[TRIGGER WARNING: rape, sexual assault]
When I was 22 years old, I went to a party at a coworker’s house. Between the alcohol and the intervening years, the night is mostly a blur of photos I saw the next day, but a few parts of the evening remain clear to me—particularly toward the end.
It was a party of the “we’re young enough to still be super excited about legally buying booze” variety, and I’m not even sure exactly who was there anymore. Toward the end of the night, though, I found myself in the garage with a few people—it was set up like an extra living room, with a rug, a lamp, and a couple couches. People slowly filtered out until it was me and two guys.
I’m sure they were both perfectly fine looking (I don’t remember), but I was particularly attracted to one of them. No idea what his name was or how old he was now—I knew him for maybe an hour out of my entire life—but I remember that I really wanted to make out with him. Not have sex with him. Just make out with him.
So three of us are in the garage. I forget the specifics of the conversation that led to this, but we were joking around and Other Guy asks some question like, “Why are you in still in the garage?” I said, “I’m waiting for you to leave.” It sounds mean, but I remember it not feeling mean in context, and we all laughed. I just don’t remember the context.
They exchanged a knowing look and Other Guy left. I got off my couch and went to sit at the edge of the couch where the guy I fancied was lying down. We started making out. Yay me, right? Then suddenly, I remembered—my obligation.
I’ve never had sex, see. To this day. I have reasons, but they’re irrelevant to this conversation. The point is that I knew I wasn’t “allowed” to kiss someone for too long without telling him we weren’t going to have sex, because otherwise he would get super pissed off (whoever he was). I prided myself on not being naïve, see. I prided myself on “not being stupid enough” to expect someone to respect my not wanting to have sex right that moment.
Let’s rephrase for just a second: I had already accepted that my role as “sexual partner of any kind” universally meant that I was expected to do whatever my “partner” wanted. I understood that I was a minority and a freak, so I felt it was my obligation to get it out of the way early.
I need to put this as plainly as possible: I was wrong on every count.
I sat up quickly and spat out, “We’re not going to have sex.”
The words hung in the air for a second, and he looked at me as though I’d said, “I like pie!”—not upset, not pleased, just…thrown. “Okay,” he said and, satisfied, we went back to making out.
Under a minute later, he was unbuttoning my pants.
I sat up again and pushed his hands away—we struggled gently for control of the button, and finally I refastened it and covered it with my hands. I looked up, and he was irritated.
“Just because we’re not having sex means you can’t take your pants off?”
My brain said, “Well…yeah,” but my mouth only stuttered. I finally managed to get out something like, “I don’t want to,” and he didn’t force it as such, but he was pissy as hell. And I believed that I deserved it, because I was the freak. I was the outlier. I remembered the look he and Other Guy had exchanged. They had both thought he’d be out in the garage getting laid. I had made them both believe that, and I had implied sex by wanting to be alone with a boy I thought was cute.
In case you’re just tuning in, let me be clear: I was wrong on every count.
But because he was now pissy as hell, I felt like I had to make it up to him. So I tried to make him not angry with me by going further than I actually felt comfortable—not very far, but definitely further than I’d wanted. And I felt ashamed.
I was ashamed that it made me uncomfortable.
Not that I was doing something that made me uncomfortable. The actual feeling of being uncomfortable shamed me.
I froze. The combination of discomfort and shame and the shame of being ashamed all spiraled together until I melted down and had a panic attack right there in the garage. I cried and apologized ten or twenty times before I ran out. He made no effort to pretend like he gave a shit about anything except the fact that I was no longer touching his body. I locked myself in the bathroom to collect myself—the house was dark with people sleeping on the floor scattered across two rooms. When the guy finally came out of the garage, Other Guy made a rude comment about how long I’d been in the bathroom (har har, asshole) and I just felt even more humiliated. I finally went to lie down on the floor in the other room. I wanted nothing more than to go home, but I was in no shape to drive.
After lying there for at least an hour, though, I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep. I didn’t want to see him in the morning, and what if he came over to me during the night?
I say night, but it was 4 a.m. when I finally walked out the door and crawled into my Jeep. I should not have been on the road. My last drink had been hours ago and I lived nearby, but neither of those are the point. I was too drunk to drive.
But that’s the choice. Stay in a house where I was deeply uncomfortable on a number of levels (some part of me was aware how aggressive he’d been, but I was too busy blaming myself to properly acknowledge it), or don’t stay in the house and risk driving home. (And yes, now I understand the concept of getting a cab, but I was 22 and lived in Southern California—hell, what’s a cab?)
I wonder sometimes—if I’d been more sexually active at 22, would things have turned out differently? To be clear, I am in no way making comment on anyone else’s life choices—those are your own, just as mine are my own. But for me, personally, I wonder if he would have pushed harder if I hadn’t blurted out that sex wasn’t an option. I wonder if I would have been too afraid to stop him from unbuttoning my pants. If I had already had sex, I think I was just insecure enough that I would have wanted him to think I was cool…by not protesting.
This knowledge scares me. Because I shouldn’t have had to stop someone from trying to remove my clothing. Forcefully stop, actually. I should never have had to answer a question like, “Just because we aren’t having sex means you can’t take your pants off?” Because honestly, what the fuck kind of question is that? If that’s not blatant manipulation, then I need to re-up my Merriam-Webster subscription.
The night I didn’t get raped came down to luck. It was nothing I did or didn’t do—I was so insecure at 22, I barely did what I did. It shouldn’t have had to come down to luck. I shouldn’t have had to push someone’s hands away from my pants once, let alone multiple times. I shouldn’t have had to struggle for control of my clothing.
