WARNING: the following content is polarizing. I advise those to only read if they have a truly open mind about the issue of the rape crisis and are willing to be more flexible about our current understanding of “victim” and “perpetrator”.
During my interview with a psychology professor and lecturer who teaches about social and cultural causes of rape on campus we tried a version of “role-playing”. The goal of the exercise was to come to a deeper understanding of why sexual assault might happen beyond the desire to either totalizing villainize perpetrators or blame victims… or any prefiguration of those two angles.
In the role-playing, I played the female victim (for the sake of simplicity, sorry to male victims, I know this doesn’t just happen to women!) and she played the male perpetrator. We took turns bringing up real incidents and used role-playing to try and open up all the narratives contained in each instance and how a particular event might look from both sides. We started with an example in which a boy kissed a girl who had been saying “no, I’m really not interested.” In this dialogue, we talked about how the girl was afraid to insult him and so she was laughing and shy and nervous about saying no, and in this circumstance, her conditioning to be passively created a miscommunication for her potential romantic interest, who perceived her to “coy” and “teasing him”. We even found ways to open up a dialogue about the intentionality behind someone attempting to overpower a woman and how even that may have been seriously misleading. A confession, that the last one was based on a true story in which after someone tried to overpower a woman I know, she struggled out of it and said, “What the f*** was that?” and then the man proceeded to break down in tears, claiming he was nervous and that the conception of masculinity he was raised on suggested that women were attracted to violence and dominance and that as soon as he did it he realized how wrong and horrible that was.
I think a lot of women may take serious offense to this exercise; my heart absolutely goes out to victims for what they have suffered. The goal of this exercise was not to blame either women or men for what happened but to open up and problematize the notion of intentionality. We found that intentionality is extremely complicated. To quote “future sex” by Emily Witt, “I came to understand that sexuality had very little to do with the sex you actually had. A straight woman who hooked up with people she met online in her search for a boyfriend was not different, in behavior, from the gay man who made a public declaration about looking for noncommittal sex. The man who cheated on his wife was no different, in action, from the polyamorist who slept with someone outside of his primary relationship. It was the ideation and expression of intent that differentiated sexualities, not the actual sex” (Witt).
The professor helped me realize the nuances under the surface: the same event could come from a variety of intentions so it is impossible to make “all” or “none” claims about this crime—even when the same “actual assault” appears to be happening. By shifting the blame from individuals to cultural conditioning… we opened up the door for dialogue and learning that could shift that conditioning. And this doesn’t just apply to men. I pointed out that when we teach about cultural conditioning and gender, we’re really marketing those messages to women. Why? She thinks it’s an incredibly important way to fight the crime by empowering women: “we want to make this idealistic argument about whether or not women need to change their behavior, but in a pragmatic sense, the answer is yes, they do have to change—the cultural programming that creates this issue resides in the ‘cultural programming’ of both men and women. Which isn’t to say that women aren’t at fault for the way they’re behaving, it’s very much a part of social conditioning. [As an educator] I believe that the value of educating women is so that they can reject that social conditioning.”