I don’t know quite how to tell a story like this, a story that occupies the space between dialectic and narrative, a story that I have for years reduced to a staid exercise in analytic argumentation. A self-proclaimed ‘feminist,’ I have long felt that it is my obligation to frame my position in accessible terms—in terms that make sense not only to other feminists, but also to the demographic that remains to be swayed. That’s my primary motivation for writing, after all: I hope to bridge communicative divides as best I can. If everybody already understood my perspective, language would be a bit superfluous.
But I have to confess that it’s becoming a little exhausting—and a little alienating—to strip my personal brand of feminism of its experiential and human dimension. I am a feminist not only because I can craft what I believe to be a decent theoretical defense of feminism but also because I have experienced many things that I wish I hadn’t experienced—and truthfully, I’m pretty sad about that. I want to share this particular story because I’m tired of worrying that my feelings undermine my credibility as a thinker.
In an act of shocking non-linear narration, I’m going to start with my story’s conclusion: as you may have gathered from the all-too-lengthy paragraphs preceding this one, pressure isn’t always a matter of straightforward coercion. No one ever explicitly told me that I should conceal the stereotypically feminine aspects of my identity in order to gain male approval, but I nonetheless perceived this to be the case. I guess what I’m trying to say is that non-coercive-coercion is coercive, too, although it gets a lot less feminist facetime.
Similarly, sexual consent isn’t always a matter of ostensible agreement; it’s at least as much a matter of situational awareness, of knowing when power dynamics function to create pressures for which no one is individually responsible, but which nonetheless make it difficult to say “no,” even if that’s what you’d like to say and nobody is forcibly preventing you from saying it. Non-coercive-coercion isn’t the sort of thing for which we could reasonably blame any particular person in any particular sexual interaction, but it is the sort of thing that we as participants in a certain culture need to work harder to recognize and eliminate.
And now for the painfully personal part of the story, for which I somewhat verbosely paved the way above.
When I was in high school, I was an avid debater. I spent the vast majority of my time preparing for debate tournaments, debating at debate tournaments, talking to my debate friends on Skype, and generally using debate as a refuge from the wasteland that was my high school social life. The debate community presented me with a sphere in which my nerdiness was not only socially acceptable but also socially desirable—never mind that the community was also notoriously hostile to women, or that many students complained that coaches and other administrators harassed them, or that only six women ranked among the top twenty speakers at national championships my senior year.
I didn’t want to notice these things, because I was sixteen, lonely, insecure and knee-deep in angstiness. I wanted to love the sole activity in which my skills and passions were valued and in which my proclivity for political theory conferred some measure of social capital upon me. So I did what I could to conform to community norms.
Because the debate community is overwhelmingly male, my friends and peers were also overwhelmingly male—and often overwhelmingly sexist. I won’t speculate as to what deep-seated immaturities or insecurities yielded the patriarchal mentality that pervaded much of the high school debate community; the minds of adolescent boy are dark and scary things. What I do know with certainty is that many of members of my predominantly male friend group regularly insulted female competitors, who were “bitchy” if they were assertive or bad at debate if they weren’t and whose appearances were the subject of continual evaluation (“ew, muffin top! And her voice is so high-pitched!”)
In light of all of this, I felt enormous pressure to prove to everybody that I was above all of this—that my voice wasn’t high-pitched, that my body was well proportioned, and that I wasn’t over-sensitive or emotional. My entire identity was predicated on being a female who was unfemale as possible: I became The Girl Who Magically Transcended/Overcame Her Femininity. And my plan succeeded—my masculinity lent me credibility in the eyes of male debaters.
But this entire performance made it difficult for me to express or own up to an entire portion of my identity—namely, the portion that had capital-F-Feelings, or the part that couldn’t take sexual encounters lightly. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the stereotypically masculine things I claimed to like, including but not limited to Wu Tang Clan and the weirder parts of the internet. It was just that I also liked a lot of other things, including but not limited to emotionally meaningful sexual interactions.
