Sexual Assault and Beyond: How to Speak, Act, and Hopefully Care

By September 9, 2018Exercise
[Warning: This post has depictions and accounts of sexual assault and rape. Reader discretion is advised. You’ll also learn how to be a better human, so there’s that.]

At the Fitness Summit in May 2017, Alan Aragon and I drank drink after drink. I was impressed because I could not keep up with him despite him being 10 years my senior. At some point during our drinking endeavors, a group of male colleagues came and joined the fray for a short time.

Even stranger, the conversation turned to porn. So here we are in the middle of the hotel bar, talking about porn and Alan is telling us how bad pornography is. To be clear, his diatribe had nothing to do with the ethics of the industry or the treatment of women in the industry. His argument was one of moral superiority based on his religiosity. In true tautological fashion, his argument was nothing more than “it is bad.”

Having already had a few drinks and a low tolerance, I said “Alan, that is the dumbest fucking argument I’ve ever heard. You know it’s tautological, right?” But we were drinking. So I let his cognitive dissonance go.

A bit later, we parted ways.

What I didn’t know was even more insidious, and is something I only found out about recently. That very same night at the Fitness Summit, a woman was there for the first time ever. She wasn’t just there to learn, she was also there to celebrate what should have been a fun-filled birthday weekend. Alan saw to it that wouldn’t happen.

In her words:

I don’t recall all the details. I’d had a couple of drinks, but I also wanted to forget the feelings of disgust I had.

Like many people at the Friday night party, Mr. Aragon got drunk. I understand this is not an uncommon occurrence for him. I didn’t judge, because I assumed he just wanted to have fun, like everyone else.

I remember his hand sliding on my behind a few times, and multiple invitations to his room, and some other absolutely inappropriate comments that totally objectified me as a woman.

“Eh, no.” I said, and moved his hand off my butt. “We’re not doing this.”

And when that happened again, I moved his hand more firmly. So instead he put his hand on my shoulder, like that was okay. And he persisted in whispering into my ear, and hugging me, and saying that we really had to go to his hotel room together.

I said no one more time, pushed his hand away, and moved away from him as far as I could to another corner of the room.

She goes on, too. Because Alan didn’t stop. He didn’t stop in 2017. He didn’t stop in 2018. As it turns out, there are a great many stories of his sexual assault out there. In fact, at a conference in August of 2018, Alan was supposed to be the keynote speaker. However, they removed him from that spot. According to Yvette, who you might know as SciBabe,

[T]his conference was a lot of fun. I met people who I’ve wanted to meet for a long time, the other presenters were brilliant (I don’t feel like an intellectual slouch often, but goddamn), and I’ve eaten so much sugar that my teeth may never recover…

However.

I was sexually harassed at this conference by another presenter, a well known person in the fitness world. And to the credit of the conference organizers, this happened the night before we were supposed to present and he was removed from this conference. I’ve never seen a response to harassment happen that quickly. They pulled the trigger on that mere hours before he was scheduled to talk.

There were multiple witnesses to this, I told him to stop because dude, this is not what I’m here for. I sat there texting girlfriends who were at the next booth to help get me out of this situation. If I wasn’t the definition of “visibly uncomfortable,” I think people need to check their vision…

I really don’t want to answer fifty questions from everyone on my friends list, so in advance, yes I’m okay, I’m not psychologically scarred, I’m just angry and disappointed.

Her copy and paste response to “what happened?” is as follows:

…I plopped down next to him and another few people from our party in a booth. I’d already seen him being somewhat handsy with another friend, and I figured whatever, you do you. I don’t know what deal he has with his wife but it’s also not my business nor do I give one iota of a fuck.

The mutual friend sitting between us got up, and suddenly Alan was running his hands through my hair, pulling me close to his face so that he could whisper some rather vulgar things that I don’t want to repeat here, and after I told him DIRECTLY “dude, you’re nice and ll but that’s not what I’m here for, please stop,” he took his hands off me. For 30 seconds.

And then it started again. And it’s not that he was touching me, but that he’s (1) clearly much stronger than me (2) had a grip on me and wouldn’t let go and (3) started doing this shit again after he was asked to stop. [You can read even more on reddit. Tread lightly, avoid most of the comments, focus on the screen shares.]

Much like Kevin Spacey, he didn’t own up to it. He said that Yvette’s story was like a romance novel with plot holes. I don’t want to go on with the burial of Alan—which would be easy based on all that’s been written elsewhere—but I want to use it as a jumping off point for bigger picture issues and how to act better. Ultimately, Alan buried Alan.

