Rape is a Verb

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abduct. abuse. molest. violate. pillage. spoil. plunder. devastate. loot. ransack. rob. 

In graduate school, I was hired by a feminist professor to create a group on campus called CEASE. It was meant to be a club where men could get together and discuss the impact of their violence against women in society. The teacher had received a sizable grant to create this club. In my interview with her, she heard about my experiences as a Mormon missionary and my volunteer opportunities as a student in undergraduate school, she asked about my professional experiences and educational passions, and she looked over my impressive GPA and letters of reference. She then offered me ten dollars an hour, for up to ten hours per week, to create this group.

maraud. raid. snatch. raze. ruin. wreck. consume. damage. demolish. disrupt. impair. 

I had always been interested in men’s issues. As a survivor of sexual abuse myself, I had read text books devoted to men’s healing, and I’d become aware of the concepts and struggles behind masculinity. I’d watched powerful documentaries on the same topics. The culture of men was one of bullying, of hyper-masculinity, of always being the toughest and the strongest. Men was encouraged culturally to demonstrate their power, first over women and then over other men, particularly ones who were weak or more feminine. Words were used to constantly shame others, to show power and position, to come out on top. Women were called bitch and slut, weaker men were called fag and sissy. The expectation to be strong started at birth and was reinforced in the school districts and homes, and then well into adulthood.

shatter. annihilate. crush. desecrate. desolate. despoil. exterminate. sack. smash. 

Men filled the prison systems to overflowing. Men committed atrocities in war. Men murdered. Men hit. Men raped. Men molested. Men committed violence. Men ruled the world and smashed all else beneath their feet, and they fought to maintain that power at any cost. Old movies and television shows were filled with jokes about men being forced to hit their wives to keep them in place. Entire cultures were built on men finding sexual pleasure while denying women theirs. Slavery, atomic bombs, concentration camps, hate crimes. Entire cultures of violence and horrible atrocities committed by men toward women and other men. The implications of this in organized religion, in sports culture, in Hollywood, in video games, in laws, in distribution of wealth, in cartoons, in big business, and in quiet family homes was immeasurable across time, and immeasurable in today’s society. My mind spun as I read and learned about men, and their culture, and what they were capable of. And I was now being asked to start a group and engage men on these topics.

overthrow. wrest. absorb. deplete. devour. dominate. squander. command. control. 

I had no idea how to compute all of this information as a 24 year old student. My experiences with men had been strictly within my own spheres. I was a white Mormon kid, and nearly all of my interactions had been with other white Mormon guys, or as a consumer of white American media. Every one of my experiences showed me that men were the leaders, the teachers, the rulers, the guides. Men were presidents and bosses, hunters and rulers. Women were meant to be in the home, to be mothers, to work if they had to and then only in fields suited for women, perhaps as teachers, nurses, or social workers. Occasionally, women were accepted as leaders, but only when men weren’t available; queens when there were no kings, mothers as heads of household when there were no fathers. I began to realize that nearly every part of my upbringing reinforced the ideas that women should stay silent, be pretty, and step aside so that men could do the work and run the world on their terms. I’d fully participated in this culture without even realizing it. And my new awareness came at tremendous discomfort and pain.

monopolize. influence. reign. scour. eviscerate. disembowel. subvert. empty. exhaust. 

I began reflecting upon my personal experiences of men in my life. At 12, I had been given the Priesthood, a religious authority I would carry with me for as long as I remained a worthy Mormon. I was given a lineage of my Priesthood, stretching back to the origins of the Mormon church, from man to man, passed down to me. Ordinances in the church could only be passed from men on, and authority to do these ordinances only from man to man. In addition, I had the last name of my father, who took his name from his father. I carried with me masculine rights and expectations. I would grow up to throw balls, to serve a Mormon mission, to marry a woman who would take my name, to father children, to choose a career and support a family. I had to do all of these things in order to be a successful man. On top of that, even if I liked men, I would pretend to like women. For that is what men did. And while I did this, girls were meant to do the opposite, to be smart, pretty, and ready for a man to come along and give them purpose in their lives.

drain. dump. consume. destroy. suppress. waste. extinguish. bulldoze. wreck. erase. 

And yet the men in my own life were, universally, the people who had hurt me. There were good men in my life, to be sure, men of power and strength, grace and kindness. But it was a man who had molested me. It was a brother who bullied me at home, and male peers who bullied me at school. It was a father who had abandoned me. It was a stepfather who had ruled over me with fists and shaming words. It was male church leader who had told me I must keep quiet about my homosexuality and seek to cure it, and another who had later told me it couldn’t be cured, that I would just have to learn to live with it. It was men who surrounded me on the street, mugged me, and knocked me unconscious with fists. It was men who called me sissy, fairy, and fag. No single woman had been unkind or had hurt me. It was men, all men.

topple. wipe Out. pulverize. dismantle. obliterate. trash. crush. bankrupt. injure. mar. 

The research showed statistics. It talked about the rates of sexual assaults on college campuses, in families, and in church. One study reported that the greatest fears expressed in groups of women were fears of being raped or attacked by men. The same study stated that the greatest fears expressed in groups of men were fears of being laughed at, or seen as less than, by other men. Women were afraid of men, and men were also afraid of men! It was here that I first became aware of how scared a woman is walking to her car at night in a dark parking lot, or of being alone in an elevator with another man, or of being watched in a bar be predatory eyes, or of being alone with a male authority figure. I became aware how women were blamed for their own rapes, beatings, or assaults, dismissed with scorn and told they should have known better than to speak up, provoke, flirt, or be alone. It was here I first learned that there is an entire society, an entire culture, built on Rape.

hurt. overwhelm. wrack. unmake. upset. undo. total. level. break. dethrone. dismiss. 

