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.


Bardiac said...

Interesting questions. I think you're right (and the article is) that some people who wouldn't think of themselves as harassing others are indeed harassers, but can change their behavior IF they're drawn to question and empathize. How do we get these people to question and empathize BEFORE they assault and instead?

(And I'm reminded of what a good post the one you linked was/is.)

Flavia said...

Yes, I definitely agree that the most important thing is to reach people BEFORE they assault or harass, and I'm heartened by how much more fluent my students are in the language of consent than my friends and I were, at their age.

But since it will be awhile until we reach a generational turn-over, a future where (we hope) people will raise their sons right, I don't want to write off every single harasser (assailants are more complicated . . . though as a Christian I guess I have to not write all of them off either) as irredeemable. That doesn't mean they don't deserve the full legal, employment, or other consequences for their actions, but I hope some of them are doing some soul-searching, too.

And thanks, re: "Raptus." I do think it's one of the better things I did on this blog.

undine said...

"Raptus" was a great post. One of the things I am haunted by, oddly, is that I didn't see or hear much about the kinds of things you discussed there. But why? Was it there and I didn't see it because I was so sunk in general misery and angst back then? Or because, as you say, we didn't have the language for it back then?

Whether harassers change or recognize themselves: I'd like to believe that somewhere there's a human being capable of redemption and remorse.

Flavia said...


Well, everyone's experience is different. I don't think it's literally true that every woman has a harassment or assault story to tell, though that's the way #MeToo and #YesAllWomen spin things. (And I get why that's rhetorically effective, though surely "75% of Women You Know," or whatever, should be enough!) And the nature of social media is to make us feel anxious about stuff we've missed out on even when it's awful stuff, and it can be really hard to tell if one is just lucky or unobservant.

For instance, I know I haven't experienced workplace harassment anywhere close to the legal or actionable variety. But, especially in my youth, I had a number of weird and vaguely sexualized interactions with co-workers that at the time I dismissed as entirely trivial, unserious, or nonthreatening. (In one case--and not what I'd regard as the most uncomfortable--a senior woman actually took me aside to apologize for something a senior man had said about me in front of a group. Obviously she found it troubling, but I really hadn't thought anything more of it than as a grandfatherly dude's mildly ill-conceived attempt to be complimentary.) So though I'm clear that I haven't experienced X, I can't now perfectly reconstruct how pervasive or problematic Y was--not in my own life, and certainly not in my then-co-workers'.

I'm pretty aware of the "bad date" or "ambiguously non-consensual" end of things, but the same rules surely apply there. Not everything that happens frequently happens everywhere with equal frequency, and not everyone talks about it, even in the awkward & limited ways we had available.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

It's possibly a coincidence, but Nina Raine's new play "Consent" is about a lot of the questions the world is talking about right now in terms of rape, fidelity, and the law. I just presented about it. It's a disturbing and yet incredible play (in my view). I think seeing it live really helped me, because I would have missed how funny it is just reading it. Nonetheless, I think it's worth a read.

Unknown said...

Good post, thank you. Here is a cogent related article.

Andrew Stevens said...

The saddest article title I saw last year was "Juanita Broaddrick Wants to be Believed" (I didn't read it). I want to say to her, "Juanita, everybody does believe you and always has. They just can't admit that, even to themselves, because they need to be able to sleep at night." Now, of course, we are seeing what was wrought 20 years ago. The American feminist movement sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.