Monday, November 9, 2009

"To Protect" or "To Support"...

Recently, Salon’s advice columnist Cary Tennis received a letter from a man whose wife was a victim of rape some twenty years ago (“Since You Asked…” 10/28/2009). While his wife has seemingly come to terms with the event, the husband is still, after two decades, unable to move on:
My problem? I can’t let it go. I think about it daily, 20 years after the fact. I wonder about the details. I’m angry at the friend who let it happen. I blame (only to myself) current behaviors of my wife on the fact that she was raped then. I fantasize about causing harm to the man who committed the crime. But this was so long ago, and our lives are so different, and reasonably happy, now. Why my obsession?
Tennis’s advice is standard. He reassures the man that the rape was neither his nor his wife’s fault and encourages the man to open up to a therapist (something the man had also been unable to do, according to the letter) and perhaps consider supporting rape prevention programs. Good advice? Yes. But with delicate subjects like this, it’s tough to expect something revelatory from a major media outlet.

But it’s not Tennis’s response that makes this column so striking. Rather, the letter writer’s unflinching honesty highlights an aspect of trauma that often goes unmentioned in the aftermath of rape crimes. Having been through a similar predicament as the letter writer myself, and so experienced many of the same sentiments and feelings, I was struck less by the longevity of the man’s inability to “get over” his wife’s rape and more with the way the man avoided the proverbial elephant in the room: his own personal guilt. Hovering over his expressed feelings of anger and blame and his fantasies about causing harm to the rapist is the husband’s clear feeling of guilt over even considering making himself an issue in his wife’s trauma recovery.

This, I feel, is a very common roadblock in situations such as these. Many men whose wives or girlfriends (or sisters or friends, the list goes on) have been victims of sexual abuse tend to fall immediately into a sort of paternal or fraternal protective mode. Yet for all the chivalric romanticism attached to these modes of protection comes equal amounts emotional distress. In playing the role of protector, men like the letter writer automatically deny themselves a chance to “get over” the event because 1) they’ve already failed (they did not prevent the rape) and 2) the misplaced notion that it is their place to be the emotional rock in the relationship. In essence, the patriarchal ideal of Relationship Protectorate that guides most men whose spouses are victims of sexual abuse is often the seed to obsessions like the one afflicting the letter writer.

The larger misnomer here is the false notion that ‘to protect’ is the same as ‘to support.’ The letter writer is overtly concerned about his own unhealthy obsession with his wife’s rape largely because he feels wife has seemingly come to terms with the event. One thing I’d be curious to know is whether the man has considered the fact that his obsession may in fact be holding back his wife’s ability to “get over” the rape. As many people who have experienced or spent time around those who have experienced trauma know, triggers exist everywhere. Perhaps if the letter writer recognized that his obsessive behavior could in fact itself act as a trigger that sets his wife back in her own trauma recovery, perhaps then he could more easily overcome his inability to cope with wife’s past rape.

It’s clear that the man’s heart and motivations are in the right place—he genuinely cares for his wife and her safety, happiness and well-being. Otherwise, he would not harp on her past trauma so greatly. Patriarchal notions of protection are reductive, though. In cases like that of the letter writer’s, the notion of protection often completely blinds men to the fact that they are not really supporting their partners—a complex issue involving the emotions of two individuals is collapsed into one simplistic patriarchal ideal. Their compulsive desire to protect actually holds themselves and their partners back. I don’t wish to imply that adherence to unhealthy patriarchal ideals is the only thing preventing men like the letter writer from moving past their spouse’s personal traumas. It’s important to realize just how easily elided notions of protection can be: while they are often beneficial, protection does not equal support.

1 comment:

Benny Paul said...

This brings up an issue that I think deserves to be brought up many more times... I'll summarize it: There is a line between being a feminist and being obsessed with protecting women, and many men straddle that line.