With this new awareness came great shame. I sensed a deep awareness of my own complicity in this, through participation in this culture of rape. It seeped into every section of society. I had never been violent, had never committed a rape, yet I had remained ignorant and unaware of the wider issues. I had participated fully without realizing it. And I realized I had been completely denied an education. I had never been taught more than this, never made aware of the truth. Because men controlled education. Law. Health care. History itself. The entire world was built on rape.

abolish. expel. decline. disband. dissolve. dispatch. disperse. divorce. repudiate. push. 

I returned to the teacher after my first few weeks of research, feeling overwhelmed and despairing. I can’t possibly do this, I said, I don’t know how. And she told me that my helplessness was good, that that was the perfect place to begin a group like this from. I needed to feel helpless and overwhelmed. I needed to be willing to listen. I needed to realize that men didn’t know what was happening around them, that their rage was unjustified and inexcusable, yet also needed to be expressed. Men needed to be held accountable, and also needed help, treatment, understanding, counseling, and love. How else would we make make change in the world, she asked.

supersede. assault. defile. thrust. wrench. twist. wring. extort. invade. debauch. punish.

And so I made up fliers, advertising a weekly support group, a lunchtime meeting where we could discuss topics in a safe space. For men only. I handed out brochures at the local fraternities, put up sign up lists in dormitory hallways. I went to sports games, visited other group organizations, and talked to peers. I planned out topics we could explore, preparing content. Men and religion. Men and pornography. Men and fatherhood. Men and sports. Men and movies. Men and sexual assault. Men and alcoholism. Men and bullying. Men and video games. There was more than I could cover in a year, but the group had to start somewhere.

befoul. profane. pollute. ravish. captivate. enthrall. restrict. ambush. beat. hit. hurt. 

And on the first week of the group, no one attended. I visited classrooms and advertised. On week two, no one attended. I created an online forum and posted in social media groups. On week three, no one attended. I stood outside the library and handed out fliers. On week four, no one attended. I continued reporting to the professor about CEASE, and she smiled and told me to keep notes on my planning and efforts. Se reminded me that some effort was better than none, and that even if no one attended, I was trying and I was doing a good job. I felt helpless and frustrated, I said. Think of how women feel, she said.

infiltrate. stab. strike. advance. aggress. bash. bat. beset. blister. brain. bust. clip. 

I held sixteen meetings of CEASE in all, and no one ever attended. I continued attending classes and writing papers, taking tests. I had an internship where I helped children who had been hurt by men, or who had been neglected by women who had been hurt by men. The world around me felt evil. In time, I graduated, and I became a therapist. I worked with veterans (hurt by men) and victims (hurt by men). I worked with sexual offenders and victims, rapists and victims, domestic abusers and victims. In nearly every session, there was some example of men hurting women, either in the direct story of the client or in their family. I regularly felt overwhelmed, hurt, and exhausted. The way violence by men, the way rape infiltrated every level of humanity hurt my heart.

clock. club. combat. kick. thrash. whip. slog. mug. punch. rush. wallop. whop. knock. 

In an early conversation with the professor, she asked me if I had an understanding of what women went through. Without telling her I was gay, I told her that I knew how it felt to be bullied for being different and to have someone treat me unfairly. I told her I had been molested and that no one had really taken it seriously, and how I didn’t feel like I could talk about it much. And she told me that I understood better than most men, then explained that in her experience, most women experience what I’d experienced in far greater quantities, and that they often felt helpless and powerless, and that it was far more frequent for women of color.

snuff. crucify. martyr. harrow. persecute. torture. torment. excoriate. rack. wrong.

Yet I also began to realize that while most men are never held accountable for their actions, are never prosecuted, and are never punished. But for those that are held accountable for sexual harassment, for battery, for domestic violence, for aggravated assault, for sexual assault, for murder… for those who have consequences, they are punished with fines, suspensions, or jail sentences. They aren’t offered treatment. They aren’t given an education to make change. Instead, they are penalized. And then they turn around and blame women.

inflict. offend. confine. spank. chastise. incarcerate. flog. exile. cuff. chasten. blacklist. 

It’s 2017 now, and I have worked as a therapist for nearly a decade and a half. My experiences in my office haven’t changed. I can hardly count the number of survivors of rape, assault, and molestation who have crossed my path, struggling to survive after being hurt by another, nearly always a man, and on occasion by a woman who has been hurt by a man. The modern media is full of headlines about atrocities that have been there all along. Every day there are stories of police brutality, murders, human trafficking, war atrocities, mass shootings, and sexual assault, and they are, every one of them, stories about men’s violence against women.

accost. fondle. injure. maltreat. hinder. meddle. misuse. caress. grope. squeeze. stroke. 

Every day lately there are stories about women’s experiences with men in power scattered across the media. Drugs dropped into drinks to make rape easier. Coercion and abuse of power. Quick gropes during photographs. Lewd words and labels. Threatening invitations in hotel rooms during work trips. Drunken encounters. Rape has become a topic for nighttime comedians to crack jokes about, and people are constantly feeling helpless, inundated by these stories.

paw. pet. grab. clutch. manipulate. maneuver. exploit. direct. massage. upstage. eclipse. 

