EVERY GUY’S NIGHTMARE: RAPE RAPE
Summer 2004. I tell him he can sleep over if it gets late. We’re old friends from high school. I haven’t seen him in a few years. He lives in the Bronx which is a long hall from the East Village where we are hanging out at a friend of a friend’s place. Especially temporally distant late at night with the after hours weekend subway schedule. It gets late. As it does when you are young and drinking.
In my bedroom I point to the respective beds where we are sleeping: he in the bed bed along the long wall, me on the mattress on the floor against the sliding door wall. He asks if we can sleep together. I say separately. I check if he needs anything, say goodnight, crawl onto my mattress, and fall soundly asleep. An undisclosed amount of time later, he shoves me over into my wall and asks if he can sleep in me bed, “Is this okay?” I grunt, which he takes as a yes, and I am too out of it to protest. An undisclosed amount of time after that, I wake up to a sharp pain. I look up and see my limp limbs. Except I’m not sure I see them with my eyes because it is dark. He’s shoving himself inside me. I fall in and out of consciousness. It’s hard to string a complete thought together. I know only this: This. Is. Rape. I’m not sure where I am. In my living room? Someone else’s apartment? Like I said, it is dark. I don’t think he’s holding me down but my body is limp. I might be able to leave if I knew where I was but as is I have no idea where to escape to. I have to pee but am uncertain if I could locate the bathroom. And the biggest problem is that I can’t seem to figure out how to stand up. I’m not sure if you’ve ever had a surreal experience where you are walking through the snow or some other uncharted terrain and temporarily forget how physics work because the mechanics of doing ordinary things are suddenly so different. Hiking up a snowy hill through the crunch of the woods when you are storybook high? Well, I am hopelessly confused by the fact that I’m lying on something soft that I appear to be sinking into, yet I have to push down to get myself up. It seems counterintuitive. With all the confusion, I keep fading in and out. In retrospect, I’m not sure if it is because I’m drunk or because I’m being raped: I freeze in place, as people do when they are raped. Except that I don’t tune out more and more, I gradually gain consciousness and usage of my limbs. By that time he is done. Has removed himself from me. I guess he’s back in the bed I directed him to at the beginning of the evening. Because I don’t remember any more contact that night. I don’t remember much. Whether he came, whether he used a condom. I only remember the sharp pain when he entered me, seeing myself as a pile of limp limbs from a distance like I was in a movie hovering over myself. Speaking of which, Larry Clark’s movie Kids was hard to watch for years afterwards. I mean, that movie is fucking hard for anyone to watch, irrespective of personal history. It’s no feel good summer flick. But I see myself in that girl as she’s getting raped. I am that girl except for the HIV. I could be that girl. I don’t know whether he used a condom. I looked in the garbage can afterwards, as part of my rape post-mortem, and there was nary a wrapper in sight.
I remember the rest of the summer in snipbits, much like the rape itself. The next morning he was still there. I told him I was meeting my best guy friend Danny for pizza. Which was true. Also an attempt to get rid of him. But he wouldn’t budge. Invited himself. I know a lot of people analyze what happens directly following an alleged rape to determine whether rape occurred. Before I ever watched Madmen, I read comments on feminist fora about whether Joan could have been raped by her husband. First of all, because she voluntarily had sex with him most of the time. Second, because she went out to dinner with him directly afterwards. I’m not a spokesperson for rape and I don’t think I represent every female or male victim’s experience, but I will say this: What happened subsequent to the depiction of Joan’s rape seems very prototypical to me. When people are raped, they go about their daily lives. It isn’t like attending a funeral. The world doesn’t stop for you. So the next day, I had pizza with my rapist and my best guy friend. It was like any pizza eating when you are a little hungover but not so hungover because you are only 20 and can bounce back easily. Resilience. What else was I supposed to do? Accuse him of rape and tell him to get the fuck out of my apartment? It seemed like that could only escalate an already awful situation. He was unpredictable and I didn’t trust him. My feelings about the situation were fledgling and already confused. I didn’t need his input to influence me. You know the old phrase “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” Though I’m not one for misplaced politeness, I figured anything I could possibly say would only make things contentious, and then I might say anything to get the awfulness to stop. I might even end up apologizing.
Either later that day or the next day I took a shower. Woah, a shower. Exactly what you are told not to do after you get raped. I’ve had the all-girls school, liberal, privileged, pseudo-feminist education. I know the protocol. I’m also not a social justice hermit and know that you don’t report rape to get someone convicted. You report rape only if you are brave or and idealist and you believe telling your story will make you feel more powerful or righteous regardless of outcome. You report rape only if you believe it will not destroy you to be socially ostracized, called a liar, a slut. In the best case scenario kind people might call you naïve. I did not want to be one of these people. I did not feel there was any benefit to telling a traumatic story that would not be heard. It was he-said she-said. I was not a credible witness. I was a slut and intoxicated. Who would believe me?
