This is a revised re-post of a blog entry originally written in June 2016.
Trigger warnings for sexual assault.
A cousin in the back bedroom of my family’s three-bedroom ranch house. A friend who drove me home from our local dive and decided he had to walk me upstairs “just to make sure.” Another friend who once gave me a lift home and then stretched across the divider, seatbelt still on. A short cab ride to Grand Central with a B-list film and TV actor who's been in blockbuster franchises. And, most recently, in 2016, a former bartender who kept buying me mezcal and tequila. He kissed me until my mouth and neck bruised under the force of his grip — the marks appeared the next morning, after a harrowing night of throwing up in a Brooklyn bar bathroom and being walked home by a Good Samaritan.
It's amazing, when I think about it, how most of my experiences with men have involved unwanted advances, or even more unwanted touch. Because my mere proximity must have been enough consent. I sat next to them. Or I was kind. Or I was funny. I smiled. That was the green light to lean in, to loom, to lower lips to mine. To launch across the taxi and tell me, “I've always had a woody for you.” To bracket my chin and hold me in place. To tell me it would be our special secret — we called it “couscous,” my cousin and I, thanks to a shared love of Jamie Farr and The Cannonball Run. I can’t bear mention of the food or the movie now.
I smiled too wide. I gave them the wrong impression. It's amazing, too, the things I've told myself over the years about all of these encounters — the judgment growing all the heavier as my few consensual moments, more often than not alcohol-fueled, joined the pile. I don't think I've kissed someone while sober since I was 18 years old. I'd like to think it didn't count at all when I was eight.
At a certain point, I began to feel like the word “victim” was scrawled all over me. Like they could read it, smell it, taste it — like the shame was leaking from my pores. So I needed a drink to forget that essence, that tattoo, for a while, or I needed a drink to make myself brave enough to flirt with someone I actually liked. And then, inevitably, I would realize the man next to me saw what I was trying so hard to hide. He’d see it and then he’d interpret “victim” as “easy” or “I want it,” and he’d take away the choices I’ve been fighting so hard to get back.
I live in terror that I do the same things to men that they’ve done to me. Coasting on those beers or shots that boost my bravado, I lean across a bar and I say outrageous things. I like watching a cute guy blush. I like shocking a man who professes to be a swaggering Lothario with my language and my off-color suggestions. I put a hand on an arm. I cling too long during a hug. I ask — God, this is embarrassing — but, yes, I’ve asked people to sleep with me. Would you do it if I paid you? I actually said that, awash in desperation, to a man who’s married now and lives clear across the country in L.A. He said no, obviously. And I am very, very glad. Another guy I know wouldn’t even let me get the question out. Don’t say it. No, he chided. He bodily walked me back to my seat like I was an unruly child who needed a time-out. Someday soon, I’ll be very glad for that, too.
I’m always immediately sorry afterward. A log of all my text messages and Facebook PMs and beet-red in-person apologies would probably be longer than a stack of CVS pharmacy receipts. “I would never...” I always say. “I would never,” and “I’m so sorry,” and “I don’t ever want to make you feel uncomfortable.” I am a veritable master at assuring people I believe in consent after I’ve crossed a line. They always assure me it’s okay...though maybe they scoot one stool further away, maybe they don’t greet me quite so cheerfully the next time. Maybe that’s just my shame clouding my perception, maybe that’s just my imagination playing cruel tricks on me. I’m so afraid that I have become that journeyman actor in the cab, so disgusted by the knowledge that I could easily be that guy in the bar putting his hands on someone who couldn’t pull away. After all, isn’t that how it goes? The abused go on to abuse others? Perpetuating the same cycle? Aren’t a I predator now, too?
I’m not. On the good days, I know I’m not the same. I don’t have that power and privilege, for one. All I have is the cumulative weight of what’s been done to me — and it so fucking heavy. It pairs really well with the feeling that I am not good enough, whole enough, or sane enough, to interact with a person I’m attracted to in a normal way.
Of course someone once told me “It's not like you were raped.” Of course another person asked me, so bewildered by my burdens, why I’m not “over it.” As if penetration is the only real violation. As if I'm not allowed to catalogue the countless moments where I felt unsafe and guilty and betrayed, or to still be hurt by them. You get over it. You move on. And when it happens again, you get over that and move on one more time. There’s no FitBit to count those steps, is there?
There's so much of it I can't remember. So much of it I want to forget. But it’s all still present, all still here. The words on my skin. The reek of their meaning. The empty space where my trust in men should be. Relatives, friends, strangers...I still look at everyone with suspicion. And that's not even counting anonymous groping, ass-grabs, men trying to pull me on dance floors, online dating perverts, and guys who've called me a bitch when I dare to shoot them down.
I smiled too wide. I gave them the wrong impression. That must be it, right? If I’m constantly suspicious of men, I’m even more regularly suspicious of myself, of what I must be doing to make these things happen. I must be broken.
Weeks after that bartender held me in place at the mezcal joint, I found myself tracing my neck, like the thumbprint hadn't faded. I shuddered, still feeling the pressure of his hold. I kept trying to find a way to make it my fault. You shouldn’t have been there. You shouldn’t have scooted over to talk to him. You shouldn’t have let him buy you that first drink. You should’ve found a way to spit out the third and the fourth. Thirty years after being molested by a cousin, even knowing what I know now about concepts like rape culture, and while calling myself a sex-positive feminist, I still wanted to make it my fault.
None of it was ever my fault. I didn't ask for it. I just existed. I just breathed the same air. I was kind and funny and I smiled. I'm a woman, I had to remind myself over and over again. That's all the reasoning he needed.
I wish I could say that the message took root. I wish I could say that therapy and medication and writing a whole lot of enthusiastically consensual love scenes for romance novels have “fixed” me, or at least put a new narrative in my head. But there are things that never fade — scars that never heal, voices that never stop shouting.