Mixed Feelings: How to Trust after Trauma

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Dear Mixed Feelings,

The Blasey Ford hearings really tripped me up. I was sexually assaulted when I was fourteen and raped when I was seventeen and I never got good therapeutic help for either incident but I am getting it now. How does a woman like me continue to date men when she knows viscerally the darkest parts of rape culture and toxic masculinity? We live in a culture that condones rape and rewards rapists and indicates in so many ways that we don’t really give a shit about survivors. I’m trying to date again after ending a four-year relationship and I wonder if perhaps eighty percent of single men out there are unacceptable. But really, what I know deep down is that rape culture is unacceptable. How can I trust men? Pep talk me, Mixed Feelings—I need it bad!

Sincerely,
Skeptical but Trying

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Dear Skeptical,

I’m writing this letter to you but I should point out, right from the outset, that it’s not exactly for you. I say it’s not for you because it’s clear from your letter that you already know much of what I’m going to say. And because your pain is so much bigger than this letter and to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous. But it’s written to you in the same spirit that you wrote to me: with hope.

This letter is for everyone who has said or thought, “but she didn’t say no.” And for those who believe the #MeToo movement has “gone too far.” This letter is also for me, because, like you, some days I need a pep talk to keep from going under in this enormous wave of righteous anger and pain. It’s definitely for anyone who is feeling raw and helpless in the face of what continues (almost daily) to be an uncomfortable shared realization: that a man’s career still matters more than a woman’s body; that our ideas about sex are badly in need of repair.

It is one thing to know these truths from reading the news every day. And it is another to know them viscerally, as you say, in the body. I’m sorry that this truth exists in the first place, but I am especially sorry that you’ve lived with it for so long.

If I’m honest, I don’t have a lot of good advice for how someone with a history of trauma might find a way to trust men. I understand that acknowledging this violates the central conceit of the advice column—which is that one person has a problem and another person (in this case, me) offers them perspective and, ideally, some strategies for resolution. In truth, I think most advice is based on a false premise, which is that we as individuals are always responsible for both creating and resolving our problems. I don’t believe the problem of rape culture is beyond resolution, but I know that you’re not the one responsible for solving it.

There are a handful of things you might do to more safely and comfortably date men: practice setting boundaries (Brene Brown recommends using a mantra like, “choose discomfort over resentment”); look out for signs of behavior that seems coercive, even outside the context of sex; notice how the men you date talk about other women—it’s a good indicator of how they think about gender and power and basic human decency. These tactics have helped me in the past. But none of these suggestions solve the central problem here. Because, as you point out, the problem here is bigger than you or the men who hurt you or any of the men you might go on a date with. The problem is our culture.

Any advice I might give you about dating men would only imply that rape culture is permanent and survivors are responsible for figuring out how to go about their lives within it—an argument I’m no longer willing to accept. Or it would suggest that if you are savvy enough, you can avoid sexual assault, which in turn suggests that anyone who is assaulted is at least a little bit to blame for not avoiding it. And, good god, I am tired of this way of thinking. Aren’t you?

I could compile an entire book of advice asking women to organize their lives around the violent, coercive, or manipulative behavior of men: keep an eye on your drink, say no forcefully, dress appropriately, wait three hours to text back, hold your car keys between your fingers when you walk home at night. But look how far that’s gotten us. I deeply empathize with the feeling that maybe men shouldn’t be trusted, because, even though my life is full of men I love and admire, sometimes I feel like they cannot possibly understand the full implications of, for example, Lindsey Graham’s blustery rage: one white man’s fury that another white man’s rise to lifelong power might be interrupted by something as ordinary as multiple claims of assault. It’s hard to feel close to someone who seems content with the status quo when the status quo is so nakedly unjust, so plainly unendurable.

The good news for us all is that there are folks working hard for change. And with that in mind, I’m going to try, in the clearest terms possible, to lay out a theory of consent—a way of thinking about sex and dating and relationships—that might offer a way forward for our broken sexual culture. I’m going to do this with the help of my feminist sex education hero, Jaclyn Friedman, because she is a total boss and I have learned so much from her over the past couple of years.

Friedman’s premise for sexual revolution is this: “We’re each responsible for making sure our sex partners are actually into whatever is happening between us.” That’s it. Friedman calls this affirmative consent, but it’s also known as “yes means yes”, or enthusiastic consent. I love it so much I’m thinking of having it printed on t-shirts.