Even worse, I was living with my parents at the time. I had no money, no institutionalized power. I was certain that my mother would be concerned, as she should have been, but that her maternal instincts would manifest in her telling me I should be more careful, not get so drunk. Which is true. Like many people, female or male, when I was 20 I got dangerously drunk. I should not have drank that much because it is unsafe for your body, not because I should have assumed a friend would violate me while I was incapacitated. Maybe I’m underestimating my mom. It’s unfair for me to assume. After all, soon after she graduated from law school she threw a house party and invited a fellow lawyer; he asked took two of the women he met that night out on dates and raped them both. I doubt my mother would have said, “You should have known better.” But my reticence does go to show that we live in a society where women are afraid enough that they will be held responsible for their rapes that they do not even feel safe telling their liberal, Second Wave Feminist mothers. There is another strange dimension to my rape that I feel uncomfortable sharing. He is Black. Anyone who has taken a Women’s Studies class (or dropped one and read all the books in her free time) has been exposed to the travesty that is Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After. Let me summarize it for you: women cry rape when they have regrettable sex. Moreover, anyone who has graduated from middle school has read Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. I didn’t think I’d be believed because he was Black. I mean, not exactly. I knew it wasn’t Alabama in the 1930’s. I think what I mean is I didn’t want to accuse a Black man because it is already so horrible that Black men are considered sexual predators and criminals in general. Also, my mother knew and liked the guy. She thought he was bright and charismatic (he was) and would make a great politician. Though it made her uncomfortable that he addressed her as “ma’am,” as if she were a librarian in the Old South. A few years after the incident she inquired as to what ever happened to him. I said I didn’t know. Which is not a lie. Never have I ever been tempted to look him up. He’s dead to me.
Back to the shower. I can visualize it. The location and the instance. The toy I usually fucked in it: a royal blue Fun Factory dildo that I still own. For about a year I lived in the apartment across for where I currently live, on the other side of my parents’ apartment. The cord to the detachable showerhead was a little too short, the pulse not quite right. I felt like I couldn’t request another showerhead without an explanation. So I used to make excuses to masturbate in my parents’ shower, my childhood refuge. Not verbal excuses. I would do a bunch of unrelated things in my parents’ apartment—like buying a bottle of Coca Cola to disguise a box of condoms—then would casually announce that I was taking a shower. No one ever questioned me. Even though I had my own ostensibly functional shower right next door. Which isn’t to say that they didn’t know. Only that if they did, they did parenting right. And deserve high fives, with non-cummy hands! So the shower in my apartment was mostly a disappointment. And also where I washed off rape. So it has some significance. Here is what a post-rape shower feels like: excruciating. It’s bizarre to run your hands over a body that is no longer yours, doesn’t belong to you, has been places of which you are not aware. Your body, the stranger. My body, the stranger. See how I put that in the second-person, the first time?
It wasn’t a secret, exactly. Sexual assault for college-aged women is ubiquitous to the point of being a cliché: a rite of passage. Later that summer, I told my best guy friend Danny. Asked him if he remembered that guy we had pizza with. It’s like September 11th if you are my age or JFK’s assassination if you are an Old: I’ll always remember where I was when I told him about my rape. Wandering around in my neighborhood, near Blockbuster when VHS still existed as the viewing medium de jour for commonfolk and not some hipster delicacy. He did the right thing: he listened. Which might sound obvious. But it shouldn’t be. Or, at least, it isn’t. In 2010 when I got raped again, I shared with my close guy friend Parker, and he got all machismo on me. I’m not trying to hate on Parker. I know he cares about me and just reacted viscerally. I can imagine feeling defensive when you are a big dude and your little, pretty, usually kick-ass lady friend tells you about being violated by some disgusting skinny long-haired shit who follows Phish around, makes a living selling wire jewelry and whatever you mechanically do to pot to make it saleable, has profound revelations at Shamanic ceremonies that he should eat raw, and feels emotionally unbalanced (feng shui?) when paintings aren’t hung exactly even. But it wasn’t very helpful when he inquired about sending his people in San Francisco to fuck that guy up. It made the experience about the guy and not how it fucked me up, when I really needed to be attended to. I needed to vent about how scary and shocking it is to be raped. How it shatters your worldview, specifically your trust in people and ownership over your body. How you feel feeble and defenseless. How you feel like a woman. For the first time. Since the last time you walked down the street and were treated like a walking vagina. We made out on my cousin’s porch later that evening, Parker and I.
There were other revelations around the time of my first rape (that sounds like a Fischer Price toy, somehow). First, when my best female friend got home from a summer abroad. I have no recollection of that conversation, whether it took place in person or over the phone. Then, there was college. I played Truth or Dare with a group of people I had recently met, a girl who eventually got involved in Women’s Studies initiatives around campus and two guys. I was asked how many guys I had had sex with. Not how many penises had entered my vagina. But I clarified whether rape counted. They were nice about it. Later I made out with one of the guys; he had lesbian mothers and was the sweet silent type. Since then I have never included my rapist in my number because I feel like having sex is an active thing and I was certainly not an active participant. Lastly, mid-year I went to the campus health care center to get tested. Which I had done routinely numerous times over the course of my sexual history, to very little hoopla. The precipitating factor was that I was involved with a man and I didn’t want to put him at risk, even though he refused to get tested so we continued using protection against either of our wishes. It’s sort of fucked up that I wouldn’t take precautions for my own health, but when something like that happens you’d rather not know. It wasn’t like there was anything I could do about it anyway (this is before PEP became available to the public). Besides, HIV can take 3 months to seroconvert and show up on antibody tests so it seemed kind of pointless to get tested immediately. The nurse or nurse practitioner or whoever did my intake interview asked me why I wanted to get tested. I could have said anything. Because I was unsafe (which would have been untrue). For peace of mind (which would have been true). Because I think every sexually active, non-monogamous person should get tested periodically (also true, though too moralistic for my taste). Instead, I told the truth: Because I got raped and I’m not sure if he used protection.
