Monday, June 23, 2014

The Fear that Hate Produced

In recent months and years, feminists and women's rights activists have been making extra effort to show the direct impact of rape culture. In particular, they've used first person narratives to great effect. Each of these graphic and at times lurid accounts is told from a female perspective, that of the victim. Many of them focus on rapes and sexual assaults committed on college campuses, offenses that are rarely prosecuted.

Women in these situations rarely have much control over the way a police investigation and criminal prosecution proceeds, if it proceeds. As a man, I recognize that, in this situation, I don’t have the ability to fully relate to my sisters. But I can talk about another aspect of the proceedings that gets forgotten. Victims of sexual or emotional abuse sometimes, entirely without even intending to, negatively impact the people of either sex who they take into their confidence.

I want it to be known up front that I’m not a rape apologist. Rape is never acceptable for any reason, regardless of gender or age. What I do wish to impart is how past damage and abuse can create an atmosphere of extreme mistrust and, for some, very significant paranoia. Those who provide the impetus for the phobias and emotional damage they create in others should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But what is left behind can be very problematic indeed.

Victims shouldn’t have to do extra work, but fair or not, they have no choice. Restoring themselves to the greatest emotional health possible is necessary effort, though it is effort that is not fair and never will be fair. I have been in therapy for the most of my life. The gains I’ve made are substantial, but expensive and also time consuming. I shouldn't have had to take the time, but I decided long ago that mental health was a necessary life goal.

Men aren’t always aware of the healthy boundaries that we all should set for ourselves and for others around us. Because of this, they sometimes reach erroneous conclusions based on interactions with women who bear substantial scars. In a more perceptive world, men would immediately see the root causes and impact of psychological and physical damage. Moreover, they would have some understanding as to why the women with these maladies and challenges act a particular way around them.

Many men do not have this insight because they haven’t viewed it themselves, nor have they been confronted with the truth of the matter. The gory details frequently get hushed up and concealed, a fact feminists have pointed out and sought to reverse on numerous occasions. In this column, I’ve chosen to write about a series of experiences in my own life to show a different side of rape culture. To follow are the experiences of men who come in contact with women who have yet to process fully their own pain and sense of past violation.


We sat at a coffee shop, facing each other at a table. The talk had been insightful, detailed, and sometimes harrowing. Without my asking, she told me she had been molested by her father as a young girl. I could tell through subsequent insight that the damage was extensive, but what I’d been told already was bad enough.

I was raised to be more honest than normal with others. My approach towards truthful discourse was very different to someone else whose upbringing had not been my own. Feeling confident, I confided that I, too, had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. It was my assumption from our shared similarities that we would now be much closer friends from then going forward. I was wrong.

Not long after, our relationship changed dramatically. Out of nowhere, with nothing so much as a warning, she demanded, by way of an e-mail, complete space and distance from me. For reasons never stated, she removed herself from a listserve where I was an active contributor. Additionally, she removed me from her list of Facebook friends. Minutes later, she e-mailed the moderator of the online community of which we had both been a member, stating that I made her feel unsafe and she wanted no further contact with me.

We never spoke again, she made no further allegations, and no one else got in touch with me. I was honestly perplexed, and as a male ally, entirely confused with her behavior.


I’d asked her if she’d be willing to have a drink with me. This was said in the computer lab where we were both enrolled as college students. The request seemed simple and straightforward enough. We never got around to mutual consumption of libations. I think I e-mailed once or twice to see if I could get the ball rolling. No reply.

Later in the week, she loudly confronted me in the hallways of a classroom building, screaming a stream of nonsensical concerns.

The volume was loud enough that a nearby professor conducting class came outside to talk to me. She expected a fight to be underway. Although the voice far down the corridor carried well, I was a long way away, strategically placed on the other side of the hallway. The instructor waited for the screaming to die down, then re-entered her classroom. She was satisfied that no crisis was imminent.

Much of what had been said was incoherent, but a few repeated words and phrases failed to escape my notice.

“You’re crazy!” she’d said. “I think you’re going to rape me!”

