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What Does It Mean For Men to Stand With Women When It Comes to Sexual Violence? An Open Letter to Ravi Shankar

Dear Ravi,

I was part of the dis­cus­sion on Annie Finch’s blog last Octo­ber, when she iden­ti­fied you as a man who had sex­u­al­ly assault­ed her in the past. I am writ­ing this open let­ter to you now because I want, how­ev­er belat­ed­ly, to accept the invi­ta­tion you extend­ed in the title of your response to her, “Towards Pub­lic Dia­logue,” which you gave her per­mis­sion to pub­lish and in which you wrote the fol­low­ing:

As I told [Annie] on Twit­ter, I respect and admire her far too much to ever imag­ine myself capa­ble of what she described, but per­haps I was and still am; if so, it’s to make cer­tain that noth­ing like this ever hap­pens again that I write…. I hope that we can begin to shift the dynam­ic of sex­ism and abuse that has exist­ed for far too long and hope to do my small part towards that.

As a sur­vivor of child­hood sex­u­al vio­lence, and as a man, those words moved me. I’ve been telling the sto­ry of what the men who vio­lat­ed me did to me for quite a long time now, and always, from the very begin­ning, the lens through which I have told it has been a fem­i­nist one. Why that came to be is a sub­ject for anoth­er time. I men­tion it now because that fem­i­nist under­stand­ing of my own expe­ri­ence also con­front­ed me with a truth almost as hard to admit as the fact that I’d been vio­lat­ed in the first place: i.e., that no mat­ter how much I might wish it were oth­er­wise, no mat­ter how fer­vent­ly I might want to believe that the fact of hav­ing been vio­lat­ed by men had immu­nized me against it, I had nonethe­less inter­nal­ized as a man the same sense of sex­u­al enti­tle­ment felt by the men who’d enti­tled them­selves to me.

Over the years, though only from men, I have caught a lot of flak for say­ing that. A very few of those men have been fel­low sur­vivors, who not unrea­son­ably chafed at the idea that I would sug­gest any sim­i­lar­i­ty at all between myself and those who vio­lat­ed me. The rest, how­ev­er, the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty, have been men far more inter­est­ed in pro­tect­ing their sex­u­al enti­tle­ment than ques­tion­ing it, most­ly by try­ing to pre­tend it doesn’t real­ly exist. At least in the pas­sage I quot­ed above, even as you strug­gle to main­tain your own self image as some­one inca­pable of sex­u­al­ly vio­lat­ing anoth­er human being, you do not try to pre­tend this enti­tle­ment doesn’t exist. That is what moved me, and it is why I first thought about writ­ing you this let­ter.

At the same time, how­ev­er, if you read the pas­sage care­ful­ly, it also epit­o­mizes a kind of dou­ble talk very com­mon among men who do want to pre­tend. Take a look at the very first inde­pen­dent clause:

As I told [Annie] on Twit­ter, I respect and admire her far too much to ever imag­ine myself capa­ble of what she described….

I have no doubt that your intent in writ­ing this sen­tence was to assure Annie that you do not feel for her the dis­dain, dis­re­spect, and hatred that sex­u­al assault demon­strates. As writ­ten, how­ev­er, the sen­tence also, and inescapably, implies that if you did not “respect and admire her far too much,” you might indeed imag­ine your­self capa­ble of such an act. I do not mean that you intend­ed this impli­ca­tion, but it is nonethe­less con­sis­tent with many of the explic­it state­ments you make in the rest of your response, which seem moti­vat­ed by pre­cise­ly the kind of dis­dain­ful atti­tude you try to dis­avow in the words I’ve quot­ed above.

You tell us, for exam­ple, that you also can’t imag­ine hav­ing done what Annie says you did because you’ve nev­er felt attract­ed to her. You sug­gest that she may have mis­un­der­stood the “phys­i­cal­ly affec­tion­ate cul­ture” you come from. You wor­ry about the impact her alle­ga­tions might have on your pro­fes­sion­al career. You shift respon­si­bil­i­ty onto Annie by wish­ing she “had said some­thing to [you] ear­li­er;” and, final­ly, you intel­lec­tu­al­ize about “liv[ing] in a moment where gen­der rela­tions are pret­ty messed up[, w]here it is hard to be a woman and hard to be a man [, and w]here we are sat­u­rat­ed in sex­u­al­i­ty but also have a con­comi­tant Puri­tan­i­cal response to our bod­ies.” Some of these responses/explanations are clas­si­cal­ly and obvi­ous­ly misog­y­nist. All, how­ev­er, are unmis­tak­ably clear attempts to deny and deflect your own respon­si­bil­i­ty and account­abil­i­ty for what Annie’s alle­ga­tions reveal about you. Still, even as you engage in this denial and deflec­tion, you also admit your own dis­com­fort with it, acknowl­edg­ing the above respons­es as “self-inter­est­ed [moves]” you’re using to avoid deal­ing direct­ly with those alle­ga­tions. Putting your own inter­nal dia­logue on dis­play like that, espe­cial­ly in a pub­lic forum over which you had no con­trol, took some courage, and that, it seemed to me, deserved to be tak­en seri­ous­ly, even if your response as a whole did not rise to the lev­el of full account­abil­i­ty you clear­ly intend­ed it to be.

