This is the fourth (and oh I hope my last) of the Kissing Frogs letters that reflect the downs and downs and downs of dating and searching. There’s a saying, I saw it on a greeting card once, I don’t know who said it: “If you don’t go in, you’ll never know…..”
The writer’s life is a public one, our lives splashed on the page, naked. Someone must tell the truth and be the mirror. I believe there is also a responsibility to kindness.
The names of all “the frogs” have been changed to protect their privacy. It is one thing for me to decide to tell my own story. The telling of the stories of other people requires discretion or at least, permission.
Guilt and Responsibility
By Emma Rosenthal
“Class consciousness is knowing what side of the fence you are on. Class analysis is understanding who is there with you.”
-Anonymous, from a poster circa 1979
You assaulted me yesterday. You may choose to mislead yourself, as you tried to convince me, and tell yourself you were getting off of me when I first said no, but truth is that you threw me onto my stomach and continued to climb onto my back until I repeated the directive several times. The first “NO” should have elicited an immediate effort on your part to attend to my concerns, but you continued to assert your own desire at my expense.
Your apology for “hurting me in what was a few moments of play,” negates the brutality and dehumanization of the attack. Certainly there is room for misunderstanding. I will share with you responsibility for the first “no!” But even a dog understands the difference between playing with a ball and playing with another dog. At the moment I withdrew consent, it was no longer play. Even a man without twenty years experience within the leftist-feminist dialogue would know this.
And yet, immediately after the assault, when I confronted you, you began to lie to me about what had happened, as if I hadn’t been there, as if you could heal the injury in the denial of the infliction. I am grateful that I was introduced to this side of you in the limits imposed upon your behavior, in a public park. I tremble at what might have happened had I trusted you to the privacy of your home or mine. Most women have suffered much worse attacks, often in the intimacy of family and community. We are taught early to tend to our attacker, not to hurt his feelings, to empathize with his pain, to relieve him of his anxiety and guilt, support his lies despite our intimate contact with the truth, to sacrifice ourselves to the community and the need for apparent peace, not to make noise, nor draw attention to ourselves, not to speak out. We have been told we have brought on the attack, in the clothes we wear, the way we walk, the lilt of our voice, our hair, our eyes, merely the act of breathing, the simple act of taking up space. To speak out, to name what has transpired is to call upon the censure of the community, to risk our own isolation, the wrath of those who claim to love us.
Because of years of work I was able to understand yesterday, what had happened and to know that it was not my job to help you reconcile your trespass against me. I hope that the compassion that I share with you in the lines of this letter offers you the tools you need to begin to dismantle the rubric that would justify an attack and perhaps compel the construction of a new way of living, in love, with the world, with women, with yourself.
So, I offer you the following meditations for your own healing, assuming that you want healing over privilege, because truth be told, this world will entitle you to many women, to attack with impunity. I doubt this is your first offense. I hope it is your last. You cannot have deep intimate relationships with women if you also choose to dominate and abuse us. If you hold on to the power that this system grants you, you cannot be well.
There are two sides of the fence; the side of love, justice, communion and universal humanity; and the side of domination and hegemony. Yesterday you chose entitlement and privilege. You did not choose the side of the fence that could have brought forth connection, possibility, hope, transformation.
Earlier in the day we spent a lot of time discussing guilt; political guilt, white, male guilt. You didn’t believe me when I said guilt no longer informs my politic or overwhelms me. I was at a loss of words to explain to you, this transformation. My meditations since the assault reminded me of what I could not explain to you earlier. It is by replacing guilt with responsibility and what I call enlightened self-interest that has allowed me a politic that is informed, empowered and empowering. Enlightened self-interest is the ownership of my own actions and the deep understanding that I have more to gain from the emergence of a universally just society than any shard of comfort, privilege might afford me, that what I have to gain from collective justice is far greater than what I surrender. Guilt, on the part of the “enlightened” perpetrator, is an excuse. It is the pithy liberal, superficial acknowledgment of the offense, without the subsequent radical profound correction of the injury. Guilt is the absence of responsibility. It stands in the place of grief for what has been lost. By feeling guilty, one identifies with privilege and not with our collective loss of community, culture, history, diversity, trust, connection, sustenance, mutual aid all that which has been replaced with disconnection, consumerism, property, dominance, distrust and monoculture.
