I’m giving two readings over the next few weeks, one on April 21st at the Risk of Discovery Reading Series, and the other on May 2nd as part of the New Masculinities Festival 2015. The details are below, but I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what these events mean to me and I’d like to share some of that with you. April is both National Poetry Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a convergence that—as you know if you’ve been reading my posts—fits well with the grant I received from the Queens Council on the Arts to complete my second book of poems, Words for What Those Men Have Done. At the April 21st reading, I will preview some of the poems from this manuscript, and the reading itself will serve as a preview of the larger, more interactive presentation that I will give on a date to be scheduled in September or October. One of my goals with this project is for there to be a conversation in my community about what it means to be a male survivor of sexual violence, and since poetry is one way for people to feel what it’s like to feel something they themselves have not experienced firsthand, I hope this reading helps to make that conversation possible.
The importance of having this conversation was brought home to me yet again by the interview Barbara Walters did this past Friday with Vili and Mary Kay Letourneau Fualaau. In 1997, when she was 34 and Vili was her 13-year-old student, Mary Kay Letourneau was arrested and convicted of child rape, ultimately serving seven-and-a-half years in prison, where she gave birth to the couple’s two, now-teenaged daughters. I did not see the interview itself, but when I read the coverage it received, especially, but not only, in the pieces that appeared in the lead-up to the broadcast, I was very disturbed. Simply put, much of it seemed to use the couple’s marriage and children to normalize the rape for which Mary Kay was rightfully convicted and to present their story as an against-all-odds tale of happily-ever-after in which the only villain was the society that tried to keep them apart. To be clear, it’s not that the coverage fails to mention Mary Kay’s prison term or that she is a registered sex offender. Those are historical facts it is impossible to deny. Rather, those facts seem to be presented more as obstacles the couple had to overcome than as the legal consequences of a sexual violation, a rhetorical move that almost makes the violation itself disappear.
In Time, for example, K. C. Blumm phrases it this way:
The 53-year-old [Mary Kay] – who spent 89 months in prison for child rape as a result of her relationship with her then-student Vili Fualaau in 1996 – is looking forward to celebrating her 10th wedding anniversary with Fualaau next month and admitted that as the date approaches she’s been looking back on the events that shaped her life. (Emphasis mine.)
I cannot think of another instance in which the words rape (much less child rape) and relationship would be used almost as synonyms, as if, when Letourneau, then in her early to mid-thirties “embarked on a sexual relationship” with her barely pubescent twelve-year-old middle school student—again, that’s Blumm’s phrasing—the problem was a matter of legal definitions, not the abuse of authority and trust. The language Blumm uses, however, fits very neatly our traditional narratives of manhood and masculinity, in which a boy who is initiated into sex by an older woman is considered “lucky” to have met her. More to the point, in popular perception anyway, that “luck” precludes any claim he might make not to have wanted the experience or that he was in any way harmed by it. To be a man, in this narrative, is to embrace that kind of “luck;” to suggest it wasn’t “luck” to begin with is to suggest that its recipient is not really a man.
Vili Fualaau, of course, was not a man when the woman who is now his wife violated him; he was a child, which is why we undertstand her to have raped him by definition. I get it, though. The fact that he is no longer a child, that he chose to marry the woman who violated him, that they have been married for ten years, and that they are raising two children to boot makes it hard to know just how to talk about not only who he was when Mary Kay victimized him, but also what the consequences for him actually were. After all, in spite of whatever may have been true back then, they have made a life together now, and—in the absence of any evidence to the contrary—it really isn’t anyone’s place to suggest that this life is somehow tainted or “less than” because of their history. Nonetheless, it is telling that Vili’s struggle with alcoholism and depression—“I’m surprised I’m still alive today,” he says. “I went through a really dark time”—is also implicitly presented as an obstacle he had to overcome, not as a possible consequence of the way she violated him; and since overcoming obstacles is traditionally what men do to prove themselves, this way of presenting what he says about himself also fits the traditional narrative.
I think it’s instructive to imagine how differently the media might have covered this interview if, leaving all other details of the story the same, instead of Mary Kay and Vili, we were talking about “Martin” and “Vivian.” Would the narrative have been framed the same way? I doubt it. Even for myself, when I do this thought experiment in my own head, I am struck by how much more readily available to me are the language and patterns of thought that foreground the abusive nature of my hypothetical “Martin’s” sexual contact with “Vivian.” Looked at through the lens of the traditional masculinity and manhood narrative, this makes sense. Men in that narrative are supposed to be the actors when it comes to sex, the ones who are always trying to get it, for whom “getting it” is a requirement of being who we are, and of whom my hypothetical Martin, therefore—again, within this narrative—is an example of a guy who needs to learn some self-control. The narrative, in other words, makes it easy to peg him as a perpetrator, since he’s doing what men are “supposed to be doing.” He’s just overstepping the bounds within which he’s supposed to be doing it.
Culturally, and despite what the law says, our investment in this narrative makes it hard for us to understand female perpetrators like Mary Kay Letourneau as perpetrators, perhaps especially when they abuse boys and men, which in turn can make it difficult to keep in focus the idea that what Mary Kay did to Vili when he was 12 or 13 is essentially no different from incidents of the sexual abuse of boys that everyone agrees is abuse, i.e., when there is violence or overt coercion or when, as in my case, the person trying to “initiate” me was a man. (You can read a partial telling of my story here.) Indeed, it’s worth taking a look at the website Female Sex Offenders if you’re interested in exploring this idea further. It’s crucal to remember, however, that no matter what the law says, this skewed perception of female perpetrators is not going to change until our fundamental understanding of what it means to be a man changes, until we have a narrative of manhood and masculinity that recognizes not just men’s vulnerability and uncertainty, sexual and otherwise, but also our variability—the idea that there is no single correct way to be a man.
That’s why I am very excited about participating in the New Masculinities Festival, one purpose of which is to produce new narratives masculinity and manhood. The festival will take place on May 2nd at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center in Manhattan. I don’t yet have full information for the event, but here’s the promotional video for last year’s festival:
Here’s the information for the two events:
- Venue: QED Astoria
- When: 6:30 – 8:30 PM (Facebook event page)
- Where: 27-16 23rd Avenue, Astoria NY 11105
- Details: A writing workshop and open mic will presede my reading.
- Venue: New Masculinities Festival 2015
- When: TBA
- Where: Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street, New York NY 10002
- Details: More details to be announced soon.