Courageous Conversations

Challenges around changing the culture around how we treat each other

Some time ago before I left the country in late fall I received some comments from a gentleman who calls himself Marsh Middleton (it’s a pseudonym). What he had to say was important enough for me to ask permission to share them. He gave it. This was in response to my piece that was published a while back in Fearless She Wrote.

Here you go:

I, too, am a feminist by definition. There is not a single word you’ve written here that I disagree with.

I do take issue with some points that are often discussed in relation to rape. For example, I frequently hear that giving young women advice about protecting themselves from rape is “blaming the victim” and “supporting the rape culture.” And, “instead of telling a female college student not to go home with a man she just met for the first time in a bar, we should be telling men not to rape.”

Sure, in theory, a woman should be able to go home with a stranger without the fear of being raped. And in theory I should be able to stand on a street corner at 2 a.m. in the worst part of town, waving a wad of $100 bills, without the fear of being robbed. Unfortunately, neither of those is reality. I will continue to tell anyone who’ll listen that those are both unsafe practices. (author bolded last sentence)

In another case, I was recently blocked by a writer here when she disapproved of my response to her article about women being culturally conditioned to give in to men’s sexual advances. Her point was that as a result of our patriarchal values women often feel like they can’t or shouldn’t give a firm “no.”

Basically, she was saying that men wrongly take advantage of this whenever they persuade/beg/cajole a woman into saying yes. I totally agreed with her about the need for women to find their “no” voices. But she didn’t like it when I pointed out that we men are also culturally conditioned to be persistent. In my generation, women were taught that nice girls weren’t “easy”. Men, in turn, were conditioned to expect some resistance to their advances. (author bolded)

I made it clear that I wasn’t defending this ritual of reluctance and persuasion, but was merely pointing out that men are just as susceptible to social programming as women. In a perfect world, I suppose, one person on a date would simply express to the other their desire to have a sexual encounter. Consent would be given or refused, and that would be that. But again, that scenario just doesn’t mesh with reality. We all have to navigate the subtle nuances of sexual attraction and romance.(author bolded)

I read this very carefully many times over. Here’s my take:

I heard this as a genuine request for empathy, understanding and mutual respect.

As a way of helping to create a conversation, Marsh is saying- or at least again this is how I read it- “YES I agree with you. AND we men are dealing with cultural conditioning as well; is it possible to understand that we also have a journey?”

This is my generation. What Marsh grew up with is precisely the same messaging that I grew up with. Doesn’t make it right. It’s just what we heard, and assumed without question, was How It Was.

I have an bit of an issue when any of us decides to shut someone down when their viewpoint doesn’t precisely align with ours. That’s how this appears to me, although I most assuredly don’t know all the details. Given that this is a tough topic to begin with, and we most definitely need more sober male voices joining in, I struggle to understand how it’s useful to block what certainly appears to me to be a request to be included in a conversation that touches all of us.

Given the sometimes virulent, strident and ugly comments I get fired across my literary bow by easily-threatened men who are protecting their Right to Do Whatever the Fuck They Want, Marsh’s message was a welcome breath of fresh air. That he got blocked appears to speak to the often black-and-white nature of some of our current thinking. All-or-nothing politics, which I want to believe have exhausted most of us, don’t get us anywhere. Sometimes we have to creep forward in increments.

That’s what resolution looks like, whether we’re talking about reconciling East and West Berlin (which celebrated 30 years this year and they’re still working on it) Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa, which is messy but better than the alternatives, and the remarkable recovery post-genocide in Rwanda, which is also still evolving.

Rifts take time. Big, messy hurtful cultural transformation takes time.

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Photo by Paola Chaaya on Unsplash

Because people- on both sides, all sides, all factions- have to take responsibility for what is wrong. People, all of us, have to own what we did wrong, thought wrong, and what we supported that was wrong. That takes enormous courage. The kind that is very short supply these days.

In this discussion about women, sexual assault, rape (of anyone), like most issues, it’s not black and white. Not much is in the human sphere. That said I can understand the desire to fix things. As in right now. So that any of us can be anywhere without living in terror of an attack, no matter what kind.

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Photo by Oliver Rouse on Unsplash

As Marsh points out, that doesn’t track with life’s realities. We all want the world to be safer, kinder, gentler, more tolerant. All of us would love a world where we could walk anywhere safely, or go to a party and drink a bunch and be taken home with courtesy even if we are completely blasted. That’s not our reality. It’s also not going to happen swiftly even if we were able to make huge legislative advances, because as we’ve seen with gay marriage, gender-neutral bathrooms and diversity, resistance has a way of going underground, getting more subtle and even more evil and intractable as a result.

There’s a need, I think, to have a modicum of empathy for the social programming to which many of us have been subjected. Not to sanction attitudes and behavior, but to take the important step of understanding what those people — because we have to include women who can be just as brutally uninformed as men can be — have to unpack in order to move forward in a more enlightened way. They have to reach a point where they realize, and this is not an easy path, that a good part of what they were taught and how they may have behaved in the past towards victims was fundamentally wrong.

Being willing to unravel the tight weave of your world, and your identification with with How Things Are, takes immense courage.

