What I Learned From Dating Women Who Have Been Raped
I don’t know how I expected a rape victim to act, but I didn’t expect her to be so funny. Or to be punk, in this kinda sexy bleached blonde but kind of too lazy to really care sort of way. Or to be so up front.
“I may be a lesbian because of what happened to me, I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter at this point.”
I guess, maybe in some way, I didn’t expect her to be so over it. Part of me, unconsciously, believed people who had been raped were irrecoverably broken, and she wasn’t. I had an ex boyfriend who said he thought rapists should be subjected to capital punishment, which I suppose is a more extreme articulation of that unconscious belief. Once a woman has been raped, she has been destroyed.
People aren’t destroyed through being raped though. They suffer immensely, but they are just as much themselves after the rape as before.
Another rape victim I dated was a butch woman who had just adopted a kitten that completely befuddled her. When I went back to her apartment, the kitten was everywhere attacking everything.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’ve historically been more of a dog person.”
She was pretty open about her anger towards men, and her sexual orientation was difficult to quantify because her attractions included “any gender that’s not cis male.” Can’t say I blamed her. But, despite her anger, she was completely and fully her. Even if she drank too much, and even if she hated men, her fundamental essence was untouched.
How I think of women who have been raped contrasts greatly with how I think of men who have experienced non sexual violence. One of my male friends was standing outside a club when he was hit from behind. He fell down, and two guys came up and kicked the shit out of him before running away.
I think that event changed him in some ways. We used to do jiu jitsu together, but he had a particular drive that I think was borne of that experience. He’s very good, I think he teaches it now. Yet, when men get beat up, I don’t ever entertain the impression that some part of them may have been destroyed. (I actually think there may be an opposite problem, namely men not getting emotional support because we don’t take their trauma seriously. I’ll have to write about that later.) If a man’s behavior changes after an attack, we don’t use this as evidence to support an unconscious belief that he is broken. If you told someone that a man had learned jiu jitsu after being attacked, I think the vibe would be “well, that’s pretty reasonable.” If a bisexual woman decided to date only women after being raped, the vibe would be “oh, she’s broken.”
This belief in the “brokenness” of those have experienced sexual trauma is highly damaging. None of us want to be broken. I don’t want to be broken. And, at least for me personally, this belief in the uniquely destructive power of sexual trauma prevented me from honestly confronting some of my more difficult sexual experiences.
A few years ago, I was out getting drunk with a bunch of male friends, and one of them offered to let me crash at his place. He was someone I trusted, someone I’d been friends with for years. When we got back to his place, suddenly he was all over me, and he’d managed to get his fingers into my vagina before I was able to physically restrain him. I remember confusion, and then shock at realizing his fingers were inside of me. And, I remember how he wilted when I stopped him. He shrank with shame, and I felt so guilty. I spent the night, but I couldn’t sleep, and slipped out at 6am after giving him a kiss on the head.
Then, I brushed it off. I had years of therapy after that, and never brought it up because I didn’t think it was significant. Yet, there were a few differences. I didn’t like being touched anymore. I stopped dating men, and then stopped dating anyone. I lost all sexual desire, and have been single now for about a year and a half.
I also started meditating. “Crying” has been a big part of my meditation practice. Just, nameless, faceless crying with no discernible reason. I sat a meditation retreat for 7 days, and the first 5 days were spent crying. I was completely exhausted, and in discussions with my teacher I basically said “I can’t keep doing this” and she basically said “keep trying.” Then, sometime around the fifth day, I stopped crying. I had expected some sort of catharsis, or release, or knowledge or something, but it wasn’t like that. I just stopped. And, after that I felt better. Not totally better, not like, I don’t still cry sometimes. It was just like — this nameless sadness that seemed to have no bottom ran out, and where it had been there was nothing.
Shortly after my retreat, I was reading a Savage Love where a woman talked about a male friend of hers trying to finger her when he was drunk. Dan Savage told her she’d been the victim of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. And, when I read that, I was like “how can she have been sexually assaulted? That’s exactly like what happened to me, but I wasn’t…” So, I looked up sexual assault. Apparently if someone touches your vagina against your will, that’s sexual assault.
I pondered over that. I read about what happened emotionally to people who had been sexually assaulted, and a lot of it fit with my experience. The blocking it out. The justifying. The guilt, the aversion to touch, and hyposexual desire. They were all common responses from people who had been sexually assaulted. And, when I read about that, I felt relief. These mysterious things that I had been feeling had a source. I also think that I was so lucky to have gone on those dates with those women, because I already had a deep understanding that people who have experienced sexual violence aren’t any less awesome or less complete than those who haven’t experienced it. Without that understanding, I think admitting to yourself that you have experienced sexual violence is harder, because you also have to think of yourself as “broken.”
