There’s an episode of How I Met Your Mother in which the main character, Ted, brings the girl he’s dating to dinner with his friends. They all hate her, and he can’t fathom why — until they “spoil” her for him by alerting him to some annoying thing she does that he’d overlooked. We, the audience, hear the sound of breaking glass, indicating that he can’t un-know what he now knows. His perception of her personality, no longer seen through rose-colored glasses, is forever changed.
I’m sure there are hundreds of better analogies out there, more poignant ones, with more gravitas, but it’s the first one that comes to mind for how I felt after that pivotal feminist movement that’s been the subject of so many heated conversations this past year: #MeToo.
I’m hesitant to even write this because, oh god, I’m tired of talking about sexual assault. I’m tired of thinking about my body’s place in the world. I’m tired of analyzing my victimhood, the victimhood of others; the power structures that paved the way for these victimizations, the culture that tells men they deserve to take it if they want it, that same culture that told me I had no right to refuse, that showed me I would be ignored even when I tried, the shame that comes with feeling like I didn’t try hard enough. These thoughts exhaust me, they produce tightness in my chest; they begin to feel like worn out cliches, growing more limp and lifeless with each new examination.
And yet here I am.
I wrote a blog about my journey to feminism when the #YesAllWomen hashtag first began. That was an important moment for me, talking about all the times I’d been devalued and dismissed and degraded. I began processing my experiences then, so I thought I was done with that when #MeToo happened. I watched as my feed filled with stories from woman after woman, countless tellings of trauma and pain, and I abstained from sharing. I thought, well, I’ve already talked about this, I even made a sketch about the importance of consent, and at this point it’d just be jumping on the bandwagon, adding to the stress responses of all the other women looking at their feeds.
But shit, I guess I wasn’t done.
Some of my experiences have been easier to categorize than others. It’s easy to put the clear-cut rapists, like the man who broke into my family’s home when I was a child and raped my mother while I was in bed, into a category: bad. It’s easy to put my smaller assaults from strangers, like the man who forcefully grabbed my crotch as he rode by me on his bike, flipping me off as I yelled after him, into a category: bad. And the men who followed me in their van and tried to get me inside when I was 14 — I could go on and on — all bad.
And there were three “big” experiences in particular that, with some time and effort, I came to understand as bad.
I’d had time to process what happened to me at 18, in a hotel room in Vegas with a group of friends I didn’t know very well. They were the cool crowd, a group of DJs, older than me, and I desperately wanted to be accepted by them. Everyone went out to a club, but I was too young so I stayed behind. The guy I had a crush on, let’s call him Matt, came back early; I was excited to talk to him, and make out, and make him like me… which meant not having sex, so we could build something real. We did make out. And I liked it — right up until he began pulling my clothes off, ignoring my efforts to keep them on. I didn’t like it when I found myself repeatedly saying that I didn’t want to have sex, either, and I definitely didn’t like it when he had sex with me anyway. Eventually I just waited for him to be done.
I slept in my car afterward because I was horrified by the idea of seeing him there in the bed, of sleeping next to his casually passed out body. Terrified to even face him long enough to go in and pee before everyone else came back. I called my mom, who lived nearby; she showed up with a blanket, devastated that what had happened to her had happened to me. I didn’t want to talk about it or go to the hospital, so she gently gave me the number for a rape hotline, but I couldn’t see how “rape” was the right word for what had just happened. I hadn’t screamed or tried to hit him, after all. I’d been interested in him, I’d let him touch me in the ways I wanted, I didn’t fight as hard as I believed I should have, so how could that be rape? How could I call him a rapist? How could I call myself a rape victim? The rest of the group came back to find me sleeping in my car, and everyone knew something had happened, and none of them asked. Not really.
Now I know: I was attracted to Matt, but it was still assault.
And even before #MeToo, I remembered being that same age when a guy I had previously dated, someone I still had feelings for, came over to see me. We were lying together, watching a movie, and he thought he could perform a sex act we’d done before, just because we’d done it before. I told him to stop, more than once; he didn’t — until it became clear just how much pain I was in. By that point it was too late. My body was injured. It should not have been.
I was attracted to him. But it was still assault.
