I really didn’t want to do this. I still don’t. My palms itch every time I think about approaching this subject, and yet I do. Often. The problem, of course, is that I’m writing for the internet — that ever-shifting living record, where each and every statement is somehow your immutable final word on any given subject. Yet, I learn so much every day. By reading, by listening, I change and grow.
But #MeToo is a conversation — or really, it’s a lot of conversations under one banner, conversations that should have been happening since always — so I’m going to take another turn and contribute.
Whether it’s sex, romance, friendship, or workplace relations, people are finally finding the courage to speak truth to power (or to men, which is kind of the same thing at the moment). But what is that truth? And why can’t we all agree on what it means?
If I had to boil it down to a word, it would be: Equality. The need for it, the lack of it. The imbalance of power, and the exploitation of it. To me, that is the ultimate core of truth that all of these discussions are orbiting. And I think the reason it’s hard for us to see eye to eye on it is because, well, when have we ever really been equal? And I don’t just mean men and women, but even woman to woman. Across races and religions and generations, across individuals. While #MeToo has laid bare the shared experiences that bond our sisterhood, it has also revealed just how siloed we are inside those experiences. Because our stories are our own. To tell, to hide. To frame how we choose, even if only for ourselves. We all may have strikingly similar tales, from dates gone wrong and workplace pressures to outright violence, but where and how those experiences fit into the narratives we construct of our lives is different.
Each wave of this new social dialogue has come from exposure. A survivor revealing their pain. A journalist pointing a spotlight on a crime. And the public — all of us — exposing our own pasts to fresh scrutiny. Reflecting on everything we’ve swept under the rug, or shouting the knowledge we formerly only whispered. We could all rally behind the same “MONSTER!” banner when it was Weinstein, or Spacey. We agreed that decades of rape, assault, harassment, and molestation are wrong. But when the conversation shifts from the blatantly illegal to the socially uncomfortable, to the Aziz Ansari tales, that’s when we start hearing murmurs of witch hunts, or “well, how am I supposed to flirt” or — and this is the one that gets me — “why didn’t she just leave?”
“Why didn’t she say something?”
“Why didn’t she DO something?”
Those last ones? Those aren’t always spoken by men. I hear that line of argument from women too.
Look, I’m not here to argue about how nobody actually thinks that all misconduct is created equal. And I’m not here to lady-splain the fact that by sharing our less-than-illegal experiences with the world, we aren’t trying to ruin lives. Others far more eloquent than I have tackled that one. Instead, I want to talk about accountability. In particular, my own. Because here’s the thing I want to make sure that everyone realizes about the people who are speaking up about their experiences:
They do take responsibility for their actions. They often think about what they did, or should have done, or could have done differently — even when it truly wasn’t their fault! They wonder what signs they missed or chose to ignore. And they blame themselves, before anyone else has a chance to. Processing all of that is part of healing. And it’s not like they walk around feeling like a victim all the time. Some of us only started recognizing the complexity of our past experiences because #MeToo gave us the tools to re-examine them.
So if they’re talking about it now, it isn’t to shift the blame. It’s to spare others. To help others. It’s because there is a whole lot more to “rape culture” than just the rape part. And it’s because in an equal world they shouldn’t be the only ones held accountable. And I don’t mean criminally accountable, or “lose your career” accountable. In an equal world, men should listen to these stories with interest — even the “bad date” ones — and thank women for sharing these painful perspectives, and think about what they could do to make sure their partners and friends and family members never feel this way again.
But we don’t live in an equal world. And we never will if we don’t speak up.
Let me tell you a story from my own life. It’s kind of disgusting, and something I’m certainly not proud of. I’m a pretty open person, but I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about it before. And before anyone takes it the wrong way — it’s not a story of victimization. That is not the position this story holds in my history. My decisions were my own. But it is a story about feeling helpless and confused. About picking my battles in the heat of an intimate moment — and picking the wrong ones.
So lemme set the stage: I’m fairly awkward — not socially or at work, but romantically. Like, on more than one occasion I’ve physically sprinted away from men who have tried to simply kiss me. Nice men, guys I was friends with. That is my flight response in action, as opposed to my freeze response or my fight response (which I really only busted out once, when some dude chucked a water bottle at my head in a subway station and I shouted at him until he left the platform). The thing about a flight response as I’ve experienced it is that it’s all about escape — but not always about running. Sometimes escape can just mean avoiding a particular outcome. Dodging a bullet, if you will.
For a good chunk of college, I was at peak awkwardness where guys were concerned. But somehow this one guy, who went to a different school in a different city, took a shine to me. We met at a party via a mutual acquaintance and suddenly I started hearing from him. And I enjoyed the attention! He was cute and smart and sweet and I literally had nothing else going on. It was a confidence boost, and exciting. The only drawback was that I, you know, basically didn’t know him. And because of the distance, we never really went on a “date.” Instead he would decide to visit my school for the weekend… and show up on my doorstep, looking to sleep in my bed rather than crashing at our friend’s place.
