Content warning: This post contains discussions of sexual trauma and history of sexual assault and harassment
by Malachi Grennell
Recently, Robin and I began to have some interesting conversations around a Facebook post discussing one person’s response as a survivor of sexual assault. Specifically, the post addressed how this person felt about the delineation between sex, rape, and violence. In thinking about this post, I realized that my understanding and response is entirely dependent on my understanding of a particular cultural context- specifically, the context of rape culture.
Robin and I plan to discuss this specific post more in-depth in a couple weeks. Before we are able to do that, though, we wanted to take this week to talk a little about the concept of rape culture, because this is a multifaceted, complex term that is often misinterpreted and misunderstood. Beyond the complexity, though, it is easy to feel as though we are not affected by rape culture if we have not been survivors (or had immediate family or friends that are survivors) of rape or sexual assualt. But the reality is, rape culture is everywhere and affects every single person.
Rape culture, at its core, is the idea that we live in a culture that fosters
situations for rape through both explicit and implicit sanctioning of certain behavior. Rape culture teaches us, for example, that consent is synonymous with “No Means No,” rather than the idea that “Yes Means Yes.” The difference is subtle, but powerful. “No Means No” implies that a person pushes for what they want until they hear “no” rather than asking for what they want and waiting for a “yes.” It assumes all people are capable of saying no (that, for example, power differences do not exist in the socializing of men and women wherein both are equally empowered to say no- something we know is absolutely not true. Men are taught to be forward and aggressive; women are taught to be diplomatic and accommodating. This makes the “No Means No” method immensely ineffective when those who are taught to push are the only people socially empowered to say no.)
I remember being 19 and riding the train to visit a partner and his family. It was a long train ride, and I took an Ambien to sleep through most of the ride. As I woke up, the person beside me was going to the café car and offered to get me a drink. I accepted and we talked for a bit when he came back. He made me a little uncomfortable, so I tried to get out of the conversation by saying that I was still a bit tired and was going to go back to sleep. He stopped talking, and I settled in, quiet and still, but not sleeping.
After a few minutes I felt something on my leg. I shifted and the pressure on my leg lifted. I figured I must have imagined it. After a few more minutes, though, I felt something on my leg again, around my knee and realized it was his hand. I was frozen, panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I knew that I should say no, but I didn’t want to draw attention to what he was doing and I was terrified of causing a scene. While I was trying to figure out how to respond, his hand kept moving further up my leg and I shifted again, hoping he would stop. His hand stopped moving when I shifted, but the pressure didn’t relieve. I began a mantra to “just breathe, just breathe” in my head while I tried to figure out what to do. As long as he believed I was asleep, he was going to continue touching me. The only choice I felt like I had was to be fully awake and talking to him, because at least when we were talking, he wasn’t touching me.
Could I have theoretically said no? Of course. But the power dynamics present in that situation made me feel like I couldn’t: I was a teenager, and he was a much older man. I was stuck sitting next to him on a train for another hour or so, and I didn’t want to cause a scene (because that idea was ingrained very deeply from a very young age: do not cause a scene.) But rape culture says that because I didn’t resist, or say no, or ask him to stop, that I wasn’t really assaulted. Even though he put his hands on me in a way that I did not want and did not consent to. Even though he only made advanced when he thought I was unable to resist (i.e. while I was asleep).
Rape culture places the burden of preventing rape on the people who are raped, rather than the people doing the raping. I have met very few women who were not taught the trick of carrying their car keys between their fingers or keeping a rolled stash of quarters in their purses to hold while walking to the car. One of my mothers certainly discussed tactics to keep me safe, many of which included an insinuation that men are inherently unsafe, and it was up to me, as a young woman, to protect myself from predatory men.
The truth is, we are all influenced by rape culture. I know I personally have been in situations where I realized, in retrospect, that I put pressure
on someone to have sex with me who didn’t appear to be enthusiastically into it. Did I rape someone? Absolutely not. But did I push for my own agenda when they didn’t seem really excited about coming to bed with me? I did. And I think these are the times when rape culture is the toughest: we do not have to be rapists (or survivors of rape) to be influenced by rape culture. The ways that we are taught to approach and navigate sexual situations is problematic. We don’t like to talk about sex. We don’t like to talk about what we’re doing, or ask for what we want. So instead of talking about it, we do it and hope that it’s ok with the other person (or hope, if it’s not ok with the other person, they will say something). It passes the burden of responsibility to the recipient, rather than taking responsibility for our own desires.
