This is a continuation of my last post: Making Sense of #MeToo, Part 1
Another thing that has been thrown around a lot by #MeToo advocates is that victims of sexual assault, harassment, and even those less heinous sexual infractions are traumatized by their experiences. There’s no doubt that some things are inherently traumatizing – rape, assault of any kind, being the victim of violence. On the other side of things, being publically shamed, or losing one’s job or career can also be traumatizing, though perhaps some people deserve that trauma. There have been others who have argued that that you can’t really put a degree on trauma and that all trauma for victims of sexism is equal. In this view, it doesn’t really matter whether someone was raped or traumatized because another person got a little handsy or flashed out his privates.
I can’t buy that for a number of reasons. The main thing is that trauma is subjective and individual. What traumatizes one person might not phase another. I think emotional trauma is often caused by the crossing of one’s own individual issues and boundaries by another person. It can’t always be predicted, and sometimes the offender is an external mirror of one’s own shadow and subconscious fears. I had a co-worker once who was traumatized by the thought that the folks mowing grass outside on riding mowers were chasing her. I suppose they could have been, but they were likely just a little reckless and going the same direction. If our legal system saw all traumas to victims of crime as the same, someone might get the death penalty for jaywalking. Our courts of law weigh the trauma of the victims along with the rights of the accused and the severity of the crime.
I’m not a woman so I can’t weigh in on women’s experiences of sexism in our society, but I am a gay man and I can draw some parallels with my own experiences of homophobia. I don’t weigh all instances of homophobia as the same, nor can I say that all instances of homophobia were inherently traumatizing. Ironically, “innocent” uninformed homophobia from family, friends, and loved ones might have been more traumatizing for me than incidents that involved threats of violence. I once had my life threatened for being gay by a group of men standing outside my car with tire irons. That’s been far less traumatic for me than some friends I’ve lost because of their anti-gay religious beliefs. That doesn’t mean I believe these former friends should be publically shamed for being party to a homophobic religion, though perhaps the religion itself should be. I’m not even sure the guys with the tire irons should be shamed 30 or so years later. After all these years, I’d like to hope that both the guys with tire irons and the former friends have evolved on these issues and become more tolerant. I guess if they were still chasing LGBT folks with tire irons or if they were running for public office on a platform of hate that might be different.
This might be a good time to bring up my own story of being on the wrong side of a harassment claim. I’ve told this story before in my podcast in an episode on ageism in the gay community. I had just turned 30 and had been working for only two, maybe three, years as a staff person for the university where I graduated. I’d also been heavily involved in the gay student group on campus as a student and upon returning as a staff person I’d gotten back involved in the LGBT community on campus including showing my support for the student group. There was this guy in the group that I developed a sincere attraction toward. I’ll call this guy John. I made the mistake of mentioning my interest to another guy (I’ll call him Mike) who was involved with the group, and asking if he’d help set me up on a date with John. Mike was a graduate student and he was appalled because there was an age gap between me and John. Apparently all older gay men who are interested in younger ones are predators or so seemed to go the narrative going around at the time. This narrative was also used to shut down talks of an LGBT mentoring program. All the younger gay men needed to be protected from the older ones. To put this into perspective, I was 30 and John was in his early 20s. John was of legal age and at worst a decade younger than I was. When I was his age, I dated men in their late 20s and early 30s. The ironic thing was that Mike was dating a faculty member who was probably 20 or 30 years his senior, though I’m under the impression they started dating before coming to the University. After I let Mike know I was interested in John, I started feeling less and less welcome at events, some things I was doing for the group like updating their web page were pulled from me, and John’s friends seemed to block any efforts I made to just try to get to know him better.
