A couple years ago, the issue of sexual assault came up across several communities in Portland, naming at least four different men as violators. It was like a sexual assault bomb went off in the city and many conversations followed, groups formed, and people grappled with what to do.
It was heavy, intense, and uncomfortable. I participated in several conversations, and facilitated a few. In each conversation, what I came to call “the rise to the defense of men” would inevitably take over. Early on, someone, usually a man, would interject something to the effect of “but all men aren’t bad.”
Then, without fail, many people within the room, men and women alike, would rise to the defense of men and how they are not all “bad.” Underneath it is an implicit doubt, questioning the veracity of the one who has been violated. They then become the violator, ruining the man’s “reputation.”
We held a six-evening series where we brought multiple organizations out to help deconstruct and interrupt rape culture and myths. We closed with a conversation to decompress and integrate the experience. Sure enough, the first comment was from a man sharing that he wasn’t comfortable with the focus on men as perpetrators, and not all men are bad.
I almost lost it. The thing about this rise to the defense of men, is that as soon as it is spoken, the entire rest of the conversation centers around whether men are bad or not. We’re no longer talking about sexual assault. We’re no longer building capacity to end rape culture. The intent is lost and conversation derailed. The experiences of those who have been assaulted are erased from the conversation. Any forward action and momentum to create change is gone.
To continually have this experience was painful, frustrating, and in some moments, infuriating.
It felt like defeat.
While discussing this phenomena with a male friend one night several weeks before this, he said, “I bet those that speak out the loudest were themselves violated.”
I looked at him skeptically with a bit of the side-eye. “I’ll have to sit with that one.”
So I did. I listened and watched as life unfolded around me, his words percolating in the background.
And there we were, the last evening of what felt like a herculean effort to bring truth, understanding, and wisdom to our community from those who know, again faced with the rise to the defense of men. My heart was breaking, my rage boiling, my mind screaming, WHY?!?!?!
After the conversation derailed, as per usual, I cut our losses and moved us into a ceremony that was designed to support the integration of our experiences over the weeks. When we circled back up to debrief and close, the same man who rose in defense of men, shared that he himself was violated as a child.
I was stunned. My friend’s words echoed in the silence within me.
This experience has stayed with me. So many questions remain about the implications on conversations centered on sexual assault and other forms of oppression. What does it mean for our efforts to unpack privilege, disrupt oppression, and build bridges across the many divides of the ism schism?
I have more questions than answers. All I can do is be in a deep inquiry, following the morsels of truth when they reveal themselves.
I shared this story with a sister-friend one day as we discussed our experiences with sexual assault. She had shared that someone interjected himself into a conversation he was not a participant in, only to defend the man who violated her. He later blamed her for being violated, gossiping in their community, telling his version of what happened as he continued his crusade to defend this man.
After hearing my story of “the rise to the defense of men,” she shared that this man who was victim-blaming and -shaming had previously told her that he himself was sexually violated as a child.
One burning question I have is if those who speak out the loudest in defense of rape culture and those who rape, have themselves been violated, what do we do with that? Especially considering how little space there is in our culture for anyone to speak about their experiences of being raped.
I don’t have the answer. I may never. I will, however, give pause to my judgments of people, for I know not from whence they come. I will continue to speak out, and learn more. Maybe I’ll even learn how to keep a conversation centered on oppression from getting derailed into defensiveness or lost in the competition of who has more or less privilege, or whose pain is valued less or more.
What I have come to is pain is pain is pain is pain. We all feel it. No one escapes it.
If we are to build bridges across the chasm of the ism schism, the divide and conquer strategy of oppression, we must speak to our shared pain, our collective loss, and the fear that leaves us feeling vulnerable and uncertain.
Yet, privilege does give those who have it an unfair advantage. It doesn’t, however, erase the pain of their life experience, their suffering and sorrow. I believe that all pain cries out to be acknowledged, soothed, and comforted. This is particularly true for the pain we bury and deny, especially from childhood, leaving the only path out through subconscious terrain that contorts and distorts its cry.
Yet, those with privilege are accustomed to have their pain mean something, while those without privilege commonly have their pain dismissed. This is an injustice that must be reconciled. If for one moment those with more privilege can listen without defensiveness, a glimpse of understanding is possible. It can be messy, often uncomfortable, but so necessary.
Men, elevating awareness of the impact of oppression is not an attempt to dismiss your pain.
Instead of speaking or acting out, see if you can sit in the discomfort. See if you can allow your pain to touch the pain of those you are listening to. See if you can allow it to open space for compassion within you. Notice how it feels, where it shows up in the body. Breathe into it.
Part of the nature of bridges is that it requires both sides to leave the comfort and safety of the land on their “side” to meet in the middle. It takes both sides risking going out onto the bridge, to brave the heights, the vulnerability of falling, of having beliefs shaken, of facing the potential death of all we thought was real.
If we are to expect that someone on the side of privilege is going to walk across the bridge without anyone to support them in facing the fear of falling and failing, I don’t think many will make it all the way across. We will continue to spin our wheels instead of moving the conversation on sexual assault forward, toward its necessary end. Sexual assault must end.
What is being asked of men who have already made the journey across the bridge to the side of understanding and disrupting oppression, is that you be the ones to meet men who are brave enough to venture out onto the bridge of connection, of questioning, of change, and help them across.
If we want to bridge the divide and end rape culture, we must speak to our shared pain. We are in this together. And, if we want to heal the rifts between the sexes, genders, and identity, we cannot skip over the great pain people who are oppressed have endured.
We must sit in the fire of discomfort and listen, without defensiveness, justification, or dismissal. Any bridges that might be built without this essential piece of healing will be rickety and weak, too easily breaking under the weight of the pain and trauma we have endured. Healing takes time, so be patient.
Indeed, there are no shortcuts. The way through is the way out.