Feminism 101: Your Underdog Lovelorn Romantic May Be My Rapist

[Trigger warning for stalking and sexual assault.]

John was a tall, dark, and handsome young man, who had come to visit Jane at college. He showed up at her dorm one morning while she was at class, and walked up to the security guard with a broad grin, clutching a bouquet of flowers. He told the older white gentleman a story about how he'd driven all night in his shitty old car, afraid it might break down during a terrible thunderstorm, but he'd arrived in one piece to surprise his girlfriend for her birthday. They'd been dating for two years—high school sweethearts, and he hoped to marry her one day. He knew the day he laid eyes on her for the first time, that he wanted her to be his forever.

The security guard liked this kid. He was charming and charismatic and smart; the thought even crossed the security guard's mind that this girl was lucky to have found such a good guy. Normally, he wouldn't break the rules for anyone, but this kid seemed all right. A nice, good-looking white kid. Just this once, he broke the rules and let John past security without his girlfriend signing in him. After all, the kid was right—it was going to be a much better surprise, super romantic, just like a movie or something, if he was waiting for her at her door when she got back from class. What a birthday present! The security guard waved him through and wished him luck.

He imagined Jane coming back from class and discovering the kid waiting at her door. She was a pretty girl; he pictured her smiling, wrapping her arms around the kid's neck, and pulling him inside her room for some hanky-panky. Ah, young love.

* * *

Nothing, so goes the cultural narrative, makes a romantic gesture even romanticker! than the enlistment of other people's help. Public proposals (in which people, usually female people, are put on the spot to make an affirmative decision about the rest of their lives in front of perfect strangers by whom they'll be judged negatively if they don't say yes, which is a whole other post) are romantic, sure, but even romanticker! are public proposals in which there are as many anonymous co-conspirators as possible: Staged events that enlist the assistance of roomfuls—or stadiums-full!—of people.

The bigger the crowd of conspirators and/or onlookers, the more romantic.

We are meant to delight in being recruited to participate in the romantic gestures of strangers. We read news stories about important people participating in public proposals, we read personal narratives about people inserting themselves into the romantic gestures of strangers, and our pop culture is positively rife with plotlines centered around strangers playing matchmaker (see this summer's Letters to Juliet) or the enlistment of strangers' help by a suitor (usually male) trying to locate and get access to the person (usually female) zie fancies.

And whether it's a madcap chase set to Motown music (every Richard Curtis film), or Billy Idol randomly stepping in with a weaponized drink cart (The Wedding Singer), or a truck driver putting pedal to metal to deliver a suitor to his Sure Thing on time (The Sure Thing), or any one of a million other variations on this conceit, we root for the guy to get the girl, and cheer on gangs of strangers enlisted to help a Nice Guy win the affections of the Girl of His Dreams.

Thus are people inclined to get caught up, in real life, in the same kinds of stories—because we believe in romance and have a fiercely-protected policy of silence about how some "romantics" are actually stalkers/predators.

Charming men later discovered to be serial rapists and/or killers have blagged their way into access to their victims not merely because their race/sex/sexuality/class are privileged, and assumed to confer upon them some statement of their ethics, but because we are exhorted from every corner of our pop culture to insert ourselves into romantic stories.

And not just those of people we know—it is, of course, fun and harmless to help our old friend Jack pick out an engagement ring for his long-time partner Jill—but of people we don't know, and about whose authentic intentions we have no clue, and no way of knowing.

All we've got is a visceral reaction—"He seems like a nice enough guy!"—the likes of which is nothing but the same old bullshit contention used to victim-blame, that there is some way possible to tell a person is dangerous, and thus victims have nothing to blame but their own failure of instinct.

Stalkers/predators are experts at framing themselves as lovelorn romantics to get access to people they've abused, or intend to abuse.

Some of them spend a very long time learning how to make this:

[The 500 Days of Summer trailer recut with creepy score.]

…look like this:

[The real 500 Days of Summer trailer, with its charming indie score.]

And in a world [/movievoice] where so many of us have access to and control over so many other people's personal information—home addresses, work addresses, phone numbers, flight information, class schedules, hotel room numbers, that childhood nickname that hardly anyone knows and if only you call it out, she's sure to turn and look expecting to see someone she trusts—and where we "friend" strangers and share stories of old classmates or coworkers or lovers reuniting after 50 years and feel part of something important when people organize, online or off, to make Happily Ever Afters of all sorts happen, it is a dangerous thing to collectively fetishize the grand romantic gesture.

Because your underdog lovelorn romantic may be my rapist.

Or hers. Or hers. Or hers...

Part of challenging the rape culture is to ensure we have consent from anyone with whom we involve ourselves romantically, even if obliquely, even if only as a co-conspirator with someone who assures us zie has consent. There is no such thing as second-hand consent. There is only helping someone get access to another person and hoping we didn't facilitate violence against another human, under the guise of "romance."

* * *

John was a tall, dark, and handsome young man, who had just found out where Jane had gone away to college. He showed up at her dorm one morning while she was at class, after buying a bouquet of flowers at the corner shop across the street, to give verisimilitude to his story about driving all night to get there for his girlfriend's birthday. It wasn't her birthday and she wasn't his girlfriend. He'd been stalking Jane for two years, ever since she broke up with him after saying he'd raped her—even though he sure didn't see it that way—and he was determined to punish her for the agony she'd put him through, leaving him like that. He knew the day he laid eyes on her for the first time, that he wanted her to be his forever.

John liked this security guard. The female guard who worked nights did not find him charming, but this old white guy was an easy mark; John put on an easy grin and a subtle version of the same fading southeastern US accent to appeal to the guard's nostalgia for the romances of his youth, and the guy crawled right into the palm of his hand. A trusting, privileged white dude. Just this once, he'd break the rules and let John past security without his girlfriend signing in him. The appeal to play a part in a real-life version of a rom-com happy ending was compelling, and, hell, he was a kid who needed to get laid once. The security guard waved John through and wished him luck.

John went to her floor and waited down the hall for Jane to arrive back from class. When she opened the door to her room, he rushed her, wrapped his hand across her mouth, pushed her inside, and raped her.

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