Content Warning: Sexual Assault
This week of March 12th, Argot is publishing a piece every day inspired by women, womanhood or personal experience of femininity.
International Women's Day was last week, but women and femininity don't disappear.
I have been violated. I haven’t been raped or forced to do any sexual acts against my will. But I have been violated by word and touch, harassed to what became breaking point. Without physical scars, it’s hard to make people understand the depth of the pain I experienced for years. But it’s time to try.
I have been called everything from blondie to sex kitten, names that reduce me in that moment to only the perceived trait. I have had jealous, false assumptions thrown at me when I’m with male friends, been told descriptions and specifics on how I’ll be fucked later. I have been hit on for everything from my glasses to my “Russian legs.” (I don’t even have a drop of Russian blood, but how would you know that? You don’t know me.) I have been hit on for being thin, then directed to the salad bar because obviously that’s all I eat—I’m not a person, I’m the sum of my looks and what it takes to maintain them. I have been told my lips are DSL—dick-sucking lips, which is also how I learned this acronym.
I have been shouted at, whispered at, given reverential stares as though I’m something other than a mortal. I have been spit on after not responding to a catcall. I have been accosted between shelves at the library by a man my father’s age, handed a business card, and ordered to write down my number so we could have lunch. I stopped reading at the library on my lunch break after that because he was always, always there.
Can we hang out during the week sometime? I asked. Instead of just on weekends?
Uh, sure, he answered. That sounds fine.
Do you want to go to my place sometime?
In Brooklyn? Why would we go there when you have two roommates and I basically live alone? And oh hey, I made us dinner reservations for Monday night.
Valentine’s Day. Great, I’m excited! Don’t tell me where; I want it to be a surprise.
I showed up wearing high heels with a bottle of Scotch and a card. It seemed appropriate for a relationship that was two or three months fresh. The restaurant was a mediocre pick in the Lower East Side—small, crowded, the bathroom in the corner of the room, not even tucked away down a hall. Nothing special.
Wow, this Scotch is nice.
I know you love Scotch.
My gift was a box of chocolates from Duane Reade. I forgot your card.
Hey, maybe you can come out to Long Island this weekend, meet my parents.
That sounds great!
Tuesday…Wednesday…Thursday…Friday…Saturday night, alone in Brooklyn, confused and crying because I’ve mixed up rejection with apathy. Is Long Island happening?
I had to go to a thing. I never said for sure we’d go.
I have had my vagina touched during a game of bar pool. I have had my butt accidentally-on-purpose grazed on the subway. I have been circled by a pack of men like vultures outside of a bar. I have been grabbed on the street while walking with my boss. I have been made to feel humiliated. I have been propositioned. I have asked to be left alone, asked to not be touched again, but because I’m not being hurt, just lightly touched or spoken to, I’m obviously a crazy and self-important woman, a narcissistic drama queen if I express or act like it’s not okay.
I have been told that I was fallen in love with while walking down my block. I have been given a business card by an amateur photographer and asked to pose for nude pictures. I have been approached at arm’s length by a stranger in a dark bar to have a camera flash snapped in my face without preamble.
I have been harassed by text messages and phone calls for days and weeks—and even months—when a date was apparently only one-sidedly awful, disrupting my life and wreaking havoc with my sense of security. I have been the object of wild gesticulations that interrupt my commute to be informed I’m gorgeous. I have been jerked off to on the subway, have given away my body without permission from ten feet away. But after all, mostly only crazies/the homeless ride the train at that hour on a weeknight, so no surprise I was reduced to a Playboy magazine. It’s what good girls get for staying out late and being unable to afford a cab home.
I have been harassed by, of all people, a security guard in my office building. He followed me onto an elevator and asked how we were ever going to have sex if I wouldn’t give him my number. He didn’t touch me, but I had reason to believe, during that ten-floor ride, that he might have. And “might have” or “could have” is not enough security where my body is concerned. I had the denigrating experience of walking into work in tears, facing multiple coworkers, HR reps and supervisors, in my moments-old, unprocessed fear and vulnerability. More than six years later, I still occasionally feel fear on an elevator that comes out of nowhere and surprises me, like a swift lightning strike, until I remember.
