I don't know how I expected a rape victim to act, but I didn't expect her to be so funny. Or to be punk, in this kind of sexy, bleached blonde, but too lazy to care sort of way. Or to be so upfront.
"I may be a lesbian because of what happened to me; I don't know. It doesn't really matter at this point."
I didn't expect her to be so over it. Part of me believed people who had been raped were irreparably broken. She wasn't. I had an ex-boyfriend who'd said he thought rapists should be subjected to capital punishment, which I suppose was a more extreme articulation of what I believed: Once a woman has been raped, she has been destroyed.
But people aren't destroyed by rape. They suffer immensely. But they are still themselves after the rape, as before.
Another woman I dated was a butch woman who had just adopted a kitten that completely befuddled her. When I went back to her apartment, the kitten was everywhere attacking everything.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I've historically been more of a dog person."
As we were chatting on the couch, she told me, in a casual sort of way, that she'd been raped. She was pretty open about her anger toward men. I made a joke about "terrible men," quickly followed up with, "Of course, not all men are terrible," to which she responded, "I wouldn't object if you said that."
Her sexual orientation was difficult to label. She said her attractions included "any gender that's not cis male." I can't say I blamed her. But despite her anger, she remained true to her core self. Even if she drank too much, and even if she hated men, she unapologetically lived her life her way. She loved her job as a social worker, she protested for Black Lives Matter, and she fell deeply in love with many of the women she was intimate with.
When I started dating primarily women after dating mostly men, I was surprised at how much sexual trauma needed to be navigated. I'd estimate about one in three women brought up some incidence of sexual abuse on the first or second date, whereas about one in three men I dated would bring up their unusual sexual desires on the first or second date. Both seemed expressions of a desire for intimacy, but where men communicated wants, women communicated trauma.
As you might expect, I was more like the women I dated, in that opening to intimacy would necessitate an accounting of my own trauma. However, I wasn't ready to face that until after connecting with the pain that other women had encountered.
A few years ago I got drunk with a bunch of male friends, and one of them offered to let me crash at his place to save on cab fare. He was someone I trusted, someone I'd been friends with for years. Spending drunken nights on friends' couches was something I did regularly.
I don't remember exactly what happened back at his place, just that somehow his body ended up wrapped around mine, that he'd managed to get his fingers into my vagina before I was able to physically restrain him. I remember confusion, and then shock at realizing his fingers were inside me. I remember how he wilted when I stopped him. He shrank with shame, and I felt so guilty for having embarrassed him. I spent the night, but I couldn't sleep, and slipped out at 6 am after giving him a kiss on the head.
I brushed off the incident. Despite years of therapy to deal with depression, I never talked about that night because I didn't think it was significant. But after that night, I didn't like being touched. I stopped dating men, and then stopped dating anyone. Eventually I lost all sexual desire, and have now been single for a year and a half.
A few weeks ago, I was reading a Savage Love column where a woman talked about a male friend of hers trying to finger her when he was drunk. Dan Savage told her she'd been the victim of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. When I read that, I thought, "How can she have been sexually assaulted? That's exactly like what happened to me, but I wasn't…"
I looked up sexual assault. Simply stated, if someone touches your vagina against your will, that's one type of sexual assault.
I pondered that. I read about what happened emotionally to people who had been sexually assaulted, and a lot of it fit with my experience. Blocking it out. Justifying. Guilt, aversion to touch, and hyposexual desire. These were all common responses to sexual assault. When I read that, I felt relief. These mysterious things I had been feeling had a source, but I was still nervous because I didn't know what it meant for my future life.
I came out as bisexual when I was around 12 years old, and ever since then I have faced a lot of unwanted sexual attention. People accused me of being bisexual just "for attention." Boys asked me to kiss other girls, and initially I complied. I was 12. I didn't know better. When I got to high school, I was regularly asked for threesomes before I'd even lost my virginity. Boys would sometimes grope my breasts or put their hands up my skirt, or make loud public comments about my body.
Being bisexual made me a particularly inviting target for harassers. Bisexual women experience a disproportionately high amount of sexual violence compared with straight and lesbian women, and that innately makes sense to me. I was repeatedly singled out for sexual attention because I was bisexual, and as the only out bisexual woman in the grade, I was a single target for the many boys who were fascinated by female bisexuality.
By 14, I had been bombarded with so much sexual harassment that I had normalized the feeling of it. I knew I didn't like it, but it didn't feel strange. It felt familiar. It's a very particular sensation but hard to describe, almost like nausea mixed with sadness and shock. I cried the first few times I felt it, but it soon became so common that I started numbing myself to it. By the time I was in high school, I was already fairly numb.
When I started dating men, I was so used to the feelings associated with harassment that I would no longer object to them. I just maintained a level of protective numbness.
Sometimes, however, it was so bad it broke through this numbness. When I was younger, one of my early boyfriends pressured me for sex. We were lying in bed, and he kept asking to have sex over and over again. I can't remember if I explicitly said yes, or if at some point I just stopped saying no, but he ended up mounting my unresponsive body and pounding me until he came.
"How was it?" he asked me.
"It hurt," I said.
He became distraught.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," he kept saying. I said nothing, but I resolved never again to say yes when I didn't want sex. The feeling of loneliness in that moment was overwhelming, probably one of the most horrible things I'd felt at the time. I think something in me closed that day, and I could never be really open with him again.