A few days later, purely by coincidence, I passed by her dorm on my way to somewhere else on campus. I had no idea she lived there, as I was rarely present in that part of resident housing. She was standing in the front of the entrance to the dorm where she lived, smoking a cigarette.

“You scare me,” she said. I certainly had not intended to produce this effect. I kept my eyes down as I passed her by, forcing myself to think about something else.


She’d already distanced herself from a physically and emotionally abusive boyfriend. Everyone had known about the destruction he’d caused in her life, but it took her months to finally leave him.

She was in one of my classes and part of a group assignment. Using the bound paper directory provided to me, I looked her name up and punched the digits into my phone.

Her voice was panicked from the instant I said hello. “How did you get this number? How do you know where I live? Where did you find me?”

I’d meant to ask about an assignment from class, but found immediately that this would be a request she would be unable to fulfill. I hung up with her panicked, fearful cry still ringing in my ears.

Two weeks later, I found she had filed a police report against me. Due to lack of evidence, the report was not pursued further.


The two of us had been communicating regularly, mostly online. There came a time when, having developed feelings for her, I wanted to let her know them. I knew I was taking a risk, but the time seemed to be right.

“You know,’ I said, “I think you’re really beautiful.”

She didn’t smile or say "thank you", as I had been expecting. Instead, she grimaced and walked away. From then on, I was told by way of an e-mail I was not to contact her again, except through her blog, where she could moderate my comments. I wasn’t sure what I’d done, but obligingly commented on her blog for a month or two, to let her know I was really a harmless, nice guy.


One of my favorite female writers was only an e-mail away. In additional to admiring her skills at the written word, I wanted the opportunity to small talk with her, even if it was only sporadic and not especially substantial. I wrote a page long conversational e-mail about a variety of subjects I thought might interest her. Surely there was something present that could stimulate further communication.

I went a week without a reply, then I tried again. The format of the second letter was similar, but I tried to be more eloquent and thoughtful this time around.

Within thirty seconds of sending my second e-mail, I received a blunt, and very hurtful reply.


And as the hurt descended, I realized that this particular communique came from a person who didn’t want to know me. Making assumptions that I was somehow only intending to bother her or emotionally harm her, she’d entirely misread my intentions. Without additional information to prove her fears, I wasn’t sure why she felt that my friendly, good natured words needed to be treated as though I meant to do something terribly wrong. I wasn’t your average troll spouting insults or using psychological warfare to wound or needle. I only wanted to communicate with a personal hero.


Sometimes hate from someone else produces fear in us, which often swings around all the way to hate. Women who put their written ideas before an online audience learn to be thick-skinned, even though each of us, regardless of gender, resents being torn to shreds by criticism. I feel this way, too. In relationships, women sometimes end up with abusive partners. Sometimes men fool them into thinking otherwise and sometimes women haven't had enough life experiences to see the red flags they will eventually view plainly later in life.

I try to keep my own issues compartmentalized enough so that some unkind word or phrase doesn’t go straight to my core. I’ve experienced my share of childish hate and criticism. As long as I don’t let the eternally negative get underneath my skin, I’ve won. Being a feminist or advocate of women's rights requires one to develop strategies to keep us from confusing friend with foe, even though it's remarkably easy to do. Feminists are some of the strongest people I have ever met, but they sometimes have the propensity to jump to conclusions that serve their greater narrative.

It would be foolish to say that every woman's behavior and experiences are the identical to the anecdotes I've listed above, or every man's, for that matter. But even one strongly uncomfortable if not traumatic experience is bound to leave an impact, whether intentional or not. Though this is first and foremost my personal decision, I've gotten the professional help I need in order to avoid making an inadvertent painful impact on someone else. I don't want my still-unresolved emotions or judgments to get the best of me or for them to lead me or others in directions that are unhelpful. Recovery takes time for everyone, male or female.

I made mistakes and sometimes have been a victim of circumstance, but I didn't realize these decisions would be this detrimental. They seemed harmless enough. In the anecdotes I've shared above, my baggage and the baggage of those I've described formed a noxious compound, one that exploded into outright conflict. In our desire to race for prosecution and for justice to be done, we sometimes go too far. We can and should correct our behavior, but in clamoring for justice we have to look at things even-handedly, from every perspective.

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