The Liminal Survivor
Slut-shaming, cultural clashes, and unusual forms of sexual assault. TW for rape, racism, slut-shaming.
The first two evenings of DesiQ, a conference for South Asians and those from the diaspora who identify with any part of the T/LGBQ umbrella, were dedicated to film. The pre-conference opening night featured The Ode, a powerful and harrowing tale of gay men in Hollywood grappling with obsession, loves gained and lost, family trauma, and the choices between culture and desire. The film hit close to home, especially the end with the lead character’s mother talking about forgiveness,relationships, and her desire to see her son be safe even though her suggestions for doing so are not entirely helpful.
I had expected the second night of films to be similarly heartfelt. They were a selection of short films from KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, one of the first dedicated to portrayals of queer South Asians - people like me. Some of them were made by first-time filmmakers, people whose heart made up for any apparent lack of skill.
The first few films, a mix of documentary and short stories, were pretty entertaining - including one piece set up entirely over Facebook chat messages. The fourth film in, however, devastated me.
This film was set up much like a buddy movie, with lighthearted music and corny dialogue to set the tone. Three guys wake up hungover from a boisterous party the night before and rib each other about last night’s antics. A female friend steps into the room and angrily tells them that she had woken up nude: who amongst the three had violated her? The three guys - plus another guy that shows up later - bicker amongst themselves to find the potential culprit. The film ends with a shot of a woman in high heels walking up to the violated woman; she creeps up to her ear and whispers: “You were great in bed last night.”
Some of the audience laughed. I muttered out loud, “really?!” A few left the room. I attempted to hang around for the next film, but the opening scenes were of someone trying to get her date to stop canoodling with her in the back of a rickshaw and the date refusing to listen to ‘No’, and it became too much for me.
I chatted to some of the departees about the fucked-up nature of the movie. Two of them offered a ride home. Before I left the conference venue I scrawled on their noticeboard:
RAPE CULTURE IS NOT FUNNY!
When I arrived home - or rather, my friend’s bedroom, where I had been crashing for a few days while avoiding the BART strike - my reactions shift from social justice outrage to full-on emotional trigger. I spent the next few hours, and much of the next day, melting in despair.
That was my story in that film. And it was treated as a punchline.
This party was going to be my first sex party ever, but more to the point it was going to be my first attempt at sex with women.
I had known I was some flavour of queer since I was about sixteen, when I fell head over heels with my best friend (and then spent ages trying to explain it away as mere “admiration”), but never had an opportunity to explore it. Some years ago I met my first boyfriend, Panda, who was my first kiss and first anything to do with sex really. He was - still is - an amazing man with a kind heart and a lot of patience and compassion; the sort of person I could see myself getting married to. Yet I didn’t want him to be my only experience with sex and relationships. Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl was playing everywhere in Brisbane, and the fact that I had never kissed a girl but deeply wanted to started to get to me.
Should I throw away a beautiful relationship for sexual experimentation? Who’s to say that kissing a girl - or proceeding further - would actually be as good as I imagined? Maybe it was all hype. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe sex is not as important as love.
I temporarily separated from Panda while I sorted out my emotional overwhelm. I learnt that a friend is attempting an open relationship with her boyfriend at the time. While reconciling with Panda I ask him if he would be up for the idea. He seemed supportive, so we gave it a shot.
Our relationship improved by leaps and bounds once we no longer felt like we were each other’s only chance at sexual satisfaction. We were always good at clear communication, but the opening of the relationship allowed more opportunity and space to talk about desires and attractions without the worry of coming across as unfaithful.
Soon after that decision, my involvement in a local production of The Vagina Monologues (as the lesbian dominatrix with a thousand orgasms, of all people) led me to burlesque, kink, and sex positivity - all new and fascinating. I was rediscovering my sexuality in a grand way and having great fun with it all. I even invented an online persona, documenting my explorations as well as some attempts at erotic writing.
Willingness doesn’t always equal opportunity, however. The only girl I had managed to kiss was a friend who apparently had not even kissed anyone before. It was underwhelming. She decided to not take things further; I possibly felt relief.
It was through my online persona that I heard about a playspace not far from where I live - one of the only places in the city that hosts sex parties. An upcoming one was going to be women’s only. Hey, here’s my chance to explore this sex-with-women business and see if it matches the hype.
My blog post for that persona that day stated my curiousity and excitement about the event.
It was to be her last.
I arrived at DesiQ the next morning still shattered from the evening before. The first person who noticed my dour mood was the partner of one of the organisers. When she asked me why I was feeling down, I told her about the screening last night - how there was a film that made fun of a serious topic and how it had deeply triggered me. I did not get into the specifics of the film but I tried to convey just how hurtful it was.
