. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to die alone; I wanted to walk into whatever lies beyond with someone I loved and trusted. And I remember thinking that deep inside, she wanted me to be strong and to do this for us. In other words, I appointed myself a White Knight to save her.

What binds together all male perpetrators of murder-suicide—there are a handful of very rare cases, such as the murder of Phil Hartman, where women kill their lovers and then themselves—is the grandiose sense that another person’s life is ours to take. Belcher may have been motivated by rage and pain and traumatic brain injury, while I was driven by a bizarre sense that I was carrying out a merciful act, but in the end our assumptions were the same: We got to make the call about who lived and who died. This is what makes murder-suicide an inherently misogynist act: It’s based on a man’s assumption that a woman’s body belongs to him. That’s as true when it’s motivated by a perverse chivalry as when it’s driven by hate.

Men who attempt murder-suicide are, like all domestic abusers, in great pain themselves. Killing themselves at the same time or shortly after they’ve taken the lives of their partners is often about expiating guilt and diverting the rage of survivors. We live in a culture where we’re trained to be sympathetic to the depressed and the self-destructive; committing suicide (especially in the very public way Belcher did) is a way of demanding sympathy and understanding. Alas; that strategy too often works.

Read the whole thing.

Taking Rape for the Team

My Role/Reboot piece this week revisits an old and troubling question: Why Some Activist Groups Tolerate Rapists .

Excerpt:

Obviously, sexual abuse is not just a phenomenon found on the left. It’s rampant in conservative churches, as we well know. But most secular progressives aren’t terribly surprised when organizations dedicated to upholding traditional sexist values condone or cover up the worst of sexist behavior. As a person of faith of course, I am appalled when religious texts I regard as sacred are distorted and deliberately misinterpreted to excuse or enable rape. And as a liberal, I am equally infuriated when women in supposedly progressive organizations are told that a climate of sexual harassment and abuse must be endured for the sake of some “greater good.”

Particularly among radicals, there remains an ugly tendency to see feminism as being a bourgeois white woman’s phenomenon. The insistence that women’s liberation is anti-revolutionary, or insignificant, or just so much liberal navel-gazing, allows rape culture to thrive in far too many radical political and ethnic organizations. And brave young women like Dinah get raped and tossed aside.

It is true that in 2012, women’s issues seem to have moved to the forefront of the national dialogue. At its convention in Charlotte, the Democratic Party did an excellent job of centering the fight for reproductive justice and equal pay. At the same time, even on the left, the relentless pressure to de-prioritize sexual liberation in favor of some other ideal remains. While feminism is not the only cause worth fighting for, the feminist principles of women’s equality, autonomy, and body integrity must be incorporated into every political and social movement.

Mass Murder and White Male Privilege

Today’s column at Role/Reboot responds to one of the many questions being asked in the aftermath of last Friday morning’s deadly shootings in Colorado: Why Are Most Mass Murderers Privileged White Men? Excerpt:

We don’t yet know what drove James Holmes to do the terrible things he did. We only partly understand what drove the likes of Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Charles Whitman, and the many other white men who have committed similar massacres. While each killer had a unique pathology that helped drive him to do the unthinkable, the fact that these white male mass murderers felt so confident choosing public spaces to commit their crimes reflects a powerful truth about the culture in which they were raised. Put simply, they did what they did because of an individual sickness—but they did it where they did it in part because of white privilege.

It’s not that white men are more violent. Rates of domestic violence, including homicide, are roughly the same across all ethnic groups. Statistically, murderers are more likely to kill family members and intimate partners than strangers. But while men from all backgrounds kill their spouses, affluent white men are disproportionately represented in the ranks of our most infamous mass murderers. In other words, the less privileged you are, the less likely you are to take your violence outside of your family and your community.

White men from prosperous families grow up with the expectation that our voices will be heard. We expect politicians and professors to listen to us and respond to our concerns. We expect public solutions to our problems. And when we’re hurting, the discrepancy between what we’ve been led to believe is our birthright and what we feel we’re receiving in terms of attention can be bewildering and infuriating. Every killer makes his pain another’s problem. But only those who’ve marinated in privilege can conclude that their private pain is the entire world’s problem with which to deal. This is why, while men of all races and classes murder their intimate partners, it is privileged young white dudes who are by far the likeliest to shoot up schools and movie theaters.

