Rude or Rape?

Posted on 2017 December 17


rude or rape? molten-broom-vector2

If you’re a person who complains about everything all the time, then you’re just the boy who cried ‘wolf.’ But if you do it on occasion and about the right reasons, then people listen. — Bryan Cranston

At the height of the Vietnam War sit-ins, The New Yorker admonished protesters about using the word “totalitarian” to refer to U.S. policy. The magazine’s editors — though firmly against the war —  argued that not everything federal was dictatorial, and that overusing the word “totalitarian” could dilute it into meaninglessness. What would happen if, somehow, the government were truly to become totalitarian? The protesters would no longer have a term for it. They’d be muted by their own misuse of the lexicon.

Over the years, I’ve heard rumors about misbehaving entertainers and their private manias, cruelties and crimes. When charges against Harvey Weinstein erupted in the media, I had two reactions: “Now the truth can be told,” and “Who’s next?”

Sure enough, within days a flood of allegations poured out against producers and stars. Then women spoke up about mistreatment from ranking politicos. It was as if a dam had burst.

New, lesser charges quickly followed. Before long women were lining up to accuse prominent men of everything from lewd conduct in public to “He pinched my butt.” The implication seemed to be that any off-color thing a powerful male did or said was tantamount to rape.

I’d always assumed sexual assault was attempted rape. I was wrong. The Justice Department defines sexual assault as follows:

“Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.”

It’s that word “fondling” that opens the loophole. If you greet a friend and hug them or or exchange kisses or shake their hand or pat their shoulder, all is well. If, however, you touch them on the rear, technically you can go to prison.

It’s as if the butt-patter were launching a violent attack against the pattee.

Granted, butt-grabbing has a different meaning from hugging. It can be mere playfulness, or it can be a micro-aggression on steroids — offensive, annoying, intimidating. With a pinch, a person can assert dominance, as if to say, “I can touch you anywhere at any time.” This is a big part of what women have grown weary of deflecting. So there’s a thin line here that’s easily crossed.

Still, feminists will excoriate anyone who questions equating such rudeness with violent assault, on the grounds that all these behaviors are part of a constellation of acts that some men employ to force women to accede to their whims. This, it’s true, is arguably common among the ranks of powerful men, and bringing the bad ones to account seems a good thing. Women won’t fully advance in society, politics, or business if domineering men can marginalize them with a few words or a gesture.

And yet … and yet …

The string of accusations has become a cudgel to beat up men who have merely been rude or inappropriate. It’s as if all the pent-up frustrations women have had to endure, in the presence of arrogant men, are flung at every guy who merely flirted with them or said something salacious. These men thus are condemned for violence they haven’t committed. The line between rudeness and rape gets moved until it swallows up everything off-color. A come-on and an attack become the same thing. Thus the women, the media, and the law itself combine to dilute the words “sexual assault” until they mean little more than whatever offends the victim.

Matt Damon tried to point this out and got his head handed to him by an ex, Minnie Driver, who declared that men are incompetent to opine on abuse suffered by women. “Men can rally and they can support,” she allowed, but otherwise they should shut up: “I don’t think its appropriate, per se, for men to have an opinion about how women should be metabolising abuse. Ever.”

Driver is saying, in effect, that if a man insults a woman, at the woman’s discretion his offense may be classified as an assault, and men are too ignorant to rebut this, and no debate from them is permitted. (Ever.) This is like saying that if a man is brought up on charges of sexual assault, he has no right to defend himself because he just doesn’t understand.

Driver’s attack does neatly reverse the pattern of domineering put-downs men have handed to women since time began. (In this case: “Don’t worry your pretty head about it, little boy.”) But two wrongs do not make a right.

The march of censorship tramples onward: an Arizona Congressman has been forced from office for trying to convince a female staffer to be his pregnancy surrogate. (The representative and his spouse had suffered difficulties conceiving children.) Apparently he cajoled her repeatedly to sign a contract. No doubt it was quite stressful for her. But pressuring someone to agree to do a job for pay, even one that involves the uterus, is in no way the same thing as sexual assault, no matter how intimidating or insulting or embarrassing it might seem. Thus a business negotiation that merely mentions the female body, if its upsets anyone or is deemed “inappropriate”, can nowadays burst into the media and destroy a career.

Some people already have begun to take advantage of the national kerfuffle for their own ends. In a blatant attempt to marginalize a political opponent, Los Angeles Recreation and Parks accused a ranking member of the Griffith Park Advisory Board of inappropriate physical behavior toward a female L.A. staffer when he and she argued momentarily about their places in line at a luncheon. Apparently he slapped her butt with his plate. Two of the Advisory Board’s officers have resigned in protest over the city’s action. (Ironically, the accused is a gay man.)

The original accusations against Weinstein and others, stunning as they are, may get lost in the onslaught of petty charges. People will grow tired of hearing yet another instance of lewd behavior or butt-touching, and they’ll turn away.

If some women sound the klaxon constantly, and we come running to help, believing they have been sexually assaulted but finding instead they have merely been offended, those women will have cried wolf. And the word “assault” — like “totalitarian” in the Vietnam era — will have stretched into meaninglessness.

At that point, the window will slam shut for the next women who truly are attacked and/or raped by powerful corrupt men. If no one listens anymore, these women will remain silent, lest the mighty damage their lives further. And we will end up back where we started.

I’m tempted to suggest, “If they grab your butt and you don’t like it, just whirl around and slap ‘em.” That would seem a convincing use of Grrrl Power. But it’s risky. Better, perhaps, to turn and snarl, “Back off, pal!”

That way, the guy probably won’t sue you … for assault.

* * * *

UPDATE: Voices lost in the storm of accusationThere’s a rush to judgment. A conflation of all offenses. An underlying truth about the lasting effects of shame. Little room for complexity. Some bastards getting their long overdue due. Lots of lawyers looking for cases and money. Lots of institutions needing to cover their asses for money/legal reasons. Opportunists galore with axes to grind. — Leonore Tiefer