In the debate community, my sexuality often seemed like the best bargaining chip available to me. As The Girl Who Magically Transcended/Overcame Her Femininity, I enjoyed, so to speak, a fair amount of male favor, and I didn’t want to disappoint the boys who comprised the only intellectual community to which I had access. But it seemed like my membership in this community was to a large extent contingent on my willingness to participate in sexual exchanges with which I wasn’t entirely comfortable. To admit that I wasn’t comfortable with these kinds of casual encounters would be to cast myself in the role of an Emotional/Crazy Woman, and I heard my male friends mocking Emotional/Crazy Women on a near daily basis.
Worse were the instances in which coaches or judges on whom my competitive success depended made passes at me. Generally, I capitulated, or I didn’t explicitly not capitulate, largely because I didn’t know what else to do. Even if there had been some kind of formalized structure allowing me to report these incidents, I would’ve been ostracized by the community had I dared to speak out against specific perpetrators; if I’d outright rejected the judges who flirted with me, I would’ve placed myself in the awkward position of having to explain to my teammates why we suddenly could no longer be judged by a particular judge. At sixteen, I didn’t feel equipped to deal with the social fallout of speaking up.
Sometimes, I overestimated my maturity and imagined that I was empowered by the attentions of older men, that I was using one of the few weapons available to me—namely, my sexuality—as a means of reclaiming my agency. I even flattered myself enough to imagine that I was the subject of such advances because I was ‘old for my age,’ or because these men genuinely cared about me.
But I was wrong. I wasn’t empowered by a community that forced me to police all of my actions in order to conform to male expectations, no matter how much I craved intellectual engagement. Those men didn’t care about me; they exploited my position, my age, and my naiveté. And retrospectively, I don’t feel flattered. I feel mistrustful and wounded.
Luckily for me, debate is a national activity, so many of the advances I’ve mentioned never ended up translating into real-world interactions—largely because I artfully avoided them, appealing to exhaustion and occasionally fictional diseases. Nonetheless, my experience wasn’t ideal. I said yes, but I didn’t want to.
This sort of non-coercive-coercion posed a problem for the feminist community this past summer, when a series of what we’ll temporarily, albeit awkwardly, call ‘non-coercive-but-also-coercive incidents’ scandalized the academy and the feminist blogosphere alike. It’s become increasingly apparent that we lack the theoretical vocabulary to discuss sexual crimes that don’t involve the straightforward brutality traditionally associated with ‘rape’—a term that has historically evoked dramatic images of pillage and plunder. Hence the scare quotes, and the unpalatably multisyllabic “non-coercive-but-also-coercive sexual incidents.”
Indeed, when district judge G. Todd Baugh recently sentenced a 49-year-old teacher guilty of bedding his 14-year-old student to a mere thirty days in prison, he argued that the offense in question was distinct from—the implication being, better than—what he called “this horrible beat-up rape.” Similarly apologist claims have been attributed to disgraced philosophy professor and once celebrated thinker Colin McGinn, who made the front page of the New York Times when he sent sexually explicit emails to a female graduate student enrolled in his program—an act he attempted to justify via appeal to the obscure distinction between “logical implication and conversational implicature.”
I don’t pretend that my experience was as dire as either of these, but I feel that I do understand, to some extent, the sorts of gender dynamic that make it difficult for women—or men!—to feel comfortable saying no. Of course, it’s possible for someone in a position of authority to have a healthy and meaningful relationship with someone in a position of relative powerlessness, age or gender disparities notwithstanding. But these sorts of sexual relationships require those in dominant roles to acknowledge and own up to their privilege; it requires conversations that extend beyond simple yes/no-questions and the corresponding yes/no answers. No one is individually responsible for failing to grasp unarticulated sentiments—but that doesn’t mean that unarticulated sexual pressure is something we should accept. Sometimes, yes means “I didn’t feel comfortable saying no.” And, while this problem is often difficult to identify and therefore difficult to remedy, it warrants consideration and concern.