The boys I hookup with hate asking questions. We’ve all sat in health class and listened to Mr. G describe consent as an ongoing conversation, But questions like “Do you like this?” and “Would you do X?” and “Is this okay?” and “Did you finish?” are questions no one ever even thought to ask me until just this past year. If our hookup culture is anything, it is notoriously silent on all fronts. In sexual encounters where this culture of silence feels most prominent, I have this image of myself that pops into my head wherein I am just a trash can with my name scrawled on it in sharpie. I can’t talk, I can’t move, I can only hold things. I call it a sexual receptacle.
The first time I conjure up this image I am in tenth grade, making out with my boyfriend when he starts to push on the top of my head. At first I think maybe this is just him trying to be sexy–a misguided attempt to be hot by being rough. But he keeps pushing, and it’s not painful or uncomfortable and I don’t feel unsafe, it’s just constant–almost in the background. And I realize that he thinks he is posing a question. To him, this is equivalent to asking politely for a blowjob. I silently push back, a firm “no,” holding my lid tightly shut.
The second time this happens, I am in the middle of a subway car on my way to a party, talking to an upperclassman who wants to know whether he has a shot with my friend. I tell him I think she might be interested in someone else, and he looks dejected for a minute before leaning in and kissing me. I pull away, refusing his offer. He looks at me, vaguely surprised. I stare back. He leans in again and I, pushed back against the wall of the car, reluctantly oblige, my lid pried open.
A few weeks later I am with the same boy at a different party. I am talking with friends when he approaches and puts his arm around me. I walk away, pretending to go join another conversation across the room. He follows me a moment later and drapes his arm back across my shoulder. I silently shrug it off, give a small smile and pretend I need to use the bathroom. I spend the rest of my night dodging eager arm attached to clueless guy, once again stuck in the position of having to defend my space.
In too many of my sexual encounters, verbal conversation seems replaced by a kind of sexual charades–clarity and consideration sacrificed out of fear that talking will ruin “the mood.” That rocks though, because I hate “the mood,” because a lot of the time “the mood” is absolutely toxic. A lot of the time, “the mood” seems to promote unwilling silence and and utter lack of interest in the other person’s comfort. I hate the mood because the mood makes me a receptacle: ready and eager to give you head, something to do with your tongue or your arm. Slowly, though, I am learning not to take shit from the boys I hook up with–to talk to them and demand that they talk to me. With words, not actions.
There are certain things that we hear about throughout our lives, and we know they are real, but we don’t truly comprehend how real they are. Although it would be nice to discern hardship by reading about it, or by listening to people talk about their experiences, we are a self-absorbed species. We perceive the world through the lens of our own experiences, and this hinders us from relating to people who we differ from. Ultimately, we are only mindful of the hardships that we have experienced first hand. I’ve always considered myself fairly empathetic, but I’ve learned that the best listener may never be able to perceive the most seemingly trivial pain. We cannot fathom the severity of anything until it applies to us directly. We cannot judge people, because each person is composed of different experiences that create their identity. I realized how hard it is to understand other people’s experiences, when I felt like no one would ever understand what I had experienced. No matter how clearly I described the fear that penetrated each bone in my body while it was happening, and the disbelief and powerlessness I experienced right after, no one could play it over and over in their minds as easily as I could. No one could understand how this was the tip of the iceberg- why this broke me in half the way that it did. I was alone, trapped in an indelible memory.
I was tempted not to call it rape. When he told me that he thought I wanted it, for a second, I considered that I made it seem that way. I thought, maybe I should have been clearer. But then I thought, how much clearer could I have been, I said no… I said stop… He told me that I shouldn’t let something so little ruin “what we have,” so for a moment I thought that I was being weak, and that I was pitying myself. I told him that he violated my body and didn’t take me seriously, and he told me that I could have pushed him away. He told me that if he knew I would react this way, he would have never done it. Implying that rape is acceptable, as long as the girl doesn’t react. That’s when I started to think, maybe I should let this go. If I don’t call this rape, if I call this a miscommunication, then I won’t have to suffer. I thought to myself, I’m strong enough to pretend this didn’t happen and go on with my life. Me and him have been hooking up for the past month, so it was normal for this to happen… right? Thankfully, I now realize that I am a victim of rape culture.
