I recently had a conversation with a guy who assaulted me. I reached out to let him know the ways that his behaviors had hurt me, the ways he made me feel small and silent, the ways I still think about what happened. I decided to send him a message because I believe that sexual assault is a very messy issue. I don’t think it’s realistic to expel from society every person who has ever harassed or assaulted someone—it’s too many people. Until we have made societal shifts toward equity and respect, there are going to be people who have been abusive, but wish they hadn’t been. There are people who have no idea that they have done things to hurt other people. Before continuing, I want to acknowledge that the issue of sexual violence disproportionately affects women of color and LGBTQ+ people. I also want to say that reaching out to someone who assaulted you is by no means an expectation. I did it because it was what I wanted to do, and every survivor has the right to make that choice for themself.
The exchange I had with this guy was surprisingly positive. He took full responsibility for what happened, he apologized, he indicated that he would use this as an impetus to think through his actions differently moving forward. In his response, he said something that has been rattling around in my brain ever since: “Like many guys my age, I think of myself as a flawed yet generally good person. We’re under the illusion that we just aren’t the kind of people capable of sexual transgressions. Evidently, I was wrong.”
People who are not targeted by a certain oppressive system (e.g. racism, classism, ableism, etc.) must be critical of the ways in which they benefit from that system. This is true even if they don’t like it or don’t feel personally responsible for its creation. As a white person, I always contribute to racism. I just do. It is fundamentally important for me to constantly engage with my own involvement in ideologies of racism and my own contributions to the system. If I’m not thinking of myself as a beneficiary of racism, then I’m facilitating the erasure of that problem. I believe that the same principle applies to any other structure of oppression. I understand that this self-reflection is a disturbing and challenging practice, but I believe it to be essential to any kind of social progress.
I see the designation of “Good Guy” as antithetical to this progress. It has become a hostile term to me—I feel sirens going off inside whenever I hear it. To me, it indicates that I’m listening to someone who thinks that he can step outside of the problem of sexual violence, and sexism more generally. When men identify themselves as “good guys,” they construct themselves as not benefiting from patriarchy. As having an unblemished record of interactions with women. As not needing to worry about the implications of news of sexual violence, because there’s just no way that they could be a part of it.
What is disappointing to me about so much of what I’m hearing from men right now is that they clearly do not view themselves as part of the problem. So many men, these self-identified “good guys,” fill their airtime pointing to different reasons why they are not involved. They spend time deflecting their own culpability. They scapegoat the monsters, speaking loudly against the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys of the world, without making space for any critical self-reflection.
I’m not sure if I’ll be assaulted by some high-power executive or television star one day, but I know for certain that my voice will be overlooked in a conversation with my male peers, or that I won’t feel totally safe walking home alone tonight. Some forms of gender-based violence are rare. The impact of their trauma feels like getting hit by an earthquake, with delayed aftershocks that arise long after the event. Other forms are everyday, and the impact of their trauma feels more like a series of paper cuts.
If we are committed to stopping the earthquakes of sexual violence in our world, we must also take a hard look at the paper cuts. Both hurt. Sexual violence does not exist in a vacuum. It is not a violence without logic. It comes as a direct consequence of a system that mandates the ranking of genders, with men at the top and others falling below. This hierarchy allows for people to view some as subjects, as agents in their world, and others as objects, to be acted upon. This is something that exists all the time, not just when a news story breaks.
I never want to hear the words “I’m a good guy” again. It’s a nothing statement. It is a performance of allyship that, in fact, allows for zero intellectual or emotional work on the part of the speaker. Instead of calling yourself a good guy, I encourage you to consider in what ways you’ve been a bad guy. If you believe that sexual violence should not happen, if you believe in the equity of all people, in which instances have you not lived those values? That acknowledgment, that work, is actually way more beneficial to the cause. Talk to other men. Listen to women. Take responsibility. Apologize. Know that if you are hiding from your own role in the problem, you are contributing to its power.
Tessa Westfall is a member of the Class of 2018.