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In Which I Have More To Say About The Politics Of Being A Man Who Has Survived Sexual Violence (and also about Junot Díaz)
In my pre­vi­ous post about Junot Díaz, I allud­ed to an essay I was in the mid­dle of try­ing to write when I read the Boston Globe arti­cle in which he cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly denied the accu­sa­tions of misog­y­ny and sex­u­al mis­con­duct that have been lodged against him. That denial ren­dered most­ly moot the tack I was tak­ing in the piece, which had been based on the state­ment Díaz ini­tial­ly released through his agent, at least tac­it­ly con­firm­ing that the alle­ga­tions against him were true. Nonethe­less, I think what I was try­ing to write about is still worth shar­ing. I’m not inter­est­ed in debat­ing here whether Díaz is guilty or inno­cent. If you’re inter­est­ed, I made my own posi­tion clear regard­ing whom I believe in my ear­li­er post and you can engage that whole debate, if you wish, by read­ing through the #Junot­Di­az hash­tag on Twit­ter.

 

Many of those respond­ing in the imme­di­ate after­math of the alle­ga­tions against Díaz took refuge in the idea that “hurt peo­ple hurt peo­ple.” They want­ed an expla­na­tion, a way to see him as dam­aged, and there­fore flawed, not as the cyn­i­cal, manip­u­la­tive, and preda­to­ry hyp­ocrite the accu­sa­tions made him seem to be. I sym­pa­thize with that impulse, but in cas­es where a man who was vio­lat­ed as a boy becomes a per­pe­tra­tor (and, yes, I real­ize Díaz was in this case only an alleged per­pe­tra­tor), the explana­to­ry pow­er of “hurt peo­ple hurt peo­ple” actu­al­ly obscures a very impor­tant fact: While many of those who com­mit sex­u­al vio­lence do have his­to­ries of sex­u­al abuse, most boys who have been sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed do not go on to com­mit sex­u­al vio­lence against oth­ers.

To elide this fact does at least two objec­tion­able things. First, it implic­it­ly pathol­o­gizes what it means to be a male sur­vivor, as if the vio­la­tions com­mit­ted against us were a kind of self-repli­cat­ing virus. Indeed, this myth is some­times referred to as “The Vam­pire Myth,” and it is on the list of myths about male sur­vivors that every advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion I know of makes it a point to fight against. The sec­ond prob­lem with The Vam­pire Myth is that it shrouds in its pathol­o­giz­ing log­ic the fact that men who were sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed as boys were still social­ized into dom­i­nant modes of man­hood and mas­culin­i­ty, no dif­fer­ent­ly than oth­er men, including—for those of us who were vio­lat­ed by men—the men who vio­lat­ed us. What­ev­er else may be true about male sur­vivors, in oth­er words, when we com­mit sex­u­al vio­lence or act out in misog­y­nis­tic ways, we are also always doing so as men. To sug­gest oth­er­wise, to look at that behav­ior pri­mar­i­ly through the osten­si­bly gen­der­less lens of “hurt peo­ple hurt peo­ple,” is to imply that sex­u­al vio­lence per­pe­trat­ed by male sur­vivors has dif­fer­ent roots than the same kind of vio­lence when it is com­mit­ted by oth­er men—as if hav­ing been sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed some­how removes our gen­der social­iza­tion from us.

Not all men com­mit sex­u­al vio­lence, obvi­ous­ly, but misog­y­ny and sex­u­al vio­lence are con­gru­ent with, do emerge from, the val­ues that are inher­ent in typ­i­cal male social­iza­tion. This is part of why, as a sur­vivor myself, I res­onate with the idea that I might be able to blame any such behav­ior on my part on the fact of hav­ing been vio­lat­ed. It would be nice, and con­ve­nient, to turn what the men who vio­lat­ed me did to me into a kind of tele­ol­o­gy, the pri­ma­ry cause for which all the sex­ist, misog­y­nist, and oth­er dys­func­tion­al behav­ior I’ve engaged in over the course of my life pro­vides the evi­dence. Indeed, when my under­stand­ing of myself as a sur­vivor was still new and raw, I saw myself—I think I need­ed to see myself—in that way. It helped main­tain the integri­ty of a line I felt com­pelled to draw, about which I will say more below, between myself and the peo­ple who did, or oth­er peo­ple who could, vio­late me. A person’s life, how­ev­er, is far more com­pli­cat­ed than can be explained by any sin­gle event, trau­mat­ic or oth­er­wise; and so to pre­tend that the oth­er for­ma­tive expe­ri­ences of my life, espe­cial­ly, in this case, my social­iza­tion as a man, have been sec­ondary at best in deter­min­ing how I have behaved as a man would be to pre­tend they were not for­ma­tive expe­ri­ences at all—and that makes absolute­ly no sense.

