“We could be heroes / just for one day.”

“We could be heroes / just for one day.”

CW: sexual assault, fake male feminists


 

I’m thinking a lot lately about age and consent. Social media threads are alight with stories about Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and now, 48 hours after the news of his of his death, David Bowie. Until a friend brought it to my attention, I had no idea Bowie had slept with underage Lori Maddox or had been accused of rape by another woman (although technically cleared he could have been guilty – certainly false rape report stats are on her side). I was initially shocked, but soon afterward accepted that this hard and ugly truth was part of the history of someone I admired. Certainly it’s not the first time a male rock star noted for their role in furthering gender equality is found to be someone who abuses their partners (those are the fake male feminists I mentioned). Kurt Cobain and John Lennon come to mind – two more of my favorites, and two other cases of immense feelings of betrayal and disappointment on my part. I’ve suffered abuse from former partners. I’ve experienced sexual assault and have stood by friends and loved ones who’ve been assaulted. I’m connected with many sexual assault response groups professionally. The sting of learning that people who’ve been so instrumental to the very formation of who I am is beyond troubling. It makes me feel like a bad feminist or rape apologist to continue listening to them.  But the truth for me is that In Utero is forever part of whatever kind of “soul” I might have. The importance John Lennon’s music has played in my life because of my dad is never going to change. And, like many genderqueer and trans people the world over, David Bowie presented my young heart with possibilities, and gave me permission to be weird, scary, and provocative.

I don’t condone Bowie’s choices. I don’t absolve him of any wrongdoing. In the case of Lori Maddox, however, I do object to thrusting the title of rape victim onto her if that is not how she would describe her experience herself. To be clear; those whose internalized shame or trauma prevents them from realizing they have been raped are not who I’m talking about. Refusing to acknowledge you’ve been raped because it’s too big or too terrifying is not what I’m talking about – that is a normal part of the recovery and healing process. I mean those who did consent and were not raped. I’m talking specifically about our culturally relative concepts of the age of consent, and what bodily autonomy means for young people.

In the U.S. in the 1950’s the median age for marriage for women was 20, and in 2010 it was 26. Teen pregnancy occurred at higher rates than they do today. In many parts of the world, marriage occurs much younger than it does in the United States  and is normalized as a practice. While this doesn’t excuse abuse or sexual assault (as in the case of the woman who took Bowie to trial for rape, or Woody Allen’s very young and non-consenting daughter) I can’t help but wonder how Lori and her groupie friends are taking the news of Bowie’s death. Would she have counted the interactions between the two of them as non-consensual?  Her other interactions with older men aren’t evidence that clears Bowie by any stretch, and if anything points to a very obvious power imbalance endemic to the 1970’s rock scene. Countless male celebrities have exploited their fame in order to sleep with much younger girls. It’s also no secret that Western culture is obsessed with youth and excels at sexualizing young girls, marking all that is “feminine” largely juvenile and vice versa. In this excellent article that has made the rounds lately, Alicen Grey points out that:

In pedophile culture, the top Pornhub category is “Teen.” “Barely legal” “girls” in schoolgirl outfits play out everything from “virgin manipulations,” daddy-daughter incest fantasies, teacher-student make believe… you name it, there’s porn for it, and it’s been whacked-off to millions and millions and millions of times. It’s fair to wonder whether the only thing keeping some of these viewers from watching straight-up child porn is age of consent laws.

In my regular perusal of porn sites, there’s definitely no scarcity of the above themes available for view. It’s clearly worthwhile to interrogate these social facts and to acknowledge their very real consequences for women in our society.

Yet I have to put the woman in question here in the forefront of her own story. Though she was much younger, is our rush to condemn their pairing preventing us from asking if Lori did, in fact exercise agency? To see her many years later discussing her experiences with such fond regard gives me pause. To bar her from the possibility of consent robs her of the possibility of having a certain kind of autonomy. It was her body, and from what she has said, it was her choice. I’m reminded a bit of those who condemn sex workers and sex work in general as inherently and incontrovertibly unethical without consulting sex workers themselves.

