May 26, 2014

Our Sexual Assault Problem Is Nuanced, Layered, And Not Easily Solved By A Hashtag

Anger. Fear. Misogyny. Abuse. Mental illness. Sexism. Senseless hatred. They’re all words that have been strewn around in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s brutal rampage.

And yet, like most tragedies, we the society and we the second-hand survivors are left wondering how we can keep this from happening again. How we can make things better.

How can it get better? How can we fix this? How can we find ways for men to grow up without shame, without aggression, without pent-up anger? How do we raise men and women to seek help when they need it, to be able to express their feelings and frustrations freely, to go throughout their life without gender normative pressure to be something that perhaps they don’t feel comfortable being? How can we raise children and educate adults on how to allow more freedom and open-mindedness?

This isn’t a crime issue. This isn’t a gender issue. This is a compassion issue.


What do people do with all their awareness? Awareness and blame walk the finest of tightropes and depending on a person’s history, can be interpreted in either direction, no matter the intent. Because awareness can easily turn into suspicion which can easily turn into expectation which can easily turn into assumption which can easily turn into fear, then we’re victims and men are the monsters, even before they’ve spoken a word to us.


Because, here’s the thing: in one way or another, we’re all part of the problem, some more than others. But we all perpetuate it and allow it. We are all culpable parts of a nuanced cog.

We say, “Teach your children not to rape,” without offering up reasons for why men are taking out their aggression in this way. In fact, we’re not asking even why men are this aggressive in the first place. This is layered, nuanced, and not solved by a pep talk from parents or a hashtag that some men feel threatened by. If you’re attacking men for their behavior and their attacking women, then all we’re doing is attacking each other.

Have we ever thought about what it’s like to be a man? We say that we don’t need to because it is the de facto setting for so much of society, which isn’t untrue, but taking it for granted and actually considering the status quo are two very different things. I think I may have nuanced experience with this because I grew up with divorced parents and I spent most of my formative years with my dad and older brother. I have grown up seeing men as multidimensional people that have feelings, ebbs, flows, breakdowns, and breakthroughs.

We talk about Elliot Rodger in a strange way. We say he thought he was “entitled” to women, that he hated women. But, what I see and what I pick up on when I read his manifesto is that he was inadequately prepared for the feelings he had on a daily basis. Now, I’m not excusing him, do not misunderstand me here. Do not paint me as disrespectful or even soft towards this crime. I am not. I am appalled. But, the crime has happened and so it give us an opportunity to have a discussion.

And the discussion we are having right now is misguided. We are pointing out the SYMPTOMS, not the root cause of a larger issue. We are ignoring the true diagnosis of what is at the heart of our violence problem. By sharing our stories, we are finding strength in numbers, which is valuable in its own right. However, when the stories and awareness circle around symptomatic experiences, instead of a useful dialogue about how we can move forward as a species, then all we are doing is agreeing with each other and that becomes insular and not helpful.

Because, the men who truly need to be heard and who truly are at the heart of this issue, are the ones who are responding defensively with, “not all men are like this,” and yes, we belabor them and roll our eyes at them, because, “duh!” but that’s insensitive.

The way we treat men is insensitive. Sometimes I feel like we are a group of popular girls at a high school who, if anyone ever disagrees with us or voices an opinion, our answer is to laugh at them, to snicker, to degrade them. Are we better? Do we have the answers? Are women not part of the problem, too?

Do women not profit off the way that men are reduced to their sexual urges? Do women not see opportunity in men that will happily buy their affection, prostitution or otherwise? Do well-known celebrities not experience intense reward and value for being a real-life version of what a man has been taught is his fantasy? Do women not, every single day, profit from their objectification? Do women not buy beauty products and watch shows and movies and consume and consume and consume all sorts of things that are direct propaganda that lead to the symptoms of aggression that they then bemoan on a hashtag?

Because, this is nuanced and layered. To paint it as anything else is to not understand it. We are all systematically adding to this problem. For every woman who deleted Chris Brown songs off their iTunes following his violence towards Rihanna, there was a teenage girl begging him to abuse her. For every person who supported Vine-famous Jessi Smiles when Curtis LePore allegedly raped her, there were hundreds of girls asking Curtis if he’d have sex with them, too.

