This is a story about a lesson that I learned long before I joined the movement. I had just finished all of my course work toward my doctorate at the time and I was researching and writing about the sociology of deviant behavior as well non-consensual Sadomasochism in everyday life (as opposed to the consensual erotic play known as BDSM). I was working part-time as a market research analyst at an advertising agency as well. Exxon Mobil was the client that kept the roof over my head and my belly full. I was also teaching a capoeira class at the YMCA on 14th street three nights a week in order to stay social, in shape, and to make some extra cash on the side.
It was a cold night in the winter of 2009 just before 2010. I was sitting in the steam room at the Y getting some warmth into my bones before I began teaching my class when I heard two gentlemen speaking Portuguese. I could tell that they were a bit older even though I couldn’t see them through the thick steam. One of them was talking about how he was a professor who spoke about six different languages and worked for the U.N. I introduced myself, told them that I was teaching capoeira and invited them to my class. They both seemed a bit surprised that I was speaking to them in Portuguese and I explained that I had studied the language for over two-years in college and had gone to Brazil three times in order to train and really learn capoeira. Neither of them took my class, as I expected, but the “professor” invited me to a dinner party at his place about a week from then and I gave him my contact info.
He was an aging, somewhat frail, mulatto, Brazilian, with a distinguished receding curly hairline. I decided to go check out his party because he seemed like a really friendly, sophisticated, older dude who could have been a good connection. I picked up a decent bottle of Pinot Noir and some fresh Italian bread from my local bakery in Williamsburg.
The “professor’s” place was all the way at the end of the NQR line. I thought it was a bit odd that he lived so far away from Manhattan and his job. I figured that he could have lived closer since he was big shot at the U.N., but I hadn’t spent much time down around Coney and figured that he probably lived in a cool, up and coming neighborhood… but he didn’t. His place was off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere.
The entrance to his apartment was in the kitchen, the living room and bathroom where beyond the kitchen and two-bedrooms were at the far side of the apartment. There were at least two or three other guests at his apartment by the time I arrived. I can’t recall any of their details however, given that I was distracted by those of his home. It was a very modest apartment for a “professor” to say the least. (I had forgotten that Brazilians will refer to themselves as a “professor” if they teach something, anything at all, even if they don’t necessarily have or are completing a PhD in whatever subject it is they are teaching.)
I first noticed a photograph of a younger version of him in nothing but a really thin thong, with two other, younger dark Brazilians in equally revealing thongs lifting the “professor” up by each of his feet while he used their heads for balance. There were a few other similar photographs.
He showed me his bedroom after he warmly greeted me, where I found a small stack of winter coats on his bed and a much bigger stack of old, pornographic VHS tapes which he had conspicuously left on a shelf just above his bed. It was almost entirely homosexual stuff with one or two titles that suggested bestiality as well.
I was totally uncomfortable… to say the very fucking least. I was utterly disgusted to be more specific, but the “professor’s” demeanor never faltered from the same dignified air he exuded in the steam room of the (notorious Chelsea) YMCA, and I felt not only compelled, but obligated to treat him with the utmost respect and dignity in spite of how incredibly dishonest, offensive and threatening his “hospitality” actually was.
He offered me a Caipirinha, Brazil’s national drink made from cachaça, or Brazilian rum, with lime, ice and sugar… and perhaps Ruffies in this case. I didn’t even see him mix the drink in the kitchen while I introduced myself to another guest. He handed the drink to me and waited for me to try it before he shifted his attention to anything else.
I ignored all of the many elephants in the room as well my enraged instincts. I had just rendered all of my self-defense training utterly useless. I compromised my safety and my dignity because I was afraid to be rude to someone who was only pretending to be polite to me in order to manipulate me.
Sociologists call this Interaction Vandalism. It’s a process by which basic social etiquette is leveraged into making the victim feel rude for refusing any unwanted social interaction. Salespeople, people who canvass and raise money for political campaigns and charities utilize the process as well which specifically entailed unwanted sexual advances in this instance. The “professor’s” use of entirely non-verbal advances helped him mask his non-consensual transgression probably from himself as much as others.
I hadn’t been drugged. I didn’t lose consciousness in the psychological sense of the concept, but I certainly had done so in a sociological sense.
The “professor” told me that he mostly did translation work for the U.N. as well as for some legal courts and he taught some language classes on the side. He said my Portuguese was good and that he’d be happy to hook me up with some translation work. I felt a strange mixture of disgust and gratitude but I tried to convey gratitude solely and wound up feeling disgusted with myself instead of the “professor.”
I also noticed a miniature replica of a famous sculpture of two muscle-bound Ancient Greeks grabbing each other’s cocks during a wrestling bout. The sculpture was in plain view from the chair I sat in while I ate my dinner. Dinner was absolute shit too. He made a salad out of really bland iceberg lettuce and cheap under ripe tomatoes. He cooked his beef bouillon dry and threw it over cold white rice. I tried my hardest to pretend like I enjoyed the meal. I think I may have even had a small helping of seconds in spite of myself just to make him feel appreciated. He told me he how much he loved my taste after he tried the wine I brought.
