Here’s a troubling thought: sexual assault has been an unfortunate event in the lives of all too many women I know. Does it follow that a sizable number of the men I know have been perpetrators of those acts? What if I find out I am dating someone who did something like this? What if I already have?
The easiest explanation at hand is that most of those assaults are committed by a handful of serial perpetrators who abuse the protection our rape culture affords them. A likelier scenario is that there exists many, many guys out there who have committed actions falling on the spectrum of non-consensual sexual advances who may not have come to terms with what they have done and may not even realize what they did was perceived as assault by the victim. Alternatively, some may carry around a lot of shame.
So how can I accept living in such a world, surrounded by men who, inevitably, will play important roles in my life, without harboring massive amounts of distrust, anger and disgust or burying my head in the sand?
The only plausible way forward is that we need, as a society, some sort of reconciliation. What we are experiencing as a culture is an ongoing silent war on women’s bodies. We are in the midst of a shift in the tides, where the side of the assaulted has taken up arms and is fighting tooth and nail to gain very little ground. We have finally reached a place where we can acknowledge that this is taking place, and the scale of the problem is starting to show. But this isn’t enough. Blind fury and the castigation through naming and shaming of perpetrators, although gratifying in the short run, will never end this war. And a war is what it is — a war waged on our bodies.
We are at a stalemate. Although we have managed to bring attention to the conflict by arming the side of the assaulted, we are at a stalemate. Why? Because the other side has been silent, denying that the war is even taking place. This silence is their greatest shield. It’s time to consider ending the war through diplomatic means. We need a process of reconciliation.
We need a platform for men who have crossed a line to come forward without doing so anonymously. As unsavory as this sounds, this would require some sort of legal immunity. Society as a whole needs to see how widespread non-consensual sexual behavior is. The victim side has finally begun to show its true numbers, but we still have no concept of how many men have committed such acts.
Men willingly coming forward is not as impossible as it sounds.
We are at a societal crossroads. Many men, especially the younger generation, identify as feminists, or are at least amenable to the movement’s core message. In more and more spaces, women are gaining visibility, rights, freedoms and privileges that were historically reserved for men. This is the birth of a new norm, and men are growing up within this paradigm. However, there still exists this undercurrent of sexual violence against women (cis and trans), queer, and otherwise non gender-conforming folk. We still live in a culture that excuses non-consensual sexual behavior through victim-blaming, boys-will-be-boys mentality, and silence. It is my conjecture that this must be causing some terrible cognitive dissonance deep within many boys and men. A process of reconciliation is not only good for women but can also be an avenue of catharsis and healing of many of the pressures and emotional violence rape culture imposes upon men.
I can conceive a future where after a few men come forward, hoping to ease their shameful burden, many, many more do too. How can the next generation properly learn about consent when the blame for wrongdoing rests on a handful of the most easily scapegoated predators, those who committed the most vile, hateful and stomach-churning acts, those who crossed the threshold of consent so far that rape culture could no longer protect them, and were therefore caught and punished? This image enables the probable perpetrators of most sexual assaults — the friend, the acquaintance, the guy next door — to distance themselves from their act, both in the eyes of others and psychologically to themselves.
Just like in any other war, both sides endure damage. Reconciliation would mean being empathetic towards perpetrators. It means recognizing their humanity and yes, the fact that they are more than their actions, as well as acknowledging that reform and change is possible. It’s an act of love.
It’s time to say no, growing up in rape culture in no way excuses what you did, but yes, it does help explain it. You were weak. You succumbed to the temptation of doing something you knew was wrong by allowing yourself to believe the ubiquitous message surrounding you that you are entitled to other people’s bodies, that your sexual appetite is paramount, that it is in men’s nature to be aggressive, to be dominant. I am ready to entertain the idea of forgiving this weakness if you are willing to come forward and give victims what they need to heal: recognition of the harm done and the willingness to make amends, as well as a promise to do better by other women, other people, moving forward.
If this seems like too tall of an order, an impossibility, consider the worst examples of humans committing atrocities against one another, where the most seemingly upstanding citizens engaged in unthinkable crimes against their fellow persons. It is a troubling facet of human nature, that we are capable of such cruelty when given the right nudge, when doing so is the norm.
In these countries — e.g. Post-Nazi Germany or Rwanda — people have nevertheless found a way forward. The first step was acknowledging fault. This needs to happen here too, if we are to end the war on bodies. The perpetrator side must reveal its numbers in all of its potentially bewildering scale. It’s time for transparency, acceptance, accountability, and maybe even forgiveness.