A decade later, I’m not sure who did my interview. I don’t remember her name or title or face. But I’d like to give her a long-distance, digital hug. She dealt with me so calmly. Not that I expected her to freak. After all, I’ve visited Santa and told him I wanted my parents to get divorced. I’ve visited Santa and told him I wanted to get a breast reduction. These people are well trained. Or jaded. Going to a campus health center and saying you got raped is probably less scandalous than saying you had Chinese food for lunch. There are women lined up at campus health centers for this very reason. And that might be the one place they are uniformly believed. Because we have nothing to gain with disclosure. No social desirability, that’s for sure. There are no high fives for rape, and for the most part nurses don’t give a shit about the whereabouts of your vagina nor your vagina’s intentions. The year before I arrived at Reed College, there was an outbreak of crabs on one floor of a dorm. They’ve seen it all. Besides remaining very calm, the medical professional asked me some routine questions. Mostly logistical. Whether I currently felt unsafe or threatened. Whether I had gotten counseling. Whether I wanted counseling. And that is the part for which I think she deserves a hug. I told her I didn’t think I needed it: I had been with many guys voluntarily; I had good guy friends; I didn’t think guys were creeps; I was okay. And she believed me. She shouldn’t have. Because I was wrong. I wasn’t okay. But she treated me like a rational adult who was capable of making decisions. Rape is at its core a wholly disempowering experience, and if there was one thing that empowered me it was that medical professional treated me like I was a competent, functional human being. Like I wasn’t irrevocably ruined. Could you imagine how much worse it would have been if she told me I didn’t know what I needed?
THOUGHTS V. FEELINGS
When I think of the ravages of abuse, I think of my best friend growing up: Tina. I give her that name because of Thora Birch’s character in Now and Then. Her father was an abusive alcoholic and everybody knew but there was so little we could do. Like many people who are physically abused, she was additionally broken down mentally. He told her she had provoked him, she was an embarrassment, the ultimate disrespect was talking about your family matters in public. She was made to cook and clean as if she was the hired help (which they had), yet nothing she did was ever good enough. When I came over, he praised me in front of her, said he wished she could have been more like me: I had good grades and good posture. It wasn’t flattering or edifying; it was humiliating. The worst part: she depended on him for affection and approval. It was hard being in her 7th grade English class when we read The House on Mango Street, aloud: “Sally was going to get permission to stay with us… And would’ve stayed too except when the dark came her father, whose eyes were little from crying, knocked on the door and said please come back, this is the last time. And she said daddy and went home.” It was hard when her father came home with glazed, bloodshot, mosaic shards of eyes and broken English slurred out of his quivering, dictatorial lips. He thanked me for keeping his daughter company, told me it was time to go home. I wanted to tell him I refused to leave her alone with him like that; I wasn’t the dutiful daughter he thought I was. What are you gonna do, punch me? I wanted to tell him how lucky he was to have her; that he was the embarrassment. I wanted to tell him that we all knew. But I was afraid that he’d take her away from me. I wanted to take one punch for her to show her it wasn’t her. It was hard when we whispered truths at sleepovers, only in the literal dark. Her bravado inverted and she shrank from a radiant beam into a sullen, sad girl. She didn’t like for us to see her like that. She preferred to craft an elaborate fantasy life that others would call lies. To mastermind our reactions by making up appalling and shocking stories: “Once I blew a heroin addict without protection.” Like when Roberta in Now and Then pretends to be unconscious in the lake. She dared us to jump in after her, to be scared for her but never sad for her. Who knows if acknowledging her pain enabled her to act out, enabled her to act. She was mesmerizing. I remember the way she pulled her silky hair back into a hair tie, the scent of the soap her housekeeper placed in her stacks of Bonpoint shirts, how doll-like she looked when she slept, what her hot breath felt like against me, and her precocious fascination with makeup. He was smart enough never to hit her porcelain face, and by the time we were in high school it became murky. As the ultimate fuck you to her parents, she ran off from the marble floors of luxury to the grimy alleyways of the UES with low class delivery boys, and then the origins of her bruises were unknown.
When I think of how we couldn’t resuscitate her, no matter how far we jumped in after her, I think of the movie Good Will Hunting. From my memory, Robin Williams’s character tells Matt Damon’s character, “It’s not your fault.” And Matt keeps brushing it off curtly, “I know,” not really internalizing it. After a bunch of repetitions there is an emotional breakthough and they hug it out. As a young kid, Tina didn’t intellectually understand that she was being abused. In fact, that’s how we first found out. She made some offhand comment in art class (I wasn’t there; this is a second- or even third-hand account): “You know that look your dad gets in his eyes before he hits you?” And my classmates didn’t know because we were too old to still be spanked. So another kid reported it. After a while, she realized her family was not like everyone else’s, and not just because they were foreign and she was adopted. But as much as she intellectually knew that she had been dealt a shitty hand and had to deal with shit that other kids didn’t, she was never able to internalize that it wasn’t her fault. When the people you depend on for basic confidence as well as physical survival constantly undermine you, you start acting out and giving them a real reason to think you are a bad seed, and by then it is obfuscated who I no good. To anyone outside the situation, accountability is obvious; adults should be adults. But like Sally, she still said “Daddy.”
As overbearing as my mother was and as absent as my father was, they never physically or sexually abused me. Up until at least age ten, I had a firm foundation. My sexual education was flawed in many ways and my mom instilled some bad messages in me, but she did teach me the difference between a good touch and a bad touch. So when I was raped I knew it was not my fault. I knew I didn’t provoke it. I knew I didn’t deserve it. Because of my firm foundation, I believed that, unlike Tina, I both intellectually and emotionally understood these things. I thought I was better. I thought I was smarter. I thought I was stronger. I thought that the assault wouldn’t alter me because it had nothing to do with me.
