Determining Whether I’m a Determinist

Mormon doctrine strongly emphasizes the importance of personal agency. In what Mormons call the “Preexistence”, we were all in heaven existing in a non-physical, pre-mortal state. God presented us, his children, with the knowledge that in order to become Godlike ourselves, we must become mortal, endure the trials of having a physical body, and put our faith to the test to prove our worthiness. There were two divergent beliefs, one held by Satan, and the other by Jesus. Satan was of the opinion that God should compel us all to behave whilst down on Earth so that we could all be saved and become like Him. Jesus believed that we should get to choose for ourselves whether we wanted to follow God. God went with Jesus, and Satan got so angry that he revolted, got a third of the pre-mortal population to follow him, and was kicked down to hell. The rest of us (this means you) decided to choose the right and follow God’s plan, effectively putting our agency to use for the first time.

Once you get past the kooky nature of a pre-mortal existence where God permanently disavowed 33.33333∞% of his children for making a bad choice (which, really, if you get into the ethics of it isn’t all that bad), you’re left a very skewed kind of agency. Sure, you get to decide what you want to do. But if you decide wrong, you’re screwed. Sorry. So you really don’t get to decide.

Mormons will say that every action has its consequences. You drive drunk, you kill someone, well, that was your choice and now you will deal with it. You drink coffee and screw someone before marriage, well, damn you to hell. You made your choice and now you’ve got it comin’ to ya.

But if our everyday decisions unilaterally and unequivocally affect our potential for happiness in eternity, do we really have agency? A one-size-fits-all approach to lifestyle, particularly one that finds personal edification in the denial of virtually all physical pleasure, is not only tough to achieve but oddly sadistic. (I think it’s part of the reason that Mormons tend to be so unbelievably fat. Denied virtually ever other pleasure — smoking, coffee, wine, sexual freedom — they often turn to the one unrestricted vice: food. You’ll see morbidly obese people shuffling around Mormon temples, but they’ll be damn proud they have never even so much as sniffed a chai tea latte.)

Perhaps because this was the doctrine that helped shape my early understanding of the world, the idea of agency has always been very compelling for me. We know that one of the factors that most affects employees’ happiness in the workplace is a sense of ownership over their behavior. People are much happier when they feel like they have a choice in what they do. And yet it can also backfire; having too many options can cause us to second-guess or regret our decisions more than if we only had option A versus option B.

So where does an atheist such as myself sit on the topic of agency? Generally speaking, I try to approach my decision making in a fashion that positively affects me only to the extent that it could personally impact someone else negatively. If I wanted a candy bar that you had, I wouldn’t take it. But I would take no ethical issue with stealing that same candy bar from a Wal Mart. It doesn’t mean I would, but that’s the line of thinking. Obviously, it gets more nuanced, but there it is.

But the more I really think about it, I wonder. Do we truly have agency? And I don’t mean it in the “If you really had agency, you could kill someone and have no consequences” type of way. I mean it in a more existential “How much control do we really have over the reasons we make the decisions we do?” I’ll recount the first time I considered this question and began to move towards where I am now.

I’ve always been in great admiration of my brother Mike. Right after me in the kid chain, Mike is about to graduate from the Air Force ROTC with a degree in some complex kind of engineering that I can never remember. He received a coveted pilot slot and has achieved top marks in both grades and physical fitness. Mike’s work ethic is incredible. He’s very bright, and whatever he might lack in intelligence, he makes up for in perseverance and dedication. Mike is also an incorrigible pessimist. It’s not that he has no hope for the future; it’s just that he tends to analyze everything so critically that the negative possibilities perpetually worry him. (Maybe he’ll deny this and I’m about to really piss him off. Tee hee.)

In many ways I’m like Mike, and in many ways I’m not. I have neither his intelligence nor the hyper-rationality that often comes along with big smarts. Having a laid-back, cheery attitude is just easier for me than for him, although Mike’s cynical sarcasm is so much funnier than I could ever hope to be. And it’s not like any of this is a good or a bad thing; it just is. But I remember one night after a lengthy conversation with Mike in which he was sharing some aspects of his life that were very much stressing him out, I thought to myself, I would not be stressed about that. Those things would not bother me in the least. And then I thought about the idea, perpetuated by sickly sweet memes all over the internet. that one has only to choose a positive outlook on life to make everything better. Okay, maybe, but what if, like Mike, simply making that choice doesn’t come naturally? What if some people naturally worry more than others, and that’s not a bad thing, but it just is?

And then I considered whether or not, if he really wanted to, Mike could choose to be perpetually sunny about tough things, assuming that it was useful for him to do so. Knowing Mike fairly well, I would say that no, he probably could not. And that is through no fault of his own. A combination of truly difficult childhood experiences that Mike has valiantly toughed his way through, and a genetic predisposition to worry excessively that very much runs in the family, has made Mike who he is today. I think Mike is great. You’d have to ask him, of course, but he’s happy and successful and I admire him greatly.