And yet it is the stories in my own family that horrify me more. In a recent conversation with my mother, she told me about being a teenager, when a man entered her place of employment and thrust an envelope of pornography at her, moving as if to grab her, something she narrowly escaped. Decades later, she still remembers how this made her feel. And she, the survivor of abandonment and domestic violence at the hands of her husbands.

outweigh. govern. rule. dictate. boss. handle. outshine. overbear. override. sway. 

I think of one of my sisters, who had a boss harass her daily in her workplace. He would comment on her breasts, wonder about her sexual prowess, use lewd and offensive terms, and refer to his penis on a regular basis. She would come home daily, to her husband and children, shaking, scared, humiliated, and embarrassed, knowing that if she spoke up about this, it would be her word against his and that she might lose her job.

subjugate. tyrannize. enslave. tame. suppress. compel. squelch. quash. snuff. stamp. 

I think of another sister, who made friends with a neighbor and her husband, and how the husband would sometimes corner my sister, exposing his genitals and telling her how she could have him and his wife would never have to know, and how the same man got her phone number and would send her suggestive comments and photos of his penis. And when my sister finally grew bold enough to speak out, how her friend blamed her, choosing her husband’s side.

stifle. withhold. bottle. shush. silence. overpower. crack. bludgeon. whack. zap. shoot. 

I think of another sister who, as an adolescent, sat down in the bathtub privately only to have her stepfather enter the room, his eyes lingering as he stimulated himself through his clothing, before apologizing, saying his entrance was an accident. This same man constantly shamed her for her size, calling her fat and ugly during moments of anger, and offering her love and encouragement when he felt happy.

murder. assassinate. behead. butcher. decapitate. execute. massacre. slaughter. slay. 

I think of my recent family reunion, where I saw a creepy older relative, a man in his 70s, tell one of his nieces that she had ‘the best ass in the family’ as he grabbed her from behind, the same man who had commented on another niece’s breast size, the prettiness of another, the development of another. When I brought this up with another relative, I learned that many of the young women in the family have learned to never let themselves be alone with this man, how they felt objectified and uncomfortable, but how they didn’t want to speak up because they felt like that would hurt the man’s relatives.

strangle. choke. asphyxiate. drub. electrocute. eradicate. finish. garrote. hang. split. 

I think of my ex-wife, who told me stories of early development and being treated differently as an adolescent by boys who sought to exploit her for having breasts. I think of her stories as a student in high school and college, among students and teachers with wandering eyes and passing comments about her figure. I think of her stories as an employee in professional settings, where men would condescend to her because of her gender, using insulting tones, names, and phrases to speak with her.

knife. stab. liquidate. smother. screw. lay. shag. bang. bonk. hump. score. copulate. 

I think of the friends who confessed to me, in high school, that their fathers had hurt them, molested them. One told me of how her father used alcohol to get her sleepy, and how she woke to him touching her naked body when she was ten. One told me how her father had been coming into her room a few times per week to masturbate over her as she slept, and how this had gone on for years. One told me how her father would buy her gifts and tell her she was his special girl before and after he removed her clothing and had sex with her. All of these stories from one classroom in one high school in one small town in Idaho.

fornicate. mate. procreate. flatten. tarnish. disfigure. defame. embarrass. muddy. tar. 

I think of stories from colleagues and co-workers who have been sexually harassed by clients in academic settings, in doctor’s offices, in restaurants, in emergency rooms, in job interviews, in their own therapy offices. I think of their stories where they felt unsafe with strangers, co-workers, store managers, police officers, and friends. I think of how they’ve been cat-called or ogled at the gym, at stoplights, in public parks, over Facebook, in bars, and while walking down the street. And then I realize that if I’ve ever felt harassed or judged unfairly, it has been in isolated encounters, a handful of times over a span of decades, not constantly and pervasively across my life span.

plague. sadden. trouble. wrong. handicap. encumber. dishearten. overthrow. hound. 

And my thoughts return to my clients, hundreds of them over the years, who have been victimized in these and many other ways, men and women both, all hurt by men, and the culture of rape that surrounds them. Some have been raped by dates, some by brothers, some by husbands, some by boyfriends, some by fathers, some by strangers, some by bosses. Some of them have been raped serially, over and over for years, by the same man. And some have been assaulted by many men over the years. Some come from families where their sisters and mothers have been raped, and they fear that their daughters too will be raped.

pollute. smear. stain. sully. contaminate. discredit. debase. libel. pervert. warp. cheat. 

I think of women who through life as shells of themselves. Some remain in long term relationships with abusive men because they are afraid they won’t get to keep their children if they leave. Some don’t speak up about their rape for decades, if ever, because they feel like no one will believe them. Some dull their pain with alcohol, or purging, or unhealthy relationships, or drugs, or promiscuity, or religion. I think of women who have been taught that their looks, their ‘virtue’, or their ability to bear children are their sole sources of worth.

castigate. cheapen. reprove. immure. expel. batter. buffet. lacerate. scourge. smack. belt.

A few weeks ago, I sat with my sister in a coffee shop in Burlington, Vermont, and we talked about the rape culture headlines filling the news lately. We talked about how awful and incapacitating it is to read these headlines. I shared with her how many of my long-term clients in therapy were spending weeks just discussing how the news headlines were reminding them of their own traumas, and how at the same time they felt they were being validated for the first time. And I shared that everything can be boiled down to one single word, Rape, and how everything extends from there.

blight. blemish. abase. bastardize. decay. putrefy. suborn. reduce. fix. disfigure. lie. 