Men, Rape, Vulnerability, and the New FBI Definition

I have a new piece up at Role/Reboot this morning: Erections Aren’t Consent: What the New FBI Definitions Might Tell Us About Male Victims of Rape. Excerpt:

Without getting mired in the tiresome debates over statistics, it’s safe to conclude three things from the recent data and the changed FBI definition. First, men make up a heavy preponderance of those who commit rape, though a significant minority of women does commit acts of sexualized violence. Second, women are statistically at much greater risk of rape than are men. Three, acknowledging these first two truths doesn’t diminish the reality that more men and boys than we realized are victims of rape and sexual violence. We need to avoid the twin errors of claiming false equivalence on the one hand, or denying the reality of male vulnerability altogether on the other.

Ejaculation is not evidence of enthusiasm. Orgasms (both male and female) can be coerced. Those are truths that bear repeating. They are worth remembering not because we’re witnessing an epidemic of female-on-male sexual assault. They’re worth remembering not only for the sake of preventing the rare but real incidences of female on male rape, but for teaching all of us— especially men—that a partner’s physical arousal is not a sexual blank check.

I still hear the witticism that “a hard dick has no conscience.” This belief that men “think with their dicks” serves to make men (like Ian) vulnerable to sexual assault, just as it serves to excuse away the rapes that aroused men commit. For the sake of the small but suffering number of male victims—and for the far greater number of women who are the victims of men—we need to shatter this pernicious myth about the male body. Men are not so tough that they can never be sexually assaulted by women. And by the exact same token, they are not so vulnerable to lust that rape becomes physiologically inevitable.

Men, we need to acknowledge, are both much stronger and much more fragile than most of us were raised to believe.

No Grey Area: The Lolita Myth and the Lingering Lie of Male Weakness

Today’s column at Good Men Project asks a simple question and gives an even simpler answer: Can Young Girls Really Seduce Older Men? Excerpt:

Rightly concerned as we are about the sexualization of young children, we need to be careful to remember that teens and tweens are sexual. Children and adolescents need the space and the freedom with which to develop their own healthy sexualities, free from the unhelpful encouragement to “be sexy” for others and from the equally toxic pressure to repress all of their desires until marriage. And one key way we help young girls develop a healthy sexuality that is theirs alone is by creating a culture in which they don’t see themselves as objects of adult male desire. That means the onus is solely on adult men to set and maintain good boundaries.

Some teens do want, or think they want, sexual attention from older men. But the reality that underage girls (be they 11 or 17) occasionally behave seductively towards older men doesn’t mean that older men can “be seduced.” The word “seduce” means “to be led away” or “to be led astray.” No adult is so weak that he (or she) is powerless to refuse sexual temptation, much less from a child. As powerful as the libido is, it is not so strong as to trump the will. Testosterone may drive desire, but unless a man has sustained significant trauma to the moral center of his brain, hormones can’t override the power to choose. (Hint: an erection doesn’t constitute significant trauma to the right temporo-parietal junction.)

Penn State and Sexual Shame

I finally said something about the Penn State tragedy. Here’s To Prevent Future Penn States, We Need to Celebrate the Good in Male Sexuality

Excerpt:

My take-away from the Penn State tragedy is one of wonder and optimism. I marvel that the university’s trustees were willing to fire an octogenarian living legend for the grave lapse of not having done more to protect children and to do so by phone. I expected far more voices to be raised in defense of those whose commitment to the reputation of an institution trumped their moral obligation to kids. That Paterno’s firing has proved so popular nationwide (the stupid antics of a handful of PSU students notwithstanding) is indicative that we’re more willing than ever to confront the atrocity that is child sexual abuse. There have always been Jerry Sanduskys, and there have always been Joe Paternos to cover for them. Though we might wish that each faced a stiffer penalty still, what’s been done so far is more than would have been done just a few decades ago.

But progress is not perfection. And when it comes to rape and molestation, we can’t settle for the comforting reassurance that these crimes are becoming slowly rarer. Far too many women are still raped, and far too many boys and girls abused for us to be self-congratulatory. We need to continue to push for more protection for children, and we need to do more to teach men to end their own complicity in the culture of silence and tacit approval that makes rape still so common.

Tom concludes his piece with a reminder: “The real problem is that until now we haven’t wanted to look at sexual misconduct in our own communities.” And it’s about time we did.
That’s absolutely true. But we also need to remember that while pedophilia and related disorders are genuine mental illnesses, they are aided and abetted by sexual shame. In a world where the hefty majority of rapists and abusers are men, that means that helping men–all men–overcome that shame is a critical part of the “solution.” What Tom calls “misconduct” flourishes where frank talk about sex and desire is off-limits. Ignorance, silence, and the distrust of pleasure facilitate that misconduct.

Please read the whole thing.