This time around I’m going to do something I don’t normally do: I’m going to do some speculation using my own personal anecdotal observations (albeit with contributions from my knowledge base). For a while now I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on what makes different people violate consent, what causes someone to commit an act that can be interpreted as sexual harassment or assault, and these ideas have bounced around my head and off enough friends who would sit still long enough that they have coalesced into a meaningful argument. I’m going to cite a lot of personal experiences and observations, with just a few studies to back them up, because I have no idea if my hypotheses have been researched at all, but the particulars of these experiences resonate well enough with my understanding of gender and widely held gender-based assumptions that I feel confident sharing my ideas as possible fact.
We all know the assumed paradigm: Men violate, harass, and rape women because they think of women as objects for their sexual consumption, or because they are graceless, thoughtless fools who need to be taught not to engage in such behaviour because they have no idea that rape is bad. Men are assumed to be either the sole or primary offenders, women the sole or primary victims, and there’s usually something about a culture that condones or enables this sort of mistreatment, framed within an overall devaluation of women and women’s well being (rape culture). Not always, but sometimes this comes within the framework of the Duluth model’s original supporting theory: that men do this as a microcosmic reflection of men’s widespread subjugation of women, keeping them in their lower hierarchical place with fear and intimidation, due either to a pervasive cultural force or an evil inherent in masculinity. This set of assumptions usually leads to the recommendation that we must teach men not to rape, teach women it’s okay to say no, and this often manifests itself in workplace sexual harassment workshops and pre-prom assemblies in high schools. We have awareness campaigns and legal initiatives based on this model.
Of course, I could spend this entire article just telling you everything wrong with that paradigm (starting with the little known fact that sexual violence is neither the critical man-on-woman epidemic it’s made out to be nor a gendered phenomenon at all, completely debunking the notion of rape culture as it’s understood), but I’ve already done that, and if you’re reading this, you may already have come to those conclusions on your own. I’m far more interested, at this moment, in examining the differences between what causes men and women to violate consent. Off the top of my trauma-addled head, I can think of 3 men who have committed such violations toward me, and 6 women, so I feel uniquely equipped to analyze the differences (I suppose one might call that a silver lining). I will outline those experiences, the differences I perceive between them, and my speculations on the causes of those differences. If I don’t make it clear, all names have been changed.
When I was in middle school, I learned that a boy in my class had a crush on me. We’ll call him Bob. Bob was a special ed student, extremely developmentally delayed, to the extent that he struggled to communicate verbally. He and I attended the same dance, where he awkwardly approached me and, rather than asking, put his arms around my shoulders and just started dancing during a slow-dance song. I decided I didn’t want to dance with him, and it was too loud to try to tell him this verbally. When I tried to pull away to go somewhere else, either he stumbled or pushed me, but whichever it was we both ended up tumbling to the floor. Bob fell on top of me, and perhaps in his limited social understanding he saw the sudden compromising position as an opportunity, because he started reaching up my skirt. I was taking martial arts classes at the time, but opted not to physically defend myself because I was afraid I’d get in trouble due to his disability, so I instead managed to push him away and squirm out of his reach.
Not only was I told by parents, teachers, and sensei alike that I had been mistaken to fear retribution, but in subsequent days I had many people ask me why I didn’t beat him senseless (a question that was no doubt influenced by the fact that I was bigger, stronger, and significantly more coordinated than him). This was a little before the era of school psychologists handing out therapy sessions for so much as sneezing, but predictably, the overall reaction was one of concern for my well being, and as I understand it, Bob was disciplined in whatever way was determined appropriate according to school policy and his IEP.
Many years later, the first friend I made in college was a young man who had been in a car accident that had caused him some significant injuries. We’ll call him Joe. He had hit his head hard enough that his eyes were permanently dilated, which was clear to any observer. He had metal plates in his back and his head, and he had suffered brain damage. To a certain extent, that brain damage was apparent in his behaviour. He had retained certain learned behaviours, but was tremendously socially awkward, and utterly missed most social cues or expectations. He was studying nursing, possessed the requisite fascination with human anatomy, and would occasionally make creepy remarks about other people’s bodies in a way that can only be compared to what a serial killer in a prime time drama might say of his potential future victims. I remember him once commenting off-handedly that my skin was exceptionally soft, but that he wasn’t attracted to women with dark body hair. He was a very physical person, often touching people as he talked to them, and he would occasionally touch butts or breasts because, as he claimed, he didn’t understand the difference between that and touching an arm. His bafflement seemed to all my faculties completely genuine.
