Content warning: Explicit sexual violence
The first list:
When I was in kindergarten a much older boy who I thought was my friend told me about sex and said we should try it in secret. I said I didn’t want to play like that but he got out his penis to show me anyway. I found it confusing and made my way out of the room. He refused to talk to me or even make eye contact after that. I blamed myself for upsetting my friend.
When I was in 7th grade I flirted with a boy and he kissed me. Then he threw me against a fence and eventually to the ground to pin me down and stop me from fighting him. He ripped my thick jeans in the process. At some point I quit fighting and left my body. I laid lifeless until he finished. I still remember the street scene to my right where I focused my gaze, numb.
When I was in seventh grade I attended a sleepover. I woke up in the middle of the night to a much older boy kissing me. He tried to pull my pants off and I told him to stop. The room was full of my friends sleeping, I was embarrassed. I grabbed my pants and held on but he became more forceful. I begged him to stop but he pulled off my pants and my underwear and spread open my legs. Then he stood up and turned the lights on to reveal several of his friends standing in the doorway watching. I cried. They laughed at me and left. Some of the boys in the doorway went to my school and would laugh when they saw me in the halls. I wouldn’t speak of it for many years, ashamed.
When I was in junior high my friends and I were regularly followed in public places by grown men making passes at us. We were taught to ignore this for our safety. I always kept my head down and tried to get away quickly. It felt gross.
When I was in 7th grade I pretended to be asleep when a 30 something year old man touched and groped my vagina. I remember thinking resisting always made things worse and feeling like a whore. I tried to cry motionless so he wouldn’t see I was awake or be offended.
When I was a senior in high school the boys in my weight-lifting class harassed me relentlessly. During a squat max out one boy ripped off my tear away pants and I stood in my underwear in front of the football team. The coach asked me not to wear those pants again. I didn’t return to that class.
When I was in college I learned the art of rejecting a man at a bar while tediously caring for his ego. That every no on my part was the beginning of a negotiation. And that to safely reject someone meant putting his ego ahead of my dignity.
In my twenties I went dancing with friends. As we were leaving the bar, men had the exit surrounded so that we had to walk through a line of them to get to our cars. They said lewd things to us and groped our breasts and back sides as we passed. I put my head down and walked to my car as quickly as possible. I felt equally ashamed, enraged and helpless in the vacant parking lot.
In my 30s a man stood in a freshly dark box-store parking lot leering at me while I put my child in the car. He looked me up and down and spoke under his breath. I marched like someone who wanted to be left alone to put my cart back and hurried back to my car, repeating to myself “just get home safely.” I collapsed at home into a heap of tears. I had somehow believed being a mother with a child would offer me some protection from this.
Just a few weeks ago a drunk man at least 10 years my junior shook his belt buckle at a friend and myself saying, “Someone is going to get fucked up.” He had walked through our many kind attempts at asking to be left alone and invaded my friend’s space. He was angry at being rejected. We were scared for our safety.
I am skipping the countless times I’ve been surprised by someone placing their penis on my body in a public space without consent or even having my attention. I am skipping cat-calls, being grabbed by anonymous people who utilize crowds as disguise. I am skipping so much of what I came to expect as regular violations to my body with no regard for my wishes.
The main thing that has changed for me overtime is my agreement that I am to blame for any of those violations. The notion that I be ashamed of abuse I’ve suffered and fears I’ve realized is no longer one I agree with. But it took years of deliberate and often painful work at my own healing to embrace that I had not caused those things to happen to me, cannot ask for shaming, violence, or threats to my safety.
Here is a different kind of list:
When I was 16 my boyfriend and I decided to have sex for what would be our first time. I got nervous waiting for him and drank too much. We kissed but I was drunk so he stopped, saying kindly, “This isn’t how this is going to happen for either of us,” and insisted we just go to sleep. The next month we had sex for the first time, both of us sober and fully consenting. Both remain loving memories.
In college I chose to have sex outside of relationships a couple of times with men I liked but didn’t want relationships with. We were both fully involved in the entire act. It was fun.
Once I was out dancing and a man made eye contact with me and asked me to dance. I declined and told him I just wanted to dance with my friends. He told me I was beautiful and walked away. It was a nice compliment.
Sometimes when I’m walking alone during the day in high traffic areas a man will make eye contact with me, without leering at my body parts, tell me I look nice today and keep walking. It makes me smile to be complimented and respected at once.
My husband and I have sex regularly. When we do both of us want to. Both of us participate fully. We communicate about it. These details are private but it’s very satisfying.
These lists feel different because they are. Dramatically.
CONSENT is beautiful, it’s fun, it’s playful, it’s intimate, it’s everyone being on board and having a great time. The difference should be so clear, so important, so obvious. Anything short of yes is no. The burns to my skin have healed now, but I won’t suffer them anymore. And I cannot support anyone or anything who minimizes the effects of this kind of predator.
There is no time in my life that I feel smaller, less valuable or less safe than when I am asked to put a man’s ego ahead of my dignity. When I shrink myself and play small for my safety. But I’m not sure I have that in me anymore. Something about the last young man who shook his belt buckle at me was a final straw.
The way you speak in private informs the way you engage in public. “Locker room talk” is indicative of entitlement to others’ space, attention, bodies and violations of their safety. It is not how all men speak or behave, and in no way represents the men in my life who I have loved. It is the opposite of seeking pleasurable consent, but bragging about coercion and control.
I want “no” to be the end of an interaction and not the beginning of a negotiation. I want eye contact if a stranger wants to initiate contact with me and I don’t want my space violated for any reason when I am alone, when I am in a parking lot, when I am with my child or ever. I want to reasonably expect that I am in charge of my body and that others will respect my boundaries. And just for good measure, I want everyone who wants to have sexual contact with another to do so with full participation, excitement and enthusiastic consent. This isn’t about policing how people who choose to engage in sexual activity together behave, but demanding that the choice is clear and respected for everyone.
More than anything I don’t want my daughter to share any of the first list with me. And I will stand between anyone who feels unsafe and those who seek to violate their safety. I am full of fire and I’m too tired not to fight now. With my words, with my actions, with my body and with my full presence; I am done with the first list. I’m no longer here for protecting the egos of predators, of those who need to feel big by making others feel small, even when they believe themselves harmless.
I am a woman and a sexual being. The difference between experiences that are traumatic and those that are enjoyable/fulfilling/welcomed/FUN is consent. Consent begins with eye contact. With respect for another’s space. And it continues with ongoing awareness of both parties actively choosing to engage. It does not force interaction or touch. It does not cause embarrassment, fear or shame.
Bodies are not conquests. Boundaries aren’t games. No is not a negotiation.
Your ego is no longer my problem.