I credit the feminism movement for my sexual development: my values helped me grow into a well-adjusted, confident, and resilient woman in a society that does everything to rob women of their sexual agency. Feminism taught me to set my boundaries and express my desires (sadly, in that order). Unfortunately, it furnished me with unreasonable expectations that ended up being of disservice when it came to coping with my rape. I believed that my values would insulate me from the effects of rape; that rape is only traumatic if you believe a woman’s value is her body and the debasement of her body renders her irrevocably ruined. After being raped, I felt helpless, filthy, scared, and foolish. Worst of all, I felt silly for feeling all these things when all I should feel was anger. I wondered why all these years I had been taught to distrust strangers when it happened in my own apartment at the hands of someone even my mother liked. In my own bed that I did not recognize before I did not recognize my defiled body disembodied. I thought of all the what ifs: What if I didn’t get so drunk? What if I told him to stop once I was conscious of what was transpiring? What if my friend we were hanging out with earlier that night let me sleep on his friend’s floor when I told him I was too drunk to go home? I wondered, Why me? I wondered, Why him? I’ve been drunk and alone with other male friends and they have not raped me. I wondered how someone I trusted could do this to me. HOW COULD HE DO THIS TO ME? I considered how I could naively assume that we were equals when in fact he had power over me on account of having a penis and being physically larger.
I guess what I’m saying is that I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay to feel fucked up about rape. That you are entitled to feel helpless, filthy, scared, foolish, and anything else. Because even if you are strong and even if your head is screwed on straight, rape is a profoundly disorienting experience. And it isn’t something you can ever make sense of. It isn’t an intellectual concept.
In discussing casual sex, Clarisse Thorn reposted an image with the quotation “I sleep around because I WANT to devalue sex. That way, I can devalue being raped.”
Like Clarisse, I experienced reading that as a punch to the stomach. It makes me sad and nauseated to think that someone would fuck everything to make rape mean less in comparison, but maybe it’s not as sad as how I coped: by withdrawing. By becoming protective of my body and staving off pleasure. Which sounds obvious. Common, even. But it takes a lot to make me lose interest in my vagina. Pro-tip: chemo and steroids also work wonders. Maybe rape is a wake-up call no matter who you are, and the automatic reaction is to do the opposite of whatever you’ve been doing. As if what you’ve been doing is the problem and pretending it is gives you s semblance of control. The thing is, I couldn’t fuck everything to prove that sex was meaningless; I had already fucked everything. Suddenly sex had a meaning. And I didn’t know how to manage it.
As if there was no reason to be overly careful or sensitive—sex was just a game I cold play, like a sport—where the worst that could happen if I screwed up was a skinned knee. I wish that there had been acknowledgment of the fact that we can really hurt ourselves, and others, when we’re cavalier about sex…
—Clarisse Thorn, Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing, The S&M Feminist
For the rest of the summer, I made sure I didn’t have any sexual encounters while drunk. One night I let my ex-boyfriend’s best friend sleep over because he lived far out in Queens. I explained to him that I would be interested under ordinary circumstances but I was being careful with my body while drunk because of something bad that had happened. He was respectful and we stayed up all night talking. When we finally tucked ourselves into separate beds, he jerked off under the covers. Which TOTALLY turned me on and I contemplated reneging on my resistance, “Just kidding, let’s fuck!” Instead, I joined him in the illicit blanket masturbation racket. Quite suddenly I saw him cup his spare hand over his dick and I jutted my head forward with wide eyes and mouth agape to catch the cock confetti show. Even more suddenly I inadvertently put an end to the proceedings. He played dead. Surreptitious sexytimes over. I was devastated.
That year I vowed to not have casual sex. I wanted a relationship. Specifically, I wanted a man who cared about my body but had no idea how to bring by desire to fruition. I naively believed commitment in the form of monogamy to be the cornerstone of care; as a result, intimacy, affection, and selflessness fell by the wayside.
I wasted my junior year of college chasing after a man who was gay and additionally a bad person. He treated me terribly, refusing to acknowledge me in public or let me meet his friends, who, as it turns out, believed he was gay. He found my objectively attractive body uncompelling, touched me only begrudgingly, was unable to put his penis inside my vagina, and acted as if my sexual needs were grotesque in both type and proportion. It was the ultimate I don’t care about your body. I felt undesirable, he felt inadequate, he blamed me for pressuring him, I implored him to take the initiative, and in sum it was a shame spiral of resentment. Every attempted encounter became a referendum on masculinity. I didn’t want to encroach upon his; I just wanted to touch his manhood. Quite literally I did not want to wear the pants in the relationship. He insisted I keep them on as he bent me over and envisioned me as someone I was not. I’ve always wondered whether my large labia look like balls when I’m bent over! I think of Jaclyn Friedman’s piece On Sex & Compromise when I recall that relationship and realize that I could never be in a libido-mismatched relationship again. Maybe it takes an extremely secure woman to concede being an object of desire in a society that prescribed that role; maybe it takes someone who craves sex less. While I believe in coincidence and don’t think everything happens for a reason in a religious sense, I think it’s no accident that during the year I was seeking to protect my body, I found a guy who was wholly uninterested in it and unable to protect me emotionally. It taught me that caring about someone sexually goes beyond not violating her; it encompasses attending to her needs and stepping down if you are unable to attend to them and actually care about her well-being. Moreover, it includes not shaming her for wanting what you can’t give her. The way I was treated inhibited me from seeking someone who could please me; he played on gender stereotypes, rejecting me for being overly “needy.” I assumed anyone else would find me equally demanding and repulsive. Worried I might be insatiable, I felt increasingly alienated from my body. This is going to sound like SUCH a liberal arts college cliché but I don’t think I really experienced pleasure again and felt good about my sexuality until I was with a woman.
