Content Warning: Sexual assault/rape
Note: I’ve spent some time deciding whether to share this story — whether to keep talking about my own experience when there are so many others, whether to focus on sexual assault in a moment when there is so much else going on in the world. But I found it healing to write this story directly from the memories in my body, and I am sharing it in the hope that it can be a point of connection for other survivors of sexual assault who were trapped into believing that their experience “didn’t count,” as well as for people who have committed sexual assault but do not yet recognize it as such.
I think a lot of people are so used to overriding the information they receive from women’s bodies that they’ve convinced themselves that they’re innocent, when in fact, I would venture that many, if not most, men, who are used to owning narratives about women’s bodies, have committed sexual assault, whether they have allowed themselves to realize it or not. For this reason, when writing from the truth of my individual body and not my social mind, I use the loaded term “rape” sparingly, but I want to be absolutely clear that that is what happened to me and to anyone has had a similar response in their body to a sexual experience.
Our bodies tell the truths in ways that no system or narrative framing can erase. They are stamped forever. But they are often hidden under layers of culture, narrative, and dominance that serve to gaslight us, making us question our reality or feel so ashamed of it that we push it away. I cut myself off from my body at a very young age. I do not know whether this is due to being gay in an Evangelical family, being a woman in a strict patriarchy and extremely father-dominant home, or other reasons beyond my current comprehension. I do know that it has taken me eleven years of work to be able to access fully the memories of this event in my own body, and even so I notice strange gaps, information I didn’t take in at the time. I am honest about them here. I get angry reading narratives about sexual assault that deny the truth of what it feels like, creating an expectation that “real” victims behave in a way I didn’t, couldn’t, and did not want to at the time. Not everyone reacts in the same way, and that doesn’t make what happens to us any less real.
I believe that our bodies can heal, but that this takes the other parties taking responsibility. I hope we can, as a culture, choose that path forward over the current approach of “leaving it to the courts,” which only serve to create more harm. Also, while I intentionally do not name my assailant, I will note that he continues to serve in the Washington State legislature. I do not know whether he has assaulted other women as he did me. If you read this, and my story sounds similar to yours, please reach out. I do not aim to take legal action — I believe we need a collective reckoning, not imprisonment of individuals, to achieve justice — but I have found that validation and solidarity with other survivors matters.
I don’t know if you would call it rape
you drank too much, and so did I
I walked you to your hotel like you demanded
I told my friends I’d be right back
they urged me not to go
but I was afraid you wouldn’t leave
unless I did what you told me to
I made those choices
to call you
to make out with everyone watching
precisely because everyone was watching
because I had something to prove:
that I could have it all,
everything I was supposed to want.
after we met you at the Capitol,
my father asked if I had reached out
I knew it would satisfy him
if I brought home a man like you
and that it would satisfy me
to show that I could if I wanted to.
every choice that night was mine
a triumph of mind over matter
until you opened the door to your room
and the man too weak to walk the hall alone
whose whole weight I’d carried up the stairs
on my shoulders, limping in my heels
was suddenly strong enough to sweep me off my feet
and pin me to a hotel bed
I remember no space between the bed and the door
there’s no logic in that
that’s not how hotels arrange things
but it’s all my memory can find
you pulling my dress down so hard the straps tore
so you could grab my breasts
then pulling up the bottom
to put your mouth on me
so that only my soft belly was still encased in black
so that I didn’t know how to feel
I’d been taught to want this: to be wanted
your tongue between my legs should have felt good
and it did
but I still hated it
and anyway I was offended
that you didn’t even take my clothes all the way off
like I was too fat for you
and you couldn’t help yourself nonetheless
while you were down
I put my foot to your head and pushed you away
“stop, stop, stop”
you panted back
“that’s so hot”
and I realized
you liked it better when I fought
and I didn’t want to give you that
if I wasn’t going to win anyway.
