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How should we forgive men who have hurt us? Is it even possible? It is 2009. I’m in a chain coffee-shop, space that is not just neutral but nowhere, a rash of familiar decor infesting the walls, waiting for a man. Waiting for a particular man. People who ask why I like coffee shops so much usually haven’t had their arse grabbed in a bar. I’m particularly keen for that not to happen today, because I am maintaining a tricky equilibrium between loving compassion and the impulse to smack the next unsuspecting, undeserving male human I see in the face and shout incoherently until he develops some goddamn humanity. I buy a cup of truly appalling chain-coffee-shop tea, plant my feet on the floor in the corner, and wait.
The man I’m waiting for is late. When he arrives he apologises, although not too much. We talk about how he’s doing, how my boyfriend is doing, how his wife is enjoying her new job. Years ago, this man raped me after a party while I was passed out on his bed. I’m here to see what he has to say for himself, because I am pretty sure that he has chosen to believe that what he did wasn’t rape, because he’s a good guy, and good guys don’t do that s--t to teenage girls. They don’t f--k them unconscious without a condom and infect them with something mercifully treatable. Did I go to the Police? Did I hell. I thought I was a stupid slag who deserved it. I was afraid I wouldn’t be believed, by the law or by mutual friends, and that assessment proved entirely correct.
I have never watched a human face flush and alter quite so curiously as this man's does when I explain why what he did was rape.
It is too late now to make amends to the damaged kid that I used to be. That girl is gone, and someone else is here instead, someone older and uglier and angrier. The friends I lost after I dared to speak of it the first time because he was a charming, respected older man and I was a drunk teen slut are not friends I wish to regain. Nor am I particularly concerned for his immortal soul. I just want to stop it happening again to somebody else, and now word has reached me of a similar incident, so here I am, stirring my tea like a cauldron and wishing I could do magic.
The author, Laurie Penny.
I make some tight-lipped pleasantries and arrive, via a circuitous route that ambles around gosh-that-was-an-interesting-night, at the point. It is remarkably difficult to tell somebody, in person and without prevaricating, that they have raped you. It is difficult to explain in an even tone to someone who likes to think of himself as a decent human being that he has probably hurt you, but you must keep your voice soft and steady, because something between fear and fury is boiling in the back of your throat and you’re worried about what might happen if you let it loose. For minutes that feel like months, he just doesn’t get it.
And then he gets it.
I have never watched a human face flush and alter quite so curiously as this man’s does when I explain why what he did was rape, and that it was unacceptable. He stammers that he is sorry. I thank him, and ask him not to do it again, and then
I get to my feet, and push past the table, and walk away. For now, this man is sorry and ashamed, and there aren’t enough jails in the world to hold the hundreds of thousands just like him, perfectly ordinary chaps, a lot less clever than they think they are, who cannot contemplate that they, enlightened modern souls, could really do such harm. Rape, abuse and violence are something that evil men do, and they are not evil men.
Later that night, I receive an enraged email from his wife. I have done something terrible, something truly unforgivable: I have upset her husband.
And that’s when I get it. The worst thing we can possibly do in situations like this is make men feel uncomfortable. Acknowledging the enormity of male violence, the staggering scale of entitlement, would require a change in perspective so massive that it’s easier just to shut up and not talk about it, and isolate anyone who does. We don’t want to hear it.
It can be terribly uncomfortable for men to hear about misogyny, particularly their own. Unfortunately for them, as soon as they start to think and speak about gender they often run into one awful, unshakeable fact: how much men as a whole have hurt women. That means that it’s hugely difficult for men to talk about masculinity without coming to terms with how frightening and aggressive masculinity in its modern form has come to be. It’s frightening. It’s going to hurt.
Here’s what I’d like to say to those men. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay not to know what you’re supposed to be, or how you’re supposed to behave. You’re not allowed to question what it means to be a man, or even raise the possibility that there might be a question to ask, because if you did, if anyone did, then we might get answers. We might discover that what we all liked to think of as ‘masculinity’ is in fact a front, that ‘masculinity’ is actually fragile, and vulnerable, and hurting, and nothing more than human.
An edited extract from Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny, Bloomsbury, $29.99, available now.