I remember a specific situation when I was in my early twenties and I was working as a line cook in a restaurant. The way the kitchen and restaurant was set up, customers could come sit at the counter to eat and, from that vantage point, watch the cooks prepare the food. Sometimes the wait staff was busy or in the middle of a break, and I didn’t want customers to watch their food sitting under a hot window, so from time to time, I would take food to customers who were sitting at the counter, and often strike up conversations with them.
There was one gentleman in particular that came in frequently, and he would always ask me about my day, how I was doing, making polite conversation. He seemed a little awkward, but fairly harmless, and we would talk for a minute when I brought out his food. After a few weeks, a coworker informed me that that customer had asked for my schedule because “I cooked his food the best” and only came in when I was working. I started to get wary and tried to find reasons not to talk to him, but he sat in a seat where he could always watch me and if I didn’t look busy enough, would start to talk to me, even when I was behind the grill.
On one particularly busy day, he came in and I was having a hard time. He sat for several hours, but it was apparent that I was not going to give him any attention. He left, but handed his waitress a note to pass on to me. She handed it to me with a smile and said, “Compliments to the chef!” When I opened the note, I read that he noted I looked stressed and encouraged me to call him when I got off work so I could come to his house and relax, with his number at the bottom.
I remember each piece of this story so vividly because it caused such a visceral reaction but I couldn’t explain why. He was just being a nice guy, right? So why did I suddenly feel so nauseous? He didn’t actually do anything… and yet, I began to hyperventilate. I was terrified. I was terrified he was sitting in his car, waiting in the parking lot for when I got off work. I was afraid to come to work the next day. I explained the situation to my boss who gave me a couple days off and, when the customer came in, told him I had transferred elsewhere. I never saw the man again.
Was I raped in this situation? Of course not. Do I think I would have been pressured to have sex with him if I had called him? Absolutely. That was almost certainly what he wanted from that exchange, and I was terrified of what would happen if I refused. I didn’t feel like I was able to tell him no because he wasn’t asking a direct question. As I have grown to understand consent better, I understand that there are many things about this situation that are not ok: he was stalking me at my place of work (by asking for my schedule and only coming to my job when I was there). He was manipulating and pressuring me into something I didn’t want without being transparent in his emotions- he had plausible deniability because he never mentioned sex, even though that was almost certainly what he was seeking.
A culture that fosters this type of behavior is incredibly problematic, and it is something that affects all of us. It informs how we understand sex and sexual dynamics, how we approach people we are attracted to, how the world responds to us. The situation I described was complicated by workplace dynamics (I was, to some degree, financially dependent on maintaining a good relationship with customers, even as a cook). But culture is built out of the intersections of different dynamics, and we must actively work to change toxic culture.
This is a large (and seemingly unattainable) task. But it starts with small things. An understanding that someone’s bodily autonomy is their own- so ask before you hug someone. Not asking as you’re reaching out with arms open and entering their space, but as you greet them: “Hello! It’s great to see you! May I give you a hug?” and waiting for a response before moving forward. It’s asking your partner- whether you’ve been together 2 days or 25 years- “May I remove your shirt? May I touch your back? Can I go down on you?” etc. It’s not asking what the victim did wrong, but asking for what the victim needs to feel safe. It’s not allowing friends to catcall people on the street from a stoplight, or make sexually objectifying comments about a stranger’s body. If we begin to foster a consent-focused atmosphere- one in which we ask people for a yes, rather than wait for them to set a boundary we may have already crossed- we go a long way in changing what is acceptable in our culture.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
Have you experienced sexual violation–rape, attempted rape, unwanted advances you did not feel empowered to stop, pressure from an employer, or a customer or anyone who has economic power over you, to be sexual? Do you know how to ask and wait for yes (and do you actually do that), or are you trained to think that the other person has the responsibility, the power, to say no? Are you regularly on guard against sexual advances because of prior experiences, or has it not occurred to you that many people, mostly women but men as well, go around afraid? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, September 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 2, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 2” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond Judaism and Jesus to early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.