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Monday, October 16, 2017

#metoo

The post that would have gone up tomorrow was going to say that I was going to stay off of Facebook forever except for a few exceptions. It's a pretty good post and I thought that no matter how timely this one got, I would still post it as scheduled. But this one evolved and I guess that other one can wait a week so here you go.

Maybe by that post I'll have kicked the habit for good. Let's just assume that's what happened. You see I was really good for a pretty good stretch. I just used the site to tell you that there were new blog posts and make sure everyone involved with the refugee sponsorship knew that I still existed. Still to this point (hopefully) I have not written any jokes or hot takes or clicked on any articles that will make me mad (though I did see headlines that indeed made me very, very despondent). But today I did kind of binge on the thing like a black bear in a doughnut shop.

Did you know that in my office when we get a call that there is a nuisance black bear (nuisance in this case usually means minding its own business but in a place where things could go very south very quickly if said bear decided not to mind its own business, like a campground or a shopping mall), we get day-old doughnuts to bait them. Bears love doughnuts, and all they know is the day-old ones! If you put a bear in a doughnut shop and they got a chance to try the fresh ones I assume it would be like me greedily reading Facebook.

Except doughnuts are delicious, and the thing I can't stop reading is the horrible stories of people who I know and love sharing that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted. Were you shocked and horrified by everyone who used #metoo? If you were a guy, you probably were. If you are a woman, you might be, but more from the sense of sadness and maybe a tinge of relief because it's not just you.

I can't imagine what it's like, to be honest. Here's what I think, though. Please correct me if I'm wrong. You've had these horrible experiences, and you wonder what you're doing wrong. Why are you the one having men make terrible comments to you, or the one who got cornered when you were very young by someone who you were supposed to trust. Or have had men on multiple dates--nice men--push you for more than you were willing to give. Even guys who you just thought were your friends. Why does this keep happening to you? What are you doing wrong? So you find out that it isn't just happening to you. It's happening to all of your friends, too. And even like your aunt is saying stuff. Was it your grandma, too? Great-grandma? Probably.

Then you start thinking about all the pain you experienced and you look at the faces of all these women around you and realize that they are carrying much of that same pain with them and I imagine it's just overwhelming and horrible. I'm sorry, you guys. I'm sorry that we are so bad at believing you and also so bad at understanding the breadth of the problem. Also the part where we are garbage? Sorry.

That's me trying to understand women's point of view, because much of the stories I've read so far have been from women, and many of them have talked about the severe mistreatment they received after telling someone. These experiences are horrible, for sure, but they are compounded by the difficulty of living in a patriarchal society where the main people you need to tell your story to in order for something to happen are men.

I read stories of young girls telling their church leaders that they were raped and being told by the church leader to keep it to themselves so that their future husband won't see them as "used." They watched their attackers go on missions or get married in the temple, knowing that they never told anyone themselves. They told mutual male friends about what happened, only to be disbelieved and even ridiculed. They got to school the next day and were ostracized by their friends who decided to side with the attacker they knew because "he's not that kind of guy."

It's not just women telling their stories, though. Lots of men experience sexual harassment and assault. And it's way more men than you thought (that article explains this stuff better than I ever could). When I was in training to become a volunteer, I started to remember multiple times when I was harassed in a way that would clearly qualify as sexual harassment, but the whole thing was so complicated by rules of traditional masculinity and gender roles that all I knew at the time was that it made me uncomfortable. I had coworkers, girls several years older than me, who would whisper dirty words in my ear because I couldn't stop from blushing. A girl at school followed me around and pinched my butt when I wasn't paying attention. A guy I barely knew at a party explicitly described an imaginary sexual scenario he made up involving me and a movie star, and when I was clearly uncomfortable, he blamed my discomfort on my Mormon upbringing.

I would laugh along with them because I wanted to be cool. And part of me liked the attention, even if it made me uncomfortable, because I really liked attention. My coworkers were even my friends. I liked them and liked hanging out with them, I just wished that it wasn't so weird sometimes but couldn't place why it was weird. I wasn't going to report them to a manager; the thought never even occurred to me. First, because I didn't know what was happening or what I would even call it, and second, I liked them. I didn't want them to get fired, because then who would I work with?