I continued to wonder about why I had been so dismissive about how painful I found that experience, and at the heart of it was “it was just a more extreme version of how I always feel with men.” I came out as bisexual when I was around 12 years old (or “was outed” I should say) and ever since then, I have faced a lot of unwanted sexual attention. People accused me of just being bisexual “for attention” despite my own lack of agency around coming out, and despite the fact that they were the ones giving me all the attention. Boys asked me to kiss other girls, and initially I complied. I was 12. I didn’t know better. When I got to high school, I was regularly asked for threesomes before ever losing my virginity. Boys would sometimes grope my breasts, or put their hands up my skirt, or make loud public comments about my body.
Eventually, I learned to fight back. I remember one time, after being called flat chested, shouting back at the guy “we can’t all have tits as big as yours!” and watching him flush deeply. Additionally, I was on the wrestling team with a bunch of guys who respected me for my wholehearted commitment to the sport, and I think that helped. Having a bunch of big, jock friends made people less inclined to fuck with me. Still, between the ages of about 12–14, I had been bombarded with so much sexual harassment that I had normalized the feeling of it. I knew I didn’t like it, but it didn’t feel strange. It felt familiar.
In retrospect, I think I may have had an especially bad run because I am a bisexual woman. Bisexual women experience a disproportionately high amount of sexual violence compared to straight and lesbian women, and that innately makes sense to me. I was repeatedly singled out for sexual attention because I was bisexual and, as the only out bisexual woman in the grade, I was a single target for the many boys who were fascinated by female bisexuality.
Anyway, I had already normalized the sensation of sexually directed harassment before I was even a teenager. It’s very particular sensation, but hard to describe —for me, it’s almost like nausea mixed with sadness and shock. I cried the first few times I felt it, but it soon became so common that I started numbing myself to it. By the time I was in high school, I was already fairly numb.
So, when I started dating men for real, I was already primed to not complain when I felt this feeling. Sometimes, however, it was so bad it broke through my numbness. When I young, one of my early boyfriends pressured me for sex. We were lying in bed, and he kept asking over and over again. I can’t remember if I explicitly said yes, or if at some point I just stopped saying no, but he ended up mounting my un-responsive corpse and pounding me until he came.
“How was it?” he asked me.
“It hurt,” I said. Then, he became really sad.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he kept saying over and over. I said nothing, and just lay there, but resolved never to say yes when I didn’t want sex again. It was a horrible feeling, probably one of the most horrible things I’d ever felt at the time. I think something in me closed that day, and I could never be really open with him again.
The thing was, despite whatever lie he told me or told himself, he knew I didn’t want to have sex with him. He knew I didn’t usually lie there like a dead fish. He could tell when I was wincing in pain. When I told him I had been in pain afterwards, he showed no surprise. I had only articulated what he already knew but was pretending he didn’t. Yet, for a man to seek his own sexual gratification from my body while knowing, but not caring, that it was causing me pain seemed so normal by that point that it didn’t seem like a big deal. There’s a word for what happened to me that day (sexual coercion) which was useful for me to discover.
But, what was more useful was actually another Dan Savage letter (I totally ❤ you, Dan!) It was a letter from a guy blaming his girlfriend from backing out of an orgy after she had said she was ok, but was giving clear signs that she wasn’t.
Your girlfriend wasn’t okay that night, CIC, and you knew it.
She was telling you what you wanted to hear, CIC, and you knew it.
You should’ve called the whole thing off, CIC, and you know it.
The idea that, if someone knew I didn’t want to do something sexual that they shouldn’t do it, was completely alien to me, and yet made total sense. Would I continue with an activity if my partner clearly didn’t want me to? Is that the way you would treat a person you cared about? We talk a lot now about affirmative consent and whatnot, but unfortunately we can’t legislate the actual change that needs to be made. Men need to care when they are making women suffer. People need to care when they make each other suffer.
There is a whole pretense that goes on around these sort of toxic sexual exchanges. A man wants gratification at my expense, but he tries to convince me that he cares about me so I won’t bail. He sees that I am suffering, I know he sees that I am suffering, but if we talk about it he will pretend he didn’t know. He will keep up the pretense that I matter to him so I will not cut off his access to my body.
So, that night my friend shoved his fingers in my vagina, I just felt a more intense version of a feeling that was already deeply familiar. I knew he didn’t care that I wasn’t turned on. We weren’t making out, or being physically intimate in any way. He quickly went for my vagina, when I was too drunk to fully understand what was happening because he knew I didn’t want to be sexual. He was hoping if he did it fast enough, when I was intoxicated enough, I might just go with it. I didn’t. And the truth is, if that had just been a momentary violation followed by my anger and immediate leaving, it may not have had such a negative emotional impact on me.
