On Sex, Power, and Our Own Complicity
This essay originally appeared on Medium.com on November 20, 2017.
My conversations with men have changed.
Some men are quiet, easing off social media. Listening. Reading.
Some men have become loud. Asking questions. “But what if the survivor forgives him? Surely then it’s ok! Right?” “Oh come on, You’re not comparing Al Franken with Roy Moore? That’s disgusting! Right?”
And behind these changes in men’s actions, I sense fear.
The fear of self-knowledge.
For surely these men, too, have used their power and privilege. Blurred the lines of consent. Taken advantage, even if that advantage was slight.
They know, they remember, and they fear that we remember too.
And we do, because of course we do.
We (meaning people who are subject to misogyny in its many, intersecting forms) know. We know because we have faced this violence.
But we also know because many of us have used our own power. Our privilege. Our power in a given relationship at a given time. To take. To persuade. To encourage.
None of us are absolved. None of us are not-guilty in the perpetuation of rape culture, in the continued cultural excusing of power in sex, the use of power to “get” sex.
In fact, we are all guilty.
In a recent conversation online, men took repeated issue with my calling on Al Franken to resign. “He’s no Roy Moore!” they said. “But we need him in the Senate,” they said. “What would he have to do for you to forgive him,” they said. “But it was so long ago,” they said. “But he’s a champion for women,” they said.
Of course Al Franken is ‘No Roy Moore.’ Roy Moore is accused of repeatedly assaulting children and threatening them into silence.
But Al Franken must take his moral responsibility for his actions to its logical end, and resign. Preferably while donating several hundred thousand dollars to local Minnesotan anti-violence organizations. I recommend OutFront Minnesota.
Behind these men’s repeated questions was that fear of self-knowledge. The fear that once society begins to demand accountability from some, everyone who has ever used power to coerce sex will be painted with the same brush. The Roy Moore brush. The Bill Cosby brush.
As someone who is also complicit in the perpetuation of rape culture, I understand the fear of being caught in the act of perpetuation. And if we are truly committed to the destruction of rape culture, we must demand accountability from one another.
Relativity is important. Al Franken is not Roy Moore. But he needs to resign because he repeatedly used his position of power to access “sex.” (In this instance, I am using “sex” broadly to include anything sexual. Franken groped someone while they slept and kissed them without their consent. Further allegations are coming forward.) Moore and Franken both used their positions of power to gain access to people whom they shouldn’t, in ways they shouldn’t. Roy Moore should not have assaulted children. Franken should not have posed, groping a reporter. Both can be true. One is more terrible, but both deserve accountability. That is the principle of relativity.
Let’s say Kris had a drink or two at a bar with Taylor. Kris is Taylor’s supervisor at work. Kris invited Taylor home and Taylor agreed. At home, Kris and Taylor made out.
But weeks later, HR requested that Kris go through mandatory sexual harassment training because Taylor realized they felt coerced by the difference in power in the situation at the bar.
Kris did not think they had used their power to coerce Taylor. But that is not Kris’s decision to make. Even without making a conscious decision to use violence, Kris used their power as Taylor’s work supervisor to coerce Taylor into sex. Even if the interaction seemed consensual to Kris — Kris asked Taylor home and Taylor said yes — the power differential made it difficult for Taylor to make any choice other than to consent. And consent by coercion is not consensual.
Now Kris was angry. But Kris realized, through the sexual harassment training at work, that they had power over Taylor in that moment at the bar and should never have exercised it to ask Taylor home. Maybe Kris felt terrible and wanted to ask Taylor to forgive them. But forgiveness will not change rape culture in America. And asking for forgiveness shifts the burden to the survivor. Only Kris’s actions, changed over time to reflect their understanding of positional power and privilege in every single interaction with another human, will change rape culture in America.
I know Kris. I know many Krises. I have been Kris.
And I understand the fear. They fear that you are part of the problem. That you may have coerced someone into a sexual encounter. That you will be blamed and that you will face consequences.
The fear you have been coerced into sex before but you were able to shake it off, so maybe the person that you coerced also shook it off.
