Microaggression is a set of behaviours (not exclusive to rape culture) that constitute forms of borderline harassment: it fails to meet criteria for actual (sexual and/or criminal) harassment; often due to the context in which these behaviours play out (e.g., such as between two individuals who are known to each other and have established at least a minimal rapport — and all the associated assumptions of basic trust that come with it). It is an aggressive, predatory set of behaviours when consciously executed. It is often immediately minimized or dismissed by the person who perpetrates it (who will virtually never offer so much as an apology). One can often look back over the course of a relationship in which one has been sexually harassed or assaulted, and readily identify a series of “red flag” events that constitute microaggression. However, when it is an unconscious function (such as when someone is ignorant both of their own inherited social privileges and of how microaggressions towards marginalized persons reinforce that dynamic of inequality), intent doesn’t magically inhibit the potential for harm. I remain personally skeptical that unconscious microaggression (e.g., “poor social skills”) is at all nearly as common as deliberate, conscious, predatory microaggressive behaviour.
This blog post is about how predatory persons often “test” their target’s boundaries for higher-than-typical risk-tolerance through microaggressive acts, and how people like myself have come to understand these deliberate and carefully calculated behaviours as red flags — early warning signs of having made the acquaintance of a rapist. Obviously (or perhaps not so obviously to some), I hope this may help people unlike myself to understand why being unconscious of what microaggression is comes off as threatening to people like myself, who may at times therefore respond with what is often interpreted (at the time) as disproportionate and inappropriate anger or irrational terror. Someone told me it looks like “a cat thrown into a bathtub full of water” — they did not provide a reply when I responded that if you read or listen carefully, you can often anticipate that this is coming from miles away, as it is generally not nearly so acute a reaction on my part as they seem to think. Understand that I am talking about an extremely triggering set of behaviours here, that more often than not evoke a self-defensive response on my part, as if I had just been re-traumatized or targeted by a predatory type of person. When I have finally surpassed my boiling point, regardless of whether the microaggression in question is conscious or unconscious, my reaction looks a lot like this:
By now, you may or may not already be familiar with two posts I have written about rape culture: an introduction to the systematic nature of rape culture that we are all immersed in and thus all equally vulnerable to internalizing (rape culture 101), and a fairly thorough breakdown of why we shouldn’t be so naive as to believe everything a rapist discloses when prompted about their “side” of the crime they’ve perpetrated (rape culture 201). If you are familiar with these posts, you may already be getting a picture of just how complex an issue rape (and the domineering, misogynist culture in which rape occurs) really is. You may already be inclined to believe that there is a reason rape doesn’t “just happen” to every woman — that in fact, it never really “just happens” — and that this complex issue does not boil down to a simple heterogeneous solution of rapists and non-rapists. After all, if it were always that simple, then we could just require known sex offenders to wear tight black t-shirts emblazoned with the word “rapist” in 72-point white Impact font. Then we’d all know who to avoid, and survivors could stop being so defensive. And here’s where a primary category of microaggression emerges: I guarantee that if we actually could enforce this as a requirement for sex offenders, some assholes would design black T-shirts that are “ironically” emblazoned with something like “ropist” in the same font.
They aren’t funny. The only people who laugh are either terrified of being socially rejected (or even attacked) for saying they aren’t funny, or are fully immersed in the problem and therefore complicit with its perpetuation. The last time I personally confronted someone — who already knew I am a survivor of incest and multiple rapes — for “joking” about gang rape, it was just a couple of weeks after I finished outing myself as a survivor and former sex worker, in a comprehensive essay (for an anthropology course about sex and gender) about rape culture in mass media. An under-age woman in my area had been drugged at an outdoor party late in the summer, and was filmed by multiple people as she was being gang-raped. Those videos and stills from the videos had been repeatedly posted and re-posted on YouTube and Facebook for consecutive days before police issued a press release begging the public to stop perpetuating the circulation of these videos and images (which all constitute distribution of child pornography). In the press release, police were transparent that the victim was unaware of what had even happened to her until someone who recognized her from one of the videos directed her attention to it (which led her to seek help), and that she had clearly been drugged with GHB before she was gang-raped as onlookers hit the record button on their cell phones.
