How Does a Perpetrator Become an Advocate?

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By: Keith Sena, published with permission.  Originally posted here on April 8, 2016.

Since my university’s sexual assault issues publicly exploded earlier this semester, survivors of rape in the Baylor community have published their accounts.  At least two, Stefanie Mundhenk and Cailin Ballard, did so with blog posts.  Another one, Pamela Ruffner, did so with a speech during a chapel service on February 8 immediately following a candlelight vigil.  A current Baylor student, Payton Massey, published her account of being raped before coming to Baylor.  I’m sorry if I missed any.  I personally know at least one current Baylor student who was sexually assaulted but has not publicized it.

As important as their accounts are, they each tell only one side of the story: the survivor’s side.  I’m not implying dishonesty on their parts.  I fully believe their accounts, and have utmost sympathy for them.  All I mean is that sexual assault necessarily involves more than one person.

What if a perpetrator were publicly honest about what he did?  What if he were remorseful and changed his ways?  What if he became an advocate for survivors?  What might such a process have entailed?

I have not studied anything directly about how a sexual assaulter can change their ways.  All I offer here is one person’s account, purely from personal experience.  How similar other accounts may be to this one, I am not sure; but it can give insight.  Some might call it a story of repentance, and whether you see religious overtones in repentance is your prerogative.

Why did he commit sexual assault?  How did he become that way?  What prompted him to change?  How has he established a good reputation since?

How is his victim?  Does she remember what he did to her?  Does she realize it was assault?  What would she think of who he has become?

He knows some of the answers, and wishes he knew the rest.

This account is mine.  About 16 years ago, when I was about eight years old, I sexually assaulted a girl.  Despite my age, I knew what I was doing.  In my childhood I was often more aware than people gave me credit for.  I did it just because I felt like it, for no particular reason.  I knew I was not supposed to do it, and I expected it to dislike it.  I consciously intended to violate it—which was no big deal for me, since I did not recognize its personhood.  I do not remember whether I viewed its body as specifically mine for the taking, or generally public property—maybe a little of each.

It became distressed and ran away, which simultaneously entertained me (because it was quite a reaction) and disappointed me (because it was over so quickly).  It happened at the YMCA I went to every day after school, but I do not remember being punished.  I did not know its name, and I am not sure whether I had seen it before or whether I saw it after.  Had it died the next day, I would definitely not have cared, and probably not have noticed.  It was spur-of-the-moment, not premeditated.

A short time (maybe a few weeks) later, I similarly assaulted another girl.  Whereas the first girl I assaulted was about my age, this second girl was a teenager.  Now I use the pseudonyms Uno and Dos, respectively, for them.

I assaulted Dos in the shallow side of a pool.  It did not appear distressed or run away.  It seemed thoughtful for a moment, and told me calmly that I should not have done what I did.  Then, as if it had been thinking for a moment and finally decided what to do, it grabbed me.  Since it was physically stronger than me, it dragged me to the deep end.  From our conversation immediately preceding the assault, it knew I could not swim.  I was scared, and helpless to escape its control.

With its captive’s undivided attention, it spoke sternly.

With its captive’s undivided attention, it spoke sternly.  It did not hurt me, raise its voice at me, or demean me.  It just explained in greater detail why I should not have done what I did.  Since I knew resistance would have been futile, I stayed still and quiet, listening.  I do not remember even in paraphrase anything she said, but I remember how she affected me: She made me realize the wickedness of what I did.  She showed me that such actions would not be tolerated.  She made me respect others’ bodily autonomy.

Then she asked me whether I wanted to return to the shallow side.  I thought it was a stupid question.  Of course I wanted to return to the shallow side; I had not even wanted to leave the shallow side in the first place.  I kept those thoughts to myself, and simply replied, “Yes.”  She returned me to the shallow side, and let me go.  I never saw her again.

I was ill-behaved, but I’ve always been teachable.  Until that point, nobody had taught me to respect others’ bodily autonomy.  My childhood sorely lacked the raising I should have received, and constructive discipline like Dos gave was rare for me.  I am not sure what about my childhood contributed to me committing sexual assault; a good starting point for understanding my childhood may be my first note about sexual assault.  In retrospect, I am incredibly thankful for what Dos did.

Since Dos disciplined me, I have never again sexually assaulted anyone.  More than just scaring me, she changed my attitude.  If she had merely scared me, I would have probably picked weaker victims after her.  I could have easily escalated to rape and premeditation, especially having started so young.  Had Uno responded in the way Dos did, I probably would not have assaulted Dos or anyone else after Uno.  I still think Dos’ question was stupid, but that’s probably because I am still not mature enough to admit to myself that she had a good reason for asking.

Eventually I forgot all about these incidents with Uno and Dos, and did not remember for most of my life.  Even though I no longer committed sexual assault, I still had a lot of latent and patent misogyny.  Like most males of any age, I was not self-aware, meaning I did not realize how my maleness affects how I view the world (it does not usually go the other way around for women).

Then in the summer of 2014, I became open to gaining self-awareness.  At that time I chanced upon Dianna E. Anderson’s Twitter account.  I was not sure I agreed with anything she said, but I felt drawn to pay attention to her as though what she had to say was important.  I’ve always been teachable, and Anderson has been critical in my developing self-awareness.

