A Note in My Litany

by Shaker Tess

[Trigger warning.]

I will give you a gift that was not given to me: You will know beforehand that Paul is abusive.

* * *

Mostly, I hang out in progressive circles, or places where the management is progressive. It was from one of these places (comprised of a forum and an IRC channel), where I was an established, vocal, byword sort of feminist, that my first-ever boyfriend, Paul, found me last winter. He approached me, saying he'd had a crush on me for a while, and I didn't see any reason not to date him.

Our relationship got us a lot of attention in our community, and I felt popular and wanted and happy. I didn't actually know him very well, but he seemed like a good, kind person—or everyone in my community treated him that way. Which meant that all I had to do was get to know him, and I'd learn to love him…

* * *

It is important to understand that I have depression, a disability. I live on my college campus, where I don't know anyone. As a consequence, the internet has been my main source of social interaction since term started last September. I use it to maintain my real life relationships with folks back home, and I found a couple of communities over the last year that provided new, internet-only, meaningful relationships.

If you ask my parents why I am on academic probation, they will tell you their diagnosis: I spend too much time on the internet, and as a result, I am not sleeping well, not going to class, not keeping good contact with family, and wasting the money I saved for college. (After flunking three of my four classes fall quarter, my financial aid was dropped, and not having a good reason with which I could appeal beyond "sometimes I can't get myself out of bed in the morning—or all day long," I have been paying full tuition for the year.)

They could be right. They don't know that I have depression, but I suppose they could still be right. It's possible that the support and escapism I find on the internet are preventing me from actually getting my life into shape, by sometimes making me feel loved and valued and calm—complacent.

* * *

We bought plane tickets for me to see him over spring break, and, in the meantime, we talked…

…about sex. He started talking sex almost right away. And I responded. He told me I was beautiful and sexy, and as a 5'6", 230 pound woman, that wasn't something I was used to hearing, and I really liked feeling beautiful.

But something didn't feel right about how we were going about it. What we did took the form of a call and response; I didn't have nearly as much sexual experience as he did (he was 21 to my 18); I didn't do much; I was done to. It started when he was in the mood and it ended when he orgasmed. Every time. I asked him about it and he said not to worry about it, that it would be different when we met.

This was something I blamed on my inexperience, but I didn't know where to turn to fix myself. I couldn't ask the members of my community whether it was a problem, because Paul was an important member of the community, and I didn't want to embarrass him.

So I continued to try to get to know him, thinking that familiarity would ease me. Unfortunately, conversation with Paul was difficult. It didn't come easily; it was like pulling teeth. I often had to pry and pry to get him to talk, or I would experience some feelings while we were together of him...sort of not taking me seriously in a putting-me-on-a-pedestal way, like when he insisted that even my zits were sexy. Or if I'd tell him about something that was stressing me out and he'd say "I'm sure everything will be fine." Which didn't seem very much like listening. I brought it up with him more than once, and he agreed, but not a lot seemed to change. The main exception was sex, which he was generally eager for, and when he was done, we would re-subside into mostly silence.

It was getting harder to pretend that his sexual attentions made me feel beautiful; instead, they were making me feel gross. I felt as though everything he did to me was for the purpose of making me ready to get him off.

A couple of times I said "no." Either I wasn't in the mood (we'd hardly said anything that day) or I felt like I was being so passive that I wasn't in control, and I panicked. He stopped and said it was fine…and then he didn't talk to me. His conversation went right back to being short and sparse. I felt awful every time. Once or twice I tried to avert him without saying no directly, simply changing the subject, and he responded by continuing to talk about sexual things from a slightly different angle. I had small panic attacks every time I had to say no after a while, and often I didn't, and then when he was done, we would say how much longer it was until my flight, and I would feel anxious and scared.

* * *

We talked on Skype one time. He had a cam and I had a mic. Inevitably, he turned the conversation to sex, and I thought "oh, drat, we were having such a good time."

Paul asked me if I wanted him to jack off on the cam for me to see. I didn't want him to. I paused for a second, and said "I don't know," only I must have said it too late, because he didn't hear, or he didn't listen, and he did it anyway, and I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my hands to my face and waited for it to be over…

When he was done I told him that I'd covered my eyes, but he didn't pick up on that either; he didn't respond; there was a bit of silence and he talked about something else.

What do you call cybersex that you didn't consent to?

* * *

Toward the end, I felt gross all the time. One time he msged me for sex, orgasmed, then left immediately to go see a movie. I felt like…I felt disgusting. I dreaded his attentions. And I was so confused why I should feel like that. It was just words on a screen, it was just the silly internet. It wasn't real.

I posted on the forums as much as I dared, in a section he didn't go, mentioning the problems I was having with the sex and saying that I didn't feel like he respected me, without naming his name (although the people who knew me would have known anyway), but hoping someone would see and care and contact me about it. No one did, but I did receive a private message from a teenager who also had a boyfriend in the community, and who was going through the same thing, and didn't know what to do about it, and asked me to let her know if I figured out a solution.

Here's how the relationship ended: Three weeks before I was supposed to go see him, I discovered that I had lost my passport. I searched for it; then attempted to get a new one. From day to day Paul went pretty wildly between two states of mind about it. He would either be totally sure that it was going to work out and refuse to even acknowledge my cautions that it might not, or he was utterly hopeless about not only the passport, but the future of our relationship and the potential for happiness in the rest of his life.

When I told Paul the trip we had planned wasn't going to work out, he broke up with me, saying he wasn't happy and couldn't handle the stress. My finals were that day and I was too drained to feel devastated, which I told him. I wasn't going to fight to keep him, because he was an adult and I respected his decision. I only asked him not to tell everyone, because I didn't want people to take sides.

