Mutual Exploitation and Consent
A two-sided story of sexual violence in one act
She told me over the phone, “he raped me.”
And for the most self-loathing six months of my life, I took this at face value.
He was 15 at the time. She was 18. When you’re in high school, this age difference is substantial. It’s the difference between being legal, or not. It’s the difference between being an underclassman, and senior year. Someone’s first relationship, and someone’s fourth. A relationship built to wound.
“He’s mature for his age,” she’d said. I thought skeptically of this boy-man who secretly dated Anna while he was dating another girl, broke up with her to be with Anna, then broke up with Anna to be with her. I thought about his stated bisexuality, his longing looks toward his straight best friend. I thought about the ways that men harm women, and women harm men, and the way a person’s weaknesses become visible lines of pain that the discerning predator can use. How when romance and predation meet, nobody wins.
Then I thought about Anna. Four years of friendship, and I was convinced I was unworthy of her. I’ve since learned to value those friends who show me they love me back, who make me feel worthy, who teach me every day to value myself. I’ve since learned the value of people who don’t leave me questioning how they feel about me, people who tell me how they feel outright and never play games in which I have to guess.
Four years of friendship, and I was a fat Jewish girl with a penchant for making myself throw up and no real hope that the particulars of my life would change. I loved Anna for all the wrong reasons. I mostly loved her because she would accept my loving her, would swallow up all the love I had to give. I wanted to have a partner, a soulmate, a best friend, a love affair, a child. Instead, I had Anna.
“Tell me more,” I said.
Anna became the spokesperson for rape at her college. Her face on posters about sexual assault. Her words behind the marketing for the rape crisis center, her voice on the line. The Annas of this country built the white-girl #girlboss power behind the metoo movement. That’s why the women like me of this country look upon the movement with skepticism. That is why we look at the language that shaped #metoo during the preceding years and count obsessively all the categories of non-rich, non-white people left out.
Anna was the girl who all the boys wanted, or at least, I was convinced she was the girl who all the boys wanted. Anna called another friend a whore in front of our entire grade, and made that friend cry. They had been friends for most of their lives.
Anna was vicious when she was crossed. She treated sex like a joke, like a power play. Her favorite part of giving blowjobs, she once told me, was how powerful it made her feel. With her example, with her words, Anna taught me that sex is just a game. She taught me to feel dirty and ashamed for wanting real connection to the person with whom I played.
After they broke up, the senior girl and her 15-year-old boytoy, she explained that actually, he was abusive. He took things from her without her consent.
He pushed her into sex when she didn’t want to. He was bipolar and unmedicated, once threw a (cellular) phone at her head. She said no, or tried to, and he pushed her head down anyway.
He did what he was taught to do, and ‘convinced’ her. She did what she was taught to do, and did not resist. I am sure he did not think of this as sexual violence at the time. I struggle to think of this as sexual violence now. I struggle to relate to Anna, because I have experienced more severe violence so regularly. If I accept that this act of Ben’s was sexual assault, what am I supposed to think of all my hookups that had a coercive element?
I do not want to live in a world where men coerce women into sexual activities we don’t want. I also do not want to live in a world in which pretty white girls become the face of sexual violence while women who have survived sex trafficking or child sexual abuse or physically violent boyfriends are silenced.
There is a fine line to walk here, or worse, there is no line at all. Privileging the voices of the Annas of the world is not right. But neither is dismissing the normalized acts of sexual violence that the Bens of the world do.
I know Anna, because I have been her in these types of situations before. Anna did not do anything strong-willed to stop it from happening. I am certain her ‘no’ was inaudible, defeated. I am certain that when she stood up for herself, she swallowed her voice before it could betray her with its strength. I am certain Ben should have paid more attention to her wishes. I am certain he assumed he could hurt her and get away with it. He was right.
Consent is a clear-eyed standard it is difficult to meet in real time, and I am someone who has studied consent. I am a person who tries. But I am also a person who cannot forgive the cavalier way that boys and then men approach women’s bodies as there for the taking.
I am also equally certain that allowing the most privileged voices in the room to set the standard of sexual violence is problematic at best, deeply flawed at worst. Anna should be safe from being coerced into sex by a boyfriend she thought she could trust. But is it wise to focus too heavily on incidents like this, to give women like Anna unfettered access to the mic, when so many less privileged women experience so much worse?
Sometimes I wonder about him. That boy who called himself a feminist, and was queer, and participated in musical theater for heaven’s sake. That boy who I had also come to like and to trust. Who is teaching me even now, a bit late in the game, that no man sits outside the bounds of patriarchy in this life. No man always gets it right. And most hope they will never be held accountable, rather than learn humility and face the harm they have done.
Ben had the sweetest eyes. He came with his mother to my riding stable, once. She boarded her giant black gelding there. I was riding late that night, aiming the sorrel mare I leased towards jumps that were much too high for her. My trainer commanded me to kick her over to the other side. I did, and afterwards, something beautiful and sun-colored inside me withered and began to die.
I stared at Ben as he walked by the side of the arena while I rode. He tried to look cool, but on his face was the saddest expression. We were trapped, both of us, in the pressure to fit in. I wanted to take his hand and run away together, run somewhere we could both be young and free and childlike together. I didn’t want to take him from Anna. I just wanted to take him away.
I wanted to take myself away. I was trying to do that with my eating disorder, but as with all self-harming behavior, that really didn’t work very well. Gender norms were eating away at all of us, even back then, and we didn’t know how to save ourselves or save each other. We all were loving people who wanted to help but we didn’t know how to fix the realities of this life.
I watched the whole thing from my eating disorder-induced cloud. I spun fanfiction stories in my head to keep myself occupied and tried to distract myself from the romance I never found. It’s okay if you don’t want to take my word for it. It’s okay if you think Anna’s tale is prettier than my messier story of mutual exploitation, or Ben’s self-defensive stories are stronger than my story of well-intentioned cruelties all around. Heck, it’s okay if you don’t believe me, if you think I’m only jealous or betraying Anna’s confidence to claim fans or seek attention. I understand.
But here’s what I think happened.
Ben hurt Anna. Anna hurt Ben. Anna used Ben to hurt herself, in the ways women are taught to use sex as a gender-appropriate method of self-silencing. Ben used Anna because he was taught he had a right to.
I sometimes defend Ben because I am Jewish and I was taught to lay down my life to defend Jewish men. I sometimes grieve for Anna because I am white-passing enough to strive for assimilation and that means prioritizing her needs above mine.
But I miss the people we all might have been. In another world.
And I’m sorry for all of us that we tried so hard, but never got it right.