I want to clarify: This behaviour was more fascinating to me than it was upsetting, and I in no way felt dehumanized, harmed, or violated (nor was I particularly upset by what happened with Bob). I, of course, tried to explain to him why his actions were not socially acceptable, but this was mostly for the benefit of others he may come interact with. Not all unwanted contact is traumatic, and many of the stories below were unwanted but not traumatic. I give the above details as an example because he didn’t ask, and no body language or social cues would have indicated that it was appropriate to touch me that way. It was, technically, an inappropriate behaviour with respect to consent, even though it didn’t produce suffering on that occasion, and it serves to illustrate some of the causes of this type of behaviour.
On the other hand, the following experience was somewhat upsetting to me, if only because it made me realize that something much worse would have been possible. One night, while watching a movie, Joe was giving me a back massage. He was probably twice my size, sitting on me and rubbing my back. He suddenly changed positions until he was laying flat on top of me, put his hands down on either side of my head, and sucked on the side of my neck until it left a hickey. My startled and adamant protest gave him little to no immediate pause, nor did my attempt to wiggle out of his grasp, but in a sort of delayed reaction he expressed a sincere confusion to my protest, and I remember him asking me why I was upset and what he’d done wrong. Needless to say, I stopped talking to him after that , and a friend of mine threatened him the next time he came by my dorm. I have no idea what my friend said but I never saw Joe again. For good measure, another friend ensured his departure from my life by pretending to be a defensive lover and added to the piling threats. Still after he had surely disappeared for good, my friends were practically lining up to find and hang him, and any time I brought him up over the course of the next year or two, it elicited a sudden and visceral anger from anyone who cared about me.
The third, of course, was my ex, to whose crimes I’ve already alluded in this blog. I haven’t given him a name yet, so for now, I will call him Ed. I feel it important to point out that Ed had a clear inability to process empathy, and this was apparent in many discussions with him and in the way he treated anyone with whom he interacted, causing most to feel a general unease around him. He spectacularly failed to understand social conventions, including the way people wanted to be treated, from bodily autonomy to the desire not to be verbally abused. He insisted that sexual partners had the right to touch each other as they wish (and that I was welcome to do the same), and that what normal people called verbal debasement was merely honesty and respectful criticism when it came from him. The questions he asked and comments he made left no doubt that he did not understand why anyone didn’t want to be treated this way, such that it was bizarre and confusing to talk to him about such topics. After many conversations that went this way, it became painfully apparent that Ed’s assertions were genuine misunderstanding and social dysfunction, not intentional gaslighting.
When I call him a sociopath, I am not speaking as a bitter ex with baggage. I am speaking as a casual student of psychology. I suspect that he truly was afflicted by some form of sociopathy, and I knew that he had already been psychologically evaluated in the past for a number of disorders. In any case, his symptoms and deficits were consistent with the substantial and violent childhood abuse I knew him to have suffered. So it will come as no surprise even to those readers new to my blog that he was responsible for all manner of abuse toward me, from physical attacks, to verbal and psychological abuse, to sexual coercion, to flat-out molestation and forcible rape.
I think it bears mentioning that the above anecdotes have all been shared with other people, and the response I get is overwhelmingly the same: shock, horror, and unwavering empathy. I get hugs, offers of “whatever you need,” and all manner of kindness. The offenders are decried as monsters, and the events as tragic. Nobody shrugs any of it off, and countless have offered to find and hurt these men on my behalf. I’ve never been asked what I was wearing and my well known promiscuity was never brought into the discussion, no matter what social circle or corner of the internet I was reporting it to, what part of small-town or city America I was in, or the religious and political alignments of the listeners (of which, I assure you, there was a substantial array). Everyone ardently condemns these men, with torches and pitchforks held aloft among echoing cries for their heads, and that’s important, because not only does it directly contradict feminist claims of how people react when a woman is raped, it’s also not at all true of reactions to the women I’m about to describe.
