I was going to tell you my sexual assault story. But I can’t. It’s not that I can’t bring myself to tell it. IT’S THAT I DON’T HAVE ONE. I’ve got nothing, nada, zip. No one has ever made me feel uncomfortable, made a suggestion that made me wince, used their power over me, and no one has ever, ever laid an unwelcome finger on me. In one sense, this is just another piece of evidence of my mostly happy childhood and life, and of the white privilege I enjoy through the luck of being born where I was, when I was, and to whom I was.
I also have no family story of sexual assault to share – at least, none that I’m aware of. I have a wife, I have a sister, and though she’s no longer with me, I have a mother. And none of them have shared any stories with me of sexual assault. But now I wonder if they have those stories to tell and I just don’t know it. I wonder if, like a miscarriage, it’s something happening all around me and until it was my sister or my wife, it was just another unspoken conversation. Until it wasn’t. Then, suddenly, EVERYONE had had a miscarriage or was one degree of separation from someone who did.
Quite frankly, given the statistics, I now believe that the same must be true of sexual assault. And I am now watching as part of my historic belief system is being shattered in front of my eyes. Because it’s simply impossible, given the statistics, and my age at 56 years old, that there aren’t women (and men) traveling in and out of my life every day, that don’t have stories to share. And I know none of those stories.
Part of my reaction to this awakening is shock. Part of it, I won’t deny, is occasionally a thought that starts with “but wait…” Part of it is frustrated with a lack of understanding of the “definitions.” But most of my reaction is entirely consumed with this guttural, simplistic reaction – “what the hell is wrong with our society that half of our population has to worry about being abused on a daily basis?” And then I turn inward and wonder – dear god, have I done something? Am I teaching my two teenage boys the lessons they need to know to be responsible men in our society? Am I oblivious to something that might have happened to my wife? My sister? My mother? My friends? (Again, statistically, I have to face the fact that the answer to that can only be a resounding YES.)
Not to say that I hadn’t considered these issues before, but the #MeToo movement certainly has made me ask these inward questions more than ever before in my life. And so I’ve done a lot of self-reflection. And here’s what I think. I think that I’m 99% sure that I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone. Now I could say, like Brett Kavanaugh, I’m 100% sure. But you know what? Unless this life is a Matrix-type dream, I’m 100% sure that I woke up this morning. And I’m 100% sure that some day I will die. And there are other things that I’m 100% sure of. But this? Guess what? I’m in NO position to answer that question myself without the confirmation of every woman (and man) that has crossed my path in 56 years on this earth. And that I simply can’t do.
To the best of my recollection, I asked permission before every kiss, and everything that followed. But to be clear, I certainly know that I’m no saint. I’m as guilty as anyone of having been flirtatious, making a joke that perhaps someone found inappropriate or even offensive. As Jimmy Carter said so simply, I’ve had lust in my heart. But I don’t think anyone is out there, somewhere, reliving a different version of history in their mind. And if there is, I cannot express enough the depth of my dismay, and the sincerity of my apology. It’s not at all clear to me why Brett Kavanaugh, who, as opposed to me, has been described as a belligerent drunk (and I’d say, a belligerent witness), couldn’t have simply said the same. But that’s another story entirely.
I spoke above about definitions, and I’m no expert in the definitions of sexual assault. To me, assault usually implies contact, but I know that’s too bright a line for sexual assault. But the need for definitions and common language should only exist on one side of that line. We should all be able to agree that non-consensual physical contact is on the wrong side of the line. Full stop. But what is acceptable or consensual banter? Can something be assault and consensual simultaneously? How does one properly interpret the power structure and its impact on sexual assault?
And even on the “wrong” side of that bright line, in a sense, in the words of Bob Dylan, the times, they are a changin’. When I grew up (and giving credence to the possibility that, perhaps again, I was entirely naïve), the word rape seemed to suggest images of violent crime. It invoked the idea, generally, of a man overpowering a woman, with a threat of violence or death. It was described as a violent crime, not a sexual crime. It conjured up images of screaming, scratching, maybe a knife or a gun. And although it was well understood that any non-consensual sex was rape under the law, perhaps that image of a particular kind of violence somehow put rape into a certain box that let too many other instances of rape hide in the shadows. But now, more of those stories are coming out of the shadows, and it’s heartbreaking to to hear so many women and men coming forward to talk about how they were raped. Too many who have then faced their rapist, not in a courtroom, but in school, at work, in a bar. And perhaps this is what made Rep. Brian Greene’s comment a few years back all the more shocking and despicable when he said that sex with your unconscious wife isn’t rape.
For reasons I can’t explain, I only heard the Dixie Chicks song Goodbye Earl in the last year. And I love it. And I have to say, I laugh every time I hear that Mary Anne and Wanda decided that Earl had to die. I laugh because I think it’s funny. And I laugh because I think, well, yup, that seems fair. But then I think, you know what, maybe it’s not supposed to be funny. Because it’s deadly serious. And Earl isn’t one in a million. Earl is probably someone I spoke to this year. Maybe this month. Maybe this week. Maybe today. Earl, I’m afraid, isn’t funny at all. Earl is a metaphor for how incredibly screwed up our society is around this issue. (I’ll admit, I have no idea why the Dixie Chicks wrote the song. I have no idea if they’ve talked about what it is really about. So these are my thoughts only about what this song means to me.)
I was fascinated recently to read about the work of Jackson Katz. The first thing I read was how he asks the men in an audience to describe what they did recently to avoid sexual assault. Maybe a hand or two goes up, but the uncomfortable silence that results is caused by the fact that, by-and-large, the men in the audience did nothing. In fact, the thought of sexual assault doesn’t cross their minds at all, let alone on a daily basis. And then he poses the question to the women in the audience. And the hands go up – one after another, they respond – I held my keys in a particular way; I kept pepper spray in my purse; I remembered my assault defense training…
I can’t express how distressing it is to me that two equal halves of our society wake up every day with such an entirely different frame of reference.
After reading about Katz, I sought out his Ted Talks, and I was taken with how he framed the problem of violence against women as a men’s issue, not a women’s issue. Katz’ Ted Talk is inspiring – and he is convincing when he says that we can fix this problem. And we must fix this problem.
My foundational belief in humankind and human goodness is too often shaken these days. It is eminently clear to me that we are not yet living in a “post-racial” world. We are not living in a world where our LGBTQ friends and family members don’t face different challenges than our straight friends and family members. And we are not yet living in a “post-gender” world.
But we have overcome amazing things in our short history – the elimination of slavery, expanding the right to vote, the treatment, in most cases, of all people, of all genders, races, and ethnicities as equals in the eyes of the law, if not in the eyes of our neighbors, and more. Despite the current political climate, we are more willing than at any time in history to face our challenges and to engage in difficult public discussions. But we must remain vigilant. We must change the narrative. We must hear the stories. We must #BelieveSurvivors.
We are better today than we were yesterday, and we will be still better tomorrow. And together, we will continue making a better Utah, a better America, and a better world.