“Rape is a verb.” I said it aloud in conversation. It implied action, direct or indirect. Rape is something done. And yet that simple four letter word carries with it so many other words. A civilization of billions has been built upon that word, one spanning hundreds of years, and one that surrounds us now.

decompose. animalize. seduce. tempt. betray. deceive. persuade. entice. coax. swindle.

I took out a piece of paper, opened up my computer, and found an online thesaurus. I typed in the word Rape and I began copying down synonyms of the word, writing furiously. I wrote each word, then began clicking on the associated verbs, writing down those synonyms as well. My list expanded from one page to the next and then onto a third. My head began to ache. The words were ugly, violent, and vile. They were full of hate and pain.

steer. entrap. bait. hypnotize. mesmerize. question. belittle. denigrate. disparage. vilify. 

I wrote hundreds of words. After hours of writing, I finally stopped. I wasn’t finished. There were too many words in the language that related to destruction, murder, pain, violence, humiliation, domination, coercion, and sexual gratification. There were far too many shades of red and black. I ached, looking at my hastily scrawled words, all of them ugly in this context.

belie. blaspheme. blister. calumniate. curse. roast. revile. scorch. plaster. cripple. 

And then I thought of my sons. My ex-wife and I are working hard to raise sons who are feminists, who believe in equality, who treat women with respect, who vote thoughtfully. We have open discussions about race, sexual orientation, and feminism, and they are kind, thoughtful, articulate, and respectful children. Yet these boys, they are still subject to cartoons, interactions with children in school, video games. They aren’t immune. They get in arguments sometimes, and they play with other boys on the playground. And although I reinforce equality, non-violence, love, expression, and communication, they still sometimes punch, hit, and threaten. And every time it breaks my heart.

maim. rend. traumatize. shatter. sabotage. bruise. mutilate. wound. wrong. cheat.  cane.

But I will keep teaching them, and I will keep educating myself. I will keep educating myself. I will keep asking questions of my female friends and loved ones. I will listen. I will share, without judgment. I will believe them. I will have the hard conversations. I will hold those accountable who make others feel safe. I won’t hide. I will openly discuss and share, even when it makes people uncomfortable. I will be furious at the people in power and the ones who say they feel powerless yet still hurt others. I will strive, and push, and shout. For there are far too many synonyms for that ugly four letter word, all of them verbs, and verbs imply action. It will take action to fight back.

paddle. clobber. sock.  whip. strap. goad. horsewhip. cajole. barricade. lash. push. whale. flagellate. vanquish. kill. subdue. trounce. muffle. censor. erase. evade. omit. forget. puncture. maim. sabotage. bruise. mutilate. wound. wrong. cheat. harass. vex. stalk. haunt. hunt. chase. pursue. insult. provoke. humiliate. snub. smear. underestimate. taunt. mock. silence. gag. muzzle. mute. stifle. deaden. hush. interfere. conclude. end. break. block, pause. barricade. cease. discontinue. finish. cancel. terminate. restrict. pierce. penetrate. cleave. drill. enter. intrude. gash. plow. prick. slit. slice. slash. puncture. probe. spike. incise. bore. infiltrate. rupture. diminish. disturb. mortify. shock. bother. trouble. annoy. confound. malign. blacken. soil. stain. dirty. color. corrupt. putrefy. brainwash. prostitute. traffic. indoctrinate. bully. intimidate. torment. hector. kidnap. snatch. steal. pilfer. pirate. pitch. purloin. swipe. thieve. palm. pinch. life. kill. slay. poison. drown. exploit. take. justify. condone. rationalize. maintain. excuse. acquit. exempt. exonerate. indulge. forgive. pardon. tolerate. spare. relieve. whitewash. overlook. appease. discount. mollify. forget. ignore. omit. evade. 

RAPE.

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Brattleboro: Coffee and the Meringue Queen

merigne

The view from the coffee shop window was perfect: a gentle, sloping, wide river lazily flowing between a set of old railroad tracks and a moderate hilltop covered in the greens, browns, and oranges of fall. I found myself hoping, almost desperately, that a train would go by and shake the building so that I could count the boxcars as they went by, the way I did as a child.

“In high school, everything is going to change. Even junior high is much more intense than middle school. I mean, when I was younger, I could just have fun, but now I have to get really serious about my studies. I either want to go into international relationships or one of the sciences, depending on how a few things go this year. I’m only in eighth grade, but my mother tells me that this is the time to get ready for the rest of my life. She feels like girls are the future. My dad agrees.”

I tried tuning out the loud voice behind me, turning back to my computer to focus n editing my novel. I’d finished my memoirs months before, but hadn’t taken any time to proofread and edit it down, and that was one of the major reasons I was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking a week in new spaces so that I could focus without distractions.

“I mean, look at everything happening in the world. There are so many terrible things! But that’s why girls have to step in and save the day. We make up half of the population and we simply have to step up and clean up the mess if we are going to save the future. First from this administration, then from the top down or the bottom up everywhere else. I think we can do it! And for me, it starts with my education. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I’d like more female mentors to teach me along the way.”

