In Which I Have More To Say About The Politics Of Being A Man Who Has Survived Sexual Violence (and also about Junot Díaz)

In my previous post about Junot Díaz, I alluded to an essay I was in the middle of trying to write when I read the Boston Globe article in which he categorically denied the accusations of misogyny and sexual misconduct that have been lodged against him. That denial rendered mostly moot the tack I was taking in the piece, which had been based on the statement Díaz initially released through his agent, at least tacitly confirming that the allegations against him were true. Nonetheless, I think what I was trying to write about is still worth sharing. I’m not interested in debating here whether Díaz is guilty or innocent. If you’re interested, I made my own position clear regarding whom I believe in my earlier post and you can engage that whole debate, if you wish, by reading through the #JunotDiaz hashtag on Twitter.

Many of those responding in the immediate aftermath of the allegations against Díaz took refuge in the idea that “hurt people hurt people.” They wanted an explanation, a way to see him as damaged, and therefore flawed, not as the cynical, manipulative, and predatory hypocrite the accusations made him seem to be. I sympathize with that impulse, but in cases where a man who was violated as a boy becomes a perpetrator (and, yes, I realize Díaz was in this case only an alleged perpetrator), the explanatory power of “hurt people hurt people” actually obscures a very important fact: While many of those who commit sexual violence do have histories of sexual abuse, most boys who have been sexually violated do not go on to commit sexual violence against others.

To elide this fact does at least two objectionable things. First, it implicitly pathologizes what it means to be a male survivor, as if the violations committed against us were a kind of self-replicating virus. Indeed, this myth is sometimes referred to as “The Vampire Myth,” and it is on the list of myths about male survivors that every advocacy organization I know of makes it a point to fight against. The second problem with The Vampire Myth is that it shrouds in its pathologizing logic the fact that men who were sexually violated as boys were still socialized into dominant modes of manhood and masculinity, no differently than other men, including—for those of us who were violated by men—the men who violated us. Whatever else may be true about male survivors, in other words, when we commit sexual violence or act out in misogynistic ways, we are also always doing so as men. To suggest otherwise, to look at that behavior primarily through the ostensibly genderless lens of “hurt people hurt people,” is to imply that sexual violence perpetrated by male survivors has different roots than the same kind of violence when it is committed by other men—as if having been sexually violated somehow removes our gender socialization from us.

Not all men commit sexual violence, obviously, but misogyny and sexual violence are congruent with, do emerge from, the values that are inherent in typical male socialization. This is part of why, as a survivor myself, I resonate with the idea that I might be able to blame any such behavior on my part on the fact of having been violated. It would be nice, and convenient, to turn what the men who violated me did to me into a kind of teleology, the primary cause for which all the sexist, misogynist, and other dysfunctional behavior I’ve engaged in over the course of my life provides the evidence. Indeed, when my understanding of myself as a survivor was still new and raw, I saw myself—I think I needed to see myself—in that way. It helped maintain the integrity of a line I felt compelled to draw, about which I will say more below, between myself and the people who did, or other people who could, violate me. A person’s life, however, is far more complicated than can be explained by any single event, traumatic or otherwise; and so to pretend that the other formative experiences of my life, especially, in this case, my socialization as a man, have been secondary at best in determining how I have behaved as a man would be to pretend they were not formative experiences at all—and that makes absolutely no sense.

I’ve written elsewhere about how my discovery of feminism became the key to my own healing, so I am not going to repeat that story here, except to say that it was from feminism that I first learned to recognize as sexual violence what the men who violated me did to me, and that it was from feminism as well that I first learned to draw strength from seeing myself not as a victim, but as a survivor. Part of what I mean by that is that feminism gave me the gift of women’s anger. Indeed, long before I began to deal consciously with the shame and humiliation of having been violated, and with how that shame and humiliation had shaped my life, I understood from the feminists I was reading that nothing the men who violated me had done to me was my fault; that those men and those men alone were responsible for their actions; and that anger and rage were both necessary and appropriate responses to those actions. This understanding changed, and perhaps even saved, my life. I didn’t care that I wasn’t a woman, that the feminists I learned this from were writing neither to nor for me. I signed myself up with the women’s movement right there and then.