I’ve writ­ten else­where about how my dis­cov­ery of fem­i­nism became the key to my own heal­ing, so I am not going to repeat that sto­ry here, except to say that it was from fem­i­nism that I first learned to rec­og­nize as sex­u­al vio­lence what the men who vio­lat­ed me did to me, and that it was from fem­i­nism as well that I first learned to draw strength from see­ing myself not as a vic­tim, but as a sur­vivor. Part of what I mean by that is that fem­i­nism gave me the gift of women’s anger. Indeed, long before I began to deal con­scious­ly with the shame and humil­i­a­tion of hav­ing been vio­lat­ed, and with how that shame and humil­i­a­tion had shaped my life, I under­stood from the fem­i­nists I was read­ing that noth­ing the men who vio­lat­ed me had done to me was my fault; that those men and those men alone were respon­si­ble for their actions; and that anger and rage were both nec­es­sary and appro­pri­ate respons­es to those actions. This under­stand­ing changed, and per­haps even saved, my life. I didn’t care that I wasn’t a woman, that the fem­i­nists I learned this from were writ­ing nei­ther to nor for me. I signed myself up with the women’s move­ment right there and then.

 

The fem­i­nist I first became, how­ev­er, assumed the self-right­eous pos­ture of a new and zeal­ous con­vert. I demand­ed from myself an ide­o­log­i­cal and behav­ioral puri­ty, a way (I thought) of being a man com­plete­ly alien to the men who’d vio­lat­ed me and to the patri­ar­chal man­hood and mas­culin­i­ty that fem­i­nism stood against. Nowhere was this more evi­dent, per­haps, than in my inter­ac­tions with women I desired, or whom I knew desired me. I would nev­er have been able to say it this way at the time, but I was afraid that my desire to touch the body of a woman with whom I want­ed to be inti­mate was essen­tial­ly no dif­fer­ent from the desire that moti­vat­ed the men who had touched me against my will. I would rather have been celi­bate for my entire life than do any­thing even remote­ly resem­bling what they had done, and so I became ter­ri­fied of “mak­ing the first move” (which, when I was an under­grad­u­ate in the 1980s gen­er­al­ly had lit­tle to do with an acknowl­edged mutu­al­i­ty, ver­bal or non-ver­bal). Instead of deal­ing with that fear, how­ev­er, I chose to make what I thought of as a con­scious and (for me, at least) rad­i­cal fem­i­nist choice not to make the first move ever.

This choice meant I did not have much suc­cess with women at all dur­ing my fresh­man year, but I didn’t ques­tion the log­ic of the choice itself until my first sopho­more semes­ter, when I met a woman I’ll call Ling. Ling and I real­ly liked each oth­er, and I often end­ed up hang­ing out long into the night, on her side of cam­pus, with her and her suite mates. A few weeks after we met, Ling and I spent almost an entire night talk­ing on the couch out­side her room. She told me about her life in Chi­na before com­ing to the Unit­ed States, and I told her about grow­ing up on Long Island. We were so com­fort­able with each oth­er that the con­ver­sa­tion felt seam­less, like it could go on for­ev­er, and when I left at about 4 AM to go back to my own dorm, I felt real­ly good about how close we were becom­ing.

The next day, how­ev­er, when I went to say hel­lo to Ling and one of her room­mates as they walked on cam­pus, both women start­ed laugh­ing at me, call­ing me “lit­tle boy” and “cow­ard.” Then they walked away, mak­ing it clear I shouldn’t both­er fol­low­ing. I called Ling’s room that evening to try to find out what was going on, but she wouldn’t talk to me. She was, her room­mate explained, hurt and insult­ed that I hadn’t tried even once to kiss her the night before. I called again a cou­ple of days lat­er, but got the same result. “Don’t both­er call­ing any­more,” the room­mate said. “She doesn’t want to see you.”

I felt ashamed and humil­i­at­ed, inad­e­quate and help­less, but no mat­ter how many times I replayed that night in my head, I just couldn’t fig­ure out how I was sup­posed to have known when it would have been okay to try to kiss her. Over time, my frus­tra­tion turned to anger and resent­ment, and even­tu­al­ly rage. As my feel­ings changed, instead of play­ing the evening over in my mind, I start­ed to fan­ta­size. In this fan­ta­sy, I leaned over when Ling was in mid-sentence—it didn’t mat­ter which one—and put my hands firm­ly on either side of her face, hold­ing her still while I kissed her and push­ing her back­wards onto the couch. I don’t remem­ber if this imag­ined ver­sion of Ling strug­gled against my kiss or wel­comed it; but I do remem­ber being con­vinced there was jus­tice in the scene, that if I could have that night to do over again, I would make sure to give Ling what she want­ed, whether she liked it or not.

