Part of the Problem (TW: Sexual Harassment, Rape Culture, Rape)

When I was nine years old, and had recently moved to this country, I was invited to my first dance party. Right before my mother picked me up, my only friend at the time told me to go grind with the girl I liked.

“What happens if she doesn’t want to dance with me?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just walk up to her from behind, grab her, and start dancing.”

When I was ten, my sister and I were told, lying on our parents’ bed, that sex is what men and women do when they really love each other, but only after they are married, because of how special it is. I could tell dad was uncomfortable by the way he avoided looking me in the eye when he spoke. I could tell this was mom’s idea.

Whenever I fought with my sister, dad liked to repeat his litany that women should never be touched. So I never learned from him how to touch or love a partner, let alone when it was ok to do so.

For that I had the internet and my younger cousin, who told me three years later what to do while watching porn.

“That’s it?” I asked, shocked at the simplicity.

“Yup!” he exclaimed in his dimly-lit bathroom, handing me the small black and white picture of a bare-chested woman on a tire swing.

In middle school, we were told of the horrors of STD’s while the teacher projected pictures of swollen penises and gonorrhea-infected eyes on the whiteboard. We were told to abstain until we could be monogamous, and to use protection even when we were. If consent was ever mentioned, I do not remember it.

In the hallway between classes or crowded cafeteria lines, a friend and I would sometimes walk behind girls, making thrusting motions. Once, I went for a grab, and another time pressed myself against a girl, pretending to trip. I laughed, thinking it funny. No one, except for one of the girls, told me it wasn’t.

Because I went to a Catholic high school, I was never told that porn is addictive; our sexual education consisted of abstinence skits involving metaphorical sneakers. I rarely went to parties, knowing they’d be broken up by the police shortly after they began. I avoided drugs and alcohol, afraid of addiction, yet would lock myself in my bathroom, sometimes as many as seven times in a day.

Because I am hispanic, and we go to college while living at home, and because of a full scholarship, I commuted my first years of college. This is how, while the freshmen crowded into a classroom for a talk on consent, I was locked in my bathroom at home, playing a game I had come across online:

The cartoon of a librarian looked back at me sheepishly while I controlled a disembodied hand with the cursor. My job was to touch and rub in the right places, progressing through levels in which more clothing came off. If I got the sequence wrong, she’d get upset, but there’d be no GAME OVER message. I simply got to try again, indefinitely.

The first time I stayed over at a girl’s dorm, I told my mom I was staying with a friend to study for a physics exam. I gave the girl a backrub, and then after she drifted to sleep while cuddling, made my way down her leg with my hand. The online games replayed in my mind.

“Stop,” she said, waking up. I waited until she fell asleep to try again, just like in the game. But she woke up again and threatened to kick me out of her room. Having nowhere to go, I stopped. The next day, when I told my friend, he told me with an uncomfortable laugh that there was a word for what I was a doing. I froze, unable to respond. We moved on to a different topic.

I finally moved out of the house as a rising junior for a summer program and chose to reinvent myself using lessons from books written by pickup artists and advice from a dating coach friend in order to have sex, something everyone else except me seemed to be having. Two days after I had moved in, I was already in bed with someone, my virginity gone at twenty in a painful and awkward first time. No one had ever taught me how to put on a condom, so I wasted one by fully unrolling it, and then hurt myself by putting on a new one incorrectly. I didn’t answer her calls the following morning because I was embarrassed, without even knowing why.

Once, back home, I found a girl at a bar I recognized from my program. She had had too much to drink, as had I, and spent too long in the bathroom. A part of me was genuinely concerned for her. The other part convinced myself and others at the bar that I was a friend, and would do her the favor of taking her back to campus. I got looks, but they didn’t click, and no one said anything. I convinced her to sign me in as a guest at the dorms so I could walk her back to her room. I convinced myself to walk back to knock on her door after she’d said good-night multiple times and closed it in my face. I convinced myself, after she didn’t answer and I walked home, that I’d done the right thing.

Then there was the time I brought a girl back home to my house. I went to take off her dress, and she told me that she couldn’t stay and needed to get home, tempted as she was. I wanted to make a good impression, so the dress never came off and she went home.

“Classic tease!” said one of the frat brothers who lived next door. “She was playing hard to get, but clearly wanted it. She told you she was tempted! Next time, just go for it bro.”

Porn eventually lost it charm, and I sought bigger thrills to give me a high. This included DTF messages on Facebook to girls I had just met, and exchanging pictures with complete strangers on Whisper.

The night I coerced…raped, one of my friends, she came over for sushi at a restaurant close to my place. I remember she wore a hat and a very modest dress. We didn’t drink because she told me she didn’t want to spend the night. I countered that it was a long drive, and I had plenty of room in the house. She agreed, but asked to sleep on the couch. I responded by what I thought was the gallant act of picking her up and carrying her to my bed. We made out, even though she asked me to stop. She told me she didn’t want to have sex with me.

This time though, I didn’t listen, and kept insisting.

Eventually, she stopped refusing.

To this day, a part of my mind swears that she reluctantly agreed in the end.

I know she didn’t.

It took two years and a comic strip online to name what I had done, and the realization sank in a deep place of fear and disgust in my stomach. The possibility of anything I had done to be associated with that word had never crossed my mind. I was abroad at the time, so I called her once I was back home. It took a lot of talking around it, using other words than the one that described what I’d done. I offered to do whatever it took to make amends, though at the time I don’t think I truly understood what that meant. I was looking for easy absolution from the deep guilt that realization had brought, and unwittingly dragged her back to a place I had no right to. I still couldn’t bring myself to say the word aloud. She told me she’d moved on, forgiven me, that I needed to do the same.

But a large part of me couldn’t do that. I learned later that while she might’ve forgiven me, I wasn’t the only one that had done this to her, and she hadn’t yet healed. She couldn’t talk about it, especially not with me.

In the following four years, I’ve had three partners tell me stories of being harassed, abused, coerced, raped: one within the context of marriage, one needing therapy and antidepressants to cope, one who claims she was not affected by it. All, to different degrees, carry guilt on their shoulders. Once, when my younger sister got something slipped into her drink at a party, I was told by family members and a teacher that she couldn’t be made the “victim,” or she wouldn’t “learn her lesson,” about drinking and safe behavior.

A girl I once went on a date with broke down on the dance floor, knowing her assaulter continued to walk on campus, implicitly being told by the university what he did was not wrong. A girl who once slept in my bed halfway across the world asked me repeatedly to assure her she was safe with me and that I wouldn’t touch her after admitting to having been raped. I’ve had partners break down in my arms while I try to hold together what was broken by another, hating myself and my secret, knowing I too, have played a role, have broken another.

The physical violence in the survivor stories we hear varies, but the outcome is always the same. In my native tongue, the words rape and violence share a root, and I now understand the violence inherent in violating someone’s physical autonomy, their inherent humanity. If I don’t speak up, I continue to be complicit. If I am not part of the solution, then I am a part of the problem.


Originally published at himthough.com on October 26, 2017.

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