Retrospect for Sexual Consent: How Patriarchy Shapes Our Memory of Intimate Moments
Recent reflection on a number of historic sexual assault cases involving black male celebrities in America (including Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Nate Parker, Darren Sharper, Kobe Bryant, and R. Kelly again) got some of the symptoms of my psychological disorder acting up again. I should say that I am a black man living in the United States, who is just learning how to deal with a condition that for the longest time went undiagnosed. As someone hampered by this particularly American pathological disorder, whose symptoms include an investment in misogyny and male privilege, with its unique internal conflicts about, commitments to, and complicity with white supremacist patriarchy, I wonder how many other black men are suffering in silence.
To remind myself of my own diagnosis, and to uphold my personal commitment to seek help and treatment for any man who is also suffering, when I first meet new people I like to tell them that I am a *black male feminist* and *recovering misogynist*. Such an introduction opens up immediate space for discussion about the disorder, which is helpful since most people go a lifetime without being properly diagnosed or treated.
As a black man, learning how to deal with, and decouple my thoughts and behaviors from the varying levels of chronic toxic masculinity may be one of the hardest things I will ever do with my life. Like any mental health condition, counseling helps. My partner constantly engages me in "check yourself" sessions where she overturns the tables in my "safe chauvinist space" to point out how misogyny is showing up in my speech, in our home, in my parenting, and in our intimate moments. She says I spend too much time thinking about all the things I could be if Freud's wife was my mother and don't show nearly enough love to my actual black mom. All this I take her word on.
I have found medication is so essential to treatment. Though not self-medication. Inebriation of any kind can cause that patriarchal beast to rear its ugly head. Instead, I spend time medicating with my family and friends, consuming cupfuls of criticism and patience, drinking in several doses of the sometimes awkward, sometimes awful conversations about male transgressions and microaggressions (especially my own), and measuring out apologies by the mouthful, while picking up subtle and overt feminist prescriptions. And so goes my diagnosis, my disorder, my treatment, my progress, and my problems.
A recent conversation about the Cosby mistrial with a black gay friend of mine really got me worrying about how many other black men are facing this condition. Most of the conversation had me remembering the ways my mind used to play tricks on me, how my personal memory of intimate moments, and the stories I told myself about coercion and consent, clouded any ability to really decipher the truth about how my thoughts and actions made room for and extended American rape culture.
I spent most of the conversation pointing my self-righteous finger at Cosby, pointing out the preponderance of evidence against him, and condemning him as a public show of support for the women *I just know* he assaulted. In response, I heard a voice that sounded so confident and familiar, like my own had once. It was that of my friend defending Bill Cosby, reclaiming a beloved black celebrity through a logic of 'benefit of the doubt,' condemnation for the American injustice system, claims and conspiracy theories about gold-diggerism, and a predatory subculture of people preying on black men in America. All these justifications and defenses were offered with a fine helping of this friend's personal reflections on his own sexual history and the ambiguous experiences that made up so many of his previous intimate moments.
That last turn struck home for me. Something in our discussion had caused him to see himself in Cosby and I could see he felt that thing, whatever it was, deserved a defense. Something deep inside me jumped to offer him that defense, which was also a justification offered to myself, and which, by extension, was doing its acrobatic defense work for Cosby.
This is why male privilege and misogyny are such harmful psychological conditions. They directly affect the mind's ability to see the world the way it is. As psychological disorders affecting one's perspectives and memories go, this condition really does a number, causing us to see our experiences as black men as shared, analogous, innocent, and justifiable. To truly combat this disorder requires a series and serious reassessment of the similarity between our thoughts and actions, a critique of our complex systems of justification, and a rejection of our need to point the finger anywhere other than at ourselves.
Which is all just another way of saying: It's not that as black men any of us are as bad as Bill Cosby (or R. Kelly, or Mike Tyson, or Darren Sharper, and so forth), it's that at some point in our lives we have all been Bill Cosby.
The Story Behind My Need for a Defense
In college I knew a girl who I found to be the chillest hook up ever. Back then we still called our arrangement *friends with benefits* and over the course of our near four month relationship we became very close hanging out, listening to music, watching movies (back when Netflix discs still came in the mail), eating in the dining hall, and yes, having sex.
Looking back on our arrangement what strikes me now is the way that sex, after the very first time we agreed to enjoy it together, became something that I fully expected with each of our encounters, and something that she seemed more and more to carry apprehensions about.
One night, after going out dancing, and yes, underage drinking, we headed back to her dorm room for the usual. I remember climbing into her too-small twin bed as we'd done a dozen times before, taking off my pants, and hers, then spooning. All this she seemed to readily enjoy, expressing her happiness at a night of rare public intimacies between us. And then something happened. Something that I hadn't fully expected or prepared for. As I became aroused and attempted to have sex, she said, "No."
Now like every well-meaning brother ever raised by a god-fearing black woman, I understood, viscerally, the impact and meaning of her no. "No means no," my mother had said to my brothers and I. A hundred times. A thousand times. As frequent an admonishment after we each became teenagers, as her earlier reminders has been to brush our teeth. Her "no" halted my penetration, immediately.
