By Daniel Udell
Sexual assault is a difficult subject to discuss, largely because it is an emotionally charged topic that is riddled with complexities, systemic prejudices, and tough questions about our capabilities as a society to avert violent patterns. The leading voice regarding sexual assault is by and large women, for women; these discussions generally emphasize female empowerment, safe sexual practices, the benefits of feminism, and how to deal with the consequences of sexual assault in a healthy and constructive manner.
Although there are men who are avid feminists and speak out against sexual assault and violence, they are simply far fewer in number and ultimately less publicized than one would hope. It is admittedly sometimes difficult as a man to speak about feminism or sexual assault for a number of reasons, something that could be discussed at length on its own. Largely, this difficulty relates to two things: (1) being underqualified to discuss such a sensitive topic without legitimate credentials in gender studies and (2) being wary of the rightfully problematic “male savior” archetype that undermines the message of female empowerment or gender equality. As a result, many men dismiss the subject of sexual assault simply because they rarely hear it from a male’s perspective, and thus simply tune out the message entirely. This is indicative of a larger issue: men disregarding the basic human rights of women because they have been trained to disregard any point of view that is not first legitimized by a man.
This is indicative of a larger issue: men disregarding the basic human rights of women because they have been trained to disregard any point of view that is not first legitimized by a man.
So, I would like to speak as a man, for men, who may have some apprehensions regarding the subject of sexual assault. For those men who are honest with themselves about the matter, it is genuinely terrifying. That is to say, everything about sexual assault, when taken seriously and looked directly in the eye, is nothing short of looking oneself in the mirror and questioning everything we know about ourselves and the world we live in. You have to question the innate violent urges you might have but never really take into consideration. You might have to question the legal repercussions of actions you dismissed as harmless. You might have to completely reevaluate how you feel about loved ones, friends, or even role models who have been accused, or should be accused, of sexual assault. These are not easy questions to ask, and unfortunately, most of the time we are not afforded the emotional or social space to ask them in the first place.
Taught from an early age to suppress emotion, men’s sensitivity and self-reflection are dismissed, while their self-confidence and projections of male heroism are sanctified. As a result, all of the countless other emotions that all humans feel throughout their lives are repressed and bent so that they fit into the proper compartments society has dictated. This breeds depression, insecurities, and bursts of violence in often confusing and rightful anger, although the victims of these outbursts are rarely, if ever, the rightful recipient. The recent epidemic in mass shootings in the United States, largely perpetuated by young and troubled men, is a symptom of these repressed emotions manifesting in extreme violent outbursts.
The truth is that sexual assault is difficult to tackle simply because there are so many things that fall under the banner of “sexual assault.”
Furthermore, the very term “sexual assault” is scary simply because it is so broad. As hard as it might be for some to understand, sexual assault is actually not particularly specific. While it does directly mean a violent act—either verbal or physical and sexual in nature—inflicted upon an unwilling participant, it does little to help define specific instances in relation to the problem at hand. The truth is that sexual assault is difficult to tackle simply because there are so many things that fall under the banner of “sexual assault.” Rape is clearly sexual assault, but the term “rape,” even marginally, carries far more significant implications than the broader term “sexual assault.” Sexual insults and verbal abuse fall under the category of sexual harassment rather than assault, but because the physical element is absent, we confront these charges differently. What about non-sexual battery, assaults on minors, or substance-related abuse when one cannot provide sufficient consent? How do we demarcate carelessness from assault? How do we differentiate between pre-meditated and “non-malicious” sexual assault? Is there a spectrum of response for the spectrum of subcategories of sexual assault? Largely, no, and for that reason alone, many men are scared of confronting the subject seriously because they simply do not see visible demarcations between serious acts of sexual abuse and other serious acts of abuse.
The usage of the term “non-malicious” likely needs a qualifier. By non-malicious acts, I mean acts that, although reprehensible and liable for responsibility, were not carried out with hostile intent, premeditated ill will, or even recognition of the violence being committed. An example might be someone who has been seeing someone else regularly, someone they sleep with consensually, and largely have a healthy relationship with, who, after a night out partying, drives their drunk partner home. Upon arriving, the intoxicated partner asks the driver to sleep over, and they have sex, despite the driver’s sobriety. The next day, the drunk partner remembers nothing of the previous evening, feels taken advantage of, and possibly interprets that what happened falls under the category of “sexual assault.”
For this example, let us say that the driver did not take into consideration, either out of ignorance or the heat of the moment, the ethical dilemma of sleeping with someone who is too drunk to drive, and thus, has impaired decision making and may not remember certain aspects of the evening. Although what happened technically might fall under “sexual assault,” nothing malicious occurred, and no one was physically “hurt” in the sense of intended harm, although psychological and emotional pain are still absolutely issues at hand.
How do we approach such a situation without responding to either party with a large and often dismissive brush? These kind of seemingly innocuous situations frequently turn out to be genuinely problematic and harmful for many, but the existence of this ambiguity makes it hard to confront seriously from either side. On top of that, to call it sexual assault, from either side, carries with it all the same ramifications of other things that fall under that banner, such as rape and intentional abuse. This case is not an inherently criminal one, although it might be considered as such in a court of law. This case represents one of the reasons we need better specificity in our language and demarcations regarding sexual assault if we are to progress in prevention and evenhanded justice. Although language specificity does little to change overall sexual abuse and the misogyny prevalent in patriarchal society, it does open small windows for individuals to discuss these particular cases in a context outside of criminality and all the associations that come with it.
I would suggest that if both parties are being honest with each other in an ambiguous situation, then the number one response should be communication with the opposite party. It allows for potentially repressed feelings of shame, remorse, guilt, or anxiety to be expressed in a healthy, open manner with the person it stems from, rather than seeking a third party to legally sort out the issue immediately. It might help demarcate certain problematic social acts away from far more grievous and critical issues pertaining to violence and criminality, allowing for enhanced specificity and clearer paths for solutions.
To be fair, open, and honest, I am not an expert in the subject of gender or women’s studies, and I do not have any formal training on the matter of sexual assault prevention, feminist methodology, or technical terminology regarding emotionally charged subjects. I am a feminist, however, and I hope that this article is beneficial to continuing a discussion about sexual assault for both men and women, and I would be more than happy to adjust and reevaluate this topic if deemed lacking in rigor, accuracy, or substance by a concerned reader. I invite anyone who is passionate about gender equality and preventing violence to use this as an opening to offer your own insights, opinions, rebuttals, or remarks, and I hope that I have made it easier, even for a few, to approach this subject with the seriousness and specificity that is required to productively challenge sexual violence in an attentive and compassionate manner.