I was lucky. So many women are not. And this, folks? This is rape culture.
This is our culture.
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
Last fall  when the GOP was falling all over itself to determine who in their ranks could make the most asinine comment revealing their ignorance about rape and biology and pretty much everything, Soraya Chemaly wrote this article on HuffPo reminding us of some very relevant (sourced) facts re: rape. I’ve chosen a few I think are particularly interesting/topical/important/timely to explore a bit. (See the above article for additional sources.)
Most Rapes Go Unreported
Many, many survivors do not report their rapes. The Department of Justice estimates that fewer than 50% of rapes are reported each year, and gives a low estimate of 300,000 yearly rapes nationwide. The Center for Disease Control has placed their high estimate at 1.3 million. I’m inclined to go with the higher number since, of my rapes, I’ve reported fewer than 50% myself (only one went to arrest/prosecution), and none of the many cases of child molestation (some of which were absolutely rape or attempted rape, and yet see how I still make a distinction) were ever reported to the police.
Most Rapists Never Serve Time
The statistic says that 97% of rapists never serve time. That’s based on the following from RAINN:
Of the 46 rapes (out of this statistical 100) that are reported, only 12 of those reports lead to an arrest. Let’s think about that for a moment:
In 34 out of 46 instances, when a rape victim files a police report regarding his/her rape, the police don’t even bother to make an arrest.
Consider that statistics have also shown that most rapes are not, in fact, stranger rapes, but are committed by someone the victim knows. And then remember the hundreds of thousands of rape kits that sit untested on shelves in police department evidence lockers across the US (one of mine in Dallas, TX). Because prosecuting rape is clearly not a priority in this country.
From Wikipedia via the National Institute of Justice:
“18 percent of unsolved alleged sexual assaults that occurred from 2002 to 2007 contained forensic evidence that was still in police custody (not submitted to a crime lab for analysis)”; 2) One major challenge is that 43% of law enforcement agencies “do not have a computerized system for tracking forensic evidence, either in their inventory or after it is sent to the crime lab”; 3) On average, 50–60% of kits test positive for biological material that does not belong to the victim; 4) Survey responses indicated that there may be some misunderstanding of the value of biological evidence. 44% of the law enforcement agencies said that one of the reasons they did not send evidence to the lab was that a suspect had not been identified. 15% said that they did not submit evidence because “analysis had not been requested by a prosecutor.”
So, we don’t bother testing rape kits if no one asks us to, or because we haven’t identified a suspect. Wait, I watch cop shows—isn’t DNA one of the ways cops ID suspects who have raped before? Oh, for that to work they’d need to test even more rape kits, and in this country, we’re way too busy with the war on medical marijuana to worry about justice for rape survivors.
32,000 Women Become Pregnant Resulting from Rape Each Year
That’s right, Todd Akin: According to the National Institute of Health, rape results in 32,000 pregnancies yearly. In fact, in a 2003 study, scientists found that pregnancy occurs twice as often as a result of rape than of consensual sex.
Our analysis suggests that per-incident rape-pregnancy rates exceed per-incident consensual pregnancy rates by a sizable margin, even before adjusting for the use of relevant forms of birth control.
And yet, right-wing politicians who think their hearts are in the right places believe it’s perfectly ok to restrict Plan B, the “morning after” pill to “emergency rapes.” You know, those stranger rapes that happen more often on television than they do in real life. Thanks, GOP.
In 31 of these United States, Rapists Have Parental Rights
Imagine for a moment that you’re a woman who has survived rape and become pregnant. Should you desire an abortion, 24 states require a waiting period. Should you decide to keep the child, the rapist can sue for parental rights in 31. This is a nightmare I can’t even bring myself to imagine for more than a moment. And yet thousands of women face this in our country each year–hundreds of thousands live with it even as I write.
Here’s a handy graphic from Huffington Post showing how each state rates when it comes to laws regarding pregnancy resulting from rape:
Most Military Rapes Go Unreported
The Pentagon estimates that in the US Armed Forces, 80-90% of rapes go unreported. In 2011, 16,500 rapes were reported. I’ll let you do the math. Estimates place the number of male rape survivors in the military at anywhere from 8-37%—much higher than in civilian life (but possibly lower than in the prison system, depending on who you ask).
Also, I’m going to quote this one directly from the list:
I have no words for how fucked up that is. <—Except those ones.
Prison is a Rape Culture All Its Own
It is estimated by some that prison rape is one of the most underreported forms of rape. Some will tell you that when it comes to rape culture, prison has the outside world beat hands down. Personally, I don’t see it as a competition, but I am well-aware (as are most of us, I think) that prison rape is a huge problem not only in our prisons, but for our society. Our “correctional system” breaks people and then releases them back into the world where they’re completely unequipped to survive and thrive. At least 20% of prison inmates experience rape, and if you’re LGBT, your chances increase significantly.
From the Bureau of Justice Statistics:
- An estimated 4.4% of prison inmates and 3.1% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in the past 12 months or since admission to the facility, if less than 12 months.
- Female inmates in prison (4.7%) or jail (3.1%) were more than twice as likely as male inmates in prison (1.9%) or jail (1.3%) to report experiencing inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization.
- Among inmates who reported inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization, 13% of male prison inmates and 19% of male jail inmates said they were victimized within the first 24 hours after admission, compared to 4% of female inmates in prison and jail.
