Conceding Is Not Consent: A Response
When Elizabeth Ellen wrote her response to Sophia Katz and E.R. Kennedy’s reports of sexual abuse in the alt lit community, she made some broad, offensive appeals for accountability in such matter. Beyond this generalization, there were a series of accusations and confessions that smack of unfortunate judgment calls, underdeveloped thinking, and a dangerous level of smugness. Ellen was sort of correct about one thing: there is a big difference between statutory rape and rape rape. There is a big difference when you believe you have agency as a young woman, and when you are held down and forced/coerced into sex or sexual acts by somebody else at any age.
But this is where she stops being correct. To deny someone their right to speak of their abuse because of this difference is to deny they have any right at all to speak of it. Legally speaking, these are both still crimes. Metaphysically speaking, we who live in our bodies should be able to examine these actions and reconsider their moral soundness, especially where these specific morals were questionable in the first place. Does it mean we can redraft our history in order for it to fit into the mold of rape? No. Because often, there’s no need to reshape what happened. It is often clear from these stories that a wrong was committed to a body.
Fortunately, there are bigger fish to fry than Ellen’s open letter. We have been made painfully aware of a lack of accountability within ourselves, with others. It’s important that, while we educate others on what enthusiastic consent looks like, we also look at what it means as a culture that we can call a damaging sexual experience a “gray area.” Certainly, it is not a gray area for the victim of sexual abuse. It is certainly a gray area for the perpetrator and for many naysayers who hear accounts of various evenings and do their fair share of handwringing over semantics. It is true that many uncomfortable sexual encounters do not count as rape, but they shouldn’t count as nothing either. Especially not when so many women—and men—experience the horrible aftermath of these sorts of abuses.
We can call what happened and continues to happen sexual abuse, and yet even this term has fallen into the chasm of gray area. The gray area is so dangerous it is not only at the expense of the victim, but even extends to the expense of the abusers who, due to this undefined zone, can bear little comprehension or recognizable signs of guilt over what they’ve done. To paraphrase and botch a quote from Dostoevsky, it is often the question and not the ultimate answer of a story that is the real mystery. If we do not invite the idea that our actions are questionable as they are conscionable, then any conclusions we come to regarding what we’ve done risks going lost in that selfsame grayness.
When I was thirteen, I was for all intents and purposes a mall rat. I met riffraffs and punks and we’d linger in the food court, outside the mall, in bathrooms, wherever we could perch. There was a man whom we encountered outside of the mall. He immediately picked me out of the crowd. Would make grabs and pinches at my butt and undeveloped breasts and laugh. Told me I looked like this hot Final Fantasy character. I blushed and felt nervous. Whenever we would see him after that, I felt my stomach and groin tighten the way stomachs and groins tighten in the presence of a crush. He would hang out with us and always paid me the most attention. Would always joke about how he was going to take me home and rail me. I would laugh. Women are supposed to laugh at these come-ons. We’re supposed to act demure toward advances, but never resistant.
One night, I heard a rap at my window. I opened the blinds and screamed to see this man. I snuck out of the house. He said he didn’t want this car of his anymore, and would I celebrate with one last joyride. I got in his car. He drove recklessly. Smashed into mailboxes, hedges, and even made sure to flatten this recently struck possum in the road. I almost threw up. I can still recall how physical the way the car bumped over its body felt in my bones. He was laughing in a way I can’t describe. Coarse, roaring steam up his throat. I thought for the first time Manchild. I didn’t want to address the fact that I was scared, that this was no longer fun. I couldn’t get out of my tightening throat that he should take me home, because nothing so far in my life could train me for this type of confrontation. I was embarrassed to tell this man that my dad might be worried. I thought it best to say nothing.
We drove from one town to another town. Another town. The trees became unfamiliar. Then the streets. Even the Routes were not Routes I had ever been driven through. We drove for half an hour. Then we stopped. We were at his house. I was thirteen years old in front of a man’s house and it was very dark. He got out of his car. I got out of his car.
My heart at that moment—I can describe that: cold malfunctioning thuds. There were no cellphones, so there would be no way to tell anyone where I was. Despite my cold blood, I still attempted very hard to be a cool girl cool with my surroundings. I kept saying cool, cool.
When we entered his home, he brought me into his room, onto his bed. Without a word he removed my pants. My shirt. He put on Girls Gone Wild, I don’t know why. He started to call me the name of the Final Fantasy character as he revealed my naked body to himself, to myself. I was on my period and still used pads because tampons made me nervous—I didn’t understand how to put them in, how to ever remove them. I meekly said that I had my period, hoping, like my male classmates, that he would respond with disgust and stop. Frankly though, I did not want him to be disgusted by me, my exposed body.
Some parts of me wanted to know if he found me attractive naked, as I had a feeling maybe men might find me attractive naked. I didn’t want him to see that I wore pads, to smell the rotten perfumed blood. I let him slide off my pad-heavy panties like I was a baby. He rubbed his body on me first with his pants on and then without his pants on. He did not mention my period back at me. I did not say “no” in the way we are taught to say “no.” I did not know how to say “no” since I was already naked in his bed. I was in a great deal of pain from this rubbing, but he did not stop. I did the best I could—I shook my head “no.” It didn’t work. Then it was over. I lay in the darkness unmoved. As I write this, I am unmoved.
