The first of a two-part piece.
A few months ago, I jokingly told a white, gay male friend of mine that a good way to get over the embarrassment of a dance partner accidentally feeling his erection while grinding is to “reach around and find out if they have one, too!” Without missing a beat, my friend replied, “That’s actually a really rape-y thing to say.”
I was shocked. I – the poet-activist, the queer performance artist of colour, the sexual assault hotline counselor, who had experienced sexual harassment and aggression more times than I could count by the time I turned sixteen – a perpetrator of rape culture? Was I really being called out? For a joke! About innocent groping on the dance floor! I wasn’t a part of rape culture, I was a survivor of rape. I had nothing to apologize for. Right?
Obviously wrong. Yet it took me an embarrassing amount of time to understand this, and by the time I did, it was too late to apologize for my inappropriate defensiveness. Even now, I struggle to fully understand the problematic nature of that joke, and struggle even more to accept that there is a current of rape culture that runs through my perceptions of the world. Yet this is an issue that affects every liberal and leftist community – indeed, every liberal and leftist person – that I have ever encountered. We are so capable, so ready, to see the face of evil in others and so blind to its features in the mirror.
When I consider the ways in which I was taught the nature of sex and love, it should come as no surprise that rape culture is rooted deeply in my understanding of the sexual world. What models was I given, what examples did I have? I spoke the language of violence long before the rhetoric of consensuality and anti-oppression was ever known to me. I knew rape intimately, without words, knew rape before I knew its name. The face of rape is, for me, the face of my first lovers, boyfriends, forays into sexual exploration. Violence is inextricably intertwined with my experience of sex; until recently, I never knew sex that was not violent in some way.
I want to ask my communities, classmates, blood and chosen families: for how many of us is this true? How many of us wandered, innocently intentioned, into bars, clubs, parties, relationships, marriages – and discovered a sexual world full of silence, “tacit” agreements, and blows struck in the name of “loving too much”? How many of us – trans* people and queer people and women and children of colour especially – were first kissed drunkenly, first groped by a stranger in a bathroom or on a dance floor? How many of us believed that we should be grateful for these moments because this is just the way sex is? That a little discomfort, pain, or abuse, is just the price we have to pay to know that we are capable of being loved? How many of us have been assaulted and assaulted so many times, so blithely, that we can no longer tell the difference?
I am not proposing that we excuse rape culture and its perpetrators. On the contrary – I am suggesting that to expose rape culture, its pervasiveness and insidious erosion of the soul, we must open our eyes to the reality that the difference between good and evil, oppressor and oppressed, is not always so clear as we would like. That the evil done to us most often becomes inscribed in our bodies, our ways of knowing the world. That anyone is capable of being assaulted, and anyone is capable of assault, not only regardless of what we have survived, but often because of it. To know this, to speak it, to face the reality that there is something deeply broken in our communities is to begin to unravel the silence and shame that hold rape culture together.
To accept that I was wrong, that the oppressor lives in me, is perhaps the bravest and most difficult thing I have done. It is harder still to know that I am not yet healed, not yet free of my own evil, will still fail and do wrong. Yet I know I must face this oppressor-in-the-mirror, must hold myself accountable, must demand nothing but the ongoing process of justice from my body and self so that in turn, I may ask, fight, demand – receive – justice from the community and people I love.
Ryan Kai Cheng Thom is an activist and artist who is working on self-reflection and humility. Send your suggestions and reflections to firstname.lastname@example.org.