I Didn't Fight, I Didn't Run, and I Didn't Freeze.
Trigger Warning: Sexual violence, Mental and Emotional Abuse
The recent Aziz Ansari story has brought more attention to cases of sexual violence that fall outside the clear victim-predator setup that most people use to understand sexual assault. Grace was on a date with Ansari when she began to feel pressured to engage in oral sex, which she did, and penetrative sex, which they didn’t do. A coerced yes isn’t a real yes, and they are more common than people tend to believe. Since Grace shared her story, numerous women have shared their own stories of feeling pressured to have sex by a date or a boyfriend: rape culture isn’t just a stranger attacking another stranger, it can be someone you know asking you dozens for sex, and because you don’t explicitly say no, he keeps trying despite your discomfort. Or if you do say no, he tries to “persuade” you to say yes. This behavior is normalized as flirting and date culture, but it’s behavior that leads to violence. It leads to victims who are told to dismiss their experiences as ‘bad dates,” and to heal themselves without support.
On October 10, 2017, Ronan Farrow, unleashed one of Hollywood's best kept open secrets. If this were any other time period, maybe the exposé wouldn't have left Harvey a begging mess. But in the era where terms such as 'rape culture' and 'intersectionality' are becoming common language. We are at least moving forward as a species in our capacity to look at rape and rape culture, in the broad dynamics of the socio-political and economic inequities of gender. Every time there is a hot-button sexual assault scandal, the pits of me start to bubble to the surface. The young girl that was victimized begins crawling up a shallow void left in me, forcing me to acknowledge her. I am not in denial of the traumas of my life, but instead, I struggle with whether or not I can own victimhood. I struggle with asserting to the young girl soaked in the sins of her abuser that she was wronged, that she had been done wrong. When women and femmes speak about their traumas regarding sexual assault, I so badly want to forge community with them and assert that this had happened to me too, but there is a disconnect. I prevent myself from doing so. I think about those victims/survivors as them, and then I think of myself as me.
Ronan's capture of Asia Argento's experience perfectly articulated what I had experience. Argento spoke about feeling obligated to attend an event where Harvey Weinstein would be in attendance. Feeling professionally obliged to show up, she recalls being invited to a hotel party where Weinstein would also be in attendance. Upon her arrival, she says, there was no party, just Weinstein. She says he asked her for a massage after emerging from the bathroom in a bathrobe. Farrow quotes Argento as saying "look, man, I am no fucking fool," tin response to Harvey's gesture. She recalls the experience in hindsight saying “but, looking back, I am a fucking fool. And I am still trying to come to grips with what happened.” That is precisely how I feel; I partly blame myself. A part of me wishes I had been more confident, more intuitive, more self-assured, but I wasn't. I was vulnerable, young and searching for a space that was away from my volatile and toxic home life. I ran right into the arms of the boy that would emotionally scar me for life and keep the young ghost of that girl locked in my body only appearing when triggered by similar acts of abuse.
Back in high school, I had such low self-esteem, it was heartbreaking. At home, I was dealing with being fully cognizant of my parent's financial burdens yet being young and kept in the dark. I had fears o economic insecurity, which I couldn't fully express because I was a child. I dealt with my parents' toxic marriage and the violent episodes they produced, often waking me from my sleep to try to protect my parents from themselves. To this day my body awakens before my conscious mind if I hear noises in the middle of the night and early mornings because those were the times when the fighting would occur. This was at the most crucial and vulnerable stage for any young adult, that delicate transition between childhood and adulthood. I even knew then what I know and have been diagnosed with now; I had depression and anxiety. My grades slipped, I was often the object of my mother's frustrations on top of being a black femme in the U.S. having to navigate a sense of self emotionally, physically and mentally. I was broken.
I was also a virgin, when most of my friends were not, or at least claimed not to have been. I felt a deep yearning to be wanted and loved, and I was so low that I wanted to take it without the romance. I couldn't even see myself worthy enough to even dream of 'the one.' I just needed to be wanted by someone. That's when I met X, he was tall, light-skinned, skinny, and what some might say handsome. He was somewhat known, not necessarily popular but not 'lame.' He showed interest in me after having courted one of my friends (I asked her if she was ok with me talking to X.) Before X, I hadn't ever even kissed someone let alone had sex. I knew I wanted to cross these two milestones off of my bucket list to give my existence validation. The more and more time we spent together the more, I see now, he got to see how weak I was, how much I felt I needed him. He purposefully made me fall in love [read: emotionally dependent.] He'd call me on the phone every night and talk to me for hours, allowing me to be open and vulnerable with him. We jokingly made bets on who would say 'I love you' first. I did because he was manipulating me the whole time. How do I know? Well, I continued to endure emotional, sexual and mental abuse from him for almost 5 years after we first met, and he'd tell me his tactics to cut me when the tactics themselves didn't work. Sometimes, oddly he'd confess his sins to me, not for me, but for him so he could find some sort of relief from carrying the trauma he'd inflicted on me and others. He never apologized, just...sort of owned it for himself when he felt low.
