Trigger Warning: rape, sexual assault, non-consent, victim blaming, et al.
Tell me, reader, what does this sound like to you?
“I used to wake her up with kisses, teasing, boldly climbing on top of her and having my way. She responded by laying still, her eyes closed, sometimes with her fingertips on my hips, waiting for me to have an orgasm so she could go back to sleep. The one-sided nature quickly felt dirty and wrong. What kind of asshole was I, taking sex from her when she didn’t want it, just so I could get off?”
That’s an excerpt from a piece, titled “My Husband Won’t Have Sex With Me,” and written by Laci Raye, with a slight switch. In the original, the gender pronouns are reversed:
“I used to wake him up with kisses, teasing, boldly climbing on top of him and having my way. He responded by laying still, his eyes closed, sometimes with his fingertips on my hips, waiting for me to have an orgasm so he could go back to sleep. The one-sided nature quickly felt dirty and wrong. What kind of asshole was I, taking sex from him when he didn’t want it, just so I could get off?”
This piece was recently reprinted at The Establishment, a publication launched in 2015 that is funded and run by women. Their tagline, “Let’s build a new Establishment,” and their values include elevating marginalized voices and fighting the homogeneity that is epidemic in the vast majority of media. In the past year or so, they’ve published a series of radical articles, with highly nuanced perspectives on complex issues, and have produced some truly fantastic journalism. They’d swiftly become one of my favorite places online–a go-to for coverage that challenges the status quo, from a publication that highlights (and pays) lesser well-known writers with fantastic talent and voice.
They’ve also had a track record of taking constructive feedback extremely well. More than once on social media, someone has pointed out that an article was transphobic, or that there were problematic elements, and their social media team responded with grace and compassion. They’ve also created a space where their writers are fiercely protected; they opted out of having a comments section entirely. In November of last year, they published a detailed explanation from their team on why they decided to do so. Ijeoma Oluo, Editor-At-Large, is quoted saying, “Abuse is not dialogue. Abuse is not speech. Abuse is abuse.”
Considering their track record and the values they boast, you can imagine my shock upon reading the above excerpt in an article, sans editorial note or acknowledgment of the fact that Raye is describing raping her husband.
I read the article with my morning coffee, feeling increasingly sick to my stomach as I moved through the piece. When I saw the headline, I was initially excited to read it. I’ve been in a long-term relationship where the sex dwindled (I’m sure many of us have–this is hardly an uncommon phenomenon), and I will always remember how utterly it destroyed me. The idea that my partner no longer found me attractive, that maybe something was wrong with me, the loss of our intimacy, and trying to suss out why everything seemed so off-kilter between us–these things embedded themselves deep into my psyche and my skin.
Even the concept of satisfaction, of feeling like my full self–which includes feeling like a sexual, desirable creature–felt permanently erased from my way of moving through the world. My partner wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t compromise, wouldn’t connect. Being stuck between the love I felt for my partner and my own dissatisfaction felt like a form of purgatory. Slow. Stuck. Painful in its banality. I was ready to read in solidarity.
The piece starts off innocuously enough, with Raye describing how she and her husband met–a meetcute with a bartender, who presumably, based on her note about his age and previous sexual experience (“He was 27 when we got together, and had only been with a couple of women. My sexual experience was more, ahem, varied, and I was an enthusiastic teacher.”), is younger than she. She goes on to share the details of their initial sexual romps and the notable size of his penis, which includes an implication that perhaps their current intimacy issues had markers early on:
“He was easy to surprise or seduce, although he needed a good 24 hours to recharge before getting it up again, during which he completely shied away from me.”
And as it goes on, Raye states that after three years, due to a conflict in desires regarding how they want to live their life, their relationship came to an end–only to discover that she was pregnant. They got back together, got married, and their sex life moved from “lacking passion” to practically non-existence.
Raye shares the ongoing partying and drinking habits of her husband. Based on her account, they do sound excessive and concerning. When reading the piece, it’s clear that their issues extend far beyond mere sex: intimacy as a whole seems absent in the entirety of this tale. Raye describes her heartbreak, her commitment to trying to make things work as a family and in their home, and her pain and confusion at the circumstances she found herself in is palpable. Anyone who has experienced bed death knows exactly what this feels like; it’s a resonant component of the narrative that cannot be ignored.
“This year I found myself immersed in our home and family because this was what we wanted, this is what we had worked for. It was supposed to make everything all better, but I spiraled downward, lonelier and bitter. He still didn’t want me. I failed.”
Then, as Raye continues to detail her desperate attempts to woo her husband and her failure to do so, she launches into the first excerpt I posted above–an unequivocal description of rape. The piece ends with all of the sexual exploits she loves and what she wishes she had, and closes on the concern that she could never tell the world she left her husband because he wouldn’t fuck her.
I was so glad to see that comments started popping up on The Establishment’s Facebook page immediately, sharing concerns about The Establishment publishing and promoting a rapist’s perspective, presented in a sympathetic light. I jumped in the conversation as well, particularly when a minority counter-perspective that the husband is “a selfish asshole” (some of which have now been deleted) showed up.