And even before #MeToo, I remembered being in my mid-20s when an A&R at a major record label called me back into his office after we’d had our first meeting earlier that day. He wanted to talk about me as an artist, he said. There was magnetism between us that I won’t deny, but I wanted to keep it professional. I said we should go out to one of the nearby restaurants like we’d talked about, knowing I didn’t want to hook up with someone I’d just met, let alone in his office, let alone when there was the possibility that we could work together. He kissed me. I gave in, at first, but I tried to leave. He moved in front of the door and kept kissing me. I continued to try to leave. He continued to physically block me from leaving. This encounter went on and on and evolved into a series of negotiations where my inner monologue went something like, “Well, he won’t let me leave, so as long as it’ll stop him from forcing me to do that thing I don’t want to do, I’ll do this thing. This thing isn’t so bad.” I didn’t have a choice. Not really.
I was attracted to him. But it was still assault.
It can be easy to categorize the men we hear stories about as predators, perpetrators, rapists, assaulters. They are bad men. Only bad men do those things, we tell ourselves. What a load of bullshit.
I remembered these three experiences before #MeToo. I’d grown relatively used to dusting them off and looking at them, and learning, slowly, haltingly, with trouble, how not to blame myself. But what I did not remember, and what #MeToo brought to the surface with the sound of breaking glass, never to unsee what I now see, was everyone else.
I forgot that for my first couple dozen sexual encounters, more men pushed through my hesitation, my protests, my efforts to slow down or refuse, than did wait for enthusiastic consent. I forgot about all the times I had to literally wrestle to keep my clothes on. I forgot about all the men who thought that when I said I wanted to wait, I was really just trying not to look slutty — which, besides being an egregious presumption, was somehow deemed not a valid reason to say no. I forgot about all the times I was interested in fooling around with someone but not crossing a certain line, and that person found a variety of creative ways to, as my therapist put it, “shape my no into a yes.” Continuing to try until I just… gave up.
I’ll give you guys credit, y’all get creative as fuck. (There was that Emmy winning actor who aggressively tried to speed things along as we battled for my body, the day after he won his Emmy: “Come on Lola, this is your ticket to London.”)
Once I started talking openly about consent, I think part of me thought that this behavior would stop. That somehow, armed with knowledge, I could be strong enough to really get them off of me.
But then there was that Oscar winner, now publicly outed as a rapist, who was simply stronger than me. He just pretended that he didn’t hear me saying no. He acted like he didn’t feel me trying to wrestle him off of me. Eventually I found myself saying, “You wouldn’t want to have the sex we’d be having right now, because I wouldn’t want to be having it.” Verbalizing the reality that he’d be raping me made him stop, finally. But what if I hadn’t found the magic words?
Let me be clear: most of the time, we don’t have the magic words. And, more importantly, we shouldn’t HAVE to have them. And even when we DO find them, the reality that he would have raped me is… well, the damage is still done.
Talking openly about it didn’t protect me from the smaller moments, either. Like the guy I used to date, who, when I’d been saying no but then said, “I don’t know, I can’t decide,” took it as a yes and penetrated me. To be clear: it was not a yes. I had, just hours before, been sounding off to him about the concept of consent.
Or the guy I had to tell to stop multiple times before he finally did. And when he did, he whispered, “You’re in control,” and yet he had just made it so clear that I was not. It was performative respect. This is a man who had ranted to me about how it was time for women to take over, time to get rid of all the bad men. Perhaps it never even occurred to him that he could be one of them. I came away feeling violated more than once, with him.
Stories like this, I think, are why the Aziz Ansari story resonated with so many of us. Not because Aziz is some terrible rapist, but because he’s one of the “good ones,” and he still cared more about his dumb little dick than making sure she was okay. It may not have been VIOLENT RAPE, but it still hurt to read, because it was so damn familiar.
I heard the glass breaking sound: The realization that it should not be this familiar. This shouldn’t be normal. It may not be objectively violent, like my mom’s experiences, but it’s still someone deciding what they want to do with your body without you really being a part of the equation.
It’s hard to explain the experience of your choice being taken from you, time after time after time. If you have never felt like an object, like a disembodied receptacle, I don’t know how to communicate to you what that does to a person over the years. It wears away at your soul, your self-worth, any sense that you matter.
It fucking hurts.
To be shown, over and over again, that what you want means so little, how you feel about what happens to you is so unimportant, that you don’t get a say. To have it happen so many times, reinforced by your culture to such a degree, that it feels normal to be pressured, cajoled, coaxed, coerced, forced, because, well, boys will be boys, and it’s on you to stop them — but if you do you’re a tease, and if you don’t you’re a slut, and if you feel upset afterward, well it’s something you did wrong.