While my immediate response to rape was to close for business, the cumulative effect was to make me more sexually careless or carefree. It wasn’t that I wanted to fuck haplessly to devalue sex. Just that being raped by friends made it easier to fuck strangers. It erased my fear of physical harm and scruples about societal judgment. It’s like an extreme version of that Gossip Girl exchange:
Dan: You’ll really go out with some guy you don’t know.
Serena: Well, you can’t be worse than the guys I do know.
Ironically, through rape came liberation. When there’s nothing left to lose, anything’s possible. And some of the strangers were instrumental to restoring my faith in humanity.
I think I explain it best in this message to a guy I had been corresponding with for a while and hadn’t yet met:
I was kidding about being cut into person-pie pieces. My fears about strange men being violent are minimal. 1) on a academic level, I understand that almost all male-on-woman violence (rape, assault, murder) is perpetrated by an intimate partner or someone the woman trusted. 2) on a personal level, I’ve invited numerous strangers or loose acquaintances over with casual expectations, and for the most part they’ve been polite, respectful of my physical boundaries, and interested in pleasing me. experiences where people have offended, pressured, or violated me are an aberration not the norm. 3) I generally assume that men and women want the same thing (sex and companionship). So I don’t go into dating situations assuming things will be adversarial and I will have to be manipulative or defensive.
Here’s what you’ve all been waiting for. Prepare to drop your jaws but not your drawers.
That fateful summer I lost an interest in touching myself. My body seemed like such fraught territory. It seemed like territory, something someone could stick a flag in; not a living, breathing, dynamic part of me. When I was in the shower, I had flashbacks to THE shower.
Over the preceding few months I had developed a fascination with clit (hood) piercings. Spent evenings searching for pictures of them. I wouldn’t say I got off to them, per se, because I don’t really masturbate to photographs. But my interest was sexual, not aesthetic. I figured if looking at pictures could turn me on so much, perhaps having my very own would be even more exciting. For my 18th birthday I did a sex tour of Alphabet City and the LES: got my left nipple pierced at Venus Body Arts and bought baby’s first toys at Toys in Babeland (now Babeland). I knew I could handle the piercing, yet was hesitant for obvious reasons. If you are grabbing your genitals in sympathy pains reading this, that is how I felt. I want to be a gynecologist and I almost passed out watching the How Babies Are Born video in human sexuality class in college. Plus, clit seemed more extreme than nipple in terms of functionality. Masturbating happens whether you like it or not, and I couldn’t figure out how I’d hold off while my very fun, novel, built-in toy healed.
With my newfound repulsion toward my body, I figured now was the time to go for it. I viewed getting the piercing—approximately a month after my rape—as an act of reclamation. I was reclaiming my desecrated body as a site of desire and pleasure.
I lasted just under two weeks before I played with it. I got stupid stoned with a guy friend and locked myself in the bathroom for so long that he knocked on the door to ask if I was okay. I’m doing awesome! A week later, I masturbated to orgasm for the first time. When I’m stoned, I can touch myself basically forever without getting off—which is sort of a problem. Of course, the more you play with it during the healing process, the longer it takes to heal. It was such a shiny new toy and fuck impulse control! I’ll pre-empt all the questions about what it felt like. No, I did not walk around aroused all the time. Though walking up the hill from class to my dorm was something! I’d say that with the piercing in my clit got harder faster or I was more aware of it being engorged, but when it was time to orgasm it sort of got in the way. This is going to sound like a movie plot: I finally removed it years later when I had a boyfriend who deeply cared about my body. He was the first man who ever truly satisfied me.
LETTING IT DEFINE YOU
In fall 2011, my postbac classmate Patrick picked me up in his car and drove me to class. We weren’t friends, exactly, but I certainly respected him intellectually and ethically. On our drive, he told me he was interested in rape. I think he might have phrased it that clumsily, though I knew what he meant. I was considered an authority on sex and gender issues: even if my expertise in a particular area was lacking, I was enough of a dilettante to direct people to useful resources. He asked if I had any reading recommendations and I said I didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, but I had written two papers in grad school covering certain factors that contribute to rape and he was welcome to either read my papers or look at the bibliographies. He said, actually, he wasn’t interested in studies about rapists so much as first-person accounts of survivors. Oh. I recalibrated and suggested Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape—a diverse compilation of personal essays edited by two of my favorite feminist writers, Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman. If he was interested, he should remind me to pick up my copy next time I went home to New York. We reached our destination and our conversation concluded.
Until a few weeks later when we and other postbacs were scattered throughout a house where some of us lived. The topic resurfaced and I elaborated some more on the book. After giving it general accolades I added: “I read it after I was raped [for the second time, in December 2010]. It really helped me process my feelings and put things into perspective.” Patrick was surprised by my admission and thanked me for sharing. I think I’ve mentioned this before on my blog, I’ve internalized the perspective of “Don’t show it, but don’t hide it,” which originated from my middle school classmate’s sage advice on how to display self-mutilation cuts at inter-school dances, but which applies to many situations that one might encounter beyond middle school. This was a don’t show it but don’t hide it moment because my postbac classmates were on the periphery and while I wasn’t especially interested in having a campfire moment and sharing my rape story with an audience, it didn’t seem quite right to tell Patrick that I’d prefer to talk in private because I’m not ashamed of what happened and anyone who wants to listen respectfully is welcome to. My classmate Jenny overheard and chimed in, “I’m sorry to hear that happened; I didn’t know that about you.” I think it’s always appropriate to express condolences when someone tells you something indisputably bad happened to them. But the second part kind of irked me. Because why would you know that about me? I don’t go around with a red R on my head. There is no one way a rape victim looks. The first time it happened was nearly a decade ago. I’ve had numerous other sexual experiences that have contributed to my development, some good some bad. It isn’t something that I think about every day. Or even every time I get naked with a guy. In fact I doubt I’ve ever actively thought about it during a consensual sexual experience. Except maybe directly after the incident.
