Greg, 29, describes himself as a long-time listener, first-time caller. He “called” (messaged me) in response to a question I posted on Facebook, “What would be the ideal sexual environment in your community?” On the last day of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we’re thinking broadly about how to open up conversation about sexuality toward building sexually safer communities. He shares his story below, followed by my brief response. What do you think?
For an ideal sexual environment, I’d honestly like to think of it on a greater scale. Communities can (seemingly) be pretty insular (maybe this is why I find myself not part of one?). I think of Orthodox communities of any religion, or Jewish summer camp. The sexual environment of a Jewish summer camp is not one I could simply carry on with at my job or at a dinner party. Yet I go to dinner parties, and to my job, and used to go to summer camp. I have friends who are conservative and liberal. Friends who are feminists and friends who could care less. Friends who are polite and friends who are crass. You get the idea. My sexual environment fluctuates because I’m not a member of a community. So do I fluctuate with it, or do I stay the course with an internal ideal?
I do think my sexuality is better supported by membership in multiple layers of community. That at least builds multiple perspectives and teaches me to consider multiple perspectives. And it feels like there would be some instance of not being true to myself if I had to accept/conform to a community’s ideal when a) I’m not actively part of one and b) I move between many. So I think my ideal sexual environment has to be rooted in values of my own, and hopefully communities I am associated with accept it.
I have offended, upset or bothered people because their values were not aligned with mine. I will tell you one instance though that has stuck with me. One of my grad school classmates posted a Jezebel article that I did not agree with. The author made good points, but was heated and coming from a particularly biased place, as Jezebel articles often do. I didn’t take issue with the article as much as I did with the author’s tone. I entered the discussion that was happening on this classmate’s Facebook page. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but it was something to the effect of, “This woman writes that blah blah blah and I think blah blah blah.” One sentence.
The classmate writes, “Thanks for the mansplanation.” This comment got some likes and some follow-up comments in the same vein.
The next day she got on the bus a stop or two after me. I approached her and decided to hash it out. We’re adults, we’re friends (or had been), so let’s discuss it. I said, “Let’s talk about this, come to an understanding and move on from it.” She was uncomfortable in doing so, we never reached a conclusion, and our friendship was never repaired. Beyond that, she was in a cadre of other feminists in our program, many of whom I had been friends with, who were noticeably stand-offish to me for months after the incident.
I was more than willing to understand what I did to upset her, but she was too upset to discuss and resolve the issue. I was left by my lonesome with it, turning it inward. I realize the issue is about community and communication, but there was no community or communication to hold this interaction. And I felt terrible; I replayed it over and over, and I couldn’t figure it out.
Dear Greg: I see her coping and setting boundaries and doing what she needs to do for herself. Oppression is exhausting, and sometimes people get triggered—even by things not intended as oppressive—and don’t have the energy to work it out, even if it seems to the other person like the situation is really simple. As an outsider in the community, you didn’t know what she meant by “mansplanation” and didn’t know how to respond to that accusation and reconnect with her. Without community, you had few resources for getting feedback on the situation besides going directly to her. I see these disconnections frequently.
I hold compassion for your confusion, frustration and loss. I also challenge you: What if she was right? What if we assume, for a minute, that she had a very good reason for what she was doing, at every step of the way? What would be your role, as a friend and feminist ally? What would it mean to understand that, as a person with privilege in this situation, you may not have access to all the information about the unintended impacts of your own words and actions?
What do you think, readers?