Language Use

I first learned about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis at some point when I was getting my degree. Said hypothesis basically states that a person’s language informs their worldview. Academics can argue the finer points of how accurate the hypothesis is, but I think if we look in our lives we can see it happen first hand. If you think about Orwell’s 1984 you can see an analog to Sapir-Whorf in action. Or every time someone says “fake news” with a straight face. Think about this as you go on reading.

When you read or write, you will note there is a distinction between what we call an active voice and a passive voice. The active voice means you are doing something. Specifically, the subject of a sentence is performing an action, a verb. As an example, “I stabbed my finger trying to cut my toast in half.” This is the active voice, and “I” is the subject, and “stabbed” is the verb. If you were to passively convey this message in writing, it would read “My finger was stabbed by me while I tried to cut my toast in half.” See the difference? In the passive sentence, “my finger” is the subject in lieu of “I.”

The passive voice isn’t necessarily wrong; police officers and academics use it all the time with the belief that it conveys objectivity. Whether the passive voice is actually objective or not is debatable, but suffice it to say, I am not a police officer nor is this an academic paper. Furthermore, Facebook status updates are neither of those. It stands to reason that using the passive voice—the voice wherein an object is acted upon—when talking about assault and harassment ought to be a simple choice. Yet, it is not. In general, go with the humanizing voice. The active voice. Case in point, look at the difference between the following sentences:

  • A woman was assaulted
  • John Doe assaulted a woman
  • Jane Deer was assaulted by John Doe
  • John Doe assaulted Jane Deer

Of course, I am not the first to speak of this. Dr. Jackson Katz even has his own examples similar to the ones I used above, and you can read more here. The difference is the level of humanization involved. The first two are dehumanizing as regards the victim. The third sentence is better since it names the victim. The fourth sentence shows more than it tells. The choice is simple. Humanize people.

Autonomy

If we look at the etymology of the word, it comes from two Greek words—the first, “auto,” meaning “self,” and “nomos,” meaning “law.” When you hear of “bodily autonomy,” it means that you have agency of your body on your own terms. This real and non-abstract concept extends to what you allow others to do to your body. For instance, let’s say you want to get a tattoo. You walk into the tattoo parlor with an explicit understanding that a reputable tattoo artist is going to permanently ink, scar, and alter your skin. It’s not a surprise. You went through the steps of consent by signing a contract, talking to the parlor owners, and you even paid an artist for her time. Barring dissatisfaction, everything is cool.

Now, consider this. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander’s state-appointed guardian advokat Nils Bjurman brutally rapes and sodomizes Lisbeth. In addition to being an abhorrent and gross abuse of power, Bjurman’s actions are an undeniable violation of Lisbeth’s bodily autonomy. Later on, Lisbeth gets her revenge. She goes to Bjurman’s apartment with a stun gun, incapacitates him, and subsequently ties him up. After that, she sodomizes him with a foreign object and gives him a homemade tattoo that reads “I’m a sadist pig and a rapist.”

His new tattoo is a true statement. Bjurman used his position of power to force her to, at first, fellate him in exchange for her rightfully owed monthly allowance. It escalated. In every instance, Bjurman violated Lisbeth’s autonomy. However, much it hurts to admit, Lisbeth violated Bjurman’s autonomy with her vigilante justice. Did he deserve it? I absolutely think he did. Philosophy class dorks can spend time writing papers and arguing otherwise. Overall, as readers, we are vehemently rooting for Lisbeth. When I saw the movie based on the book in theaters, people cheered when she enacted her justice. We have the privilege of knowing (or even relating to) her backstory. That being the case, we are more than OK with her shirking due process to achieve justice.

We also have the privilege as readers to see the action unfold right before our eyes. When something egregious like sexual assault happens to a loved one, friend, or colleague, we don’t always have that luxury. Sometimes we don’t see what happens to them. To muddy the waters further, eyewitness testimony is not always reliable. For a witness, things like vision (literally, having bad vision), stress, the lineup process, weapon use, and time after the event affect the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Not only that, if the perpetrator is someone we’re close to (or you’re a sycophant), it’s hard to see them in a negative light. In fact, you don’t want to see them in a negative light at all. Even with multiple eyewitness accounts and the subsequent victim blaming and shaming that occurs right after an incident we don’t want to see our loved ones or idols in a negative light. Since we live in the real world, and most of us won’t and can’t take up the mantle of the vigilante, it becomes exponentially easier to root for Lisbeth, Furiosa, or Jessica Jones.