This isn’t to place blame. It’s about raising awareness that we are not innocent. Nobody is innocent here. Every single day, whether you are aware of it or not, you and I are perpetuating the same ideas that are leading to aggression. We buy movies where men attack other men who hit on their girlfriends and call it romantic. We immortalize a writer who perpetuates obsessiveness and aggressiveness and call it love. We tell men to pursue us, to come get us, to make us feel wanted, to put us into weaker positions by paying for us and supporting us and making us dependent on them, all the while calling this chivalrous and charming. We want men to be sensitive, but when they are, we make fun of them for being soft and “crying like a girl.” When a man chases us down the street and we’re attracted to him, it’s sweet. When a man chases us down the street and we’re not attracted to him, it’s harassment.

All the while, men know ALL OF THIS that I explained above, plus more confusion about what it means to be a man. We throw everything we can at men and then go, “sort this out on your own and if you have any questions, we’re going to laugh at you.”

Are you starting to see the nuance here? I could go on and on with examples, but then again, it’s just more awareness.


We need change. We don’t need parents who will tell their sons not to rape. Every single person who rapes another person knows that they’re not supposed to rape. (Or kill, or harass, or stalk, or any of those things… they’re against the law, these things, you can safely bet that they know these things are wrong, otherwise they’d just do it in plain sight, if you think they’re that dumb.) It’s a matter of starting to understand what is the root cause of this violence and aggression.

Honestly, I think it’s confusing to be a human being right now. Women have banded together and there’s more of an understanding, because women are encouraged to share their feelings, express themselves, and be sensitive and compassionate. This is not an inherently female thing. Anybody who has spent a considerable amount of time with children know that they have their own attributes, that there are stoic, independent girls as much as there are sensitive, expressive boys. At some point, we allow women to be free — albeit, with body image issues, of course, which is a totally separate, layered topic — but we put rules and restrictions on boys. You have never seen more determination than a father who wants his son to play sports, most of which encourage violence and aggression.

Mothers and fathers put much less of a box around girls. They are encouraged to use their imagination — if they want Legos, their parents are not worried about what it means; they simply give her Legos. God forbid, a little boy wants to play with a Barbie — most parents are not evolved enough to see that just because their boy wants to play with a Barbie does not mean he’s anything except curious and imaginative, as children are wont to be. However, this suppression of natural urges is struck down very early on, from how they should play to how they should act to how they should talk to how they are supposed to present themselves to the world.


When I was younger, probably in fourth grade, I was hanging out with this boy from my class a lot. We would ride bikes together, do as children do, think up imaginary lives and adventures. One day, my dad got a call from his mom and she told him that this boy was not going to hang out with me anymore, because I was a “bad influence on him.” Now, this boy was sensitive, caring, and sweet, like the kind of boy that got eaten alive a little bit in school, who went on to be a hunter and had the kind of suppressed anger that worried you. I’ll never know what prompted his mom to end our hang-outs, but I can make an educated guess that someone in their household started to feel uncomfortable with their empathic, sensitive boy hanging out with a girl and getting all her girl feelings on him. Someone was afraid he’d turn out less of a man, whatever the hell that means.

I watched this boy grow up and become, after each passing year, more closed up and, by the time we were in high school together, he was as wound up as I’d ever seen him, a seething rage behind a dormant exterior. There’s no doubt in my mind that, throughout the years, he had experienced a suppression from his family. He never got into sports, but his brother went onto receive a scholarship for athletic excellence. I’ll never know, but I remember him now and I think, he could have been a statistic of violence, easily, with the way he went from vibrant, expressive child into a boy being crushed under the weight of expectations of manhood.

We don’t encourage men to seek help, get therapy, talk about their feelings. Actually, we go so far as to strongly discourage it, to bully, to make them feel like anything but “strong and brave” at all times means they are less of a man. Would you like to feel like less of a woman? We, in fact, strongly dislike feeling like less of a woman, considering we have body acceptance movements, legislature for equal pay, etc.