Before the rest of the scene could play itself out, how­ev­er, my body flood­ed with a sense mem­o­ry of the first man who vio­lat­ed me putting his hands on the back of my head and pulling my mouth towards his semi-erect penis. I want­ed to crawl out of my skin. Nau­seous and mor­ti­fied, I spent the rest of that day try­ing every­thing I could think of to twist what I had imag­ined into a shape that was not what it was: the begin­ning of a rape fan­ta­sy, pre­cise­ly the kind of patri­ar­chal male think­ing I had hoped to use fem­i­nism to exor­cise from who I was.

I under­stood, of course, that I hadn’t actu­al­ly raped Ling—and I do not want to min­i­mize here the dif­fer­ence between my angry fan­ta­sy and actu­al rape—but I also rec­og­nized that what I’d been ready to do in that fan­ta­sy bore no rela­tion­ship to what Ling might actu­al­ly have want­ed and had every­thing to do with tak­ing my anger out on her. What shook me most was that my fan­ta­sy had gone where it did prac­ti­cal­ly by default, just as the fem­i­nists I was read­ing pre­dict­ed male think­ing would always go. I tried reas­sur­ing myself that it was only a fan­ta­sy, some­thing I would nev­er actu­al­ly do in real life, but how did I know for sure? The fact that I was able even to imag­ine it made me won­der if there were cir­cum­stances under which I might actu­al­ly have done it. I had hoped to use fem­i­nism to draw a line between myself and men who com­mit sex­u­al vio­lence that was as clear and unam­bigu­ous as the line sep­a­rat­ing dif­fer­ent species of ani­mals. Clear­ly, I had failed.1

As I thought about this real­iza­tion over the years, I came to under­stand that, what­ev­er else may have been true about my com­mit­ment to fem­i­nist val­ues, I’d also been using fem­i­nism as a defense against shame, both the shame of hav­ing been sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ed and the shame of being a man who was not as dif­fer­ent from oth­er men, includ­ing the men who’d vio­lat­ed me, as I want­ed to believe. I thought about this when I read Díaz’ New York­er essay, when I read his now-dis­avowed state­ment, and when I read about his rever­sal of that state­ment in the The Boston Globe. Of the three, only the state­ment he released through his agent even hints at address­ing crit­i­cal­ly the gen­dered nature of the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing him. In oth­er words, only the posi­tion he now says he took under duress—because he was “‘dis­tressed,’ ‘con­fused,’ and ‘pan­icked’ by the accu­sa­tions [against him]” (see the Boston Globe article)—even hints at acknowl­edg­ing he might be both a man who sur­vived sex­u­al vio­lence and, because he was raised as a man in a cul­ture that licens­es such vio­lence, a man capa­ble of com­mit­ting it.

 

Even as I fin­ish writ­ing those words, how­ev­er, at least in rela­tion to Díaz’ New York­er essay, I real­ize I am being unfair. I’ve learned over the years that expect­ing sur­vivors of sex­u­al vio­lence to say more than they are ready to, espe­cial­ly pub­licly, is not just unfair. It can also be a way of ask­ing them to retrau­ma­tize them­selves, some­thing no one has the right to do. In Vio­lence: Our Dead­ly Epi­dem­ic and Its Caus­es, James Gilli­gan quotes Erik Erik­son on shame, “He who is ashamed would like to force the world not to look at him, not to notice his expo­sure. He would like to destroy the eyes of the world” (64). What­ev­er else may be true about Junot Díaz, he dis­played in writ­ing and pub­lish­ing his essay an unam­bigu­ous and unmit­i­gat­ed courage in star­ing down as much of his shame as he was able to at the time; or, to put it a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly, in his will­ing­ness to invite the eyes of the world in, to bear wit­ness with­in him­self, and to insist that the world bear wit­ness with him, both to the trau­ma that was the source of his shame and to the hurt­ful and dam­ag­ing ways he allowed that shame to shape his life.

Of course the essay does not account for every­thing. Of course there are moments in it when it’s obvi­ous he’s still hid­ing some­thing. He is not, none of us is, a per­fect sur­vivor. That imper­fec­tion, how­ev­er, inval­i­dates nei­ther the courage he showed in pub­lish­ing the piece, nor the good I am sure the essay did once it was out in the world.