"Sides?" he said. "What sides are there to take?"

"Just don't tell everyone," I said.

* * *

But it turned out that my lack of devastation was an affront to him. As the days passed I started to hear stories about myself back from people. "You admitted to never caring about the whole thing." "He told everyone that he broke up with you to escape your claws of callousness." "Admittedly my entire knowledge of the relationship comes from what Paul said…" "You didn't really lose your passport, you were just stalling…" "You didn't work hard enough to get your passport…"

He started leaving the chan whenever I entered, or entering the room and then leaving really fast when he saw I was there. When I was gone from the chan, he told the entire place that he hoped I'd get an incurable disease. He has publicly flirted with another woman by telling her that he'd never break her heart unless she turned out to be an "insane liar."

* * *

A couple of times, Paul said to me that he flirts a lot, in the context of "that won't bother you, will it sweetie?"

It wasn't until writing this post, when I was looking back on the logs and found yet another instance of him "flirting" with someone who clearly wasn't reciprocating, that I realized what was going on there.

Tiny anecdote: When I worked at my last job, one senior manager had an occasional habit of walking down the line of registers and grabbing, squeezing each bagger's neck as he passed. Blink and you missed it—he's gone! No time or chance given to react; you'd have to call him back to tell him to stop something that's already over, and who would want to cause that kind of trouble?

I've always known such men. They act inappropriately toward everyone, with smiles on their faces, and some number of people are comfortable with it, and some number of people are uncomfortable with it and say nothing. Then maybe there's you, who's uncomfortable with it and speaks up. Then these people—or the people who form their supportive structures—get to say it's your problem.

"No one else complained."

"You're ruining it for everyone."

"It's like a rule against being friendly."

"Why did you have to say something? Why couldn't you just let it be?"

Which is why most of us don't say anything when we're uncomfortable. That's how these people get away with their shit: they're riding on the backs of a thousand others like them who make hell for anyone who talks back.

* * *

Finally I was going too crazy to keep quiet, and I told one of my friends in the community, who reacted with support and comfort. Encouraged, I contacted several other people over the course of a few days.

I also tried to reach out by posting in the forum again, somewhere unobtrusive where I knew he didn't look, again not naming him, and again I got no response:
…I can't believe how long it took me to realize that "being nervous about when it was going to happen" and "waiting for it to be over" were really bad bad bad things.
He is a respected member of the community. I never heard anything against him before or during our relationship.

But upon reaching out in private, I found, unlooked for, other women who had been made to feel uncomfortable or intimidated by his behavior toward them.

I found a woman whose real-life sexual relationship with him still negatively affects her.
As far as sex related things: absolutely yes. I didn't actually fully realise it at the time, but it was completely about him. I'm glad you're a bit more aware of it than I was. I had a LOT of trouble at first with my current boyfriend remembering that it is not only about the guy, and that if something is not working for me, I can stop; I don't need to wait for him to be finished.

* * *

I have a strong grounding in feminism and a wealth of privilege propping me up. I have also been seriously abused by two people in my life. In other words, I have education, power, and experience. It still took hearing the stories from other women before I even thought the word "abuse."

Abuse, like rape, violence, and assault, are words that I tend to keep in glass, in case of emergency. I have told people stories of being touched on the nighttime street by drunken strangers, only to react negatively when they say "assault." What happened to me didn't hurt and was over in five seconds.

Or I will recount being thirteen years old and men throwing rocks at my sisters and I in broad daylight on a busy street, and I will look at those words, and think, "no, wait, it's not as bad as that makes it sound. I'm being misleading by describing exactly what happened because people reading it would conclude that these men assaulted us."

And assault is serious. And action should be taken on it. And what happened to me wasn't serious. It was just one of those things. There's more to assault.

Part of my personal journey has been attempting to realize that no, there isn't more to assault. (Some assaults are worse than others—I'd rather be grabbed at on the street for five seconds than beaten bloody. I don't want to compare what happened to me to what happened to anyone else. But the difference is of degree, not of type.)

There isn't more to abuse than what Paul did. There isn't more to nonconsent than that time he didn't wait for an answer, or didn't hear, or didn't listen. There isn't more to maltreatment than what he did. He did it to other women, and then he did it to me.

This conclusion was inescapable from the moment it found me. When I thought "abuse," I couldn't stop thinking it.

I had a series of realizations over several days, each of which shook me to my core. That he was a man who mistreats women. That if I had gone across the ocean to meet him, he would have raped me. I know this unshakably. That he had abused me without ever touching me.

Suddenly I knew why I felt—why I feel—so dirty inside. Why I feel humiliated when I think about our time together. Why I can't read our conversation logs and why I can't look at his face. Why I can't move on yet.

It makes too much sense not to be true. It is true. I know it.

The truth is a snare; you cannot have it without being caught…

* * *

My feminism didn't protect me. The community's feminism didn't protect me. Feminism is a product of the society it's created it in, so it makes perfect sense that a feminist community would provide the necessary social structures for a man who mistreats women to thrive and intimidate, and for the women to be silent.

It's nauseating, appalling, and deeply upsetting, but it makes perfect sense.

Welcome, Paul, to my litany. There was the boy in sixth grade who liked to stroke my back. There were the men who threw rocks, the customer in the parking lot who tried to get me over to his car, the drunk college boys who grabbed me at night. There was the senior manager who liked to squeeze my neck, and there were the boys in my drama club, and there were others.

And there was you.

It took hearing it from other women before I even thought the word "abuse."

So now other women are going to hear about it from me.

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