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I was visiting friends and A Tribe Called Quest's album Low End Theory was playing. This was an album I hadn't listened to in close to 20 years, but it was an album I listened to a lot when it was released in 1991.  When we were halfway into the album and the track "The Infamous Date Rape Song" came on, I was struck with the memory of discomfort and confusion that I felt when I listened to this song as a teenager. This was a song that had always raised questions for me, especially, was the track misogynistic or not? I wanted to put it in one category or the other and found myself with this same tendency now.  As if by way of the 1991 song, I travelled back in time to my youthful, clearly delineated feminism where one can put a song, a book, a person into a category: feminist or not. In this way of thinking, there was no room for blurred lines or complexities. As I really listened to this song, for the first time in 20 years, I could finally hear nuances I didn’t hear (or didn't allow myself to hear) when I first started listening to the record. The song stuck with me. 

A few months later, I came across Mary Gaitskill's 2017 collection of essays, Somebody with a Little Hammer, which is a compilation of previously published essays, including "On Not Being a Victim," which first appeared in a 1994 issue of Harper's. This essay, also about acquaintance or date rape, raised questions for me about the difficulties of understanding our own desires and others, of agency and victimhood, of equality and oppression.

I wondered, could these two texts  one told from the point of view of a man, another from the point of view of a woman  speak to the current, contemporary crisis of sexual misconduct and violence?   

Some thirty years after what had been called the "date rape epidemic" – in a 1982  Ms.  article titled "Date Rape: A Campus Epidemic?" – the #MeToo movement was initiated by survivor and activist, Tarana Burke. Conversations related to agency, victimization, gender inequality, and systematic oppression (though consistently present throughout this time) came back to life with a sense of urgency much like those same conversations surrounding date rape. It occurred to me in this current #MeToo moment that these texts – even though more than thirty years later – speak to each other in unexpected, but helpful, ways for understanding our present situation. 

"The Infamous Date Rape Song" and "On Not Being a Victim," offer a similar set of situations for the reader and listener to grapple with: a sexual encounter in which the situation is straightforward and clearly understood and a sexual encounter in which the situation is complex and misunderstoodIn addition, both pieces close by offering a resolution for taking responsibility and ensuring agency moving forward.  These two texts read together may help us understand our current moment. 

"The Infamous Date Rape" opens by setting the cultural context: 

Percentile rate of date rape is fat 
This is all true to the reason of the skeezing 

Tribe sets the sceneThis is a dating factdate rape happens, and it happens a lotI will argue eventually, that this song about heterosexual encounter is about the dignity of both man and woman.  But first we have to deal with something unfortunately familiaruncomfortable, and unfair: 

You got the right picking but you're in the wrong season 
If you're in the wrong season, that means you gotta break 

We have this degrading tropof the woman being a choice fruit to be picked and consumed, yet we cannot simply do just that: pick and partakeTribe suggests the encounter is about checking our own feelings against the other's, about reading the self and the other together. Does this feel right to you, to her?  If the answer is no – for either one -- the encounter should cease: 

You be all vexed 'cause she got it going on 
You don't want to fight 'cause you know that you're wrong

Read the vibe and do not counter what you feel in yourself or from the other.  Can you persuade or even coerce through affection, rather than use physical violence? 

You ask can you kick it, she says you can't stick 
This is the case, the situation is sticky 
Should you try to kiss or head for a hickey 

No, you cannot; you've got to "hit the road." Tribe's message is clear and adamant: 

Not even, you can ask Steven 
If the vibe ain't right, huh, ya leaving 
Hit the road Jack and all of that 

The second part of the song describes an alternate encounter, which at first seems to be consensual:  

If she's with the program, that's when you start to kiss her 
Might as well get to the point, no time to waste 
Might as well break the ice, then set the pace 
You start to talk nasty, now she's ready to bone 

But at the end of the encounter, the speaker is surprised when he suddenly becomes aware that his partner did not want to have sex: 

Girly girl cried rape, yo, I didn't really need it

The speaker's response is both tender and emphatic that the communication not end here: 

Sweetheart, we ain't going out like that 
Sweetheart, we ain't going out like that 
We ain't going out like that 
We ain't going out like that 

This is a mutual decision whether yes or no: 

I won't cry over spilled milk 
If you won't let me take you to the hilt 
I don't want to bone you that much 
That I would go for the unforbidden touch 
I'm not the type that would go for that

The speaker/singer is asking for consent from his partner while re-asserting the earlier definitive: "no means no."   