I told Patrick it wasn’t meant to be a secret, though there were reasons to conceal besides fear of social ostracism or vindication. By way of the third paragraph of the following story, I explained a good reason to avoid disclosure.
During my year in between grad school and postbac, I spent a lot of time partying with the Burning Man community. In case you are wondering why, I was lonely and lost and at any given time I could always find someone from the scene who was down to hang and turn the evening into the morning. I like staying up late, dancing, and bright colors. Also, at that point I was trying desperately not to have random sex. It might seem counterintuitive that I would immerse myself in a group that is obnoxiously emphatic about sex, but I actually found the performative aspect so repellent that it kept me at bay. Mostly, though, the scene is so overtly sexual that you can get casually fingered on a dance floor, run away when you can no longer handle it, and dance it off or wank at home. I know, I know, it’s ridiculous, but it kept me afloat while reducing my risk for making what I perceived to be a mistake. It was a safe place to dance, safe place to share physical affection, and safe place to explore limited sexual stimulation. In case you put two and two together, this is approximately the time period during which I discontinued blogging. There are various explanations, one being that I was embarrassed because I felt like I was cheating. Getting fingered while you are trying not to fuck is like going to an NA meeting and claiming sobriety because heroin is your drug of choice but you are only doing cocaine.
The thing with subcultures is that norms tend to be enforced more stringently than in the mainstream culture. It’s like that pin they used to sell at Ricky’s in the ‘90s: “Why do all the non-conformists look the same?” To pledge your allegiance to the underworld, you must be promiscuous and/or polyamorous. Otherwise you are a member of the default world, woefully repressed, and leading a life unexamined. Seriously, members of the community use snobbish, condescending terms like “default world” to distinguish themselves as enlightened individuals who are where they are as a result of conscious choices they made. To me, they are sparkly sheep. To them, anyone not spreading the herps is a total dweeb. Bring on the pocket protector! For once, I get to be a prissy, prude, pretty princess! I found their ignorance hopelessly amusing and did not do anything to correct their outlandish assumptions about me. In fact, one of the first girls I met took me under her wing as a sexual charity case—a project. I tried to explain that I was actively abstaining from random sex. I think she believed I did not know how to get laid but was embarrassed to admit my incompetence. Who’s naïve, now?
One weekend I had the misfortune of being stuck with two idiots on a long car ride home from camping. They took great pleasure in mocking and analyzing my super boring sexual preferences. When the topic of face fucking came up, I responded with aversion. They asked me if I had ever been sexually assaulted. Yes, why? Is that relevant? According to them, it is. Apparently girls LOVE being face fucked. The gaggier the better. I wondered whether they had been misinformed by porn. They said, no, they had both been with the same girl who loved having cock shoved down her throat. Now, I don’t doubt their accounts. Especially since years later I met this girl and she confirmed; she talked about the throat lube that comes up when something is forcibly shoved down. Look, people are allowed to like what they like and I don’t care. But violent sexual acts should not be presumed the default preference. I have to hand it to those boys, though. Because in mainstream society if a woman expressed interest in violent sexual acts, people would likely undermine her preferences by asking her if she had a history of sexual assault. For members of the underworld, the desire to explore deviant sexual acts is considered the default as nature made us. Therefore, harboring standard sexual preferences is considered evidence of internalizing puritanical ideals that have alienated you from your desire or evidence of sexual assault that has led to inhibitory defenses. I think it’s preposterous to claim that I hate being face fucked because sexual assault. I hate being face fucked because it is physically brutal; gagging is an unpleasant reflex. Most people have an aversion to having objects shoved down their throats. Nevertheless, I’m looked at differently.
Ryan interjected and asked thoughtfully, “How do you want people to view you when you tell them you’ve been raped.”
“I wish people realized that rape isn’t this all-encompassing thing and didn’t determine all of my sexual preferences; that’s so revictimizing. Like, once a victim, always a victim. I had sexual experiences and preferences before I got raped. Explaining everything in terms of it robs me of any agency and individuality.”
He clarified, “You don’t want it to define you?”
“Yes, exactly. That’s the PERFECT way to phrase it. It’s one aspect of me, not the definitive one. I don’t want people to look at me and see it.”
Part of gives a pop star or artist longevity is the ability to capture and express universal or common sentiments. Mostly Lady Gaga provokes for attention-seeky soundbytes; occasionally she does an interview that is thought-provoking and I’m blown away. What she said to Howard Stern recently was so spot-on:
The singer said… that she’s been fearful about talking about the incident publicly. “I don’t want to be defined by it. I’ll be damned if somebody’s going to say that every creatively intelligent thing I’ve ever done is all boiled down to one dickhead that did that to me.”
—Anna Merlan, Lady Gaga Tells Howard Stern She was Raped at 19
I wish this mindset that women are defined by their experiences instead of their desires were limited to rape, but I think it is endemic in how we view deviant female sexuality: with suspicion and mistrust. As something that has to be justified and defended. Because sex in general is viewed as something that happens to women, not something we enact ourselves.
Women may choose to stay silent about rape out of fear that anything divergent about their sexuality will be explained away or dismissed as an instantiation or expression of trauma. Saying “because rape” is reductive, misses the complexities of the human experience, and robs people of their capacity to have cognition in between stimulus and response. We undoubtedly arrived at rape with different preferences and experiences under our belts, processed our rapes differently, and proceeded on different trajectories. Rape isn’t monolithic because people aren’t prototypes rolling off the same mass-manufacturing conveyor belt.
