Author’s note, 5/31/18: Ravi Shankar has written a response to this letter, which you can also find on my blog here.
I was part of the discussion on Annie Finch’s blog last October, when she identified you as a man who had sexually assaulted her in the past. I am writing this open letter to you now because I want, however belatedly, to accept the invitation you extended in the title of your response to her, “Towards Public Dialogue,” which you gave her permission to publish and in which you wrote the following:
As I told [Annie] on Twitter, I respect and admire her far too much to ever imagine myself capable of what she described, but perhaps I was and still am; if so, it’s to make certain that nothing like this ever happens again that I write…. I hope that we can begin to shift the dynamic of sexism and abuse that has existed for far too long and hope to do my small part towards that.
As a survivor of childhood sexual violence, and as a man, those words moved me. I’ve been telling the story of what the men who violated me did to me for quite a long time now, and always, from the very beginning, the lens through which I have told it has been a feminist one. Why that came to be is a subject for another time. I mention it now because that feminist understanding of my own experience also confronted me with a truth almost as hard to admit as the fact that I’d been violated in the first place: i.e., that no matter how much I might wish it were otherwise, no matter how fervently I might want to believe that the fact of having been violated by men had immunized me against it, I had nonetheless internalized as a man the same sense of sexual entitlement felt by the men who’d entitled themselves to me.
Over the years, though only from men, I have caught a lot of flak for saying that. A very few of those men have been fellow survivors, who not unreasonably chafed at the idea that I would suggest any similarity at all between myself and those who violated me. The rest, however, the overwhelming majority, have been men far more interested in protecting their sexual entitlement than questioning it, mostly by trying to pretend it doesn’t really exist. At least in the passage I quoted above, even as you struggle to maintain your own self image as someone incapable of sexually violating another human being, you do not try to pretend this entitlement doesn’t exist. That is what moved me, and it is why I first thought about writing you this letter.
At the same time, however, if you read the passage carefully, it also epitomizes a kind of double talk very common among men who do want to pretend. Take a look at the very first independent clause:
As I told [Annie] on Twitter, I respect and admire her far too much to ever imagine myself capable of what she described….
I have no doubt that your intent in writing this sentence was to assure Annie that you do not feel for her the disdain, disrespect, and hatred that sexual assault demonstrates. As written, however, the sentence also, and inescapably, implies that if you did not “respect and admire her far too much,” you might indeed imagine yourself capable of such an act. I do not mean that you intended this implication, but it is nonetheless consistent with many of the explicit statements you make in the rest of your response, which seem motivated by precisely the kind of disdainful attitude you try to disavow in the words I’ve quoted above.
You tell us, for example, that you also can’t imagine having done what Annie says you did because you’ve never felt attracted to her. You suggest that she may have misunderstood the “physically affectionate culture” you come from. You worry about the impact her allegations might have on your professional career. You shift responsibility onto Annie by wishing she “had said something to [you] earlier;” and, finally, you intellectualize about “liv[ing] in a moment where gender relations are pretty messed up[, w]here it is hard to be a woman and hard to be a man [, and w]here we are saturated in sexuality but also have a concomitant Puritanical response to our bodies.” Some of these responses/explanations are classically and obviously misogynist. All, however, are unmistakably clear attempts to deny and deflect your own responsibility and accountability for what Annie’s allegations reveal about you. Still, even as you engage in this denial and deflection, you also admit your own discomfort with it, acknowledging the above responses as “self-interested [moves]” you’re using to avoid dealing directly with those allegations. Putting your own internal dialogue on display like that, especially in a public forum over which you had no control, took some courage, and that, it seemed to me, deserved to be taken seriously, even if your response as a whole did not rise to the level of full accountability you clearly intended it to be.
Before I had a chance to start putting these ideas into words, however, circumstances forced me to turn my attention elsewhere, and so I didn’t give the matter any further thought until April of this year, when you came to my campus as a member of Matwaala, the newly formed South Asian poetry group. I was happy to be invited out to dinner with you all that evening, and I enjoyed chatting with you. I of course thought about Annie’s blog posts while we were talking, but I chose not to say anything since I did not know if the other members of your group knew about them, and I did not want to appear to be playing “Gotcha!” with an issue as important as this one. I did, however, go home thinking again about how I might engage you in the good-faith dialogue your response to Annie had called for.
As I was starting to block out an early version of this letter, however, I went back to Annie’s posts to reread your response, and I found the third blog post she’d written on this subject, in which she presents some pretty damning evidence that three of the female-named identities in her comments threads—Samantha F., Emily, and Casey—were actually sock puppets, fake online identities created by you to troll those threads in your own defense. I was shocked, and I was angry, and, as a survivor who’d taken very seriously Annie’s declaration of her blog as a safe space for survivors—not to mention someone who’d read your response as having been written in good faith—I felt in no small measure violated.
I went back to read the comments those three identities had made.
Samantha F.—whom you tried to give a level of authority by having “her” identify as someone who “works with adult survivors of child sexual trauma, mainly women”—was the most offensive. First, “she” tried to smear Annie as racist because two of the writers Annie identified as men who’d assaulted her were people of color (yourself included); second, “she” compared Annie’s move in identifying those men to the repressive tactics of a totalitarian government; and, third, “she” called Annie a coward for not having come forward about the assaults sooner, something that no credible survivor advocate would ever say. I remember reading those comments when they first appeared, along with the comments you made in the guise of your other sock puppets, and feeling, as a survivor, a responsibility to respond. However, because I thought those identities were actual women, and because other women were responding pretty much exactly as I would have—because, in other words, the discussion seemed to be among women about women’s experiences, it seemed neither necessary nor appropriate for me to add my voice to the mix.
