At the moment I am working on two different pieces, and am making very little progress on either: the first was supposed to be a bawdy retrospective of my own sexuality and the second was to explore the insidious hierarchy of victims of sexual assault.
And as I stand here drinking coffee in my quiet kitchen, I realize I have stumbled on the source of the problem.
It’s hard to write about both. Each feels like a betrayal of the other.
A few weeks ago, a woman in my city was raped, set on fire and left to die by her attacker. A suspect was in custody, three days after the attack, as his victim lay dying in the intensive care unit. With his arrest, the community exhaled. This man has a history of violent outbursts and restraining orders, drug abuse and mental illness. Now he was off the streets.
We love the sexual complexity of women. Don’t we? We like to watch them, fantasize about them – we try to look like them, want to be them. We watch, breathless, as they soar above us, living vicariously through their hedonistic experience – until they crash into the sun, then we abandon their broken bodies: “You should have expected that. Why should you be able to fly?”
To acknowledge, celebrate the confused jumble of love and lust, abounding with curiosity and kink that has been my sexuality since my first lover looked down and grinned with sudden mischief at my naked form as I reached for him and implored him to hurry, and he said “Are you sure? Because I can stop.” and pulled away in spite of my protest. Then just as quickly, he reversed course in thrilling and urgent possession. I never forgot the sweetness of being denied, however briefly.
To tell you how it felt to be rocked by unexpected climax, tied ankle and wrist to four bed posts, face down, hips elevated, thighs splayed, as a surge of wet electricity that surprised us both danced through me and drove me to gasp over my shoulder, “Do that again,” in its wake.
To explain how I was drawn to other women – the first time to impress a boy, and later because I found women to be complex in every way that men were simple, with the added bonus of soft skin and breasts and they mostly don’t turn into stray dogs the next morning. But when they go, the marks they leave are sometimes deeper; they know where to cut you.
I would argue that whoever coined the phrase “Making love” wasn’t doing it right.
These things, all of them, are part of me.
The attack was so horrific that I assumed the two people involved were connected. So much anger, to assault another human being so violently, in such a way that they would die screaming, slowly, aware. I was wrong. She had the misfortune to encounter him for the first time that night, walking home from work, and they exchanged words that remain unknown. So he beat her, raped her and set her on fire. Two days ago she succumbed to her injuries, leaving behind three children.
I have a husband, and two children. I have built a life with them, with their father, one that leaves behind much of what I knew before. We have date night, and play monopoly. I dance the tango with my little girl across the kitchen; teach my son to belch his name. I go to school conferences and choir and swimming and soccer. I make cookies and birthday cakes and sleep in an enormous bed in a room overflowing with all the clutter of a family.
All of these things are a part of me.
At one of the many family gatherings of this holiday season, during the inevitable after-dinner lull, someone told a “people are stupid” anecdote – and a relative whom I respect said “Talk about stupid – stupid is someone walking in a high-crime park alone after dark.” Now, he was one man in a room full of women and he was promptly set upon en masse as they all rushed to the victim’s defense, which was of a common thread: “She probably didn’t have a car.” “It was her neighborhood.” “She probably couldn’t afford another way home.” “She probably walked home hundreds of times and nothing had ever happened.”
Why are we having these conversations?
And then, my quiet little story: Once I returned from an abysmal first date, and was not quick enough to close my door. The man that I had at first found to be challenging and confident, and then boorish and uneducated, was suddenly Neanderthal and misogynistic. This is not a game, I was told, I’m not ready to leave yet. You want this too, and I again found myself face down, this time my arms twisted painfully behind my back, face in a pile of pillows, struggling to find a pocket of air so I could breathe, not giving my full attention to what was happening to the rest of my body except that it felt like I was being torn inside out.
I am almost six feet tall. One hundred sixty-five pounds. I have been an athlete, I go to the gym regularly. I lift weights and I run. I consider myself to be strong. He did not hit me. Not once. He didn’t have to. You grow up in a cocoon of safety, the first time someone denies you breath and wounds you in such a deep, sudden, personal way, it breaks you. It would not happen the same way again. It would not. In the first 30 seconds, he hurt and terrified me with such precision that I did not fight him for the next four hours. I did not say no again. I did not report it. I did nothing but comply. I am not a fool – I know that I destroyed my own credibility. I simply swept it aside and moved on.
This is a part of me, too.
We fell all over each other trying to explain why this woman didn’t invite her own violation and murder.
Over and over, we emphasized, “yeah….but she didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that.”
What punishment, then, fits her crime, if rape and murder together are too extreme? What part of her experience did she “deserve” for walking through a park at night? Her attacker had a rap sheet long enough that he should have been under supervision. He never should have been in that park to begin with, if his freedom to be out at night was actually governed by his decision-making history. But it’s HER presence that we question. Her intelligence. Her WORTH.
I rarely talk about my experience. It makes people uncomfortable. They want to advise me on which self-defense move I should have employed that would certainly have saved me. Why did I let him in? Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I call the police? Four hours? Really? And he didn’t hit you? What else did he do? What else?
Wanting it means you aren’t allowed to not want it, it seems. After all this time, deep down we still believe that nice girls just don’t. And that, friends, is the problem.
Incidents like these are the seeds of our terror. Stranger attacked by stranger, for no reason other than chance. Objectified and disposed of like refuse. How can we hope to prevent something like this from happening to us, our mothers, our daughters? How can we distance ourselves from this victim, and believe that we are safe, if she did nothing to bring it on herself? But thank goodness – she was a single mom, living in a high crime neighborhood, walking home from work, at night, alone.
We don’t do that.
This can’t happen to us.
Had I been this victim, would my family have been dissecting every decision I made up to the point where my attacker set my skin ablaze? Would my children have to listen to their own family make suppositions about their dead mother’s choices? I may not have deserved “that” but by implication…something…surely…for being alone and female.
I am a human being. I am a woman.
I am not bound by your, or anyone’s, perception of my sexuality. I am rich and complex; my past is part of me, but I am more than just the haphazard sum of all my experience. The whole does not diminish, nor is it diminished by, it’s parts.
My choices, wise or unwise, do not make me responsible for the actions of others.
And I do not owe you an explanation. I do not owe you anything.