THE BOY IN THE HALLWAY
Before I discuss my own experiences with women, I’ll start off with an example that didn’t happen to me, but that I witnessed when I was younger. When I was in high school, waiting in the halls between the last class of the day and some extracurricular, I observed a group of girls engaging in what would have been called sexual harassment if they had been male, and what would almost certainly be described as sexual assault today. They were crowded around a boy in our class, and upon closer observation, were breathing and moaning in his ear, apparently to try to elicit some kind of sexual response out of him to embarrass him. Some of them were watching the crotch of his pants expectantly. Some of them were touching him. One even licked his ear. They were all giggling uncontrollably, and he was visibly uncomfortable, a vivid red spreading from his cheeks to the rest of his face and neck. Before the end, some of the girls sat on him, and others went so far as to grope him.
At the time I remember thinking it was funny. It hadn’t even occurred to me that this was harassment, because I had never bothered to conceptualize sexual harassment as something that a female could do to a male (or something that a female could do at all). But if a crowd of boys had done this to a girl, I’m sure I would have been running to intervene or report them, as would any remotely socially conscious onlooker. Looking back as an adult, even before I worked my way into the men’s rights world, I’ve often found myself wondering what the hell possessed these girls to behave the way they did, and why none of us thought there was anything wrong with it (except the poor boy, who looked helpless and humiliated). Whatever the reason, this type of behaviour may be more common among young women than any of us assumes: in a recent CDC study, 1 in 5 surveyed females who had perpetrated sexual misconduct admitted to committing group sexual assault, compared to 1 in 39 males, and later on I’ll offer my own speculation on why this might be.
I also have ideas about why this boy sat and endured in silence something that made him clearly uncomfortable. Males are assumed to give blanket consent by virtue of their maleness. Sex is viewed as something that males pursue incessantly and females endure for the sake of romance and reproduction, a trope portrayed in every sitcom under the sun. Colloquially, we say, “she opened her legs for him,” “she let him fuck her.” Sex is something women let men do, but don’t necessarily enjoy or pursue, something men want and women, if they deign to, allow out of love or resignation, something men do to women. Men are the consent violators, women the consent violatees. Under this assumption, men always want it, so how could one possibly deny consent? He had an erection, so how could he claim that he didn’t want it? As if a woman’s biological arousal could ever stand up as evidence against her.
Thanks to these horribly one-sided and sexist assumptions, men who admit to having suffered a consent violation receive one of two responses: either the listener tells him he should be elated that he got sexual attention, or his sexual orientation (and thus his masculinity) is called into question. “Awesome! I wish it had happened to me!” or “You didn’t like a pile of girls groping you? What are you, a faggot?” I know a sobering amount of men who have kept quiet about sexual assault and harassment for these reasons, and more who have received exactly these responses (and worse, including police officers who laughed and refused to take a report), and I can only imagine that some variant on this response is what the boy in that hallway feared.
LISA AND JOAN
To return to the position of a female on the receiving end, my own nasty experiences with women have been in many ways similar to this boy’s anecdote. A friend of a friend, whom I will call Lisa, is known for being handsy, especially when she drinks. At more than one social event, including private parties and very public bars, Lisa has been found unabashedly groping other women’s breasts and pinching their nipples (yes, seriously). At one party, she even started removing other people’s clothing to fondle them, much to the dismay of many. None of this, if any clarification was needed, was with regard to any kind of consent. I personally have asked her many times to stop. She would usually remind me that she is not attracted to women, as if one’s sexual orientation has any bearing on whether or not an unwanted touch is acceptable.
On the most recent iteration of this conversation, I explained to her, in the hopes of being afforded some basic human compassion, that what she was doing was sexual assault, and further that I have PTSD and am likely to have a very bad time when she does this. She casually replied that she might not remember that, and that I would probably need to remind her. She believed she needed reminding not to commit an act of sexual violation that might cause me to dissociate in public. I clarified that any reminder that I needed to give would come in the form of a fist to the face. It hasn’t happened again, but she and many of the people around me were shocked, and by the looks on their faces, they seemed to believe I was overreacting. Now Lisa sometimes makes jokes about consent when we cross paths, the same way adolescents mock what they are told in their DARE lessons. I should mention that Lisa often espouses feminist views, including the condemnation of men who make unwanted advances on women, but she never seemed to make the connection that what she was doing would have been universally unacceptable if she had been male.
The second girl I want to mention, called Joan for our purposes, is also a friend of a friend. She and I don’t know each other well, but she’s very physically affectionate. She greets others with hugs and kisses. She kissed me without asking, and because I said the kiss didn’t bother me, she grabbed my breasts. I told her that this crossed a line, but it took a couple repetitions throughout the evening before it sunk in at all. She needed to be reminded a few more times over the course of the next couple meetings, and now I generally avoid her. In my absence, close friends of mine have had the “consent matters” discussion with her on my behalf, and it hasn’t been a problem since.
