Letters

Was he a rapist or not? Readers weigh in on Cary Tennis' advice to a woman with a sexually coercive boyfriend.


Salon Staff
August 6, 2005 1:07AM (UTC)

Read "Since You Asked" by Cary Tennis.)

I am a big fan of "Since You Asked," but Cary Tennis is oddly lenient toward the sexually coercive boyfriend whose past disturbed his girlfriend. He spends a lot of time wondering if "rapist" is the right way to characterize a man, who for seven years sought out older, "unattractive," "weaker" women in bars, lied to them, and took advantage of them when they were drunk; whose one yearlong relationship was with a woman he guilt-tripped and pressured into sex she didn't want to have and didn't enjoy; who only liked sex for the power it gave him; and who used "mild force" once. ("Only" once, as Cary strangely puts it.) This man may be, legally and literally, a rapist. Having sex with someone too drunk to consent is rape. And what if the "mild force" was effective because that's all it took to make his victim give in? But even if he never committed the legal crime of rape, he was misogynistic, sadistic and weird. I'm skeptical that love has caused him to acquire a whole new orientation to women and sex. The girlfriend's letter is full of guilt and self-criticism for not being able to overlook his entire sexual experience before he met her and for feeling the least little twinge of doubt that he might not really be "a different man." Perhaps I am too cynical, but I suspect he has substituted psychological manipulation for the alcoholic variety.

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-- Katha Pollitt

Cary, don't ever doubt your intuitive gift for perceiving the hidden in human behavior. Your answer to the woman in a relationship with a former date rapist helped me more than I can express right now. I find myself, a white, college-educated, middle-class woman, in a relationship with a ghetto-raised Latino man with a violent past and prison time, and neither of our separate camps of families and friends can understand what brought us to the other. We have a child together. It is problematic. But having read your column today, I feel I can understand and perhaps even embrace the subconscious reasons I was pulled toward him. It's one thing to understand one's past history as a narrative, it's another to fully embrace it and not push away from any little bit of the truth, however ugly or ignoble. Your column helped me feel a little freer today. Thanks.

-- Elizabeth

I agree with Mr. Tennis' analysis in general but he danced around a word without ever using it -- consent. If these women consented to sex, even if it was under false pretenses, it is not rape.

The guy was manipulative and a dirtbag and should be held accountable for that. But he is not a rapist. I have known many guys who would say whatever a woman wanted to hear to get laid. They are not criminals because some women fall for stupid lines, made-up stories and false compliments.

Women, too long sexually repressed, should be encouraged to feel in control of their sexual choices. This does not absolve them of being stupid or making bad decisions. If we expand rape to include any time we've had sex and regretted it, we've all been raped.

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When a woman says no and the guy doesn't honor that, he's a rapist. Anything less and he's just a dick.

-- Dave Good

I am writing to complain about the Cary Tennis advice column you just published. Specifically, I am wondering why on earth your editorial staff didn't catch the obvious problems with this article before it was published.

The woman who wrote to Mr. Tennis states that she is involved with a date rapist. She also states that said date rapist is now volunteering at a rape crisis center. The man in question is clearly lying to this woman. No rape crisis center would allow a rapist to work with rape victims. It would be like hiring a pedophile to run a day-care center, and no rape crisis center would be that irresponsible. Mr. Tennis should have picked up on this, and I'm very disappointed that he didn't. However, I am far more disappointed that the Salon editors allowed his answer to this unfortunate woman to be published. Mr. Tennis suggests that the woman herself should get therapy. May I respectfully point out that working on one's own personal issues, while certainly useful in and of itself, is not the most appropriate course of action when finding oneself in a relationship with a rapist. The appropriate response would be to get the hell away from the guy as fast as possible. A restraining order might not be a bad idea either.

My degree is in psychology, and the man this woman describes sounds like a narcissistic sociopath, a fact that Mr. Tennis is sufficiently well versed in psychology to spot. Mr. Tennis' advice, if followed, will put this woman in grave danger. The decision of the Salon editors to publish such advice is completely irresponsible. How can you justify this? Frankly, I think both Mr. Tennis and Salon as a whole owe the woman who wrote this letter an apology. She wrote to you looking for help, and you failed her.

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-- Cassandra Says

A note: having sex with a woman who is inebriated beyond the point of true consent is actually rape, regardless of whether she drank of her own free will or not. If she went to a tattoo parlor, she would not be tattooed (hopefully) in that state because intoxication precludes consent.

-- Mary

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Something that needs to be remembered here is that Stuck in the Past is getting her information from her boyfriend, and he is likely to be an unreliable narrator, with his own unconscious agenda. For example, he could be laboring under a burden of sexual guilt that makes him interpret his relationships with women as much more manipulative than the women do.

Or, he could be making it all up. The clumsiness with the bra strap makes that interpretation seem at least a bit likely, since if he was getting women drunk to sleep with them, it seems like he would have been the one manipulating the straps.

It could be that he's reinterpreting his past in a way that makes Stuck more comfortable, since, as you point out, she seems to have chosen men who objectify women in the past.

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The upshot of it is that without the facts from an outside source, her boyfriend's stories have to be treated as a narrative of his own feelings, rather than a verifiable account of real events. Focusing on the current relationship is more likely to be productive than attempting to parse out the true meaning of his narrative.

-- James Olson

Cary, I would advise that you pass along to this woman the book "The Sociopath Next Door" by Martha Stout. While I don't want to alarm her, this man sounds downright dangerous and not someone she should trust. He seems like a classic sociopath, and I think you should emphasize again that she should see a professional to help her determine if this man is a threat. While he is saying that he's trying to change, anyone who admits so openly about his control habits and doesn't think it's creepy that he's gotten off on "control" rather than intimacy for so many years, may indeed only be controlling this woman by telling her that he loves her. He may not know what love is, as Stout's book points out; he may only be mimicking what others feel. Most sociopaths get off on someone feeling sorry for them: He may be playing the most classic con that con artists know how to play. Yes, the man may have a deficit that he cannot correct, but not to tell her strongly that she should get out, and even more plainly that it sounds as though he's a classic sociopath, is like not telling someone they should get off the tracks when you see a speeding train approaching in the distance.

-- Sasha

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Mr. Tennis' reply to the woman who wrote about her boyfriend's past as a sexual control freak (or "date rapist" to quote her), was breathtakingly deep and well thought out. He is the one columnist I read every single day in your publication.

-- Tennis Fan

Boy, did you blow it.

Just because the drug (in these cases, alcohol) was legal and administered overtly doesn't mean it wasn't rape. Not pressing charges doesn't mean it wasn't rape. Attitudes like the ones you espouse only contribute to people not reporting these sorts of attacks.

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-- A. Cavender

Cary Tennis' response to the woman whose boyfriend was a former rapist missed the boat big time. She kept saying, "I know I should be rational ... I know he's reformed," and Cary just took both her irrationality and his reformed-ness for granted.

I think it would have been better to ask her, "How did it feel to learn this about him after you'd started sleeping with him? Do you feel tricked, lied to, manipulated into sex? Even just a little? How does that make you feel about his history?"

Also, as for his long digression on the question of "what is rape," if the guy himself says he's a former rapist, I'd go with that.

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-- K. Griffiths


Salon Staff

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