Over the weekend, I heard that Max Temkin had been accused of sexual assault. For those who don’t know, Max Temkin is one of the creators of Cards Against Humanity, a popular and often offensive card game. The accusation started semi-privately with a Facebook post, then spread through her network until it reached Max, and he wrote a blog post denying that it ever happened. The accuser responded with her own post, revealing her name to be Magz and offering her side of the story. I see no reason to believe either of them are lying. She’s not gaining anything in this situation, so I have no reason not to believe her. And when he says he didn’t, I don’t so much hear that he is innocent as he is ignorant to how rape works and is afraid to admit that he might be a rapist. I don’t need to know the details of this particular accusation to know that one of the main challenges sexual assault advocates face is educating people on what rape looks like. A lot of energy goes into telling people that silence does not equal consent, a lack of “no” does not equal consent, flirting does not equal consent, etc. When Max writes that it’s hard to communicate boundaries, he is admitting that there was not good communication between them and he has no idea what she was thinking.
Another road block is the very misguided practice of not teaching quality sex-ed in high schools, so people get their information from porn, movies or peers who don’t necessarily know how sex works. Kids see movies where there’s an aggressor who gets pushed away, but keeps trying until the girl relents. That tells girls that pushing someone away is useless, and tells guys to be persistent. This is a rape dynamic that has been played off countless times as just how it works.
Another huge problem in getting people to understand sexual violence is fighting against the idea that it’s a stranger in the bushes with a knife. This line of thinking says that a persistent guy who ignores boundaries is just a guy whereas a predator uses drugs and weapons. Therefore, a lack of drugs and weapons means a guy is not a rapist, regardless of how pushy he is. Advocates are also combatting the idea that rape always involves genital intercourse. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 2012 that the federal definition of rape changed away from language that specified forcible penile intercourse to the more-inclusive: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
The incident between Max and Magz took place in 2006, well before this updated definition was the law of the land, and well before the current national conversation about enthusiastic consent. It is telling in Max’s response that he points out that they never even had sex as a reason why this couldn’t have happened. Recall that two years ago, when the Steubenville story was making national headlines, one of the boys involved in the case is quoted as saying, “I didn’t know it was rape.” Those boys in Ohio never actually had genital intercourse with the girl, but still, they were guilty.
Another telling line in Max’s denial is that he calls it “an awkward sexual hookup.” I recently spoke with David Lisak, one of the leading researchers and forensic consultant about sexual assault dynamics. His work is the source of the oft-cited statistic that 90% of on-campus rapes are committed by serial rapists. This breaks down to 67% of rapists having an average of 6 victims, and 33% with just one. The serial rapists are true predators who are often “undetected rapists” in that they fit in and are generally seen as good guys. However, they are people who get off on the lack of consent and seek out weak targets to exploit. The other rapists are also undetected, but they differ from the serial predators in that they only do it once and generally don’t enjoy the act of raping. As they get more knowledgeable about sex, they become better at communicating and reject the unhealthy scripts that they picked up from pop culture. Magz herself states that she doesn’t think Max is a serial predator, so if we take her assessment as truth, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t, then Max would fall into the 33% of rapists who make a mistake and actually change their behavior.
So, if you are a sexually naive college student who has no idea what rape really looks like, should you be held to the same standard of punishment as someone who is serial predator? Or should we downgrade it to a lesser crime — perhaps the sexual equivalent of involuntary manslaughter, whatever that is. In any case, you are not innocent. Max writes that Magz never confronted him or reported as evidence that he is not a rapist, but again this reveals ignorance of how rape victims normally behave.
It is common for a person who was raped to not immediately recognize that it happened. They will interpret the incident as just bad sex, or maybe an awkward hookup. This is a way of maintaining control over the situation. As Magz writes, she was angry at herself for “putting herself” into that situation. This is the norm with victims, who blame themselves are therefore are not going to make a report or confront their attacker. In fact, Magz says that it took hearing other stories for her to recognize her assault for what it was, which follows the narrative that researchers like Lisak expect to find when working with victims of sexual assault.
It would be so gratifying if Temkin would come through all of this and just cleanly apologize. Instead of issuing a denial, it would be amazing to see him say that he was a young idiot and that he’s sorry. Because for all the pain and confusion he’s feeling from being accused of sexual assault, her pain is worse. This is bad for him, but nowhere near what it is for her. Even if this wouldn’t rise to the level of being legally prosecuted as a rape and we can rationalize it as mutual ignorance, sexual violations hurt in a deeply personal and intimate way. They threaten the survivor’s ability to trust and form positive relationships. There are no winners in this situation.
In my time as a sexual assault researcher, I have only seen a man apologize once, and it was a man living in poverty in Alaska who had nothing to lose. Max Temkin has a lot to lose, and the system that allows him to be ignorant to the fact that he crossed a line is the same one that almost requires he paint her as a liar, or more generously, misinterpreting their encounter. It would be extremely gratifying to see him go beyond that to really understanding that he messed up. But if he did that, how would we all react? Would we demonize him as the evilest kind of rapist, or could the public accept that there are some men out there who make very large mistakes in their youth and then go on to change?
Max Temkin should be held accountable for what he did. Change does not absolve someone from their past mistakes, and Magz has openly said she’s not looking to form a legal case, so hopefully, they can come to a resolution, even if it is in private and we never hear of it again. He has written that this will “now haunt him for the rest of his life.” Regardless of what he does, that might be true. In that way, it is very similar to being a survivor of a sexual assault. But, unless there is evidence that he is a serial predator, there should be a way to hold him accountable without destroying his career. A large donation to RAINN or Men Stopping Violence might be a good place to start.
When Max took the rape jokes out of Cards Against Humanity, he showed that he has the capacity to grow in public and use his platform to promote being more respectful and aware of his privilege. He is currently in a situation like that again, but this time it’s a much harder lesson with much more at stake. There is more public support and awareness for survivors than there ever has been before, and we are in the midst of a cultural shift around sex and consent. Part of that shift is taking the burden off of survivors and holding rapists accountable, whether they were fully aware of their actions of not. Regardless of what Max does, I wish Magz the best on her journey and hope that this whole mess helps prevent more assaults in the future.