I do not say that I was raped. For a long time, I did not believe that what was being done to my body was rape. Like E.R. Kennedy, I was young and manipulated by the allure of an older man. If I acted foolishly, does my trauma undergo erasure? If we are not the ossified female models of assertion and self-defense, are we subject to the whims of others? Does that mean I was not raped? No, it does not. But I hate the imperialism of the word rape, hate the idea that I should find myself with a word that has the potential to define my entire life and my place in the world. The term “rapist” is difficult too, as I refuse the idea that I should adopt this man as “my rapist.” To call him a rapist—my rapist—is not in any way shape or form helpful to me, and that is where I might almost agree with Ellen and the dangers of loosely throwing the word around. It would be extremely irresponsible to cast this accusation over a bad sexual experience just because one party wasn’t “into it.” But that is not what is happening in cases of abuse where Sophia or Tiffany or E.R. or countless others are concerned. An important distinction here is that In Sophia Katz’s essay, “We Don’t Have to Do Anything,” she does not use the word rape to define what happened. She does not need to say this word for most of us to understand what occurred during the course of that week. Had she directly addressed Dierks as her rapist, however, it would be a challenge to deny her this. When Ellen says, “We can’t hold one accountable and not the other,” she is channeling the myopic response that always reveals that a victim’s trials are never over.
For a long time, I never spoke about my traumas to anyone. I’m not sure I would publicly lambast and humiliate those who have violated my body; however, the reason I haven’t called him a rapist is because I was never offered a space enough to do so—not from others, not from myself. Never certain enough to say that what was done to me was a crime. Most of my adulthood has been spent living inside this gray area.
Now there is an issue of certainty, and this serves its own unique imbroglio of panic and insecurity. All of the above are true accounts of what happened to me. It led to years and years of psychological damage, eating disorders, a general lack of respect for my body, intimacy issues, unshakable depression, and countless other dysfunctions. A recent therapist confirmed once that what happened to me were crimes. This knowledge helped determine that I had been standing on top of a calcified heap that had been volcanic all along.
We have grand notions of what it means to be raped. They are undeniably violent: the scene we imagine is of a man holding down a woman as she screams and he hits her and does the deed. This act of violence is so wildly pantomimed as to become its own fetish. The scene is fetishized to such a degree as to transform into something else entirely: power-play, redemption, submission.
In the movie, Five Easy Pieces, Robert Dupea, played by Jack Nicholson, repeatedly forces himself on the love-interest, Rayette. She resists, she says no, she cries, she pushes him away, but then after being struck and pinned against a wall and screamed at, she falls into his arms and they fuck like they’re actually on fire. We don’t view what he did as rape, because the end result is desire, and the reason she denied him each time was clearly latent desire. The movie doesn’t spend any time analyzing her damage and so we move on, masculinity falsely defined, femininity falsely surmised. If you ask anybody, here was a passionate man who saw what he wanted and got when the getting was good. She just didn’t know she wanted it. This mindset is dangerously common. Dangerously. The reality is this: if you press someone enough with your advances, they might just lose the vocabulary to resist, and it will probably not end with the two of you tangled atop one another exhausted and panting from the mindblowing sex. But we imagine this could happen more than we imagine the painful alternative. We would prefer not to imagine the painful alternative. We are Jack Nicholson and our feelings at present are the most important feelings in a room.
We need to understand once and for all that our feelings do not matter if they do not cohere with a potential partner’s. If Jack Nicholson’s character were to hold anyone down the way he does in this film, there would be no reason whatsoever to blame the woman if, post-coitus, she reconsidered her safety, her privacy, the consent that was ripped out of her. The shitty most unforgiveable truth is that victims of sexual abuse never leave the rooms where they’ve been pinned. It stays in their hearts forever even if the rest of the world around them gets better. The gray area is a mist out of which sexual abusers can usually walk, free of pain, anger, litigation, into the next scene of their lives. If they are then turned around to face what they’ve done and all they see are the words not-rape and not-crime, that is all they will need to see before continuing on. But if we define this haze, this soup, this fog, these abusers might have to see their victims in there waiting for anything that isn’t pain to happen.
When we are given the choice instead to write an essay describing the events of a night or a week, it should by no means feel like a public tar-and-feathering. The tar-and-feathering, the public humiliation, the shunning—all of these acts have already been committed to the victim in the days, months, and years they have remained silenced by those in power. Should there be half an inch of sympathy for these men for the allegations that have the potential to crush and ruin their careers? I think so. They were not properly educated on consent and bodily respect. Due to this ignorance, they have committed crimes against others and have consequently been pushed through the unforgivable gyre of ridicule the internet is so good at incubating. At the same time, they behaved in unforgivable ways and have disrupted the lives of multiple young people in their paths for more power. Empathy did not enter into their actions.
When someone experiences sexual violence, that is a violence they must reconcile on their own terms. They have chosen to speak. As a result, others have chosen to speak. When we call what happened a “gray area,” the onus should not be on the victim to sharpen the contrast between consent/not-consent and assault. This gray area is symptomatic of our limits. As a society. As individuals inside that society. Instead of understanding victims, we inure ourselves to the circumstances and, consequently, blame gets distributed widely. As a community moving inside this society, we need to analyze the gray areas in ourselves as a group. For too many victims, this grayness perpetuates silence. But more victims have a platform now more than ever to speak. Our only job should be to listen and listen closely.