Now I was intrigued. I turned me head to casually look at the table behind me. A young woman who looked about 20 years old (but who was only 14 by her own words) sat facing an older woman. The student with the loud voice was beautiful, blonde hair that hung to her shoulders, green sweater, gold necklace, no make-up. She looked like someone who would start in a Disney show for teens. The older woman had her back to me, but she had on a black felt hat and a black scarf, and she was hunched over a cup of steaming coffee. I turned away, eavesdropping a bit more. I couldn’t hear the older woman’s soft voice as she spoke, but I continued hearing the booming alto of the teenager.

“I love that you were a teacher. I love that you taught poetry! And I love that you were part of building this community out here. Maybe we could meet every other week or so and just talk? I would love to read your poetry and share mine with you and hear about your stories here. May I read one of my poems now?”

The girl then read a short poem about sweeping crumbs under a rug, then using the rug to cover an ancient stain on her floor, and then transitioned that into society’s mistakes being swept under the rug historically, finishing the thought that perhaps it is best to leave messes out in the open and try to clean them up instead of just hiding them. I was stunned. Suddenly a Garth Brooks’ song came on the radio, and I was distracted by the bizarre contract of his words with hers. “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.” That song now, during her impassioned speech about history, feminism, and owning mistakes? I couldn’t help but laugh as I turned my head, and the teen girl briefly made eye contact with me, clearly annoyed at my gaze. I turned back away, still smiling anyway.

The old woman spoke for a long while, and I got lost back in my book editing, but soon, the young woman was talking again, this time about her family.

“It’s me and my two brothers. I’m the oldest. My parents are really cool. We all contribute to meals. Like, my mom makes all the fish. Sockeye, bass, everything. I don’t like salmon much, but we do a lot of fish around the house. We use lots of vegetables, of course. Me, I’m the desert person. I love desserts. Always from scratch. I make French macaroons, and I use lots of berries. My favorite is meringue. I’m the meringue queen, I guess you could say. Did you know you could do meringue out of chick peas? It’s delicious.”

I looked across the table at my sister, who was sipping at her iced latte and reading a book. She attends an all girls’ college nearby, where her wife works in administration. A quarter of the all-female student population was international, and the school embraced transgender women as part of its student body. Hours before, we had checked into an Airbnb, where a female homeowner named Carol welcomed us, and we learned that she was a pastor at a local church. Next door to the coffee shop where I sat was a church with a giant rainbow banner proclaimed ‘God isn’t done speaking’. Just last night, I saw an online music video by Amanda Palmer that showcased incredible women saving the world through mothering, the final image of the video being Palmer herself pulling out a breast to feed a Donald Trump looking alike, soothing him to sleep as she took his phone and Twitter feed away. And behind me, a young feminist who loved poetry and meringue was seeking out a feminist mentor to learn the history of women.

As the two women behind me packed their bags to leave, I clicked on CNN to see the latest headlines. A tweet from Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault, shaming Al Franken for being accused of sexual assault. More allegations that all opposing news is “fake news”. More allegations against Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. A massive oil spill. More Russian connections drawn toward Kushner and the Trump administration. Political revolution in Zimbabwe. A story about a homeless man posing with his wife’s corpse before dismembering her.

Literally every story about horrible men in power abusing that power and doing horrible things. I shuddered from exhaustion. Then I looked at my sister, then at the departing mentor and student, then back at the slowly flowing river, and I realized there is far more hope than the news headlines convey.

It would just make patience, trust, and a lot of strong voices working together.

Sexual Predators

feral

“Am I a sexual predator? Are there people out there who think I’ve sexually harassed them?” and “Have I felt sexually harassed by others? Who, when, and why?”

I found myself wondering those questions over breakfast this morning, after a late night conversation with the boyfriend about these very topics. Lately, the news has been inundated with stories of sexual harassments and sexual assaults by celebrities and people in power. Social media has been full of outrage at Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and dozens more, all of them men who used power and manipulation to harm women (or in some cases men), or who excused their predatory behavior with “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing.”

But that leads me to think back to my own life and experiences, asking two questions internally. Are there times when I have felt sexually harassed, and are there times when others have felt sexually harassed by me?

Are there times when I have used “I didn’t mean to” or “I was drunk” or “I thought it would be okay” or “I didn’t realize what I was doing” as an excuse, and are there times when I’ve used those same excuses to explain away my feelings at the hands of others?

This is actually a really painful space to think upon. As a gay man, I’ve had plenty of evenings in gay clubs with loud music and drinks, where I’ve danced with a partner, and that can easily turn into kissing and groping. I’ve been approached by guys in a similar manner. And there is constantly either verbal or non-verbal consent or refusal happening. If someone grabs me in a club and I liked it, I might grab them back, feel flattered, or express mutual interest. If someone grabs me in a club and I didn’t like it, I might move away, give them eye contact to indicate I’m not interested., or feel disgusted or furious. Even more complex, if I flirt and someone doesn’t flirt back, I might feel angry, confused, or rejected, and they might feel things when I don’t flirt back. These basic encounters have sometimes left me feeling like a predator or like a victim, they just feel like part of the process.

But I can also recall times when guys have aggressively grabbed me in clubs. Strangers who have groped me while I walked by, or who have tried sticking their hands down my pants or unzipping my pants, times when guys from behind me have reached up between my legs from behind and grabbed hard. Those times have made me angry, downright furious, and I’ve forcefully removed hands and pushed guys away, giving very direct ‘NO’s with my voice or my eyes. Consent was much more apparent here. (And I’m never that aggressive in my own flirting).