I was also on the wrong side of this sometimes. I definitely tended to get caught up in talk and actions that almost certainly made someone uncomfortable. I mistook someone's uncomfortable laughter or silence with approval. Even in times when I wasn't directly participating, I certainly stayed silent when I shouldn't have. This is even when I knew that silence or quiet laughter was my own way to cope with uncomfortable situations. 

In retrospect, the right thing to do probably would have been just to say something. Tell them it made me uncomfortable. Probably a lot of cases would be solved that way, but none of us are taught how to do that. Men aren't taught how to respond to unwanted sexual comments. It's assumed that we're always into it. We aren't taught how to respond if a woman makes overt advances. Men can be left in situations where they know that they were physically aroused, but also that something happened that they had decided years before that they would not let happen until they felt like it was right for them. And that they had said no right then but it happened anyway.

We as a society are horrible at dealing with this stuff. We joke about young boys who are coerced into sexual relationships with their adult teachers. Or we even see those young boys as the perpetrators, seducing lonely women who finally gave into their charms. We see men as physically large and strong and unable to be coerced into non-consensual sex, while forgetting that the responses to trauma are multiple, that "fight or flight" only tells a tiny part of the story. We always forget "freeze."
Similar to the flight/fight response, a freeze response is believed to have adaptive value. In the context of predatory attack, some animals will freeze or “play dead.” This response, often referred to as tonic immobility (), includes motor and vocal inhibition with an abrupt initiation and cessation. Ethologists have documented non-volitional freeze responses in several animal species (). Freezing in the context of an attack seems counterintuitive. However, tonic immobility may be the best option when the animal perceives little immediate chance of escaping or winning a fight (). For example, tonic immobility may be useful when additional attacks are provoked by movement or when immobility may increase the chance of escaping, such as when a predator believes its prey to be dead and releases it.
Despite evidence suggesting that tonic immobility may be a key facet of alarm reactions, freezing has received relatively little scientific attention in humans. One exception is the PTSD/rape literature wherein several studies have described a rape-induced paralysis that appears to share many of the features of tonic immobility (). This literature suggests that a relatively high percentage of rape victims feel paralyzed and unable to act despite no loss of consciousness during the assault (). 
- Exploring Human Freeze Response to a Threat Stressor, Schmidt et al.
If anyone--male or female--has said "no" and had that no ignored, we would be fundamentally misunderstanding the ways our bodies and chemicals and brains and all that to assume that it's just a matter of fighting or running. Not to mention the complex emotions going on when something is going on outside of one's control. Even if guys are bigger, are they going to punch a woman who keeps going even if she's told to stop? Body slam her?

I'm glad we're talking about this right now, and it would be a missed opportunity to not join in. But we have so far to go. For example, this spring a new bill was passed in Utah lowering the age for someone to get a concealed gun permit to 18, the bogus explanation being that it would prevents sexual assault on campuses (that just happens to be sponsored by the companies that make guns). According to a nationwide survey, 90% of rape victims knew their attacker prior to the attack. Often they take place on dates, or in social situations, or with a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse. How many of those people are carrying a gun when they're watching movies with their boyfriend, let alone willing to kill someone they're on a date with or have been involved with for years?

None of this addresses the risks faced by gay and trans men and women, though statistically they are at an exponentially higher risk. It doesn't address sports and military hazing, which often fulfills every definition of rape but is dismissed as some kind of "boys will be boys" excuse. Our society seems only able to comprehend ambushes and rapes in prison, which we use as a joke or a deterrent, or molestation, which also we have such a profound misunderstanding of that at times we may as well know nothing.

This started out as a book post, but I don't have a way to connect it to the one I read in a way that would even remotely make sense. It certainly fits with other books I've read this year, including The Round House, Border Child, Shelter, Lucky Boy, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Bad Romance, too. Elena Ferrante has somehow crystallized this rage into something weaponized. It turns out if you start reading books written by women, you start learning about these stories. Just like it doesn't take a lot of people saying #metoo on your social media feed, it doesn't take a lot of authors from vastly different backgrounds telling the same story over and over to see how much more work we have to do on this.

So let's get to work.