If you have been on social media in the past day or so, you might have seen women posting "Me too" onto their social media statuses. These women are survivors of rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment, and because of the dozens of women who have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, "me too" is being used to demonstrate just how widespread the problem of sexual harassment and assault really is. Even outside of Hollywood.
For women like me, writing "me too" feels like a lie. I'm not sure if my trauma really counts compared to the more textbook definitions of rape and sexual assault. To stand in solidarity with women who have had "more traumatic" traumas feels like I'm making light of the definition of sexual assault. But talking about those gray areas, even if they don't feel explicitly like assault, is equally as crucial to the fight against the power dynamics that allow rape to happen in the first place.
Talking about those gray areas, even if they don't feel explicitly like assault, is equally as crucial to the fight against the power dynamics that allow rape to happen in the first place.
When it happened to me, I was 17 years old. We had known each other for years. If I could trust anyone, I thought, it was definitely him.
We were both excited, but sex was new for me and he knew that. I'd only done it one other time, with my high school boyfriend a couple months prior, and I didn't really like it; neither of us knew what the hell we were doing. I was also a devout Catholic who believed sex was meaningful and special, not to be done with just anyone. I was taught that my appeal lied in my purity, and I knew that having sex with not just one, but two people in only a few months would make me feel like a huge slut. But I was about to go to college, and he'd had sex before. His experience, coupled with the fact that I trusted him, led me to believe that this would be a positive sexual encounter, one that might ease my worries about sex in general. So I chose to forego all of my previous beliefs about sex. Just for him.
Days before we did it, I told him to not do any complicated sex positions. To please keep it simple. I was already scared of my purity being tainted by plain old missionary, but adding doggy style or 69ing or whatever else to the mix sounded like a sin I couldn't yet handle. He said he understood.
We waited for a night when his parents would be out. He led me to his den, where there was a navy futon with a multi-colored blanket on top. He turned the lights off, but kept on a desk lamp so that the room illuminated a dull amber color. He played "Strawberry Swing" by Frank Ocean.
From the moment my bra hit the floor and his white V-neck came off, I was no longer an active participant in what was going on. First, he somehow coerced me to not use a condom. Even though we'd planned this for weeks, he claimed he didn't have any on him. The details of how he convinced me are hazy, but I remember feeling like objecting was not an option, and before I knew it, I was having unprotected sex, paralyzed by my inability to say no.
The more we had sex, the clearer it became that my purpose was to serve as a vessel for his enjoyment only. He flipped my body around any way he wanted without any regard for how I was reacting (wincing in discomfort at worst, extremely removed at best). He maneuvered me into positions that I'd explicitly asked him not to do a few days prior, and I was in such shock that I just silently let them happen. And once he was done, our clothes sprawled out on the floor, he wordlessly stood up to turn the lights off, lay next to me without cuddling me, and fell asleep.
I was frozen next to him. This was the first time I witnessed the intensity and entitlement of a man having sex. It was also the first time I realized how petrifying it can be, how little agency it gives you. How it can make you feel like you're not even in the room.
He took up most of the futon when he slept, and I remember having so little room that I was forced to lie sideways so that my back was against the cushions and my body was partially on top of him. I wanted to be as far away from him as possible at that point, but I felt like it would be rude to get up and leave him alone, for some reason. I also couldn't drive home — it was way past the curfew for 17-year-old drivers, and I'd already lied to my parents about where I was going to be.
I didn't sleep the whole night. I just remember looking out the window behind the futon and seeing the shadow of my naked body. There was a glow around my shoulders, hair, and breasts, lit up by street lamps a few stories down. All I did was stare at myself and cry.
I was confused and mortified. I wanted to have sex with him — I knew that much — so why did I feel so used? I didn't explicitly say "no" to anything, yet I wanted absolutely nothing to do with everything that just happened. Did that mean I still gave consent? Or did I revoke it in my head and not say anything? Surely my body language gave something away. But why didn't I speak up? Why did I feel like I couldn't?
After that night, he didn't speak to me, and ignored me for several days thereafter. A few days later, I didn't get my period on time, so I broke our mutual silence by telling him if if I didn't get my period that day, he was coming with me to CVS to get a pregnancy test. Later, I heard he went home sick from work because he couldn't stop throwing up.
At the time, I didn't understand why he was avoiding me or what had even happened, but in hindsight, I think he knew he did something awful and didn't know what to do. I didn't realize how deeply the whole thing affected me until college, when I started dating someone new in my first semester. Every time I tried to sleep with my new boyfriend, I would start crying. Partially because I was getting flashbacks, and partially because I was so angry at myself for being unable to express my affection physically like a normal person. Once, while lying naked in his bed after one too many failed attempts at regular intercourse, I yelled "I hate sex!" I was unable to put into more sophisticated words what had happened to me just a few months prior. I didn't think it was rape. But I also knew it was ruining me. And I didn't know why.
Eventually, thanks to my college boyfriend's patience and the passing of time, the trauma mostly faded, which for a long time made me believe that what happened to me didn't matter. After all, conversations about sex and sexual assault often revolve around the issue of consent, and in my experience, I do believe that I gave consent to having sex with that guy at 17. However, a lack of initial consent isn't the only thing that can violate a woman in a sexual experience. Consensual sex can still be traumatic, especially when you feel like you're being treated more like a Fleshlight than a human person. And unless you explicitly discussed it beforehand, who would really consent to something like that anyway?
Consensual sex can still be traumatic, especially when you feel like you're being treated more like a Fleshlight than a human person.
I have never been sure of what to call this experience. I know I wanted to have sex, and there are people out there who get actually raped in the textbook definition of it, so I hesitate to call it sexual assault. But it was still a traumatizing experience that speaks to power dynamics between men and women. What happened to me wasn't an isolated incident that I can easily brush off as "no big deal." It's a reflection of a larger cultural problem, where men control and feel entitled to women's bodies. Even in my adult life, I have had the kind of sex that scarred me at 17 with actual grown men, where I felt like it didn't even matter if I was there. Those experiences never affected me for as long as my teenage one did (thankfully), but they still got me thinking about our culture's warped views of sex and pleasure, and the way that men feel entitled to both of those things. No matter the expense.