I just slammed my laptop shut. I was two thirds of the way through another article on this Harvey Weinstein sh*t parade, and I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t finish another account of a powerful man being outed as a “scumbag” or a “monster.” I couldn’t stomach another tepid, two-line take down in a Facebook thread that dismisses these men as bad boys behaving badly. That the victims of these men have to muster the courage to speak their truth to a world that often doesn’t want to hear it is Sisyphean enough. That we even grant these men the dignity of colloquial cut-downs, without calling them by what they are, sexual predators, is a f*cking smack in the face.
I didn’t admit my own experiences of sexual violence until I was 32. I had convinced myself, in each case, that I had contributed to blurring a line; that my humor or charisma or drunkenness or outfit had disarmed these poor creatures and rendered them helpless against their own, dumb biology. I protected these boys from the truth of my own consciousness; kept the pain of what they’d done to me cold and compact and tamped down into a tiny brick I could swallow as many times as necessary. I know now that I was wrong.
I had no language for sexual or gender identity at the time. I just knew I didn't wear cargo pants, and therefore must not be an actual lesbian.
I didn’t have a strong father figure. I came from an oppressive, patriarchal Christian culture that either pitied women or denigrated them completely. “Creating boundaries” was a foreign concept to me and the women whose lives I was expected to emulate were often demure, shellacked and submissive. That I was an opinionated and spirited girl created external discord in this world. That I was a (secretly) gay girl created a whole world of discord within myself. These compounding sectors of my identity meant that my seeking female attention had to be clandestine. This created a bizarre sense of obligation to male attention, as if the benevolent Universe was providing me an out — a cover up — and I sure as hell better take it. Look, I like boys! I have a patience for their messiness, because of my feminine gentility!
The only queer women I knew at the time of my first sexual assault were exactly what you’d expect of southern lesbians in the ’90s. They wore cargo pants and loved college basketball and drinking Miller High Life on their boats. They trained labradors. They listened to Garth Brooks. I’d see these women at the grocery store or in the park, and while I didn’t feel fearful of them, I recoiled in disgust of them. See, I wasn’t like that. I didn’t play sports or like fishing. I was asthmatic and liked Noel Coward plays and was known for fainting in PE. (In retrospect, all things considered, I would have found certain comfort in the ranks of local gay men.) But I had no language for sexual or gender identity at the time. I just knew I wasn’t a Cargo Pant, and therefore must not be an actual lesbian-lesbian. (Ask me about this after a single cocktail and watch me spin into a shame oblivion and assure you I know alllll about my internalized homophobia now. It’ll be fun, you should take a video of it.) I think of those women now and my cheeks get hot from the embarrassment of having objectified them so grossly. They represented a freedom I desperately wanted and for that, I realize, I resented them.
Being a (secretly) gay girl created a whole world of discord within myself.
There’s a word in psychotherapy that I love: comorbidity. When two factors compound one another and exist side-by-side, they are comorbid. One could argue that my love for Trader Joe’s peanut butter cups and my pre-diabetes are comorbid. When my insulin is off, I will do a front handspring over a crowd of people to get to one of those peanut butter cups. Sadly, the peanut butter cups throw off my insulin. Likewise, my fear of my own sexuality drove the mounting desire to be affirmed by men. By my logic, if I could ingratiate myself to my male friends, I would not be cultivating the hatred for them I thought was required by gay women. I would be a good girl lesbian. My gender expression in those early high school and college years was overtly and pointedly feminine. (Or society’s/my own f*cked-up childhood idea of feminine, you tell me.) I took pride in being the exception to a rule.
Trouble is, I wasn’t an exception to any rule. I was a young, scared human with no vocabulary for my own desires and I was concealing those desires very poorly. My lust for and adoration of women was something I had to actively contain. In those early years, before I came out at 19, I did so by denying my body sexual feelings at all. I threw myself into my academics and extracurriculars, ignoring the boys who liked me and pining in secret for the girls who didn’t. I coasted this way long enough to get out of my house and away from the toxic church culture I’d come to hate. By the time I fell in (mutual) love for the first time with a green-eyed former cheerleader named Megan, I was 19 and a freshman in college. The years that followed were marked by my newfound sexual freedom and my simultaneous insistence on my precious Feminine Identity. The latter, I now realize, is why I ended up protecting a slew of men who sexually harassed or assaulted me.
They went like this:
Louisville, 2001: A man from my church has invited me to join a group of adults to join a Christian praise band on a mission trip to Ethiopia. A married family man, I have known him since I was a kid and regard him as an uncle figure. I babysit his kids. He is friends with my parents. When my father moves to another county the year I’m supposed to learn how to drive, this man teaches me. He tells me I’m like his “cool younger sister.” I spend most afternoons after school at his house with his family. He tells me I’m the funniest person he’s ever met, and I fly on the exhaust of this compliment for weeks. We watch Mel Brooks movies and make homemade pizza. He’s great at impressions and we compete to see who can do the best Bill Clinton. I feel loved and taken care of. When we arrive at the airport to leave for Ethiopia, I mention that I get nauseous flying. He assures me he’ll “take care of it.” He’s a doctor, so he knows best.
