Not That You Asked: Some Advice For An Advice Columnist

Salon advice columnist Cary Tennis mostly gets blogosphere attention when his answers are WTF-laden, but today I'd like to praise him for getting it right, in response to a guy who's obsessed with his wife's rape. Well, mostly. Partly. Whatever.

Disclosure: I am on Salon's payroll, which doesn't influence my opinion much (you won't find me mincing words about Camille Paglia), but as a reader, I've long had a soft spot for Tennis's writing, which does. So I will respond to yesterday's column in the form of an open letter to him, lest I fall into the trap of giving advice without remembering that I am talking about a real human being — something he generally doesn't do, hence soft spot. Consider it my own little one-off advice column: "Not That You Asked."

Dear Cary (may I call you Cary?).

I've been reading your column for years, and in my opinion, your greatest strength and greatest weakness as an advice-giver are the same: You are relentlessly empathetic and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. This often makes your long, thoughtful responses quite moving. It also often leaves the reader wondering, "Why are you being so nice to this asshole? Did you not see the part where he said [complete asshole thing]? Call him out!"

Yesterday was one of those days, although in this case, "asshole" is probably too strong a word. Let's call him A Guy With Serious Issues That Are Above Your Pay Grade And Mine And Maybe Even A Licensed Therapist's. ("Guy," for short.) Guy tells you that 20 years ago, around the time he started dating his wife, she was raped. She has processed it and moved on with her life, and chooses not to talk about it now. Guy is not over it. Says Guy:

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?

Wisely, you don't really attempt to answer that question, because seriously, who knows? Also wisely, you encourage him to consult a licensed professional on the matter, even though he says, "I have had therapists but never felt able to talk to them about it." You spend a long time talking him through how that might go, the finally opening up to a therapist, which is probably something he needs. People do usually respond better to gentle guidance than no-holds-barred ass-kicking, I think.

But the problem with being an advice columnist (and I was one, briefly, albeit only for a blog with almost no readers) is that you're simultaneously writing back to the person who sought your advice and to a whole bunch of strangers. You are well aware of this, of course, if for no other reason than the vile pit of hatred that is (or sometimes can be, more charitably) your comments section. But I bring it up anyway because I think that sometimes your empathy for a person who has come to you with a problem, and is maybe even sincerely trying to change, leads you to forget that those other readers might need to hear something different.

Take that dude who didn't want to tell his new girlfriend he used to beat his wife. I know you've already heard a lot about that one, so I'll keep it brief. But Cary, as much as that guy may have been truly remorseful and really needed some support, your other readers — who almost certainly include domestic violence victims, abusers, and people who will some day become one or both of the above — need you, too. We need you to point out explicitly that beating your wife half a dozen times is six times too many, and not a youthful indiscretion that can be brushed away. We need you to say that, even if this particular guy really deserves the benefit of the doubt (who knows?), most abusers don't stop with one time, or one victim. In light of that, we need you to call him out on describing his ex as malicious for wanting to warn the new girlfriend about his past behavior. Come on! We need you to say that yes, people can change — you're living proof — but the reality remains that many people do not, and learning that your partner has a history of being abusive is a very good reason to leave him. That sort of thing, you know? Then you can get into walking him through the best-case scenario for him.

With Guy, it's not as clear-cut. He's got this problem, he knows it's fucked up, he's asking for help. Except — that part about him not being able to tell a therapist about it? That's a red flag for me. And the part about him blaming his wife's (unspecified) unpleasant behavior on a rape that happened 20 years ago, even if he doesn't say so out loud? That's another one. His anger at the friend who "let it happen," as though rape is anyone's fault but the rapist's? Number 3. And his fantasies about harming the guy? Common among men whose loved ones are raped, as I understand it, but daily, 20 years later? That's a red flag.

And when you put all those red flags together, it seems clear that this is not a letter you can take at face value. He's angry at all the wrong people, he's obsessed with an act of violence that happened to someone else two decades ago, and he thinks he needs help but won't tell a therapist about it? This guy seems to think his wife's rape happened to him, for Pete's sake. That is all shit your readers need you to address before you put the kid gloves back on and try to be helpful.