And yet, men are encouraged to suppress their natural desires, not in a sexual way, but in a human way, as in their natural desire to be imaginative, creative, loving, sensitive, empathic, compassionate, nurturing, expressive.

Did you notice that as you read the above words you automatically associated them with being feminine? With being a woman? A woman is allowed to be anything and encouraged to do so, but men, and here’s the silent killer, are not. They are not, but we tell them that they are, that they have the world at their feet, that they are privileged and that we are oppressed and all they have is their confusing feelings towards this that they are not encouraged (again, discouraged) from expressing. Yes, there are real issues facing the way women are treated and I am not insensitive to that, but we must stop this blame.

We. Must. Stop. This. Blame. We are blaming and pointing fingers, instead of using the best tool we can use to actually inspire change which is COMPASSION.

We are compassionate when, instead of rolling our eyes and muting the men who say NOT ALL MEN ARE LIKE THIS, we listen. (I am, admittedly, a hypocrite on this, because I’ve rolled my eyes at many men and I can acknowledge this is the problem because I’m a fucking part of it.)

Compassion is asking WHY, not stating facts. Compassion is, instead of blaming parents for raising vicious children or instead of blaming women for wearing lascivious clothing or instead of blaming men in general, we open up a discussion as to how men and women got to this impasse. Why are we here?

I mean, fuck, how are some men growing up into men who then hate women? This is disturbing. But this is what we do, we don’t open up discussions. We point fingers, blame, write our two cents, and then spend the rest of the day muting and blocking anyone that doesn’t agree with us. ON BOTH SIDES. We’ve become people who are so fixed in their views that open-mindedness is not just absent, but it’s a pipe dream at this point. And, in our political correctness of not wanting to ever excuse what someone did, we paint the perpetrator as insane or ill and move on. We think we need gun control (we do) or accessibility to mental healthcare (we do) but we ignore the part that says this is anyone, this could and most likely will happen again. Why? Why is this happening? Because in never wanting to excuse the perpetrator (and being too worried to offend anyone), we gloss over the parts where he sounds like a lot of kids. So, what is going on with our kids? 


I want to hear from men. I want their stories, too. I want to know what it’s like to grow up not knowing what to do, because you’ve been told how to be and it’s such a stringent view of life that you can’t reconcile who you are up against who you’re supposed to be. I want to know what it’s like to feel that you must make money in order to earn the right to be loved by someone who you never know actually loves you for you (or if they are loving you for what you provide). I want to know what it’s like to date when you’re told that “no means no” but that also, “persistence is key” and that women “play hard to get.” I want to know what it’s like to grow up being fed messages that tantalize your sex drive, that are designed perfectly to get you to buy things and achieve things, that sell you the idea of women as a reward for hard work and financial success, but then to be told that you must respect that woman who allowed herself to be bought. I want to know what it’s like to have to suppress every natural urge you might have that doesn’t fit within the teeny tiny allowance of who you’re allowed to be, lest you forgo your manliness. I want to know what it’s like to grow up perhaps on the spectrum of sexuality (like women do, but are not demonized to explore, but their curiosity is celebrated by men) but to have to suppress that and fit into gender norms that are archaic, but the same norms you have to uphold or you will be cast out.

I want to know what it’s like to be excessively and overwhelmingly taught to objectify women, but then be demonized for doing so. Do men who have questions and feelings and thoughts on this subject have a million blogs to turn to? Do men have community to talk about these things? (The only community I’ve ever seen that actually does this well are sects of the Christian community and, while I don’t identify as Christian anymore, when I was involved with the community for a year in college, it opened my eyes to how much of the behavior that men exhibit is not “natural” or “nature” but is socialization that can be untaught and undone by opening up a conversation about it, instead of shooting it down and blaming and shaming.)

I want to know what it’s like to, just by virtue of having a penis, feel pressured to initiate a conversation with a woman he finds attractive — only to be, most times, rejected and humiliated, but then have to do it again if he has any hope for finding a partner to share his life with. Men are supposed to initiate a date, talk to you first, ask you out, pay for everything, suppress their urge to copulate until you’re ready, keep paying for things, hope they measure up, worry that you’ll try to change him, worry that he’s some sort of uncut diamond you want to polish, feel like they have to buy you, and then be made to feel powerless in more ways than you could probably imagine.