Once, in college, a male friend of mine slapped me in the face. I got pissed of and hit him right back (although never landing a good smack) before storming away. Afterwards, a lot of my friends told me that he was feeling really bad and guilty about the whole thing to which I responded “good, he should be!” Because of my training with wrestling and jiu jitsu, it was natural for me to defend myself physically. And, because I defended myself — even though nothing major really came of it — that event held less trauma. It was my friend who spent the night crying, not me.
I think my experience fighting back contrasts with another memory when a female friend got hit by a male friend in the face except she didn’t retaliate. I remember her getting ice for her face and needing a lot of comfort from her friends even though I’m not sure the punch was that hard, and it seemed strange then. Now, however, I think what happened was that she was trying to heal an emotional hurt. She was forced to absorb male anger without being allowed to express any anger herself, and something about that is deeply fucked in a way that’s hard to articulate.
I always believed that because I was able to defend myself physically, I would be able to defend myself sexually, but that turned out not to be true. Ironically, the men I have been with who have been more overtly abusive have been easier for me to deal with. I once had a boyfriend with some anger issues, and we would get in terrible fights. All my friends thought I was crazy for dating him, but he did me less long term damage than some of my more acceptable looking partners. I had another boyfriend who used to cry when I went out too late with my friends, so I stopped going out. I would never have accepted a request like that stated in anger, but when faced with a crying man, I capitulated immediately. I had to stuff my feelings, stuff my anger, stuff the unfairness so that his feelings wouldn’t be hurt.
The night I was assaulted, after pulling his fingers out of my vagina, I saw how miserable my (I don’t even know what to call him? assaulter? friend?) my assaulter-friend looked, and I felt guilty. I was ashamed that I had caused him pain by denying him access to my body. I felt like there was something wrong with me for not wanting sex with him. I can see in different circumstances, another woman might have had sex with him out of guilt and the whole thing would have been deemed “consensual.” But, it happened so quickly, and I didn’t have to fight that hard to make it stop, that even now I find myself questioning was it actually assault?
Truth is, it doesn’t really matter what the legal definition was because it was so long ago those options aren’t even on the table. Emotionally, to me, it was assault. It was the culminating event in a series of sexual violences against me that caused my body to finally shut down. Because it’s hard for me to reject sex from people using emotionally manipulative tactics, because I am unable to get angry about unwanted sexual pressure in the moment, the only way my body could protect itself was to stop desiring sex and to stop desiring touch. And, you know, we always act like traumatized people are “broken” or something somehow, but my body knew exactly what it was doing. It did exactly the right thing.
In the year and a half since I’ve been single, I have become so much happier. The happiest I’ve ever been. Some of my friends have said that I hug them more, and I feel that an unnamable omnipresent psychic pain has lifted somehow. And it’s like, finally with the clarity from not always being in pain, I can look back and see what happened.
What’s so sad about what I see is that it’s so normal. I don’t see myself as a victim in an otherwise safe society, I see myself as a completely normal and unremarkable member of the female gender. I see women who have experienced more violence than me, and women who have experienced less violence than me, but I don’t see women who don’t experience violence. The fact that some women have experienced more, worse sexual violence only means that they need more help not that I need less help or that my emotional response to a traumatic event is invalid. As I tell my female friends about my experience, basically all of them remember experiences when they felt similarly and just absorbed it. When I told my ex girlfriend (a lesbian who has only had sex with a man once) she was confused, and asked me why I hadn’t told her all this while we were dating. I said “it didn’t occur to me, it just didn’t seem unusual.” Because it’s not unusual.
But, the fact that it’s not unusual doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. When you are with someone, they should care about how you feel. If someone who loves you also knows they are hurting you, they should stop hurting you. If you tell them they are hurting you, this should not make them angry. It is simple. It is basic.
When someone doesn’t care about you, when someone’s actions obviously betray the fact that they don’t care about you, you have the right to defend yourself. When someone tries to get you to do something you don’t want to do, you have the right to yell at them. You have the right to tell them to fuck off. If they’re being physical with you, you have the right to hit them. If they don’t care about your feelings you shouldn’t care about theirs. This last one is, for me, the crux of the pain I have felt over the years. I have been expected to care for the feelings of men, who don’t care for my feelings.
More than any explicit action, this societal expectation for me to provide nurturance to the very people who resent me has poisoned me. It requires my complete effacement, for me to deny the value of my own experience. It has required a betrayal of the most personal kind, and to recover from it necessitates re-learning one of the most basic human instincts.
My own suffering matters.