The Absence of “No” is Not Enough

For the last week I’ve been watching the #MeToo movement rise and fall in the media. Women are sharing, in great detail, personal experiences in order to highlight just how pervasive the problem of sexual harassment and assault really is.

What I’m also noticing is that men, on the whole, have been largely silent.

Now, I hope–sincerely–the relative silence is about allowing a safe space for women to talk about their experiences without trying to interrupt or explain why those experiences are wrong or mistaken or taken out of context. Sincerely.

My worry, however, is the silence is due to many men not hearing what women are shouting over the chasm. The chasm which exists between the way women define and view sexual assault, harassment, and consent, and the way that men do. That chasm is so wide and deep when you shout across it no one on the other side can hear you. All you get in return is a fading echo.

Generally, there are things which both women and men see as obviously and categorically wrong. A woman raped and beaten by a stranger. A child sexually molested by an adult. They tick the boxes of what we agree is defined as rape or sexual assault.

We go down the list. Is it any better if the person who rapes and beats a woman is someone she knows? How about if it’s her spouse? How about if the child is thirteen and the adult in question is twenty-two and swears she told him she was eighteen?

How about if a woman doesn’t bear any marks from her rape or assault? Rape is a crime of violence against women, regardless of bruises or ligature marks. Yet some feel a woman has to have noticeable marks of that violence as evidence of a man raping her. She must bear physical evidence of having ‘fought back’ in order for some to believe her consent was not given.

Already we’re wading into murky territory. And that’s just rape.

What about a man who badgers a woman into some sort of quasi-consensual act? I know women who have had sex because having sex was safer than continuing to be bullied, badgered, stalked, or harassed. I know women who have had sex because it was easier to have sex than to keep fighting against it. Think about that for a moment. Women, especially young women who are still defining their own boundaries, will sometimes have sex simply to shut men up, to stop further harassment, to control the situation, or to be able to walk away. 

If you don’t see that any of those as wrong, it’s a good indication of how wide the chasm really is.

If a woman has sex or sexual contact with a man because she knows the danger of him forcing himself upon her violently is real, does that make it any better that what we classically define as rape? Does it make it right or ok? How about if a woman has sex or sexual contact with a man because she knows the real danger of him ruining her financially? Does it make it any better? Does it make it right or ok?

Sometimes men will grind a woman down to a point where she does not say ‘no’. She doesn’t say ‘yes’. She simply stops saying ‘no’.  To some, the lack of the negative implies consent. I’m guessing this is where Harvey Weinstein’s defense of the accusations of rape is going.

He’ll argue because his victims didn’t say “NO”, there was implied consent.

This is important and this is where the chasm is the deepest: consent is NOT JUST the absence of ‘NO’. It must be the PRESENCE of ‘YES’. 

This is what sexual harassment is. It is badgering. It is pressuring. It is using the power held over someone else to wear them down, not to the point of yes, but to the absence of no.

And if that absence of no is taken for consent, or seen as ok or justifiable, or not that bad, that’s a massive, massive problem.

What women are trying to do with campaigns like #MeToo is show what all the badgering, the pressuring, the threats, the bribes, the blackmail does. They are showing, with their own stories, how the very real potential for serious harm–bodily, psychological, financial–plays out in real life. Women are not dumb. Women will do what they need to do to take control of the situation in any way they can to mitigate the damage.

Out of all the articles I’ve read recently, this paragraph from Lupita Nyong’o’s account of her time with Harvey Weinstein, stood out to me, yet it will likely get lost in the shuffle of more salacious details.

“Harvey led me into a bedroom — his bedroom — and announced that he wanted to give me a massage. I thought he was joking at first. He was not. For the first time since I met him, I felt unsafe. I panicked a little and thought quickly to offer to give him one instead: It would allow me to be in control physically, to know exactly where his hands were at all times.”

Harvey Weinstein will use that as evidence of consent. Many men will read that as evidence of consent.

Women who have experienced a similar situation will read it for what it is: a woman swallowing a smaller indignity to save herself from a larger one.

All of the lewd comments, the innuendo, the leering, the lurking, the touching, the insinuation? All of that is done without a woman’s consent. No man on the street has ever asked a woman if she wanted her booty to be commented upon. No boss has ever asked a female colleague if she wanted him to opine on what she’s like in bed. No supervisor has ever asked a woman if she wanted to view his porn collection or hear about the dirty dream she featured in.

Harvey Weinstein did not ask Lupita Nyong’o if she wanted a massage. He announced what he wanted, to the complete and utter disregard of the woman standing before him. She was nothing more than a vessel for his sexual gratification. Not dissimilar to the potted plant he allegedly ejaculated into in front of a female reporter.

Women do not exist for the sexual gratification of men. Women do not exist for the viewing pleasure of men. Women do not owe men sex, sexual acts, sexuality, politeness, smiles, sashays, exposed legs, cleavage. Women are not human repositories for male sexual fantasies, they should never be expected to bear the weight of those fantasies outside of consensual relationships. And by consensual, I mean one which is clearly marked by the presence of yes, not just the absence of no.