Her response to me: “They were all hard stories! Cheer up, today’s a new day, yesterday is yesterday!”
My mood dropped far lower. I was about to dump the conference and not look back.
I ran into some other organisers and attendees and let them know what had happened to me. Quickly I had found allies; people that understood the issues with the film, people who noticed the graffiti and used it as a stepping point for community discussion, people who respected my shattered heart. Later announcements are made about a community discussion later that afternoon to talk about the film and about sexual violence. I would rather just go home, but I willed myself to stay for the discussion.
I found out later in the day that the BART strike has stopped and that BART is back in operation. I informed my girlfriend Nightingale - whom I also lived with - about my intent to return home that evening. Getting back on my own bed would be necessary for any sort of recuperation. I was anxious about the message; we were still navigating the aftermath of a couple of months of emotional stress, and I knew that she herself was struggling with her own problems.
Her response was a little terse. I can’t let that stop me from getting what I need.
I spent the rest of the day telling people about my experience and getting more support. I learnt that someone had spoken up at the end of the film screening in protest, an action I am deeply grateful for. I did worry that I was going to turn into ‘the girl with the rape story’, but another conference attendee encouraged me to keep talking, and the allyship was healing.
The discussion room - the decompression room usually meant for quiet meditation - was filled with such allies, all contributing constructively to the discussion. One of the DesiQ organisers explicitly took responsibility on behalf of the conference for not having reviewed the films. That acknowledgement and accountability helped me regain my energy, but I was still drained and homesick. I missed the open mic - which I had registered for - to grab my things from my friend’s house and head back home.
I marvelled at how healing it really was to be back on my own bed. I’m usually a couch-surfer, more at home in transience. When did I become a homebody?
Nightingale came by to welcome me home and let me rest. Later she apologised for not being able to support me when she too was not in good shape. More healing grows.
“Oh shit, I am a lesbian!” is a really rather awkward statement to make while lying on your boyfriend’s lap after hooking up with a girl he had been chatting with on OKCupid for a while.
I spent most of the party observing the other attendees fucking each other, in duos or groups. I tentatively joined in for one group but not for long. I had no idea where to start or who to even approach - and it wasn’t like anyone was going out of their way to approach me.
Towards the end of the night I decided to gather up my courage and ask someone for play. I had been interested in this one particular woman, mostly due to her cross-leather outfit. She introduced me to her friend, who ravished me with gusto.
So much gusto, in fact, that she pretty much ignored my pleas for caution and pacing. I tried to get her to take things slow and easy, to respect my limits. She told me she was going to use me as her sex toy - and forced too-big-for-me dildos on me. I didn’t know whether to be more forcefully resistant or to give in.
At the end of the night, while waiting for a taxi, myself and a couple of the attendees note how challenging my session had been. I found out that the other woman had been full-out drunk. I was asked if I was OK; I think I muttered a ‘I’m fine’.
It was in the taxi home that the events of the last few hours finally hit me. I return home, to the apartment Panda and I were sharing, and notice myself melting on the floor as if I was out of my body.
“I think I was just raped.”
Panda and I had tentatively talked about getting engaged before my move to the Bay Area - largely for visa reasons - and it was getting to the point where people were asking when, not if, we were getting married. I was partly excited about the idea - but also terrified that I was going to get trapped in the role of Good Heterosexual Wife, living a double life. I knew Panda would have supported me anyway, but his support wasn’t enough for me to be comfortable.
About a month after I arrived in the Bay Area, I met Nightingale and quickly fell in love. The night we hooked up for the first time was also the night that Panda finally hooked up with the person who gave me my ‘Oh Shit’ moment; virtual high-fives were shared. A day later Nightingale and I decided to be girlfriends…which gave me anxiety about what it meant to be a ‘girlfriend’. I had to come to the agonising realisation that I really could not be Panda’s girlfriend anymore. I don’t know if it was the sexual orientation or the distance that finally did me in.
A few weeks later I broke the news to Panda. He told me that he had known for some time that the relationship would have to change, but did not want to be the first to pull the plug. We still wanted to be close to each other…just not in the same ways we were for the last six years.
That afternoon I called up my parents in Malaysia and came out to them as a lesbian. My mother asked: “But what about Panda? Weren’t you two going to get married?” I told them that I was having this conversation to not get their hopes up, and about how Panda and I knew this was coming even when we tried to make things work.
My mother then said that she knew enough about being queer that she could not force me to change. But she did not want to hear about it.