Again, this is only the other side of the issue. But, honestly, are we done with awareness yet? Can we move onto fixing things? I’m sick of complaining about the same things over and over and seeing no solution.

The solution is not, teach men to not rape or kill. This is the most simplified solution that will go absolutely nowhere. The solution is to begin a dialogue, to have more acceptance and allowance for alternate views, to hear where someone is coming from, to exhibit more compassion to each other, to let someone down kindly, because while nobody is owed our bodies, the least we can give anyone is our kindness.

While men may be reaping the benefits in career ways, women have far more benefits when it comes to human desire to express, create, and feel. We cannot discount how important it is that we are allowed the full playground of ourselves without much retribution, but men get a tiny box in which they must stay put for all their lives. We victimize ourselves to a degree that is unhealthy if we say we are viewed the lesser sex because of matters that are completely about career promotions and financial gain. We completely disregard the kind of privilege we have to express ourselves, to explore who we are, to live in the beautiful, messy gray area, while our male counterparts are discouraged from expressing, feeling, exploring, their entire lives presented in black and white terms. Men must provide, get a job, make the money, while women are free to roam without persecution.

Of course, now I need to go into the regional discrepancies when it comes to the conversation on gender. I am an American and white and I speak from my experience as having grown up as a white American woman. I know that women of other races and other countries have limited rights and those are valuable conversations to be had. All I can do is speak from my experience, as a white, American woman who has traveled to Europe and North Africa. Again, this is an intensely nuanced and layered subject that differs not only from country to country, but city to city. There are countries that are much less evolved than ours that are not even ready to start a conversation. We’ve been building to this conversation in America. Legislation is in place — on paper we are equal — and now we must bring that equality into fruition by a change in conversation and a change in consciousness.

There is no way that we will have a blanket solution for all the problems of the world. You can come into this conversation and say that many other people have it worse off than we do, but that’s an exclusionary and simplistic way of going about change. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are an American. I speak as an American to Americans, in this piece specifically. We are the ones facing our own civil war, school shootings, rapes, and unspeakable violence. Yes, we are not experiencing a genocide nor are women denied basic human rights, but that only means we move on from where we are; we don’t move forward by taking into account every single country. We fix our home. We don’t ignore our home in order to fix someone else’s home, at least not until our own home is in a place where we’re not at all surprised when there’s another mass shooting being reported from CNN.


On a side note, I will speak from my experience with marrying a Tunisian man who identifies as Arab and Muslim. Now, you may be expecting me to tell you that this has been a trying relationship because of our cultural differences and perhaps you have your own bias towards the Arabic community based on the limited knowledge we in America are given about Arabs, so maybe you are thinking here that he is disrespectful towards me. Maybe you have your own knee-jerk reaction, your own assumptions based off the behavior that some Arab countries exhibit.

But here’s the truth: in all my years of dating, I had never met a man who respected, admired, and supported me like Houssem does. And, what I’ve noticed from him is that who I am does not threaten who he is. I am not an object to him, not a projection of his fantasy of women.

Where he grew up, he was not brainwashed with images of half-naked women. He does not stare at women when he’s with me. In fact, I remember as clear as day this one time when we were first starting to date. A Beyonce video had come on the television and we were both not really paying attention to it. When I noticed the video — and I noticed how little clothing Beyonce was wearing, specifically — I braced myself, ready to deal with Houssem drooling everywhere over it like I had seen many men in my past do (and each time a man did this in my past, it always made me uncomfortable, whether the man was a friend, my brother, anyone).

To my astonishment, Houssem glanced up at the video and then slowly retracted his gaze back to his computer. He was not at all affected by the video, nor was he ever affected by women walking by us as we strolled together. It’s not even that he was trying not to look out of respect for me; it was simply and plainly that he did not view women in that way, in the way that suggests they are there for his amusement, like props amongst the movie of his life.