Unfortunately, we aren’t exemplary computer hackers, we don’t live in a post-apocalyptic, lawless wasteland, and we don’t have superpowers. We aren’t omniscient. More unfortunately, the court of public opinion doesn’t take too kindly to accusations against their neon gods, especially when those gods are accused of rape or sexual assault. Doubly so when women accuse those gods. Chris Brown still has a fan base despite pleading guilty to felony assault, Sean Connery flippantly told Barbara Walters that it’s not the worst thing to slap a woman and that it’s better to do it with an open hand as opposed to a clenched fist, and former MMA fighter Warmachine had a hashtag dedicated to his freedom after he brutalized ex-girlfriend Christy Mack. If you think I’m kidding, search #freewarmachine and you will see mountains of hate levied towards Christy Mack.

Consent

There’s a lot of talk about consent now. Consent is that which makes the difference between violating someone’s bodily autonomy and having a good physical relationship with them. Consent is an agreement, not unlike a contract, with terms and conditions that you can revoke at any time. For your frame of reference, spousal rape wasn’t fully illegal in the United States until 1993, a scant 25 years ago. This meant that a person could violate their spouse’s bodily autonomy and get away with it.

 

The not quite as famous (but free) version of this photo used for a hopefully stimulating discussion on sexual assault and autonomy

Photo: Victor Jorgenson.

If we take into account the varying sources of people saying they are the subject of the photograph above, one thing is pretty clear—there was no consent. This picture, like all art, should absolutely stir up a myriad of feelings inside you. Every single event in your life that you are aware of and unaware of lead to the formation of your opinion on this photo. Some women love the picture. Others said that devoid of context, it’s romantic, but with context, it’s pretty sordid. Another said that they didn’t know, but they love it. Still, some acknowledge that you shouldn’t just kiss random people but still like the picture as a snapshot of the feelings at that point in time. The accepted account of V-J Day, 1945, Times Square reads:

George steamed forward several more feet. His girlfriend was now farther behind. He focused on Greta, the “nurse.” She remained unaware of his advance. That served his purpose well. He sought no permission for what he was about to do. He just knew that she looked like those nurses who saved lives during the war. Their care and nurturing had provided a short and precious reprieve from kamikaze-filled skies. But that nightmare had ended. And there she stood. Before him. With background noises barely registering, he rushed toward her as if in a vacuum.


Though George halted his steps just before running into Greta, his upper torso’s momentum swept over her. The motion’s force bent Greta backward and to her right. As he overtook Greta’s slender frame, his right hand cupped her slim waist. He pulled her inward toward his lean and muscular body. Her initial attempt to physically separate her person from the intruder proved a futile exertion against the dark-uniformed man’s strong hold. With her right arm pinned between their two bodies, she instinctively brought her left arm and clenched fist upward in defense. The effort was unnecessary. He never intended to hurt her.

As their lips locked, his left arm supported her neck. His left hand, turned backward and away from her face, offered the singular gesture of restraint, caution or doubt. The struck pose created an oddly appealing mixture of brutish force, caring embrace, and awkward hesitation. He didn’t let go. As he continued to lean forward, she lowered her right arm and gave over to her pursuer—but only for three or four seconds. He tried to hold her closer, wanting the moment to last longer. And longer still. But they parted, the space between them and the moment shared ever widening, releasing the heat born from their embrace into the New York summer afternoon.

The encounter, brief and impromptu, transpired beyond the participants’ governance. Even George, the initiator, commanded little more resolve than a floating twig in a rushing river of fate. He just had to kiss her. He didn’t know why.

For that moment, George had thought Times Square’s streets belonged to him. They did not. Alfred Eisenstaedt owned them. When he was on assignment, nothing worth capturing on film escaped his purview. Before George and Greta parted, Eisenstaedt spun around, aimed his Leica and clicked the camera’s shutter release closed four times. One of those clicks produced V-J Day, 1945, Times Square. That photograph became his career’s most famous, Life magazine’s most reproduced, and one of history’s most popular. The image of a sailor kissing a nurse on the day World War II ended kept company with Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. That photo proudly exemplified what a hard-fought victory looks like. This photo savored what a long-sought peace feels like. Source: Verria, Lawrence, and George Galdorisi. The Kissing Sailor: the Mystery behind the Photo That Ended World War II. Naval Institute Press, 2012.

Most sources agree that the above account is true. That being the case, it is undoubtedly a violation of Greta’s autonomy. To me, it seems like George was hysterical and highly emotional. It still doesn’t make his actions right.

False Equivalences

The comment sections on the internet are rife with this semantic chicanery. Most people aren’t even good at it. Moreover, the more observant the listener or reader, the better the presenter needs to be at this logical fallacy in order to make a proper rhetorical point. Stepping into the land of stories and make believe, humor me and read my example of a false equivalence:

Batman is a rich man who dresses up like a bat and fights crime

And

Batwoman is a rich woman who dresses up like a bat and fights crime

Therefore, Batman and Batwoman are the same person.