Before I had a chance to start putting these ideas into words, how­ev­er, cir­cum­stances forced me to turn my atten­tion else­where, and so I didn’t give the mat­ter any fur­ther thought until April of this year, when you came to my cam­pus as a mem­ber of Mat­waala, the new­ly formed South Asian poet­ry group. I was hap­py to be invit­ed out to din­ner with you all that evening, and I enjoyed chat­ting with you. I of course thought about Annie’s blog posts while we were talk­ing, but I chose not to say any­thing since I did not know if the oth­er mem­bers of your group knew about them, and I did not want to appear to be play­ing “Gotcha!” with an issue as impor­tant as this one. I did, how­ev­er, go home think­ing again about how I might engage you in the good-faith dia­logue your response to Annie had called for.

As I was start­ing to block out an ear­ly ver­sion of this let­ter, how­ev­er, I went back to Annie’s posts to reread your response, and I found the third blog post she’d writ­ten on this sub­ject, in which she presents some pret­ty damn­ing evi­dence that three of the female-named iden­ti­ties in her com­ments threads—Saman­tha F., Emi­ly, and Casey—were actu­al­ly sock pup­pets, fake online iden­ti­ties cre­at­ed by you to troll those threads in your own defense. I was shocked, and I was angry, and, as a sur­vivor who’d tak­en very seri­ous­ly Annie’s dec­la­ra­tion of her blog as a safe space for survivors—not to men­tion some­one who’d read your response as hav­ing been writ­ten in good faith—I felt in no small mea­sure vio­lat­ed.

I went back to read the com­ments those three iden­ti­ties had made.

Saman­tha F.—whom you tried to give a lev­el of author­i­ty by hav­ing “her” iden­ti­fy as some­one who “works with adult sur­vivors of child sex­u­al trau­ma, main­ly women”—was the most offen­sive. First, “she” tried to smear Annie as racist because two of the writ­ers Annie iden­ti­fied as men who’d assault­ed her were peo­ple of col­or (your­self includ­ed); sec­ond, “she” com­pared Annie’s move in iden­ti­fy­ing those men to the repres­sive tac­tics of a total­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ment; and, third, “she” called Annie a cow­ard for not hav­ing come for­ward about the assaults soon­er, some­thing that no cred­i­ble sur­vivor advo­cate would ever say. I remem­ber read­ing those com­ments when they first appeared, along with the com­ments you made in the guise of your oth­er sock pup­pets, and feel­ing, as a sur­vivor, a respon­si­bil­i­ty to respond. How­ev­er, because I thought those iden­ti­ties were actu­al women, and because oth­er women were respond­ing pret­ty much exact­ly as I would have—because, in oth­er words, the dis­cus­sion seemed to be among women about women’s expe­ri­ences, it seemed nei­ther nec­es­sary nor appro­pri­ate for me to add my voice to the mix.

Once I learned that the voice behind those female iden­ti­ties was actu­al­ly yours, though, I felt the need to say some­thing to you direct­ly even more urgent­ly than before. Not only was I angry. As a sur­vivor, I felt very keen­ly the dam­age your sock pup­pets could and might very well have done. First, the posi­tions you used them to take lend cre­dence to those who would deny and dis­miss and min­i­mize and triv­i­al­ize not just sex­u­al vio­lence itself, but also the dif­fi­cult and painful process sur­vivors must go through to claim our voic­es, to speak open­ly about what was done to us, and to name the per­son or per­sons who did it. Sec­ond, much of what you had your sock pup­pets say—not only, but espe­cial­ly Saman­tha F.’s victim-blaming—was syn­ony­mous with the sec­ondary sham­ing far too many sur­vivors expe­ri­ence when we final­ly do find the courage to speak out. Who knows how many read­ers of Annie’s blog, who may have start­ed to find their own courage because of the way Annie had demon­strat­ed hers, remain silenced as a result of what you wrote?

Shame on you for that!

It would have been very easy, Ravi, to declare what you did beyond the pale, to deem you unwor­thy of any fur­ther atten­tion, and move on. Indeed, were I a woman, espe­cial­ly a woman who was also a sur­vivor, I could see myself doing just that. As a man, how­ev­er, even though I am a sur­vivor, I don’t—or, more accu­rate­ly, I choose not to see it that way. Those sock pup­pets, both in the fact that you cre­at­ed them and in what you had them say, dif­fer only in degree from the denial and deflec­tion that you read­i­ly acknowl­edged as self-serv­ing in the response to which you signed your name. To use them as a rea­son to turn away from the dia­logue you called for, and that I am hop­ing you real­ly want to have, would be for me to admit defeat before even try­ing to begin. To put it anoth­er way, the fact that the sock pup­pets exist, that you felt the need to cre­ate them, is also a place where that dia­logue can start. So, this is the ques­tion I want to ask you: Giv­en that the sock pup­pets amount to a dis­avow­al of every word of appar­ent­ly hon­est strug­gle you wrote in your pub­lic response to Annie—given, in oth­er words, that they make you look inescapably like a liar and a hypocrite—why cre­ate them? Why have them say the very harm­ful things they said?

