Monday, October 16, 2017


(Note: Much of this blog entry has been written with a focus on the sexual crimes men commit against women. I know that women also commit sexual crimes against men, and men against men, and women against women, etc. But it's the crimes that men commit against women that are most prevalent. I don't want to discount the very real experiences that men have as victims of sexual harassment and assault. I've tried to be somewhat inclusive in my language, but I do want to focus on the specific problems of men assaulting and harassing women.) 

It's been simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring to see so many "#MeToo" statuses on social media over the past couple of days.

For those unfamiliar with the hashtag, on Sunday, in light of the Harvey Weinstein case, actress Alyssa Milano posted the idea on Twitter. She urged any women who had been sexually assaulted or harassed to simply post "Me too" on social media. She said, "If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem."

I posted my own status, along with this story: Once, during my freshman year in college, a bunch of girls from my dorm building were all talking about the ways we'd been treated by men, strangers or otherwise. Finally, I said, "Well, heck, let's test the statistic. Apparently it's one in four women. Raise your hand if you've been sexually harassed or assaulted."

Every single woman in the room raised her hand.

There were twelve of us. We were all under age 20.

My own sexual assault was confusing to me at the time (and sometimes still is) because I was raised in a culture--both societal and religious--that placed absolutely zero emphasis on consent. Even within Mormonism, we don't talk about consent. We talk about "rules." There are things that you are and aren't "allowed" to do.

But just because you're "allowed" to do something, doesn't mean you want to. There's plenty of room for interpretation within the law of chastity. I can't tell you how many Mormon women I've talked to who did things (or let things be done to them) that they were uncomfortable with, simply because it wasn't "against the rules" so they didn't know how to say anything. There's this strange pressure to be "nice." You get into a situation and you think, "I don't think what he/I/we're doing is wrong. I don't want to do it, but I'll be selfless and avoid contention and just let it happen. Besides, I'm not one of those prude girls who don't know how to have fun!" All of these things set up a world in which women are voiceless, so that when something DOES "cross a line" or "break a rule," there's no precedent to speak up.

I'm infuriated and heartbroken at how many times I see "Me too" as I scroll through Facebook. At the same time, I'm filled with hope and inspiration for two things: that people can feel less alone and less shame, and that people WILL start to really understand the magnitude of the problem.

As I've read through the conversations that are happening everywhere, there are a few thoughts that I wanted to share. (Men, now is not the time to talk. Now is the time to listen, and then talk.)

For every "Me too" you see, there are millions unseen. 
It takes a great deal of courage to speak up. Survivors don't owe anyone anything. If they're ready to talk, they can talk. If not, they don't have to. Their journey of healing is their own. But this also means that there are probably a lot of people who HAVE been sexually assaulted or harassed who haven't posted. And those only include those who have internet access, which is less than half the world's population.

The statistic is insane because men tend to assault/harass multiple women. 
I've heard some men express disbelief at how many women claim to have been sexually assaulted or harassed. "Surely there aren't that many terrible men!" Well, there aren't. Statistically, most men DON'T sexually harass or assault women. But those who DO, do so multiple times to multiple women. If 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted/harassed, it doesn't mean that 1 in 4 men are sexually assaulting/harassing. It means that a small percentage of men are sexually assaulting/harassing multiple women. A study from 2002 found that of college men interviewed, "only" 6% had attempted or completed rape. WHICH IS STILL TOO HIGH OF A NUMBER. But among those 6%, they had each been responsible for an average of 6 rapes/attempted rapes.

So already, if that's 6 men out of every 100, they're responsible for a minimum of 36 rapes/attempted rapes. And this statistic doesn't include any other form of assault or harassment, including groping, sexual comments, online harassment, etc.

Men, we know it's not all of you. But you're Schrodinger's Rapist.
I'm sure women would love to live in a world where we could assume every man around us was safe. Most of us adore the men in our lives, trust them, and know that they're good men. But when we meet someone new, we have no way of knowing if that man is going to try and harm us or not. Until he proves otherwise, we just have to assume he's dangerous. So don't take it personally if we don't immediately trust you, boys. Don't try to convince us that you're one of the good ones. Trust our sense of personal safety and show us that you're one of the good ones. (This article is a brilliant, more in-depth explanation of this idea.)

Men, you may not be aware of the problem, because men don't always assault or harass in front of other men. 
Men, you may have opportunities to speak up against harassment and assault that you witness. But the reality is, you're probably not going to be there when it happens. Men who are assaulting or harassing women do so when women are more vulnerable--AKA away from other people, and away from other men. (More great reading on this phenomenon here.) Be aware of this. Just because you don't personally see it, doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

We need to face the reality of how harassment and assault look 
I think a lot of men (and a lot of women) have this idea in their heads of what "rape" looks like. A woman is walking alone to her car or apartment, and a stranger with a knife jumps out of the bushes and violently assaults her. While this does happen, it's far less common. More commonly, we are raped and harassed and assaulted by our friends. By our boyfriends. By our husbands. By our bosses. By our neighbors. When you realize that, you're much more aware of the potential dangers around you.

Harassment and assault are all part of the same pyramid
There are some who say that "harassment" isn't that big of a deal. That we shouldn't put it in the same category as "assault." I'm not going to argue about who deserves compassion for their experiences. I'm here to say that both harassment and assault are symptoms of the same problem. They're both evidence of a lack of empathy and a disregard for consent. Check this out:

If we want to change the violent crimes at the top of the pyramid, we also have to address the issues at the bottom.

