5 Things I Learned After My Partner Was Sexually Battered at an Atheist Conference
When you’re ethically non-monogamous, you end up engaging in a lot of meta relationship conversations. When you’re polyamorous and dating someone you met because you were both speakers at the same secular event, you end up discussing the potential effects of your relationship, likely and unlikely alike, on your respective careers. This is especially true when one of you has strong feminist values and works for the advancement of secular causes and the other is a loudmouthed, keyboards-a-blazin’ firebrand-in-waiting.
What I didn’t think to discuss was what actually ended up happening.
After talking Neil through the issue and surrounding matters as well as reading the incredibly eloquent, thoughtful post he wrote, I am struck by certain matters that I overlooked. Based on others’ reactions, I’m hardly the only one.
We have a long way to go, as a collective society, in respecting victims’ feelings over our own good intentions.
Well-meaning people acting in good faith can cause the most damage, since they are not as readily dismissed as bad-faith actors. As detailed in his account, Neil’s friends touched him as a way of offering comfort, yet it did nothing but increase his anxiety. Being a good friend often means asking people what they’d prefer that you do in sensitive situations instead of doing as you please, no matter how warmly the gesture was meant.
Consent is not subjective, but we don’t take a broad enough view of what non-consensual sexual touch may be.
When Neil told me that something had happened, I thought that someone must have somehow touched his genitals or touched him with their genitals without his consent. Not so: what happened to him did not involve genitalia, yet was nonetheless a violation that harmed him. He is hardly the only one. Just this weekend, Pamela Gay talked yet again about what happened to her at a conference, an instance of non-genital assault that has caused her, the victim in the situation, no end of strife.
Men are no less harmed by non-consensual sexual touch than women are.
Despite all the aforementioned pre-relationship discussions, I hadn’t even considered that I could be the one in the relationship seeing red as I listened to an account of an incident, and for him to be the one telling me about having to report sexual battery at a conference. A toxic environment where harassers’ continued participation is prioritized over other attendees’ safety puts everyone at risk.
There is another gendered element to this. What happened to Neil could be — and was, in some cases, to his face — trivialized because he was a man who was sexually battered by another man in a non-penile-penetrative way.
What some dub “malicious, unproven gossip” is essential to improving the movement.
After Neil told me what happened, we had, over the course of weeks, many hours of phone conversations on the matter. My ear was hardly the only thing I lent him, however. Though the majority of what Neil prudently did was dictated by his character and personality, as well as his legal training, my understanding of the various factors involved with going public with an incident like this factored into many of his decisions. In short, my being a Skepchick helped him to assess, ascertain, and anticipate in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had I kept my expertise from him.
Much of what I relayed to him, had I said it publicly, would likely be erroneously criticized as “gossip,” “hearsay,” “anecdotal evidence,” or even “slander.” Holding claims of sexual misconduct to standards of proof appropriate for scientific theories is to misunderstand the scope of the claim. Harassers, batterers, assaulters, abusers, and rapists have run unchecked through our communities because of this sort of thinking.
Indeed, the person who battered Neil is evidently known in certain circles for his boundary-pushing behavior. Even if that behavior wasn’t enough to get Batterer banned from conferences, had some “gossip” mentioned Batterer’s reputation to Neil, Neil could have been on his guard. In a community that often values harassers’ freedom of expression over the comfort and safety of everyone else, cautionary “gossip” is sometimes all we have.
Thanks to “gossip”, “gossip” is no longer all we have.
Neil’s case was handled promptly and competently because conferences now have anti-harassment policies in place and experts present to deal with it. Without those initial “gossips” like Pamela Gay, our very own Rebecca, and countless others speaking up and out about incidents, said policies and experts would not be present at conferences. That is what gives me hope. That is why I am proud of Neil for speaking up, and will always stand with those who do so: they put themselves out there and risk so much to make our world better.
Edit 8/7/14: “Partner” should read “former partner”.