(This ques­tion, of course, and all that pre­cedes it, assumes that you did indeed cre­ate those iden­ti­ties, as Annie’s quite com­pelling evi­dence sug­gests you did. If you didn’t cre­ate them, if you can present at least equal­ly per­sua­sive counter-evi­dence to demon­strate that, then I want to know why you did not speak up to debunk the trolling with which who­ev­er wrote those com­ments tried to defend you. As some­one who, in his own words, want­ed “to make cer­tain that noth­ing like [what Annie said you did to her] ever hap­pens again,” sure­ly speak­ing out against those trolls was your respon­si­bil­i­ty, per­haps even more so than any­one else’s in those threads.)

I already know how to answer those ques­tions gener­i­cal­ly, in ways that address them­selves to patri­archy and male het­ero­sex­u­al priv­i­lege, to rape cul­ture and misog­y­ny, to men’s inse­cu­ri­ties and the cor­re­spond­ing need to den­i­grate women. These answers, though, accu­rate as they may be in their own right, are almost cer­tain­ly not the ones that would emerge imme­di­ate­ly from your lived expe­ri­ence as a man. In fact, it has always seemed to me that such answers are less than help­ful when a man tries to artic­u­late what it feels like to live as a man. I am not dis­miss­ing the cat­e­gories of fem­i­nist analy­sis that give rise to those answers. With­out them, I would not have been able to write this let­ter. Rather, I am sug­gest­ing that an open and hon­est and trans­par­ent dia­logue between us as men (or between and among men in gen­er­al) will not self-evi­dent­ly emerge from a frame­work that places women’s expe­ri­ence at its cen­ter. To put it anoth­er way, what I’m inter­est­ed in is how you would answer my ques­tions on your own terms, with­out con­cern for whether what you say fits neat­ly into pre­de­ter­mined cat­e­gories of analy­sis.

Ravi, you and I hard­ly know each oth­er. In fact, I think I can count on one hand the num­ber of times we’ve actu­al­ly met face-to-face. We are, how­ev­er, part of the same com­mu­ni­ty of writ­ers, of poets specif­i­cal­ly, and Annie’s blog posts are not the first time that the women of our com­mu­ni­ty have spo­ken out against the sex­ist treat­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion, the sex­u­al harass­ment and sex­u­al assault, that they expe­ri­ence. A few years ago, a group of women poets con­vened a meet­ing I attend­ed at The Poet­ry Project in New York City to address pre­cise­ly this sub­ject. “We are,” they wrote

fed up with the real­i­ty of sex­u­al vio­lence, intim­i­da­tion, and misog­y­ny that con­tin­ues to exist in our poet­ry cir­cles. We are speak­ing out against the dom­i­nant cul­ture that silences and under­mines voic­es of dis­sent. We are ques­tion­ing harm­ful pow­er dynam­ics with­in the poet­ry com­mu­ni­ty. We are deter­mined to forge a more respect­ful, alert, and con­sci­en­tious com­mu­ni­ty.

The meet­ing was struc­tured such that we first heard rep­re­sen­ta­tive sto­ries of the kinds of behav­ior the women were “fed up with,” includ­ing men who host­ed read­ings and intro­duced women read­ers in insult­ing and sex­u­al­ly objec­ti­fy­ing ways; at least one instance in which a woman was roofied at a read­ing series; the all-too-com­mon phe­nom­e­non of known harassers and abusers being pro­mot­ed and get­ting plum assign­ments despite their rep­u­ta­tion; and instances of harass­ment, grop­ing, and out­right sex­u­al assault at con­fer­ences. After those sto­ries were told, the lead­ers of the meet­ing opened the floor for dis­cus­sion, and as some men in the audi­ence rose to have their say, one thing became unam­bigu­ous­ly clear: they either stood with women on this issue or they did not. There was no mid­dle ground. The same is true for you and for me. We either stand with women when it comes to sex­u­al vio­lence or we do not.

For me, what it means to stand with women when it comes to sex­u­al vio­lence is the same as what it means for me to stand with myself as a sur­vivor, and with all oth­er sur­vivors: an absolute and unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment nev­er to be on the same side as any­one who com­mits and refus­es account­abil­i­ty for, or who enables, ratio­nal­izes, triv­i­al­izes or out­right defends the exploitive sex­u­al objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of anoth­er human being.

Right now, Ravi, you and I—and all the dif­fer­ent men we each stand in for—appear to be on oppo­site sides of that line. I have writ­ten this let­ter because I do not think it needs to be that way. I hope you will write back.

Richard

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3 Comments on "What Does It Mean For Men to Stand With Women When It Comes to Sexual Violence? An Open Letter to Ravi Shankar"

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Elle
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Thank you Richard for speak­ing for those who have not yet found their voice to speak for them­selves.

Elle
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I meant to say ‘not’ found their voice

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