I felt so tired
my voice began to disappear
whether you knew what you were doing
or really thought I was just trying to make it sexy for you
I’ll never know
and it doesn’t fucking matter
I stared past your shoulder
at the door
it seemed so close
I’d just been on the other side
and couldn’t figure out how I got here
“do you have a condom?” you asked
of course not. this wasn’t my plan.
“fuck it,” you said.
and then you did.
I left it. I swiveled my head to the right
and stared out the window at my city,
let my spirit wander the streets
in the warm humid dark
what will I do next?
what time is it?
maybe this isn’t happening
maybe I can go back
and tell everyone his drunk obnoxious ass got to the hotel safe
and I’m so sorry for his behavior
and where is the afterparty
because I wasn’t done yet
it had felt so good
to finally become somebody
and now this.
I don’t know how long he took
I don’t remember what it felt like when he came
or what noises he made
I wasn’t there.
I remember his shadow moving toward the bathroom.
I rolled to my side and looked out the window
I held my belly with both hands
and wondered about my dress
I’d liked it, I thought it looked so good on me
hid my stomach fat
the right length
professional but still sex material
and therefore wife material
he could decide my body
give it to this “nice young man”
or another like him
but I could keep my brain
and my master’s degree,
conferred just that day,
that I had made it.
on the floor was a green jacket
with white athletic stripes down the arms
and “Georgetown” tastefully written over the heart
in easy cursive
a gift from my father earlier that week in the bookstore
unfeminine, like the jackets I’d always loved
but acceptable when tossed over a dress with a frill hem,
a miracle dress that required no bra
tight enough that when I pulled it over my stupid breasts
everything hung in place
straps or no.
you emerged from the bathroom, wiping his mouth.
you smelled like vomit.
“I’m so fucked for tomorrow,” you said.
“you really fucked me up”
with that, it was my fault.
“you have to pack for me,” you ordered.
silently, I found your bag
and all the things in your armoire.
I pulled my dress
back over my breasts
let the straps hang
I hung your garments
and left out your toothbrush
because you’d probably need it soon
“I left my jacket at the club,” you said.
“you have to get it for me.”
the club was closed.
“you have to FedEx it to me, then.”
I finished packing.
I stood up to leave.
I put my green jacket on.
I stood by the door.
I wanted something.
“aren’t you going to kiss me goodbye?”
(shut up for just one fucking second about that’s not how girls act when they’ve been raped
you don’t fucking know.)
you groaned, stood up, walked to the door.
I was back on the other side by then.
we kissed, gently.
I said, “I’m a good girl.”
“I’m a good girl.”
“I know you are.”
I walked out the lobby, trying to project to the staff that nothing had happened
like hoo boy, another drunk dude some girl had to take home
(if there had been emojis then, I’d have been the one with shoulders shrugged,
both hands facing the sky at shoulder level,
one half of my face tilting upward)
I walked into the night.
it was warm but I wore the jacket anyway.
I clutched it around my body
I took the long way.
I wanted the sun to come up
I got home, laid in bed, stared at the ceiling.
didn’t know who to call.
words floated into my mind.
I didn’t think I could call it rape, for these reasons:
- I’d invited you out
- I’d walked you home
- I wasn’t a virgin
so I waited for someone else to give me words
I called a friend.
should I go to the hospital.
it’s a Catholic hospital.
they don’t even give you birth control.
they won’t believe me.
anyway what would be the point,
if that’s all there is left: to be believed.
I want to shower but if I shower I remove my right to tell anyone
because they’re going to demand proof
but it’s not proof of anything
except that he was inside me
they’ll say I wanted it
everyone saw me kissing him
I’d made sure of that
“that’s a possibility,” she said.
“I don’t want to ruin my parents’ trip. we’re going to Mt. Vernon.”
“can you go later?”
“they’ll be here soon.”
“don’t you think they’d understand?”
I was 14 again, in bed, with an infection in my vagina
that the doctors all swore could come only from the sex I’d never had
my father sat next to me, telling me he didn’t know me, didn’t believe me, didn’t want to call me his anymore.