In a matter of a mere two days, speculation about the validity of her experience was already emerging in mass media. Most personally for me, the earliest article that I could locate that planted the seed of doubt came from my home town: where I was subjected to incest while everyone looked the other way for nearly ten years. I started collecting newspaper articles from one of the most viral mass media sources in print that one can find out here, in addition to collecting as many online articles about the gang rape as I could locate, before I started writing for consecutive days until 4 a.m. about how many ways my own history intersects with this woman’s story, and what misogynist messages we are all being programmed by mass media to take home (and presumably into bed) with us. By the time I finished writing, I was (and still am) thoroughly infuriated about how the mass media treats the subject of sex workers and their rights, the Pickton investigation and the Missing Women’s Inquiry, the local under-age woman’s horrendous tragedy, and women (and their bodies and public safety) in general. And then my so-called friend shared a “joke” about gang rape on an online forum with a readership in the thousands. I confronted him and told him I wanted no further contact with him because of this, and he rapidly responded with excessive badgering and gas-lighting until I quickly terminated all methods of contact he ever had with me.
What that man did is a microaggression. If a complete stranger had done that to me, it would be criminal (sexual) harassment and a record of this event would be stamped across the pages of police and court documents right now. But that man was known to me. That man had spent months prying into the depths of my private life and history, learning all about where my boundaries are (especially where they are lax), and waiting for an opportunity (possibly even planning one) to show me what kind of man he really is, because he knew what kind of person I really am. I am prone to black-outs if I drink alcohol too quickly, to full-blown dissociative episodes if I feel acutely threatened, to such extreme emotional compartmentalization in my day-to-day life that it works to my own detriment, and to being completely obtuse about how completely reckless some of my choices and behaviours are or have been (to the point that I have been asked point-blank by a psychiatrist if I have a death wish). And he wasn’t the only one working on me in this way over the same period of time. There is rarely ever just one at a time.
Do not have any doubts. There was no punchline — merely hatred of women. I’m not laughing. What happened is a major red flag, and I am still re-playing the entire course of my relationship with that man through my head, to remind myself just how many more microaggressions preceded that event. I’ve written about some of it indirectly in my rape culture 201 post — some of the ways he talked about his desire to objectify and sexually violate certain women (such as celebrities) if he “had the chance”, for instance.
Talking About Malicious Intent Like It’s “Harmless Fun”
As soon as I started to type this section, my mind flooded with hundreds of memories that serve as an example of this kind of microaggression. I was working at a porn store with a classmate from my psychology class when he asked me if I knew where he could get something he could “slip into [his] girlfriend’s drink that she wouldn’t know about, but would make her really horny” (literally, it’s been close to four and a half years, and I still remember every word, verbatim). I answered flatly that I don’t know where to get a date rape drug, because I’m not a date rapist. The situation rapidly escalated into rampant gas-lighting until I finally became so goddamned angry, he quit before I broke his face into his fucking hindbrain. I am still utterly astounded that he wasn’t fired on the spot for what he said when I reported it to my boss. A few months later, when I was at a BBQ party at the students’ union lounge of my college, a man I was chatting with (who I had seen all of once prior in the course of the entire previous year) waited until I was looking at my drink about to take another sip, before he pretended to sprinkle something into it. He was fucking smiling like a smug asshole, and a verbal conflict erupted between us that escalated like nitroglycerin. I had to take myself out of there — for his safety — because he wouldn’t leave me the fuck alone even though he could see how upsetting his gesture was (and so could everyone else, yet no one stepped in to tell him to get lost).
There was even a time that same year that I had met a man at a kink club when I introduced myself to his wife (who I had actually established and maintained contact with for months at the time). He tried very quickly to become closer to me than she was, and one night, when I told him what my plans were for the evening, he said “You mean you’re not coming over for dinner?” I told him I didn’t appreciate him talking at me like I’ve consented to him making plans for me. He responded with “You didn’t think I would bring you all the way over here so my wife and I could rape you, did you?” I flipped my fucking gourd. He wasted no time spreading his “side” of the story among men in the community who had a pronounced dislike of me (but who just barely tolerated my presence simply because, I guess, they like to keep their “enemies” close). By the time I attempted to write about this microaggression (and the fact that both his wife and I are incest survivors) to urge women in the community to trust their instincts and walk away at the first sight of a red flag, he had amassed a defence of dozens of men to ‘splain to me how I was never at risk of being raped — how they know, because they know him; how I’m just being over-reactive, just like they expect me to, to someone who has done nothing more than exhibit poorly developed social skills; and how I’ve outed the man as a rapist (which simply isn’t true) when in fact he did not rape me (as if I needed to be educated on the fact that I was not raped when I terminated all contact with him and decided to stay as far away from both him and his wife as I possibly could). And guess where this all played out? That same website where people were writing me essay-length justifications for religious genocide (among many other absolutely horrendous and inexcusable shit), and where Cpl. Jim Brown posted his pervert pictures. I’m still not laughing.