That same feeling of discomfort has existed within me during more subtle encounters, however. I’ve felt anxious and angry at men who give too much eye contact or who aggressively follow me or pursue me at a party or a park. I’ve grown outraged with people who text too much or too aggressively, or who send unsolicited naked photos, or who brag publicly or privately with friends about sexual experiences they have had with me. These encounters have left me feeling unsettled and unsafe at times.

However, examples from both of the previous paragraphs have also been completely okay at times as well. I’ve had guys aggressively grab me and I felt flattered, men have pursued me or sent naked photos and I’ve liked it, guys have bragged about me and I felt happy about it.

It seems to come down to timing, trust levels, readiness, and level of attraction. And it’s difficult to know what will happen or how I will feel.

Self-inventory then ensues, and I begin to wonder about the times I’ve grabbed guys or have flirted too much or have followed a guy with my eyes in a coffee shop or I’ve complimented too easily. There are very likely people who have felt like I’m being predatory and who have felt unsafe, upset, or harassed by me. And that makes me feel worried and terrible.

Isolated encounters almost confuse me more. I think back to a time when I went on a weekend trip with a group of friends. We were in the Hot Springs together, and one of the guys got very handsy under the water, with his partner standing nearby. At the time, I found it enticing, and it went on for a while. It was only later that it bothered me. I never said no and I enjoyed the encounter, yet now when I look back I felt uncomfortable and maybe even a little harassed.

I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve appreciated it, and I’ve had friends who have flirted (both gay and straight) and I’ve been annoyed, sometimes avoiding them or even blocking them on social media because of it. I’ve had massage therapists get a little bit sexual and sometimes I’ve liked it and sometimes I’ve given a firm no and stayed furious about it. I’ve had clients flirt with me, and sometimes I’ve gotten angry and declared clear boundaries, and other times I’ve kind of enjoyed it and perhaps even subtly flirted back.

I once sat next to a friend during a movie, among a group of friends. During the film, I moved subtly closer until our legs were touching, then I moved my hand a bit closer to hopefully touch his. He responded by getting up and moving away, sitting on the floor, and later he’d told me that made him very uncomfortable. That had been hard to hear, but I respected that, and we are still good friends. I was happy he spoke up, and I was willing to listen.

Consent can be a bit confusing, honestly. And rather than saving my outrage for men in government and Hollywood who I have never met, who have preyed upon others, I’m taking the opportunity to do a bit of self-inventory. There are times when flirtations are just fun. And there are times when flirtations have caused me to feel unsafe and harassed. And there are times when flirtations have caused others to feel like I am harassing them.

I’m not sure what to take from all of these thoughts except to realize that asking is always better than assuming, that consent should be a part of every conversation and flirtation, and that I never like feeling unsafe, and that I don’t ever want anyone feeling unsafe around me.

Harassment and predatory behavior can show up in any space, through unwelcome compliments, eye contact, energy, or gestures. It can show up at work, in friend circles, and in bars. But it’s going to require us all taking stock of our encounters, apologizing when we need to apologize (without making excuses), communicating consent much more quickly, and setting clear boundaries when we need to. We are all sexual beings in our own rights, who experience attractions to others. But someone feeling like they have been marginalized or victimized, including myself, is never acceptable.

We live in a predatory community, and the way men treat men and especially how they treat women should never be focused on excuse-making and feeling rejected, but instead on conversations and consent. But it is very complex when we apply it ourselves. We all need to be using our voices and our ears much more. No one wants to be harassed, and no one wants to feel like they’ve harassed others.

What We Survived

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“What is the thing you are lucky to have survived? I want you to turn to the members of your small group and share with them, and later you’ll be writing a paper on the same topic.”

I felt nervous as I turned to the other three members of my group, already feeling like I didn’t fit in. I was 23 years old and, as far as I knew, the only Mormon kid in my college cohort of social work undergraduates. I was here at Boise State University in a room full of mostly white students, but there were only a handful of men. After high school, I had spent two years on a Mormon mission, and then another two years at a Mormon university. Now I was here among students who called themselves feminists and who sometimes drank alcohol and I didn’t know at all where to fit in. I felt constantly judged for being religious, and many of them felt constantly judged by me because I was religious, and both of those things were probably true. On top of it all, I was hiding the fact that I was gay, way deep down inside, not daring to tell anyone about my terrible shame.

I boldly agreed to go first, keeping eye contact with my group, hoping to find acceptance there.

“I, uh, went through some pretty tough things as a kid and teenager,” I said, sounding confident even though I wasn’t. I chose not to speak about growing up gay, or about my dad leaving, or about the sexual abuse, and instead focused on more recent events. “Um, when I was 16, I remember coming home one day and finding my 6-lb puppy, just this little black scruffy thing named Sammy, literally broken and lying on the floor in the frozen garage. During the day, my stepfather Kent said she had been causing trouble so he tried to toss her outside in the slow and then he slammed the sliding glass door closed on her on accident. He basically just put her down in the garage to freeze to death. I picked her up and could feel her ribs were broken and I cuddled her underneath the blankets in my bed. Kent came down angry and told me to put her back in the garage and I refused and for some reason he left us alone. He was violent and angry a lot during those years, but somehow that was the worst thing he had done.”

The other students in the group had pained looks on their faces, and they shared in this sadness with me for a moment, then took their turns in sharing their stories. One of the students shared a history of being sexually assaulted and then struggling with eating disorders and suicide attempts afterwards. Another student talked about being in the room when her own mother was murdered. The third talked about a horrific car accident that killed three other people and put her in the hospital, one she nearly didn’t survive.