But the approach that Mike and I would take to a very similar situation might be very different. We’d each “choose” our reaction, but… would we? Having gone through different childhood experiences, which are totally out of our control, and having a different tossup of genetics, which is also totally out of our control, could Mike and I really choose our reaction to any given circumstance? Sure. But that choice wouldn’t really be our choice. We make decisions because of who we are, and who we are is shaped by the two factors that we cannot control: the ever-battling Nature and Nurture.

Of course, this makes so much of what we believe, especially in America, obsolete. It totally takes away from the “self-made” man (which I believe is a myth anyway, and you can read a great piece about exactly that in Slate by John Swansburg). It strips the pride from the wealthy, the ego from the successful, the shame from the homeless. It shoots down the idea that the only difference between you and me is our strident efforts at bettering ourselves.

It also has tough implications for criminals that I’m still trying to work through. If someone has an impulsive desire to steal – or, to be heavy-handed here, to kill – are they morally culpable for their decision to do so? Could they really decide not to? If so, knowing the consequences for their actions, why wouldn’t they?

Anyway, that’s what I have thus far. More to come.

Was I Raped?

Let’s start with a story.

About six years ago, before I turned 18, I met a guy that we’ll call J. I was in the very beginning of my life post-Mormonism, and the sense that I could do whatever I wanted was setting in full-swing. I started, albeit self-consciously, wearing very short shorts and shirts without sleeves. I began dabbling with alcohol and marijuana (although at the time, I didn’t particularly like either). I cut off all my hair. I started going out late at night. So thus it was that I found myself at a alcohol-free Mormon “standards” nightclub in downtown Salt Lake City. If you had shirts whose sleeves were too short, the staff would provide you with an oversized white t-shirt to cover up your immodesty. The swear words in the lyrics of the music were blurred out. But it was the only club that an under-18-year-old with no connections could hope to sneak into, so we did, and that’s where I met J.

He was a break-dancing, ball-cap wearing Polynesian dude with a disarmingly cute smile and a great sense of humor. I liked him right away. The night we met, we fooled around a bit, exchanged numbers, and parted ways.

The next weekend, J invited me to his apartment. He would come and get me in his car. I’m sure that we exchanged racy messages in between the first and second time we saw each other, but I can’t remember anything specific. I do remember, very specifically, knowing that J wanted to have sex with me, and also knowing that although I definitely saw him as a potential candidate, I did not feel comfortable having sex with him then. I wanted to get to know him better, to feel a little safer. But combined with that was a burning curiosity to know what sex was like. I felt like I was ready to have sex, and I raged with hormones that I’d worked hard to repress during my Mormonism.

Nevertheless, I explicitly told J that I did not want to have sex with him if I came over. I figured if I set up that expectation, then it would be clear and there would be no more negotiating of the subject. Anyone who’s navigated the rough waters of teenage sexuality knows it’s never that simple, but maybe I naively thought we would just “hang out and watch a movie” (which any woman learns in due course is code for “have sex”).  So I went to J’s.

Over the course of the next couple of hours, not much movie-watching was done. J was too intent on taking off my clothes, which if I remember correctly, was done under a “You’re so beautiful, you should just lay next to me in your underwear and we’ll take a nap” sort of strategy. Once we got to that point, all ensuing activity was mostly comprised of J kissing, fingering, and then fucking me, while I lay there fairly inactive. I did not say no. I didn’t push him off. He wasn’t violent, and he wasn’t cruel.

Anyone who’s had sex knows that the first time, under any circumstances, is awkward and often painful. But I wasn’t enjoying myself. I wasn’t wet. I wasn’t turned on. An older, more experience man might have clued into my complete lack of reaction.  Maybe J did know, and he just didn’t care. He didn’t wear a condom, and I didn’t know better than to tell him to put one on. We had sex, twice, and both times he pulled out. Then he fell asleep. I just lay there.

I didn’t say “No.” I didn’t say “Stop.” If I had, I have no doubt that J would have stopped. He wasn’t a jerk, or an insensitive brute. He was older than me by three or four years, and I was under 18, but he wasn’t an old, wise man taking advantage of a young, innocent girl. He was horny, and presented with an opportunity that he knew he had a good chance of successfully taking advantage of. So he did.

When I left, I went home and, feeling the need to get clean of J, took a shower. I felt residual guilt from a life spent in a sexually oppressive religion. I felt excited and proud that I had taken this key step towards adulthood and reclaiming my sexuality from Mormonism (even if I wouldn’t have termed it that way at the time). But I could not decide, even right after the fact, whether I felt violated or not. I have always considered myself a strong, outspoken woman, and I felt sure that if I had not really wanted it, I would have said no. And yet.

I kept the underwear I was wearing that day until Lois ate the crotch out of them a couple of years ago and I finally threw them away. Maybe it stands as some representative of my conflicting emotions that not only did I keep them and wear them regularly, but I did so even though every time I saw them, I remembered their significance and called into question, yet again, whether or not I was raped.