You needn’t be a comic fan to see how ridiculous the argument is. Yes, Kathy Kane and Bruce Wayne share some similarities. While this is a simple example, we see more complex versions of this argument in political discourse. We also see it in the courtroom when the defense and prosecution make their cases to jurors. Perhaps one of the more glaring examples is the famous quote that “there is blame on both sides.” Or, when your bibulous lush of an uncle who doesn’t vote laments that “Democrats and Republicans are all the same”.

Where matters of autonomy are concerned, lawyers in the court of public opinion and real lawyers (the ones who have a job and get paid for it) might make the argument that an assaulted woman had sex, while drunk, with the defendant. These same people cite instances in the past where the woman claiming the assault was drunk and had sex with someone and didn’t accuse the man involved. Their logic concludes that there was a pattern of behavior in an effort to discredit the accuser. Hearkening back to Christy Mack and Warmachine, losers on the internet would often say something along the lines of: “Christy Was a whore, what do you expect?” Or when a philanderer condemns sexual assault and people bring up the philandering, as if one person violating another’s autonomy is remotely the same thing. And in nearly every discussion on feminism, people come in and make the same lame arguments. And men—just between us—you know all these arguments are bullshit, right? If you aren’t sure, the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Institute offers free courses online. One of them is formal logic. Take it.

Conclusion

What are we to do, then? Your first step is to monitor the language you use. Whether it’s online or offline, think about every word you utter or type.

  • Use humanizing language
  • Don’t shift the focus of someone else’s outpouring to you
  • Acknowledge the validity of what someone else is feeling
  • Be kind
  • Listen to women’s stories without looking for a way to automatically discredit them

Respect one another’s autonomy. Culturally, there are differences in how close you can stand to someone without pissing them off. In the US, we have pretty big bubbles. Other countries have smaller bubbles.

Back in my cigarette smoking college days, I was smoking while I was waiting for a class. One man among USF’s large Arabic population walked up to me and we were face to face, about six inches apart. Taken aback, I stepped back about a foot and asked, “May I help you?”

“I need to use a lighter,” he replied.

So I handed him my lighter, we both went on with our lives. If I were less informed and more of a hot head, I could have gotten violent or mad. But I thought of the cultural differences we had and fixed it by walking back and being nice to the guy. Respect each other’s boundaries, physically and verbally.

When it comes to consent, don’t be vague. It’s your body. Your choice. For some, it’s easier said than done. Everyone’s respective lens will determine how they react to a given situation. You need to gauge how the other person is reacting to you. Better, ask them how.

Recently, I went on a second date with someone and at the end of the night, I asked, “Can I kiss you before I go?”

I told someone this story, and their response was, “Yeah, you have to be careful in this day and age.”

My response? I told them that decency knows no day and age, and as far as I could remember, I generally acted this way.

On top of that, don’t discredit someone’s story with your own false equivalence. For example, if a woman tells you that a man sent her an unwanted dick picture, or she was groped, it is absolutely uncalled for, as a man, to recount your own experiences of similar things. In fact, I have received unsolicited vulva pics, and have been groped by women and men. There is one fundamental difference, however: if I spurn someone, I’m pretty confident that I won’t be threatened with death or violence as a result. And if I am, I’m fairly confident I can defend myself should things get physical.

Don’t think I’m saying your experiences should be discounted—they shouldn’t. But there is a time and a place, and someone telling you their story is not that time, unless they ask you to. You also need to call your friends out if they’re acting like assholes or worse, if they’re sexually harassing and/or assaulting people.

Finally, this isn’t me saying I’m perfect. I’m not. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of to people I care for. Whether it was lying, or having an emotional affair, none of it was the right thing to do. In 2006, when I was a drunk 20-year-old at a topless bar, I smacked a dancer’s ass. Understandably, she was upset. From there, I thought about what I’d done (with no prompting) and realized that type of behavior was unacceptable. Now, I go to therapy to avoid the other previously mentioned behaviors and better myself. It’s painfully easy to scrutinize the behavior of someone else. It’s not quite as easy to put yourself under the lens of scrutiny. But you have to. Or you don’t mentally grow.

These negative behaviors stick around with us because they work. More often than not, they work to our advantage, so we keep doing them. Even when they don’t work, we still do them. They’ve worked so much in our favor that a situational anomaly—that is, the behavior in question not working—doesn’t deter us anymore. And they’ll keep working until they no longer work and then you’re stuck with an uncomfortable truth. That truth, according to Agent Gordon Cole, is that “You need to fix your heart or die.”

 

Peter Baker

About Peter Baker

In addition to being a fan of music and heavy metal, I am an avid player of table top RPGs, and I am a personal trainer in Tampa, FL as well as a graduate of the prestigious University of South Florida. Formerly, I was a prefect for House Slytherin.

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