Once I learned that the voice behind those female identities was actually yours, though, I felt the need to say something to you directly even more urgently than before. Not only was I angry. As a survivor, I felt very keenly the damage your sock puppets could and might very well have done. First, the positions you used them to take lend credence to those who would deny and dismiss and minimize and trivialize not just sexual violence itself, but also the difficult and painful process survivors must go through to claim our voices, to speak openly about what was done to us, and to name the person or persons who did it. Second, much of what you had your sock puppets say—not only, but especially Samantha F.’s victim-blaming—was synonymous with the secondary shaming far too many survivors experience when we finally do find the courage to speak out. Who knows how many readers of Annie’s blog, who may have started to find their own courage because of the way Annie had demonstrated hers, remain silenced as a result of what you wrote?
Shame on you for that!
It would have been very easy, Ravi, to declare what you did beyond the pale, to deem you unworthy of any further attention, and move on. Indeed, were I a woman, especially a woman who was also a survivor, I could see myself doing just that. As a man, however, even though I am a survivor, I don’t—or, more accurately, I choose not to see it that way. Those sock puppets, both in the fact that you created them and in what you had them say, differ only in degree from the denial and deflection that you readily acknowledged as self-serving in the response to which you signed your name. To use them as a reason to turn away from the dialogue you called for, and that I am hoping you really want to have, would be for me to admit defeat before even trying to begin. To put it another way, the fact that the sock puppets exist, that you felt the need to create them, is also a place where that dialogue can start. So, this is the question I want to ask you: Given that the sock puppets amount to a disavowal of every word of apparently honest struggle you wrote in your public response to Annie—given, in other words, that they make you look inescapably like a liar and a hypocrite—why create them? Why have them say the very harmful things they said?
(This question, of course, and all that precedes it, assumes that you did indeed create those identities, as Annie’s quite compelling evidence suggests you did. If you didn’t create them, if you can present at least equally persuasive counter-evidence to demonstrate that, then I want to know why you did not speak up to debunk the trolling with which whoever wrote those comments tried to defend you. As someone who, in his own words, wanted “to make certain that nothing like [what Annie said you did to her] ever happens again,” surely speaking out against those trolls was your responsibility, perhaps even more so than anyone else’s in those threads.)
I already know how to answer those questions generically, in ways that address themselves to patriarchy and male heterosexual privilege, to rape culture and misogyny, to men’s insecurities and the corresponding need to denigrate women. These answers, though, accurate as they may be in their own right, are almost certainly not the ones that would emerge immediately from your lived experience as a man. In fact, it has always seemed to me that such answers are less than helpful when a man tries to articulate what it feels like to live as a man. I am not dismissing the categories of feminist analysis that give rise to those answers. Without them, I would not have been able to write this letter. Rather, I am suggesting that an open and honest and transparent dialogue between us as men (or between and among men in general) will not self-evidently emerge from a framework that places women’s experience at its center. To put it another way, what I’m interested in is how you would answer my questions on your own terms, without concern for whether what you say fits neatly into predetermined categories of analysis.
Ravi, you and I hardly know each other. In fact, I think I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve actually met face-to-face. We are, however, part of the same community of writers, of poets specifically, and Annie’s blog posts are not the first time that the women of our community have spoken out against the sexist treatment and discrimination, the sexual harassment and sexual assault, that they experience. A few years ago, a group of women poets convened a meeting I attended at The Poetry Project in New York City to address precisely this subject. “We are,” they wrote
fed up with the reality of sexual violence, intimidation, and misogyny that continues to exist in our poetry circles. We are speaking out against the dominant culture that silences and undermines voices of dissent. We are questioning harmful power dynamics within the poetry community. We are determined to forge a more respectful, alert, and conscientious community.
The meeting was structured such that we first heard representative stories of the kinds of behavior the women were “fed up with,” including men who hosted readings and introduced women readers in insulting and sexually objectifying ways; at least one instance in which a woman was roofied at a reading series; the all-too-common phenomenon of known harassers and abusers being promoted and getting plum assignments despite their reputation; and instances of harassment, groping, and outright sexual assault at conferences. After those stories were told, the leaders of the meeting opened the floor for discussion, and as some men in the audience rose to have their say, one thing became unambiguously clear: they either stood with women on this issue or they did not. There was no middle ground. The same is true for you and for me. We either stand with women when it comes to sexual violence or we do not.
For me, what it means to stand with women when it comes to sexual violence is the same as what it means for me to stand with myself as a survivor, and with all other survivors: an absolute and unwavering commitment never to be on the same side as anyone who commits and refuses accountability for, or who enables, rationalizes, trivializes or outright defends the exploitive sexual objectification of another human being.
Right now, Ravi, you and I—and all the different men we each stand in for—appear to be on opposite sides of that line. I have written this letter because I do not think it needs to be that way. I hope you will write back.
Author’s note, 5/31/18: Ravi Shankar has written a response to this letter, which you can also find on my blog here.