I was 16 again, crying in the principal’s office as she said,
“but he’s a football player.”
I played it out: the cost of the taxi.
the heat of the day.
the cold tools going inside me.
the unkind women I’d met at that hospital before.
the conversation with my parents.
the questions they would ask.
were you a virgin?
knowing the answer would change how they felt
I could survive this, but not that
in the end, I settled on: the cost of the taxi.
the disruption to my parents’ plans for something that would make no difference.
they didn’t come here for this.
my dad had been excited about Mt. Vernon.
so I showered.
it erased nothing.
I cried behind my sunglasses
as we walked the perimeter
of the first president’s home
slaves’ quarters, as if that were no big deal
the kitchen, far from the house in those days
I hadn’t thought of that before
I was sweating in my green jacket
inside, Washington’s dentures, the story of his spy network
a handful of references to Martha
I remember only these things and the gift shop
which displayed oversized flat lollipops
in bright swirling colors
I kept running to the bathroom to sob
wash my face, hide it
I kept looking at my face in the mirror
like I’d never seen it before
I couldn’t stop
I couldn’t stop
I couldn’t stop
I wasn’t here anymore
I wasn’t here for a very long time
later that night
when I sat my parents down
to try to explain that it wasn’t their fault
all I could say was
“I’m not who you thought I was
and if you knew you wouldn’t be proud of me anymore
so I can’t tell you why I’m crying”
I don’t blame them
for not being able to see
I was already trying to smother the feeling
from the flame I wasn’t allowed to carry
to a smoke that signaled nothing in particular
I told myself what my father told me
every other time I got hurt
“get back on the horse”
so I called a friend
wore a zebra print wrap dress
took him out to an early fancy dinner
like a boss with money I didn’t really have
took him home
my roommate was out
I kissed him on the island in my apartment
wrapped my legs around him
“are you still running?” he asked
in that moment, I don’t know why
I thought my answer could change
how much fat he felt on my belly
for some reason I yawned
“why do you keep yawning?” he asked
I didn’t know
I enjoyed the kiss
it felt good to kiss
I felt powerful
I could make him want me
with nothing more than my breasts
and my quick mind
and the fact that I’d been working out
he was a good friend
and a handsome one
I knew that because all the others wanted him
his desire proved something
but still I didn’t tell him why now suddenly
I wanted what I hadn’t for two years
it could pass for graduation vibes
we moved to my bed
he climbed on top of me
he inserted himself
“you’re hurting me”
he pulled out
he tried again
I said “stop”
he was exasperated
“I’m just trying to get your g-spot!”
I started crying
he didn’t see me either
I was invisible except for my hole
which he thought was like every other
he is the same friend who said
the undergrads he fucked knew what they were getting into
because he’d told them ahead of time
it would only be once
even though they always tried to make him their boyfriend after
he didn’t think he was responsible for that
I wasn’t so sure
and he was also the one
who told me that all women fantasize
about being raped
they like it
he knows because they ask him to pretend
I don’t know what they really want
or if that’s true
but we are friends
so when I started to cry
asked what he did wrong
I couldn’t explain
he went home
I rolled over onto my side
held my belly in my zebra print dress
the window was far above my head
in our half-basement
that was all.
the next day was a Sunday
I woke up and put on a Garth Brooks song
“wrapped up in you”
about a certain kind of love
wishing wells and lyrics and melodies
a morning lullaby
I sang it all the way to church
I kept leaving service for the bathroom
to sob and wash my face
once again it was me and the mirror
I asked for the pastor’s wife
I tried to explain
but I kept choking
and drinking from the water fountain
I didn’t know any words applied to me
so that’s the word I told her
my Brazilian friend had his jacket
in her office at the World Bank
I walked in to get it and froze
I stared at it
I said, “I don’t want to FedEx it to him”
she asked why
I couldn’t look at her
she said you walked him to his hotel
she said you never came back
she asked what happened
I said I didn’t know
she said “you said no”
I nodded and held my lips together
“and he said yes”
and I was comforted
that she knew the words to use
she said “you don’t have to FedEx it to him”
and I exhaled for the first time since.