We need to have an open and ongoing dialogue about sex, about power, about violence. About consent. And that conversation needs to between women AND men, not just women shouting ME TOO in an echo chamber. And not just men shouting NOT ALL MEN in their own.

Maybe #MeToo will be the rickety, dinky little rope bridge that allows a few people at a time to cross that chasm.

One can hope, right?





Where Words Speak Louder Than Action

typingThis won’t come as a surprise, but the written word is kind of important to me. I well understand the power of words to lift, to incite, to soothe and to insult. I know how to use words to include and exclude, to connect and disconnect. And because of that, I take them pretty damn seriously.

There’s a lot of talk about being held accountable for your actions, of actions speaking louder than words. But... the truth of those statements doesn’t negate accountability for your words, spoken and written. Nor does it mean their effect is diminished by a callous “But..I didn’t mean it”.

I didn’t mean it is not a magic eraser. I didn’t mean it is not a delete key. I didn’t mean it doesn’t invalidate the fact that it yes, Virginia, those words actually do mean something.

In some bizarre sadomasochistic exercise I derived for myself, I’ve spent the better part of the summer reading and scrolling through the internet. I’ve been searching not only for answers and reasons, but ultimately for a glimpse of humanity.

I’ve been repeatedly and sorely disappointed.

My searches led me all over the place, up and down the spectrum, articles and opinion pieces, real news and satire, but where I kept getting mired was in the murky sediment of social media: The comments.

To quote my husband, comments are “where dignity goes to die”. My father would have said something along the lines of shit flowing down hill.

Neither of them are wrong.

Far more frightening than the death rattle of dignity or obvious brown stain of shitty opinions however, is the undertow of hate and violence which is sucking the rest of us along.

Somewhere along the way it has become acceptable to wish horror-movie violence and slow, painful death upon each other for having a different political view, a different experience or a different way of looking at things.

It’s become acceptable to channel anger–both legitimate and misguided–into personal attacks, bullying, name-calling, and poison-laced threat.

Somewhere along the way, it’s become not only acceptable, but encouraged. It’s become refreshing. It is real.  It suddenly fucking cool to loudly give voice to the base elements of human existence.

And like a Shelley mob chasing a Frankenstein monster, others pick up their pitchforks, tie their nooses, and look for the next witch to burn.

The internet has not only given the worst of human nature an amphitheatre, it’s given them an audience and a megaphone.


Tell me, what kind of person wishes rape upon another woman’s child just because of a differing view? What kind of person uses words like nigger or cunt to describe another person?

Do those words make you uncomfortable to read? They should. Words like that are meant to, they hold in their letters generations of hate and bile. I had a hard time even typing them.

What I’ve read down there in the dark dregs of social media has alternately left me in tears, raging, sick to my stomach, and frankly, horrified.

If this is now acceptable social behaviour, what the hell are we devolving into?

In my own small corner of the net I’ve been called stupid, a disgrace to white people everywhere (a particularly proud moment for me), a fan of baby murder, and evil. I’ve gotten off lightly, those things are mild in comparison. No one has wished cancer on my children for one. No one has told me I deserve to be raped with a hot poker or have my family perish in a ghoulish scene out of American Horror Story.

Down there in the bottom-feeding comments, where the fuel of choice is bile, that’s the sort of stuff that’s taking place.

But worse than the hatred being churned out like sausage is the assumption that it doesn’t really mean anything; they’re just words on a page. A few sentences of Helvetica type on a computer screen. Worse than the death wishes and rape fantasies, behind the false bravado provided by the anonymity of a user name, is the idea that the sentiment is lessened or invalidated by a half-hearted apology or a yellow winky face. Still worse is the cowardly manifesto of reverse political correctness, the insinuation that anyone who is offended or horrified is at fault because they are just too damn politically correct.

I’ve got news for those people. Being horrible to other people is not an exercise in freedom from political correctness. It’s being an ignorant, spiteful, hateful asshole.

When you wish cancer upon a member of a different political party, promote violent sexual fantasies on a woman who expresses a different opinion, use racially and sexually charged words, when you attack a parent who has just lost a child, mock a victim of rape, bray for the violent demise of a human being, that’s not being real. That’s not being free from political correctness. That’s not telling it like it is.

That’s disgusting.

And stating, after the fact, that the words you fling out don’t mean anything is utter and complete bullshit.

If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t write it. If you would be horrified hearing those words come out of your child’s mouth, don’t write it. If you would be offended hearing those words spat at your spouse, your child, your parents, don’t write them.

wordsUsing freedom of speech to offend, harass, smear and wish death upon others is making a mockery of what free speech is meant to be. Hiding behind the guise of free speech to fill your social media feed with words like nigger, cunt, whore, coon, or kike is sullying the concept of free speech. Freedom of speech in America is about having the right to protest a tyrannical government. It means the freedom to express injustice, to find fault with the those in power, to have an opinion which differs without fear of censorship or imprisonment. Hiding behind that right to promote hateful, ignorant, or bigoted, violent ideals does nothing but slowly erode the sanctity of that freedom.