A moment later, we opened the discussion up to the wider classroom and a handful of people shared their stories. One man had lost friends in combat only to be sent home when he was caught in an explosion, one woman had lost her entire home and everything she owned in a house fire, one had been married to a police officer killed in the line of duty.

I remember sitting there with a sense of emptiness and awe as I looked around this room of brave and incredible people. The only thing we had in common was being here in school at the same time, students in a university program. The professor talked about how humans are powerful and resilient and incredible, how we survive some of the worst things in the world and come out stronger on the other side, although we are forever changed. He talked about how, as social workers, we would be sitting with people in their most vulnerable and tragic spaces and helping them find their strength and their truth. And he talked about how even though we survive painful things, we likely have other painful things to survive in the future.

In many ways, this college experience launched my career in trauma work. Over the following years, I have sat with people in their greatest moments of pain, some of it unfathomable. I’ve sat with the woman who had a gun pointed into her open mouth during a bank robbery, the woman who watched her husband commit suicide with a shotgun right in front of her, the man who found his husband hanging over the breakfast table, the mother who woke up from a coma only to learn her entire family had been killed by a drunk driver, the man who lost his entire family during his 25 years in prison, the man who learned of his sister’s death at the hands of a serial killer, the woman whose husband came out of the closet after 40 years of marriage, the athlete who lost his job and scholarship because of one night of careless drinking, and the mother whose son took his own life because he felt rejected by a church for being gay.

If I were to sit in a group now and talk about what I survived, my answer would be much more recent. I would tell about being a home owner with a child, a pregnant spouse, a business, and major religious responsibilities when I came out of the closet and had to start my life over, rebuilding every relationship and learning how to live.

After I’ve worked in trauma several days in a row, I look at the world differently. I see people as survivors, and there is a weight to my eyes. A few days off with sunshine and fresh air, hugs from my children, laughter with friends, savory food, sweat, sleep, sex, wine, inspiration from history, and chocolate in some form or combination is needed to return the optimism.

It is at times a dark and difficult world. And it is a bright and beautiful one.

And we survive both.

 

refugee

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Look, I get it, I get it. You don’t need to explain. The refugee camp was bad, I know, I’ve seen the reports. But you’re wasting your breath here.

Things are bad here, too. We have religious freedoms being attacked by homosexuals, and traditional families being threatened by very definition. We have cops being attacked by black people. Our political parties are at war. We have poverty, unemployment, people are divided on the most basic issues. Immigration is out of control. And terrorism! Our current political climate is divided between Hillary Clinton, a known and proven liar, and Donald Trump, who is just plain crazy. I’m losing sleep over this stuff. I can barely afford my house payment and my medical insurance for my kids. I had to cancel Cable and my gym membership in order to survive.

You’re still here? You want to be heard, I know, I heard you. We all want that. Will I just review your report? Okay! Okay, fine, but if I review it, then you’ll leave me alone? Okay, deal.

All right, let’s see. Born Muslim in Somalia. Grew up with your mother, brother, and sister since your father left your mother for a younger wife, and you were being bullied by your older brother, who couldn’t be punished because he was male and had authority over his mother and sisters. At age five, your grandmother had strange men come into your home and hold you down so they could cut off your clitoris without anesthesia, then they sewed up your sex organ, so that even though the procedure could kill you and would make it hard to urinate for the rest of your life, this would make sure your husband would know you were a virgin when you married after he forced open the scar tissue on your wedding night. It would also make sure you didn’t experience that particular  type of sexual pleasure in your life again.

It says here that you heard about women who were raped returning to their families who were ashamed of them. Many of these women were killed by their families because they were impure, and some of them chose to commit suicide. It says that women were considered less than men and that Allah created them to be so. It also says that you grew up knowing you must keep yourself completely covered at all times, as the exposure of any hair or skin could tempt men and give them impure thoughts, and that would be all your fault.

It says you grew up with barely any education, except that of the Quran, and that you had only rudimentary nutrition, and barely any medical or mental health services available. No clean water, often isolated for weeks at a time, regularly beat by your mother and sometimes locked into rooms for days for being undutiful.

Says here that when your government went to war, you started hearing even more terrible stories, like your friend who was brutally raped by multiple soldiers, and how she became pregnant, and how after the baby was born one of the soldiers tossed it into the fire and forced the woman to watch it burn alive. You say many starve to death and many others die from superficial wounds because there was no clean water or first aid available. You nearly starved to death.

Okay, let’s see, what next. Your father tried to force you into a marriage with someone you didn’t know, even as some of your friends were being married off to first cousins.

I’m sorry, but I have to skip to the end of this, I have other people waiting. You got out of the war zone and made it into the refugee camp. Some of your friends have been raped by the soldiers here, and now they have been disowned by their families for being unclean. You’ve been waiting for a Visa to another country for five years. But you have basic food and medical care, so that’s something new, right? Oh, you still have family in the war zone. Well, tell them to come here to the refugee camp! They’ll be safer here!

Okay, I read your papers, are you happy now? Look, I don’t mean to be unsympathetic. You’ve certainly had an ordeal. But I have to think of the big picture here. If I started helping everyone who has a story like yours, America’s shores would be flooded with refugees, and we are already stretched to our limits as it is. Come back for your check in in another 90 days, and maybe we’ll be able to help then.

