a story about rape culture
Not surprisingly, I have a story? It’s pretty long, and I’m sorry. My husband, Doctor Glass, recently went on a weeklong workshop. The participants worked on teams, slept in a dormitory, shared meals and spent all day together. While there, Dr Glass acquired a strikingly beautiful female friend, who was absolutely luminous – like a fallen star or a revolutionary. She was also just about to enter university, making her very much younger than Dr Glass. They were on the same team, had much in common, and seemed to enjoy each other.
However, there was a twenty-something dude on the course who, according to Dr Glass, “made things awkward.” Immediately, he tried to make the workshop all about his pantsfeelings for Luminous Girl. Although he was on a different team, he was constantly buzzing around Dr Glass and Luminous Girl, getting in their way (which was dangerous and distracting, as they were doing physical labor) and trying to get her to talk to him, work with him, come over and look at his work, etc. In return she tried to ignore him, laughed him off politely, repeatedly referenced her desire to do her work, physically moved away whenever he got close to her, and stuck like glue to Dr Glass; saying NO in all those thousand little pleasant ways that women are trained to do. Awkward Dude tried to impress her with physical activity, but Dr Glass cut him off because he was being distracting. Confused and annoyed, Awkward stepped up his Game, trying to impress her with his intellectual cred, and it went down like a lead zeppelin, with Luminous and Dr Glass resuming their own work and conversations. So Awkward started loudly asking wasn’t Dr Glass married?!
At this, Awkward Dude attempted to kill Dr Glass with his laser-eyeballs at every turn, lurking and glaring and pining like a bad Snape impersonator. (Dr Glass wasn’t sure why he was suddenly the target of the resulting animosity, as he clearly had no romantic interest in Luminous, until I explained it to him: Dude had decided that the reason Luminous Girl was not sleeping with him was because she was the Possession of Another Male, and further, a Male who Already Had His Fair Share of Females; thus Dr Glass was the enemy for not shunning her and leaving a clear path for fellow males. “Oh,” said Dr Glass in sudden revelation, “That makes sense, I guess.”)
But the guy persisted – it wasn’t that Luminous didn’t like him! It was that she was clearly in thrall of my husband. The solution was to get her alone! So whenever they sat down to a lecture, Luminous, practically dragging Dr Glass by the arm, would move like lightning to position herself between him and a safe wall – with her lovely admirer circling them and glaring, loudly asking Dr Glass about his Wife Back Home. Awkward Dude implied that Dr Glass was creepy and odd for always hanging out with a girl half his age. Awkward Dude was annoyed that the course director, an older woman who should presumably know better, had assigned dorm space based on teams, so that Dr Glass and Luminous bunked in adjacent rooms (while he, Awkward Dude, was in the wing with the married couples!) because it was inappropriate and wrong to place a married man next to a teenaged female. On a particularly cold day, Dr Glass noticed that Luminous did not have warm clothing, and lent her an extra hoodie. It happened to have his name on it; Awkward Dude practically ignited, to the point where even the other people on the course were laughing awkwardly at him and saying “Uh, she’s… allowed to wear clothes?”
Luminous and Dr Glass both liked hiking, so one evening after dinner, they went out for a hike by themselves – not inviting the others in case Awkward Dude got wind of their plans. (“I mean, it sounds cruel, but I just hated him,” Dr Glass said.) It was after curfew when they walked back to their rooms,and the halls were completely dark; Dr Glass hung back to fill his water bottle. When he got to the rooms, at the end of the corridor, Luminous had been cornered by Awkward Dude. When Awkward spotted Dr Glass, he yelled at him about how inappropriate it was to go hiking alone with Luminous. Luminous seized the opportunity to flee to her room, locking the door. “I think it’s inappropriate to police her hiking,” Dr Glass said mildly and went to bed.
The next day was the last day of the course, and Dr Glass had had enough. Awkward Dude was “trying it on” in front of the whole group, making everyone uncomfortable. He had dragged Luminous into yet another unwanted conversation and Dr Glass called him out, in front of everybody, a deadly blow to Awkward’s pride. Awkward Dude tried to appeal to the group – he was only trying to be friendly – but Dr Glass had him up against the ropes, metaphorically, he’d broken the floodgates, and everyone began to laugh at Awkward instead: the old married couples, the other young men, and Luminous.