Being with him and having spent considerable time in Europe and time with his family in North Africa, I learned firsthand how much of our sexual assault problem in America has to do with socialization. In many places I visited in Europe and in North Africa, I saw men who were encouraged to express themselves. I saw men cry with reckless abandon. When my now-husband and I had a rough go of it and we were in the process of potentially breaking up, he was hysterical and crying and it took me a while to actually understand that men had feelings in the same intensity that women do and that I couldn’t treat him like he was impenetrable, even though, as women, we’re taught that men are (or that they should be, lest they be labeled a woman). I remember Houssem telling me stories about his friends, about when they cried or when they loved or when they felt hopeless, and I remember thinking that this is not the kind of conversation I would have with most American men.

Every night, Houssem watches a playback of his favorite Tunisian show. I don’t watch it because it’s in Arabic, but he always gives me the rundown and, from what I have gathered, it’s a talk show with comparable subjects to the Dr. Phil show, stories about addiction, divorce, love, reunited families. Men don’t typically watch the Dr. Phil show here. But, Houssem will watch his Tunisian show and sometimes I’ll look over at him and he’ll be crying, but better than the tears (I am happy for his tears, so sue me), is the complete absence of shame about those tears.

One of the worst days he had was when he found out his sister was getting married in Tunisia and he wouldn’t be there for the wedding. He cried when he talked to his family on the phone. When him and I fight, there’s no aggression. He’s calm, never raises his voice, and, even when we’re in the throes of it, he’s respectful, far more respectful and even-keeled than I am.

Now, this isn’t some shining testimony on my husband (who is amazing, by the way), but it’s a light being shone on what we think is true, what we think is human nature, what we think is beyond what a man is in control of. If a man grows up in a household and a culture that supports and accepts his desires and emotions and expressions, he is less likely to act out in aggression. It’s not fool-proof or 100%, but because there’s nowhere else to start, this might be a good place.


Sexual assault is clearly not deterred by our laws or punishments, at least not in a way that is acceptable to us. Blaming on either side doesn’t help. What has been overlooked here is that the #YesAllWomen hashtag has been inspiring for an insular group of people that all agree with each other, but it has done little to encourage an actual discussion about where we go from here, how we actually avoid the type of violence that we saw in Isla Vista, CA.

And, I think what we’re missing here is that, understandably, some men can get defensive about what was on that hashtag. Not everyone is perfect and knows exactly how to treat women. Men can be awkward, they can have the hardest time dating, especially when they are shy and feel like the only way they can find somebody is to open themselves up to rejection. (Again, not an excuse for anyone’s abhorrent behavior!)

And, if the people we really need to reach are the ones getting defensive and signing off and feeling blamed, then all we did was agree with each other. However, if we want meaningful, real change, we must open our eyes, our minds, our hearts, and truly, truly, truly start a conversation about these issues. We must listen even if we disagree. We must respect another person’s feelings and opinion even if we don’t share the same one.

THIS IS COMPASSION. This is how you move forward. This is how we go from a society that is only as good as the laws it upholds, to a society that is dictated by morality, kindness, and compassion towards each other. This is how we evolve, when we behave humanely not because we are afraid of retribution or punishment, but because we know it is our heart’s desire to do so. True, we may be a long road away from this, but we must start and we must try to begin leading ourselves down this path.


You may not know where to start, because this seems too big for us. But, it’s not. The way we start is by being kind to each other and showing compassion on a daily basis, not just when it’s convenient or when you’ve had a good day or when you want something or when you love that person. The depths of our compassion begins and ends with our treatment of strangers. It’s easy to lavish compassion onto our loved ones, who we know and trust, but when we can learn to do the same to strangers, we can begin to build a society that is grounded in something other than fear, aggression, and hate.