Are there some lines that are troubling? Yes, if the woman does not want to have sex, it's no problem to the speaker because he has an alternative: 

I'll have to fetch a brand-new cat

And the last, a jab at the woman for not wanting to have sex because she is menstruating. These lines are often called misogynistic: 

Baby, baby, baby I don't want to be rude 
I know because of your bloody attitude 
I know why you act that way 
It usually happens on the 28th day

But what follows is calling out respect for the woman (body and brain) and the mutuality of the sexual encounter: 

I respect that crazily 
When you're done with the pads can you come check me 
This ain't a joint to disrespect you 
Because one head ain't better than two 
Check it out 
It's a classic example of a, a date

One head is never better than two.  The speaker respects his partner.  We've moved from the reality of the current cultural context at the beginning of the song, "classic example of a date rape," in which one heads dominates, to a "classic example of a date," when two heads create the idealThe "classic example" Tribe cites becomes by the end of the song, not a classic rooted in disrespect and patriarchal power, but rather an ideal rooted in mutual respect, dignity, and ultimately the power of agency in two.

Similar to Tribe's song, Gaitskill's piece explores a complex, nuanced scenario and a very straightforward scenario, and also like Tribe, Gaitskill closes with an ideal exemplified by mutual respect and agency.  She describes what she originally experienced as a "date rape" (but in retrospect believes it was not) and another encounter that she called and continues to call a rapeLastly, she proposes a solution moving forward, exemplified by another encounter.  

At the start of her essay, Gaitskill describes "an experience that could be described as acquaintance rape."  When alone with a man she had just met, she describes threatening moment when the man said, "If I wasn't such a nice guy, you could really be getting screwed." Gaitskill acknowledges this threat only to herself, attempting to change the subject rather than call out that comment or ask the man to leave. What follows is the man reaching for Gaitskill. As she describes it, "I let myself be drawn into sex because I could not face the idea that if I said no, things might get ugly." To further complicate matters, Gaitskill says she was at once having a "bad time" while aware of the man's "extreme gentleness; he was obviously trying very hard to please me...I sensed in his own way he intended a romantic encounter." For a long time after, she described the encounter as rape, yet that word didn't sit quite right with her: "I knew when I said it that the statement wasn't quite accurate, that I hadn't, after all, said no.  Yet it felt accurate to me." 

This passage reminded me of the second part of "The Infamous Date Rape," when the speaker feels he has engaged in consensual sex only to be told after that "I didn't really need it," yet we never hear the speaker in the song convey that a "no" was spoken. 

While Gaitskill acknowledges calling what she experienced "rape" was not accurate, she also acknowledges a "metaphorical truth"; her naming matches her feelings, but perhaps not the facts.She writes later in the essay that "to speak in exaggerated metaphors about psychic injury is not so much the act of a crybaby as it is a distorted attempt to explain one's own experience."

Tribe makes a similar reference: 

I won't cry over spilled milk 
If you won't let me take you to the Hilt 
I don't want to bone you that much

The speaker, like Gaitskill, tells himself a version of the story to explain the experience, of wanting someone and being rejected: "I'm not a crybaby," and I don't want you that much (though clearly he does). 

The incident that Gaitskill describes occurred when she was a young woman, around sixteen.  Looking back some fifteen years later when she tells us this story, she makes what was (and arguably still is) a controversial claim: "[I]n failing even to try to speak up for myself, I had, in a sense, raped myself." The cause, she posits relates to not knowing how to speak or stand up for herself, having only been taught a binary world of "good" and "bad." (Gaitskill provides an example:good girls don't have sex, bad girls do.)  Gaitskill argues that what she experienced had nothing to do with "good" or "bad," rather: "It was about someone wanting something I didn't want." But, as she argues, without tools for speaking up for herself she was left with the "good" versus "bad" social etiquette she grew up with – at once vague and external to the self and her own desiresGaitskill writes of an achievable ideal: "If I had been brought up to reach my own conclusions about which rules were congruent with my internal experience of the world, those rules would have had more meaning for me."

What does this look like? It looks like responsibility – responsibility towards our own feelings and the feelings of others: "Part of becoming responsible is learning how to make a choice about where you stand in contrast to the social code and then holding yourself accountable for your choice."   

