Good morning, good morning.
Deep breath. Ready? Ok.
One more time. I’m going to try one more time to write this post. Hang on — this is a long one.
Yesterday I was talking with a friend, who is in a tough work situation. He is well-spoken, articulate, smart, and has decades of experience in his work, yet whenever he speaks with his boss (someone who consistently undermines and then gaslights him), he gets tongue-tined, feels silenced, mute. There’s nothing I can say, he tells me. I feel stupid, practically like a child.
I nodded as he spoke, then said to my friend, this sounds so much like the relationship I was in seven years ago — by the end, I told him. I was convinced that I was actually a terrible communicator, that I literally did not have the ability to communicate with other people, that there was not just something wrong with my ability to connect, to convey my thoughts and to interact with another person through words, but that I had deluded myself into thinking that I could communicate well.
My friend looked wide-eyed at me, so surprised, given that I center my life and work around deep and open communication. I laughed at myself and the situation, maybe a little more gently than I’ve done in the past — maybe I’m beginning to forgive myself.
I tried to explain to my friend what I’d learned from the analyst I was seeing back just before I left that relationship — that my ex had created a closed system around us, and I had to agree to the terms he set for this system, or I was violating the system and harming him. Either I agreed with his worldview and outlook or I was against him. Layer on top of that insinuations of (my) racism and classism, as well as my history, and you can see why I was in knots and, like my friend, tongue-tied for the better part of eight years.
Unfortunately, this mirrored another relationship I’d been in, the one with my mother’s second husband. Closed system, setting the terms of the conversation, the debate, setting the very terms for reality — and you either agreed, or took your life and the lives of those closest to you in hand.
I have been experiencing a similar tongue-tied-ness, muteness, around our entire public “conversation” about sexual violence in the last couple of months.
Yesterday I went back through a big handful of blog posts I’d started and abandoned, twenty pages of stops and starts, of trying to get in, of trying to figure out what I wanted to say about each new major issue that bubbled to the top of our media frenzy about rape culture: the hierarchy of violence (is it really that bad if he’s not Harvey Weinstein?); the idea of a witch hunt; the fear of a sex panic; women suddenly having all the power and wielding it indiscriminately (unlike men, of course), bringing down any guy who just happened to look at them wrong or who, you know, shamed or cajoled or pressured or guilted or threatened them into sex; female sexual agency (what’s that?); enthusiastic consent — so many important issues about which I have a great deal to say, and yet each post would trail off after some thousand words or more, and I’d be unable to bring it to a close, unable to find a particular point I wanted to make.
I often look back on a particular phone call I had with my stepfather, late in his abuse of me
and my sister. I was in college, a junior at that point; it would be almost a year before I was able to get away from him. I was at a payphone on the first floor of my dorm, a newer, non-descript building that felt like a cavern every time I walked in the doors. In my memory, I am clinging to the black receiver like I’m holding onto a life raft. My stepfather has said the word incest, he has used the word: Sure, it’s incest (technically, he probably clarified), but it’s only a problem because of this repressive, sex-negative culture we live in.
I didn’t hear much else during that call. He used the word, the one he’d denied and avoided for all the years he’d been assaulting me. He claimed it, took it away from me — he would not allow that word to have any power. And I understood several things: He knew exactly what he was doing, and what he’d been doing for years; I was not crazy to think he knew he was harming us; and he wasn’t going to allow me to talk my way out of this, though he’d pretended to offer me that possibility for years. He would always reshape the terms of the debate to serve him, to favor his interpretation, to keep himself in the right and in power and in our beds, There was nothing I could say to make him acknowledge my experience or admit his wrongdoing.
So we come back around to why it’s been so difficult to talk or engage in writing in this larger public conversation — do I have to use the hashtag? — about rape and sexual violence and male power and privilege and entitlement. The trouble is that this is another closed system: if you want to enter the conversation, you have to agree to the rules of the game — and the rules are, you have to let them frame the conversation, and you have to talk about what they want to talk about, the way they want to talk about it, if you want to be heard (or delude yourself that you will be heard).
