When It Comes To Sex Or Religion, Intent Doesn’t Excuse Bad Behavior

In a recent conversation, a friend mentioned that she was upset about about a pattern she noticed. She described how when Christians tried to convert her, her attempts to describe how hurtful it was were met with their disbelief – after all, everyone involved had good intentions!

This set off bells in my head. Because when it comes to discussions of aspects of rape culture like street harassment or those supposedly-innocuous-but-possibly-threatening flirtation attempts that get labeled as “creepy,” intention is often invoked as a cure-all. “But he didn’t mean to be creepy!” is one iteration of this. Or “She didn’t realize she was in your personal space, she was just trying to be nice!”

But you know what? Intention is not magical. Having good intentions does not magically erase the consequences of your actions. This Shakesville post lays it out very clearly:

Intent does not, in fact, magically render us unaccountable from the effects of our communication, no more than not intending to step on someone’s toes magically renders us unaccountable from the effects of our movement. Pain caused unintentionally is still authentic pain.

To expand on that example, if I step on your foot and cause you pain, you still experience that pain, even if I didn’t mean to step on your foot in the first place. My intent does not erase your pain.

We have to learn to be open to hearing that our actions have caused others pain; we have to be willing to be accountable for our actions, even when unintended consequences are the result. Will some overly sensitive people take advantage of such a framework to complain a lot? Sure. But I’d rather spend my time apologizing and learning what not to do next time than risk accidentally causing others harm through thoughtless actions.

If people are afraid to express how they actually feel around you because they’re worried that you’ll be dismissive of their feelings or experiences, that’s not a very good basis for a relationship anyway. I write this as someone who frequently comes across as callous because I’m often too wrapped up in my own emotions to notice other people’s emotions – but it’s something I’m working on, because, hello, causing emotional damage is not something I like to do.

I’d like to see a world where it’s perfectly reasonable to express that hurt or harm has been done, or is impending, and have that communication be respected instead of explained away or evaded by invoking intent. Intention matters to a degree, sure, in some situations. But remember the stepping-on-the-foot metaphor, and try to keep in mind that how your actions are intended and how they’re received may be worlds apart.

About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.