I’ve been having some trouble sleeping this week, so since I’m awake and will be computerless for a while in the near future (vacation) I figured I would write. With the Steubenville rape case having just ended in a conviction for the two football players, I’ve seen a lot in the media and in social media related to this story and about rape in general. A lot of the coverage I’ve been reading has come from links via Facebook friends, and happily, they are all of the type that are critical of rape culture. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the links have also come from people who are Native or artists or some combination of the two. Many of these folks also posted frequently about the Violence Against Women Act that took a painfully long time to actually get approved. I’ve tended to repost a lot of articles dealing more specifically with feminist issues on my Facebook page for Robohontas. This may be because many of these articles I am sharing are more geared toward Native women and since Robohontas is female, it seems a more appropriate venue.
But all of this rape culture talk gets me thinking. Why do I feel that I have to segregate my posts based on gender? It isn’t a malicious choice, or even necessarily a wrong one. Yet, it made me recognize that I still have my own feelings of insecurity about working as a gay male artist with a female character, and of treading into the realm of feminist issues. What am I afraid of? I honestly don’t know. I believe it is just a byproduct of the social conditioning that men receive, and of which was so confusing to me as a child and adolescent. And I’m glad to have it brought to my attention so that I can be more aware of the choices I may be unconsciously making!
One of the most thought-provoking things I read from all of these posts were two posts (and lots of comments) on a blog called Rant Against the Random. The two posts (So you’re tired of hearing about rape culture? and Why I Won’t Publish Your Comments About False Rape Accusations) were thoughtfully written and I really love her clear arguments and appreciation for fairness. I also applauded her decision to not only choose to stop publishing comments from readers about false rape accusations, but to also give a thorough explanation as to why she made that decision. There is a lot of emotional baggage when dealing with this type of topic and she handles it deftly and appropriately. She wasn’t afraid in the comments to interact with readers and calmly defend her arguments or respond to points that they may have brought up. There’s so much in the posts and all of the comments that ultimately, like many commenters, it brought up things from my own past. I’ve certainly shared some of the following experience with people in my life, but never publicly written about it.
To be as brief as I can, I was working at Nordstrom, specifically at the spa as a manicurist. The area I worked in at the time had two private treatment rooms for manicures and pedicures in addition to the other treatment rooms for massage and skincare and a more traditional manicure area near the front. I had a male client who, during a service, began touching me somewhat suggestively. At first I tried to ignore it and then when it became overt I panicked and froze. Without knowing what to do, I became an unwilling participant in a brief sexual encounter. That part was bad enough, but what happened after was worse. I went through a period of feeling intense guilt and shame before finally “confessing” to my boyfriend, who recognized it for what it was–that I had been sexually victimized. I knew this was something that I couldn’t deal with on my own, and in my naiveté, I ended up assuming that I should talk to my managers and the company’s HR department. Big mistake.
I ended up providing a written description of what happened to the HR manager, including informing that the incident had me shaken because of sexual abuse from my teenage years, at which point my employment was terminated. But not immediately, no. I had submitted my statement and then had a couple of days off of work. Then I went back in, worked half a day, and then had a meeting with HR where the manager told me that there were at least twelve instances where I should have stopped the encounter and that I was being let go for using poor judgment in a situation. I’d like to believe that part of Nordstrom’s response to the situation would have been different if I had been a female employee, but I don’t really know. I felt that I was being discriminated against because they were assuming that since I was gay and the client was a man, that they felt what happened was consensual. I did find a lawyer who helped represent me in fighting my firing as unjust, but of course Nordstrom’s lawyers got the assistant manager I had first spoken with the incident about to say that I told her I had told the client “yes” when he asked if it was okay. He had asked, but I didn’t say anything, which is what I told the spa assistant manager. I’d like to believe that she just got the story wrong in her head, but that seemed to be the piece which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or whichever formal channel we were going through, took as enough reason to not look into my firing further. At that point I had to decide whether to file a civil lawsuit, which I decided against as I didn’t want to incur the financial and emotional expense of a long court battle.
Looking back now, about eight years later, I can clearly recognize the “rape culture” elements within my own story. My own fear, guilt, and shame after the incident that was causing panic attacks. The minimal response from Nordstrom when I initially reported the attack, followed by the HR manager blaming me personally for what happened. The bureaucratic assumption by the EEOC that because Nordstrom had someone who was willing to testify third-hand that I had entered into the situation willingly, that the incident did not merit investigation. Even the fact that the spa manager wrote me a letter of reference, but wouldn’t actually put her signature on it.
I don’t bring up my own story to prove that women aren’t the only victims. Really, I look at is as an act of solidarity against the silence that so many people who experience acts of sexual aggression live with. I consider myself lucky in that I didn’t come to any physical harm unlike what some people experience. While I think the emotional trauma is nothing to trifle with either, I didn’t have to deal with having my life threatened or being beaten up. The incident also was a trigger that caused me to find my psychologist who really helped me to face and deal with all of the emotional and physical abuse I experienced from my father while growing up, which is really what led me to freeze when faced with the situation at Nordstrom. I don’t say that I deserved what happened, but I now feel a lot more confident that if faced with the same type of passive sexual aggression again, I will not just panic and shut down. What happened to me was horrible, but I also ended up using it as an opportunity for personal growth. Even just writing about the experience and making the decision to hit “publish” is difficult. I haven’t gone back there in my head in a long time and posting this makes me feel awfully vulnerable. But by not talking about it, I am actively participating in the continuance of rape culture.
It would be great if more men would talk about their experiences since there is a lot of social stigma around sexual violence for men that is different than the stigma faced by women in the same types of situations. And women need the support of men along with other women in fighting this pervasive “slut shaming” of those who speak out. Women are clearly the most common victims. Ultimately, it would be wonderful to live in a world that doesn’t blame a victim for having invited an act of sexual aggression.