Things got even more complicated when I wanted to go to an LGBT conference with the student group that was taking place in a faraway city. I was denied transportation with the group in the bus they were taking so I ended up driving the entire 700 mile trip on my own to attend the conference. I’d see John here and there and usually I got a smile and a friendly hello. At one event he even sat down across from me and we had a friendly conversation. I knew that he knew that I was interested. I had sent him a few e-mails enquiring about going out sometime. As someone kind of shy and awkward, e-mail was my preferred method of communication. I know I didn’t say anything lewd or make any kind of sexual references. That’s always seemed a bit crude to me, and I was interested in dating and not just sex. The e-mails and other messages were never answered so I didn’t know whether he was being coy, not interested, or if he was just a person who didn’t check e-mail. Looking back, I can see that I was somewhat persistent, but I don’t believe I did anything inherently wrong. I felt like his friends might have been pressuring him not to interact with me, but I don’t know whether or not he was actually interested. He never said he wasn’t and never himself implied that I was bothering him. I totally admit that I’m terrible about reading people.
The crashing culmination to this story was when I was called in to talk with someone at the Human Resources Department at the college. The resource officer repeatedly talked down at me for having an interest in a student, despite the fact that I was literally only a few years from being a student myself. At the same time, despite the harsh condemnation, she affirmed a number of times that I’d done nothing wrong. I wasn’t in a supervisory position over the student. I hadn’t forced myself on him. I hadn’t said or done anything inappropriate sexually. She justified her condemnation by saying that the college looks down on relationships between staff and students. Things might be different at an isolated rural college, but at an urban institution where there is so much overlap between the university and the community that doesn’t even seem a reasonable thing to say. It’s very common for staff to have spouses, family, and friends who attend as students. Our college has a number of older and non-traditional and returning students. There are also plenty of opportunities for folks to meet in the outside community and then discover that one person is staff and another person a student. Such condemnation would be different if one party was a professor or supervisor and the other party was a student in their class or an employee under their supervision. None of this applied to me.
The thing about this situation is, if John had simply been upfront and direct, if he had told me in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t interested, I would have moved on. Perhaps I was expected to be a mind reader or to pick up on unspoken signals. Aside from not being good at that in the first place, this situation was complex and I do feel at times I got mixed signals from John, even if his circle of friends seemed hostile toward me.
This experience was extremely traumatic for me. I felt humiliated and shamed. After all these years, I have the maturity to understand that ultimately it was miscommunication between me and John that led to the event, and I have enough respect for him (and even his close circle of friends) to change their names for this post.
It was after this that I dropped out of all my involvements with the LGBT community on campus and even off campus. It was over a decade before I’d even went back to a gay bar or gay event. Even now, I probably err too far on the side of caution by rarely asking anyone out at all. I have a friend who frequently suggests “what’s the worse” that could happen if I ask someone out that I’m interested in, that maybe they’d say “no.” I know it can get far worse than that.
As someone who’s introverted, socially awkward, and a little geeky, I also know the toll it takes on one’s self-esteem to be rejected on a regular basis by people I’ve taken a romantic interest in. For many this could lead to desperate attempts to get their emotional and sexual needs met. While I’ve never forced myself on anyone sexually, I do admit that in my past (especially in my 20s) there were many awkward attempts to win someone over that I’m not especially proud of. Mostly I was just overly persistent because I bought into those movies about the socially awkward guy winning his love interest in the end. Sometimes I let my imagination run loose when trying to impress someone (Justin, I’m not really a Timelord… or am I?). And because of my shyness, there were lots of notes and e-mails expressing my interest, often before I’d developed a real connection with the person I was interested in.
I guess what I’m really trying to suggest in this post is that people are human on all sides of this issue. We all have potential for trauma, and it’s not always rational. And sometimes the real issue is miscommunication and differences in expectations.
To be continued…
I’ve been watching the #MeToo news over the past few months, and I have to confess that I have mixed feelings about the movement. While I tend to consider myself very liberal on social issues and a supporter of women’s rights, I also believe in finding a fair, rational, and balanced view of things. I’m also a strong supporter of sexual freedom so long as one’s sexual expression is consensual and everyone involved is of legal age. Where my views tend to differ from a number of feminists (but not all feminists) is that I don’t believe sexuality and expressions of sexuality are inherently negative or to be repressed or closeted. I don’t believe that appreciation of naked bodies is necessarily objectification. And I also believe that it’s okay for men and women to have separate groups and events (as well as coed groups and events) so long as these groups aren’t about bashing the other gender and so long as we live in a free and pluralistic society.