Our relationship was toxic; he would never go out with me in public although he went out with girls he would cheat on his girlfriend with. Fueling my insecurities of being hidden because I was not conventionally attractive, he'd make comments on how beautiful my friends were and what he'd do to them sexually in front of me, knowing I'd raise no objections. He'd belittle and cut me down and call me to lift him up when he was feeling low about himself. I remember one of the instances when I knew fully I did not want to engage in anything sexual. We were in his room on his bed; I was just enjoying being in his company and being away from home. He rolled over and moved on top of me to initiate sex. I said 'no' repeatedly and on the fourth or fifth time saying no, he got off and said 'I hate you,' hearing that, from him, reflexively changed my no, to 'ok.' He began to try to stimulate blood flow to my private area so that penetration wouldn't be as bad, but it didn't work, and it was painful when he began thrusting. I laid there and wished it'd be over. There was no emotion, no vulnerability, no care, no attention to me. I was there to make him feel better, and my body and I were disconnected. He got off, and I forget what happened next, but he was never loving. He sometimes just looked at me, as if to search for a reaction out of me. I think I disappointed him every time because my face was always tinted in uncertainty, confusion, and submission.
In Ronan's piece, Argento talks about how she stopped saying no and pretended to enjoy what was happening to her and her body. Ronan explains that "because she thought it was the only way the assault would end." In my mind, feigning pleasure, was my way of saving myself too. The recurring experiences of disingenuous and coerced 'yeses,' mental and emotional manipulation and power over me due to my vulnerability and his persistence in keeping me submissive and dependent on him clouded my vision of self and what was happening to me. 95% of the time sexual activity took place between X and I was not willing. Sexual activity would come happen to assert power over me. To let me know my body was his. There's been and still is a lot of confusion and uneasiness about whether or not I can wear to the label of victim/survivor because I didn't fight, I didn't run, and I didn't freeze. I feel in some ways I let it happen, why was I so weak?
One day I had just arrived and walked into X's house and two steps into the door he called me into his room to do what he wanted with me. I asked him afterward why he did that and his literal response was "something in me just tells me to 'fuck her.'" I just couldn't understand. It didn't even seem enjoyable for him. I wouldn't really know, I never looked into his eyes during these encounters, and he didn't care to look into mine. One of the most embarrassing moments was when his friend and I were having a passionate debate we both agreed that something X said didn't make sense. X targetted his anger towards me asking "you want to make me look stupid," I was so taken aback that he'd talk to me like this in front of the friend. X sat in the chair across from me, and everyone in the room, the friend, X's little brother, and I sat silent. A few moments later he called me into the room. I knew what was to happen, I became so accustomed and at that point understood it was about power. So I gave him me, I still felt the need to protect his ego at the expense of my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Although I was dependent and vulnerable, he was so broken to me. He was the one who needed healing even if that meant through breaking me further.
X and I had such an odd relationship; we'd call each other best friends. I knew his mother; I was a regular in that house. On occasion, there were moments not fueled by yielding power over me, but genuine intimacy, but those were rare. We were combative most of the time and got on each other's nerves readily. He would subtly call me ugly and tell me that his friends were embarrassed for him because he was messing with me. He'd feed every insecurity I told him, he abandoned me, not speaking to me for an entire year knowing how dependant on him he had made me. He instigated a fight between another one of his female friends and me. He did an array of things to hurt me and yet because I didn't fight, I didn't run, and I didn't freeze. I struggle with whether I can say "this happened to me too" when victims and survivors share their stories. Even though I went on to experience some of the classic symptoms of sexual trauma such as in increase in risky sexual behavior, promiscuity, repression of sex and anything related to sex, depression and low-self esteem, I still struggle. My story is long, layered and messy and falls outside of the narrow lines we draw to define rape and sexual trauma. But Argento's story helps gives with healing from what I experienced and hopefully one day providing the young girl that still lives inside me who is soaked in the sins of her abuser vindication.