Good morning good morning. I am achy today after dancing for a couple of hours yesterday morning, and bruised and scraped up after falling flat on my face into the street. I was leaving the Whole Foods in Oakland, relaxed and still joyful and tenderized and sweaty after the dancing, and managed to get my feet caught in a piece of plastic tape used to bundle newspapers or magazines; it hadn’t been cut, and was still a solid circle. I’d just begun crossing at an intersection, and my momentum propelled me forward right down onto the blacktop — I managed to brace my fall with my hand, not my face, and broke nothing but the skin on my arm and a container of tabouleh. After picking up the plastic circle and putting it in the trashcan, I walked home along Lake Merritt with my forearm bleeding and hands resting on my belly. I was so grateful that I hadn’t been more badly hurt. I had some surgical tape at home from the cut to my hand some years ago, and bandaged myself up before my Dive Deep group arrived for our potluck and meeting.
While I was waiting in line at the checkout stand, I scanned covers of the magazines they keep at the registers: Yoga, Vegetarian Times, The Atlantic…something on the cover of The Atlantic caught my eye — at the top right corner, a tiny headline, promoting a story inside about taming the American college male.
“Oh, no,” I said out loud, making noises of consternation. I stopped myself from buying the magazine to read the article. i stopped myself from rewarding this kind of language-tease. Maybe I’ll read the article eventually — I don’t know if I want the aggravation, or the increase in my blood pressure. Better exercise for me to go dancing again, I think.
Is the problem of on-campus rape really an issue of men not being tame? What about rape in the military? What about rape in the home? What about rape everywhere else?
The word tame comes from Latin and Greek words meaning to subdue. Tame means to domesticate, to ‘make less powerful and easier to control’ (according to the dictionary on my computer). The Atlantic is furthering the old messaging that young college-age (and other) men are wildings, simply out of control, not educated or otherwise able to control their urges. That’s why there’s so much rape on college campuses.
What a nice thing for these men, to get a pass like this.
It may not surprise you to read that I don’t think that “wildness” is the problem. Young people who get into college aren’t wild animals. They are highly educated beings, able to concentrate and focus and behave according to social norms when it serves their purposes: they study for exams, they write papers; they go to class and manage not to rape anyone while listening to the lecture; they managed to show up for college interviews looking like civilized human beings, not raping anyone at the restaurant or cafe where the interview was held. These are folks who know how to behave and when. They are the epitome of civilized.
It’s only when they have access, and communal license, that they behave badly and prey on their classmates.
By wild, maybe The Atlantic is meaning to evoke the idea of a predator out in the woods, stalking its prey. Predators know how to act when. They don’t stalk those with more power than they have, or even those of equal status. They don’t stalk their own kind. They hunt animals that are weaker and slower than they are, in order that they might feed.
All this language of animal behavior and the need to domesticate wild beasts hearkens back to the messaging that women used to get routinely — that men simply couldn’t control their sexual urges, and so women had to be the ones to control themselves, to exert control, to say no and mean it, not to get themselves into “bad” situations, not to dress or speak or behave or exist in a way that might incite some man somewhere to violent sexual attack. The language of taming and domestication was behind the prohibition movements of the early 20th century — women wanting to outlaw alcohol in order to help their men be better able to behave (the rationale being that it was the alcohol that caused men to beat or rape women, rather than tacit and overt license from communities, peers, and the law). The messaging remains the same: men can’t be held responsible for controlling themselves — they have needs, urges, don’t you know, and those needs must be attended to.
Beyond this messaging of taming the wild beast (that old staple of women’s romances), I hesitate even around this idea that college-age men need educating about rape and how to avoid it. Does anyone reach the age of 18 not knowing that it’s not ok to force someone else to have sex with you? What, exactly, do these men need to be educated about? Do they need to know that women are humans too and have feelings and are harmed by their actions? Do they need to learn that their actions have consequences, that life is not a video game, that the damage they do has a real and lasting impact on a real person?
Do most men really enjoy being thought of this way? Do they like being associated with rampaging beasts, with beings that need taming, with out-of-control animals? Maybe something in them does like it — what a privilege, not to be held accountable for your actions, for hundreds and hundreds of years: He was turned on, officer — what was he supposed to do?
Of course, the issue as much about power as it is about sex. It’s as much about (some? can I say some?) men believing, fundamentally, that women (or children) don’t have as much right to bodily agency as they do. It’s about adult men continuing to pass on the message to their sons that rape is their right, that access to other human’s bodies is their right as men, that if you want to be a real man, you better be able to violate, be comfortable with violence, be willing to take.
I don’t have a very nuanced analysis of rape, and I don’t have a lot of patience around it. The issue is pretty clear to me. Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you. Don’t have sex when you’re drunk. Don’t get someone drunk in order to have sex with them. If someone is drunk and appears to want to have sex with you, wait until they are sober and then ask again. Be willing to have sex sober. Be willing to say what you want, and be willing to hear no as well as yes. Don’t shame those who say yes or those who say no. Anyone can stop any instance of sex at any time, and though you might be disappointed or even physically hurting, your job is to stop when someone else says stop. Period. If you get mad that that person asked you to stop, don’t have sex with them anymore. Your turn on is not a license for sex. Just because your flesh is engorged with blood doesn’t mean anything about anyone else’s behavior, doesn’t mean you get to have sex with someone just to discharge those feelings, doesn’t mean you have a right to take sex from someone else in order to increase those feelings of pleasure or get to a place of release. Other people’s bodies aren’t there for you to use or inflict yourself upon. I don’t want to hear that you couldn’t help yourself, or you thought she was coming on to you (even though she was passed out on your frat basement couch and you had to practically drag her up to your bedroom), or that she must have wanted it because she was wearing a low-cut blouse and dancing hard and drinking and made eye contact with you.
I’m glad that other people are doing the slow and patient work of re-educating folks around the issues of rape and sexual violence; I’m afraid I wouldn’t be a lot of use in that classroom, given my impatience. I continue to get tangled up in what feels to me to be a straightforward matter: don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you, or who you can’t be sure is sober enough to consent. I don’t know why I keep falling face first into so much other bullshit, and why I’m so sore all the time, listening to the rationalizations of the rapists and pain of the survivors.