I emailed the organisers of the sex party to complain, via my persona.
The organiser told me: “you seemed like you were having fun.”
I left behind all accounts associated with the persona and never return.
(About a year later I performed at a party where a dominatrix with a name nearly matching my persona’s was giving people free paddlings. Her idea of consent was questionable, coercing participants to take off their underwear whether or not they wanted it. I wrote to the event organisers with my concerns; I never received acknowledgement or reply.)
The first few people I talked to about my assault were probably well-meaning, but failed horribly at consoling me.
“Go buy yourself shoes to cheer yourself up!” from a rape crisis hotline. (Shoe buying is already traumatic for me for other reasons.)
“Sex parties are too advanced for you”, said an artistic mentor who had helped console me months ago as I talked about my sexuality.
Another would-be artistic mentor type seemed to care at first, but later used that story to manipulate me by claiming that if I don’t go to her for support and listen to her advice, my artistic career would be in shambles.
“At least you know not to go to such places anymore,” said my sister - who once was my only ally in my family. But not too long ago she sent me a message decrying my current forays into sex and eroticism and told me “I feel like I lost my little sister”. That moment was when she really lost me.
It was going to be her wedding reception in a few days. In Dhaka, with every relative I could think of, as well as many that I had no recognition of but who all seemed to know me since I was ‘thiiiiiiis small’. I had no desire to talk to her. But plans were made and I couldn’t cancel and even though I knew I would be extremely overwhelmed by too much family in too intense city there was no way I could back down.
I spent most of that wedding reception trip at my cousin’s computer on rape support boards. My dreams were filled with me processing my assault with other random people. It was the closest thing I had to therapy in the middle of Bangladesh.
At the very end of the trip, I came out to my parents about the assault. It was about the third in a series of bad news - death of a child and cancer in another relative. My parents had thought it was a case of Stranger in the Bushes at the time and disputed my wish to return to Brisbane - surely I’d be assaulted there again? It was hard for me to explain that Brisbane was the safest place I could be; my support systems are there.
I don’t know how they found out the real circumstances of my assault, but when they did, their only question to me was “Why did Panda let you go?”.
Breakfast on the second day of DesiQ also hosted a conversation with two attendees about bisexuality. Both of them addressed stereotypes of bisexuality, including: “Just because I am bisexual does not mean I am not picky”.
That comment left me feeling a little weird. I’m not very picky. Nor are some people I am close to. Was promiscuity necessarily a bad thing? Was my sluttiness a failing?
I noticed that slut-shaming was not addressed anywhere in DesiQ. I had proposed a workshop on creative sexuality, but wondered if I should have spoken about slut-shaming instead. It wouldn’t be the first time that I’d have to justify myself within a group of people that are supposed to be my kin.
My initial reaction to being raped was to find more women to fuck.
It wasn’t a reaction I could find any relatability for. Most other rape resources assume reactive celibacy: sex is now tainted and triggering! How can you ever want sex again?
I felt like I was doing survivorship wrong, that if I was still horny - and extremely so, though not really towards Panda - then I must have not really been raped. I was hungry and greedy and just wouldn’t admit that I was having fun.
But I was determined to not let this be my only experience of sex with women. I still wanted to know if kissing a girl was all that great.
When I first heard about SlutWalk I finally felt that there was a place where my story would be accepted.
The resources I had been looking up seemed to concentrate either on date rape, or on rape from Strangers in Bushes. Victims and survivors were innocent, just going about normally through their day. No one had entered a party wearing a bustier and a short tartan skirt and fishnets with the intent of having sex with strangers. I seemed like the poster girl for “she asked for it”.
The other problem I had with trying to find relatable resources for my assault were that they were very heteronormative. Perpetrators were always male; the rare times that both the perpetrator and victim were female were in cases of domestic violence. No one spoke for me. No one seemed to have my story.
(I once made the utter mistake of making a Reddit Ask Me Anything about my experience. Almost all the questions were about how it was possible that a woman could rape another woman, and whether I was just too shy to admit that I liked it. I left my Reddit online persona too.)
I immediately worked out ways to bring SlutWalk to Brisbane - probably before the inaugural Toronto march had started. I was stuck on public liability insurance - they were more than I could afford. I soon found out that the Australian Sex Party was hosting the Brisbane SlutWalk and I asked to get involved. The day before the march I was asked to fill in for another speaker.