Jenny Satanson made a comment saying something I think many of us had been pussyfooting around: we were addressing the issue but not quite directly confronting those assailing the husband’s character. “I wonder if any of the folks commenting that this dude is an asshole would say the same thing if it was the other way around,” she said. “And if you would, then what the fuck are you doing following a feminist page?”
Other commenters conflated responsibility for the mutually-created dysfunction within the relationship with responsibility for the repeated assault. As I said there, relationship issues are often the product of mutual dysfunction–there are two people involved in bad relationships, and fault rarely falls on only one side. Rape, on the other hand, is one person’s choice–one individual’s act of violence. These two things can co-exist yet still be treated separately. To wrap them up together, stating that the relationship issues mean that Raye raping her husband is also a mutual responsibility is to deflect blame from its rightful place. Which is bullshit.
As I said above, in the past, The Establishment has had a solid track record of responding compassionately, fairly, and reasonably to constructive feedback about problematic elements that have popped up in articles. They seem to vet well, so it doesn’t happen often in the first place, but when it does, they handle it swiftly. I kept looking for that response, but it was not yet forthcoming. I chalked the delay up to timing; perhaps someone would respond adequately come Monday. Then, as I was going back to their page, I saw a recently placed response from The Establishment to a snarky comment on another article that was also published this morning. So, clearly someone was around.
As the piece was being thoroughly chastised and several folks had asked for The Establishment to respond appropriately, they gave us this:
Complicated and uncomfortable issues?
My dear friend and fellow writer Chris Hall brought up that this was likely missed because rape/sexual assault is often seen as a femme/woman problem, even by feminists who are staunchly against rape culture. It’s true that femmes/women are disproportionately the targets of assault and rape. In the effort to raise awareness, create support, and dismantle a society that wreaks violence against women in unfathomable numbers, it makes sense that this is a primary focus. But a crucial aspect of being anti-rape, anti-sexual assault, and pro-consent means absolutely not promoting sympathetic rapist narratives, regardless of gender.
Can you imagine the response if a cisgendered male rapist came forth, describing his bad acts, and ended that snippet of his tale with, “What kind of asshole was I, taking sex from [them] when [they] didn’t want it, just so I could get off?”
WE WOULD KNOW EXACTLY WHAT KIND OF ASSHOLE THIS PERSON IS. THERE IS NO AMBIGUITY ABOUT THIS.
Another unfortunate aspect of this is that this was a choice entirely made by a primary player on their team. The piece was originally conceived at DAME Magazine in 2014. DAME Magazine, notably silent during the furor (despite taking a moment to “like” The Establishment’s piss-poor response! Thanks for the thoughtful contribution, y’all!), is another so-called feminist publication that creates, according to their Twitter bio, creates “Smart, fast-paced news and opinions on entertainment, politics, pop culture, and more. For Women Who Know Better.”
Women who know better…think rape is okay as long as they aren’t the ones being raped?
What this means, though: someone on the editorial team decided that this article would be worth reprinting, and went through the effort to make it happen. This had to have been pursued, vetted, and pushed forward by someone on their core team–which also explains their defensiveness and completely inappropriate response. When a freelance writer has written something problematic, that apparently calls for a more open approach to feedback than when it’s one of their staff.
If anything, that makes this even more appalling: someone who is part of the team that built this is showing their ass, and they’re wiping the shit away as “complicated and uncomfortable issues.” This response is about as effective as scratchy, thin toilet paper–a shitstain and foul scent lingers.
Rape is not complicated. We’ve been saying this for years. There is no gray area on what the author described.
In the process, The Establishment has also produced ample fodder for the MRA subset, which insists that the goal of feminism is not equality, but is the subjugation of men. An increasingly popular feminist publication, The Establishment, which has a notable following of 13,000 followers on Twitter and over 16,000 likes on Facebook, has essentially come forth to endorse an article that casually describes the rape of a man within the context of a troubled relationship. Wonderful. Just what we needed.
Male survivors are survivors, too. Female rapists are rapists, too. Genderqueer/non-binary rapists are rapists. Male rapists are rapists. RAPISTS ARE RAPISTS. We cannot lose sight of those who have been hurt–and those who are being predatory–in our fight to elevate femme/female voices, or we will have failed.
The Establishment has fallen on their ass, hard. For any publication that proudly boasts the importance of accountability and their feminist ideals, publishing (and defending) this kind of article on their site is reprehensible. This seems like a devolution to what xojane has been at its most exploitative: doing anything to get those sweet, sweet clicks, regardless of who is hurt in the process or what kind of dangerous ideology is being promoted, all while presenting as an advocate for those who are downtrodden.
Supporting this kind of rhetoric and presenting rape in a sympathetic light, without note or acknowledgment, is insulting to any person, of any gender, who has been assaulted, unethical as fuck, and an unquestionable perpetuation of rape culture.
I still find myself thinking about Ijeoma Oluo’s words:
“Abuse is not dialogue. Abuse is not speech. Abuse is abuse.”
I seriously question whether or not The Establishment’s team actually does know what abuse is. Based on this massive misstep, maybe it isn’t as clear to them as they would like to think.
[UPDATE: The Establishment, thankfully, decided to remove the original post. To see the full text, you can still see the cached page. I wish we’d get to see a more comprehensive response, but good on them for removing it at all.]