This is where I got stuck. I don’t agree to the terms.
I said to a friend, it’s like a theoretical mathematician having to talk about something they know intimately and in profound depth, but they are only allowed to use the terminology of second-grade arithmetic. We are still only able, or allowed, to talk about violence against women (and children, and others) in incredulous, lurid, simplistic terms.
I saw a quote recently on the facebooks — it said something about it being ok not to engage in arguments with people who are determined to misunderstand you. We who are insisting that rape culture harms absolutely everyone are being asked to define our terms and defend our positions over and over, endlessly, made to prove our points, to offer evidence in the form of our experiences and our bodies, repeatedly, to those who will, every time, find ways to deliberately misunderstand or misconstrue or misdirect or straight up deny what we’re saying, simply because they don’t want to have to be accountable for their behavior or make any changes in their lives or thinking. The hope is that, if we have to explain ourselves over and over (and over and over and over and over) and over again, eventually we will get tired (as I have gotten tired) and just go away and let things stay the way they’ve been for, oh, I don’t know, millennia.
It’s not that hard. Folks who have power don’t want to let go of it — any of it. Neither the rapist nor the rape apologist, neither Trump nor Sarah Sanders, wants to give up the power they’ve got in this culture. There’s power in being able to shape the conversation, the narrative, to demand that your accusers, those insisting on cultural change, prove their very right to speak endlessly, until they are exhausted.
So, in order to enter the conversation, I have to accede, accept, the terms that, for instance, it makes sense that a radio announcer in 2018 will state, breathlessly, that we’re seeing sexual harassment in all sorts of workplace environments (what, really?) — or accept the idea that a hashtag constitutes a movement (thereby agreeing to ahistoricize it, pretend like we just got started, decontextualize it from, let’s say, feminism and the generations of women (and others) who have named sexual violence and its harmful effects, demanding something better. I have to agree that there’s a hierarchy of sexual violence and then weigh in on whether someone who isn’t systematically torturing victims over decades is really doing something all that bad; I have to agree that rich, white women started this “movement”; I have to hop up and down, the little kid in the back of the classroom, saying Ooh ooh ooh, me too! Me too! Hey, me too!
Even if I don’t agree on the terms, I have to agree to debate them — to discuss them, if I want my contribution to be even remotely relevant.
But these conversations are so ludicrous to me that I can’t even engage them seriously. A sex panic? Honestly? A witch hunt? Weighing the relative violence of acts that don’t violate criminal law (but are obviously deeply problematic/ impactful/harmful and create lasting impact, and undergird a system of violence that supports more violent acts)? Are you kidding me with this?
How to enter the conversation if you don’t agree to the terms of the debate? Maybe you don’t.
I’ve had this trouble for years. There are simply debates I can’t enter. I won’t talk with you about the relative merits of Lolita. I won’t discuss how great William Burroughs’ Queer was (because I haven’t read it, and frankly, I’d rather not have him in my queer lineage at all, thank you very much), you know, in spite of the fact that he shot his wife in the head (as though that were a side note in his life, a quirk, a small biographical detail). Is it even sort of of ok for a guy to have sex with a girl who’s drunk and not actively shoving him off her because she’s too out of it? Nope. Is it ok that David bowie had sex with children? Nope.
I am not your girl for those discussions. (But no worries — there are many thousands of folks who will talk about these things, so no one’s missing out on anything.)
It’s not just that I don’t agree on the terms of the debate — I don’t even agree that any of this is debatable.
I can’t engage seriously in any conversation that begins with, “Why is it difficult for women to come forward about experiences of sexual harassment at work?”
I can’t take seriously a “movement” to end sexual violence globally when it’s centered around rich (mostly) white women with access and power and is supposed to, what, trickle down to the rest of us?
I can’t take seriously any panic about witch hunts and male fear when children are still being raped in their beds across the planet, and the pope still protects the rapists in his ostensibly-Christian ranks.
I just can’t even.