Guilt seeks absolution. Responsibility seeks remedy. Guilt is a form of penance, held long enough to absolve the sin until the next offense. Like Hail Marys, Our Fathers, drunken apologies and batterer’s remorse, the recitation does not alone provide remedy. It soothes the guilty conscience long enough to convince the sinner that penance has been made. It pacifies the victim long enough to sustain yet another attack. It allows the community to go on as if the attack were not a social injury, as if the remedy were not a collective one, as if the injury to the victim were not a communal concern. Responsibility is the ownership of the act, the recognition of the possibility and the necessity of transformation, the willingness to go deep into the spirit and seek change. Responsibility sees the sin as a teacher, not a burden, the vessel, hope. Guilt contains hopelessness, the underlying assumption that nothing can be done, that one is essentially flawed, and therefore free to go out again and offend again, mitigated only by the extent of the guilt to provide the sense of absolution. Guilt perpetuates domination, allowing the privileged to believe that their offense is an essential part of their flawed constitution. It embodies the notion of original sin. It serves no transformation. It serves hegemony.
At this point in time, your assault against me is of no consequence. All that matters now is what we each take from the experience. Beyond this letter, I don’t desire to share my journey with you but I will assure you, I will find illumination in the events of yesterday. Assuming that you are remorseful, and everything in your composure after the event (even your lies,) indicated that you were, I would encourage you not to focus on your guilt, which neither serves nor honors me. So I absolve you. Not the way an obedient girl, well trained under patriarchy might absolve you, which would merely reinforce your behavior and bless you in future conquest, while her body absorbs the guilt for you, holding in the folds of her body and the folds of her being a sense of shame, of misplaced blame for having caused the behavior that she absolves you of. I absolve you to seek remedy. If you would like to honor me, to offer me restitution, embrace the possibility of what you have to learn from this experience. Do not waste the injury in futility. What has happened is done; there is no means of undoing it. If you are truly sorry, see to it that it never happens again. Do not waste time with guilt, unless your only intent is to make penance for your transgressions long enough to go ahead and do it again to someone else. Instead, do the deep work of transformation. Dig a tunnel to the other side of the fence and take responsibility for your actions. Confront privilege honestly and with a clarity that guilt does not permit. These behaviors, the behaviors of privilege are well embedded in our psyche, and guilt digs them in. Guilt is a dangerous and frivolous emotion for revolutionaries and has no place in real political transformation. It puts the burden on the shoulders of the inflicted, to comfort the inflictor It allows the community to offer up the inflicted as the communal sacrifice in lieu of a real redistribution of power, control and focus. It endangers the process, endangers those who would bring about change. It is a distraction, a justification, a false badge of honor. It is a poor substitute for responsibility, which truly and uniquely offers the ability to bring about a new paradigm, a new dynamic.
Guilt looks to the past, lives in the past. Responsibility looks to the future. So, focus on future involvements, future opportunities. When blessed with the warmth and affections of an attentive and willing woman, choose love over greed, intimacy over power.
Do not forget for one second that what she is offering is not guilt, but blessing, it is sacred, and must be treated as sacrament. Understand that the world you build is constructed with the bricks you stack every day in the choices you make. If you choose love and affirmation, communion and connection, you build possibility.
Sex is conversation, not an event or a conquest. It begins with the simplest of exchanges even before touch, even before lips meet. I hope that when you approach sexual conversation in the future, you will wait for your partner’s response. Don’t apply pressure. Listen to the shift of her body, a murmur, a repositioning of a hand. Imagine two dogs playing together: the conversation of bodies in motion. When I met you. I felt you drawn to me, interested in me, my ideas, my humanity, certainly my sexuality. But yesterday, beyond what my skin offered you, I stopped existing. This objectification meant that I could not be part of a conversation because I as a person had ceased to exist. I was no more of a sentient being to you than a ball or a squeeze toy. In the end I had to scream repeatedly to get you off of me.
At first meeting, I was so impressed with your passion for justice, your desire to enact change, your compassion, your charm, your sense of humor. I trust that these sensibilities run deeper than the shame you carry, evident in the dishonor you brought to the possibilities we presented to each other. I hope you will honor yourself and the values that you attempt to live by, long enough to transform this situation into something greater than the injury, for the sake of your own well being, as well as the healing that such a transformation might bestow upon the world.