I got up in the middle of King George Square, in the very same outfit I wore that night, with a sign that said “This is what I wore when I was raped. I still did not ask for it”. I told everyone about my experience, about how I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if my rapist was in the audience and had no idea that I was talking about her, about how we are all culpable and responsible for sexual assault. Rapists and assaulters were not separate species of human beings; they were us, they could be us.
Towards the end I said: “I don’t care if you are the bastard child of Paris Hilton and Voldemort and you work as a stripper in the middle of nowhere and you are the only girl for miles - you still do not deserve to be assaulted or raped!”.
That line was picked up by a Sydney newspaper and quickly became a meme. I still owe people t-shirts.
I got laid more times in the summer in San Francisco in 2011 than I ever did in my life.
Granted, the first time was actually in Reno, with a friend from online whom I had a suspicion liked me but didn’t get any confirmation until she placed my hand on her breast and we started making out.
I did a shoot with Crash Pad, who were really sensitive to my triggers and requests (including hiding dildos from view) and were friendly to my newbie self. I recall walking down to their set and hitting a crossroad: one side led to a Muslim community center, another to their building. It seemed like a moment from a movie or novel where the lead character is meant to pick religion and come back to God. Clearly that wasn’t me.
I also took a risk and went to a play party.
I was curious about Velvet, and had been to the venue multiple times for other events, but was still apprehensive about potentially recreating that night from a couple of years ago. I messaged the organisers about my concerns; they were understanding and let me know that they would be around for any support that I need.
It was quieter than I had anticipated, mostly because it was only their second night ever and the party was filled with newcomers. There was a sign near the entrance with ground rules, as well as designated guides and point people: two elements that were not around at the play party in Brisbane.
I spent a lot of the party chatting and befriending people - including one that lived across the river from me in West End but was in the Bay Area for academic research. There was a really cute redhead there who was on a date with someone else but spent a lot of the night flirting with me - and we did eventually share long hard kisses.
There was talk of a cuddle puddle, but it ended up being only me and this other girl. I asked her if anyone in the room struck her fancy.
We spent the next few hours fucking with a Hitachi between us. I was the loudest I’d ever been.
She dropped me off at the door of the artist complex I was staying in and I returned home with a spring in my step.
(A couple of years later I returned to Velvet with Nightingale, who had only been to one other play party. We tried a similar move with the Hitachi. She would later report that the night felt right for her in ways that she never felt before.)
The most frustrating part of being involved in SlutWalk was having to justify my presence, as a non-White organiser, to other people of colour.
A lot of American-based POC had their issues with the term ‘slut’ and had written some very poignant and thought-provoking articles about why the reclamation of sluthood was not in their interest - mostly due to the hypersexualisation of POC women throughout history. There were also some perspectives from Muslims who felt that SlutWalk was not relevant to them because Muslims aren’t sluts.
While I saw their point, I felt like people like me were being erased, spoken for, spoken over. There were plenty of places in Asia and South America that were organising their own SlutWalks, tailoring them to the needs of their city. There were organisers like me who were based in the White Western world but worked really hard to incorporate radical inclusivity.
While I had not been branded a ‘slut’ specifically, I did fit various cultures’ ideas of being a sexual deviant. My outfits were not modest enough, I was too outspoken about sex, I was queer, I perform on stage or on camera with my skin exposed. I was shameless and undignified. I was non-monogamous, I enjoyed casual sex, I dared to be openly erotic with a brown hairy lumpy body, I went to play parties. I used my body and sexuality as tools of resistance; I found open eroticism to be a radical act. I didn’t need to actually be called a ‘slut’ to know that my sexuality and sexual behavior was enough excuse to claim that I deserve sexual assault.
I felt like I was being branded as a traitor just because I was passionate about one of the few communities that actually respected my entire self - sensual, erotic, queer, political, racial minority - without needing to justify or explain my story. I felt like I was being held responsible for the actions of organisers in places like New York, where their SlutWalks had been rife with problematic racist actions - even though their events was not under my control. I would try to speak up as a POC organiser voice…and get ignored by POC critics and White allies.
I had a lot of people force me to listen to them, as though I wasn’t already. But hardly any of those people were listening to me.
Where were they when I was trying to find resources for my assault? Where were they when I was being slut-shamed for not conforming to the expectations of a good little South Asian Muslim girl? Where were they when people doubted that I could have been raped by another woman? Where were they when another person of colour used that story to manipulate me?
The people who have been most supportive in my journey were other SlutWalk organisers from around the world - people who understood the precarious intersections we all faced with our mission. There had been times where other organisers would bring up problematic statements and we would all hash them out as a group. But ultimately each SlutWalk is managed by their own city, following the needs and capacities of their city. To expect a more centralised SlutWalk organisation is to impose a set idea of combating slut-shaming onto the world - the very thing we were trying to avoid.