People fucking HATE to be wrong, whether it’s how to mount the toilet paper to issues that affect half of humanity. We get far too invested in being right. So when someone shows up having done the personal work that it takes to say, look, perhaps the way I’ve been isn’t such a good thing, how does it serve anyone to block the guy?

This is true for all of us. Because if there’s going to be any kind of collaboration or cooperation, any kind of mutual agreement or understanding, some recognition of what it took for us to get where we are is in order. When you and I paint anyone and everyone who doesn’t completely agree with us as bad, then all we get is entrenchment. Which is precisely the kind of shit I get from men who write hate emails if I even mention the Kavanaugh hearings.

If I may offer a thought:

We might want to consider just how difficult a path that is for anyone to learn to see differently. Even harder, then, to reach across the gender divide and ask for some understanding, and to open the conversation. So if you get a bitch slap for your effort because you offer a slightly different perspective, it’s hard for me to understand how anyone would be highly motivated to keep trying.

This kind of personal shift can be as devastating as a death. Giving up long held beliefs is dumping a part of who we are, which means that many folks go through the phases of death and dying outlined by Elizabeth Kubler Ross. That begins with denial. That’s precisely what we see everywhere right now.

Doesn’t excuse the behavior. Not at all, and Marsh makes that clear.

Here’s an analogy for you which might help you better understand this. I went to Africa in 2015 to track chimpanzees and gorillas. Each day young local men from the village would show up at the beginning of our trek to carry our packs. I always hired one or two for this simple reason: these young men, if they didn’t work for us, would kill the very animals we wanted to see. In a matter of just a few years, the world around them had changed drastically. What their forefathers had done for centuries, find meat for their families, suddenly got rebranded as poaching.

Now somehow, virtually overnight they became criminals. For doing what their tribal ancestors had done for centuries.

They didn’t have a say in that. They went from struggling providers (as the jungle shrank around them) to being pilloried for doing what they had been taught from near infancy was their traditional way of life.

This doesn’t instantly make these people bad. The world around them changed. The world around us is changing, and it is throwing unpleasant light on a whole bunch of behaviors that had been perfectly acceptable as “the way things are.” Of course their first reaction is going to be denial.

If you and I are missing context, then all we see are poachers. We simply don’t understand, or make allowances for, the history, the cultural issues, the way that things have been for centuries. I see this all over the world, for example, when Western scuba divers excoriate local fishermen in Indonesia for ruining the reefs. They have to feed their families, just as they have for centuries. To change minds, we don’t hit people over the head with a ball peen hammer- especially if they are genuinely willing to learn a different, better way of being. Nothing is obvious to the uninformed.

You see the analogy. No matter how long this discussion has been going on, there is massive resistance to and denial about it because there is so much to lose. Power and control over women, children and folks who can’t fight back.

Waking up takes time. Personal work. Hard personal work. Most folks would simply rather not. Any more than those invested in apartheid were particularly chuffed about having to loosen their control over South Africa. And kindly, to my point, there are plenty of pockets of resistance. Same thing here in the USA where it’s effectively still pre-Civil War. You cannot force enlightenment.

Back to Marsh.

There is not now nor was there ever anything acceptable about sexual assault or rape. What I believe Marsh is saying that generations of men have passed down certain expectations and conditioning, to which he and his peers are as susceptible as any of us as women is susceptible to societal conditioning. Understanding they have some work to do to rewire, if you will, is part of their journey, just as it is ours to heal from what we may have received at the hands of abusers and their apologists, men and women alike.

For those of us struggling to come to terms with sexual assault, and in my case it was not only numerous times by the same senior officer but multiple different occasions, like many others (man, woman,child) I had to process my rage in silence over the years. My body paid the price. At this point, given that I’ve done so much work to come to terms with those events, it wouldn’t serve me to attack my attackers. I still have a lot to say about those events, but more so I have a lot to say about men who do their best to shut down my voice, invalidate my experiences, and those of the billions of women who have also been attacked.

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Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash

Nor does it serve me to vilify all men, which is hugely unfair, because society has sanctioned or else been blind to the price people have paid for someone’s brutality.

It’s much harder, and extremely important, for all of us who feel strongly about peoples’ rights, that’s all of us, to be able to make space for other ways of thinking and seeing. For that writer to invalidate Marsh’s viewpoint is just as ugly as someone’s invalidating me when I compare my rape experience to Blasey-Ford’s.

And just as dysfunctional.

So yes, this is a tough call. It’s going to take a lot of work. But we’re not going to come to terms with each other if we who have been on the receiving end of pain attack anyone and everyone with the same hate with which we’ve been brutalized.

If you and I want to change the rape culture in America, we need to be courageous enough to talk with, and respect, anyone who shows up at the bargaining table. We have too much to lose as a species not to. I have the utmost respect for Marsh and people like him who are doing their best to find their way to a more sober approach to how we treat our fellow man, woman and child. You and I may not be comfortable with everything they say. It’s a deeply disconcerting topic. That’s why it takes courage just to show up.

It may be hard, but that kind of outreach, at least to my mind, needs to be valued, not vilified.

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Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Written by

Horizon Huntress, prize-winning author, adventure traveler, boundary-pusher, wilder, veteran, aging vibrantly. I own my sh*t. Let’s play!

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