The feminist I first became, however, assumed the self-righteous posture of a new and zealous convert. I demanded from myself an ideological and behavioral purity, a way (I thought) of being a man completely alien to the men who’d violated me and to the patriarchal manhood and masculinity that feminism stood against. Nowhere was this more evident, perhaps, than in my interactions with women I desired, or whom I knew desired me. I would never have been able to say it this way at the time, but I was afraid that my desire to touch the body of a woman with whom I wanted to be intimate was essentially no different from the desire that motivated the men who had touched me against my will. I would rather have been celibate for my entire life than do anything even remotely resembling what they had done, and so I became terrified of “making the first move” (which, when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s generally had little to do with an acknowledged mutuality, verbal or non-verbal). Instead of dealing with that fear, however, I chose to make what I thought of as a conscious and (for me, at least) radical feminist choice not to make the first move ever.

This choice meant I did not have much success with women at all during my freshman year, but I didn’t question the logic of the choice itself until my first sophomore semester, when I met a woman I’ll call Ling. Ling and I really liked each other, and I often ended up hanging out long into the night, on her side of campus, with her and her suite mates. A few weeks after we met, Ling and I spent almost an entire night talking on the couch outside her room. She told me about her life in China before coming to the United States, and I told her about growing up on Long Island. We were so comfortable with each other that the conversation felt seamless, like it could go on forever, and when I left at about 4 AM to go back to my own dorm, I felt really good about how close we were becoming.

The next day, however, when I went to say hello to Ling and one of her roommates as they walked on campus, both women started laughing at me, calling me “little boy” and “coward.” Then they walked away, making it clear I shouldn’t bother following. I called Ling’s room that evening to try to find out what was going on, but she wouldn’t talk to me. She was, her roommate explained, hurt and insulted that I hadn’t tried even once to kiss her the night before. I called again a couple of days later, but got the same result. “Don’t bother calling anymore,” the roommate said. “She doesn’t want to see you.”

I felt ashamed and humiliated, inadequate and helpless, but no matter how many times I replayed that night in my head, I just couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to have known when it would have been okay to try to kiss her. Over time, my frustration turned to anger and resentment, and eventually rage. As my feelings changed, instead of playing the evening over in my mind, I started to fantasize. In this fantasy, I leaned over when Ling was in mid-sentence—it didn’t matter which one—and put my hands firmly on either side of her face, holding her still while I kissed her and pushing her backwards onto the couch. I don’t remember if this imagined version of Ling struggled against my kiss or welcomed it; but I do remember being convinced there was justice in the scene, that if I could have that night to do over again, I would make sure to give Ling what she wanted, whether she liked it or not.

Before the rest of the scene could play itself out, however, my body flooded with a sense memory of the first man who violated me putting his hands on the back of my head and pulling my mouth towards his semi-erect penis. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Nauseous and mortified, I spent the rest of that day trying everything I could think of to twist what I had imagined into a shape that was not what it was: the beginning of a rape fantasy, precisely the kind of patriarchal male thinking I had hoped to use feminism to exorcise from who I was.

I understood, of course, that I hadn’t actually raped Ling—and I do not want to minimize here the difference between my angry fantasy and actual rape—but I also recognized that what I’d been ready to do in that fantasy bore no relationship to what Ling might actually have wanted and had everything to do with taking my anger out on her. What shook me most was that my fantasy had gone where it did practically by default, just as the feminists I was reading predicted male thinking would always go. I tried reassuring myself that it was only a fantasy, something I would never actually do in real life, but how did I know for sure? The fact that I was able even to imagine it made me wonder if there were circumstances under which I might actually have done it. I had hoped to use feminism to draw a line between myself and men who commit sexual violence that was as clear and unambiguous as the line separating different species of animals. Clearly, I had failed.1

As I thought about this realization over the years, I came to understand that, whatever else may have been true about my commitment to feminist values, I’d also been using feminism as a defense against shame, both the shame of having been sexually violated and the shame of being a man who was not as different from other men, including the men who’d violated me, as I wanted to believe. I thought about this when I read Díaz’ New Yorker essay, when I read his now-disavowed statement, and when I read about his reversal of that statement in the The Boston Globe. Of the three, only the statement he released through his agent even hints at addressing critically the gendered nature of the controversy surrounding him. In other words, only the position he now says he took under duress—because he was “‘distressed,’ ‘confused,’ and ‘panicked’ by the accusations [against him]” (see the Boston Globe article)—even hints at acknowledging he might be both a man who survived sexual violence and, because he was raised as a man in a culture that licenses such violence, a man capable of committing it.