To be fair, Díaz does not com­plete­ly ignore the rela­tion­ship between his expe­ri­ence of sex­u­al vio­lence and his social­iza­tion as a man. “More than being Domini­can,” he wrote,

more than being an immi­grant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. I spent more ener­gy run­ning from it than I did liv­ing. I was con­fused about why I didn’t fight, why I had an erec­tion while I was being raped, what I did to deserve it. And always I was afraid—afraid that the rape had “ruined” me; afraid that I would be “found out”; afraid afraid afraid. “Real” Domini­can men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a “real” Domini­can man I wasn’t any­thing. The rape exclud­ed me from man­hood, from love, from every­thing.

As Díaz under­stood it, in oth­er words, the man who raped him had ren­dered him irrev­o­ca­bly not-a-man, per­ma­nent­ly exil­ing him from the ful­filled adult life for which “real Domini­can man­hood” was, in Díaz’ mind, a pre­req­ui­site. More to the point, because Díaz believed the sto­ry about him­self that the man who raped him had imposed on him (that he, Díaz, was “ruined”), he found ways to make that sto­ry come true. From all the times he maneu­vered out of hav­ing sex with his girl­friends dur­ing his first two years in col­lege; to the way he ran from the woman he met dur­ing his junior year, the one, he says, who tru­ly loved him; to his betray­al of Y, whose breakup with him because of his infi­deli­ty pre­cip­i­tat­ed the bot­tom he hit when he tried to jump from the roof of his friend’s apart­ment in the Domini­can Republic—all of those were ways of refus­ing him­self, in a self-ful­fill­ing cycle of shame and self-hatred, the love and com­pan­ion­ship, the ful­fill­ment, he should have, in his mind, been able to achieve as a “‘real’ Domini­can man.”

At the same time, how­ev­er, except for acknowl­edg­ing that he was repeat­ing a pat­tern set for him by his father, real Domini­can man­hood is not some­thing Díaz choos­es to talk about. Nowhere in the essay, for exam­ple, does he even hint at an aware­ness that his infi­deli­ty was a stereo­typ­i­cal­ly male way of act­ing out; that it is, in fact, the log­i­cal result of a cul­ture that treats women—that social­izes men to treat woman—as sex­u­al objects; or that this sex­u­al objec­ti­fi­ca­tion is at the heart of men’s sex­u­al vio­lence, not just against women, but also against boys and oth­er men. Nowhere, in oth­er words, does Díaz acknowl­edge that his behav­ior as a man, how­ev­er it may have been shaped by his expe­ri­ence of sex­u­al vio­lence, also exist­ed on the same con­tin­uüm as the behav­ior of the man who vio­lat­ed him. I am not—and I want to be very, very, very clear here—I am not crit­i­ciz­ing Díaz for fail­ing to deal with this in his first pub­lic state­ment ever as a sur­vivor. It took me a very long time to tease out the impli­ca­tions of my expe­ri­ence with Ling, and I am still—as this post shows—learning from it. Rather, what I am try­ing to do by read­ing Díaz’ essay in this way is sketch out the kind of con­ver­sa­tion I thought might be pos­si­ble back when he seemed pre­pared to acknowl­edge pre­cise­ly the dual­i­ty with­in him (with­in me too) that his essay does not address.

Díaz him­self, of course, short-cir­cuit­ed that con­ver­sa­tion by rescind­ing the state­ment he released through his agent, cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly deny­ing all the accu­sa­tions against him, and—as I wrote in my pre­vi­ous post—politi­ciz­ing his heal­ing by using it as part of a very tra­di­tion­al­ly sex­ist and misog­y­nist strat­e­gy to dis­cred­it his accusers. Offen­sive as that strat­e­gy might be, how­ev­er, it’s also impor­tant to note that he was not the first one to turn his heal­ing into con­test­ed ter­ri­to­ry. His accusers, start­ing with Zinzie Clem­mons, did that when they assert­ed he’d pub­lished his New York­er essay to pre-empt the accu­sa­tions they were mak­ing against him. This asser­tion of ulte­ri­or motive—a move we eas­i­ly rec­og­nize as sex­ist and misog­y­nist when it is deployed against a woman talk­ing about her sex­u­al violation—turned Díaz’ sto­ry of being raped into a weapon to be used against him, implic­it­ly (and, I assume, unin­ten­tion­al­ly) align­ing those who made this asser­tion with the man who had raped him in the first place. This spec­ta­cle, of women using tac­tics we nor­mal­ly asso­ciate with patri­archy to bol­ster their own claims of sex­u­al vic­tim­iza­tion, all but guar­an­teed that the con­ver­sa­tion and con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing Díaz would end up being more about win­ning and los­ing than about achiev­ing jus­tice for any­one.