On the positive side of the #MeToo movement, a number of really sleazy and predatory men (and possibly even a few women) have been called out for some pretty heinous things like rape, sexual assault, predatory behavior, and using positions of power to force women (and some men) into having sex with them. On the negative side, there has been the public shaming of men for minor (and sometimes unintended infractions) and for just being having an interest in sex and beautiful women (and again in some cases – men). I’ve seen a number of denials that #MeToo is about shaming men for such minor transgressions and declarations that it’s only about going after the big and monstrous cases. But for every denial, there’s also a news story shaming a male celebrity or public figure for something like putting his hand on a coworkers leg during an television interview, being a little touchy feely, being overly insistent about going on a date or sex, or not picking up on signals that a woman (or man) isn’t interested in more. And, of course, what happens when you have someone who generally supports women’s issues, but then gets called out for something that wasn’t rape or assault, but still involves following their sexual impulses? Is it unfathomable to believe that a man can support women’s rights and still be interested in sex, not to mention fallibly human?
The good thing about the #MeToo movement is that it’s opening up dialogues between men and women about what’s appropriate behavior, except I’m not sure it really is. Any disagreement with aspects of the #MeToo movement is seen (and shamed) as defending sexism and sexual assault, preserving a sexist patriarchal system, or as being on the same level as our conservative and not so enlightened social and political adversaries.
I’m not so quick to turn every man accused of something into a monster, nor am I quick to discount the stories and experiences of women as nothing more than overreaction and hysterics. At the same time, some of these men are monsters, and some women are jumping on board #MeToo over seemingly trivial offenses. Reality often falls somewhere between the extremes.
One of the criticisms I have of #MeToo is that it comes across as a mob mentality. The politically incorrect comedian, Bill Maher, even dubbed it #MeCarthyism. We live in a country where people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but #MeToo shames alleged perpetrators, even destroying their reputations and careers, based on accusations and hearsay. Admittedly in some cases, patterns of abuse come out, but in others only a few accusations stand. There’s also the point brought out in my recent “Trouble with Normal” post that there are differing attitudes about sexual morality and even rival moralities. Not all views of sexuality involve puritanical and heterocentric ideas involving monogamy, family units, or the idea that sexual expression in and of itself is negative. While we might all agree that rape and assault are bad (not to mention illegal), we might not all agree that patting someone on the leg, appreciating someone’s beauty, being a little persistent, or being attracted to someone in a different age group (so long as they are past the legal age of consent) is necessarily predatory behavior.
As a gay man (and as someone who hangs out with poly folks and fetish people), I’m very sensitive to the public shaming of people for their sexual inclinations. There was a time when LGBT folks were shamed. Many poly and fetish folks still worry about being shamed. Such shaming was part of mid-20th century McCarthyism that sought to root out not just communists, but homosexuals and sexual “deviants.” This included crusades against a number of Hollywood celebrities at the time. Often an accusation, regardless of hard evidence, was enough to cost someone their reputation and career. Back in the day, LGBT folks were also shamed in lists in the newspapers as criminals and sexual deviants after police raids of gay establishments. Many lost their jobs, families, and reputations. Compare this to some #MeToo lists of alleged predators that have sprung up on the internet. As a Pagan, I’m also aware that many folks had their reputations and lives destroyed during the Witch Trials, often based on flimsy or unsubstantiated accusations. Often these rumors included accusations of sexual deviance. Some of these folks even paid the price with their lives.
One of the big questions I have about #MeToo is: Are we really that surprised that men like sex and will go to great lengths to get it? Or that men like looking at naked women (and sometimes men)? Likewise, are we really surprised that women have different expectations about sexuality than men? Back in the 90’s there was that book claiming “Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus.” And of course, there are differences in expectations and socialization for men and women. Men have been traditionally socialized to be the initiators in dating and sexual relations; while women have traditionally been socialized to be on the receiving end of date requests and so forth. Men have traditionally been given greater freedom and encouragement to have more sex and more partners, while women have traditionally been expected to save their virginity for the one special man they marry. Of course, women with multiple sex partners are shamed as “sluts”, while men who have multiple partners before marriage are seen as “virile” and to have a positive sexual prowess. Popular culture – including television, movies, and music – often even reflects these expectations. How many romantic comedies show the unlikely, but persistent, guy winning over his reluctant female love interest? How many songs talk about winning someone’s love? How many romance novels (even those written by women) portray women swooning over the strong, masculine, aggressive, virile, and possibly even dangerous male?