I write all of this while fully admitting that the notion of their sexual relationship is more than a little uncomfortable to me. The idea of a 13 year old and a 26 year old having sex feels viscerally wrong and outrageous – especially now that I’m 30. Nevertheless, I’ve spoken with many a feminist colleague about age of consent and sexuality, and many of them have challenged my parameters on the subject. Gayle Rubin wrote decades ago about our tendency to dismiss and punish certain forms of sexuality because they violate cultural norms. Statutory rape, for instance, is lumped in with prostitution, homosexuality, BDSM, and other acts that were considered egregious at one point in time. I’ve long believed we’re terrified to teach sex education to teenagers because we’re terrified by the idea of young people being sexually active. But what if they genuinely want to be? Is it truly up to us to tell young people what to do (or not do) with their bodies? The flip side to this, of course, is that there are predators only too willing to take advantage of young people in all kinds of insidious ways. Yet again, I have friends who have always pursued much older partners, even when they were in their teens. I know still others who advocate for the rights of younger people to be able to legally participate in sex work so that they can make their own choices about the kind of work they can do. These viewpoints don’t sit well with me all of the time, and I wonder how much of that is my own cultural bias getting in the way.

In the interest of complete honesty, I have to say I’ve been interested in older partners for much of my dating and sexual life as well – even back to when I was 14 years old. (Again, being older now makes thinking of  14 year old pursuing me as nothing short of horrific. I’m sure younger me would think I’ve gotten square.) Those of us who are into age play in consensual BDSM scenarios as adults know the fun that can be had when two people act out a scene which is seen as largely taboo in our culture; though some even object to the acts themselves being played out in completely imaginary scenarios such as in adult webcam broadcasts. In light of all of this, I still find myself disappointed in Bowie. Maybe it’s because I wanted there to be one person, one cultural icon that I could appreciate without having to learn of a dark and disgraceful past. Maybe that person is a complete fantasy.

Yet I don’t feel the need to burn anyone at the stake, either. Aida Manduley  points out that simply admitting that our faves are problematic isn’t enough. To paraphrase, we need to hold ourselves and others accountable for misdeeds – whether or not we like them. At the same time, she also cautions against blind vengeance:

A carceral, punishment-based justice system where we value an eye for an eye will not save us. It may feel good in the moment and scratch that “revenge” itch, but it will not save us. Booting “bad people” off the island will leave us with an empty island. What will save us is compassion, understanding, accountability, transformation, and restoration of justice.

So what can we take away from all of these seemingly incongruous pieces? I have more questions than answers. Is there no such thing as a truly positive role model? How can we support young people from being abused and exploited while also not stifling them and shaming their sexuality? What can we do to support those who acknowledge that they were assaulted and are simply being dismissed and forgotten by time. I’m still learning to sit with the disappointment of this bad news, another in a slew of similar stories, while recognizing the merit of that which has value in my life. I also feel very deeply for those who have been victimized and knowing that no matter what else, their stories deserve to be heard.


 

photo credit: iwasdreamingofthepast

“Seasons change and so did I…”

“Seasons change and so did I…”

CW: Intimate partner violence, sexual assault


You know how you do that thing where you start a blog, prep a few posts to be released in a timely fashion, then start a new job and completely run out of steam? Yeah, sorry rest-of-the-month-of-August-and-beginning-of-September.

I’m back to write about something that feels very important, something weighing heavily on my mind as this new season begins.

This time last year I was debating whether or not I should leave an abusive relationship. We tried couples therapy, we attempted to rebuild intimacy and trust, but ultimately we couldn’t make it work. My ex gave up all interest in trying to work things out, and I knew there was nowhere to go from there. Still, I was reluctant to leave the relationship. We’d been married for just shy of two years, and had moved into an apartment with friends last summer. I was in my final year of college and working on my thesis. It seemed impossible to end this relationship and pick up the slack by myself financially speaking. It all seemed too hard. Around the time I was contemplating all these hard choices, the #WhyIStayed hashtag was making the rounds, and it brought to light that situations like mine take place all over the world all of the time. Survivors of IPV feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, and finances are often a leading cause.

Completely distraught, I met with two of my mentors (to whom I will forever owe my gratitude and undying respect) and asked their advice. One gave me the kick in the ass I needed to move forward, and the other assured me my future was bright enough to stand on my own. I began the difficult process of extricating myself from this miserable relationship. As I recently wrote on the subject:

I had to face the fact that not only had my body been violated time and time again, but my belief in another person I once adored and with whom I’d planned to build a life and family had been completely eroded. I decided to get out in order to survive. Sleeping next to someone whose touch made me feel nauseated became too much to bear. I felt fraudulent, pretending to be content when instead I felt absolutely numb. It’s only more recently that I’ve been able to deal with the pain the actions of others caused me, and with complications stemming from the decisions I had to make as a result. Some of those decisions, particularly the ones where I opted to take care of and stand up for myself, resulted in estrangement from other relationships that either had to be temporarily suspended or walked away from completely. It’s been incredibly hard. The domino effect from these choices reverberates through me in countless other ways to this day. Things keep getting better, but slowly and often painstakingly.