Once again, trust your instincts. There is nothing harmless in slipping someone a date rape drug (or even pretending to), or someone openly introducing the threat of rape into a conversation with you in such a way as to disarm your defences around this threat at the same time. If someone makes one of these suggestions as if it’s just “harmless fun”, what they are telling you is that they are capable of violating another human being this way. Whether or not they are actually threatening you with it does not negate the fact that they know they are capable, or that they have just alerted you to that in a veiled threat.
Pushing Your Risk-Tolerance Without Committing Assault
Sometimes people flirt, and other times what one person thinks is “harmless flirting” is really a form of microaggression (conscious or not) to another. Flirting is welcome attention, whereas microaggression is an advance that exploits welcome attention as an opportunity to push against a boundary (which is often answered by unwelcoming body language that is then dismissed, ignored, or even criticized). For instance, if I’ve been making eyes and welcoming body language at someone who has been doing the same to me, and they waggle their eyebrows at me while giving me an obviously terrible pick-up line, I’m going to laugh and tell them one of my own (e.g., “Hey baby. What’s your glove size? AMIRITE?”) That’s flirting. But when that same person puts their arm around me, and my body language changes very rapidly from “teehee, flirting” to “why the fuck are you touching me?” Well, that’s because they’ve pushed my risk-tolerance for physical contact from them. It could be a simple mistake — maybe someone else’s risk tolerance for this kind of physical contact is very high, but mine generally isn’t — or it could be a deliberate act of extremely subtle sexual aggression.
If that person should let go immediately or only clue in after I apply some force to free myself, but they apologize for making an unsettling gesture (or for making me uncomfortable — just a simple “Oh, sorry” suffices), they have clearly just misjudged the situation. But if they should say something like “Oh, come on — lighten up” or ignore my body language until I’m quite literally assaulting them to get them off me, we have definitively confirmed that this person isn’t just mistaken, but is actively perpetrating a form of microaggression. I have had to deal with a lot of this, and have answered in countless ways, ranging from letting my body go limp and my smile instantly drop off my face, to literally pushing or striking the offending party. I have also had to resort to verbally tearing someone 17 new assholes. I have also simply tolerated the behaviour in silence while pretending it doesn’t bother me, because when some of my former partners introduced microaggression into our established bond of trust, it caused a complete mindfuck that I tried to rationalize away by convincing myself that our bond was one of a contractual obligation. That I had no right to adjust my risk tolerance around them. That when they repeatedly attempted to re-negotiate my limits to gain access to me in ways we previously agreed were not on the table, it was because I owed it to them.
When I didn’t say no, but didn’t enthusiastically agree, he saw that as a weakness in my defences and kept working at it until he got what he wanted. When I said “I don’t know” because I couldn’t say no to him, he took that as a sign to help himself. A man was once in my home alone with me at 2 a.m. for a by-donation backrub. I did not typically agree to this absurd time, but he said it was urgent at the time, so I convinced myself to put my anxiety aside. He had spent an hour and a half listening to me talk and probing me for more details about how many times someone had been on that very table asking me for things I wasn’t offering. I told him (when prompted) about how frustrating and difficult it is for me to negotiate my way around that without being unpleasant (and thus losing my minimum $40 charge when it walked out the door with my now-unsatisfied customer) or giving in to these inappropriate requests (and thus opening myself to even greater risks that might not be advanced in the form of a request). When my hands and forearms were finally exhausted, I told him when I was done, and he didn’t pay me right away. Instead, he sat down next to me on my couch and continued talking to me while I waited with increasing anxiety for my compensation, not wanting to resort to being aggressive to extract it from him. He pulled out his wallet, opened it, and then closed it, holding it in his hand. He then leaned over to me, reaching up to touch my chin as he kissed me on the lips, and following my body as it moved away from him until he successfully completed his advance. Now I had to explain to him that this is not what I was there for, and somehow manage to extract what he owed me, without giving him the impression that he’s welcome any longer in my home. It’s been a couple years, and yet, my heart still sped up and started pounding harder as I recalled the moment he began to lean into me.
You have a right (a responsibility, even) to set your own risk-tolerance. No one else has a right to re-negotiate what risks you are or are not willing to take with your own safety. This is what the words “no means no” are really saying. But it’s also why feminists talk about “yes means yes”. Anything short of yes really means no, and this is something we need to keep reminding ourselves of. At the intersection of rape culture and microaggression, any ambivalence about what something-less-than-yes means is the reason why the red flags only seem obvious in hindsight. But they don’t have to be. We can train ourselves (and each other) to be aware of these all-too-common warning signs — to see the red flags before they are in the rear view mirror.