Even as I finish writing those words, however, at least in relation to Díaz’ New Yorker essay, I realize I am being unfair. I’ve learned over the years that expecting survivors of sexual violence to say more than they are ready to, especially publicly, is not just unfair. It can also be a way of asking them to retraumatize themselves, something no one has the right to do. In Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, James Gilligan quotes Erik Erikson on shame, “He who is ashamed would like to force the world not to look at him, not to notice his exposure. He would like to destroy the eyes of the world” (64). Whatever else may be true about Junot Díaz, he displayed in writing and publishing his essay an unambiguous and unmitigated courage in staring down as much of his shame as he was able to at the time; or, to put it a little differently, in his willingness to invite the eyes of the world in, to bear witness within himself, and to insist that the world bear witness with him, both to the trauma that was the source of his shame and to the hurtful and damaging ways he allowed that shame to shape his life.

Of course the essay does not account for everything. Of course there are moments in it when it’s obvious he’s still hiding something. He is not, none of us is, a perfect survivor. That imperfection, however, invalidates neither the courage he showed in publishing the piece, nor the good I am sure the essay did once it was out in the world.

To be fair, Díaz does not completely ignore the relationship between his experience of sexual violence and his socialization as a man. “More than being Dominican,” he wrote,

more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. I spent more energy running from it than I did living. I was confused about why I didn’t fight, why I had an erection while I was being raped, what I did to deserve it. And always I was afraid—afraid that the rape had “ruined” me; afraid that I would be “found out”; afraid afraid afraid. “Real” Dominican men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a “real” Dominican man I wasn’t anything. The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything.

As Díaz understood it, in other words, the man who raped him had rendered him irrevocably not-a-man, permanently exiling him from the fulfilled adult life for which “real Dominican manhood” was, in Díaz’ mind, a prerequisite. More to the point, because Díaz believed the story about himself that the man who raped him had imposed on him (that he, Díaz, was “ruined”), he found ways to make that story come true. From all the times he maneuvered out of having sex with his girlfriends during his first two years in college; to the way he ran from the woman he met during his junior year, the one, he says, who truly loved him; to his betrayal of Y, whose breakup with him because of his infidelity precipitated the bottom he hit when he tried to jump from the roof of his friend’s apartment in the Dominican Republic—all of those were ways of refusing himself, in a self-fulfilling cycle of shame and self-hatred, the love and companionship, the fulfillment, he should have, in his mind, been able to achieve as a “‘real’ Dominican man.”

At the same time, however, except for acknowledging that he was repeating a pattern set for him by his father, real Dominican manhood is not something Díaz chooses to talk about. Nowhere in the essay, for example, does he even hint at an awareness that his infidelity was a stereotypically male way of acting out; that it is, in fact, the logical result of a culture that treats women—that socializes men to treat woman—as sexual objects; or that this sexual objectification is at the heart of men’s sexual violence, not just against women, but also against boys and other men. Nowhere, in other words, does Díaz acknowledge that his behavior as a man, however it may have been shaped by his experience of sexual violence, also existed on the same continuum as the behavior of the man who violated him. I am not—and I want to be very, very, very clear here—I am not criticizing Díaz for failing to deal with this in his first public statement ever as a survivor. It took me a very long time to tease out the implications of my experience with Ling, and I am still—as this post shows—learning from it. Rather, what I am trying to do by reading Díaz’ essay in this way is sketch out the kind of conversation I thought might be possible back when he seemed prepared to acknowledge precisely the duality within him (within me too) that his essay does not address.

Díaz himself, of course, short-circuited that conversation by rescinding the statement he released through his agent, categorically denying all the accusations against him, and—as I wrote in my previous post—politicizing his healing by using it as part of a very traditionally sexist and misogynist strategy to discredit his accusers. Offensive as that strategy might be, however, it’s also important to note that he was not the first one to turn his healing into contested territory. His accusers, starting with Zinzie Clemmons, did that when they asserted he’d published his New Yorker essay to pre-empt the accusations they were making against him. This assertion of ulterior motive—a move we easily recognize as sexist and misogynist when it is deployed against a woman talking about her sexual violation—turned Díaz’ story of being raped into a weapon to be used against him, implicitly (and, I assume, unintentionally) aligning those who made this assertion with the man who had raped him in the first place. This spectacle, of women using tactics we normally associate with patriarchy to bolster their own claims of sexual victimization, all but guaranteed that the conversation and controversy surrounding Díaz would end up being more about winning and losing than about achieving justice for anyone.