- Among heterosexual state and federal prisoners, an estimated 1.3% reported being sexually victimized by another inmate, and 2.5% reported being victimized by staff (table 8). In contrast, among prison inmates with a sexual orientation
other than heterosexual (including bisexual, homosexual, gay or lesbian, or other), 11.2% reported being sexually victimized by another inmate, and 6.6% reported being sexually victimized by staff.
- Similar differences were reported among jail inmates, with heterosexual inmates reporting lower rates of inmate-on-inmate victimization (1.1%) and staff sexual misconduct (1.9%) than nonheterosexual inmates (7.2% and 3.5%, respectively).
Rape as a Weapon of War
Again, I’m going to take these directly from the list. These numbers serve as a startling reminder that rape—especially male-on-female rape—is and has always been considered a good way to humiliate your enemy and reward the troops for a job well done.
- Number of rapes noted in commonly used World War II statistics: 0
- Number of rapes of WWII concentration camp inmates: Untallied millions
- Number of rapes of German women by Russian soldiers at the end of WWII: between 1m and 2m
- Number of women raped in 1990s Bosnian conflict: 60,000+
- Number of women raped per hour in Congo during war: 48
Actions vs. Words
The above only scratches the surface. There is so much work to be done. A reader commented today on Always Aware that we need less talk and more action. I’m in total agreement, and yet I feel paralyzed in the face of all this to do anything but read and learn and write and discuss and try to understand what it is that will turn our culture around—to understand what actions I can take out in the world to make real change.
I’m planning a road-trip sometime in the future, and I’d like it to be a thing of action and not just words. I’ll be thinking more about what that means, but if you’ve got any suggestions, please let me know.
- Most Victims Know Their Attacker – National Institute of Justice
- Female Victims Of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 – Bureau of Justice Statistics
- Rape-related pregnancy: estimates and descriptive characteristics from a national sample of women – National Library of Medicine
- Sexual Victimization In Prisons And Jails Reported By Inmates, 2008-09 – Bureau of Justice Statistics
- A Brief History (the Bad Parts version)
- Always Aware
- I Am Jane Doe
- Letter from Another Jane Doe
- Bree’s Story
From the Web:
- Is the United States the only country where more men are raped every year than women? – Feministe
- Sexual Assaults on Female Soldiers: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – TIME
- Always Aware: Keeping Our Eye on the Meaning of SAAM – The Sin City Siren
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
I have been aware of predators since childhood. Since I was four or five years old and first had a man’s penis in my mouth. Contrary to some knee-jerks here and elsewhere, the fact that I’m aware of predators in my environment does not mean that I think all men are predators. It’s one of those double-edged swords women so often find themselves at the wrong end of: If we get raped, we should have been more careful. If we’re careful, we’re alarmists (worse, we’re FEMINISTS) who believe all men are out to rape us. There’s no winning with some people.
But those are not the ones we seek to reach this month. Over the next few weeks, while the Steubenville wound is still open and oozing, it’s our job to appeal to those people who are not yet aware (or not yet aware that they’re aware) but are ready for awareness. We’re not preaching to the choir or trying to make the blind see–we just need to be vocal enough and authentic enough to reach those who are out there listening, absorbing, and becoming warriors in their own time, at their own pace.
I’ve seen it happen. I know how powerful our stories can be. Share yours. The world needs your voice.
Note: Lest anyone think that the point of #AlwaysAware is to put the onus of rape prevention on potential victims, it is not. The point is that (most) women are always aware of potential of violence. We are taught to be afraid and trained to be vigilant. Sexual Assault Awareness Month is not for us–it’s for people who don’t spend every day of their lives alert and aware and looking for ways to keep something like this from happening to them. It’s for people who don’t understand how often women experience assault. It’s for those who believe that women, not men, should be responsible for preventing male-on-female rape. Until we’re all #AlwaysAware of the problem of rape culture, women will continue to bear the weight of that awareness all 365 days of the year.
I’m adding new posters as often as I have time to make them. I’ll replace the one at the top now and then, and add alternate ones here.
The idea for “Always Aware” started with a Twitter chat with the Sin City Siren and was further inspired by the above illustration by Laura Boyea (used with permission).
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
I sit here taking deep breaths, swallowing, my chest tight, trying to write how I feel about what I’m about to tell you, but I find I don’t have words that truly convey the horror. That and the sense of standing on the precipice of change that will either truly liberate us as a species or destroy us altogether. I will say this: I’m ready to fight–to really, truly fight–and I’m wide open to ideas.
This week* RH Reality Check released the results of a study that confirmed a terrifying trend many of us have feared for some time: that women are being arrested and imprisoned for “crimes” such as having a miscarriage, delivering a stillborn child, planning to have an abortion, or declining a test recommended by their doctor.
Yes, you heard right. From RH Reality Check:
A woman in Oregon who did not comply with a doctor’s recommendation to have additional testing for gestational diabetes was subjected to involuntary civil commitment. During her detention, the additional testing was never performed.
And that’s not the worst thing. Not by far.
After a hearing that lasted less than a day, a court issued an order requiring a critically-ill pregnant woman in Washington, D.C. to undergo cesarean surgery over her objections. Neither she nor her baby survived.
People, it’s time to get serious. We’ve long known that in some people’s eyes, women are for sexing men and making babies, and now–in 20motherfucking13–it’s down to no birth control, no abortions, and you’d damned well better deliver a living child. I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I’m living in a work of dark future fiction. The world this trend implies is not the world I want for any woman on the planet, much less my daughter, my future granddaughters, or anyone I love.