Most people have heard of rape, but “rape culture” is something that is not discussed as frequently. Rape culture fosters people to blame themselves, to believe that rape is warranted, and to disregard rape. This culture enables rapists to go unpunished- 97% of rapists, to be exact. Once I learned about rape culture, I understood why I was rationalizing a foul act that could never be excused. In Caroline Kitchens’ essay, “It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria,” she shares the guilt she experienced when she told a trusted friend that her roommate’s boyfriend raped her, and was asked, “You were drinking, what did you expect?” (Kitchens). Other people that she chose to confide in asked her if she was wearing something provocative or if she had done something to cause the assault. Interrogating the victim on his or her actions perpetuates the notion that the victim could have done something different to avoid being raped. Kitchens writes, “These questions about my choices the night of my assault — as opposed to the choices made by my rapist — were in some ways as painful as the violent act itself.” The after math of rape does not have to be as painful as it was for Kitchens, but we live in a society that blames women for being assaulted. Living in a society that overlooks women has made it difficult for me to accept that I was a victim of sexual assault.
The thoughts going through my head were similar to Ellie’s, a student at Vassar College who experienced disappointment when she did not receive acknowledgment of the rape she reported. The college decided that there was not enough evidence to prove that the perpetrator was aware she was not in a state of consent, so he never experienced ramifications. Ellie was not upset because she wanted him to suffer, she was upset because of the way the administration handled her situation. She writes,
“I wanted to feel safe and okay on this campus, but I didn’t want to do anything that was going to ruin his life or hurt him… (referring to the administration) By not placing this at the forefront of their agenda, something that would help alleviate the pain that victims of rape and sexual assault experience, it sends a lasting message that these issues are unimportant. Everything about this process was ultimately cold, sterile, and terrifying, and I reached a point in the process where I had to ask myself: am I more afraid of my perpetrator or this school?” (Amicucci)
Ellie was looking for acknowledgment of the pain she was suffering, and in turn she received disdain and neglect. She was brave enough to report an incident that shook her entire life, and in return she was shamed by her peers and discredited by the institution she invests herself in. The pain she suffered and continues to suffer was dismissed by the administration, expressing that the College does not acknowledge the severity of sexual assault. The decision to dismiss Ellie’s appeal must have made it even harder for her to accept the incident and find justification in her sorrow. This is why I decided not to report my incident.
I continuously doubt myself and find myself justifying my perpetrators actions. I often need friends to remind me that what happened was cruel and unacceptable. So when my friends told me that I needed to report my offender to protect other girls, I half-heartedly agreed. I knew they would find it selfish, so I didn’t immediately tell them that I am not going to report the incident. As Ellie expressed, I do not want to ruin my perpetrator’s life, because I would forever live in guilt. If I were to report my rapist and receive publicity, there would be people who would make me feel remorseful. The justice that Ellie sought was unfulfilled, so why would my situation be acknowledged? I have no “evidence,” and my perpetrator is an athlete, so I am certain that there would be no retribution. At first I felt guilty for deciding not to file a report, but as I learn about rape culture, I am realizing that the decision is out of my control. I cannot report the incident because I am afraid of the people who will detest me; I am afraid of an administration that will disappoint me. But primarily, I still do not entirely believe that I was raped. There are parts of me that still believe it was my fault, that believe I am over-analyzing, and that believe he is not a rapist. I often look up the definition of rape, as a way to verify my experience. Rape is defined, as “vaginal intercourse by force, without consent, or with a victim whom the perpetrator knows is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.”
“Sexual misconduct is defined as various violent and/or non-consensual sexual acts. Silence, passivity, acquiescence, or lack of active resistance does not constitute or imply consent on its own. In addition, previous participation in sexual activity, however recent, does not indicate current consent to participate, and consent to one form of sexual activity does not imply consent to another form of sexual activity.”
Both of the provided definitions explicitly state that under the conditions of my experience, I was raped. There is no way around it- my perpetrator violated the sexual misconduct policy of my University. I have read through all 18 pages of the “student gender-based/ sexual misconduct policy,” and I am happy with the detailed investigation and care my Univeristy claims to provide for situations like my own. Unfortunately, these definitions do not suffice. As a victim of rape culture, I am stricken by impotence, and cannot accept that I was raped.
As I live and breathe the effects of my experience, I continue to ponder the question: why? I cannot fathom how any human being could have the capacity to mercilessly violate another being, and why rape has become so prevalent. Psychologically, people often have sex to feel desired, not even because they physically want to experience sexual intercourse. (Radwan) Rapists believe that they are satisfying their sexual desire, but they are actually attempting to achieve a desire they are unconscious of. Some of these unconscious desires could be expression of power, compensation, regaining control, feeling superior to the opposite gender, or revenge. My perpetrator did not believe that he raped me. There is no way of knowing his intentions, but I believe that he had an ulterior motive he was not conscious of. This does not excuse my rapist’s actions; this merely aids me in understanding why this happened to me. Rape is so common because we live in a patriarchal society that encourages men to assert their sexual dominance over women, as a way to feel established and gain control over their lives. Rape culture causes victims to believe that they motivate their offenders to be rapists, but the victim is never responsible. The victim is the vessel in which the rapist projects his or her own motivation. I wasn’t raped because I shouldn’t have trusted him. I wasn’t raped because I acted like I wanted it. I wasn’t raped because I didn’t push him away. I wasn’t raped because I needed to learn a lesson. I was raped because he’s a rapist.