I drowned my anger in an ocean
that I tried never to stir
but then he ran for office
just a few months later
I know because I was at my desk
in my bedroom
and a picture of him with his fiance
asked for my money on Facebook
and I called a friend in outrage
he told me, “it’s your word against his
and no offense but you left with him”
he won the seat
and still holds it
and everybody talks about
what a nice guy he is
how he’s not that kind of Republican
he’s on all the right committees
and passed a law he says will protect women
and he sometimes advises my students
and the fiance from his profile picture
is now the mother of his children
and I wonder if it’s true what my other friend said
that I probably wasn’t the first or the last
and I wonder if he cares whether we’re okay
I don’t think he stays up at night
wondering what will happen
if he meets me at a reception
and extends his hand
if he’ll pretend it’s the first time
or if he’ll smile and recall our meeting
if he’ll brag about how he banged me
when I was younger and hotter
or if he’ll act like I’m an evil woman
who fucked him up once upon a time
and still had the audacity
to ask for a kiss goodbye
it took me five years to find the word
you haven’t granted me permission to use
until he agrees that’s what happened
or some court somewhere decides
and everyone knows
that’s not what men do
and that’s not what courts are for
well I guess not everyone knows
and that’s why in 2011
when I went to hear Jonathan Franzen
read aloud from Freedom
I wept in the auditorium at George Washington U
like I’d never been seen before
it’s taken me this long to see myself.
I tell you
wishing it weren’t true:
to this day
if someone touches me inside
in the same place he did
my soul slips out through a portal
shaped like a hotel window
roams steamy city streets
and takes days to find its way back.
I tell myself it’s no big deal.
it was once.
I was twenty-four.
some girls get it from their own fathers
or strangers who break into their homes
and murder their wives
and sometimes it happens to little boys
when they aren’t old enough to ride their bikes
and my mom told me
about an infant in her daycare
whose hole was red and raw
and stretched out larger than her months-old mouth
from a father who thought her being a her
made her body an it
and that his contribution to it
made it his
as far as monsters go, this one’s not the ugliest
and yet it’s taken me more than a decade to look it in the face
to remember his face
eyes closed in a pleasure I wasn’t part of
I find it hideous, hideous, hideous.
and that’s all I want you to know.
you can call it rape, or not.
you can use only his words,
and claim I fucked him up.
this is the truth
that lives in my body.
and it’s just really important to me
for you to know
that this isn’t why I’m gay
that I don’t know why I’m gay
or even what that word means
except that it applies to me
and I like it
that I was drawing pictures of Eve at 11
from the toilet in our laundry room
and hiding them in the bathroom at school
hoping someone would talk about them
with words I didn’t yet know existed
and that when I was 13 and my parents were gone
I snuck into their room with the tv
and masturbated to Mariah Carey
and mastered the art of making it look like
the last two channels that had been visited
were the two they’d been watching before
and since we’re truth-telling
I covered my trails on the internet, too
and damn near lost my mind at 17
when I couldn’t find those pictures
of Ivanka Trump’s nipples
in a chain-mail shirt
and the kind of person I am
is one whose favorite show was Naked News
where I watched the women strip
while reading weather reports
but even with my hand outside my jeans
(the only way I knew how to touch it then,
through thick layers)
a part of me was disappointed
that it wasn’t the real news
because it would have been cool
to learn about the world at the same time.
the first people I told, at 21,
are either dead already or don’t remember
and I can count on one hand
all the girls I’ve ever kissed
and recount every detail
of how their lips felt
and somewhere there’s a sheet of butcher paper
from my dorm room wall freshman year
that we called the quote board
where Mr. Sketch documented me in my sleep
saying “I’m afraid of penises.”
I don’t know what it all means.
I wish I didn’t have to explain.
words are slippery
and I have learned
that my body has its own language.