I used to be good at sex.
You have to understand: I was a stammering ball of terror for most of my teens and early twenties. I used to panic when acquaintances offered me high-fives. I was forty minutes early to every class during my first two years of university, and while my fellow students were chatting I was frozen with fear, scribbling in my journal to avoid looking desperate.
You’d think that physical intimacy, to this stammering ball of terror, would present the ultimate challenge, but no…nakedness turned out to be the great equalizer. And that was a gift. To someone as anxious as me, any break from fear was a gift. That this one came with pleasure and connection and even love? Beyond any reasonable expectations.
I was good at sex and I loved it.
I’m telling you this not to embarrass you or make you uncomfortable, but because I want you to understand that this is one of the things that makes me feel like an illegitimate victim.
And that’s weird. It’s weird that it matters to me. I don’t think sex – even casual sex – is shameful, but I can’t seem to shake my own shame. The very first thing I wrote for this blog was a list entitled “I’m Afraid People Will Know:” (alternatively, “I’m Afraid My Grandmother Will Find Out:”) and the first item was “I’m a slut.”
I never published that list.
The second item on it was “I’m kinky.”
I’ll spare you the particulars here, but I am no stranger to the power dynamics of sex.
Again, I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable; there’s a point here, I promise. Although I’m under no obligation to share the details of my assault, the act of hiding them has allowed me to feel furtive and shameful and undeserving of sympathy. Some of the objectively worst things he did – the more horrifying and violent acts committed against me – were things I might have enjoyed in a different, consensual context. Whenever I tell someone “He hurt me” without following up with “but I might not have minded if he’d asked first” I let myself feel like I’m lying.
This is nonsense; he didn’t ask first, I didn’t want what happened, and I didn’t enjoy it. However: this small withholding of information allows me to cling to the idea that my supporters would feel differently if they knew, and by extension that I am not the legitimate victim I claim to be.
When I wrote Fools and Liars after the Ghomeshi trial, I talked about the impossible standards of purity, innocence and truth to which society holds victims of assault. What I am talking about now is the impossible standards to which we hold ourselves. I think it’s important for us to look more closely at the things we believe about our own victimhood, and the reasons we want so badly to believe them.
Listen. In the aftermath of my violent sexual assault I have spent the better part of two years trying to convince myself it wasn’t real. The first three items on my list of fears were the tools I used to do that. I’m publishing them now, uncomfortable though this is, because I suspect every victim has a list like mine, and I truly believe that the only way to kill shame is to air it out. All of it.
The third item on my list is complicated, multi-layered and very, very difficult for me to write about.
Please excuse my directness, but: there was no penis-in-vagina penetration during my rape.
What so many people see as the be-all of sex didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because I asked him (for the hundredth time) to stop.
The way I remember, it goes like this.
We’re on the floor together. I’m handcuffed and naked, but he’s still wearing his shorts. His face is a few inches from mine and I’m as motionless as I’ve ever been in my life because I know, I know that if I stay perfectly still and say exactly the right words, I can stop this. I don’t think I’m even breathing.
I don’t remember my exact right words, but they are calm and clinical and something like this. “I don’t want you to do this. I realize I have no way of stopping you, that I have no control in this situation, but I want you to know that you’re doing lasting psychological harm to me here. I would like you to stop.” (This is the way bi-coloured python rock snakes always talk.)
In this moment I know, too, that it’s important not to fight, not to squirm away. To look him steadily in the eye and wait.
He rests his forehead on mine. “I’m going to regret this,” he says.
And he gets off me.
He gets off me.
Again and again I replay that moment, and I watch that guy – the one who followed my scrambling body across the kitchen floor, stun-baton in his hand, that guy –I watch that guy stop when I ask.
I replay that moment because I don’t understand it. I’d said no before. I’d said no and please and no and stop, and I’d tried and tried to get away.
The Thing didn’t end there, but the worst of it did. He got off me, let me stand up, gave me a breather. He hurt me a little more, made me use my mouth on him, and then he left.
But I can’t seem to leave that moment. I can’t seem to reconcile it with what happened to me. I have questions.
How did I know what to say?
Why did he listen?
And the worst one of all, the question I’m convinced other people will ask me: If I knew how to make him stop, why didn’t I do it sooner?
That question fucking haunts me.
For a long time I couldn’t go any further with it. It seemed to beg its own answer:
You didn’t want to.
You didn’t stop him because you didn’t really want to stop him. On some level you must have wanted what was happening.
With this, we’re back in nonsense territory. When I finally (tearfully) posited this answer to the people closest to me, even I could tell how wrong it was. Here are some alternatives:
Maybe I didn’t have access to my calm, clinical voice earlier because he was beating me, and I was too busy shouting, “No, no, no, wait, ow, please!” to make a calm, reasonable request.
Maybe I was still in shock that it was happening; it didn’t seem real.
Maybe I didn’t have that voice until I’d been pushed as far as I had.
And the most important thing: Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t work. Maybe I was afraid that if I poured everything I had into making him stop he still wouldn’t, and I would feel for the first time truly powerless.
I’m not sure. I am sure that I didn’t want what happened to me. I am sure I told him to stop in ways he should have listened to, ways that just aroused him more. I am sure that I had no way of knowing that specific “No” would work when it did, and if I’m honest with myself it didn’t even work that well. He still hit me, after I said that. He still ejaculated on my face and in my hair. He made a token gesture of respecting my wishes, but he still went on to violate me.
The answer is not that I’m an illegitimate victim.
The answer is that I’m asking the wrong questions.
We have all been asking the wrong questions.
It should never have been, Why didn’t I use my power?
It should be, Why am I still so afraid to admit I was powerless?
We all want control of our lives. If that means convincing ourselves that we’re deceitful and bad and deserving of what we got, or that it wasn’t even that bad…well, that’s a lot less frightening than accepting the fact that we couldn’t stop it.
That our rapes are real, that they happened, that they happen all the time…those are truths that frighten victims of rape as much as they do the society that tries to silence us. We all want to believe it isn’t true. That’s why I’ve kept these guilty secrets for as long as I have, why I’ve convinced myself they meant something; I didn’t want to believe it was real. I’ve been complicit in my own shaming.
I want to say this to any other victims out there:
I don’t know what deep dark secrets you’re hiding about what happened to you. Maybe you pretended to enjoy parts of it because you were afraid he’d hurt you or you just wanted it to end (in After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back, Nancy Venable Raine talks about this as the pact she made with her rapist). Maybe you were polite to him as he left the house (I let him kiss me). Maybe you texted to make sure he got home safe afterwards. Maybe you didn’t scream, didn’t cry. Maybe he cried afterwards and you held him. Maybe you’re the he, and you don’t think men can be raped.
I want all of you to understand that none of that makes a difference. There is horror and humanity in every rape story, because it is perpetrated by humans on humans. It happens to us. It happened to us.
It isn’t a thing we chose or deserved or knew how to prevent.
And there’s a sour freedom in admitting all this. We don’t have to feel guilty. We don’t have to keep secrets or feel illegitimate. We can look honestly at the details of the horrible things that happen to us, and we can refuse to allow those details to negate the horror.
I am not ashamed of the joy I took in sex – I hope to one day find my way back to it. That joy does not mean I deserved to be raped. I am not ashamed of my sexual quirks, buried in trauma though they are. Those quirks do not mean I wanted to be raped. I am not ashamed of calling what happened to me “rape” even though specific parts of him didn’t penetrate specific parts of me. It still counts.
And finally, finally, I am not ashamed to admit, to myself and to all of you, that I couldn’t stop him.
I never wanted to be a legitimate rape victim; but I am.