The third is a friend of mine, and at the risk of calling this person out, I do think she represents an important point for my argument. We’ll call her Paige. Paige is an avid feminist who often speaks about the importance of consent and the evils of objectification, and she is very open about her sexuality. She has been known, not terribly unlike Lisa, to enthusiastically touch people at will. Even in sexual situations, she hasn’t always respected a polite “please don’t do that,” and I have known people who have decided not to sleep with her a second time because of this. And when I’ve asked her not to touch me in certain ways (everything from casual groping to nipple pinching to feeling me up under the table in a very public bar), she has responded with answers like “oh, you like it.” She tended to find surprised, pained, and even angry reactions funny.
Generally speaking, she did a lot of things that would earn a man a good ass kicking (or arrest), and her excuses matched the sort of things men are believed to say under rape culture. The difference is that, far from being a selfish frat boy caricature, Paige is a normally kind and compassionate person, so I just don’t think she understood that I was being completely serious. It took a couple dissociative episodes and a few very pointed conversations with myself and others before Paige made an effort to improve her conduct. She now (at least while sober) politely and overtly asks permission before touching people in any way that might be questionable. To my knowledge, she is also more careful to respect whatever answer she is given. Perhaps all she needed was to be shown that she wasn’t practicing what she preaches.
THE CLUB BITCHES
The next two women I dub Club Bitches #1 and 2, so-called because I don’t know them, and my encounters with each of them occurred in a club. The first waltzed in with a male partner in tow, spotting me hanging on a female partner of mine who was (this time quite consensually) getting a bit handsy. Club Bitch #1 approached me, and without saying two words to me, looked me up and down like prey in the jungle, felt my breasts like one feels fruit at the supermarket, and gave her partner a look that unequivocally asked, “This one, or maybe a different one?” (He seemed not to opine, and was generally unresponsive to her prompt.) She then lost immediate interest in me and walked away without a word. As I often tell it, I was so taken aback that I didn’t even punch her. I’ve never been treated that way by a man. I’ve never been looked at that way by a man. I don’t use this term lightly, but that lady objectified me, in a way that men simply don’t. She looked at me like a potential toy, and then dismissed my very being when she decided she didn’t want to play with me. Friends and acquaintances who were with me that night reacted minimally. If they so much as asked me if I was okay, I don’t recall it. At most I was met with a general attitude of, “well, that was inappropriate.”
Club Bitch #2 was met at a gay bar, twice. On our first meeting she was one of the few women in the club at the time, blind drunk, and she was dancing on a raised platform near me. She bent down to seize me by the hair and started making out with me, several times throughout the night, whether I liked it or not. I was, of course, more than a little intoxicated myself (it was New Year’s Eve), so I didn’t have much strength of will to protest. But it was abrupt, aggressive, and rather uncomfortable. I think my friends thought I was okay with it, but over time I did my best to work my way across the crowded dance floor and away from her, which required some doing (the dancing masses were shoulder to shoulder and I had to pry my hair out of her grasp to even start moving). It says enough about the woman and the experience that I recognized her the second time I went to that bar, when she was standing behind me in the bathroom line. Once again three very thin sheets to the wind, she wrapped her arms around me, groped my chest, and sloppily kissed my neck. I asked her to stop. It persisted. I stepped forward and asked more firmly. Again she ignored me and moved forward to return to her position around my torso. So the third time I pushed her nearly to the ground and told her that I’d beat her ass if she touched me again. She wandered off. The other women in the line determinedly avoided eye contact and pretended not to have seen anything.
My friends were underwhelmed by my story when I returned from the bathroom (again, and you’ll see that this is a theme, many of those same friends are vehement feminists who often speak on the subject of consent within the context of ideas like rape culture). I was shaken and angry, and I knew I would have received more than “huh, what a jerk” if the woman had been a man. I knew this because I’ve seen exactly what happens when men do the same thing.