Kitchens, Caroline. “It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria.” Time. Time, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.
Amicucci, Elanor. “An Open Letter to the Administration of Vassar College: I Have NOT Forgotten.” Boilerplate Magazine. Boilerplate Magazine, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.
Radwan, M. Farouk. “The Ultimate Source for Understanding Yourself and Others.” Why Do Men Rape Women. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.
I., and Introductio. 04.130 STUDENT GENDER-BASED/SEXUAL MISCONDUCT POLICY Authority: Chancellor (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
Why do I write these words? Pry up old scabs that ooze dark memories? I needed to write this article as a declaration of self; I refuse to be boxed into the black and white caricature that we depict rape and its victims with.
There are an infinite amount of responses that one can take after being assaulted. My response to a night that was filled with smoke, beer, and a boy much too old for me was–if I’m being honest– to deny and bury the night under my thick skin. But I am revisiting that night not to preach to you all but for myself. It is time that I recognize the significance of this event, for recognition is my first step towards true growth. Along with self-recognition I hope my story and thoughts allow for others to have the courage to search for an identity beyond the role of the helpless victim many of us feel compacted into after assault.
Far too often, I believe we read statistics in newspapers, blogs, and pamphlets and think these numbers are not applicable to our own lives. I fear that we have confined rape to the image of a helpless girl, a dark alley, and a hooded stranger. But we forget that incidents of assault, such as mine, are often committed in far more complex and challenging moments. These moments are committed in what I call the gray zone.
Let’s define the gray zone: it is anything and everything. It is an intimidating abyss that houses everything from glances on the subway, touches that make your shoulders tense, to sex that you don’t think should have happened. The gray zone is not talked about on the news when they display wanted posters and warn women not to walk alone– but the gray zone is the face of rape that many of us have experienced. These incidents haunt us in our homes, soon-to-be colleges, and should be safe havens. Far too often people we believed trustworthy commit these gray zone incidents. In this territory men and women, including myself, have found ourselves trying to navigate through an experience that we cringe at but don’t know how to label. Let me be clear I now recognize that these “incidents” are and must be deemed rapes and assaults. But, our society has so tweaked the words “rape and assault” that I didn’t know how to fit such heavy words into my life’s narrative. I knew something was wrong but didn’t know how to speak of it. I ultimately tried to suppress the incidents only succeeding in feeling unable to breathe. I felt trapped by my moment but could not find the support to feel safe and secure while adding victim to my life’s vocabulary.
My gray zone rape occurred at a party. I remember the smell of minty hookah and the sweat of the dancers that swarmed on the floor. The man, let’s call him X, was friendly and mysterious. We danced but I was not necessarily looking to hookup that night. When I blew smoke into his face I found my lips covered by his. We made our way to a wall and his hands found his way into my underwear. He suggested we find a room, I won’t deny that I was excited by this older prospect and led him to the adjoining room. The details you need to know next are that:
1) I was much younger than him.
2) Being a virgin, I told him at the beginning of the hookup I did not want to have sex.
3) When he went inside me I did not say stop and this makes me cringe to this day. I, outspoken, confident, secure girl could not find the breath to form the word “No”.
Today I am left thinking that my silence permitted a moment that has stained the quilt of my life. Can you understand how this feels? To have a moment that took no longer than 15 minutes leave an impact so strong that you cannot bear to bring it up to your mother for fear that it would break her heart? To have one moment make you feel for the first time helpless and out of control? This is the first time I have been able to speak about this incident since its occurrence a year ago and now I stand on the street unable to breathe.
One moment, one night overwhelmed me with a pity for my own victimized self and I felt disgusted. Do you know what it is like to feel self-disgust and blame yourself despite knowing that he is the one to blame? He was the one that did not listen to my words. He was the one that had sex with a minor. He was the one that neglected to use a condom. He left me alone to spend my hard-earned money on a $50 dollar Plan B pill. His actions caused me to go to the clinic where I had to endure test after test and sequentially treatment after treatment. He will forever remain the man that caused my best friends to look at me with pity; the label “victim” slapped on me like a sticker. I am blameless yet I live with the consequences. When we hear stories like mine we forgot one thing, these moments of violence last only minutes, but it is the aftermath that changes our lives.