It shouldn’t be radical—but it is. Because our entire culture is built on a broken assumption: that men want sex and women should provide it. The more extreme version, the one which motivates incels and rapists alike, goes like this: men are entitled to sex and women are obligated to supply it, at any cost.

As economist Marina Adshade and philosopher Neil McArthur point out, for most of human history, we have assumed that “that sex between men and women is basically a transaction.” This transaction traditionally happened within the context of marriage: “Women, it was thought, gave men access to sex, and in return they received the income and security that came with being a wife.” Of course this no longer matches how most of us think about sex or marriage.

Affirmative consent rejects the transactional model altogether. It assumes that women like sex and that pleasure is the point for everyone involved. As you and I both know, this idea, too, is radical. The sexual revolution of the 1960s tried to change the way we thought about sex and pleasure—and it halfway succeeded. As Friedman puts it,

…our current sexual culture is built on the rotten foundations of a gutted, aging, unfinished sexual revolution, but it’s got a bright, candy-colored coat of paint slapped on top.

What this means in practice is that we’re trying to empower women to embrace their sexuality without acknowledging the larger cultural forces that make doing so so difficult in the first place. As a result, we blame women for everything from having bad sex or no sex, to not keeping their spouses interested, and even for provoking their own assaults. In a fundamentally misogynist culture, trying to find that safe space between empowered and endangered can be an exercise in madness.

In her book Unscrewed, Friedman writes:

Individual solutions don’t heal our sex lives because the biggest problems we’re facing aren’t individual. They’re systemic. We don’t need a pill to make us want sex more—we need a world where straight men aren’t almost 50 percent more likely to have an orgasm with a partner than straight women are. We need universal access to quality sex education. We need a media ecosystem shimmering with portrayals of three-dimensional women who get to be sexual on their own terms. We need rape to be rare and swiftly punished. We need a new cultural definition of masculinity. We need a government that recognizes our autonomy over our own bodies. […] Telling us to value ourselves more is not the answer. We need to create a culture in which we have more actual value.

Amen. So, what does this culture look like? Here’s one simple answer: In this culture, we define consent not in terms of yes or no, but in terms of attention, of presence and mindfulness.

A lot of folks think affirmative consent means you have to awkwardly stop any sexual interaction to ask questions like, “May I remove your t-shirt?” But this strikes me as a willful misunderstanding. So let me make it clear for anyone who’s confused: Your job is not to check the “yes” box so you can proceed in achieving your sexual goals. Your job is to offer sincere attention to your partner and find what you each like, and how you like it, together.

This approach applies to sex but also to life. Because being a good sex partner and being a good person are actually the same thing. Why don’t we teach kids this from the start? I wish, when I’d been ten or eleven, someone had said to me, “Here’s how to tell someone you have a crush on them.” Or “Here’s what to say when someone says they have a crush on you but you don’t feel the same way.” Or “Here’s how to show someone you want to kiss them and check to make sure they’re into it.” Or “Here’s how to tell someone you want to be kissed—or that you don’t.” These are essential life skills, rooted in the same basic kindness we emphasize when teaching kids to say “please” and “thank you,” but it took me years to learn them.

Friedman’s book Unscrewed is full of stories of people working to change the sexual culture. If you want hope for what’s possible, it’s a great place to start. As for the rest of us, one small, everyday way forward is this: instead of thinking about what we might get from the people around us—whether that’s sex or status or a sense of our own empowerment—we might think about what we have to offer: autonomy, decency, attention, care. I could rage all day at the Lindsey Grahams of the world. I could lose myself in resentment about all the men I love who never said a word on social media about the Kavanaugh hearings and how completely outrageous the whole thing was. In fact, I have lost days that way. But my rage is no longer serving me.

This rage isn’t pointless, though. It’s a signal, a glaring spotlight on the ugly, rotting foundations of our sexual culture. And only now—now that we can take a good hard painful look at it—can we start to repair it. So let’s go.

Yours,
Mixed Feelings

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Mixed Feelings is an advice column that draws on science, economics, philosophy, and psychology to tackle relationship issues. If you have a question for Mandy, send it to [email protected] or submit it here.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Max Winter.


Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Walrus, along with literary journals and anthologies. She writes about love and love stories at The Love Story Project, and she teaches English and creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Her essay collection How to Fall in Love with Anyone was published in 2017. More from this author →