What will we do to fight it? How far will we go? I know I’ll write my ass off, but that’s not enough anymore, is it? Because ANY level of complacency in the face of this information would be, for me personally, complicity.
And I will not comply.
*It turns out this report was published in January. I was apparently so upset I didn’t notice. Not sure it took until yesterday for the story to reach me, but I certainly was not aware of this, and from the reaction here and elsewhere, I get the impression others weren’t, either.
Here’s a link to the abstract of the study’s findings as published by Duke University Press Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law. The right-hand sidebar has a link to the full article.
Aaaand, it turns out the UN Human Rights Council just released their 2013 “Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” According to Social Justice Solutions, the main takeaway with regard to reproductive health is “the concept that limiting or entirely denying access to abortions or other reproductive rights is a form of torture.”
Guest post by Bree
When I used to imagine what rape would be, I’d think of a masked man taking you into a back alley and beating you senseless to get what he wanted. As scary as that is by itself, it was scarier for me to realize that rape could come from someone you already knew…perhaps even someone you were dating already. That’s what it was in my case.
I started dating a boy when I was 13. It’s not shocking to say that at that age a boy would already be pushing for sex, and certainly not shocking to say that at that age I didn’t want to. At first It was mostly pressure, him touching, me pushing away and saying no, after a small fight it was stop and later resume again thus causing a bigger fight. But things kept getting progressively worse, he became more aggressive, the fights getting worse after I said no, him being more physical, then it started actually happening. After all the “no’s”…it no longer became worth the effort to fight anymore. This happened for years, getting worse progressively. It began happening in front of his friends, they would watch, not saying anything, then practically high five him afterwards.
I wouldn’t admit it to myself back then. I didn’t tell anyone about it or talk about it at all. He told me I was obligated to do those things because I was his girlfriend, and that’s what girlfriends do, whether we want to or not. It wasn’t until years later when I met someone who tried (and did) eventually save me from this that I was able to admit the dreaded “r” word and realize what it was that really happened to me. I still live with PTSD, I live with the flashbacks and mental scars while I am sure he is somewhere playing his xbox right now with a smile on his face. When I finally left he told his friends I “cheated” so no one would believe my story of the abuse from the boy on the pedestal.
After I started healing I got back into my writing poetry, and then I went on to spoken word. Anything to talk about my story and get it out of my system. I worry about the other girls out there who are in my situation…dating their rapist, and thinking its justified and not rape because they are dating…it’s not true ladies, the sooner you realize that, the sooner you bloom as well.
It gets better–you just have to fight for it.
Bree is a poet/spoken-word artist. Visit her website for more of her work.
If you need a safe place to share your story, please visit my Facebook page and contact me via the Message button. ~Rosie
Here’s a short film by Jodi Martinez featuring Bree and her story:
From the blogosphere:
Trigger Warning: This post is about rape.
I was fourteen years old the night my friend G took me to my first kegger. We told my mom we were going to “a little get together.” I remember almost nothing about the evening—flashes, mostly. I remember absolutely nothing about being raped that night.
I might never have known about it, except that N–a woman I’d met the night before–mentioned it casually the next morning when I woke in a strange house with what might have been my first hangover. I don’t remember the words she used, just the image they evokedof me passed out in a bed and two men doing whatever they wanted with me.
Apparently G had left me at the party—I never learned why, but I assume that I was either passed out or otherwise resisted leaving. I never asked him. Sitting there with N that morning, I barely remembered that he’d brought me. I don’t remember worrying that I’d be in trouble for not going home the night before. I don’t remember anything but a sick feeling in my gut and the vague thought that “I guess that’s what happens when you get drunk and pass out.”
N didn’t seem particularly bothered by it. I’d soon learn that she wasn’t bothered by much. If I’d heard the term “sex positive” back then I would have assumed it applied to her because when it came to N and sex, the answer was always “yes.” By comparison, even as promiscuous as I eventually became, I always felt like a prude. And I felt like one that morning because I knew I wasn’t okay with what had happened, and yet, here was this woman ten years older than I who seemed to think it was no big deal.
So that’s how I treated it. I put it out of my mind, and I never once thought of it as rape. Rape was what happened to me when I was twelve and a boy forced himself on me and I fought with every fiber of my being. That was when I went to the police and lost friends and created a scandal in my community. This was different—it was my fault for passing out and leaving my body lying around for other people to use.
I never thought of it as rape until it happened again. I was 35 or so, out drinking, went back to someone’s place after the bar closed to smoke some pot, and woke up on a couch with a man’s penis inside me. So disoriented it took me a moment to realize what was happening and shove him off me, I first assumed that I just didn’t remember somehow letting things get started with this person I had absolutely no sexual interest in. I left him sitting on his couch looking down at his lap, and I walked home in the dark, and I blamed myself and shamed myself and felt like the most disgusting slut in the world.
And then I remembered:
We’d smoked some pot, and I’d felt really tired. I’d curled up on his couch just to rest for a moment. I had passed out. Between the alcohol, the pot, and my anti-depressants (and it’s entirely possible he slipped me something, I have no way of knowing at this point) I was good and unconscious for I don’t know how long. Until some part of me realized my body was in the middle of a sex act I hadn’t consented to.