What is at issue too is that men and women have never really learned to communicate with each other, especially over issues of sexuality. Some have, and they probably have great relationships, but many others have not. There are a great many men out there who have no clue when it comes to communicating with or attracting women. There are a great number of women out there who never learned to set boundaries or to assertively say “no” when needed. Then, of course, there are even more folks who never learned to read body language and subtle signals. If they had, perhaps there would be fewer women who find themselves in compromising situations and more men who could pick up that a woman just isn’t interested.
I’ve often thought that maybe there should be a class in high school where folks learn appropriate behavior for dating and interacting. I remember getting the sex education part describing all the biology and mechanics, but don’t remember learning the ins and outs of dating behavior. Maybe some folks had these kinds of classes. Some folks might argue that teenagers get this through extracurricular activities like dances and formals, or just learning to date each other. Perhaps early dating is an indicator of being better able to date and interact as adults, but not everyone gets this experience. As a gay person, I really didn’t have the opportunity to start dating until college and by then dating was even more complex. I was also the nerdy and socially awkward bookworm in high school, so even if I’d been straight, that’s not a guarantee I would have been dating.
That brings me to another point in this conversation about the #MeToo movement and sexuality. Sexism has largely come to the forefront in this movement, but what about other –isms related to sexuality. Some have argued that things like ageism and lookism have come into play in the accusations. I’m not sure there’s a word for it, but there’s also a prejudice against the nerdy, geeky, and socially and sexually awkward. While things like sexual assault and predatory behavior might be more cut and dry, there’s also this idea of “unwanted advances.” Aside from the fact that one cannot truly know if an advance is unwanted until one makes it and the other party clearly indicates they aren’t interested, “unwanted advances” can also indicate general undesirability on the part of the person making the advance. One can be undesirable if he is too old, not fit enough, differently abled, another race, socially or sexually awkward, or any other number of other subtle and not so subtle factors. I’m not at all indicating that someone should accept the advances of someone they are not attracted to or interested in, only that certain portions of the population are more likely than others to receive harsh contempt for simply making an advance or being assertive about dating or sex in the first place.
Too be continued…
While The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life written by Michael Warner was first published in 1999, I believe many of its core messages are still valid today. They are valid not only for LGBTQ people, but also anyone with non-mainstream ideas about sexuality or who otherwise doesn’t fit what is considered “normal” by society.
Warner starts with the premise that people like to control the sex lives of others and for many this is where their sense of morality begins. But Warner argues that controlling the sex lives of others is not only unethical, but that this attitude is actually moralism rather than any kind of ethics or true morality. Our culture governs sex, not just harmful sex like rape, but all sex by legally regulating what is and isn’t acceptable, prohibiting some forms of victimless sexuality and by restricting access to and information about sexuality. Society also claims one set of sexual values and practices as normal while vilifying all others. Those who fall outside the sexual norms might be humiliated, beaten, jailed, or stigmatized as deviants and criminals. Warner argues that what many would take for granted as immoral, criminal, or pathological might just be harmless difference and a rival morality. And society’s repression of sexuality may be the basis of pathology rather than sexuality itself.
Attitudes about sexuality have been tainted by the early Christian church’s fear and repulsion of the flesh and the belief that sex is only about procreation. As such, society dictates that certain things aren’t permissible and should be controlled including: homosexuality, sex outside the Holy institution of marriage, promiscuity, masturbation, group sex, casual sex, sex with someone outside your age group, public sex, pornography, BDSM sex, and virtually any other sex that doesn’t include the possibility of insemination. Traditionally, this even included birth control, and if you’re Catholic it still does.