Of course, I’ve saved the best for last. Marge is my ex-girlfriend, the college lover who was married to Ed (for my new readers: it was a polyamorous arrangement, open and consensual). Marge was, when she so chose, every bit as malicious as Ed, but in very different ways. She could be passive aggressive and manipulative, spiteful and dismissive. When I got upset or angry about anything she did, she thought it was cute or funny. I remember her once cooing, “Awww, she’s so cute when she’s mad! Look how red her cheeks are!” in the midst of an argument that I took seriously. In a good mood, Marge thought of me as a walking sex toy. In a bad mood, she resented me for sharing her husband (even though she outwardly professed that she approved of and enjoyed the arrangement). You might see where this is going: she was just as dismissive of my desires and concerns in the bedroom as she was in conversation, and while this is not something I terribly like to discuss, the example that stands out most in my mind went something like this. I remember being tied to the bed. She had an array of household items splayed out in front of her, and ran to grab others when inspiration struck. She did whatever she wanted to me with those items. Some of the things she did were deliberately painful. Some were sexual. Most were both. I remember begging, and I remember her laughing like a cartoon supervillain.
Marge wasn’t brain damaged or sociopathic. She was quite functional, and very empathetic when she wanted to be. She didn’t treat Ed like she treated me. In fact, she didn’t always treat me poorly either. She could be kind, loving, and respectful. While we were together, she wrote a blog on polyamory, which I re-read for the first time in many years while in the process of writing this article. Her writing was clearly from the perspective of a woman with a reasonable degree of emotional intelligence. She talked at length about the complicated emotional and social interactions in a polyamorous relationship. She described her attempts to respect everyone and accommodate our feelings, and I remember that being true. I remember her comforting me when I was upset and helping talk me through my struggles. It’s strange and disorienting to read the kind and conscientious thoughts of someone while also remembering that person violently assaulting you.
No, Marge wasn’t a sociopath who couldn’t understand what I felt when she hurt me. She tortured me because she wanted to, and because she could. It was calculated malice. And while the close friends who know about this are quick to offer sympathy and kindness, forum discussions and conversations with strangers, in which I engage regularly as part of my activism, usually go a bit differently. When I tell some people that I was raped by a male and a female partner, I often get responses like “wow, what an asshole, I’m glad you escaped him.” It’s as if they don’t even process the part about the woman, or that part just doesn’t resonate as meaningful. After all, rape is a thing that men do, not women.
GENDER AND CONSENT VIOLATION
I’ve been making a point throughout the telling of these anecdotes to illustrate the jarring differences in reactions of others to my experiences with men and with women. There’s a distinct divide: when men make unwelcome advances they are universally condemned and often threatened, but when women make the same types of unwelcome advances, the event is treated as an impropriety at most, and often dismissed entirely as no big deal, even by people who are outspoken about sexual violations. Keep this in mind, because I’m going to keep returning to this point, but what I also want to draw attention to is the distinct difference between the potential motivations of the men in these encounters and the women by examining their mentalities.
I’ve had these types of experiences with three men: one severely cognitively disabled, another suffering brain damage, and a third with an unspecified but clearly present psychological disorder. As I describe them, I don’t mean for the descriptions of these conditions to in any way absolve the men of their actions. They are no less responsible and no less deplorable, but I find this difference interesting. The women who have violated conventions of consent (at least, the ones I knew personally), have seemed otherwise disturbingly normal. To my knowledge none of them possesses any psychological or cognitive diagnoses, and many advocate the importance of consent in other contexts. The men who have hurt me have been mentally ill. The women have been deliberately malicious, objectifying, or simply oblivious to the inappropriateness of their actions.
Ironically, the women in my experiences neatly fit the prevailing feminist narrative of why men rape: because they were cruel, because they viewed me as a sexual object, or because they needed to be taught not to violate others. The women who have assaulted me have been precisely the types of problematic that our dominant narrative paints men, and the men have been abnormal, anomalous, and cognitively unable to understand why their actions were undesirable.
If you’ll indulge me to extrapolate from my small sample, could my experiences be representative of the types of men and women who commit sex crimes? Is it possible that there is a trend of men who hurt others in this way being mentally ill, and women better fitting the Duluth model profile of the man indoctrinated into rape culture?
