H e had liberty spikes.
They might have been blue, in fact. This was 1987 when this was still weird, especially in my Midwestern state. I guess I had a crush on him. I didn’t know him well, but we shared friends, frequented the same nightclubs, mostly on underage nights. I was 13 at the time.
I had lots of crushes back then, on people of all stripes. The group I was in challenged gender norms, sexuality, and traditional limits of just about anything our parents stood for. This was before we even knew what to call it; we didn’t have the terms transgender or non-binary. We just knew we wanted to challenge everything.
We pierced our own skin because it was hard to find a place that would do it for you, especially anywhere but your ears or nose. You couldn’t just go to the Walgreens for black lipstick and nail polish. We shaved our heads and wished Manic Panic lasted longer. We experimented with hairsprays, eggs, and glue mixtures to make our hair stand on end in mohawks.
Or liberty spikes.
He took my virginity — or did I give it up freely? — in my own bed when my parents were out of town. Just a couple quick missionary humps and it was over. I don’t recall foreplay, talking, or if it hurt. Probably because it was over so fast or perhaps, as I knew even then, his dick was small.
I don’t think I cried, told him no or to stop. I just wanted it to be over. I recall feeling pressured to have sex by people who should’ve had my back. They were all older than I was. I guess it was a rite of passage but without the fanfare, ceremony, or pride.
He was 19, maybe 20.
I was 13.
In the morning, I remember it just being awkward. I knew he wasn’t my boyfriend and I didn’t want him to be.
By light of day, he didn’t look as mysterious or subversive. He was just some guy in ripped jeans, a bomber jacket, and mascara running down his face. I’m not sure I felt any different. It certainly wasn’t a sweet, romantic, coming-of-age experience like in the movies, but I don’t recall expecting it to be. Even by 13 when other girls were squealing about first kisses and slow dancing, I knew life was not always happily ever after. It was conventional and utilitarian, but it did change my life.
My middle school friends, if you can call them that, weren’t having sex. They were experimenting with kissing and petting, thrilled with the feeling of getting away with something. I didn’t tell anyone at school I was no longer a virgin but instead played along with their toe-dipping into the pool of sexual activity, knowing I had already cannonballed in.
We didn’t talk about statutory rape or rape much at all then. At the time, I wouldn’t have considered my experience to be rape; I knew girls who had been raped. Their experiences were violent and clearly unwanted. They said no and fought back against their attackers. I didn’t. I thought this was just what girls did: you had sex with men.
Being exposed to sex at such a young age took the emotion and healthy intimacy out of it. I knew sex before I knew love, and the sex I knew was without pleasure, regard, or respect. When I did fall in love for the first time, it would prove to be the same: unhealthy, shameful, secretive.
When I look back at photos from that time, I’m floored by how young I look. I was a little girl playing dress up with the older kids, trying desperately to fit in, and doing anything to be liked.
But I didn’t want anyone else to know that. To others I was confident and secure, smart and experienced. I was the mediator, the protector, the one who knew all the answers.
I made sense of the experience the only way I knew how: by separating from any emotions and making it useful. Liberty spikes and I continued to run into one another, as we ran in the same circles. He was in puppy love and I couldn’t bear to look at him. He was a means to an end. I was relieved to no longer be a virgin.
By this time, I’d also had been drunk, regularly smoked cigarettes, and told long, winding stories of narrow escapes to friends who found me hilarious. Like most kids, I tried alcohol and pot, but they just weren’t for me. I wanted an escape but hated the lack of control I felt while under the influence.
But sex? Sex worked for me and quickly became my salve of choice. I learned to compartmentalize it and any accompanying emotions. I used it as a tool to get what I wanted: just enough attention and physical connection to feel good but just shy of actual intimacy. I loved the control I thought it gave me. People were attracted to me and there was no shortage of eager adult sexual partners. It made me feel powerful.
I wanted to be seen and desired, but to be in control. I wanted to fuck the patriarchy. I wanted to be Debbie Harry. Sex became another tool in my arsenal.
Around the time I was 15 or 16, I started having sex with a guy who I’d been attracted to for some time. I don’t recall the first time we had sex, where or when it was, or how it happened. We would end up having a sexual relationship for the next six years or so.
He was 22 when I was 16.
He also had a girlfriend almost the entire time.
I certainly was not faithful to him, despite his attempts to keep me under his hypocritical, double-standard-sized thumb. I had sex a lot during those years. With men, women, and all around the spectrum. It felt like there were no rules; I slept with who I wanted when I wanted. I had learned to call the shots and felt in control. And there were never strings; I was the perfect friend with benefits.
Sometimes the other person became too attached and I had to shut it down. Although at times I experimented with relationships, I mostly didn’t. Any relationship I tried was short-lived because when people got too close, when it got too real, I bolted. I didn’t know how to do real intimacy; it was scary and overwhelming. Sex was easy; love was too hard.
But this man. I felt as though I loved this man I was with throughout those years. But it was a desperate, shameful, naive love. In some twisted way I thought our relationship was different, special. I was too young and inexperienced to see the truth of it.
The truth that he would be with his girlfriend for the first four years we were “together.” That even when they did break up, he still didn’t want to be with (only) me. That it was spectacularly unhealthy for me to be with someone who didn’t want to be seen with me in public, but swore that he loved me.
That I didn’t know it would ruin any chance of me having a healthy relationship when I actually wanted one.
That I didn’t know it was rape. But it was. And not just with him.
I was 17 and he was 33.
I was 16 and he was 22.
I was 15 and he was 28.
I was 14 and he was 24.
I was 13 and he was 19, maybe 20.
You may think I was just a slut, that I deserved what I got. You may wonder about my background, how I grew up, where my parents were. You may point your finger at my short leopard print dress, my v-neck with a lacy bra peeking through, my tight leather pants, my ruby red lips, my hips swaying to the rhythm of the music at all hours of the night. You may think me ignorant for not understanding that what was happening to me was wrong, was dangerous, was rape.
You may even believe me when I say I felt in control.
It’s easy to think those things. It’s easy to sit silently in judgement and think your kid would never be so stupid. It’s easy to sigh in relief that you didn’t have those experiences.
What’s more difficult is to take a long, hard look at yourself and your place in the systemic oppression and misogyny that allows — encourages — statutory rape to occur. It’s hard to critically examine how we are socialized in this country along strict, unrealistic gender and sexual binaries. It’s difficult to admit that toxic masculinity is a central cause of war, poverty, famine, genocide, colonialism, white supremacist terrorism, violence against women, and of course, rape.
We need to ensure girls are safe and believe them when they tell us something is wrong. We need to call it what it is, break sexual taboos, have candid conversations, and stop blaming little girls.
We must not allow the
Jerry Lee Lewises
David Bowies and Robert Plants (all the men who exist in liminal stages of celebrity, genius, and predator)
Donald Trumps of the world to get away with sexual abuse of young girls.
We need to educate boys about consent and actually hold men accountable when they rape.
And statutory rape is rape.
Statutory rape is rape.
Statutory rape is rape.
Karla J. Strand is a queer, feminist, anti-oppression accomplice, librarian, and historian. She loves to travel with her partner and their puppy’s name is Grace. Karla has a regular series on The Ms. Magazine website entitled “Feminist Know-It-All” and can be found on Twitter and Insta @karlajstrand.