All of these things are vilified and shamed by our society. LGBTQ people are particularly vulnerable to this shaming because we grow up in heterosexual families and with heterosexual peers who all assume we’re heterosexual. Our schools and religions assume the same and indoctrinate us to grow up to be normal, responsible heterosexual citizens. To those who grow up realizing they’re gay, this leads to a sense of estrangement and secrecy that further perpetuates those feelings of shame. Is it any wonder that many gay adults and even the gay movement itself seek validation and acceptance from the mainstream rather than sexual autonomy and difference? To embrace our difference and our sexuality would be to invite shame and our own feelings of inadequacy – of not being “normal.”
This creates ambivalence for many gay people. They want to feel normal and connected to the heterosexual world that includes their parents and family, but they’re also part of the gay world and the stigma associated with it. They may feel that their own feelings and actions are honorable, and so must blame this stigma on others in their group especially those that are further from straight norms and those who act in stereotyped ways. They may also feel a need to repudiate sex and to desexualize themselves, others, and the gay movement as a whole. This ambivalence plays out in the gay community with assimilationists seeking respectability and normalcy on the one end; and sex radicals embracing their sexual differences on the other end. Those seeking respectability are the most likely to be harboring sexual shame.
The trouble with normal according to Warner is many-fold but boils down to this. By trying to be “normal” we are only feeding into larger society’s stigma toward sex and sexuality and that when we take this attitude on as a movement the result is to reproduce a hierarchy of shame within our own community. Embracing normal throws shame on those further down the ladder or respectability including those who are effeminate or otherwise don’t act “straight,” those not in monogamous relationships whether bachelors or polyamorists, those into BDSM, sex workers, drag queens, those who actually admit to liking pornography, and so on. We do a disservice to ourselves and to society when we try too hard to win acceptance and respectability rather than challenging the faulty assumptions and ethics of the dominant culture. For gay people to disavow sex and sexuality in an effort to fight stigma is to reject the very thing that defines us.
Warner also points out that what we think of as normal is really what is statistically normal. People didn’t start worrying about normal until polling and statistics came into popularity. Being normal is not really a good reflection of desirability. It’s normal to have health problems and to be in debt. It’s not normal to be a genius or to be well endowed. People have come to see normal as meaning to be certified or approved, but in essence to be normal is to be common with nothing too special about you.
Warner spends an entire chapter with a compelling critique of gay marriage. This was long before same-sex marriage became legal in the U.S. Warner argued that while many believed same-sex marriage would somehow erase all the hate and intolerance existing in society toward LGBT people, it doesn’t address the real root of the problem which is society’s stigma and intolerance of sexual variation.
Opponents of gay marriage want their marriages to be holy at the expense of someone else. But that’s really the problem with the institution of marriage as a whole, and that doesn’t change much with the legalization of same-sex marriage. Marriage sanctifies and gives legitimacy to some relationships at the expense of others. It commends and privileges those who are married. It makes them special. If you don’t have it you and your relations are less than worthy. It’s kind of like being a single person on Valentine’s Day. Marriage confers a number of social and governmental benefits and privileges to married couples that are denied to single people, people in non-traditional relationships, and other types of cohabitating households. Warner argues that applying strict definitions of marriage onto same-sex relationships provides less freedom to LGBTQ people, not more.
Marriage might not be the right choice for gay people for other reasons as well. Historically marriage has been designed to define lineage and to perpetuate families by having and raising children, not to mention to indoctrinate and carry on a family’s religious beliefs – that’s why mixed religion marriages have traditionally be frowned upon and are still an issue in some families even today. As many feminists would point out, marriage has also historically been a way of dominating and trafficking women. A carry over from this can still be seen today when a bride’s father gives her away to the groom. Marriage allows the state to regulate and enforce the dictates and rules of marriage, as well as regulating and enforcing restrictions on sex in other contexts outside of marriage. Marriage gives power over to the state and third parties to legitimize and affirm the status of a relationship rather than letting that come from within the relationship itself.
Instead of gay marriage, Warner offers other solutions. These include extending the special legal privileges currently defined narrowly within marriage into wider contexts including domestic partnerships, common law marriages, and alternative forms of families. Rather than trying to force the plethora of gay relationships and even many straight relationships into the mold of marriage, it might be better to take the forms of relationships already existing and extend benefits and rights to those making them available and accessible to gay and straight people alike. Rather than trying to make gay relationships more straight, perhaps we should be trying to allow straight relationships to be more queer.