I still fear that the rest of my life will be tainted with this one moment. That one day I will sit in a therapist’s office and learn that the root of all my problems can be traced back to this one moment in a dark room. I myself do not yet know how much this moment will affect my future; and I doubt that I will ever learn. Do I judge this gray zone assault as life changing or simply a significant part of my story? Did this one night change my identity or is it possible to simply forget? Readers please try to share my pain. I need someone to recognize that this man was able, in the course of one night, to make me doubt myself so incredibly as I suddenly became the victim that I read about in statistics.
Yesterday as I was trying to write this post, I realized that I was a victim. I wept openly on the shoulder of my best friend. I mourned for my younger self. I cried, shook and grieved as I recognized that I must acknowledge that I was violated and thus a victim. It took– and still takes– so much pain to admit this, to admit that I was one of “those girls” because I just want to be myself. But I am gradually reckoning that being one of “those girls” is the last thing I should be ashamed of. We are girls (and boys) that have surmounted and are continuing to survive a moment that capsized the boats of our identities. I cannot stress enough to you all the self doubt and insecurity this incident provoked within me– a girl so normally sure of herself. But a year later I am realizing that I am still my confident, self-loving, and life-loving self. That night surely shook but eventually strengthened my security in my community and myself.
I still refuse to be the victim. I personally cannot adhere to the label– it does not fit within my life. I hope that it gives warmth and safety to others but it makes me feel like someone other than who I know myself to be. I hope you do not finish reading this account pitying the fact that I became “that girl”. Recognizing that I became “that girl” was the hardest part of this experience. But I ultimately realized that “that girl” encompasses so many other experiences besides the pitied victim. The gray zone makes us all into “that girl” but in varying shades and tones. I refuse to be tiptoed around and viewed as helpless prey. I am strong. I survived a situation that no one should endure but I grew from it until I became the woman who now writes these words with the hope of offering an alternative to those feeling helpless and isolated. While we might encounter an experience that changes our lives, we cannot feel as if there is only one character to become after an incident of rape and assault. There are so many different paths we can take after the worst occurs. I now declare myself to be a survivor, and I survived so you and I can grow together from my truth.
I was 14. I was sleeping. You grasped my ass. Still dazed I saw nothing just heard the sound of feet running up the stairs and chuckles fading. I tried to go back to sleep but something was wrong. I felt wrong. I drifted up the stairs and into the girl’s bathroom where I stood clustered by my middle-school friends whose life stories I could recite without a moment’s hesitation. And still I hesitated: “Someone just grabbed my butt”. I said it to a crowd but the words felt as if spoken to a cave inhabited only by echoes. Foreheads raised and eyes crinkled for a second “are you okay?” I brushed the question off as one does to a mosquito “It’s fine, just weird”. I moved into the hallway, gazed at nothing and suddenly the vacuum of emptiness that had opened now yawned wider and filled with an immediate rush of panic. My body had just been felt by another. My choice never given a chance. I felt scared. In a house of more than 20 people, I had never felt more alone.
The apology you gave; the teachers had to force it out of you. The boys were put all together in one room and confronted with the choice: The boy who did it must come forward or everyone will be punished. You conferenced with your band of boys about what to do. I sat quarantined in a room rocking in a chair. I tried to soothe myself, lull myself into an abyss of peace; but I could not stop replaying my flesh being pinched by a faceless hand. Do you know that I wept? I wanted comfort but could not bear anyone’s touch. The teacher came up and said that you had been identified and it was over now. I went back downstairs. Everyone rushed to my side and asked if I was ok. You didn’t come forward. I just wanted to talk. I just wanted to ask “why?” What made you think it was funny? Did you not think it might be wrong? You heard me sobbing in the hallway, why did you not come clean then? All I needed was to put a face to that hand that pinched, grabbed and clawed. Two years later, at a party, you were leaving and tried to hug me goodbye. I cringed. You asked “why?”. You never answered my questions and now it was my turn to leave you without response. I shrugged, smiled and walked off. You keep trying to contact me. I always cut you short. I leave texts un-answered. Sometimes I feel bad. Other times I feel indignant; why do you think you have a right to repair a friendship that you so unchangeably fucked? You’ve now asked me again to pardon you. You made me play the victim. The role of the victim had always been foreign and now so uncomfortably personal. I needed you to respect my body enough to come forward and tell me that it was you. I needed you to not make me feel ashamed, not force me into the open longing for a place to hide. I needed you to not make me feel alone. I need feminism because that one touch violated my safety and forced me to realize that a friend I loved was the cause of an oppressive self-hate. I don’t forgive you.
by Emma Morgan-Bennett ’16