EDUCATION AND PARADIGMS
Based on this hypothesis, let’s speculate on why this difference might exist. The clearest answer is the way we teach our young people about consent and respect. We drill into young boys’ heads the importance of respecting women until it becomes a core value. Even in conservative, gender-role-ridden subcultures, the concept of respecting women is an oft repeated virtue: Ladies first. Boys are not to hit girls. An insult to your mother is fighting words. Even the allegedly misogynistic trolls who insult each other in the bowels of the internet will consider a threat to rape a family member to be among the very worst. Fathers chase off any boy who so much as makes an advance toward their daughters. Any sexual impropriety toward women is unacceptable anywhere in our culture. And today more than ever (especially in more progressive parts of the country), we are careful to raise our boys with a solid understanding of the importance of asking before doing anything remotely sexual to a woman. At many high schools this message is formalized when boys are specifically gathered for an assembly before dances and taught the importance of respecting consent (while the girls are gathered elsewhere and spoken to about their right to say no). We quite literally teach our boys not to rape. It could very well be that we’re already doing such a good job of ingraining the importance of not raping women into our young boys’ minds that the only boys (or the majority of boys) who grow up to do it are in some way mentally ill, pathologically unable to apply this lesson without medical intervention. In order to think it’s acceptable to hurt a woman in this way, in order to miss the unambiguous messages on the subject coming at him from every direction, a man almost needs to have something medically wrong with him.
But our girls get no such lesson. We are taught in the more progressive circles that it’s okay to say no, but never that it’s important to obtain a “yes.” You may have noticed that many of the women in my anecdotes held a sort of cognitive dissonance about consent. They would profess its importance with respect to actions taken by men toward women, but then they’d turn around and touch others in whatever way they pleased. It seemed to be a gaping blind spot in their understanding of respect. They needed to be taught not to behave that way, but when they were, when I or someone else sat them down and explained that it was a problem for us, the behaviour stopped. Many of these women aren’t bad people inherently, and they aren’t mentally ill. They had just never considered that what they were doing was no different than the male-on-female harassment and assault that they publicly decry.
Impressively, I discovered this article from the Huffington Post, a site that often promotes the types of feminism that I contradict regularly. I was surprised to read this self reflection written by a feminist woman who had realized that her actions toward her boyfriend may constitute sexual misconduct, and changed her behaviour to match what she would expect of any man toward her. Clearly respect for consent is something that needs to be learned, or arrived at through deliberate reflection, and this includes women. In this individual woman’s case, her partner specifically admitted to her that he had agreed to sex because he felt guilty, prompting her to re-evaluate the way she approached sex and consent. I imagine most women would benefit from a conversation like this.
In addition to the uneven moral education that the genders receive on such topics, I think an important contributing factor is that network of assumptions with which I introduced this article, a point also alluded to in Weiss’s article linked in the previous paragraph. When we are taught to conceptualize sexual violation as something that men do to women, it engenders such blind spots. And more than that, it engenders an attitude of dismissiveness when the reverse occurs. Nobody thinks of women as capable of committing sex crimes, and it’s widely understood among intellectual communities like mine that this allows women to more or less get away with them (especially toward men, because of the blanket consent they are assumed to give). This analysis of the erasure of female perpetrators and male victims describes the many ways in which the legal system lets women off the hook simply due to socially pervasive assumptions that we just don’t commit these types of crimes. For example, a male juvenile is 46.5 times more likely than a female to be arrested and charged with a sex crime regardless of probable cause, and many cases of female-on-male sexual assault are simply thrown out because female defendants are not taken seriously as potential abusers or because of the belief that the public would never suffer women to be maligned by prosecution.
The actions of Lisa, Joan, Paige, and the two Club Bitches happened in highly populated public areas, with many onlookers, and as I’ve repeated many times now, they received no reprimand, little disagreement, and almost no intervention on my behalf. Friends at the events have more or less shrugged them off. The people who have stuck up for me in such scenarios (including Paige, to her credit) have done so with the knowledge of my trauma disorder, people who sought specifically to protect me from potential symptoms and episodes (as though I am uniquely entitled to not be sexually harassed due to my diagnosis, and not simply that all people have such an entitlement by virtue of being human), and in general, people to whom I’ve spoken at length about sexual violence as a female perpetrated phenomenon. They were people who had learned to conceptualize such acts as potentially female acts. Similarly, I would guess that Marge never conceived of the possibility that I might report her attacks even to a civilian audience, if she had bothered to consider at all that her actions constituted rape.
As I mentioned above, this problem is only compounded when the recipient of such actions is male, since men are not perceived as potential victims of sexual violence (outside, perhaps, the context of prisons). Under the rape culture and resultant Duluth model paradigms, we assume that perpetrators of sex crimes are male, due to the belief that men are naturally sexually aggressive, afflicted by a perpetual state of sexual arousal combined with a certain degree of poor impulse control, always willing to be touched and always interested in sex, and thus can not possibly fail to consent. I can only imagine how many women like those in my anecdotes have forced themselves upon men assumed to be perpetually willing, like the boy who was harassed in the hallway.