So how do we change things? Here are some ideas:

Emphasize consent
This goes for all activities for all ages. If your kid doesn't want to give you a hug, don't make them hug you. If a friend doesn't like to be touched, don't touch them. Don't take it personally. Allow people to set their own boundaries. When teaching youth about sexuality, emphasize that they must always always respect someone else's boundaries.

I worry sometimes that a lack of conversation around consent creates situations where someone doesn't KNOW they're assaulting or harassing. Because people sometimes don't know how to say "no," there are people out there who have just assumed that everything was okay, and unknowingly caused enormous pain. I don't blame these "accidental perpetrators"--they are victims of the system, too, in their own way. But I can still show compassion for their unintended victims. And I can still be an advocate for these conversations.

Finally, don't teach that boys are evil sex monsters "who only want one thing" and don't teach that girls are chaste vessels who are responsible for guarding their virtue. Almost everyone has sexual thoughts and feelings. Those thoughts and feelings are the responsibility of the one experiencing them, and no one else.

Emphasize communication
Even for those of us who got sex ed beyond "this is how babies are made" and "don't have sex," most of us didn't get many communication skills. Even if we WANT to say "no" or "stop" or "I don't like that," we don't always know how. I'm a big fan of the "red light/green light" system. Red light means "stop, don't take it personally, no questions asked" and "green light" means "yes, continue this." Quite often, you can tell from body language and other cues whether or not someone is into something. But if you're not sure, you can stop and ask. And it can still be sexy and fun to ask. Sometimes we think something like a first kiss is way more exciting if you don't say anything. But you can say, "I want to kiss you," or "If I kissed you, would you kiss me back?" which is kinda hot, and also let's the other person know what you're thinking, and also gives them a choice as to how to respond.

And here's the other bonus: People like and dislike different things. Just because one person liked the way you kissed their jaw doesn't mean someone else will. If a magazine tells you, "Try this--women LOVE it," don't believe it. Because here's the secret: ALL OF US ARE DIFFERENT. And the cool thing about communication about what's going on is that consent is automatically built into the conversation.

Ask "If I was dangerous, would this person be safe?" 
This is an especially good thing for men to ask themselves, but it can go for anyone. Could the person you are with "escape" if they needed to? Is there a power dynamic going on? If you are unknowingly "endangering" this person, or if there's anything about your circumstances that might make someone uncomfortable, do what you can to make sure they feel safe.

Call it out when you see it
Did the person next to you cat-call a woman walking by? Say, "Hey, that's not cool, man." Is a woman experiencing unwanted attention from a stranger on a bus? Intervene by sitting next to the stranger and engaging him or the woman in conversation instead. Is one of the guys on the team being picked on in the locker room? Defend him. Call out rape culture in books, movies, TV shows, plays. Listen to and believe victims. Don't laugh at the seemingly small experiences women have...they pile up.

It feels like all of the women (and men) who are posting about sexual harassment and assault on social media are really saying, "I'm mighty tired of carrying this." And the women (and men) around them are replying with a resounding, "Me too."

Friday, October 13, 2017

Weddings are fun, and marriage is crazy

My sister Annalicia got married! She and her now-husband Daniel eloped back in the spring, and we had a big wedding party celebration in September. Here's my sister and her husband wearing trachten.

And in true Whittaker fashion, it was a pretty epic party. There was a bouncy house, a ridiculous amount of Iranian food, and lots and lots of dancing.

Annalicia said I could give a wedding toast if I wanted to. I gave a friend a sort of rough outline of what I was planning on saying, and he said it might be the last time I'm ever asked to give a wedding toast again. But I disagree. In my humble opinion, this is what all wedding toasts should be like.

To Daniel and Annalicia, on their wedding 

There will be a day when you wake up and think, “I married the wrong person.” That day may have actually already happened. But what’s done is done, so here we are, with Christmas lights and Iranian food and a sense of optimism for your future as a couple. 

Admittedly, my seeming cynicism in this toast may be informed by my own recent experiences with marriage. But if I’ve learned anything from the last seven years, it’s that being harshly realistic doesn’t have to destroy your hope for the future. In fact, it makes that hope more beautiful. 

Doubt and pain are where we have choices. A golden retriever doesn’t doubt himself. He just follows his instincts. But we as human beings do experience doubt and fear. But a love that you choose, despite doubt or fear, is far more powerful than a love that simply happens to you. 

And so, with hope and realism, I take my toast from wedding vows penned by the philosopher Alain De Botton, who recognizes the beautiful insanity of something like marriage. After each portion of this toast, I’ll raise my fist, and when I do, I ask that you raise your glasses and give a hearty “hear, hear!” 

May you each accept that you are, in countless ways you don’t yet know, very hard to live with. 
("Hear, hear!")

May you accept not to panic when, some years from now, what you are doing today will seem like the worst decision of your lives. 
("Hear, hear!")

When you are mean to one another, may you remember that at heart, it is because you are hurt, and not because you are fundamentally bad people. 
("Hear, hear!")

May you remember that everyone has very significant things wrong with them. Don’t look around. There probably isn’t anyone better out there, really. Once you get to know them, everyone is impossible. 
("Hear, hear!")

May you be true to one another, not because you are perfect, but because you’ve each decided to be disappointed in each other, and each other alone, rather than foisting your troubled selves on innocent members of the community, who would be deeply annoying, too, once you got to know them. 
("Hear, hear!")

And finally, may you embrace the fact that the entire human experience, marriage included, is messy and wonderful and complex and flawed and fulfilling, and may you find joy in it, imperfections and all, for time and all eternity.

Congratulations, Daniel and Isha. I'm so happy for you, and so excited for the years to come. I love you.