“Blaming the Victim”

Earlier this week, I happened upon a blog article trending on Twitter (courtesy of a progressive who retweets anything reflecting poorly on men or white people) in which a young woman details two experiences she had with men at an EdTech conference. She posted the stories as part of the #YesWeCan – sorry, #YesAllWomen – movement, which is short for “Yes, all women live in fear of male violence,” or some variation on that theme.

One of the stories involves a man being overly forward with her and not getting the hint she wasn’t interested. We all have to deal with creeps and jerks of various stripes (and genders) in our lives, so there isn’t much to comment on there, unless we’re going to dredge up every upsetting or awkward encounter we’ve had with the opposite sex, of which I’d say I’ve had the typical amount.

The second story is the one I found meriting serious discussion in that it involved a messy social situation full of mixed messages and gray areas that goes all kinds of wrong in the end with what may have been a sexual assault (there are two sides to every story and we only have one here, but we’ll assume she reported accurately for our purposes).

Now there is a type of person who would prefer to stop the discussion here. The fact that a sexual assault occurred, to such a person, becomes the only relevant fact one should ever consider or discuss, and any scrutiny or attention paid to the surrounding events or context constitutes “blaming the victim.” To engage in any thoughtfulness beyond out-and-out condemnation would be condoning rape, and so on. If you are of this mindset, please don’t bother reading any further because it will only waste your time. Tell yourself I am a “victim blamer” and feel free to move along. Oh, I could go on about how much I deplore rape (consent is the core principle of libertarianism), or about how I began my legal career prosecuting rapists and child molesters and helping victims in the sex crimes division of a District Attorney’s office. This type of person doesn’t care about any of that, and playing defensive really isn’t my style in any case. Victim Blamer. Rape Condoner. Got it – happy trails.

For those who are genuinely interested in a discussion about responsibilities and consequences of behaviors, be warned in advance, the story reposted below is painful. Although there is nothing funny or entertaining about it, in many ways it’s like the often brutal dramatic ironies that develop in series like Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office, where characters unwittingly dig themselves deeper and deeper into a oncoming social catastrophe as the audience knowingly cringes in expectant horror. The author said she hopes her piece will be shared and spur discussion, so I’m taking her at her word and attempting to accomplish that here.

The story begins innocently enough with an invitation:

As I was standing outside the convention center waiting to help my friends pack up their booth, a man I had chatted with about his company approached me and asked if I would be interested in grabbing a beer with him that night. I said yes, we exchanged contact information, and went our separate ways.

There’s a familiar level of ambiguity here. Is this business, or pleasure, or both? At a minimum, nighttime + invitation + alcohol + opposite sexes means this could *potentially* turn romantic at some point. If the woman isn’t aware of that potential, we’re already tipped off that her social radar might be a bit limited. But even so, as a free and independent adult, she should absolutely accept the invitation if drinks or dinner sounds like fun.

That night, we met at a restaurant and talked over a couple of beers about some of the major challenges in EdTech, fund raising, and our personal startup journeys.

Is this a date? Yet unlear, but it’s becoming more like one the more they hit it off and the later the night drags on. Ambiguity serves an important function here as a safe means of testing waters, affording each party the opportunity to save face through plausible deniability in the event of being rejected. But with ambiguity also comes the risk of unpleasant misunderstandings; it’s a double-edged sword to wield to be sure.

When the restaurant closed (since everything in downtown San Antonio closes early), we went to a dive-y metal bar he insisted was open and a good place. We got another round of drinks and talked about cultural differences, startup life, and politics.

For any of our visitors from Alpha Centurai, this now officially counts as a date on this planet. It doesn’t mean sex is necessarily in the works, but the situation is screaming romantic possibilities to anyone who is listening for them (and you can be sure the man is). If the woman wants to clear up any justified misunderstandings by her devoted late-night companion, now would be the perfect time to do so. But alas:

After round #4, I started to fell unwell. Drunken sickness was coming. I went to the bathroom, threw up, rinsed out my mouth, and returned to the table. He had ordered another round. I cracked open the beer partly out of politeness, and partly because I was hoping the beer would wash out the bitter acid taste in my mouth. I attempted my best to continue the conversation, but after five minutes of nodding, deep breathing, and worrying “If I open my mouth to respond, will I throw up?”, I excused myself and went back to the bathroom to continue my routine. When I reemerged from the restroom I found him sitting at the table with two oversized shots of whiskey. “I can’t drink this,” I told him. “I should go home.” “We can leave once you take the shot” he said. I grimaced, took the shot, and immediately went back into the restroom.