I don’t know how to explain what it feels like to become afraid of hooking up with someone new, because you don’t know whether you’ll be seen as an actual human being. What if you get turned on? What if he doesn’t believe you when your words don’t match up with the way he’s reading your body? God forbid I should be breathing too heavily, speaking too softly, treating the situation too delicately, for fear of pushing him away, or of facing repercussions, or of being met with violence — physical or emotional.
Most of us think of trauma as developing from a single harrowing experience. We don’t think of the accumulation of milder trauma over time. Small violation after small violation, building up and growing heavier until the weight is so great that even the seemingly smallest trespass feels like it weighs a thousand pounds.
I apologize in advance to whoever dates me next. (Unless you’re a fucking CHAMPION with respect and consent, in which case, you’re welcome in advance to whoever dates me next.)
As far as I can remember, no one really ever warned me that I might actually be turned on when my consent would be violated. Everything in my culture told me that if I felt immediately horrified, and was disgusted by the man, and if I screamed NO and STOP multiple times at the top of my lungs, and tried to hit him and push him off of me with force, and he kept going, violently, ideally with a gun to my head, that would be rape. And if I felt bad about a sexual encounter that was anything short of that, well that was just because I felt ashamed of acting like a slut.
They didn’t tell me that it would be someone I liked, someone I wanted to make out with, maybe even fool around with a little. They talked about date rape, but to me this meant the scene in the movie where a guy takes a girl to some place with a view, he puts his hands on her where she doesn’t want them, she yells at him to stop, he doesn’t, she cries out for help, tears stream down her face. She doesn’t want him to touch her body.
But what about when she does — just not as much as he wants?
Arousal is not consent.
This, it seems, is where a lot of men become defensive. If they can detect that you’re turned on, well, your body’s saying yes. A male friend of mine once asked me, but what if you can tell she’s into it?
My response was this: I cannot think of a single sexual encounter in which I indicated, verbally or non-verbally, that I wanted to stop or slow down, and was pressured or coerced to keep going, and felt good about it when it was over. In which the sex was just so good, that man’s penis so irresistible, that afterward I thought, “gee, what a great experience, I didn’t want to do that, but I’m really glad we did.”
I hope you hear the breaking glass sound now, boys: your dick ain’t that irresistible.
Do I think all of those men set out with the intent to assault someone? No. Do I think all of those men are bad people, neatly filed into the Harvey Weinstein Bad Man category? Absolutely not.
This isn’t a Bad Man problem. This is a man problem.*
Which is why I think creating these lists of perpetrators, these black-and-white boxes where we put Bad Men, while useful in a lot of ways, can also be dangerous. Because if the people getting thrown out of society are Bad Men, then anyone who fancies himself a Good Person — which is pretty much everyone — can safely distance himself from these crimes. A Good Person couldn’t possibly be committing those same transgressions.
I’m here to tell you that you could be. You probably have. And you’re probably a good person who does really great things, too, because they just aren’t mutually exclusive.
Most men I know don’t think they’d ever set out to hurt someone. And yet here we are, still getting hurt.
So next time you’re in a sexual situation, fellas, you have a choice. You can keep doing things the way you always did them, and hope for the best — and sure, maybe it will be fine. Or… you can simply ask her what she wants. Ask her if she’s ready. Wait for the yes. Not “I don’t know,” not “we should probably wait,” not “I’m a little tired,” not silence, but a clear, enthusiastic yes.
If you don’t get a yes, and you don’t have sex, you will be okay. But if you don’t get a yes, and you do have sex, well… she might not be.
(Or he might not be, or they might not be — every gender experiences victimization.)
Is it really worth it?
I can’t speak for other women, but I know what I want: I want to have honest conversations about what consent looks like and doesn’t look like. I want to be acknowledged. I want to be heard and respected — really respected — when my body is on the line. When my choice, my freedom to decide, my physical and emotional health, is at stake.
And to the men for whom it’s too late, because the damage is done, I have no pitchfork. I just want to know that you’re sorry, and that you’re working on being better now, and that I didn’t deserve that. Because I am a person, not a body, and I matter.
And maybe, one day, I’ll really believe it again.
(*And yes, women commit assault and violate consent as well. Of course. But the numbers tell a very compelling story about male-perpetrated assault in this culture.)