WOMEN, AFFECTION, AND CULTURAL NORMS
Indeed, it is apparent in their speech and behaviour that women never get the lesson on what touching is and isn’t acceptable, and it allows for a great deal of casual and unaddressed violation. Some research suggests that lesbian women experience sexual assault by other women at a higher rate than heterosexual women are assaulted by men (a reported 30% of lesbians vs. the oft-repeated 20% statistic for women as a whole). But what would cause women to want to commit these violations in the first place? In Marge’s case, it was a lack of consideration for my humanity and a focus on her own pleasure, with a healthy dose of spite, along with the first Club Bitch who seemed to only think of her own interests. But for the others, it seemed to be a mere extension of all the other ways friends show physical affection.
Joan didn’t just hug and kiss on the cheek. She did those things, but she also kissed on the mouth, and she groped people. Paige has stated that her actions were motivated by an understanding of her own preferences, and the unexamined assumption that everyone likes what she likes. She was trying to show affection the way that she likes to receive it. I can’t take credit for this idea, which was contributed recently by a woman I know, but female friendship and affection is shown through physical touching. Women touch each other when they talk. We hold hands. We sit on each other. We hug and kiss. We are physically affectionate, far more so than men, as a very well accepted cultural norm. Even many of these casual and innocuous signs of friendship would probably be unwelcome by most women when received by men (especially unfamiliar men), because of the contextual heterosexual implications of affectionate touching between sexes. So it’s not a great leap to contextualize touching between women (especially heterosexual women) as different from that between men and women.
Could it be that culturally, to some extent, women develop closeness by touching each other in ways that men are not permitted to do? I’ve been in many social circles in many towns in which women greet each other with kisses to the mouth and breast touching. The “bean dip,” a quick scooping motion to another person’s nipple, has been a common practice in groups of women with whom I’ve been friends, especially heterosexual women (usually with an attitude of “we’re all girls here,” as if to differentiate the act from one between people who might be sexually attracted to one another). It’s not hard to imagine women who practice these conventions, which are rarely coupled with asking permission (sometimes much to the surprise of the recipient), having trouble drawing the line between a friendly greeting accepted in their circles and sexual harassment. And that line would conceivably blur even further when interacting with men, due to the infrequency with which men’s ability to give or deny consent is considered. Such practices could be a strong contributor to the casual nature with which women feel comfortable touching others in ways that may not be acceptable. Without permission, they are in direct contradiction with the feminist, humanitarian, egalitarian, and sex-positive messages of respect that progressive movements seek to convey concerning sexuality and consent.
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
I don’t mean to condemn demonstrations of friendly affection that are accepted and welcome by individuals who know each other, let alone willing and agreed upon sexual interactions, but I do think that we would do well to implement better education and awareness of the importance of obtaining consent. If my experiences are indeed representative of a trend among women (or even if they aren’t), then the solution is obvious: we need to stop conceptualizing sex crimes through the Duluth model. They are not simply the actions of heterosexual men who want to dominate, subjugate, and objectify women, not merely the result of not teaching men well enough not to rape. Women also commit these violations, and men suffer them, and they occur within both same-sex and opposite-sex interactions.
We need to stop painting men as aggressively sexual beings who perpetually want to get laid, and women as begrudging non-sexual beings or default sexual victims. We need to start conceptualizing men as people who can say no, and women as people who often want and pursue sex. Our advocacy and prevention should reflect a gender neutral understanding of sexuality and sex crimes. My experiences and research strongly suggest that this type of respect is indeed a learned behaviour, so we should stop only teaching boys to respect consent and girls that it’s okay to say no. We should stop teaching only boys to respect women, to never hit a girl, to be courteous and honourable. These are all lessons from which every single person can benefit. We should teach everyone to respect consent and one another, everyone to be nonviolent and honourable whenever possible, and everyone that it’s okay to say no (and also that’s it’s okay to say yes). We need to fight the trend of brushing off men who report sex crimes by calling them lucky, asking if they’re gay, or disbelieving them. We already take violence by men against women seriously, but we should do our best to create a culture that takes sexual assault seriously no matter the gender of the perpetrator or the victim, that understands that everyone can give and deny consent, and that respects everyone’s bodily autonomy and agency.