It sounds bizarre, but I’m thankful that my slutiness long proceeded my rape. Partly because—as a guy I was friends with junior year of college astutely noted—rape didn’t have the power to spoil my pre-existing notions of men or sex. But mostly because my prior experiences lent credibility to my current ones. It is hard to dismiss me with “because rape” when I had a long track record preceding rape. It is hard to claim rape as deterministic.
Restrictively and nonsensically, women’s sexual preferences aren’t considered valid if the argument can be made that they are influenced by personal encounters or societal expectations. As if it is possible for us to be raised in bubbles such that preferences can ever be independent of past experiences. People seem to think men’s sexuality is hardwired, while women blow in the wind. Which is in accordance with Hugo Schwyzer’s Paris Paradox wherein men are socialized to desire and women are socialized as the objects of desire.
[W]e currently conceptualize sexuality through “orientations”: we have built a cultural “orientation model” focused on the idea that “acceptable” sexuality is “built-in,” or “innate.”… [O]ne thing I don’t like about the orientation model now is that it makes us sound like we’re apologizing. “Poor little me! It’s not my fault I’m straight! Or a domme! Whatever!” Why would any of these things be faults in the first place? Our bodies are our own, our experiences are our own, and our consent is our own to give.
The most noxious instantiation of this attitude in my life is when people— almost always men—ask me the very dumb question: “Why do you like porn?” Sometimes I turn the question on them. Often I answer with an equally dumb, utilitarian response, “Because it gets me off.” If they continue looking at me quizzically as if I’m an extraterrestrial being beamed down to Earth from planet Ork, I elaborate, “Because it gets me off. And I like to get off.” Duhhh? I’m not sure whether they expect me to give a reason that I am different from (their conception of) normal women, e.g., because I was molested by aliens when I was an impressionable ladychild. Or whether they expect me to tell them I watch porn for another reason entirely, e.g., because I appreciate its aesthetic, narrative, and cultural value—women are so high-brow and highly evolved! Well-meaning, clueless men do not bother me nearly as much as evil anti-porn feminists who would like nothing more than to pathologize and punish me for my desires. I’m thinking specifically of people like Ariel Levy who would argue that I like what I like because I’ve internalized the patriarchy; i.e., my preferences are not my own. Even worse, I’m colluding with the enemy, supporting the subjugation of women, and in denial. Well, okay, my vagina is acting under the influence and I’m an aggressor. But orgasms. Do I really care why I have them? I like them. Is it impossible for me to own my sexuality because of society? That seems unfair. Not to mention convoluted. I’m into viewing naked bodies because of the patriarchy? No, ma’am, I believe that’s called biology. And you are THE MAN embodied. As Jane Ward pointedly asked Ariel Levy during a discussion about what constitutes authentic female sexuality and who determines whether desire is genuine as opposed to socially constructed, “what do you want women to find sexy?” i.e., what are we allowed to claim as our own? (See: Jane Ward’s Essay “Queer Feminist Pigs” in The Feminist Porn Book).
Male sexuality is considered biological and thus taken at face value. Women are considered relational creatures and so female sexuality that diverges from accepted norms, feminist or mainstream, must be justified. Explain your unwillingness to accept your sexual lot in life in 500 words or less! One male college classmate of mine requested the link to my blog and—when he didn’t find whatever he was looking for—asked flippantly whether getting off needed to be defended then probed skeptically, “What’s your mission statement?” WHAT? My vagina, the missionary? I need to support my sexual escapades with a mission? Can I get crowdfunded for that? This would never be expected of a man. No one has ever solicited Tucker Max for his fucking mission. Marginalized voices are thrust into the realm of tokenism, becoming unwitting representatives of vast and heterogeneous groups. This is why I feel for Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling and other voices from the fringes who aren’t allowed to depict experiences they personally relate to without getting flak for having a narrow or skewed perspective. Asking a woman to speak for all can be even worse than asking her not to speak at all.
I feel uncomfortable writing this section in part because there is no way to obscure the guy’s identity. Even though he ultimately couldn’t be what I wanted him to be and even though he has mostly been a shit ex-boyfriend, I’d like to respect what we had at the time. He was good to me while we were together, I am grateful to him in many ways and I genuinely wish him well. I think this particular situation is too important not to talk about, though, and it feels horribly ironic to remain silent on the topic of silencing. I also feel uncomfortable writing this section because I feel conflicted about my position. Here goes…
For a few years after we broke up, he was unable to talk to me at all. He believed that because I broke up with him, I single-handedly annihilated all we had built together—which entitled him to be as mean as he wanted to be. And I accepted some of the abuse; truthfully I really missed him and just wanted to hear his voice, even his angry fanatical one. Eventually he came to realize that he had vilified me as a defense mechanism and that he played an instrumental role in the dissolution of our relationship. Over the course of a few phone calls, we apologized for things we had done and made amends. With the distance that time grants, we could acknowledge each other’s perspectives and there was a sense of reconciliation and relief. At the end of one of our conversations, however, he said something I will never get over. So much for making amends.
He told me there were two things I should have never told him about. One was my rape. I’m choosing my words deliberately here. I don’t mean to say that he wishes he didn’t know about it. I mean to say that he thought I was wrong to tell him. That by telling him a story about my assault, which he declined to hear, I was in effect assaulting him. As if my disclosure was an attempt to punish him for the wrongdoing of another man just because he had the misfortune of also having a penis. I suppose I need to add some context.