In the meantime, though, here is a copy of the Bible. Seriously, your religion sounds crazy. Maybe you should consider changing? Good luck to you. Oh, grab yourself a chocolate candy on the way out, there is a bowl there on the desk. American chocolate is the best. I like it a little too much, you can probably tell from the cushion around my waist. Haha. Anyway, have a nice day.

Next!

**Thank you to Ayaan Hirsi Ali for sharing her powerful story in her book, Infidel.

 

 

Surviving Trauma: learning from Elizabeth Smart

When Elizabeth Smart was 14 years old, an evil man who called himself the prophet Emmanuel found an open window in her home, sliced open the screen, climbed inside her bedroom, and took her away from her family whispering threats in her ears. He marched her up to a high hilltop in the mountains above Salt Lake City where he raped her, as his wife watched. Over the next nine months, he systematically raped her, abused her, starved her, forced her to drink alcohol, kept her in isolation, and threatened her and her family again and again and again. At times, he and his wife paraded her in public in a white veil, threatening her if she spoke up or ran away. After months on the mountain in Utah, he took her to southern California, and on their journey back months later she was finally rescued by the police and returned to her family, the man and his wife going to jail (I simply refuse to use the kidnappers names in this entry).

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Before her kidnapping, Elizabeth was an innocent and spiritual Mormon teenager, who played the harp and loved her family. And after her rescue, Elizabeth took a bath, hugged her family, slept in her own bed, and woke the next morning ready to live. Using horseback riding as her therapy, as well as her belief in God and family, she has gone on to be an advocate for girls and women rescued from captivity, and she is speaking out against the “rape culture”, where systems are set in place that increase sexual assaults against women by doing things like teaching abstinence only in schools or teaching children to follow spiritual leaders at all costs. Now a wife and a mother, Elizabeth has written a about her kidnapping, and she details how she never gave up hope, how she healed, and how she has moved forward.

Toward the end of her book, Elizabeth discusses how she has much to be grateful for. She survived and returned to her family after only months; her kidnapper was a stranger and not someone in her family, someone whose photo hangs on the wall of her home to be looked at every day; her kidnapper was apprehended and locked away; her family surrounded her with love and hope and support and optimism.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited children, roughly 800,000 American children are reported every year; that is about 2000 per day. The majority of these are runaways or family abductions, with nonfamily or stranger abductions happening far less frequently. While I can’t personally verify these statistics, it is safe to estimate that hundreds of thousands of people go missing every year, and most of them we never hear about. That means there are hundreds of thousands of families every year who sit there in pain, wondering, hoping, going on with their lives feeling broken and empty with no answers. It is hard to sit back and realize the vast extent of things like child pornography, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, but all of these are alive and well in our country and the numbers are much more vast than we can simply comprehend.

Many of my clients come in to therapy because they have undergone a trauma. Trauma is a difficult thing to describe or quantify. Three women may get into a minor car accident: one may walk away completely fine and never think of it again, one may walk away and have nightmares for a few weeks, and the last may walk away feeling fine only to realize later she has panic attacks when she tries to get into the car again. We can understand each of these reactions, and we recognize that trauma impacts each person differently at different times in their lives.

In my therapy office, I see so many examples of trauma, all of them sad and devastating. A woman who saw her mother murdered by her father, a man who had a gun put in his mouth in a bank robbery, a teenager disowned by her parents for being transgender and kicked out into the streets, a woman who was hit in the eye by her husband when she found out he had been cheating on her, a woman whose husband and only child were killed by a drunk driver while they walked to the park, a young child whose parents were both killed in a car accident, a college girl who was sexually assaulted by her best friend. On and on and on.

We all have some traumas in our lives. Sometimes we rebound quickly, and sometimes it takes a much longer time. And at times, traumas change us forever, alter us into a different person. Yet traumas don’t have to ruin us or break us, even when they change us. A man who loses both his legs in combat can have a happy healthy life with full relationships, but he is altered and changed from who he was before. A woman whose 16 year old son takes his own life can heal and embrace life even as she forever aches for her lost son. A woman who experiences a double mastectomy in order to survive breast cancer can go on to be healthy and happy with healthy relationships and confidence and sex appeal though she is forever different.

Some traumas completely heal in a brief time. When I was 20, I was pretty violently mugged and knocked unconscious (I’ll have to tell that story here sometime). For a few months, I was scared and in pain. But in time, I was completely healed, both physically and emotionally. Growing up in a religion that promised a cure for my homosexuality has taken me much longer to overcome; it tainted my self-esteem for decades and impacted all of my relationships through childhood, adolescence, and college, and through my early adult life. That trauma changed me, yet I still have a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted life.

Elizabeth Smart is a hero of mine. It takes a special person to tell her trauma to others, to stand up and fight back, to raise awareness, to save lives. I can think of other heroes, Judy Shephard and Dave Pelzer come to mind. But Elizabeth tops that list for me. She is a courageous and powerful force for good in this world.

People sometimes tell me that they believe things happen for a reason, that God allowed a trauma to happen to them so that they might learn. Personally, I can’t line myself up with this premise, that a God allows rape, kidnappings, murders, wars, and suicides in order to teach small personal lessons. I think sometimes things just happen, sometimes as a result of our life choices and sometimes as a result of the choices of others, but they happen nonetheless. I do believe in resilience, however. I believe that no matter what a person goes through, they can rebound and learn and grow and come out stronger.

Elizabeth Smart assuredly has.

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