I was excited to see a new pair of guests arrive late in the evening after I finished what had passed for dinner. It was a lovely Argentinean woman and a tall handsome Swedish man both around my age who met and began dating oversees while traveling. She looked really uncomfortable, about as uncomfortable as I imagine I looked when I first walked in, if not more so. She and I struck up a conversation while her partner chatted with the “professor.” She thought it was cool that I was teaching capoeira and working on my PhD. She told me that the “professor” had invited them to dinner after he and her fiancé had randomly met on the 2 train if I’m not mistaken. I told her that the “professor” invited me to the party after I had met him in the steam room of the YMCA. One of the “professor’s” friends and neighbor, who had been sitting chatting with us, a friendly middle-aged woman who taught at a public grade school, told us that the “professor” “did stuff like this often.” Her tone suggested that she didn’t fully approve of his hospitality either.
The Argentine asked me about my research and my dissertation. I told her it was on the topic of non-consensual Sadomasochism. She said, with a slight but noticeable self-righteous smile, that she didn’t think that was an appropriate topic for conversation. I looked at the statue and thought about how non-consensual Sadomasochism was a perfectly appropriate topic for conversation especially given our present circumstances, but I didn’t push it as I now wish I had. The Argentine had politely taken some measure of control over the situation, which seemed to leave her feeling more comfortable, and I still had no intentions of being impolite.
The “professor” put on some really bad, campy, old-time symphony music. Old, obnoxious, and poorly performed American tunes like “Camptown Races” and “Old Susanna”, while we ate left over Christmas Chocolate which the grade-school teacher probably picked up on sale from a big corporate drug store. The Argentinean woman actually started singing along and clapping, doing her best to get into the spirit of the party in spite of how visibly uncomfortable she had just been a few moments ago. It was a big contrast and the 180 degree shift in her behavior was truly unsettling.
I’d had quite enough by this point. I was the first to leave and I did so during a so-called “high point” in the party. I told the “professor” that my girlfriend was waiting for me and he nodded his head in understanding as I told him I’d be in touch. We gave each other a warm Brazilian hug good bye.
I was glad to have gotten the fuck out of his apartment, but I also felt guilty for doing so and for thinking so negatively towards him. Sure, he was totally creepy, but he had treated me really well… or so it seemed at the time.
I felt guilty about feeling so judgmental towards an aging ethnic and sexual minority from a brutally colonized and oppressed nation. I willingly ignored or excused his deplorable, despicable, manipulative and indeed oppressive behavior because it wasn’t stereotypically consistent with his identity. I made the mistake of assuming that the “professor” wasn’t an oppressor because he wasn’t a tall, white, straight, privileged male.
This is the exact same mistake that various #OWS organizers have been deliberately making, in spite of their best intentions, since the movement grew successful and popular in the weeks following September 17th 2011.
My girlfriend at the time was relieved to see me when I arrived back at her place on the Lower East Side. She had clearly been anxious and worried while I was gone. She said that she spoke with her sister while I was at the party, who had made a joke about me being date-raped or something and my girlfriend started freaking out. She had been texting me during the party, but I hadn’t read her texts very closely and I just casually texted back that I would be home later. She had been in similar situations, of course. She alluded to a certain undignified incident in college where she had been shoved into a closet, but didn’t give me any more details.
I was still in complete denial about the truth of the situation at the time I walked through my ex’s apartment door. I actually told her I wanted to bring her with me and introduce her to the “professor” the next time he threw a party. She told me that she wasn’t interested in any way shape or form. I thought she was being an insensitive racist, judgmental bitch at first until she asked me about the party and I started sharing details with her. I began to realize that I couldn’t believe the lies that I had expected her to believe. I had lied to myself about the truth of the situation several times throughout the course of the night in order to maintain my self-respect. I then momentarily lost a lot of respect for myself. Not only because I nearly allowed myself to be drugged and raped, but because I couldn’t even admit it to myself at first.
It was the same kind of false-consciousness that I first learned about from Marx. It’s a process in which a person lies to oneself so thoroughly that other people will have no choice but to accept the lies as truth in order to interact with the liar. It’s a process by which painful truths are obscured from the rational conscious mind. It’s not at all the same thing as the unconscious mind, as discussed by Freud, but the two concepts seem to be very closely related. False-consciousness seems to be a process which can render visible and rational thoughts, invisible and confusing. Shame appears to be the link between the two, as well as the first step on the journey of false-consciousness.
We humans often seem to have no choice but to lie to ourselves about the terrible things we experience, in order to prevent terrible experiences from destroying our identities and alienating us from our integrity. It also seems like we have a common tendency to mistake our identities for our integrity.
My identity as a highly educated sociologist, a highly trained martial artist, and a generally dominant individual, my ego as opposed to my identity actually, could not acknowledge that I was being manipulated and potentially dominated by someone I perceived as being more oppressed and less dominant than myself. Moreover, why would this mixed race, foreign sexual deviant oppress me in the first place? We share the same causes and were presumably on the same “side.”
Many #OWS organizers generally tend to perceive themselves as the victims of oppression, (not that they aren’t, who isn’t?). The righteousness of their fight against oppression and of their own identities therefore is based upon their integrity as victims of oppression. Their identities make it every bit as impossible for them to acknowledge their own ironic oppressive tendencies as it was for me to acknowledge that I was nearly a victim of sexual assault without having to manage the shame that arises when we value our identities over the truth, compromising our integrity in the process.