Then in August 2014, I transferred to Baylor University.  Since my first day on campus, my experiences here have catalyzed the process of opening my mind.  I got involved in the unchartered Baylor Feminists.  I learned about the ingrained societal structures that helped create the misogynist I used to be.  Some feminist women came to recognize me favorably as a feminist.

Then in mid-September 2015, I remembered Uno and Dos.  For about two weeks, I kept the crushing guilt to myself because I was too ashamed to tell anyone.  Slowly I realized I could not handle it alone.

However much I considered whom to tell, it was clear to me that I would choose Audrey Hamlin, my best friend at Baylor University, and one of my greatest feminist influences.  On Wednesday, September 30, I asked her to meet with me, and she agreed to meet with me that very day.  I did not divulge the purpose of our rendezvous, preferring to say it in person.  We met privately in the White Room on the second floor of the Bill Daniel Student Center (SUB) at about 5:00 pm.

With my friend’s undivided attention, I spoke contritely.

With my friend’s undivided attention, I spoke contritely.  She did not turn away from me, interrupt me, or recoil at me.  She just listened patiently in the uncomfortable silences between words.  Once I felt I had confessed sufficiently, I stayed still and quiet, awaiting her response.  She told me she thought no less of me, and felt honored that I would tell her.  Nothing became of it, and we switched to lighter conversation for a few minutes.  Then we parted, and I never felt that guilt again.

I continued feministing.  I’ve always been teachable, and I learned so well that I wrote a guide for men wishing to speak in feminist spaces.

Until February 2016, Audrey was the only person I had told about what I did.  Then I told a group of four other people about it, since I trusted them not to speak of it outside the group.  I had not planned to tell them, but our conversation about sexual assault made it immediately pertinent: One man in the group asked me about holding people responsible for their behaviors that their upbringings have taught them.  I briefly presented my account, and contrasted it with similar behavior from adults, my point being that adults are usually more capable of determining for themselves than more impressionable eight-year-olds.

Between February 23 and March 29, Rev. Kyndall Rothaus and others hosted a series of four events in Baylor University’s Elliston Chapel collectively called Prayers for Survivors.  They were for lament, silence, anger, and hope, in that order.  I attended the first two, and then received the following Facebook message from Rothaus on March 7:

“Hi Keith, we were wondering if you would have an interest in helping with the next prayer service for survivors on March 15?  This one will be a space for anger, and we’re going to have a few different people tell brief stories (less than 200 words, so really short) about their relationship to anger, and in particular we are looking for someone who could speak from the advocate’s perspective and address the anger you feel on behalf of friends who have been victims.  Is this something you’d be interested in doing?  If so, I can send you more information.”

It was the first time anyone had called me an “advocate.”  After thinking for about half an hour, I was sure I had a suitable anger story.  Eight days and three drafts later, I shared mine at the event:

“This university wants chalk messages preapproved, and only from chartered student groups.  I am not eager to break rules; but on the night before the candlelight vigil, I was angry over mistreatment of rape victims and mishandling of their cases.  One survivor said the authorities traumatized her more than her rapist did.  Another survivor gave me nine questions, and asked me to chalk them just outside Pat Neff Hall.  I can’t say I was happy to do it because I was anything but happy; I chalked those nine questions there in anger and disregard for petty rules.  Had anybody approached me while I was writing them and told me to stop, I would have probably flipped them off.  Waco Tribune published the questions.  Shortly thereafter, I noticed the chalk questions had been removed, as if they were hosed off—with no answers given.”

Right after the event, Phillip Ericksen of the Waco Tribune-Herald approached me to request permission for part of an article.  The nine chalked questions had been published here.

Shortly after Prayers for Survivors: A Space for Anger, on the same night, our community had an open mic event at the Waco Hippodrome.  It was called Unsilent: Survivors Speak.  The theme was “Courage is Contagious.”  Jenuine Poetess, another of my greatest feminist influences, hosted it.  Several survivors performed poetry and spoken word there.  Listening to them, I felt my first inclinations to go public as a perpetrator-turned-advocate.

Stefanie drove Audrey and me back to Baylor’s campus after the open mic.  I had a heavy heart during that car ride.  I wanted to get it out of my chest and put it on my sleeve.  I would have sought Audrey’s counsel in the car, except I was not yet ready to tell Stefanie about Uno or Dos.  Thus I let the idea for this note form in my mind for three days without mentioning it.

At a weekly mentor meeting on Friday, March 18, I asked my mentor—whom I had already told about Uno and Dos—about me writing and posting this note. She gave me cautious feedback. Later that day I began drafting it.  After a few hours, once I felt like I had a good enough start and could make it happen, I called Audrey to ask her about me writing and posting this note.  Audrey answered my midnight call, and gave supportive feedback.

This writing process has been incredibly difficult psychologically and emotionally.  I have had to take breaks each time it became overwhelming.  This is why it has taken me 21 days to write.  I am writing it to draw further attention to the issue of sexual assault so it may further be addressed.  In case any Baylor University officials see this note, I have a simple exhortation for them: Mundhenk’s latest post deserves your undivided attention.