It wasn’t my fault. I feel the need to say that because it wasn’t, and because I want anyone reading this who has experienced something similar to know that it isn’t your fault, either. We never know when we walk out the door when we’re going to find ourselves in the presence of a rapist. We can take precautions and self-defense classes, maintain a constant state of awareness of our surroundings, only ever drink at home, and still get raped. I know because the first time I got raped I was just hanging out with friends smoking a joint. I know because most women who experience rape are not drunk or dressed provocatively or in any way “asking for it.” Most victims are raped by someone they know, and it usually happens in their own home or that of a friend or relative.
Rape isn’t the logical conclusion to a night of drink ending in unconsciousness. In a civilized society, it should never be a thing about which we say, “What did she expect?” If the crime was murder, we never would. Because drunk girls don’t cause murder any more than they cause rape.
What causes rape? Rapists. People who believe on some level or other that they are entitled to use someone else’s body for their sexual gratification or rage/power/fantasy-fulfillment.
I’m grateful for the guilty verdict in the Steubenville case today. I’m outraged that the judge verbally admonished the boys for irresponsible behavior while drinking (including texting dirty pictures), but not for rape. I’m disgusted at the slap on the wrist these boys got in the form of one- and two-year sentences. But I’m hoping out of all this comes a real conversation about the culture that produces boys who aren’t even sure what rape is when they see it, and a system that treats rape victims like criminals.
Also, Jane Doe is donating all funds sent her way to her local women’s shelter and is asking that others do the same. (Worth reading.)
For more background on my history of abuse, read A Brief History (the Bad-Parts Version).
For a great breakdown of Steubenville and rape culture, read So You’re Tired of Hearing About “Rape Culture”?
And for commenters who would still like me to take responsibility for my rapes:
PSA: Trolls who comment here will be deleted and banned, so kindly piss off in advance. (Comment Policy)
On Make Me a Sammich:
- A Brief History (the Bad Parts version)
- #IStandWithDylan – My Story of Childhood Sexual Abuse
- 10 Things Rape is Not
- #SAAM Facts: Arm Yourself
- Letter from Another Jane Doe
- Bree’s Story
From the web:
Trigger warning for discussion of child sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence.
NOTE: This piece goes to some dark places where humor just doesn’t live. I’ll forgive you if you don’t read it, but I think it’s important because it’s about some of the really awful stuff that happens to girls and women in the U.S. and around the world. It’s my personal story of serial abuse and…social conditioning, for lack of a better phrase. This blog is my way of countering misogynistic attitudes and messages, and this story is nearly everything that led me to the place I stand as I begin it.
By the barrage of bullshit coming from every form of media every day. By all the anger and violence toward women. By all the ways the world has told me my entire life that my gender was the lesser of two. Subtle messages, and constant, between the lines, that said I was lucky to be born so late in the century—the 20th century, for heaven’s sake!—that these battles had long ago been fought and soundly won. Suffragettes had suffered, bras had burned by the thousands, armpits and legs had gone unshaven for my freedoms. We are woman, hear us roar.
Subtle messages like some stuff is “for” girls and other stuff is “for” boys. Like boys get into trouble and girls are good and polite. Like girls are supposed bait the proverbial hook to “catch” a boy, and boys are supposed to avoid being “caught.” Like a boy’s job is to “score,” and a girl’s job is to play defense.
And there were less subtle messages, too. These messages, these moments, do not define my life. But they do serve as an outline when I consider what a hostile world this is for girls and women.
- By age 9 I had been molested multiple times by multiple pedophiles. Relatives, family friends, neighbors… It turns out you don’t have to look very far to find a pedophile in this world. I learned too much too soon and I had no idea what to do with the information. I was troubled after the first incident (series of incidents) at age 4, and pretty confused by the second at 5, downright scared by the third at 6. By 9 I wasn’t even surprised anymore, and they somehow knew that I was the perfect victim. A family “friend” was visiting regularly at this point and playing his little games and I hated it but I felt powerless to stop him. I was so terrified of the trouble I’d be in if my mom found out that I worked myself into a state of utter emotional turmoil until one day when she came to yell at me about something completely unrelated I lost it—screamed and shook and sobbed until she finally dragged the truth out of me.
- When I was 10 and on my way to the local shopping center (back in the days when parents let 10-year-olds walk anywhere unattended) on a stretch of empty highway between my housing development and the mall walking against traffic like I’d been taught, an old Ford truck passed me and pulled over a little way up the road. I told myself I was imagining things when I saw the driver watching me in his rearview mirror. And when I came up alongside his truck across the two barren lanes of traffic he opened the truck door. He was completely naked, and flopped one leg lazily out as he masturbated, staring at me. I had been down this road before and I was fucking terrified. I turned and ran as fast as I could past empty houses to my street and stopped at my friend’s house, hysterical. Her mother laughed. I was really starting to get the feeling it was just me.
- As a pre-teen, it wouldn’t be long before the neighborhood boys would introduce me to “pantsing,” or forcible removal of my pants and underwear by multiple boys, each one stronger than me, in front my friends. This is wrong on so many levels, but let’s just cover a few: 1) I knew damned well that I didn’t like it when the boys ganged up and took my pants off. 2) As humiliating as it was, I never cried. I learned very early on that to complain about it was to invite ridicule not just from the boys, but from the girls. There I’d be, the solitary person in the room who thought it was a Big Deal when clearly it wasn’t and what was wrong with me, anyway. 3) As an adult, when I talk to other women about it, we all agree that it was terrifying and humiliating and tantamount to bullying at least and sexual assault at worst, and none of us knows why we didn’t (couldn’t) tell someone and make it stop. (Does this still go on? Google shows me laughing people in their underwear.)
