For Anxy Magazine
Someone asked, “Who was your first Harvey Weinstein?” now that his name is synonymous with sexual predator. Every woman who heard the question had to stop and think because it has happened for so long, so often, in so many different ways.
It happens early for most of us, the subtle ways we’re told that we don’t really have autonomy over our bodies. It begins with the husband of one of your mother’s friends, who pats your butt whenever no one is looking. This seems wrong, but in a way you don’t know how to articulate. So you don’t. You are told to give your relatives a hug and a kiss, pushed forward sternly even if you don’t feel like it, and this seems similar, though not exactly the same.
You learn about stranger danger and never accepting a ride home, but not what to do if a man you’re supposed to greet with a hug touches your seven-year-old ass when no one is looking. One time you see him greet your mother, and notice him patting her butt as well. She doesn’t seem happy, but she doesn’t seem upset either, so you assume it is one of those things that adults understand and you don’t. You never really feel comfortable around him, though, and years later when he and your mom’s friend divorce, you are secretly relieved. Your mother tells you that there were “other women” and you realize you knew that long before she said it.
As you get older, you become used to other things. Boys you have crushes on show an interest in you, and you spend several years learning the hard way that their interest in you is usually only about what is between your legs. You learn to feel stupid and embarrassed when you routinely mistake a guy’s attraction for genuine interest. You learn that boys will always see how far they can go, and it’s always up to you to stop them. You know that this is wrong–you’re an Ani Difranco-listening high school student now, a feminist, the first to call out a bullshit double standard. But you also like boys, like making out and doing other things with them, so what choice do you have? You’re either always the one to stop them, or you are nothing to them at all.
You try to figure out how to be empowered while liking boys and complicating things further is the drinking problem you’re starting to develop. Drinking makes you feel whole and happy in a way you already know is bad but that you’re not ready to address. You know that it diminishes your credibility–that people are becoming used to seeing you do and say things you wouldn’t otherwise. So when you’re falling asleep at a friend’s house after a party and you feel someone climb into bed next to you, you focus all of your concentration to break through the booze and the weed and utter the word “no” because you are drunk and you sometimes like to hook up with boys and you know that this means your silence will be taken as consent.
So you muster all the energy you can because you’re at that kind of drunk where your brain is processing everything, but it’s just so hard to move or speak. And when he moves his hands to your body you say No. He pretends not to hear you. Or maybe really he doesn’t hear you. Either way, your friend is sleeping on a mattress on the floor and you might be able to say it loud enough so she can hear. He slides his hand inside your pants and you say NO again and the word runs long OOOO because as long as you are making sound there is a chance your friend, who is also very drunk, will wake up and rescue you. Your bones feel like they’re made of cement, pushing you down against the mattress, and you know this is from intoxication and not fear because you are not afraid. You are angry and disappointed and more than anything you just want it to not happen, you just want to go to sleep but you knew the moment he climbed into bed that was not an option. Because it has always been your responsibility to draw the line, to stop.
You say no one more time, but his hand just becomes more aggressive. At some point, your lack of response frustrates him (they are always so angry when you don’t want what they want) and he leaves.
You don’t say anything (what is there to say? It’s not like he raped you.) and you proceed with the assumption that your friend slept through the whole thing. Several weeks later, you are drinking with your girlfriends and the subject of gross, creepy guys comes up (because every girlfriend you have has *several* stories on the subject). You tell the story and the friend you thought was asleep on the floor looks at you with wide, blue eyes. I heard you say no, she says. But I thought you were kidding. And you immediately feel both better and worse because you now have proof that you said no, that you did the right thing, but maybe you did not do it well enough. When you see him after that, your stomach lurches even though you know how much worse it could have been, how lucky you are.
When you’re in London after your freshman year of college, a guy walks up to you on the street, grabs your breasts, and then runs away with his friends, laughing. Your friends are appalled. You are, too. And, as always, you feel lucky it wasn’t worse. But now, years later, your face still burns when you recall these stories. There’s something in the back of your mind, reminding you to be ashamed, of what exactly you don’t know, but it’s there anyway, the embers of a past fire that wasn’t extinguished completely.
Intellectually, you know better. You become a peer counselor for the Sexual Information Center at your liberal, progressive college, and you talk to incoming students about consent. You listen when students tell you about harassment and assault and sometimes you even do a decent job of helping them feel less ashamed of what was never their fault.
It is only in 2012, after high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio sexually assault an intoxicated teenage girl, that the nagging shame you’ve carried with you since that night begins to turn into real anger.
“She was also penetrated vaginally by other students’ fingers (digital penetration), an act defined as rape under Ohio law.” You read the words over and over in the newspaper, and a swirling sick anger begins to to rise–-for the survivor of the Steubenville football player’s brutal attack, for never bestowing on yourself the same empathy and demands for justice you give to others, for believing that because someone didn’t take you seriously when you said no, you didn’t deserve to be taken seriously.
Mostly, though, you are sick and angry because you know you are lucky. This should not be what luck looks like.