In Zen Buddhism, Ango is a three-month period of intensive study and practice. One aspect of Ango is that members of a Zen center study the precepts. These are guidelines for ethical conduct that have been passed on by ordained Buddhist priests across the millennia. My Zen center is headed by an ordained male priest, and the most visible members and priests-in-training are, with a few notable exceptions, also men.
Two years ago, we began to discuss the precept to not misuse sexuality. I was saddened but not surprised that there was no mention of sexual assault, rape, coercion, and consent.
When I introduced it, I was astonished by the reaction.
Men I did not even know responded with “But I’ve never raped anyone.”
“Wow,” I said. “I didn’t say you had. I just said we should talk about how rape would definitely fall under misusing sexuality. I’m sure we can agree on that.”
But this disingenuous and completely unrelated I would never response became so consistent and overwhelming that it effectively shut down the conversation. Those few men (but mostly women) interested in discussing how consent and assault relate to the precept retreated into private messages with me.
The men who had co-opted the conversation and used it to deny accusations that hadn’t even been made were effectively saying I’m a good person, so I shouldn’t have to think about this.
* * *
Western culture has been obsessed with rape for millennia, going back at least to ancient Greece. Much later, in the 17th century, rape was a hot topic for Baroque painters, and artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Peter Paul Rubens, Artemisia Gentileschi, Poussin (his The Abduction of the Sabine Women shown above), and Le Sueur revisited rapes from ancient Greece and the Bible. They filled vast canvases with fleshy female bodies, bare arms raised to heaven, eyes rolled in terror. But the terror is undeniably alluring, orgasmic even. The women are either naked, their skin gleaming as the inside of a clam shell, or in various states of undress. The men withdraw into the deep shadows of chiaroscuro, leering at or snatching the bodies laid bare like fruit at a feast. Poussin even sneaks in an ass-grab.
But this wasn’t just a trend. Europe and North America can boast centuries of art celebrating nonconsensual sex. We have only to look at novels, television, and film to see how often rape is romanticized. From Mr. Rochester grabbing Jane Eyre and threatening to force himself on her in 1847 to James Bond routinely grabbing and kissing women who cross his path, popular culture is littered with sexual assaults that are presented as romance. Whether we watch a hero who just won’t take no for an answer (Say Anything and Mad Men) or a film that depicts a woman’s captivity as sexy (Star Wars: Episode VI and Black Snake Moan), we learn at a young age that real men know what they want and take it. And real women resign themselves to it with an erotic moan.
Even at 11, I daydreamed of wearing a copper bikini like my hero Princess Leia and being chained to a wall. When I played with my dollhouse, Ken grabbed Barbie’s waist and threw her on the tiny bed whispering, “You’re mine. All mine.”
And the women in these fantasies? They said the same things they said in every Hollywood assault I had ever seen.
Nothing at all.
* * *
Good men do think about rape and consent. Even if it scares them, they know the outcome is worth the temporary discomfort. I often think about how different my life, and my health, would be if all those men who attacked me over the decades had been a little bit braver. A little bit more willing to engage with their privilege.
Maybe I would never have been assaulted at all.
“I’m not a rapist” is such an unhelpful statement because it signals an unwillingness to engage with the deeper question of how to be anti-rapist (to borrow from anti-racist). It takes patterns of behavior we’ve all been socialized to engage in—women believing their desirability is bound up with catering to men and denying their own desires, and men reaping the benefits of that without a second thought—and sweeps them under the rug with a single sentence.
Since the men who plugged their ears as soon as they heard the word “rape” aren’t here, let’s go over some red flags. A person may have assaulted someone if:
- they don’t regularly ask sexual partner(s) how they’re feeling during sex
- it has never occurred to them to ask
- they don’t ask open-ended questions, like “What position do you want?”
- if they ever do ask questions during sex, they use leading questions that can leave their partner feeling coerced, such as “Can I do that?”
- they are, in fact, afraid to directly ask what their partner wants, in bed or out of it, and avoid ever having conversations about sex
- they get angry when a partner doesn’t cooperate with what they want
- they believe that other people should always give them what they want (love, sex, attention), and those who don’t are bad/mean/awful
- they aren’t above pressuring people through humiliation (“You’re a terrible partner who never thinks at all about me and what I want”) or threats (whether explicit: “I’m going to someone else if you don’t give me what I need” or implied: flirting with and eyeing potential partners in front of a current partner)
- they think that if they desire someone, it’s because that someone wants them to; the object of their desire made them feel this way on purpose
- they think that any attention or flattery or kindness signals sexual interest
- they think sexual interest or flirting is the same as consent
- they expect other people to fix their feelings for them
- they think people are mean/bad/awful/slutty for dressing or acting or speaking in a way that they find attractive
- it has never occurred to them that people who “drive them crazy,” like a woman sunbathing on a beach or someone dancing, are just being themselves and enjoying their own bodies, and that they have a legal right to that freedom of expression (i.e., dancing, dressing, talking how they want)
- they believe that most women who report being sexually assaulted either a) were asking for it or b) are lying
- they think only women can be raped
- they aren’t above being a little rough in bed to punish their partner or teach them a lesson
- they think the word no is flirty
- they think if someone tells them no/stop/don’t, the person just wants them to try harder
- they think if someone tells them no/stop/don’t, that person is just being obstinate and can be broken down until they say yes
- they love “The Chase”
- they think clear communication kills romance
- they get angry at their partner for having a tough day because it inconveniences them
- they suspect their partner’s illnesses and exhaustion are just deceptive attempts to withhold what they want and what is rightfully theirs (i.e., someone else’s body)
- they prefer passive-aggressive methods of “getting back” at their partner whenever they’re frustrated or disappointed
- they loathe any form of communication during sex and prefer to do it in silence, keeping their experience separate from their partner’s
But my very favorite of all-time, and the one I heard from two men at my zendo, is: They just know what other people want. Along with the gift of telepathy, they deliver satisfaction every time, and they’re always on the same wavelength. They’re just that good, so of course they’ve never asked about a partner’s experience. Why should they? It would just ruin a good thing. And besides, they love their partner, and it isn’t possible to rape people we love and/or are married to. So there.
The other items on the list are red flags, but this last one? YOU HAVE DEFINITELY RAPED SOMEONE SOMEWHERE. PLEASE STOP.
Buddhist precepts are traditionally stated in the negative. Don’t misuse sexuality. Don’t steal. In study and discussion, many Zen centers will reword these into positive statements. Honor the body. Be generous.
It’s all there in my list. Always ask. Really listen. Your feelings are your own. Sex is a generosity, not a need. No one is entitled to it. Negotiate. Have compassion.
You just have to do the work.
No one else can do it for you.