Having said all that, I promised to give you credit for getting something very right, which is this: You brought the concept of rape culture into your response, and encouraged Guy to take responsibility for helping to end it.

How do young men find the motive and the opportunity to commit such crimes? This was not a lone crazy stalker. This happened within a trusted social network. So there is something in our society that permits such things to occur. That is probably part of what outrages you so, and rightly. It confers upon you an obligation to speak out. When those to whom these things happen are silent, nothing is done to prevent further occurrences.

This rape that happened 20 years ago is not simply a private matter between you and your wife. It is a social problem today. Each of us bears some responsibility for embodying principles of respect and dignity that act as a social deterrent to the depersonalization that must occur in order for a man to commit rape. By supporting educational and law-enforcement programs that inform women, empower them and remove their attackers from the population, you can transform this crime into something positive.

That is 95% awesome, and incredibly refreshing to see in an advice column (or anywhere), so really, thank you for that. As for the other 5%, two quibbles: 1) As I just mentioned, the rape didn't actually happen to him, but to his wife, who apparently is choosing to be silent. There are lots of reasons why survivors might make that choice, primary among them that speaking out often brings judgment, derision and disbelief. (That's rape culture!) So, while it's absolutely true that decent people in general have an obligation to speak out against rape and rape culture, and that hearing the voices of victims has a powerful impact, let's not put too much pressure on "those to whom these things happen," okay? 2) Related to that, while the "educational and law-enforcement programs" you speak of are all important, you left out one crucial element, even though it's exactly what you're doing here (and well, and thank you again!): Educating men. Educating them first, not to rape — which you'd think would be a no-brainer, but the number of "nice guys" who "would never do a thing like that," and yet do do things like that, tells us otherwise — and second, not to support rape culture. Not to objectify women, or let it slide when others do; not to violate women's boundaries, even just to say hello; to call the police when they see a young woman being attacked instead of standing by or worse, joining in. That sort of thing. There's a lot men can do that doesn't necessarily involve law enforcement or teaching women to protect themselves. You just did some of it in this column, and it would be terrific if you encouraged guys like Guy to do even more of it among themselves.

But you know, I think I just put my finger on the thing that's really bothering me about your exchange with this writer, the thing that's really missing. (Like you, I often have to write my way into the real point, and it rarely happens quickly.) It's that fantasy about causing harm to the rapist. Like I said, it's common. I didn't tell my dad for months after I was raped, because I knew he'd respond exactly how he eventually did, with a bunch of talk about shotguns and "If I get my hands on him..." (And my dad is the type of guy who enjoys crossword puzzles, bird watching, and making goofy faces at babies a lot more than macho posturing. He's 5'8" on his tippy toes. His ideal Saturday afternoon involves sitting on a dock, waiting for a turtle to pop his head out of the water every 15 minutes, and exclaiming, "Oh! There he is!" whenever it does. You get the picture.) I didn't know at the time why that reaction bothered me so much — I've appreciated others' desire for vengeance on my behalf for much lesser cruelties — but now I do. It's because that, too, is part of rape culture.

When men focus on their urge to punish the rapist with their bare hands, instead of on the victim's needs — like, moving on after 20 years, for instance? — it reinforces a lot of nasty shit. Like the idea that women belong to their men, and a woman being raped takes something from those men. The idea that violence is best solved with more violence. The idea that making one rapist so sorry he'll never do it again — which, good luck with that — will do a damned thing to end rape. The idea that women need protection from and by big, tough guys more than we need a woman-friendly culture in which we're free to move autonomously and safely. The idea that once a rape has happened, there's anything anyone can do to fix it. A guy still laboring under any or all of those delusions needs to be disabused of them swiftly, as much as he may also need some gentle advice.

That's what I really didn't like about that letter. I liked a lot of things about your response, but if Guy had written to me, I'd have made sure to add all that, too. Not that you asked.

Fondly,
Kate

I Can't Get Over My Wife's Rape — 20 Years Ago [Salon]

Related: I'm A Former Abuser — Should I Tell My Girlfriend? [Salon]
Rape Culture 101 [Shakesville]
Guest Blogger Starling: Schrödinger's Rapist: Or A Guy's Guide To Approaching Strange Women Without Being Maced [Shapely Prose]