- At 12 I was raped by a 14-year-old neighborhood kid who was known for being a bad boy. I lived in a poor suburb of Sacramento and us kids built forts in our backyards to entertain ourselves in the summertime. Me and two girl friends were in the fort behind my next-door neighbor’s house with the bad boy smoking pot. My girl friends left. I never saw it coming. One moment we were sitting there smoking a joint, the next I was on the ground and he was lying on top of my saying, “Shut up or I’ll hit you in the head with this hammer.” I clenched every muscle in my body until he finished. I don’t think he enjoyed it. He walked with me to my backdoor, and I think it was locked. He said something to me. I don’t remember what. I walked in the front door and through the living room, which was dark. My mom and brothers were watching tv. I put my hand up to my face as I walked through and hoped my mom wouldn’t see me–that I was crying, or had been, or what a mess my makeup was, or something. I don’t remember thinking anything but how can I get through this room. Then she asked if I was ok and just like when I was 9 I lost it and she had to drag the truth out of me one more time. I cringe when I remember the ensuing horror show that was my neighborhood’s reaction, the investigation and lawyer prep, and the trial that I dreaded for months and which ended in a verdict that validated the public defender’s stuttered accusations: “Isn’t it true that you cried rape because you were afraid you were pregnant?”
Even he seemed to understand on some level that the whole thing was a setup. I was only 12 and had never had consensual sex , so they’d have a hard time making me look like a slut, but they could cast doubt on me, question what possible motive I might have to falsely accuse the poor defendant (who admitted to having sex and later served time for statutory rape, meaning his only crime was sex with a minor), the fact that no one heard me scream (because I really wanted that ball-peen hammer to the temple), whether I did or did not seem, to the people they interviewed, to be distraught enough in the days following the incident. What’s amazing to me about writing this is that I don’t remember anyone fighting for me other than my mom and my cousin D who left my house in the dark of that night with a baseball bat as I sat in the kitchen sobbing (he came back frustrated with a clean bat). I know there must have been someone, but I have this sense when I look back that I was the one on trial; that I was the poor sap with the crappy public defender.
- When I was 14 I went to my first kegger. My mom thought I was going to “a little get-together.” I got drunk and passed out. The next day someone told me that two guys had screwed me while I was unconscious. No one thought this was particularly wrong. Everyone was drunk. They were just being guys. I just tried not to think about it. It probably wasn’t the last time. I try not to think about that, either.
- Given all this, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I became a promiscuous teen. You know that girl in high school everyone calls “slut”? That was me. I started out looking for what sex was supposed to be (True Love!), but what it amounted to was giving in to every guy I had a crush on because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. It was what they wanted, so if I did, they’d like me, right? Instead every guy at my school had the idea that I should sleep with him because I’d slept with one or more of his friends.
- By 16 I was “in love” with a guy who barely tolerated me, but now and then he’d be nice to me and I’d fall all over myself to do anything he wanted—including servicing him in front of his friends. I followed him around like a dog, and he treated me like one. Miserable, on the street (a habitual runaway) going from one bad situation to another, one night I sat soaking wet in a convenience store parking lot and a family of Mormons rescued me and took me in for a couple of weeks. It was a bit like hitting a reset button as I saw what life was like in a completely new environment. Soon I was ready to “turn over a new leaf,” as my dad put it when he made arrangements for me to go to Dallas, Texas and live with his stepfather, an elderly judge who had no idea what to do with a teenage girl and whose strategy for dealing with disagreements consisted of sitting there laughing at me as I grew increasingly frustrated with him. Angry and bored out of my mind in the middle of summer I went out looking for interesting people to meet. On one of my first outings, outside a drug store, a man pulled up next to me in his car and stopped, one hand on the wheel and the other massaging his penis. About a week later, when two young black men pulled over and chatted me up, I was flattered, and after a bit of coaxing (with one of them showing me his ID and both promising I’d come to no harm, we were going to have a grand time) I got in their car. And we partied. For a few hours, it was a fascinating experience. They took me home and someone’s sister fawned over me. I met a bunch of little kids. Then we went out to a bar where every single head turned toward me like that scene from Blues Brothers and a man on the way in muttered something about “y’all bringin’ Snow White around here” under his breath as he glanced nervously up and down the road. There was music and alcohol. There were drugs. Then it was back to the apartment where everyone was fast asleep and it was time for me to put up. I begged and pleaded, but I didn’t fight. I cried as quietly as I could (so as not to wake up Sis and the kids) and later when he dropped me off at yet another convenience store, I called home and my drunk uncle was over and answered the phone and called me a fucking cunt. The next thing I remember is several people pulling me off the pay phone as I did my best to beat it to death with the receiver, screaming my rage. And the cops asking me why I didn’t use my knife. Against a man twice my size. Lucky for me, I forgot I even had one. I never got it—or anything—from the cops or the system. Somewhere, probably still in Dallas, a man who once went by the name of Charles Ray “Chuckie Ray” Smith might still be walking around free to rape at will, but is very likely dead and buried at the hands of someone’s loved one avenging something very like the crime he committed against me, for which he never even stood trial.All I can say about this list up to this point is Thank. Fucking. God. AIDS wasn’t a thing yet.