The thing was, despite whatever lie he told me or told himself, he knew I didn't want to have sex with him. He knew I didn't usually lie there like a dead fish. He could tell when I was wincing in pain. When I told him I had been in pain afterward, he showed no surprise, only remorse. I had only articulated what he already knew but was pretending he didn't.
Yet for a man to seek his own sexual gratification from my body while knowing, but not caring, that it was causing me pain seemed so normal by that point that it didn't seem like a big deal.
There is a fiction that happens with a certain kind of toxic sexual exchange. If a man wants gratification at my expense, he will try to convince me that he cares about me so I won't bail. He sees I am suffering, I know he sees I am suffering, but if we talk about it he will pretend he didn't know. He will keep up the pretense that I matter to him so I will not cut off his access to my body.
The night my friend shoved his fingers into my vagina, I just felt a more intense version of a feeling that was already deeply familiar. I knew he didn't care that I wasn't turned on. We weren't making out, or being physically intimate in any way. He quickly went for my vagina, when I was too drunk to fully understand what was happening. Maybe he was hoping if he did it fast enough, when I was intoxicated enough, I might just go with it. I didn't.
And the truth is, if that had just been a momentary violation followed by my anger and immediate leaving, it may not have had such a negative impact on me. Those 30 seconds with his fingers in my vagina were less painful for me to absorb than my own compulsion to protect him from the repercussions of his actions.
Once, in college, a male friend slapped me in the face. I got pissed off and hit him right back before storming away. Afterward, many of my friends told me he was feeling really bad and guilty about the whole thing. "Good, he should be!" I said.
When remembering it now, that slap doesn't hold anything painful for me, although I'd guess my friend still remembers it with shame. He was the one who walked away from that exchange carrying the pain of that encounter. And I believe if I'd been able to do the same thing that drunken night with my friend, if I'd refused to absorb his shame for him and let him experience the pain of knowing he'd violated me, it wouldn't have hurt me so badly.
I always believed that because I was able to defend myself physically, I would be able to defend myself sexually, but that turned out not to be true. Ironically, the men I have been with who have been more overtly abusive have been easier for me to deal with. I once had a boyfriend with some anger issues, and we would get in terrible fights. All my friends thought I was crazy for dating him, but he did me less long-term damage than some of my more acceptable-seeming partners.
I had another boyfriend who used to cry when I went out too late with my friends, so I stopped going out. I would never have accepted a request like that if it were delivered in anger, but when faced with a crying man, I capitulated immediately. I stuffed away my feelings, my anger, the unfairness so that his feelings wouldn't be hurt.
The night I was assaulted, after he pulled his fingers out of my vagina I saw how miserable my (I don't even know what to call him? assaulter? friend?) assaulter-friend looked. I was ashamed that I had caused him pain by denying him access to my body. I felt like there was something wrong with me for not wanting sex with him. I can see how in different circumstances, another woman might have had sex with him out of guilt, how the whole thing would have been deemed "consensual."
I find it hard to internalize this event because it came from someone I held so much affection for. I keep questioning, Was it actually assault? Surely it wasn't that hard to get him to stop, and I kept telling myself he didn't mean to hurt me.
Unfortunately his intentions, whatever they were, didn't save me from the fallout from his actions. Emotionally, to me, it was assault. It was the culminating event in a series of sexual violences against me that caused my body to finally shut down. Because it's hard for me to reject sex from people using emotionally manipulative tactics, because I am unable to get angry about unwanted sexual pressure in the moment, the only way my body could protect itself was to stop desiring sex and to stop desiring touch. We act like traumatized people are "broken," but my body knew exactly what it was doing. It did exactly the right thing.
In the year and a half since I've been single, I have become so much happier. I'm the happiest I've ever been. Friends have said I hug them more, and I feel that an unnamable omnipresent psychic pain has gone. Finally, I can look back and see what happened with the clarity that comes with emotional transformation.
Dating women who were open about their rapes was a necessary step in making sense of my situation. The morning after the night with my friend, I didn't have the life experience to process what had happened. But after connecting with people who had been through sexual violence, I learned that experiencing sexual violence doesn't make you any less complete.
Without that understanding it was difficult for me to admit to myself that I had experienced sexual violence, because it required thinking of myself as less than I had been before.
What's sad is that sexual coercion and sexual violence are so normal. I don't see myself as a victim in an otherwise safe society; I see myself as a completely normal and unremarkable member of the female gender. I see women who have experienced more violence than me, and women who have experienced less violence than me, but I don't see women who don't experience violence. The fact that some women have experienced more or more severe sexual violence only means they need more help. It doesn't mean I need less.
As I tell my female friends about my experience, many of them remember experiences when they felt similarly and just absorbed it. When I told my ex-girlfriend (a lesbian who has only had sex with a man once) she was confused, and asked me why I hadn't told her all this while we were dating. I said, "It didn't occur to me; it just didn't seem unusual." Because it's not unusual.
The expectation that I care for the feelings of men regardless of worthiness has been a persistent theme in my life. I have spent so much of my joy and happiness on trying to protect those who wouldn't protect me. It has taken me a long time to see that, because I wished they did care about me. I wished they had loved me in those moments, so I made up stories to justify what they did. But when other women showed me what it looked like to be abused, I started to see the similarities between our stories. I saw that I had become complicit in my own effacement, and that I needed to relearn one of the most basic human instincts.
My own suffering matters.
Emma Lindsay is a programmer and startup veteran who occasionally writes. Connect with her on Facebook.