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Alum perspective: toward a more inclusive progressivism

It’s November 2017. I’m walking back from Farm House to my townhouse at 4 a.m. My last fall term at Carleton is over, and I just need to catch the Northfield Line bus at 5:30 a.m. I just said goodbye to the girl whom I went on screwdate with at the bridge by the lake. I’m thinking about what had happened in her room at Farm House. We had sex. I feel violated. But how can that be? I’m an Asian guy. How can a white girl pressure an “international student” from Japan into sex? And that’s how I had been handling what happened at Farm House until recently: I could not have been raped because I am a guy. Plus, I’m Asian with an accent, and she is a white girl from a hyper-rich, privileged family.

I have this visceral need for the perpetrator to know how I felt violated.

Two years later, I’m in a seminar on critical race theory with Gary Peller at my law school. We are discussing prison abolitionism. My classmate, who supports prison abolition and presumably re-formative prison systems, says that she once was pressured into sex by a guy. She does not want the perpetrator to be criminally accountable, or anything. But she does want him to know that she felt violated and how it caused distress to her. Then I suddenly realize that that is exactly what I feel as well.

It took me two years to realize that I was sexually assaulted. When white liberals talk about sexual assault, they are usually imagining a white woman. As an Asian guy, I still feel weird saying that I was sexually assaulted—the only time a straight guy usually says he was sexually assaulted is when he was sexually abused as a child. Had what she did to me happened to a white girl, it would be surely a sexual assault—although she did ask, she asked multiple times in a forceful way, she was already undressing herself, there were elements of social power dynamics, and it happened in her room, etc. And people would understand factors that led to the power dynamics and subtle nuances of the situation that made her feel like she could not say no. But unfortunately, I am not a white woman. And all the extraneous factors—that we ended up dating briefly, that I’m one of those Asian guys with an accent, that she is a hyper-privileged white woman–made it almost impossible to gain empathy or even credibility. After I realized the gender and racial aspects, I reached out to the perpetrator, only to be ignored. I believe she would be decent enough to respond if she were a male and I a female with the same facts.

Fifty years ago, there was no such thing as marital rape or date rape. And the term would confound men who would wonder why a woman would keep dating or stay married to her “rapist.” Even the raped woman would not have realized that she was raped—as Catherine MacKinnon or Gary Peller showed, public precedes private. I hope someday, society and my perpetrator will realize that it is possible for a woman to rape a man, even if the woman is white and the man is a person of color from a foreign country, even if the woman belongs to the powerful ruling class, and even if the woman is a liberal.

When Kimberly Crenshaw, a legal scholar, coined the term “intersectionality” twenty years ago, she used the term to describe how traditional formal-equality feminism—feminism usually associated with Justice Ginsberg, failed to capture the experiences of black women. Now, liberals have completely flipped the meaning and use the term as a positive nomenclature. Carleton is full of anxious people trying to prove themselves or distinguish themselves with politics or ideologies. And that’s partially why I am writing this—to point out that traditional progressive students often ignore, or even contribute to, the oppression of a subset of disempowered people. I will not write about how much the incident and her subsequent display of racism have traumatized me. But I do want to caution the progressive students at Carleton not to be insensitive to non-traditional socially oppressed groups of students on campus. And of course, if liberal students would believe a white woman’s claim of having been raped, they should believe Black, Latina, and Asian women, and yes, Asian men as well.

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