It halted my penetration, immediately. But did not stop all my caressing advances. Eventually, after more kissing, caressing, and intimate insinuations, she relented, out of what I imagined to be a reluctant desire, on a level more than sexual, to be with me. Now, I am much more suspicious. I think about the effect of her prolonged inebriation and how the emotional pressures I enacted that night (and perhaps every night after those first few times we'd had sex) might have ultimately altered her decision and decision-making.
The Nature of Justifications and Defenses
Reflecting on that episode as an adult *black male feminist* and *recovering misogynist*, I've often asked myself if my actions were a type of sexual assault. Often, with immediate justifications and defenses framing my memory. Of course she'd said no, but then, too, she'd relented. And wasn't her relenting a form of consent? And wasn't my pressuring a part of the give and take of desire?
Unfortunately, episodes like this one are all too common in my (and each man's) biography. Moments where consent seems the ambiguous result of persistence and coercion. Interestingly, I didn't think of myself in that moment as a perpetrator of sexual assault. Nor have I ever identified myself as a rapist.
Perhaps reading all this you too find yourself saying, "I've done that. That isn't sexual assault. That doesn't make you a rapist." My response is that the first step I take in assessing my present mental health is remembering my proper diagnosis. I am a black man living in America. I have investments in misogyny that come with unique internal conflicts about, commitments to, and complicity with white supremacist patriarchy. My thoughts and actions vary in their levels of toxic masculinity. Although I am still seeking treatment, I will never be fully recovered from my misogyny and male privilege.
What troubles me about the passive means by which we account for and classify these thoughts and behaviors, are the ways in which the social dynamics surrounding power, gender, and privilege are never fully present in our thinking about these private and very personal moments of intimacy. The way in which the same social dynamics of power and privilege are always present (though not always consciously present) for me and other men in our sexual encounters. And too, the way that these dynamics of power and privilege continue to show up in our reflections about and justifications for personal and intimate performances of sexual desire, maneuvers of coercion, and pressuring for consent.
The power and privilege associated with being a man in this society have always circumscribed my sexual relationships. And the fact that our sex culture in America is a *rape culture* is a truth that shapes the very nature of all those encounters. Among my closest friends and brothers, I recognize that one of the things that has always bonded us together is a mutual longing for and perpetual objectification of women. We triumph in the exchange of personal stories of sexual conquest and objectifying encounters. As boys, we were taught to reflect on our masculinity in chauvinist spaces that constantly proscribed and inscribed patriarchy in this manner. We learned how to expertly separate our styles and systems of misogyny from the ones that were *truly* detrimental. Those "severe" acts deemed, within our community, to be more sinister by many degrees and depths.
That I learned how to degrade women while sitting in the barbershop seat, playing on the basketball court, lounging on the corner stoop, and sitting at the back of the church is unfortunate. How I came to discuss women by name who I'd previously slept with, sharing the intimate details of our encounters, and learned to link these stories with male joy and laughter. How it came to be normal to give a friend or acquaintance permission to pursue a woman, sexually, I'd previously slept with. And how all this inscribed a system for constructing bonds of male camaraderie.
As I continue to reflect on the weight of these experiences and miseducation, what troubles me are the ways in which this disorder has proven itself to be hereditary, passed down by generations and generations of undiagnosed and untreated men that I have loved.
A few years after receiving my own diagnosis, and being reborn a *black male feminist*, I met a black female graduate student visiting my university from abroad for the year. After reluctantly agreeing to go out with me (she'd insisted that we agree before going out that the encounter would be strictly platonic and intellectual in nature as she'd already encountered a number of male graduate students who had attempted to escalate encounters to something unwelcoming and more intimate), she and I found ourselves connecting over dessert and dancing after our first 'non-date'.
Discovering how much we actually shared in common, we quickly decided to pursue an intimate relationship. After a few months, I remember waking up next to her in our hotel room. I'd planned a summer road trip to show her some of my favorite places and parts of the country and, still undressed after the previous night's intimacies, I had the brilliant idea to be spontaneous. I wanted to wake her from sleep by initiating sex.
Half asleep myself, and after delivering a few soft kisses to the back of her neck, I began to position my body to enter hers. Sometimes, as a symptom of my disorder, I still experience quite vivid aftershocks. The wake of her reaction to that maneuver still gives me chills. With a look of combined shock, anger, and betrayal, she awoke, announcing quite forcefully, "Never. Not without my permission."
It is important to note that throughout our brief relationship she and I suffered through several moments of miscommunication, where our conversations (English wasn't her native language) could become quite fumbling and difficult. In this moment, however, her dismay and phrasing expressed everything perfectly. Her words registered to me, simultaneously, as both rebuke and reconciliation. A way of saying that my assumptions about the nature of our sexual encounters were something completely foreign to her... aggressive to her... violent to her... assaulting to her. That although she enjoyed my company, sexually, she did not relinquish to me any right to engage her without her full and conscious consent.
Never. Not without my permission.
And here, I think, is the place where my diagnosis finally cemented and where my treatment as a *recovering misogynist* first began. The place where a new understanding of consent and intimacy took root. The simple truth is that misogyny and male privilege are psychological disorders that every man faces. They are hereditary conditions and pervasive in ways that give the symptoms the appearance of normalcy. Without proper diagnosis and immediate treatment, the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to this collective disorder will continue to infect generations of men in our society, hurting the development of healthy sexual relationships and encounters, and perpetuating an American rape culture that already registers as epidemic.