- Soon after that, I got pregnant, and not on accident. My life up to then had been a series of after-school specials from hell, and I wanted a change, but the change the adults in my life were serving up was not working for me. When an acceptable candidate made himself available, I counted the days from my period to maximum fertility and I made damned sure he put a baby in my belly. Then he bought me a ticket home to California and I didn’t see him again until my daughter was 9 (which was ok with me). I moved in with my mom, stepdad, and three younger brothers. One night just after dark I rode my brother’s bike over to my cousin’s house a few blocks away. When I saw a man up ahead that I knew for a FACT I had passed just moments ago, I knew he had come around the block for me. I had almost no time to think about it, and as I neared he reached out for my handlebars. Out of breath and utterly terrified, a sound erupted from my throat that I have never made before or since. The words I tried to say were, “GET AWAY FROM ME!” but I sounded wild, primal, like a crazy person. He jerked his hands back and said, “Okay, gah!” Like he was the victim.
- Life settled down a lot after my daughter was born. I focused on being a mother, and for a little while, that was enough. But I wanted my True Love. And when I was 18, I believed I’d found him. He was amazing. Handsome, successful, smart, funny, and 35 years old. My friends and I saw nothing wrong with that. We all wanted him. But he wanted me. I was the lucky winner. Within a year I’d moved back to Texas with him and was keeping his house and caring for his 12-year-old son along with my daughter, now about 2. I don’t even know anymore how long it took for things to get bad—maybe 6 months—but one night after a party I’d left early because he pissed me off, he came home and started in on me, first with his hands, and then with a paint scraper. All things being relative, he didn’t hurt me badly. Just badly enough that I knew damned well if I could get out of that room I’d never come back. He let me get my daughter from down the hall, and when someone knocked on the front door and he went to answer it, I took her and ran out the back. I ended up in a shelter and within a couple of days I went back to my abuser because I had no local support and no money to go anywhere else, and some well-meaning-but-misguided types advised me that it was his job (my abuser’s) to finance my return home to California. This bought me another month or so before his next blow-up, but this time we escaped without incident and didn’t go back. I showed up in the middle of the night on the front porch of my grandfather’s house in Waco and introduced myself. “Mr. Abney, I’m your granddaughter.” We stayed a few days, and he cashed his Social Security check and put us on a plane. I never saw him again.
- In many ways I feel like I experienced a lot of bad things so my daughter wouldn’t have to. I taught her right away that predators were out there and that she should never hesitate to scream, kick, run, and tell someone if anyone ever did something she didn’t like. And when, inevitably it now seems, she found herself in a situation where someone crossed the line, she knew that the boundary was hers to set and protect and she knew to tell someone.
- Jump ahead to my 30s, when I found myself single after a long period and in a new town. One night out drinking, I overindulged and passed out in someone’s apartment only to wake up with him on top of me doing his thing. All these years later, it was still that easy to wind up with someone’s penis inside me uninvited. Because I got too drunk and passed out. (For those of you still unclear on the concept: No means no. Unconscious and/or unable to form words means no. No matter who you are, you are not entitled to take your sexual pleasure/rage power-trip out on someone else’s body no matter what mistake they make.)
As I write this list—and I have long needed to—more and more incidents occur to me. Some I insert into the timeline. Others I don’t. Some seem trivial, hardly worth mentioning. Some I can’t write about. Some involve people I care about who might be hurt by the content. Even I am amazed seeing all this written down in one place. These events scarred me in a number of ways, I’m sure, and fed into each other, perpetuating a cycle. But they also taught me that my worth was tied up in the fact that I was a sexual object, and that worth wasn’t much. And that the world is a very hostile place, especially for girls and women.
I’m far from alone in these experiences. Get a group of five women together, and if they’re being honest, 3 or 4 of them will tell you they’ve lived through one or more of the above scenarios. Not to mention the one thing nearly every woman has experienced in one way or another (and many encounter all day, every day): unwanted sexual attention. Why do some men think it’s ok to approach women and bother them simply because they find them attractive? What’s with the entitlement? Because make no mistake, women who don’t respond well to this sort of attention often go from “beautiful” or “my future ex-wife” to “bitch” or even “cunt” in about two seconds flat. The fact that men are, by and large, bigger and stronger than women turns this scenario from annoying to terrifying in the same span, which brings me to the third lesson the bullet points above taught me: most men are stronger than I am and if they want something from me, they have the power to take it.
If you’re a woman, chances are you understand on some level what that feels like. If you’re a man, just give it some thought. Imagine that your counterparts on this planet are on average several inches taller and 50-150 pounds heavier than you and comparatively very strong. Now imagine that some of them are predators. And some of them seem harmless enough, but they just won’t leave you alone—and what if they’re not harmless? (I know small guys get bullied by big guys, but this is different. Imagine that fully half the population potentially wants something from you, be it your attention or something more, that they have no right to expect, and yet you’re the asshole if you don’t play along.)
Now. Sometimes I love attention from men. But when it’s respectful and when I clearly indicate that I want it. Guys, here is how you tell if a girl is interested: if she makes direct eye contact with you, smiles, and asks you questions, then she probably wouldn’t mind getting to know you. (If you’re British and you’re in America, you’re pretty much given an automatic green light. This is a half-joke.) If she’s mumbling, looking down, closing off her space to you, and gives short answers, she wants you to leave. She’s just been conditioned to think that she can’t say, “Get the fuck away from me.” There are LOTS OF WOMEN, I KNOW, WHO CAN SAY THAT. And who have every right. But I’m just not one of them. I can’t. I have to to think of myself first. I can’t worry that you, strange man in a bar, is going to flip out when I reject you harshly.