As the old saying goes, I will defend your right to free speech even if I despise what you are saying. But I will not protect you from the consequences of your speech. Because those words?

They mean something.





Throwing Punches: Why Kids Sometimes Need to Fight Back

gty_levis_kids_fight_kb_ss_130520_sshYears ago my husband told me a story about the one fist-fight he got into on the schoolyard asphalt. There were insults and threats and while not quite pistols at dawn, an assignation by the lockers at 3–or something to that effect. My husband is a big man, in stature as well as heart, but despite his size he comes down squarely on the lover side of the lover/fighter equation.

“I hit him before he could hit me,” my husband told me. Sometimes in life, he insisted, you have to throw a punch. “And sometimes,” he said, “you have to throw the first one.”

I used to cringe every time I heard that story. Especially when I became the mother to not one, but two boys. I used to think that surely preaching–never mind teaching–violence was never going to be the answer. Surely we want our kids to grow up to be intelligent, rational, non-violent folk.


You can preach intelligent, rational, non-violent; you can teach do the right thing until the cows are blue in the face on their way home. But my husband is right. Sometimes you have to throw a punch. And sometimes you have to throw the first one.

I’ve had a number of conversations recently listening to parents tell me about their son or daughter being goaded, picked on, harassed, punched, made fun of, called names. It happens at school, on the playground, on the football pitch, in the hallways. Most of it doesn’t go too much deeper than the normal rough seas of childhood we all had to sail; some of it probably toes the line of what I would consider bullying, not a word I bandy about without thought.

They, like most of us, give their kids the same advice.

Walk away.

Ignore it.

Don’t let it get to you.

Tell an adult.

Be the bigger person.

Do the right thing.


It’s the first line of defense: find a teacher, find a grown-up, walk away. Sometimes it’s enough. But sometimes, it’s not. Because in real life, the perp, also known as ‘the little shit’, often gets away with his or her actions without any real consequence.

There’s a good chance what I’m about to write will be taken the wrong way. I stand by it nonetheless.

I hereby call bullshit on our approach of teaching kids to always turn the other cheek. Sometimes turning the other cheek isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to throw a punch. Hopefully it’s a metaphorical punch, but, well, sometimes it may be a real one.

Why would we encourage a young girl to shoulder the burden of being made fun of by telling her to ignore it or pretend it’s not happening or find a way to convince herself that it doesn’t matter? Why do we perpetuate that kind of bullshit with our kids? Because of course it matters–it matters a tremendous amount, especially to a young girl.

It took me most of my life to build up a skin thick enough to let that sort of thing roll off my back. Part of that thickening process was learning how to say “fuck off.” A verbal punch. A young girl probably won’t be able to let insults about the way she looks just roll of her back, especially not when society throws images of what a girl should look like at her all the time and then backtracks and contradicts telling her ‘no, no, everyone is beautiful in their own way”.


Every time we tell that little girl to ignore it or walk away, she’s internalizing that insult. Every time we tell her to find an adult to tell, we are trusting that the adult will handle it in the correct way. We’re assuming the perp will be dealt with. But most damaging, we’re failing to give her all the tools she needs for dealing with it herself.

Why should a boy who is getting punched on a semi-regular basis have to bear the physical pain of being pummeled? Why should he have to bear the burden of responsibility for someone else acting like an asshole? Not only must he bear the brunt of being hit, but the playground consequences of running and finding a teacher and the backlash that ensues. And that’s assuming the adult, who probably didn’t see how everything happened, is even going to mete out a consequence.

I wish life worked the way we want it to. I wish that being the bigger person and walking away was always, always the right thing to do. And it is sometimes. But not always. That’s not how life works. That’s not how childhood works or the playground or the hallways of middle or high school. Hell, it’s not even how the workplace works.

I’m not suggesting we teach our kids to push and shove and punch their peers, to use violence as a means of negotiation. Not at all. I am suggesting we find a way to teach our kids how to deliver a metaphorical punch when needed. As Helen Mirren so eloquently put it, if she had any advice to give to her younger self, it would be to use the words “fuck off” much more frequently.

Helen Mirren

We all strive to give our kids the tools to get through life, but sometimes we leave a few important bits out. Kids need a slightly watered-down version of “fuck off” in their arsenal.

I’ve stopped short of telling my kids to call someone a four-letter word. We’ve taught them that no one has the right to hurt them or to touch them in ways that make them feel uncomfortable. We’ve taught them if they feel threatened or need to defend themselves, they should do what they need to do and we will always get their backs. But we’ve also told them that sometimes you need to push back, hard enough to let the other person know you’re not going to be pushed around.

If I happen to hear they’ve called someone who was regularly giving them a hard time an asshole? If I find out someone threw a punch at them and they punched back?

I’ll be the one turning the other cheek.