(Trigger warning: talk of sexual assault ahead. Also, naughty language.)
I was 14 the first time I was assaulted.
I went to an arts high school, and a boy I liked was a music student. One day, he invited me to the practice rooms to hear him play. I was so excited to go because I thought that the invitation meant he thought I was special, that maybe we would become a real couple.
All I wanted in those days was a boyfriend, someone to see me, love me, hold my hand, be my date to school dances.
Within a few minutes, his clarinet was forgotten and he was sitting beside me on the floor, his arm around me. The snap on my jeans was magically undoing itself and I smelled his sour breath, felt his damp, hot lips on my neck, heard his voice in my ear saying, “What’s wrong? You’ll like it in a minute.”
I was saved by a teacher who came by and knocked, saying that we should have been out of the rooms by four and that we needed to go home.
It was months before I told anyone; months before the hot knife of self-hatred loosened a little bit from where it was wedged in my heart.
The hatred told me I was worthless because I’d let it happen.
Why didn’t I fight him? Why didn’t I scream? Why did I even go to the music room in the first place? I should have realized that something was up.
Even though he had known that something was wrong, that he had to persuade me to do something I was not ready to do, I kept blaming myself.
For years afterwards, I could feel his fingers touching what nobody had touched before and my body felt smudged and greasy.
That was the first time I was assaulted, but it was not the last.
There was the partner I had in my 20s who liked sex when I didn’t (he said he would cheat if he couldn’t get what he wanted from me); there was the guitarist in the band I was singing with who gave me a place to crash when I’d had too much to drink during rehearsal.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll be safe here.”
Later I woke up from a dead sleep to him pushing my legs open. I was able to get out, but I’m still not sure how.
There was the friend who followed me downstairs from the birthday party I’d left because I’d had one too many “yay, you were born” drinks, trying to give me “a good birthday f**k” even though I was physically fighting him off and saying no.
There are more stories—so many more.
I tell you these stories from what used to be a deep place of shame.
I tell you these stories for those people who would say, “Well, she was drinking, didn’t she expect….?”
In many of my stories, I tried to remove myself from the situation or do the safest thing for myself, so I reject the assumption that I should have “expected” my assault.
I am stronger for what I have lived in my life and this is nothing to be ashamed of, but for years, I gave myself hell that I’d let it happen to me once, much less multiple times.
If it happened more than once, that meant I somehow asked for it, right? There was something about me, in my energy, that kept making this happen, over and over.
It also had to be the drink—of course guys were going to try and make it with the drunk party girl, even when she was trying to get away.
At the time, I couldn’t give up the drinking. I liked the drinking; it helped with grief, it helped with the shyness, it helped with the hatred—and it was easier to just hate myself.
Of course, I know now that my story is not unusual. Of the women I’ve polled (in various numbers, over a period of years) every single one has admitted to me that they’ve been sexually assaulted in some way.
And by “sexually assaulted” I mean that the person they were with knew that they didn’t want to go further and still the situation escalated.
That is troubling to me—beyond troubling. I don’t even have the words to describe it.
(I want to make special mention here: I understand that sexual assault can happen to men and trans-identified people as well. My intention is not to disparage anyone’s experience; I am able to speak only of my own.)
The more I think of it, the more I think it has a lot to do with the way we are socialized as we grow up.
We are slotted into either one gender or another from birth (regardless of whether or not that gender fits) and told that boys act one way, girls another. Boys are supposed to be made of “slugs and snails and puppy dog tails” and girls out of “sugar and spice and everything nice.”
If that boy or girl veers off script, trouble ensues.
The problem is that not only do we tell girls that they have to do things to protect themselves: not to drink, not to go places they shouldn’t at hours that they shouldn’t, to always to be accompanied, to always carry a self-defense weapon—but we that simultaneously have this whole “boys will be boys” mentality when a man does something shady.
For instance, I’m not sure if you heard, but James Franco (who is my age) was caught trying to get a 17 year old girl he’d “met” on Instagram to come to his hotel room. “Where are you staying?” he asked. “Can I come over?”
He later apologized and said it was a “misunderstanding” and so far, public reaction can be summed up by “Well, it happens to all of us.”
Right—it does. And that’s the whole problem.
Another example: a few mornings ago, I checked Twitter and saw this:
When I look at this picture, I feel nothing but fear.
I remember each night I “took a chance” walking home from the bus stop. I remember the guy who followed me for blocks in his truck, asking me for my phone number, finally calling me a bitch and driving away when I wouldn’t give it to him.
(I felt lucky at the time that was all that happened.)
I know what it’s like to be that girl—too drunk to go home, too scared of being alone—just wanting someone to protect them, only to have to fight them off.
What made me really sad about it wasn’t just the predatory aspect of the photo, or what was implied in the person’s tweet, but how there were others shrugging it off. Some samples of responses included:
“Come on, chill, It’s just a tweet.”
“Hahaha. This is totally what happens.”
Well, yes, it is just a tweet in the sense that it isn’t putting anyone in immediate danger—and yes, this is exactly what happens. I’m glad if “your brother” is doing something that you’re proud of, but don’t you see how this is promising violence to the girl in the photo, the girl who has so little agency in this scenario that we don’t even see her face?
Telling girls and women to take more self defense classes or to dress or act more modestly in order to “not get hurt” is not only sexist and patronizing, but it makes us feel like we can’t be who we are, even if who we are is messy.
It’s telling us (and the women after us) that unless we fit into that very small, very clean box, then we deserve what is coming.
Newsflash: It’s not working. Women—people—are still getting assaulted on a daily basis.
Letting men know (through societal acceptance) that they have certain leeway when it comes to sex is not helping.
I keep trying to imagine how we got to this way of being, where it is okay for one part of the population to be sexual prey and the other sexual predators.
On one hand, I don’t think my teenaged self was completely wrong—I do think there was a kind of energy around me that attracted those kinds of encounters.
What I think the energy was though, was the thrill of fear. The energy of, “I’m not supposed to be here/doing this, and if something bad happens, then I will get blamed for it.”
We have a whole “culture of silence” around sex that needs to change, so that we can protect both our girls and our boys (and those who don’t want that binary classification) from violence. “Boys” need the reassurance that they can talk about, and be safe with, their emotions.
“Girls” need to know that they can stand up for themselves and draw their own boundaries and be who they are, even if they are messy, without being penalized.
And that is only one of the first steps we need to take and potentially it is not radical enough of an action for those who would want to see immediate results. I agree, but this is an emotional topic and needs more voices around the table than just mine.
We need to open up the dialogue and look at all the parts that we have kept hidden for so long, in order to be able to heal the divisions between us.
In the meantime, we need to tell our “boys” to ask for a yes. We need to tell our “girls” that they can say no—and I’ll tell my 14-year-old self that it was never her fault.
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Editor: Travis May
Photos: Pixoto, elephant media archives