“I’m not saying the rape was her fault,” I posited after the teacher called on me for my opinion, “but I always want to take a look at both sides of the equation. If she was going to go out drinking at a bar on a school night, then maybe she should have dressed more modestly, and maybe she should have taken some friends with her to watch her back. If she’d been more careful, she probably wouldn’t have been raped.”
As an actively Mormon closeted gay male student in my third year of college, I thought my insights on these matters might be appreciated by the liberal class of female students. After all, the course was Gender Studies, and there were only two men in the room with a couple dozen women, and I felt the need to speak up to share the male perspective.
The teacher, Melissa, had just told a story about a college campus date rape, about a young woman who had dressed nicely in a skirt and tank top and who had accepted a drink at a bar from a man, not knowing he had put something in it. She’d woken up later, naked, at his home with no memory of having been taken there. He’d tried convincing her that the sex between them was consensual, but even if she had said yes, she’d been to impaired from drugs she hadn’t chosen to mean yes. Later, she’d been unable to prove anything in a court system that treated her terribly, so ultimately the case had been lost.
Before I spoke, the women in the the room had been expressing their outrage about a justice system that is stacked against victims of rape, about a patriarchal society that uses sexism and discrimination in its policies, and about the extent of the influence of rape culture in America, particularly on college campuses. Some of the students had even shared stories of their own assaults, prompting Melissa to share that one in four women experience a sexual assault in their lifetimes.
And I, being the only white guy in the room, had felt like they were attacking me, in a weird way, like all men were being pushed into one category. Deep inside, I’d been ashamed, although I’d never assaulted anyone and would never have stood in defense of someone who had. But I felt like they hated men, and somewhere inside me that scared me more than anything.
“And besides,” I continued, “we have to have laws for prosecuting things like this. It might be horrible, but she could have just been making it up. What if the sex was consensual and then she just got mad at him afterward? Or what if someone else had put the roofie in her drink and then she started flirting with that guy who took her home and that guy didn’t know? I can certainly understand her being upset, but maybe the guy thought it was okay, or maybe she led him on, or maybe she just didn’t remember that she said yes and not no, because it’s not technically rape if she didn’t say no. It’s not like he forced her, based on this story. There’s no proof. And he shouldn’t have his life ruined over something she couldn’t prove.”
I kept my eyes locked on Melissa’s. Her eyes were kind and patient, but I could feel the daggers in the room that were being directed at me from every eye. There was a pregnant tension in the room after I spoke. Without meaning to, I’d disagreed with every statement that had been made before mine. I’d opened up, repeating things I’d heard at home, at church, in school, and on every source of media for my entire lifetime, and they were the only arguments that made sense to me in that moment.
Melissa stood there patiently, her hands folded at her abdomen. She had short brown hair and light makeup. She was unapologetically feminist, and she referred to her husband as her partner, intentionally choosing a term that would leave people wondering about his gender. She had a string of college degrees and she ran groups on campus that provided safe places for rape victims in addition to her research work and her teaching schedule. I respected her a lot, even when I disagreed with her.
“Well, Chad, I can certainly understand your viewpoints. It is important for the criminal justice system to have fairly balanced protocols in place. But I would ask you to consider if those protocols fairly treat victims of crimes, specifically women of sexual assault? And while it is important, certainly, to make smart decisions in choosing what to wear and who to spend time with, or who to accept a drink from, I find your argument falls into a category of what we call victim-blaming. The patriarchal society seems interested in making arguments that those in minority groups who are hurt perhaps willingly participated, consented, or even asked for it. It’s the argument that says that slaves should have fought back if they didn’t want to be slaves, although there was an entire system of oppression that would have left them beaten, sold away from their families, raped, or killed if they did fight back. In this case, this young woman went out for a drink and ended up getting assaulted, and no amount of justifying the circumstances can make that okay.”
Melissa had a way of getting her points across that made me feel safe. She challenged my neophyte understandings and my religious upbringing without shaming me or embarrassing me. In previous class periods or through class papers, when I had offered my strong religious views on the male gender of God, on God being behind most of the world’s wars to teach mankind a lesson, on overpopulation not being a real issue for the world, on abortion being one of the greatest problems to face modern humanity, and even on women’s primary roles as mothers in the home, Melissa would talk things through with me, in conversation or with Emailed feedback. She engaged with me because I was willing to be open-minded and and to hear feedback. She listened and responded, despite the fact that my somewhat arrogant professions of facts went against nearly everything she believed in. Melissa was there to be an educator, not just for the students with like minds, but also for the students who needed an education from the ground up. And slowly and surely, my eyes began to open and my views began to change.
Class ended, and I rushed out of there, avoiding the angry stares. Later, in an online forum about the class discussion, several female students expressed outrage at the content of the class. Without naming me by name, they said things like ‘I can’t believe we are wasting precious class time on certain students. Anyone who would blame someone for their own rape doesn’t deserve the effort it takes to teach them how to be a decent human’ and ‘I’ve been exposed to misogyny my entire life, and I hate that I have to keep facing it in classrooms that are supposed to be safe zones’ and ‘It’s just like men to stand up for other horrible men’.
But Melissa somehow understood that I was only 23 years old, and that I had grown up in a Mormon household and that I had spent the past four years in intensive Mormon environments, two of them as a Mormon missionary and two of them on a Mormon-oriented college campus. She understood that it would take me a few years to come around to new ways of thinking. But because of her careful listening and educated responses, she started me on a journey that would shape the rest of my career as a firm advocate of social justice. And in my writings, presentations, teaching engagements, and therapy sessions ever since, I’ve attempted to adopt her approach in starting where the person in front of me is and helping them to see my side, which is no longer the side of oppression, bigotry, and excuse-making, but instead the side of women, equality, change, growth, and hope.
Because of Melissa, I use one more word to describe my very truth. Alongside writer, helper, teacher, and father is the word Feminist.