Let me make something clear: I was not, in any way, violently taken advantage of. I wasn’t injured; I wasn’t traumatized. Fortunately, I didn’t get pregnant, and the encounter did neither lasting good nor lasting harm. I had plenty of opportunity to say No, and I think that if I had taken that opportunity, my wishes would have been respected. But I had told him no before I even arrived.

Here’s one more personal story. I go to a nightclub in downtown Chicago with a group of girlfriends and drunkenly bump into a hot Latin hunk who isn’t as drunk as I am. Over the course of the evening, we dance, drink, and I invite him to my home. We screw the bajeezus out of each other. The next morning, when we wake up, I can’t even remember his name.

This is the definition of rape: The unlawful compelling of a person through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse. It’s a crime because it causes such emotional trauma to victims. So, here’s the question. In consideration of the events as related, the definition of rape, and the potential consequence of rape behavior, in either of those circumstances, was I raped? Is there an answer? If the answer is yes, would either men deserve prosecution?

I’m not sharing my experience because I think it’s unusual. In fact, I’d bet the substantial sum of my student loan debt that both the scenarios I just shared are very common. And that’s exactly why I’m sharing – illustrating the subtle complexity of rape isn’t as easy as Yes, s/he was raped, or No, s/he wasn’t. But my very common story also illustrates what I believe is the most critical, and yet the most ignored, aspect of the Rape Culture Conversation right now.

Which is this: rapists, would-be rapists, potential rapists, almost-rapists – they are not the trench coat-wearing, around the corner-hiding, scary, violent, horrendous bad guys that the Rape Conversation often paints them to be. Sometimes they are that. But more often, they’re not. And right now, the conversation surrounding rape is taking such a strong victim-versus-predator stance that it becomes unproductive by virtue of its tenacity.

I’m not saying that that stance isn’t necessary. It is, in moderation. It’s absolutely necessary to take any means to evict our victim-shaming mindset and to bring to light sexual abuses and their perpetrators. But in doing so, I think we sometimes look so much to the What, When, and Where of rape and sexual abuse that we overlook the Who, and most importantly, the Why.

For example: Much discussion around rape currently says that when inebriated, people cannot consent and therefore sex with an inebriated person constitutes rape. Perhaps if one person is sober and the other person entirely drunk, the question of rape becomes cut and dry. But my experience is that a situation so simple is usually not the case. So what if both people are equally inebriated? Could they charge each other for rape? Is the man always the rapist because he is the penetrator? After a few drinks, is a woman’s decision to have sex really made incredible enough to call such intercourse rape? If so, when does she become too inebriated to consent? Should every guy who has a decent sense of ethics refrain from sex with a woman who’s been drinking? Does that mean I didn’t purposefully bring that toothsome Latin home, and that he raped me? None of these questions have easy answers, but they need to be asked. So much is at stake if they are not.

So what about J? What about my sexy Latin boy? Much more importantly, what about those horrendous scenarios when women are brutalized by strangers with weapons? And what about everything in between? Who are these guys, these assholes, these evil men who commit atrocious acts of violence against children and women and other men? Well, that’s where it gets complicated.

They’re dads. Husbands. Little brothers.  Best friends. Men who come from traumatizing backgrounds. Men who are previously molested. Mentally ill or unstable men. Sociopaths who have no control over their lack of empathy.  Does this justify their behavior? No, but looking at the motivating factors can begin to explain it – and if we’re really to stop rape, then it means stopping it at its genesis, and that’s much harder than simply telling victims to stand up against their violators and then putting them in jail.

So how do we tackle the problem of rape from the perpetrators’ perspective? There are myriad speculations on why men rape (and yes, I know women rape, but the numbers and reasons are very much different and nowhere near as pervasive). Is it power? Is it really sex? More likely, it’s a complex combination of both of those factors in addition to anger, or mental illness, or past abuse. The reasons are different for different abusers.

This is where I stop. I wish I had more answers, but I’m not a psychologist, a sociologist, or a scientist. I’m not writing this article to offer a solution. I just keep seeing stories on my Newsfeed from friends who are on the Rape Conversation bandwagon, but approach it from a very one-dimensional ‘Fuck those bad-guy rapists and send them all to jail’ kind of way. I don’t think that works. It especially doesn’t work if you read recent conversations on Reddit from so-called “Rape apologists” (some are, some aren’t) who are having a difficult but very important conversation about the stories of rapists from their perspective.

In conclusion: there is no conclusion. Was I raped, either of those times? I don’t think so. I don’t feel like I was. But I’m offering my stories and suggesting to you that, wherever you stand on rape, it’s more complicated than you think. What does or does not constitute rape is sometimes unclear. It depends on individuals and their circumstances. What may constitute rape to one woman may not constitute rape to another. So I’m suggesting is that we rethink the most common denominator of rape – people who we know and love – and figure out why it’s happening and what we can do to stop it. Stop the partisan good-guy bad-guy approach to rape and take what I believe is a much scarier, and yet much braver, approach. These guys are our friends, our neighbors, our partners. The way we behave towards them now will very much impact their behavior in the future.

What do you think?