I take the two prescription painkillers he offers me and we board the plane. As I drift in and out of druggy sleep, he begins to stroke my face, then my arms, then my thighs. He kisses my cheeks, the sides of my mouth. I am asleep, then I am pretending to be asleep. The rest of our church team is seated elsewhere on the plane. I do not know what to do. We arrive in Ethiopia and he begins finding ways to get me alone. We meet before prayer circles and dinners with the other missionaries and he begins “confiding in me.” He tells me the sexual things he likes to do to his wife. He tells me the parts of my body he “appreciates.” Eventually, he tells me he has dreams where I’m jerking him off. I am mortified and very confused and have never had a single sexual experience, and this man is a man of God and my parents trusted him enough to send me to another country with him and he makes me feel loved and seen and I feel like my face is going to melt off of my skull and slide to the floor like a discarded bath mat. I deflect with humor and create excuses to leave the room. Every time. He never touches me, but continues telling me his “secrets.” A month later, when we’ve returned to the states, I am babysitting his two kids while he and his wife go out for dinner. It is his birthday. They’ve rented a limo and he offers to take me home in it. He and his wife are both drunk. I say okay. We get in and he immediately wraps his arms around me and kisses me. I make a joke and slide to the other end of the limo. He drops me off, hands me 20 bucks for the babysitting; I leave for college a year later and never see him again. I find out years later that he and his wife have divorced.
London, 2004: It’s my semester abroad. Matthew, an entrepreneur I’ve met in a wine bar, wants to “show me around London.” We become friends and start going to movies together. I tell him immediately that I am gay, and he assures me he is only interested in my friendship. He is smart and funny and has a really cool apartment where we drink the best wine I’ve ever tasted and listen to Dave Brubeck records. I have a crush on his French roommate, Céline. One night I feel too tired and full of wine to make it all the way back to east London where my hostel is, so he offers for me to crash there. I begin making a bed on a couch, but he insists I take the bed. He says he’ll “hang out for a bit” then move to the couch himself. I fall asleep fast and wake up to his hand between my legs. I don’t say anything, because I am terrified and I am convinced it is my fault for sleeping at his house. I wait for him to roll over and fall asleep, then I walk until I find a tube station. It is 3 AM.
Chicago, 2006: I am working at a bakery and barely scraping enough cash together to pay for the $300/month walk-in closet I rent from two DJs. A boy I work with, a musician, is funny, sweet. We become work buddies and eventually good friends. We bike to work together. We talk about the girls we like together. It feels nice and lived-in and fraternal. We often crash at each other’s homes in order to make it to our 5:30 AM start time at the bakery. At his place, he’s set up a twin mattress directly next to his bed, so it sits like a little extension — it feels like one of the pillow forts my brother and I made as kids. I feel safe there. One night, after I’ve drifted to sleep on the little trundle mattress, I wake up to him beside me; his body is pressed close to mine and he is groping me between my legs. His hand is inside of me. As he continues, grinding on me with his hot breath, I think “Poor guy, he’ll be so embarrassed if I call him out.” This is actually the thought I have. That I want to spare him the humiliation. I move to New York a few weeks later and we never speak about it. It is one of my greatest regrets.
New York, 2009: I am a waitress at a small Brooklyn cafe. It’s the middle of brunch, and we are completely slammed. My coworker says we’re out of butter, so I run downstairs to where the walk-in freezer is. Standing in the doorway to the walk-in is one of our line cooks. His back is to me. I cannot see what he is doing. Assuming he’s taking inventory and very much in a hurry myself, I say “sorry, behind you” and push past him into the freezer. When I look up, I realize that he is masturbating. I freeze, and he looks me dead in the eye and says “You gonna scream?” I try to leave, and he blocks my path. I try again, he blocks again. His penis is still in his hand. I try once more and this time he moves aside with a smirk. I tell the restaurant owner. I’m told it’s my word against his. He is not fired, and so I quit. I never press charges.
New York, 2011: My first manager, a red-faced sloth of a man, tells me to “stick out your tits when you walk into an audition. You’ve got great tits. Stop covering up the goods, lesbian or not. You’re a woman and if you dress like one, a pretty good looking woman.” When I balk and ask if he speaks to all women that way, he smirks and asks “Oh, are you gonna be sensitive? Are you a feminist?” And finally, “You can work with me or not work with me but it doesn’t seem like a lot of people are banging down your door, and I happen to like discoveries like you. I like a project.” I work with him for one week before firing him, to which he emails me a single line: “Does not inspire a response.”
By now, the phrase “no means no” is common American vernacular. Brave young women and men have told their stories, have carried mattresses across their college campuses, have made documentaries and books and music about their trauma. I wonder now, in reflecting on my own, why I wasn’t taught to say no in the first place? I wonder how many other young queer women have erased their own right to safety and respect out of a deep, but separate, hatred of their own, deep self? My hope is that this lack of self-worth will go extinct as our language and legislation evolve to support victims of sexual violence, but in the wake of the current president’s own horrific past of misogyny and sexual misconduct, I wonder why the hell someone like Mr. Weinstein would be held accountable? I wish that I could take each version of myself from those five terrible experiences and stand them, side-by-side, in front of those men — and Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump — and not say anything. Just stand there silently, unafraid enough to look them in the eye; unafraid enough to, in spite of them, be a person very much alive in this world.