This week I’m reading Wendy C. Ortiz’s exceptional(ly “gross” and “ewww” in my students’ words) debut memoir, Excavation. Ortiz’s memoir is written with an intensely emotional distance, a potentially protective cape that keeps the past away from her, from touching her skin, staining her, years after her middle-school/junior high school teacher, Mr. Ivers (as he’s referred to in the text), behaves not like an adult who has been hired to help students better understand and appreciate literature and writing about literature, but as a horny, emotionally stunted predator.
Perhaps it’s these adjectives–bad, deviant, stunted–and the noun–predator–that makes it so difficult to talk about predatory behavior, to call rape rape.
Last summer, the hashtag NotAllMen was floating around social media, a reaction by men to counter the very obvious rape narratives that permeate our lives. Not a day has gone by in which a woman hasn’t been raped, although I can recall several days in which news outlets haven’t seen these stories as newsworthy, as click bait. However, the bold social art activist work of Emma Sulkowicz, caused a reactionary backlash that seemed to reverberate around the world. NotAllMen! came the outcries from men who wished to deflect the conversation, to hold-fast the image of men as The Great Protectors of Women. NotAllMen invaded every discussion of Sulkowicz’s art, a sickening piece of art that put her rape on blast, an extraordinary piece of art that called attention to the very fact that her rape was not taken seriously by campus administration. Instead of these men seeing the weight of the rape, the ways in which her body mind and spirit carried that rape with her everyday & everywhere, they countered with #NotAllMen.
I’ll never forget a story a poet told my students about a film he’d gone to see with his wife, a film in part about a man who cheated on his wife. The poet’s wife said, “Men are cheaters” and the poet countered, “I’m not a cheater” and the wife retorted “All Men!”. When the poet told the story, he shrunk (and let us know that he shrank in his seat), remembering how he felt attacked. I felt compassion towards him, and I also wondered why he felt the need to put himself on the line. To take her assertion personally. What would have been so hard for him to say, in commiseration, “yeah, that dude deserved what happened to him!”
A few months ago I posted a question, in relation to the Bill Cosby scandal, a very simple question: “Why do men have a hard time calling men rapists?” No men responded, but at least there were three men who “liked” the comment. I can’t count, however, the number of men who immediately took to social media to say that Cosby’s wife must have known & what is wrong with her and why did she stay and oh by the way, I don’t think Cosby raped any of those women. There was Max S. Gordon, in the thick of all of this, contemplating the protection of Cosby by people who have never met him, and then the exquisite essay. And yes, there was at least one male friend who said, “I don’t stand by rapists.”
Why can’t the NotAllMen catch-phrase be used for good? If, in fact, not all men are rapists (and we know this, of course, by the statistic that 1 in 33 men have attempted to or have committed rape), why aren’t there more men who stand against rape culture? Another friend posted something on Facebook and hashtagged EndRapeCulture and a man came in to say that all cultures involve rape, that rape isn’t a culture, and that her hashtag isn’t nuanced, etc etc. I wanted to smack him. I did, with words, but I wanted to physically smack him, to tell him to wake the fuck up already.
I’m sitting in my office at work, listening to TGIF on Spotify. I’ve heard about 4 songs so far that call women Bitch or Trick or Ho. I’ve been listening to these songs since the late 80s. If I complain about this, my men friends start looking for the bartender or the door or start talking over me. BuzzKill, they want to call me, KillJoy. But hey, I’d rather kill your joy than pretend that calling women bitches cunts pendejas and such is not advocating violence against women.
When I made the great mistake of posting about the joy of reading and discussing Ortiz’s book with a class of women students, a male poet took to the feed to attack one of the student’s reactions to the text. He said she should grow up. He’s since removed his comments, I hope that he understood that he was being a complete jerk and that attacking a person’s valid reactions to a text is akin to, well, smacking her.
My life is one filled with reverberations. One thing connects to the next to the next to the next; ping ping ping. There was that time that a male poet posted about Harvard’s decision to ban intimate relationships between undergraduate students and faculty. All but one man criticized the decision. One man even went so far as to say, “well, 50 years ago, 19 year olds were married with kids.” Far-reaching claims like this make me worry about the future. How can we progress when we still have men who refuse to accept not only that they have positions of power but that we all see and recognize their power positions? I fear for young girls. I once dated a man who had three daughters, one was 16 & he’d began to have lustful feelings for her 16-year old friend. “I know it’s wrong,” he said, “but when she turns 18, I’m gonna ask her out.” We were polyamorous and often discussed our attractions to other people; at some point he began to date a friend of mine who I set him up with. Maybe he though we had a connection that transcended basic morals. I was disgusted by his proclamation and completely confused. There I was, thinking that men who had daughters understood how young 18 actually was, how easily manipulative an 18-year old is, how an 18-year old is still a child. Naïveté. I can only be grateful that I still had some.
One year, I heard from a colleague that another colleague had “crossed the line” with a student. I expected to hear “he slept with her”; instead, I heard, “he threatened suicide because she broke up with him.” I was stuck on “she broke up with him,” but my colleague made it quite clear that the line that he had crossed had to do with him threatening suicide. The colleague was fired for putting a student on the line like that, not for having an illicit affair with her but for frightening her with the suicide claim. It was with great relief, then, to see a current essay that addresses the problems of crossing the line between teacher and student, of mentor to mentee. Chatting with my students about Mr. Ivers’ bad behavior, I was surprised to hear how gross they felt about his behaviors. One student summed it up perfectly, “He was her teacher. Students trust their teachers.”