To put that anoth­er way, it is axiomat­ic to me that no indi­vid­ual survivor’s heal­ing should ever be politi­cized, held hostage to who they are, what they’ve done, or what they believe. Nonethe­less, there is what I have come to think of as a “pol­i­tics of heal­ing,” the way heal­ing shapes and is shaped by all those fac­tors, both in the con­text of our per­son­al lives and in the con­text of soci­ety at large. To ignore or side­step those pol­i­tics, it seems to me, espe­cial­ly in a sit­u­a­tion like the one Díaz finds him­self, does the per­son who is try­ing to heal a tremen­dous dis­ser­vice. Yet that’s pre­cise­ly what I did, or almost did, when I had the impulse, which I wrote about in my pre­vi­ous post, to with­draw the sol­i­dar­i­ty and sup­port I’d offered Díaz after I fin­ished read­ing the New York­er essay. Had I fol­lowed through on that impulse, not only would I have been sup­port­ing those who ques­tioned the essay’s cred­i­bil­i­ty on the grounds of ulte­ri­or motives; I would also have been draw­ing between Díaz and myself the same kind of line I tried to draw between myself and all oth­er men when I was in col­lege. I would, in oth­er words, have been act­ing out of shame at the ways that Díaz and I, as men, are the same.

Hav­ing said that, though, I need to step back and acknowl­edge some of the ways that Díaz and I are not the same. Till now, I’ve been writ­ing as if a shared expe­ri­ence of sex­u­al vio­lence and our shared social­iza­tion as men tran­scend in some pure and unadul­ter­at­ed way the racial, eth­nic, and oth­er dif­fer­ences between us. They do not, of course. As well, I need to acknowl­edge that I wrote about my fan­ta­sy encounter with Ling as if it didn’t mat­ter that I am white and she, who can­not speak here for her­self, was a woman of col­or. Of course it does. If she’d been a white woman, it’s pos­si­ble my fan­ta­sy would have tak­en an entire­ly dif­fer­ent tack, one that had noth­ing to do with assault; and I am very aware that, as a white man, it is safer for me to admit to such a fan­ta­sy, as it has been safer for me to say many of things I’ve said in both this post and my pre­vi­ous one, than it would for Díaz as a man of col­or.

Even if it is true, in oth­er words, as I have heard some peo­ple argue, that “trau­ma is trau­ma is trau­ma,” the very dif­fer­ent posi­tions that Díaz and I occu­py shape the stakes of our speak­ing pub­licly about our trau­ma very dif­fer­ent­ly, espe­cial­ly because of the accu­sa­tions he is fac­ing. If he is guilty, of course, he needs to be held account­able, and that account­abil­i­ty should in no way be ame­lio­rat­ed by the fact that he is a sur­vivor of sex­u­al vio­lence. To use this account­abil­i­ty, how­ev­er, in a way that tries to trap him in the shame of being a sur­vivor is to turn the account­abil­i­ty itself into either revenge (if you are an accuser) or vengeance (if, like me, you want to sup­port his accusers). The sug­ges­tion that Díaz pub­lished his essay in order to pre-empt the accu­sa­tions against him is one such trap; my ini­tial impulse to with­draw my sup­port from him—to assert that I am a dif­fer­ent kind of man than he is; the same asser­tion I tried to live by when I was in college—is anoth­er.

The irony of this asser­tion is that, while it cre­ates the illu­sion of my own supe­ri­or­i­ty, it’s a trap for me as well, and for any oth­er man who insists on it. At the very least, it shuts us off from impor­tant parts of who we are; at the most, it blinds us to who we are when we are at our dark­est. I com­mit­ted myself to not liv­ing with­in the world of that illu­sion a long time ago. What I’m com­mit­ted to now is end­ing the shame of say­ing pub­licly, “That world doesn’t exist.”

  1. I am aware that this sto­ry rais­es a lot of issues in addi­tion to the one I am talk­ing about here, includ­ing the ques­tion of Ling’s account­abil­i­ty for her own val­ues. That I am choos­ing not to dis­cuss those issues here does not mean I think they are unim­por­tant, just that they are not what I’m inter­est­ed in talk­ing about now. I will be inter­est­ed to see, if peo­ple choose to com­ment on this post, how many find it easier/more com­pelling to focus on those oth­er aspects, espe­cial­ly Ling’s account­abil­i­ty, rather than the issue I have chose to raise. []

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