Tribe's song is very much about reading those social codes: 

You got the right picking but you're in the wrong season 
If you're in the wrong season, that means you gotta break 

And Tribe's song is also about making a choice and holding yourself accountable based on the reading of those codes: 

You be all vexed 'cause she got it going on 
You don't want to fight 'cause you know that you're wrong

Gaitskill argues when we don’t hold ourselves and others accountable, we find ourselves back in between two sides of an unhelpful dichotomy.  We repeat some version of the binary good versus bad. She delves into two sides of a feminist argument related to date rape – the feminists critical of victimization (with agency taking a hit) and the feminists who wish to legislate and/or create clear rules of behavior (with victimization being a given).  As she sees it, these two sides represent the "crybabies who want to feel like victims" and those who take responsibility and wield agency.  

The tensions of these two sides of feminist reaction to what was referred to as a "date rape crisis" reminds me of two moments from Tribe's song cited above. In one, the woman is victim: 

Girly girl cried rape, yo, I didn't really need it 

In the other, she is a source of agency: 

You ask can you kick it, she says you can't stick 
This is the case, the situation is sticky 
Should you try to kiss or head for a hickey 
Not even, you can ask Steven 
If the vibe ain't right, huh, ya leaving 
Hit the road Jack 

Gaitskill argues that the discourse on victimization simply replicates the external rules (bad versus good) that were unable to serve her as a young woman in a crucial and scary situation. Either side of the feminist argument is rooted in "universally agreed-upon conclusions."  On the one hand, you have feminists declaring that a man must receive a definitive "yes" before having sex with a woman. On the other, you have feminists (Gaitskill cites for example Camille Paglia) who call out women's unwillingness to take responsibility by entering into compromising situations. Gaitskill's point is that these two sides simply uphold the good versus bad dichotomy. 

The second narrative Gaitskill describes is in contrast to the first.  Gaitskill argues in the context of the first incident, "to speak in exaggerated metaphors about psychic injury is...a distorted attempt to explain one's own experience." She references Wendy Kramer author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional who writes that no one would rather be raped metaphorically than actually.  Gaitskill steps right up to the mic to say: "But actually, I might." She then goes on to describe a violent and life-threatening rape, which she says "although bad, was not especially traumatic." Other victims would certainly argue with yet another controversial Gaitskill statement. 

The last scenario Gaitskill describes was a more  recent encounter with a man she was friends with who she had no intention of becoming sexually involved with.  After their usual friendly socializing, he moved in on her. She said no, and he "parried each 'no' with charming banter and became more aggressive." This moment is exactly what Tribe tells us should not happen; Jack took his cue and hit the road. Gaitskill became frightened, but confident and said: "If this comes to a fight you would win, but it would be very ugly for both of us." 

In this situation, she acknowledges that she invokes both agency and victimization. Her friend could overpower her physically, but she does not want him to – she knows this would break her dignity and his. Gaitskill says she felt good about this interaction because it conveyed respect for herself and for the other: "I only regret that it took so long, both for my young self and for the boys I was with, under circumstances I now consider disrespectful to all concerned." 

She acknowledges that she is "not idealistic enough to hope that we will ever live in a world without rape and other forms of sexual cruelty." She continues, "I think men and women will always have to struggle to behave responsibly.  But I think we could make the struggle less difficult by changing the way we teach responsibility and social conduct. To teach a boy that rape is 'bad' is not as effective as making him see that rape is a violation of his own masculine dignity as well as a violation of the raped woman." 

This point echoes Tribe's final lines which emphasize mutual respect of body and mind: 

This ain't a joint to disrespect you 
Because one head ain't better than two

As Gaitskill has showed us and as Tribe has taught us, "the situation is sticky."  Reading our desires and others, taking responsibility for ourselves and others, and respecting the dignity of ourselves and others is complicated.  Likewise, my feelings about these two texts are tricky. 

There are pieces of Tribe's song and likewise Gaitskill's essay, that make me mad and sad at the unfair, unequal treatment of women. Yet, overwhelmingly what I see in both pieces, one voiced by black men, one voiced by a white woman, is the complexity of any sexual encounter, yet the absolute necessity of mutualityrespect and dignity of the self and other must be held up. Both Tribe and Gaitskill argue there are few clear lines and many blurred, but both the blurry and the clear count and contribute to understanding and meaning

These voices from the 1990's – these voices of dissent and controversy that spoke to the great difficulties of communication and sex, of bodies and minds, of desires and emotions, of power differences – say something simple but profound in this highly divided cultural moment: two heads are better than one, our mutual dignity unites, while power of one over another, divides and disrespects all. 

May 2020

From guest contributor Amy Hezel, Regis University

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