Two and a half years later, and I’d learned my lesson about Long Island boys. This one was from upstate.
I know it takes two to tango—or tangle—but when he burst into my birthday party like a bull in a china shop, drunk off his ass from the party down the street and started telling me over and over, loudly and forcefully, We’re going to make out. It’s gonna happen. It’s bound to happen, and that Out of all the girls in our group, you’re Number 1! and I had never seen him like this, and the drinks weren’t to toast my birthday, another year, but to get me drunk enough to block out all the words except You’re hot and I want you and I desire you, and I just giggled and told my friend I was fine when she came out on the stoop to check on us where we were making out.
For years I’d felt drawn to him because of something vague and rough, even though I knew he was a little mean, something about the borderline crass jokes and the way he tried to be religious and always sat in the same spot in church and said he had to go to confession a few times because of Asian girls. My friend diagnosed him as a possible sociopath because he answered a dark riddle correctly at a party that no one else could, one of those silly tests to spot someone without a conscience, but it always feels ominous and true when you want to think it already, doesn’t it?
He left the door open in the morning in the hopes his roommate would see me in his bed, like he had gotten the best toy out of everyone in the whole class and wanted to show it off, to brag. Then I felt like a piece of gum he only wanted in his mouth for five minutes, because at the next party he was on to another girl, a beautiful and funny and creative actress actually, and why wouldn’t he be?
And then he wanted her and not me and the not being wanted even when there was never love or affection to begin with made me question everything I ever learned about fucking and how it always, always causes you to leave part of yourself behind, so that you are now less.
I carried around so much fear for years. Panic attacks and ever-present anxiety and paranoia. Inability to sleep, to feel safe, to trust. Hatred of homeless men after it was one of them—men with accents after it was one of them—rich men after it was one of them—old men after it was one of them—millennials after it was one of them. Hatred of men, all men, at times when the pain of all this was most blinding. All these small incidents had added up to something huge, like math gone illogical.
I’d experience things like flinching when the friendly man on the street raised his hand to greet someone, because I irrationally (right? I think?) believed he might hit me, grab me, grope me, touch me, slap me. Make me hurt. Inside, probably not out, because for me they always seemed to know just where to stop. And yet, “survival guilt,” in a sense, because women get raped, crippled, scarred and mauled all the time, and so despite everything I should feel lucky.
I felt trust leaking out of me day by day, like blood draining out of an IV tube. I used to say my trust in people was a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. My number generally hovers around 3 or 4 now. It is foolish to trust any more than that, I have learned.
Two years since the redhead married the actress. I was now dating a Brooklyn hipster who biked everywhere and had a pre-flip non-smart phone. He convinced me to leave my birthday party and meet him at my apartment. At first I said no because I was still having fun with my friends, but then I changed my mind and took a cab alone, drunk, because who wants to end their birthday night sleeping solo in a bed that’s too big for one?
The rest of the night was hazy memories tumbling over one another like our bodies, like we were clothes in a dryer, but we hadn’t slept together yet—we’d met less than two weeks before and I didn’t want to be wasted for it because I was actually invested in this guy for long-term potential.
In the morning he was gone, but I knew he would be because he had to work early. I remembered leaving the party and taking a cab and meeting him in front of my building and going upstairs and—
There’s a condom wrapper on my bedroom floor. I don’t remember that. At all.
All day was spent panicking that we’d had sex and I didn’t remember it. Even if we’d been safe, as evidenced by the condom wrapper, the feeling that we’d done this intimate thing and I didn’t remember had me freaked out. I wanted to know if anyone had been inside of me; I wanted to be fully, mentally present for anything that happened to my body.