The fear that if you don’t use your power, you won’t have any access to sex at all.
The fundamental fear that you don’t know what a non-coercive sexual interaction feels or looks like.
American society teaches us that power is sexy, sexual. We are taught that some of us don’t know what kind of sex we want, and others of us do, so the ones who do know should exercise their power to take it. We are taught that control isn’t a negotiation, it’s a strategy for getting laid. And that sex without power isn’t good.
We are fed millions of pieces of false information about sex and power: Some kinds of people “can’t” be raped or assaulted. Consent can’t be revoked. If you hear “no,” ask again. And again. Some kinds of sex are “better” than other kinds.
Simultaneously, we are taught that only bad people do bad things and good people don’t do bad things.
We swim in this false information like fish in the ocean, breathing it through our gills until the falsehoods permeate our bodies. Men’s shock at the revelations about George Takei or Al Franken reveal how poisonous these lies are. If only bad people do bad things, there are two outcomes when a “good person” uses their power to coerce someone into sex: Either coercing someone into sex isn’t bad, or the person isn’t good.
In fact, there are no “good people.” There are no “bad people” either. Roy Moore is certainly a person who is accused of doing terrible things. He made bad choices and he should be barred from ever holding public office and investigated for assaulting children. But he is not a bad person, because that fallacy allows us to argue that Al Franken is a good person because he didn’t rape children. And since good people don’t do bad things, merely groping a person while they sleep must not be that bad.
Al Franken did a bad thing. He allegedly groped someone while they slept, using his power to frame the assault as a joke. He allegedly kissed someone without consent, using his power in the relationship to make the person feel like they couldn’t say no. But he is not a bad person.
Al Franken also does a lot of good things. He supports safer schools legislation for LGBTQ youth. But he is not a good person.
Kris, the supervisor, also did a bad thing. Kris used their power to coerce Taylor into a sexual encounter. Kris is also a major donor to the local animal shelter. Kris is not a bad person. Kris is not a good person. Kris coerced Taylor into a sexual encounter and will now remember the consequences of their actions during every interaction with other humans.
No one is good or bad. We are a collection of good and bad choices and we must always strive to make the good choice, especially in difficult situations such as swimming in a metaphorical ocean of misinformation about sex and power.
Let us return to our fear that we don’t know what a non-coercive sexual interaction looks like. We can be tricked, by that metaphorical ocean of false facts about sex and power, into believing that we must use power to coerce people into having sex with us. That we must use pick-up artist techniques to get a date because no one seems to want to date us without them. That we need one or two drinks to get our partner in the mood. That we don’t need to ask our partner for their consent every single step of the way, or that our partner needn’t ask for our consent. We are afraid if we don’t use power, no matter how slight, we will never have sex.
Before we move on, let us breathe together. Breathe for the times we have been coerced. Breathe for the times we have coerced others. Breathe for the beautiful times of radical consent that filled our bodies with radiant joy.
How do we move on from admitting that all of us are guilty of perpetuating rape culture, that all of us have used power to coerce someone into sex, and that we have all been coerced?
Like Kris, we must bring our awareness of our power into every interaction. We must learn what power looks like. At work. At school. Between friends. Between partners. Is there a reason someone might say yes to us because they fear we could take something important away from them if they say no? Like a job, a good grade, money, friendship, a child?
And we must take it upon ourselves to walk away from any interaction in which someone is not in a position to consent, whether because of power, alcohol or drugs, peer pressure, nostalgia, grief, surprise, age, ability to communicate, etc. We walk away. We take our power in that situation and we use it for good.
We must demand accountability from people who have used power to coerce others into sex. We must ask politicians to step down and allow people who do not use their positional power to coerce sex to rise into political power. We must consume media created by people who do not use their power and influence to coerce others into sexual encounters. We must vote with our wallets. We need to remember. We need long memories.
To those men who worry, who wonder, I hope this gives you solace.
We all carry our fears with us. We are not good people, even if we donate to animal shelters. We are people who do good things. We are not bad people, even if we use power to coerce others into sex. We are people who do bad things. We are all both. Let us all make our next decision a good one.