To put that another way, it is axiomatic to me that no individual survivor’s healing should ever be politicized, held hostage to who they are, what they’ve done, or what they believe. Nonetheless, there is what I have come to think of as a “politics of healing,” the way healing shapes and is shaped by all those factors, both in the context of our personal lives and in the context of society at large. To ignore or sidestep those politics, it seems to me, especially in a situation like the one Díaz finds himself, does the person who is trying to heal a tremendous disservice. Yet that’s precisely what I did, or almost did, when I had the impulse, which I wrote about in my previous post, to withdraw the solidarity and support I’d offered Díaz after I finished reading the New Yorker essay. Had I followed through on that impulse, not only would I have been supporting those who questioned the essay’s credibility on the grounds of ulterior motives; I would also have been drawing between Díaz and myself the same kind of line I tried to draw between myself and all other men when I was in college. I would, in other words, have been acting out of shame at the ways that Díaz and I, as men, are the same.

Having said that, though, I need to step back and acknowledge some of the ways that Díaz and I are not the same. Till now, I’ve been writing as if a shared experience of sexual violence and our shared socialization as men transcend in some pure and unadulterated way the racial, ethnic, and other differences between us. They do not, of course. As well, I need to acknowledge that I wrote about my fantasy encounter with Ling as if it didn’t matter that I am white and she, who cannot speak here for herself, was a woman of color. Of course it does. If she’d been a white woman, it’s possible my fantasy would have taken an entirely different tack, one that had nothing to do with assault; and I am very aware that, as a white man, it is safer for me to admit to such a fantasy, as it has been safer for me to say many of things I’ve said in both this post and my previous one, than it would for Díaz as a man of color.

Even if it is true, in other words, as I have heard some people argue, that “trauma is trauma is trauma,” the very different positions that Díaz and I occupy shape the stakes of our speaking publicly about our trauma very differently, especially because of the accusations he is facing. If he is guilty, of course, he needs to be held accountable, and that accountability should in no way be ameliorated by the fact that he is a survivor of sexual violence. To use this accountability, however, in a way that tries to trap him in the shame of being a survivor is to turn the accountability itself into either revenge (if you are an accuser) or vengeance (if, like me, you want to support his accusers). The suggestion that Díaz published his essay in order to pre-empt the accusations against him is one such trap; my initial impulse to withdraw my support from him—to assert that I am a different kind of man than he is; the same assertion I tried to live by when I was in college—is another.

The irony of this assertion is that, while it creates the illusion of my own superiority, it’s a trap for me as well, and for any other man who insists on it. At the very least, it shuts us off from important parts of who we are; at the most, it blinds us to who we are when we are at our darkest. I committed myself to not living within the world of that illusion a long time ago. What I’m committed to now is ending the shame of saying publicly, “That world doesn’t exist.”

  1. I am aware that this story raises a lot of issues in addition to the one I am talking about here, including the question of Ling’s accountability for her own values. That I am choosing not to discuss those issues here does not mean I think they are unimportant, just that they are not what I’m interested in talking about now. I will be interested to see, if people choose to comment on this post, how many find it easier/more compelling to focus on those other aspects, especially Ling’s accountability, rather than the issue I have chose to raise. []
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2 Responses to In Which I Have More To Say About The Politics Of Being A Man Who Has Survived Sexual Violence (and also about Junot Díaz)

  1. 1
    Peter Forrester says:

    Thanks for this article Richard. Your honesty and vulnerability about your personal experiences and thinking processes, plus your ability to articulate the complexities of male behaviour are impressive and important. I appreciate being able to read your writing and relate it to myself. There is a lot here for me to think deeply about. I share values and intention with you, to try as best I can to understand and develop myself as an ethical male in the domain of gender equality.

  2. Thanks for the kinds words, Peter! I appreciate it.