Hard to see we’re observing the world through shaded lenses, until we’re able to remove them. Didn’t know from an early age, I was being primed for a lifetime of sexual objectification. For example, waking up from nap time in preschool to several boys hovering, saying how sexy I looked in my sleep. Or that my male peers would often view me as little more than a piece of meat.
Earlier this week (as is often the case), I was the only woman on my work crew. While bending over to finish a task, I noticed my supervisor behind me, just standing there.
He said with a chuckle, “This is the best part of my job, right here.”
Wasn’t going to make waves about it. But for those of us who experience these sorts of subtle (and not-so-subtle) degrading comments on a regular basis, there’s no mistaking it: Our value, as determined by a prominent segment of society, is based on sex appeal. By the time we hit puberty, it’s instilled. If we aren’t using sexiness to make money (or get countless other perks in life), we’re missing out.
Yet at the same time, if we happen to have a lot of sex or – GASP – dare to get paid for it, we’re slut-shamed and demonized.
When I first decided to have sex, it was brief, lousy, and I went home feeling dirty. Whatever sex used to be, transformed. It’d all been a fairy tale, and I didn’t believe in those anymore. It was messy, hurt, and I wasn’t interested in doing it again, anytime soon. Next day, he decided to have sex with me for the second time, despite me shaking my head no, trying to squeeze my legs closed. I felt paralyzed for the few short minutes that it lasted, but it didn’t hit me that I’d been raped for quite some time.
Now I knew, sex was something that guys just took sometimes. Because they didn’t know how to stop and after relentless pestering and circumstantial variables… It could be near-impossible to say No. Even then, many guys took that as a challenge. It was years before I was able to recognize, THIS IS RAPE CULTURE. These were never scary strangers. Most often it was someone who I, on some level, trusted and liked. Were there times when I’d smiled or laughed nervously (a common mechanism for coping with fear and discomfort)? WHO GIVES A SH*T – THAT’S VICTIM BLAMING. No matter how polite a person is, or how good they look, or what parts of their body are exposed – it’s not okay to stick your dick (or any other object) inside them without a resounding and coherent Yes.
There are countless natural responses to sexual trauma. One may develop an uncanny ability to forget, because otherwise they would’ve jumped off a bridge a long time ago. Or a person can find the desired state of numbness in a perpetual cycle of self-medication and addiction. What helped me the most, long-term, was several years studying sociology and psychology in college.
But I wasn’t there yet.
Less than a year from when my sexual self-education began, I entered junior year at Grant. Several kids knew me there, some from middle school, others through a guy who I considered to be my best friend. We’d always had a plutonic relationship, so I was blindsided when I learned, he’d told everyone we’d been banging. We’d never even kissed! I remember confronting him. We were in the hall, surrounded by his clique.
“Tell them we didn’t have sex,” I demanded.
“But we did have sex,” He said, doubling down on the lie. Not even trying to stifle a laugh.
I was horrified. His friends made fun of me endlessly. I didn’t know what slut-shaming was. What was I supposed to do? Cry to a teacher? Please. After school, went straight to his house, hoping to have a talk with him. Tear-faced, I was greeted at the door by his mother. She didn’t have much to say, shrugging, “Boys will be boys.”
Another year down the road, I was pregnant. Violet was born when I was a senior at Grant High School. Did her dad rape me? No! He was never abusive in any way. Did my previous experience change the way I felt about sex, thereby leading to reckless, promiscuous behavior? There’s no easy way to untangle it.
Fast-forward/full-circle: My daughter is now a senior at Grant. The other day she brought home a cringe-inducing letter from a teacher, proclaiming Rape Culture doesn’t exist. I was lit.
I asked Violet, “Who’s seen this?”
She said, “GHS seniors have a groupchat going about it.”
I told her, “We should tweet the news.”
Sent a message to KATU, via twitter, “Are you aware of this letter given by a teacher to Grant students? Three rambling pages, attempting to disprove the existence of Rape Culture.”
Their reply was instant: “Are you a student at Grant? Or do you have a student who goes there? Anymore info you can give us on this?”
Soon as I’d connected them with Violet, they were on their way. Violet thought they were just coming to ask questions, until I told her she ought to get camera-ready. She did great! Letters poured in, pointing out the ways Mr. Lickey’s mansplaining diatribe was tone-deaf, hurtful and wrong. The most concise response I read was an essay, “On the Existence of Rape Culture,” by Eleanor Chin, from the National Organization for Women.
Violet said the students were planning to wear red and gather in front of the school, a demonstration showing solidarity with those who know about Rape Culture, because they’ve experienced it firsthand. Damn straight, I was going to be there.
At last Mr. Lickey, who’d been avoiding the media all weekend, had the wherewithal to admit he was wrong. We were relieved to see, even a teacher is still capable of learning.
Speaking of Learning Moments… Recently, I received a message from my rapist:
“Hello Audrey, it’s been 17 years! Glad to see you’re doing great!”
“Weird, I was just talking about you.”
“Really? With who?”
“It started with my daughter. We were having one of the sex talks, because a lot of her friends are losing their virginity right now. I told her, I was her age when I decided to lose mine, but the very next day he raped me. I know that’s a harsh word (probably because you have no idea you did anything wrong) but the first time we hooked up it was scary and hurt a lot. I was telling you No the second time, yet you pressured me into it anyway. I told my daughter SO MANY guys are pushy like that – an extremely common scenario. It can be easier to give in than to stand up for yourself. Sorry if this is out of left field, but I was literally talking about you a few minutes ago. I even pointed out the apartment where it happened. I think of it every time I pass by there, almost daily. What made you message me after all these years? And how spooky is this timing?!”
His reply: “I’m sorry that I didn’t make it easier, I do not remember pressuring you, but that is not saying it didn’t happen. I was young and pretty much living only for myself as unfortunately most young people do… This is no excuse for hurting you, and I truly am sorry for any pain I caused… I have a 5-year-old daughter now who is my life. I’m glad you can be there for your daughter and talk about these tough subjects. You are a great mom, and she lucky to have you! It is crazy timing though, sounds like synchronicity.”
A few things gleaned: Some monsters can be redeemed. Those were tough lessons, but I’ve no doubt, they are changed men. Even my rapist, who was unaware that he was raping, managed to find a path to light. Perhaps it took him having a daughter to realize, some things are not up for taking. Also on the bright side, there’s a multi-generational conversation that otherwise would not be happening. My mom, dad and countless others now have a better understanding of what Rape Culture is, why it’s a problem of epidemic proportions, and ways to counter its negative effects.
If only there were a way to get through to the misogynist trolls who’ve been flaming my pages ever since…