This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
Drew Baker is a feminist Buddhist-Christian PhD student in Religion, Ethics and Society at Claremont School of Theology. His work engages the interconnections between trauma theory, religious ethics and ghost narratives.
[DISCLAIMER: Sexual violence is contained in the post below]
When I was a freshman in college, I drastically misread Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice. I read her book then, and (wrongly) saw a mirror of my own ideals. Selfless care above all else. I see a more complicated and beautiful portrait in her book today. Something changed.
I was raised Buddhist. Like many Buddhists, I learned about the doctrine of no-self and the moral value of compassion. I came to wed the concepts in my mind. Selfless care. There were no virtues in the world beyond the mantra: ‘love others no matter the cost to the self.’
Kenosis can be quite pragmatically valuable to cultivate as a spiritual discipline for those with power. As a white straight man, honestly, there were few instances in my life growing up that should have called this personal virtue into question.
Early in my time in college, I began dating a woman in my class. I was severely struggling with depression at the time, but I pushed my hesitancies and doubts aside. Very quickly, I became aware that she was much more aggressive than I was comfortable with. In the beginning, it seemed innocent, such as grabbing me roughly to kiss me. Soon she was touching me. I would tell her no, and yet she would continue.
One night, she pushed me on her bed. I moved to stand back up; she pushed me back down and straddled me. She began to remove my clothing. I whispered “no,” and then stronger: “no.” She continued, looking at me with her piercing eyes; I mistook her desire that night as a need. I continued to mumble “no,” but could not find the strength in my limbs to push her off of me. I still remember, I still feel the terror in my mind and my heart. This is what she wants. That thought froze me. This is how I would care for her: I would leave myself behind. My body went rigid, motionless. I was a mourning statue, as the tears ran down my cheeks. With the tears, my lips, too, also moved, continuing to mouth “no.”
The first time I “had” sex, there was no “having” about it. I was raped, the victim of intimate partner sexual violence. Like most cases of intimate partner violence, this was not the only instance. I experienced variations of that night for the next few months. The memories still return against my will from time to time. Eventually, I ended the relationship. I still do not know where I found the physical, mental and emotional strength to make that particular ‘no’ final.
It has been a long path to find myself again. Or, more properly, it took me years to realize that I luckily had not been able to give over all of myself to her, nor had she been able to take all of me from myself. The scars would remain, but the scars were not me.
Only through these eyes could I reread Gilligan correctly. Gilligan is quite clear that completely selfless care is a potentially harmful stage of moral development. Gilligan suggests that the morally mature individual must learn to weigh care for others with care for the self. Proper care is a balancing act.
By this post, I do not mean to suggest several things. I do not principally blame myself for what happened over those months. I once did. It took me a long time to realize that my partner was responsible for her actions. I was just easy prey.
Nor do I mean to suggest that the lessons I learned made the experience “worth it.” Learning to care for myself is not worth the irreparable damage done to me. Some experiences cannot be fully redeemed. The kernel of loss remains.
Nor do I intend to condemn all of Buddhism. For starters, the inherent problems within selfless care are not unique to Buddhism; Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker powerfully argue in Proverbs of Ashes that such is also the case in the Christian concept of selfless love. Further, I agree with Rita Gross (in her wonderful Buddhism after Patriarchy) that there are valuable possibilities for Buddhism beyond the absolutization of selflessness.
I do mean to suggest, however, with Gilligan, that the true virtue of care is found within a balancing act of care for the self and others. This is particularly true in the case of women and other marginalized groups. The proper balance between self and others will be unique to every individual, as social power imbalances make intentional corrections necessary. Even as a man, however, I had much to learn about care for myself.
Feminism, for me, among many other things, means standing against sexual violence. Sadly, as I came to realize after my own experiences, awareness and knowledge about sexual violence in the cases of adult men as victims is very limited. Like in all cases of rape, it is also extremely underreported.
After that first night, while my lips continued to protest her actions, my voice itself had left me. It has taken time for me to find it again. It took a couple of years for me to fully talk about my experiences even in my most trusted relationships. This is my first public post about it. It takes courage. After all, through courage, I find and care for myself. And, I hope, in writing about a topic concealed all too often in a shroud of silence, I care for others. Care for the self, care for others: the two need not always be contradictions. Mutuality is possible. In that sentence, healing is more than just a promise for me. Given voice, it becomes real.