When I was a little girl, my parents used to yell. Not screaming matches of hurled insults and shrill accusations, the kind you see on reality TV shows about dysfunctional families and rich housewives.
But they were full of their own kind of heat. Voices were raised; gestures became wilder, words more venomous. It was a slow buildup to the inevitable surrender by one party, followed by hours or days of imposed silence on the whole house.
I used to say to my parents, when these arguments began: Please stop yelling. Please stop yelling.
They would scream back: WE’RE NOT YELLING!
It could almost be comical if it wasn’t so tragic. Maybe they weren’t yelling; they certainly weren’t calm. ‘Animated’ is how they would refer to it years later.
Now, with time and distance, I can see what they could not. That I, in my own way, was attempting to put a voice to what my body was feeling, though my 8-year-old vocabulary wasn’t adequate enough: I was scared.
I felt fear and tension. I felt stress. (I feel it now, typing this — just the memory of my parents’ fervent speech and angry faces is enough to quicken my heart rate and shorten my breath.)
Those exchanges were my earliest experiences with the denial of my truth. My parents shouting to me ‘WE’RE NOT YELLING’ was my first lesson in what would become a fully ingrained belief: What I think and feel not only does not matter, it is not real.
Many more followed, from classmates and coworkers telling me I had no reason to be angry, sad, scared, hurt, offended or upset. Boyfriends telling me that what I felt as cruel and abusive actually wasn’t. And, most insidiously, countless men telling me that my no’s weren’t really no’s at all, but confused, ill-informed edicts about what I really wanted.
The first time I was assaulted, he didn’t even bother asking my permission. So I thought, next time, I’ll say something before I get into a situation like that.
I was upfront with my next boyfriend. I told him no to x, y and z. But he must not have heard, or else misunderstood, because he kept asking. Again and again. And each time, my no’s became weaker and weaker until they were so quiet that he could ignore them and pretend they hadn’t been there at all. We both pretended they hadn’t been there. And while I lay on the couch next to him bleeding and weeping, he smiled in a satisfied way. And he never asked again.
The third guy didn’t ask for permission either. He just waited until I was incapacitated and took what he wanted. Probably he sensed that there was enough strength in me to say no had I been given the chance. I was a slow learner to the fact that a woman’s no didn’t have that much power.
What I had failed to grasp twice before was fully imprinted on my body and soul now. Third time’s the charm, I guess.
And so I stopped saying no, to anyone. In a strange way, it probably saved me seven years of heartache and pain. Because there were so many regrets, but that’s all they were: Regrets, not rape, because I had given up on the idea that I had a right to say what happened to my body.
Years passed, and I got some help. I learned that not only could I say no, I should. And I did: I started drawing a line at safer forms of sexual contact. Kissing, groping. I was reclaiming the power I hadn’t had since that first guy at age 13. It felt great.
Then Joe happened. He, too, could probably sense my power, my strength. And so he, too, took what I was not able to give freely. Swimming in a state of semi-consciousness, my alcohol-soaked brain registered only the rough surface of the sheets, the heaviness of his body, and the sense of complete failure: Once again, I had failed to say no loudly and plainly enough so that he would be forced to listen.
This time to me was the most devastating. I developed PTSD after this attack, though after none of the others. There was something so much more violating about having some small power and still being conquered. I had never been defeated before, because I had walked in surrendering.
There are a hundred factors that contributed to me being there that night. Over the past two years, I have worked on as many of them as possible. It would be easy to write off that experience, all those experiences, as the evil works of warped men and boys. But to do that would be to ignore the societal forces that shape us into individuals that can easily fail to hear the voices of our most vulnerable citizens.
The perfect demonstration of this came at the hands of one of the only truly nice guys I dated during those lost years. Kind, respectful to women: He felt guilt over the one girl he slept with in college without the intention of dating her, even though she was a willing participant. Just to give you an idea of the thrust of his moral compass.
His father had told him, as he relayed to me, that the best advice for sex was: Never do anything with someone who doesn’t want it as much as you.
And yet he, too, one night, did not hear me. We were dating, and maintaining a fairly normal sex life. At that point, I still hadn’t realized all the myriad ways my past had fucked me up.
He was trying to fool around. After a few half-hearted attempts, I said no thank you. I wasn’t in the mood. Still, he persisted. Kindly, gently, he persisted. He touched me in all the places I normally like to be touched. And so, falling back into my old patterns of compliance, I surrendered.
I disassociated during, and after, I cried. Did I not want to? he asked. Why hadn’t I said something?
But I HAD said it. Plain and simple, but there: No.
Was it assault? Maybe not, but was it ethically, morally and every other way wrong to ignore my no and proceed as planned? Hell. Fucking. Yes. Because if the roles had been reversed and he’d said no to me (which has happened before) I would not have persisted: I would have respected his decision and left him alone. To do anything else would be unthinkable to me.*
That was it for me, the turning point. When I realized that the story we tell ourselves about sex and women is one of games and scores and conquests. Not a mutual, shared activity with two equally enthusiastic participants.
And the story we tell ourselves about gender roles and power is one of male vs. female, bosses vs. bitches, emotional vs. rational — a thousand lies that add up to one devastating truth: What women think, feel and want does not matter, cannot be trusted as valid.
For me, this story began at the feet of parents, begging them to please calm down. They could have done a million things: left the room; put us to bed; taken a deep breath; or simply sat me down and explained to me that sometimes people get upset, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love you, and it doesn’t mean they are going to hurt you.
That story — that my fear wasn’t real; that my body was lying to me about what felt safe and unsafe — became the framework for how I treated myself. And it is that framework that I must strive to dismantle if I am every to fully realize my right to autonomy.
Changing the story — for women, for kids, for minorities, for LGBT individuals, for the disabled and disenfranchised — begins at home. It begins with allowing others to speak their truth about their experiences.
It baffles me, has always baffled me, that when discussing the plight of women and sexual assault, or minorities and police brutality, or LGBT rights, we so often turn to straight, white, old men for guidance.
What the hell do they know?!? How can they speak with authority for what it is to be a young woman in college or a gay man in the workplace?
When I see groups marching on the streets for an end to police shootings, when I see a girl carrying her dorm bed mattress around campus, when I read about a gay couple suing a cake baker, I think: I get it.
These are wild stunts. They are loud. They are abrasive. What they do for the cause is debatable. But the passion behind them — and the necessity for them — is undeniable.
We march because you did not see us walking quietly by.
We yell because you did not hear us plainly say, ‘Enough.’
We roar our disapproval because our first hundred no’s went unheard. Because nothing less than a shouting, screaming, kicking victim is acknowledged as a victim.
I would love to not be roaring. I would love to calmly state my case and be taken at my word. I would love my motives and competence to decide for myself what is wrong to not be questioned. But we aren’t there yet.
When you can’t go to the cops because you were drinking when you got assaulted, we aren’t there yet.
When you get called a bitch, cunt, whore and worse for speaking up, we aren’t there yet.
When you make less money and hold fewer positions of power because people — including other women — don’t like taking directions from a woman, we’re not there yet.
And when even a nice guy can still not hear your no, we’re not there yet.
I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again
You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul
I am woman watch me grow
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin’ arms across the land
But I’m still an embryo
With a long, long way to go
Until I make my brother understand
Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can face anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman
*I just want to acknowledge that although I do not characterize this unpleasant experience as rape or assault, I do not speak for anyone else or their experiences. If you read this scenario and it feels similar to an assault you experienced, I have no right to decide for you that it wasn’t. This is not a court of law or a criminal proceeding, and in your own healing, only YOU get to define what was OK and what wasn’t.