Monday, November 06, 2017

Knowing what you did

Among the issues raised by Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, here's one I haven't seen discussed:

If you are, yourself, a serial harasser . . . how are you feeling right now?

First of all, do you know yourself--however dimly or with whatever caveats and attempts at exculpation--to be a harasser? And if you do, does that knowledge come with any fear or regret? Are you apologizing? Lawyering up?

Maybe the bad conscience of the abuser isn't the biggest issue here, but I do wonder. Because while there are certainly irredeemable predators, I suspect that not all harassers are, or would have been, absent a culture that encouraged or permitted them. I'd like to believe that there are some harassers out there who are capable of recognizing their behavior as unwanted and destructive, and who might feel, at this moment, some shame and remorse.

Last week The New York Times had an article that seems to hint at this possibility. It's a summary of research on non-criminal rapists--that is, men who have never been charged and who have no other criminal record, but who will privately admit to researchers that they've had nonconsensual sex. The most interesting part, to me, is that there appear to be some men who have nonconsensual sex once or twice, while others become serial predators. Although the reasons are far from clear, part of the explanation seems to be where the individual falls on the narcissism-empathy continuum. It doesn't surprise me that repeat offenders score high for narcissism, but the suggestion that some men might be predatory when young, or under the influence of toxic peers or alcohol or whatever, and grow out of it, is simultaneously proof of the power of rape culture and the possibility of its end.

In wondering about the emotional lives of abusers I don't want to perpetuate the practice of focusing on them rather than their victims (they're so important! and have so much to lose!). I've experienced harassment and things that fall at least generally into the category of assault, and I've heard much worse stories because I'm a woman who knows women. Indeed, living through this cultural moment has made me re-confront just how many things my friends and I talked about without really talking about them, the stuff we wrote off as bad dates or misunderstandings rather than as predatory; the workplaces where maybe no one was harassed, but where fraternization was encouraged and interactions were sexualized; all the things, in short, that we let into our consciousness only obliquely. (One friend, upon being asked whatever happened with that guy on that date, took a drag on her cigarette, stared off into space for a while, and then said, finally, "I don't know. But yo, that shit was not consensual.")

So I hope that serial harassers are feeling fear in this moment. I hope they hear hoofbeats and I hope they know what they did. I also hope that as many of them as possible face real-world consequences. But punishment alone isn't enough, nor is it going to change the culture as much as it needs to be changed. If we truly want abusers to know what they did--and on some level I think that's the desire of every victim of every wrong--we have to believe that they might be capable of repentance, too.