The backlash from other POC and their expectations that I should wholeheartedly agree felt like slut-shaming all over again.
I helped out and marched with SlutWalk in San Francisco in 2011. I had a sign that said “My skin colour is not code for my sexuality”. I would have walked nude, but my period showed up that very morning so I ended up in bermuda shorts.
A White woman was there in a burqa, which made me utterly uncomfortable. Myself and another organiser asked her about it, and talked to her about how the burqa was not a costume - that it’s not up to her to decide if Muslim women were oppressed (part of her signage). She threw a hissy fit at me and left.
When I wrote about this on my Tumblr she claimed that I was defaming her,was being racist towards her, and did not respect the lives of rape survivors with mental illnesses - a demographic I fit squarely into. She convinced Tumblr management to take my post down for harassment.
My parents came to visit about a month ago, while I was in the middle of problems with Nightingale. Spending time with my parents was challenging enough, and I was not looking forward to having to front just so I did not need to justify and explain my relationship history again.
Yet I could not hold it in. I was dealing with severe heartbreak, did not know what to do, and the only thing I had to hold on to was a couples’ therapist appointment at the end of my parents’ visit - make or break.
I took a risk and told my parents everything. The heartbreak, Nightingale’s story, how I came out to myself and to Panda. I was more honest than I likely ever had been before.
To my surprise, my parents were largely supportive. My mother and I had a productive conversation about the state of queer and trans* people in Asia. She claims she learnt most of this from Oprah; I wrote Oprah an appreciative letter for her help in healing my relationship with my parents.
Over their visit my mother would also dispense valuable relationship advice - and, over dinner with their friends at a Chinese restaurant downtown, she collected all the fortunes from the fortune cookies and gave them to me.
“For good luck!”
The fortunes must have worked somehow: Nightingale and I reconciled at the couples’ therapist appointment and made some difficult but necessary plans moving forward. We still had strong love for each other and did not want to completely lose the other.
There’s still a lot of work to be done with everyone, but more healing grows.
(I haven’t told my parents about non-monogamy though. One thing at a time.)
The week before SlutWalk Brisbane 2012, everything nearly came crashing down.
I had invited a friend who was a professional dominatrix to speak at the rally. The kink community was pretty interested in SlutWalk and I figured that they of all people would appreciate efforts to combat slut-shaming.
A former friend made a lot of hullaballo about our choice of speaker on Twitter. When I tried to talk to her about it, she brought up my story from the year before and said that my story was alienating to survivors who cannot manage kink.
SlutWalk was my sanctuary for that story. I talked about it there because I was feeling alienated everywhere else.
I disengaged from that conversation and stopped talking to her. I do not need my story dissected and problematised again.
We also lost support from our major backer at the very last minute because they protested our decision to deinvite a lingerie store from our Afterparty because they discriminated against a genderqueer member of our team, saying that this person would be an embarrassment to their brand. They felt we were too idealistic and discriminating against small businesses.
It was ironic that the biggest support I got that week was from a conservative radio station, who had interviewed me after the blowup about the speaker. I explained SlutWalk to them, expecting to have to explain myself yet again - and their immediate response was “of course, this makes sense, why don’t more people get it already?”.
I am vast and contain multitudes. And a lot of these multitudes contrast and clash with each other.
A South Asian migrant child of migrants, raised Muslim but spiritually ambiguous, queer and non-monogamous, shameless and undignified and hairy and brown and lumpy but still willing to put herself out there raw and vulnerable and open.
My liminal state means that I end up finding allies in the unlikeliest of places and face frustration with people who are supposed to be affiliated with me. A straight cis white guy and a white trans* woman. A movement decried for being too White-centric. A family from a culture that frowns on sexual deviance. A conservative radio station. They’re not supposed to be on my side, but they are and I appreciate their presence.
I also am deeply grateful for the allies that I do have that are in my communities: other attendees at DesiQ, other SlutWalk organisers and participants from non-White backgrounds and countries, other survivors of same-sex sexual assault. But it gets tiring to try and explain and justify myself over and over again, just because I don’t quite fit anyone’s convenient narrative.
I find support where I can get it, no matter who they are affiliated with. I take into consideration critiques and problems and drawbacks. I don’t assume automatic best interest: I let them prove themselves to me. When you are an unusual case, you need to build unusual support systems.
Perhaps floating in the in-between will allow everyone involved to let healing grow.
(p.s. kissing a girl is totally worth it.)
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