In this post I discuss a situation where he stopped a consensual sexual encounter to-be that involved physical restraint, because it reminded him of my rape. It made me feel like he was robbing me of my agency, like he didn’t think I was competent to set my own limits. It also didn’t make a lot of sense given that it didn’t remind me of my own rape, which I have little recollection of and which I assume did not involve physical restraint; there is no need to restrain someone who doesn’t have control over her own limbs. I decided we needed to have a conversation so there would be no future misunderstandings. In order to be heard, I needed to detail what I knew had happened to me. He declined to hear the details. I told him it wouldn’t be hard to hear because I had very little visual memory of it, and I proceeded despite his protests. In other words, he was a non-consensual recipient of the story. And that is the part I feel conflicted about to this day. The rest of the evening was tense, but eventually we worked it out and came back together physically and psychologically. As far as I remember, it wasn’t something that came up again. Like all couples, we had recurring fights. This was not among them.
So fast forward three years and this is the last bit of resentment that is lingering. He just wants me to know so I don’t ruin another relationship with my inappropriate disclosure. I feel sick to my stomach when I hear him saying this—that my story isn’t mine to tell. That to protect the propriety of innocent men I must stay silent. We went through so much together, made real mistakes. And when all was said and done the worst (the most worstest, if I can get away with using the extra super superlative) thing I had done was describing to him what it was like and what it wasn’t like to get raped?
Every time I leave my apt, regardless of how I’m dressed or what my plans are, my errands are interrupted by being reminded that I’m a walking vagina and the streets don’t belong to people like me. And if I speak out online about my disgust for being treated like a piece of meat and my lack of physical safety, I’m told I’m misinterpreting things—I should be grateful for the compliments. By being uptight and bitchy, I’m oppressing men who just want to offer a friendly hello, who are entitled to my time because women are put on this goddamn earth to affirm men. So now I need to add to that: if the guy to whom I gave free reign of my body is made uncomfortable by the reality of what my body has been through, of what my body goes through to some degree every single day, I need to shut the fuck up about it. Wouldn’t want to offend the sensitive mens. Wouldn’t want them to share the lived reality.
All he sees me as is someone with a red R emblazoned across my forehead. I’m not a complex human being. I’m not someone with agency and preference and god forbid kinks. R is for raped. R is for ruined. S is for silence and shut the fuck up. Be a supple, willing twat. But don’t be site of conflict and strife, a singed battleground. Think of only pretty things. Be pretty for me, baby. Smile!
He gave me so much sexually. Genuinely loved and cared for my body. Introduced me to a level of satisfaction that exceeded orgasms. But I cannot help feeling like someone who requires you to erase your body’s history is not worthy of becoming part of it.
Just like I think partners are entitled to maintain privacy on certain matters, I think partners are entitled to decline becoming privy to certain information. For example, if you were to cheat on your partner and they’ve expressed that in that event they’d rather not know, you should probably keep it to yourself. Even though I think people are entitled to a basic white lie level of interpersonal ignorance, I’m not sure this extends to systematic oppression.
Part of privilege is feeling like you are entitled to ignore problems that don’t directly harm you. Often my black friends post articles that make me uncomfortable because white guilt. Some friends consistently post informative and thought-provoking things and I often feel like the greatest indicator of how important something is for me to read is how uncomfortable it makes me. The more emotional resistance I feel, the more I’m confronting and breaking down pre-existing assumptions, prejudices, and complacency. Not everyone feels this way.
Ilana: I swear privilege is the funniest thing. The fact that ppl honestly think calling attention to racism is “dividing” or generalizing would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. You are missing the point… because you can… Your delusional mindset is actually a danger to others.
Lynn: Racism is dividing. Ending racism is unifying. Duh smh
During this period of racial unrest in our country I’ve read many comments by people who feel that in calling attention to and fighting oppression, victims are causing unrest—they are the aggressors. Because they are inconveniencing people who did not personally cause the systematic injustices. The night of the Ferguson verdict, my facebook feed was flooded with people furious about the complaints that Dancing With The Stars was interrupted by the news. I cringed when my own mother complained not about the breaking news interruption, but that it was on every single channel; it was inescapable. Well, here’s the thing. When black people leave their apartments they can’t switch the channel and avoid being black to make sure they aren’t hassled by the police. Just like I can’t go incognito and hide my femaleness to make sure I’m not harassed by men. These are injustices oppressed groups deal with all the time whether they like it or not. There is no changing the channel until everyone is forced to watch and confront how members of those groups are being disproportionately victimized. I’m pretty sure that when black people are killed by the police for non-violent crimes and when black people are jailed by the police for non-violent crimes for which white neighborhoods aren’t under surveillance, their families are more than inconvenienced.
Jeremy: I will never understand people who call for less disruptive protests. Like, the folks who get angry at protestors who block traffic because “some people just want to go about their day.” WE KNOW THAT. It’s literally the reason we’re trying to get in the way—to stop you from being able to “just go about your day”. Because people just going about their day is what allows tis shit to keep happening. It’s not gonna stop happening until we stop going about out days as we have been and work to make something different happen.
So do I feel guilty for telling my then-boyfriend about my sexual assault when he wished to remain ignorant and did not personally violate me? No, until boyfriends and brothers and sons and fathers are confronted with the harm that has been done to the women in their lives, until they bear part of the burden, nothing will change. Even if they personally don’t assault and oppress women, they benefit from a system that does. And the ultimate oppression is silence. Confronting systematic oppression is not meant to feel comfortable. Comfort is complacency and complacency is complicity.
TO BE CONTINUED…