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A Different Way To Respond To A Rape Accusation [Update]

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Editor's Note: This piece has been significantly revised to better convey its original intent. Please read the newer version at this link.

Last weekend, Max Temkin, co-creator of the popular card game Cards Against Humanity, wrote a blog post about rape accusation. The post went up somewhat unnoticed, thanks to a combination of EVO, the World Cup, and GaymerX happening all at the same time—but it's something that we, as a gaming community, should talk about.

You can read Temkin's post here—he describes his previous relationship with the woman who accuses him of rape, and he talks about his complex feelings around social media, to which some people have taken to protest him and Cards Against Humanity. He notes that he feels hurt but will try his best to continue to be a feminist moving forward. And above all, he wants you to know he didn't do it. The accusation is "patently false." It's "baseless gossip." He hasn't even spoken to this girl in a decade. He's never been accused of something like this before. He doesn't plan on suing her, but he wants you to know he would have a "clear case" against her.

Temkin writes:

Yesterday morning, Josh forwarded me a tweet that said:

"TIL: Max Temkin, co-creator of Cards Against Humanity, raped a friend of my friend while attending Goucher College. I don't support CAH."

We assumed this was someone making a tasteless joke, and I replied to tell him that it wasn't funny. But after some more digging, I found a Facebook post from a girl I knew in college accusing me of sexually assaulting her, and urging people to boycott Cards Against Humanity.

I had a really brief relationship with this girl in college; her dorm room was next to mine, and after a few evenings staying up talking all night, we made out. We spent a few nights in each others' rooms, but we never had sex and neither of us pressured the other into doing anything we weren't comfortable with. After a few nights, I broke things off in the cowardly way that 19-year-old guys do, and I just stopped returning her calls and texts. I can imagine she was hurt by this, I know that I would be hurt if someone broke up with me that way.I haven't spoken to this girl in nearly ten years. If she felt I did something wrong in our relationship, she never confronted me about it or brought the issue to the school.

A lot of the discussion I've seen about Temkin's post has been about whether he did or didn't rape his accuser. It's about who is telling the truth. That's important, of course, but that's not what this post is about. This post about how poorly Max Temkin responded to an accusation of rape, and about what I think his post could—perhaps should—have been about instead.

There is of course no right way to respond to being accused of raping someone. I don't fault Temkin for not getting something like this completely right. Still, he handles it badly. He spends too much time trying to defend himself—which I understand as an impulse, given the gravity of the situation—and not enough time contemplating the idea that he might've messed up. Or, more importantly than either of these, taking the discussion in a useful direction.

Other people have written about their issues with the post, and you can read some of those critiques here. If you want the Cliffnotes version of it: Temkin doesn't completely apologize, and it's hard not to read the parts about the legalities here as a threat to the woman. That's not cool.

There's a part in Temkin's post that stood out to me, though. The part where he talks about rape culture:

Part of rape culture that hurts everyone is that it makes it difficult to talk about what is and is not consent, and makes it incredibly scary for people to speak up when their boundaries are crossed. It is entirely possible she read something completely different than I did into an awkward college hookup. If any part of that was traumatic for her, I am sincerely sorry, and I wish we would have had a chance to address it privately. I've sent her an email and a Facebook message and given her my contact information, but so far I haven't heard back (but she did edit her post to remove my name).

Now, there's a lot about this paragraph that is kind of gross. As our sister site Jezebel says, Temkin is basically "employing the tropes of rape culture in his own defense, even while wrapping himself in the language of social justice and positioning himself as a good feminist." Nevermind the non-apology (if it was traumatic!), or the mention the deflection about how she must've read the situation. Or the fact that he reached out to this woman privately, and how at this point that's kind of weird.

Putting all of that aside, I wish Temkin's post spent more time around the idea of consent—which he briefly touches upon in that paragraph I quoted. Because, let's face it, Temkin can't prove anything to us about an accusation that happened years ago. But he can use his platform to open up a dialogue about a subject that affects a ton of people—and doing so would be more useful for us as a public to engage in rather than to argue a He Said She Said situation.

I wish Temkin invited people to have frank discussions about how difficult it can be to get consent completely right. I wish it spent more time talking about how we all probably have stories from high school or college where consent got tricky, muddled, confusing.

Like that time you started making out with someone and you weren't sure if you should take it further, but the other person was going along with it so maybe it's okay—and the next time you see each other everything is awkward and it dawns on you that maybe you read it all wrong. Or that time you found yourself doing something you weren't sure about with someone you genuinely liked—how you let it just slide, because hey, it was nobody's fault. Or that one time you were too scared to speak up and tell someone what you wanted, because you didn't want to be fussy and they're a totally nice person. Or that time you didn't grab a condom before having sex, because you'd ruin the moment.

Or the time...

We all have stories like that, right? It's always worse when you're younger, don't know what you're doing, and are still working out unrealistic societal pressures that tell guys they have to be experienced Don Juans and women that they have to be immaculate bastions of purity.

People get consent wrong all the time, and it's not because everyone is some kind of savage, evil rapist (and to be clear, the situations I'm describing are not necessarily rape, but they are situations were boundaries were crossed). Most transgressions are small, untalked about. We all falter. How could we not? This is what society tells us about romance: it should just work. You might fall in love at first sight, no words necessary. And if your love interest knows exactly what to do, if they can get it right without asking, not only is that ideal, then it was meant to be. The best romance is one where nobody communicates and everyone gets it perfectly. And if you're having trouble you can open up a magazine that has an article that can tell you what to do—because lord forbid you actually talk to the person you're interested in and ask what they need from you, what they're comfortable with. That would be embarrassing. Don't you know what you're doing? You should know what you're doing.

Consent is not about being perfect, not to me at least. Yes, consent teaches you the importance of asking for permission and making sure you don't cross any boundaries, but it also teaches you the importance of being honest about where you fall short. Consent exists not just as something that should be used to get the green light for a hook-up, but as a mode of thinking about and processing experiences you've had in the past.

Temkin almost gets there: he presents the idea that maybe the woman read the situation differently than he did. But you have to remember the context is how the accusation is "patently false." It happened a long while ago. He broke up with her. Maybe this hurt her feelings. Maybe she read it wrong.

Temkin sets an example for the community, but he's not willing to really contemplate the possibility he might've messed up, nor does he do much to further a crucial conversation about consent that everyone should think about. And when Temkin is one of the minds behind a hugely popular game, and has gained profile as "one of the good guys" who supports progressive organizations and people, this is a problem.

I don't expect everyone to get consent right all the time. But having better conversations about consent—and being willing to admit the possibility of past mistakes—would be a start.

UPDATE: Discussion about this piece has turned into an argument about whether Max Temkin has a right defend himself, especially if he is wrongly accused. Of course he does, and I never meant to imply that he does not. He and his accuser are both innocent until proven guilty. They both deserve empathy and none of us should rush to judgment. My intent for this opinion piece was to focus on issues that I hadn't seen significantly explored in his blog post nor in the discussion around it: issues of consent and an opportunity to discuss the grey areas of consent. Some readers have said that Temkin's first priority should only have been to defend himself. As I said in my piece, I understand that impulse. I do not, however, believe that needs to be the end of the discussion.