It’s never easy to leave. This is particularly true if, like me, you are female assigned at birth and perceived as masculine of center. Though I identify as femme, my identity is fluid and over the years I’ve ID’d as butch, transmasculine, and mostly trans and genderqueer. I’m perceived as male about half the time now, and that comes with innumerable privileges, but also detriments. There are many reasons why FAAB trans, genderqueer, and masculine-of-center (MOC) folks might not report their abuse or seek out help. Some cite their abuse as emasculating — this is similar to why cisgender men don’t report abuse, but when you’re trans, other aspects of your identity can come into play. As survivor Joe Ippolito writes in his article on trans men/MOC folks and IPV:

[T]he trans men/MOC people I talked to seemed, like myself and many other trans people, particularly vulnerable to such abuse because the perpetrators would often use our trans identities against us to further assert power and control over our lives. Other trans-specific abusive tactics include, according to trans advocacy group FORGE: threatening to ‘out’ someone to their employer, friends, or family members; voicing anti-trans epithets and negative stereotypes; and utilizing knowledge of police abuse geared towards trans people to further discourage targets from seeking help.

Someone newly establishing their identity as masculine can be particularly vulnerable because our society teaches us that to be victimized is to be weak, and that only women are raped or abused. Masculinity leaves no room for victimization. Even if we know better it can be tough to overcome that stigma. Some of us might even ask for help but be denied, humiliated, or otherwise invalidated in our identities in the process. We might not be believed, because no one might think a MOC person can be raped or abused. But as this fact sheet on IPV in LGBT communities states, “Abuse is NOT about size, strength, or who is ‘butch’ or more masculine. Abuse is about using control to gain power and control regardless of a person’s gender or sexual identity.” In some cases, we might even fear being further traumatized — or worse. Ky Peterson, a black trans man who defeneded himself against his rapist, has spent the last three years in jail for involuntary manslaughter.*

When you are being abused by another trans or genderqueer person, especially someone male assigned at birth, there is the added pressure to not demonize or imprison a trans woman (or someone who is perceived as such). Similarly to abuse in cisgender lesbian communities discussed in the landmark piece Suffering In a Silent Vacuum, we might feel guilt for bringing more bad press to an already maligned community. But I firmly believe that we will only heal through truth-telling and acknowledging that there is nothing shameful in being abused, and that those of us who have been through it and those of us who perpetrate violence against others have the ability to recover.

Let me be clear: I believe in accountability and rehabilitation for those who cause harm to others. I believe a community can hold folks accountable through love and good faith effort. I know people who have been earnest in their desire to get better and have committed themselves to accountability — one such person put themselves through the process of their own accord and “outs” themselves on first dates as someone who has caused harm. However, when one refuses accountability, or continues to perpetrate harm, (as I learned my ex has,) I also firmly believe in the rights of survivor/victims to warn others and keep their communities safe. The missing stair analogy works well here, and I believe keeping one another from tripping is vital. If the “stair” can’t be fixed and the person who causes harm isn’t willing to get better, we as survivor/victims have every right to call bullshit. I also believe in the rights of survivor/victims to take care of themselves at all costs. For me this meant securing a protection from abuse, filing for divorce, and limiting my exposure to toxic relationships in order to give myself the chance to heal.

I also firmly believe we own our stories. Our stories are powerful. Every time I tell mine, other people share theirs. Sometimes the most powerful thing someone can say is, “yeah, me too.”

In that spirit, I will conclude this post (which turned out to be much, much longer than I thought it would be) with something I shared elsewhere:

If you’re struggling in an abusive relationship, do what you can to save and protect yourself. You deserve to prioritize yourself. If you have to avoid certain people and situations, that’s okay. Learn to trust your gut again. In all likelihood, you’ve been avoiding listening to that tiny voice inside of you for a really long time. You aren’t alone. The more and more I talk about this stuff, the more others open up to me that they’ve been through it, too. You’re not alone. You. are. not. alone. Whenever you feel like you’re completely isolated and wading through the day to day all by yourself feels too hard, take a little piece of me, maybe the words you’re reading now, and keep it with you. You’re strong enough to do what you need. I promise.

For more information on how to get help as a trans person experiencing IPV, check out this link: http://forge-forward.org/

*To learn more about Ky’s struggle, please visit https://freeingky.wordpress.com/

Photo credit: the author