Actions send social signals, so it’s important to be aware of the signals you send, especially in a heightened-risk situation, such as a dive bar you’ve never been to before. Wherever alcohol is involved, the potential for Bad Things to happen is greatly elevated, warranting a higher standard of caution and care. Drinking to the point of extreme intoxication causes risks to grow exponentially, especially if you’re out alone without any friends or family to look out for you. Not a good idea for anyone, man or woman.

As we walked out of the bar, he said “We should get you some coffee.” I agreed, and asked him if he knew anywhere that was open. “I know a place, just trust me. As we wandered around the Riverwalk for what felt like hours, I asked him “Where are we going?” “My hotel,” he said, “It’s nearby and they have a coffee bar.” I kept following him. I was so intoxicated and ill feeling, I couldn’t wait to sit down and have water and coffee.

The lack of social awareness in this scenario borders on autistic. If the woman doesn’t realize that “coffee” in a man’s hotel after barhopping at midnight doesn’t actually mean “coffee,” somebody failed to provide her with a crucial social education a long time ago.

We went through the side entrance of the hotel and he pressed the button for the elevator. “Where are we going?” I asked again. He didn’t respond. When the elevators opened, he lead me down a hallway and inserted his key card to what I discovered was his room. This is weird. Maybe he realized how late it was and that the coffee bar would be closed. Hotels have coffee makers in their rooms; it’s not that weird. 

The freight train is barrelling down the tracks at 100mph. I can feel the audience cringing. This mismatch of expectations can only end badly with some sort of physical or emotional confrontation. It never should have gotten this far.

“Here’s the coffee maker, but I don’t know how to use it” he told me. I went into the bathroom got a glass of water and started fumbling with the coffee maker. It finally started brewing, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, coffee. By the time I finish this cup and walk back to my car, I’ll be fine to drive home. “Why don’t you sit down?” he asked, motioning to the bed. There weren’t any chairs that I could see, so I sat down on the bed.

On the bed. His bed.

He scooted in close to me and started kissing my neck and then my face. His kisses were sloppy and tasted overwhelmingly of cigarettes. He leaned into me and backwards, so we were soon lying on our sides. He started trying to undress me.

This is where the story gets truly sad.

He kept fumbling with my shirt buttons and trying to slide my shirt over my shoulders. Every time his hands moved away from my chest, I pulled my shirt back on and started buttoning. I repeated “no” as he kept attempting to undress me, with each “no” he became more aggressive.

Things have gotten far out of hand. The man should stop now and make the best of the humiliating situation he finds himself in. Instead, he makes the worst of it.

“Can’t you just take your skirt off?” he asked. I refused. He climbed on top of me- straddling me- and fumbled with my skirt some more. Thank god even my skirt is being uncooperative. He eventually became so flustered trying to undress me that he gave up the task and just pulled my underwear to the side. I kept repeating “no” as I started to cry. I turned my head during the whole encounter so I couldn’t watch him and he couldn’t watch me cry. After what felt like an eternity, I started feeling more sober and forceful. I mostly composed myself as I started repeating “you have to stop.” He finally relented right before he finished. I went into the bathroom and turned on the sink so he couldn’t hear me cry or heave again. I blotted my skirt to remove any traces of him, and washed my face of my crying stains. I grabbed my purse to leave, and he insisted on walking me back to my car (because a girl walking alone at night might be raped or murdered, and I clearly needed his protection from that). He spent the walk back to my car talking to me about his travels and telling me that he hoped we would run into each other again. He told me that my interest in politics was the sexiest thing about me, and joked about meeting my parents. His words made me feel sicker than I already felt. I realized when I got back to my car that I forgot the coffee. I gave him a ride back to the hotel because that was the polite thing to do. I hadn’t made eye contact with him throughout the walk to my car or the drive back. When I pulled into the hotel driveway, we finally made eye contact. He paused for a moment and then apologized for being “so aggressive.” I told him “It’s okay” because I frankly had no idea what to say, and I was always taught to answer politely.

One reason I’ve highlighted this story is because I have been that man a few times in my life right up until the first “no” was uttered (she kissed me back instead). I doubt any red-blooded American male would *not* have been utterly confused and frustrated by the woman’s behavior and the mixed messages she was sending that night, even if she didn’t mean to send them. This is why social awareness and taking basic situational precautions are so critical.

Individual responsibility, at the end of the day, means taking ownership of one’s behaviors, no more and no less. The woman is responsible for putting herself in a high-risk scenario. The man is responsible for not stopping when he should have. I don’t blame either party for the actions of the other – only what was in his or her direct control. Certainly there is more than a single valuable lesson here.

A popular feminist slogan is: “Society teaches don’t get raped, not don’t rape.” I happen to think both are solid wisdom.

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