I texted him and tried to be casual—God forbid he catch on that it was a big deal to me; what a silly girl I’d be taken for—but he didn’t text me back for ten hours. Because he was working—yes, his very important job at a coffee shop that clearly kept him on his toes all day such that he couldn’t even find a spare moment to text me back. All day. But when he finally did that evening, I learned that we did not have sex; the condom wrapper was because I had “seemed like I wanted to.”
I think he was telling the truth, but to this day I’m not sure.
The rape nightmares were the worst part. Nightmares of safe men in my life lowering slowly onto me, sometimes choking me. Nightmares of someone waiting on his knees by my bed, of silent, middle-of-the-night train platforms where I am raped. I had never had nightmares before, not even as a kid after a scary movie. Now I know what it feels like to wake up in a panic, but my mom isn’t down the hall, she’s 400 miles away because I am an adult. I’d wake up, sweaty, clutching the tangled sheets, desperate to make the images fade, but mostly to make the feelings fade. Except they wouldn’t. They’d only get more vivid as I began my day with a whistle from the construction workers on my corner.
At one point I had to actively and daily remind myself that I’m more than a body. More than the eyes and legs and clothes and limited else that is all they will ever know of me. That I am a valued daughter, sister, friend, employee, sometimes church-goer who also loves tattoos and drinking too much wine on the weekends. That I love to dye my hair, I once slept in Rockefeller Center to see my favorite musician, and I scream at the TV during football games.
At one point I was convinced that I was fuckable but not loveable. Before I met my husband, a wonderful man, I struggled to believe anyone would ever love me, or that I would ever love in return. How could I even know what love means, really, when all of this was done to me in the name of love, or some shade of it? If someone could “fall in love” with me because I walked down my street in high heels and a dress, why should I believe that any man would ever fall in love with me the antiquated way, by getting to know me, and then sustain that love when the heels come off and the sweatpants are on?
This is my damage. The worst of it is that one time I thought I could distract myself from the emotional scars if I fixated on real scars, like pinching yourself when you have a migraine to not feel the headache for just one blissful second. By the grace of something bigger than myself, I put the sharp knife back down before I touched skin. But now I am a person who has nearly done that. Others have done it, have suffered self-inflicted pain for years in silence and tears and unworthiness. I don’t pretend to know even a fraction of what that’s like.
You may find me unentitled to this pain and anxiety. I have often found myself unentitled to this pain and anxiety. But my reality is this: I have spent years hurting, hating. Hating others, myself. But mostly hurting.
And here’s the secret: I made choices too. I wanted love or sometimes just something cheaper, more convenient, and I chose the wrong guys time after time and I let them take chunks out of me when I had a choice not to. So I have a dirty, dirty secret, and it’s that all of this is messier than it seems—I’m messier than I seem.
For awhile, I attributed my paranoia to the limbo I felt I was in—waiting to be raped. Because I’d taken everything under the sun short of physical harm. So it had to be next, in my warped, altered brain. I’d already been abused to my limit and then some. I was waiting to be raped. I was obsessed with rape, because I felt like if I thought about it constantly, then at least I would see it coming.
After all this violation, my sexuality shattered anew with each incident, I have come to a place of acceptance that sometimes people suck and the world is in terrible disrepair. I mostly still believe in the general goodness of people. But there are times when I don’t. Times I simply can’t. I used to swear by Eleanor Roosevelt’s, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” But I have lived the lie here. Only through time and enduring the pain that has given way to strength can I choose to not let them get to me. And only then. It’s not easy. It takes time and energy, so much valuable time and energy I never planned on devoting to this.
I will never say this is all okay, this harassment. Because it never can be. I won’t bother looking for my innocence—it’s not lost because that implies it might be found someday, and I don’t want it back anyway. To be innocent is to be unprepared, ignorant of the dangers. The innocence is gone, shed like baby fat.
I have been violated. Violated as humans do to one another, when love isn’t there, isn’t enough.
Rachel Beck is a freelance writer and publishing industry professional. After living in New York City for 8 years, she recently moved to Southern California. Follow her on Twitter at @Rachel_C_Beck.