Problem #1: I didn’t know how to say “no”
I know, it sounds silly. Of course I knew how to say no. I just… wasn’t comfortable doing so. There’s that ingrained conflict-avoidance I was grappling with, and the fact that I’m not great at reacting when I’m put on the spot, but also: If I refused to let him stay in my room, would that be the end? Would I ever hear from him again? And why wouldn’t I want this hot guy in my bed? What was wrong with me? I’m a modern woman!
I didn’t say no because I didn’t know that I wanted to say it. What I wanted was to get to know him better, and it took me time to realize that this wasn’t the way for me to do that. That where I was at in my life, I needed to take things slower. But until I sorted that out, I had this guy crashing in my bed for two nights every few weeks.
So what did I do with him? Well, that’s the next problem…
Problem #2: Instead of saying “no,” I simply said “yes” to something else
So uh, pro-tip: If you don’t want to have sex with someone, don’t just give them a blow-job and hope they go to sleep. It’s not going to be any less uncomfortable, trust me. Diversion isn’t really escape.
And again, I’m not blaming this guy. I’m blaming my own weird wiring for thinking that if I made out with someone, and he asked if he should get a condom, that THAT VERY QUESTION meant I owed him something. I couldn’t kick him out — he was staying with me! I had agreed to that! Or, well, I hadn’t refused it. And since I did want to make out with him, was I giving him mixed signals?
Technically, I said no to intercourse. I just did it by saying yes to something that felt like a lesser concession at the time.
I’m not proud to say that it took two or three of these surprise visits for me to not only untangle my feelings, but then to build up the courage to be honest with him about it. By that time I was so put off by the entire experience that I didn’t even try to date him. And I’m not going to dissect my emotional or mental state leading into this affair. I’m not going to speculate about the socialization that influenced my responses. What this story illustrates to me is a very clear-cut example of how hard it can be to communicate in the heat of the moment. There were so many things I could have done differently. He wasn’t mean or violent — he composed a fucking sonata for me that Valentine’s Day, for fuck’s sake. He was a peach. And I wasn’t afraid of him.
But I was afraid. Of how little I knew him. Of rejection, if I was honest. Of angering him. Of conflict. I was young and inexperienced, and this became a defining lesson in my love life.
So why talk about it now? Because lately I’ve been thinking about this fairly innocuous, embarrassing punchline of an experience, which I have always held myself accountable for — and I’m thinking about enthusiastic consent. Did he not realize that I was uncomfortable? Because I can tell you right now, I’m a piss-poor liar. Was the failure to communicate on both of us? He never really asked if I was OK with him staying over, or if I wanted a proper date. He never asked why I didn’t want to have intercourse. I am accountable for my own actions, but what is HE accountable for in our story? See, that’s a question I never thought to ask before now.
Maybe I’m also sharing it as a dare. It’s one thing for me to say “This is what I should have done differently” — but what will other people say? Are the comments going to be filled with people “Well, actually”-ing my discomfort? Telling me I should have stood up for myself? Because I fucking KNOW THAT ALREADY. The point is, I didn’t. A lot of people don’t do the things that hindsight and reason tell them they should have. Is contributing that shit to the conversation actually helpful in any way?
And finally, I’m sharing this perhaps precisely because it’s innocuous. It’s not painful to me. And yet, I think there are still lessons to be learned from it. When people ask me for relationship advice (not here, of course — here you people just want to know about hairy lady legs and what kind of farts are worse), I always come back to communication. Partnerships are about equality, and I believe that is achieved by all parties being honest and listening to each other. We can’t actually live anyone else’s life, or know how they think or feel or see the world. So we need to hear them tell us their perspective. And if that helps relationships function, then I think the #MeToo movement is extrapolating that on a larger scale. We are finally speaking up en masse about shit that’s never not been the case, and though it’s not all illegal it’s still REAL. It MATTERS. Even a so-called “bad date” is worth talking about… just because. There’s no vindictive motive. It’s not to cast blame or to alienate, but to show you how to be a better partner and ally. If anything, it’s selfish. We’re sharing because if we don’t communicate about how we hurt and why, nothing will change. And because we saw what happened when we spoke up about the criminal acts, the rapes and assaults. People started to listen.
Maybe now that we have your attention, you’ll continue to listen. Because there’s some more stuff you should know about how your actions are perceived, and how we experience the world. Maybe, just maybe, if we talk about the smaller experiences, the “rape culture” and not just the “rape,” we can prevent the bigger, more painful, more criminal behavior.
And if we’re really lucky? This will be a dialogue. Men can tell us what confuses them and excites them and concerns them, and we can listen. And women can listen to women! We can open ourselves to other experiences and perspectives, and amplify them, and educate each other. And eventually we can move forward with a better understanding of what we all want, together.
But to do that, we’re going to need to wallow in this discomfort for awhile, and stop pointing fingers back on every woman who somehow didn’t know exactly the right thing to say or do in every encounter, because that’s just ridiculous. We need to accept that things CAN change, and embrace that this painful dialogue is worth having rather than focusing on how things used to be, or trying to find honor in suffering and disrespect. I mean, gosh, what am I supposed to tell my own theoretical progeny someday? “If you can’t say no, try a BJ instead?” I don’t want them to go through what I went through — even if I went through it of my own volition. I’d rather just teach them how to say “no”. And for the sake of equality, I’d like to teach them how to HEAR “no” as well.