Jokes aside (see, feminists can be funny!), it ought to be a pretty simple concept: No means no.
Anyway, me. Throughout the grim timeline above many other things happened, most of them happier, some even wonderful. I lived my life and raised my daughter into a brilliant young woman and had flawed relationships and finally found my really, really for true love at 41*. But all that time I encountered even more of those subtle messages that seem a lot less subtle when people point them out. Like the very real fact that on average, women in the U.S. still earn a lot less money than men doing the same job; that until recently women in the U.S. paid higher insurance premiums than men; that among many men the word “woman” is an insult, and that boys and girls grow up hearing things like “stop crying like a little girl” so we can keep that cycle chugging along; that men who sleep around brag about it and get high-fives from their friends, but women who do the same are sluts or whores (and women who don’t put out are clearly frigid or just prudish or lesbians, and oh yeah, nothing wrong with a lesbian that a good stiff cock can’t fix); that the same behavior called “assertive” in men is termed “bitchy” in women. I could go on and on. And I will—just you wait.
And in all these years I have never called myself a feminist. Not because I wasn’t in favor of equality, but because I didn’t particularly want to be lumped in with those strident women (often referred to as Angry Feminists) who could never seem to shut up about what was sexist. That’s not to say I didn’t speak out when I saw inequity. I quit one of my first jobs (leaving behind a very angry resignation letter) after watching my manager pass up women who had worked there for years for promotion over and over again in favor of young men hired weeks before. I was outraged, you see. I seriously thought this kind of thing didn’t happen anymore.
Then I watched as the industry I’ve worked in for over two decades spawned a culture of misogyny and abuse that has largely gone unchallenged by the professional community. Online gaming servers are rife with everything from codified rape culture (i.e. game messages that actually say things like “You got raped by BigDog1999” and players being banned from their servers for complaining about it) to sexual harassment of women by male gamers written off by the community as “just the way it is” or “free speech” of all things. Only recently is some of this coming to light, with major influencers like Penny Arcade choosing to take the low road at pretty much every opportunity.
And I watched the Internet birth a subculture of misogynist trolls who seem to feed off a sense that they’re causing their female targets pain, anger, or even fear. Let a woman even announce that she plans, at sometime in the future, to release a video examining the roles of women in video games, and they pour out of the woodwork like cockroaches. Simply having an online presence as a woman can mean enduring a regular routine of insults and threats via Twitter, email, etc. Appear on television like my daughter and her roommates did once a few years ago, and the trolls flock to their keyboards to comment on your weight (fat bitches) your attractiveness (I wouldn’t fuck that with a rented dick) and whatever else their rotted little brains can conceive.
Now, at 47, I’m finally realizing—really realizing—that to be a girl or a woman in this country (and much of the world) is to be a member of a class still fighting for its civil rights, and also to be subject to a lot of really fucking difficult crap that someone who’s not a woman probably can’t understand. And not only do I identify as a feminist, I am becoming an Angry Feminist. I’m completely fed up with the double-standards, the condescension, the dirty politics, the constant barrage of media messages, the way we’ve been taught to be quiet and polite and how that keeps us from speaking up when we have something to say and the way some men take advantage of that fact to bulldoze us. And when we do speak up—when something really matters and we sit in a room full of men to make our cases—heaven forbid we should show any emotion.
Lucky for me, the quiet and polite training didn’t take. I’ve always had a habit of speaking my mind—but that hasn’t stopped some overbearing men from shouting me down (and some of these are men who probably consider themselves progressive if not feminist and certainly not sexist or misogynist). And I’m ready to talk about all this stuff. I don’t intend to take every single person I meet to task for every act or word that might be interpreted as sexist or damaging to girls and women, but if I think it’s important, I’ll write about it. You bet I will.
So, yeah. This is my story, the Bad Parts version, by way of explaining how I got here, to this place, to this website, and also because I think we have to talk about it—the good, the bad, the horrifying—if we want things to change. It took me nearly half a century to wake up, but here I am in my bathrobe, drinking my coffee, working out a plan for the next 50 years. I don’t care what names people call me or what assumptions they make. I don’t hate men. I love men. (Yes, some men have done terrible things to me, but far more have been my friends and family and colleagues and mentors and heroes.) But I have no tolerance for misogynists and misogynistic policies and attitudes which are so commonplace and accepted in these oh-so-superior and socially advanced United States that some men (and women!) engage in them without even realizing it. I want to help change that.
I recently saw a TEDTalk by Courtney Martin of Feministing.com (if you want to see misogyny in action, have a look at the comments) in which she talked about this overwhelm I’m feeling. That sense that there’s just too much wrong for one person to make a difference. Her advice is to “act in the face of overwhelm.” That’s what I’m doing. I will fight this war on as many fronts as I have to so that maybe my granddaughters won’t grow up thinking that the world views them as somehow less. So that media stops treating us as objects and our culture starts treating us like equal members of society. So we can walk down the street without feeling like prey.
NOTE: For those of you tempted to bring up the fact that men have it rough too and there are policies that are unfair to men, rest assured that I am aware. That’s not what this article, this conversation, this blog, is about. There are all kinds of inequities in the world. I know that. But in my country, the United States of America, a lot of rich white men and their corporate sponsors are making decisions about women’s health without involving women in the conversation. Teenage boys think it’s cool to talk about slappin’ bitches and hos. Rape is still a punchline and a sports analogy. That’s the conversation I’m having here, and this is my house. If you want to talk about misandry or the evils of feminism, go start your own blog.
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