You understand this feeling, the I can’t even feeling. I think anyone who has experienced or is experiencing oppression, and seeks to create change or simply have the reality of their situation recognized, acknowledged, for what it is, can understand this feeling.
I can’t even lives on the other side of the tongue-tiedness, but is mostly spoken to those who stand with us, who can hear is, who understand all that we are not saying, who read us without our even having to speak. Because having to speak the same fucking things over and over, having to reaffirm our humanity and the violence done to us, having to articulate, again, the harm that violence did and does, is exhausting. It takes work not to fall into the crazy-making mire of gaslighting and but-what-abouts and reverse oppression and backlash … I can’t even comes before the deep breath, the closed eyes, the sigh, the restating what we have been saying for decades, generations:
Yes, this entire system was set up to serve and protect those in power, by those in power. It’s just that simple.
I’m sorry, William Macy and Frank Bruni, if it’s hard to be a white man in this moment (well, at least in these conversations — are you having a lot of trouble, as powerful white men, outside of discussions involving racism or sexual violence? I didn’t think so). That’s not quite true, of course. I’m not sorry. Because I don’t believe it’s hard. I believe you’re experiencing some discomfort, sometimes, in some conversations. And that’s discomfort you can choose to feel or not; you can step out of the conversation. You can turn to another part of your life and never have to think about these things. The people who are inviting you to feel this discomfort? They — we — can’t step away.
I have been feeling “I can’t even” several times a day, most days, if I choose to engage in any media consumption whatsoever, for months now. And then I take that deep breath and close my eyes and sigh and pick up my hands and drop them on the keyboard and try to engage and find myself frozen. It’s not fear that freezes me, I suppose, but rage. The NYT magazine this weekend has a piece about female rage, about how and when (and which) women “get” to be angry, and how readily angry women are dismissed from any conversation.
Folks who’ve been oppressed for generations aren’t supposed to be angry about it — we are supposed to forgive and move forward with our oppressors. Women of all races; folks of color; queer folks — forgive and move on! Things are better now! Don’t be so angry. Why are you so angry? Don’t you know if you bring anger into the room, no one will take you seriously? You’ll just make people uncomfortable.
And anyway, what do you have to be angry about, women? Some men who abused women have been fired! You got what you wanted! Some men are — well — thinking about their language sometimes, in mixed company. Isn’t that the revolution you were looking for?
What I noticed was that a lot of those blog posts I started and then abandoned were really fucking angry. I am so tired of having to DEBATE the relative harm of different forms of sexual violence in a culture that is built on and shaped to protect male sexual entitlement, hello. Every piece of it, that is, every instance of sexual violence feeds the system, and tangles with every other instance. Every Aziz Ansari who we dismiss as not that bad and just needs to learn and didn’t know he was doing the wrong thing is laying the groundwork for a Harvey W., and is communicating to every woman everywhere what she can expect, or what she has to defend or armor up against, if she wants to have sex with men or masculine people.
If we repeat it enough, will you hear us? It doesn’t seem likely, but we keep saying it, just not for you — but for us. For those among us who need to know that we are not crazy for being outraged or triggered every time we turn on the news; that there’s nothing wrong with us for expecting our sexual partners to treat us like human beings who deserve respect and even adoration; that there’s nothing wrong with us for having expected those who were tasked with the job of raising and protecting us to do just that and only that; and that there’s nothing wrong with us for wanting a break from the litany of abuse stories sometimes — it doesn’t make us bad survivors, or unsupportive.
Sometimes you have to leave the room, quit trying to talk to people who will insist on misunderstanding you so that they can exhaust you into submission and silence. Sometimes you have to shift into another part of the house, with people who are interested in a different kind of conversation.
Be easy with yourselves out there, ok? Write hard, write whatever the fuck you want to, as angry as you want to write it, and then take yourself out for some ice cream or popcorn or even a non-food-related treat (which I just can’t seem to be able to imagine at the moment). I am grateful for each of you out there, and stand with you in the moments when you can’t speak, when you choose not to, and in the moments when you do. Thank you for your words today.