When I was in college I was accused of sexually assaulting a woman.
She was a friend of mine that I had slept with on previous occasions and she came to my room to buy a glass pipe and smoke some pot with me and my roommate. We sat there for a while and got stoned together. Eventually my roommate went to bed and she and I ended up cuddling together in my bed.
As we cuddled I started touching her. Slowly at first, probing to see if she was in the mood. She didn’t resist in any way, and didn’t say no. So I continued, eventually sliding my hand down the front of her body in between her legs. After a couple of minutes she wasn’t responding and I had this feeling like she was uncomfortable, so I stopped and went back to snuggling.
A few minutes later she got up and left our apartment without a word. In that moment, I figured that she felt guilty being with me because she was dating another guy. I just chalked it up to an attempt to be sexual with a woman that was received with polite refusal—something that’s happened to me many times with partners both casual and serious in the past—and I thought nothing more about it. I went to bed thinking she just wasn’t into it and that was okay with me.
A few days later I got a call from her friend who was irate with me. She said that she couldn’t believe I had assaulted her friend. I was shocked. I had no idea what she meant. When she first mentioned it I didn’t even remember the incident she was referring to. But as she told me the details I remembered what had happened and I felt like shit, but I also felt defensive.
Why didn’t she say no? Why didn’t she push my hands away? Why didn’t she turn away from me? We were close to the same height and I wasn’t holding her down in any way. Why didn’t she show any sign of resisting me?
I felt horrible because I knew that I hadn’t had any intent to force myself on this woman. She was a friend, a former lover, and my only desire was to touch her in a way that felt good, to see if she wanted to fool around. I was the one that had stopped, when I felt like something was off. I was the one that turned away from her in a way that indicated it was okay that she wasn’t interested. I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong.
I told her friend that I felt horrible, but that I couldn’t understand why she felt this way. I defended myself, but still indicated that I felt awful that it had happened and didn’t know what to do. Her friend talked to me for a while but we never really got to a conclusion. I didn’t know what she wanted me to do. Eventually we got off the phone.
I spent the next weeks and months feeling awful about what had happened, but I felt trapped. I couldn’t talk to my friend. It didn’t feel like I could really talk to anyone else. I knew that I hadn’t had any bad intent, but I still felt like I had fucked up totally without realizing anything I was doing was wrong.
And yet what I did was wrong. And I wish it was the only time I made a mistake like this, but it wasn’t.
Later something else happened. During my graduation weekend, my friends came to visit me in DC. We were having a good time smoking and drinking and one night they all ended up staying at my apartment. Specifically a group of them ended up crashing on my futon together.
The next day we were hanging out and I could tell one of my female friends was really upset. So I asked her why. She said that the previous night another of my friends had slid his hand in between her legs, without permission.
I was horrified. I confronted my friend and asked him what had happened and he denied having done anything wrong. As I stood there and looked at him I saw myself. I thought, This is a good guy. I trust him. I believe him if he says the truth. I thought, Could this simply be a misunderstanding? Could his hands have ended up near her and she just didn’t understand what had happened?
But my female friend insisted it was true. And back and forth we went. Accusation and denial, until we reached an impasse. I told my female friend, “I believe you had an experience that felt wrong to you and I’m sorry. I also believe my friend that he didn’t do anything or didn’t intend to do anything. I feel like we have to chalk this up to a misunderstanding.” She was upset but seemed to accept what I said.
Looking back I realize how wrong I was that time, too. My friend probably did do something wrong. Probably a similar wrong thing to what I did. He probably wanted to see if this girl wanted to fool around and perhaps he was more aggressive, perhaps not. But my willingness to overlook what he did came from my willingness to overlook my own mistake.
You see, this is the problem men have with sexual assault. We want to believe that there are these bad guys out there doing bad things to women. We get defensive because we aren’t those bad guys. We love women, we respect them. We buy them flowers, open doors, and vote for Hillary. We hate guys that are rapists and are disgusted by men that overtly manipulate women into having sex like Weinstein or drug women like Cosby.
We think because we’re not those men we have nothing to answer for. We’re “good men” and want you to know that—just like white people love to be “good white people”, not those overtly racist kinds.
And yet most of the fucked up shit that happens to women happens from guys who think that they’re good guys just like us. Like the guy who thinks that because she started off being into it, he has a right to finish. Like the guy who thinks so long as she gives in eventually that’s all that matters. Like the guy who simply wants to see “if they’re interested” and then proceed to put our hands on women’s bodies—without asking consent. Or at the very least learning how to feel a women’s energy to see if she’s interested, and then being willing to pause if we’re not getting any sign that she is.
Like the guy that pushes through the energy of NO without waiting for the energy of YES. Or the guy just like you and me, who might start with very little intent and then slowly head down a rabbit hole of miscommunication, privilege, uncontrolled sexual energy, and self-delusion, and end up doing something that impacts or adds to the growing weight of untrustable, aggressive men in women’s lives.
The thing none of us want to admit is that we’re the men on the other side of all these ME TOO statements. Not some group of creepy guys someplace else. But our brothers in our lives and the men we see everyday in the mirror.
And until we’re willing to see that, the world isn’t going to change. As for me, I was dead fucking wrong in both of these instances in college. I was wrong to touch my friend, no matter if she didn’t say NO or resist in any way. I didn’t have intent—that’s true. But I didn’t have permission either. And as much as I want to explain away what I did, what I did was wrong.
I was wrong not to believe my female friend. I was wrong not to back her up. To tell her I was sorry that she had been violated like that. I was wrong not to yell at my friend and tell him it wasn’t cool and tell him to GTFO of my apartment. I was wrong and what I did was as bad or even worse than what my friend did to this woman who I cared a lot about.
I wish I could go back and tell these women how wrong I was. I’ve looked for them online to make amends but we lost touch long ago. I’m sorry that I was wrong. And while I know sharing these stories won’t change that, it’s my hope that in telling the truth to other men like me—who think of themselves as “good guys”—we’ll become more willing to look at ourselves and our lives with greater clarity.
That we’ll be willing to tell our sons about consent, and stop our brothers when we see them going down the wrong path. That we’ll be willing to talk among ourselves about the mistakes we made so we can make fewer of them, and be willing to believe and stand up for women when they tell us what’s happened to them.
My hope is that in sharing my story other men will share theirs and that together we can become true allies of the women in our lives so that we can have a lot fewer ME TOOs in the future. And finally my hope is that we can encourage men to do the work on themselves so they can love women in the way they want to be loved, hold them in a way that shows them the kind of respect they deserve, and live in a way that inspires other men to become deeply conscious and awake in a way that could truly change our world forever.