When I first started writing at Thought Catalog, one of my first posts received a disturbing comment from a man who called me vain, narcissistic, boring, and, basically, a waste of space. It was a comment that haunted me, because it was so pointed and was meant to tear me down. The intent of this comment was for me to feel the wrath of his anger that my existence (and gall to write on the internet) inspired in him. At first it bothered me and I slept on it and, the next morning, I could not let it go. I tried to paint him as a “hater” and go on with my life, celebrating my having “made it” by having also gained “haters.” But that didn’t sit right. That’s not how I wanted to view comments like these, as something I swept under the rug (my avoidance of his comment was not going to change anything). So, I found his email and I sent him a note explaining to him that I was a human being and that I read his comment and it haunted me. I was vulnerable and honest, yet strong. I asked him if he was okay. I did not blame or victimize myself. Instead, I reminded him of the strength of words and that I was a person on the other end of the computer who felt the words that he wrote to me.

A few days later, I had a response from him. I put off opening the email, my stomach in knots, worrying that I’d have another vile email that I’d be haunted by. When I finally opened it, I was surprised to find that he was apologizing genuinely, my humanity towards him had reminded him of his own humanity. It felt like a step forward, albeit a small one, but forward-motion regardless. And, while I’m not suggesting you email or talk to every man that directs his aggression towards you, I am trying to inspire you to open your mind to the fact that perhaps these men are in pain and don’t know where to release it. Perhaps they need understanding and compassion before they do something that will require punishment. Perhaps we can do something besides feel hopeless and victimized.


We can all have our own version of sending an email to a “hater.” We can politely decline a date. When I was single and more involved in the bar scene, I witnessed such cruelty towards men that approached women. Women who would take free drinks from men, then promptly ignore them. Women who would flat out ignore a man who was trying to talk to her. When a man approached me, I never took a free drink unless I was interested. I always said, “No thank you, I’m not interested” and I never, ever was harassed, never once. Now, again, I’m not blaming. It is not a woman’s fault if she is harassed, all I’m saying is that there is nuance here, there is shared culpability. The culpability is not an even split, but it is there. We are not as kind as we should be. We do not have the kind of empathy that we need to have in order to move forward as an evolved society.

We can give men freedom to say what they need to say without them feeling judged or rejected. We can do more than we are. We can raise awareness, but we must also take action. Further suppression of men is not the action we need.

We need compassion and empathy not just for men and women to each other, but for all of us towards each other. Between races and sexes. We need more understanding, more compassion, and more kindness. We need more love. Aggression and violence is not born from love; it is born from suppression, guilt, rage, and hatred.

The answer is always to open our hearts to love more. That is the simple, yet difficult to practice, solution to every problem we face. And, perhaps its simplicity is the sole reason it gets overlooked. Perhaps it seems a fool’s dream to believe that something as potent as love could make a difference. Yet, we see every day that it does. We see the miracles that happen all around us when love is part of the equation. We know that babies will literally die if they are not given love and affection. Yet, as we get older, we demand that other people brave through the barriers to love that we all have around us. We don’t die without love, but we wither and weaken.


Try it for a week. When someone cuts you off in traffic, let it go by, wave them in, send love and light on their journey. Keep love in your heart. Assume the best of the people around you, in a true and real way, not a put-on (this doesn’t work as a put-on). Leave your grievances and your blame and open your heart to a new possibility. A Course in Miracles says, “We are safest in our defenselessness.” Adopt that ideology for a week. See if the world around you transforms. Mine does. When I’m truly dropped into that idea of defenselessness and when I assume love is everywhere, 1) I am more compassionate and 2) I attract compassion and love everywhere I go.

It’s not a fluke. It’s not a coincidence. When I assume love, I am not harassed. A perfect example is that my intention behind my seven #YesAllWomen tweets was compassion and love and understanding. I received one tweet that was in defiance and, even his words were hardly aggressive and they agreed with me in a way. So, really, no contrarians. Nothing. This is not luck; this is the power of intention and love. I sent out my tweets as a peace offering, not as a battle, and I received peace back. (This isn’t fool-proof either [nothing is, just keep that in your pocket forever].)


We can begin a new path today. We can move forward. We can encourage parents to let their sons express and imagine in the same way of their daughters. We can encourage teachers to do the same. We can encourage ourselves to not put expectations of what it means to be a man onto the men in our lives. We can allow them to define for themselves what it means to be a man, in the same way that women get to define for themselves what it means to be a woman. TC mark

featured image – Shutterstock