“I really feel bad about that, actually,” Dr Glass said. He hadn’t really wanted to humiliate the younger man in front of everybody, especially since his only crime had been really inept flirting. Was it really Dr Glass’s place to speak for Luminous? Perhaps he’d made a big deal out of nothing. But Dr Glass didn’t regret it. He just felt odd. He didn’t know why he’d been so savage over something so banal as Awkward’s favorite movie. He was pretty sure that he didn’t regard Luminous as a possession, or something to be protected. He’d just snapped.
“OH MY GOD,” I replied, “WHY DIDN’T YOU DO MORE? WHAT A FUCKING CREEPER!”
Well, Dr Glass wanted to assume good intentions on everyone’s part. They’d all lived together, after all, eaten together, worked together. Emotions had run high. It would have been pretty terrible for the Dude if he’d been ostracized right at the beginning, just because he wasn’t very good at talking to girls. After all, he was there for the workshop. They all were.
“AAAAH,” I wound down, “But what Luminous? WHOSE WORKSHOP WAS RUINED BECAUSE SHE DIDN’T FEEL SAFE?! She couldn’t just relax and enjoy spending time with you/her other new friends/nature – she practically had to have a bathroom buddy! He didn’t even let her focus on the work she was PAYING MONEY to do! You did not cross a line! HE CROSSED THE FUCKING LINE!”
Dr Glass totally agreed. But he still felt oddly uncomfortable about it all, as if there was something there to regret, like he was missing a piece of the puzzle. And then I asked The Question. And after I asked The Question, his face changed. He looked sick. “I didn’t think of that.”
After The Question, he wished he’d been more explicit – gone to the course director. Been there more for Luminous. The good intentions that he wanted to assume, the passes he was willing to give the other man, evaporated, completely. They had evaporated for me, halfway through the story.
When I tell this story to women, they spot The Question right away. The men don’t; they think that Dr Glass behaved like a gentleman, neither doing too much nor too little. They are feminist men, and good people. They have read “The Gift of Fear” and they talk about privilege and the patriarchy, and they don’t spot it.
The Question is this: Why Was Awkward Dude Waiting For Her In The Dark?
Earlier in the story we heard that his own room was far away from hers. It was dark, at the end of a dark hall. He was waiting there, after midnight, with the lights off. HE HAD BEEN WAITING FOR HER IN THE DARK AT THE END OF A DARK HALL AFTER CURFEW, HE KNEW SHE HAD GONE OUT AND HE WAS WAITING FOR HER TO COME BACK. He was angry when he realized that she wasn’t alone. And Luminous was afraid – bolting into her room. Locking the door. And the women go HOLY FUCK WHAT IS THAT as soon as they hear about the atmosphere, and the men just accept it as another anecdote of Awkward Dude’s awkwardness, you know? Because how rude/silly/inept to pester a woman about hiking with another man! While the women are going BAD INTENTIONS BAD INTENTIONS FUCK SHIT THAT WOULD NOT HAVE ENDED WELL. And then you point out The Question to the men, and wait a while, and they suddenly go OH. OH MY GOD. WHY WAS HE WAITING FOR HER IN THE DARK. THAT’S – THAT’S PRETTY FUCKING SKETCHY. Everything changes. Dude-sympathy is gone. They put on the Matrix-goggles and peer into the world that apparently only women see. Awkward cornered Luminous in the dark after curfew at the end of the hall when he thought she was alone and he had a lot of anger and when my husband showed up he read Luminous as afraid and she ran into her room and locked the door. That is the reality. The good intentions, they are not there. Perhaps Awkward would have said that they were, that we, in our paranoia, are seeing rape in every dark corner. Perhaps he was trying to apologize for his previous behavior, or lend her a book, or make sure that she got back safely from her hike… so he’d chosen to do so alone, in the dark, making her afraid. That was what had been bothering Dr Glass. He wasn’t wearing the Goggles of Feminine Intuition, but he picked up on the signals that something wasn’t right. Seeing the Question doesn’t make you paranoid – it means your instincts are working.
If you live in the world of women, it isn’t your duty to educate everybody, to hand-hold and explain, to pass out Matrix-goggles. It’s Situation Normal: All Fucked Up. But perhaps you, Letter Writers, have good men, men who just need to wear the goggles.
That’s not really what I think, but our society is fucked up. I’ll assume good intentions on their part. Maybe it will help.