Lessons from the Rape Culture

by Shaker SugarLeigh

[Trigger warning.]

Lately I seem to have come to some uncomfortable realizations. In fact, I seem to be having a lot of those since my introduction to feminism. It was an awakening that has had some costs for me, but those have been far outweighed by the benefits. There are things I've literally been on medication for that are now more or less cured just by knowing I'm not always wrong, always bad, and a nutter on top of that for not being able to just get over it and be perfect already, sheesh, like everybody else, you cow, cunt, whore, idiot, cute little fluffheaded... meh, you get the idea.

There are a million ways to try to make a woman shut up. And they've all been used on me. Now suddenly I've been given the gift of those who are willing to listen and I barely know where to start. I'd like to start with what's done the most damage for me: Those "grey" areas of rape and sexual assault, that fog of misogynistic cultural narratives that is so "harmless." These are the real and serious effects of all that stuff everybody is always telling us is so trifling, that we're just "looking for things to get angry" over.

Because you know, the "Good Guys" do it too. We all do. After all, it's so easy, so hidden, so... well, harmless. It's confusing. Where is the line between coercion and rape? Is there a line? How clear is it? How bad is coercion, really? When your partner isn't sure they want sex, isn't it appropriate to coax? As long as they don't say no, it's okay, right?

I mean, I've never been raped. I just wanted to have that out there. To qualify. Because you know, I'm one of the lucky ones. I've led a fairly normal existence. Pretty privileged. Very sheltered. I've sown some wild oats, done some experimenting. I've been taken advantage of. I've been... men have not always treated me with respect. And I never even really understood that, until recently. I thought it was my fault. I was pretty messed up over some things, actually.

But it wasn't rape, okay? Okay. I'm glad we cleared that up.

And yet... well I'm a writer, and lately I'm writing a story where a woman is raped. I'm having a hard time with the villain. Not because he's hard to write. In fact, it's so easy to write him. The things he says flow like water, sometimes with voices attached, memories. People have said them. I did not make them up. His touch on paper is familiar to my skin. I've never been raped, but when he insists on a kiss and she gives in, I place his hand on her face, against her cheek, guiding her chin to meet him, because that's where it was when it was on mine. I've never been raped, but I can hear him soothing, cajoling, qualifying, pacifying. I've never been raped, but I feel the weight of being pinned down by a stronger body and I know what her face is doing. I feel the heavier weight of doubts, of fear, inability to resist, reluctance to say no. When he looms over her, an arm on each side, chests nearly touching, I raise her arm because mine remembers the impulse to create a barrier.

I think of my sexual history. I've had some great sex. Gotten some real enjoyment sharing my body happily with equally happy partners. As a sensual, spiritual, artistic woman, sex is a helluva high for me. But there are also other times. Other memories.

That place in between, where it feels good... but it doesn't. When I'm excited and I want it... but I'm intimidated and unsure too. Should I say no? Do I want to? Surely it's too late now, at any rate. Or what about "duty sex?" Going through the motions, smile here, moan there, pulling lines from a script and spitting them out so he thinks I'm into it but I'm miles away. Doesn't feel good anymore, maybe it hurts even, but sex isn't always good, and sometimes you gotta take one for the team, right? You don't just stop when you're in the middle of things. Once your clothes are off and his hands are on your breasts, it's kind of a foregone conclusion. Once he's in, you might as well stick it out.

My gods, this all sounds ridiculous. It's ludicrous. I can't believe I'm writing it. Did I really think those things, do those things? Was it... but it wasn't that bad. They didn't know there was anything wrong with what they were doing. I didn't even know there was. We blundered through the 101 of sex together, my partners and I, convinced we were performing the dance in the proper way. And I wanted... well, I wanted them to... or wanted them to be pleased? Wanted to do what was expected? Wanted to... what... what did I want?

None of this sounds right. Is any of this even real? I'm... I'm trying to remember. What did they say and do? What did I think and feel? What did I do? How did others react later, when I told them? Trying to remember...

~ My back is against the park bench, and it's cold. "It's okay... I just want a kiss." His arms are wrapped around me, pinning mine tight to my sides, and he tastes of cigarettes. It's wet and it's not a good kiss. But I'm not scared. I'm not comfortable, but that is familiar, and thus not intimidating. This isn't sexual, because arousal comes with that little twinge, I won't call it fear... the feeling of lost control. I am in control here. He's not aggressive. He's harmless. He means well. If he pushes it further, I can handle him. It's only a kiss. Don't make drama over it; he's not hurting you. Besides, you like kissing, right? And it's not like you've got a boyfriend, so you can kiss whomever you want. What's the big deal? "See? Good kisses." He says it as if he's showed me something. As if telling me to like it will make it so. I don't remember his name. We only met that night. I extracted myself from his presence as quickly as was polite and never spoke to him again.

~ We're newly dating; we're making out. It's good. I like the way he bites me on the neck, except he does it too hard sometimes, and when I say "Easy!" he laughs, and does it again. Now he's just kissing, gently, and I'm on fire, it feels so nice. His lips brush my collarbone. For some reason I cry out. I still don't know why. A gasped "No," almost a whisper. He chuckles into my throat, "So that's how you like it."

~ Dancing there was fine. Yes, that inch closer, that was fine too. This is not fine. The line has been breached, crossed, scuffed out of the dirt and spat upon. "No no no, don't run from your daddy." He's pulling me closer, his hands on my ass, grinding me hard into his erection. He moans into my ear, "Uhhh. That feels good." What? WHAT?! Did he really say that? What is he doing? His hands slide, my hips, my back, my shoulders, pulling, pushing, seeking to create union wherever I try to gain space. There's alcohol on his breath when he leans down to kiss me where my neck meets my shoulder. There is no romance in his touch. I'm stiff, pushing, silent, grim. My mind is calculating the length of time until the song ends against the possibility of running on a crowded dance floor. It's dark, smoky, there are flashing lights. But there are people everywhere. I search desperately for my friends; we agreed to help each other out; surely they'd step in? I know they're dancing together. I've seen her assert herself before, she can be pretty tough, and he's huge, intimidating. If one of them cuts in it would avoid the scene I'm fearing with minimal fuss. But they're nowhere to be found, and if I were successful in escaping his grasp, where would I go? I could run, but the club is small, if I really want to get away from him, I'd probably have to run out into the downtown evening alone. I stick it out, and when the song is over he lets me go, and I dash to find my friends, and she's asking "Are you okay?" They'd watched the whole thing. We left the club to avoid him, called it a night. It wasn't fun anymore. I must have been right not to take my reactions further. They didn't. It becomes an oft-told story, the clumsy attempts at seduction by a drunken flirt, the World's Worst Pickup Line. I tell it, and I laugh. And it's funny. Now.

~ I'm scared and angry in turns. My hand is throbbing where the object has struck. He is in darkness, disgrace. I will not give. I tell everyone what he's done. Loudly. Our friends begin to treat me with contempt. Aren't I being a baby. It's not fair to him. I'm taking it way out of proportion. I wasn't hurt, after all. Didn't even leave a bruise. And I'd been making him angry, what did I expect pushing it like that?

~ He's invited me to celebrate his birthday with him, last minute. I come; he's usually good for a mutual laugh. He spends most of the evening upset because I was the only one who showed. I try to remain sympathetic because I know it sucks to be ditched and let down, but I can't help feeling from the way he's talking like he doesn't particularly care that I'm there, only that the cool friends didn't show. After a crappy evening, we're walking to my car and he gropes me in the parking lot, grabbing my breast and then letting it go again, too quickly for me to protest. I feel confused and hurt. What am I to him? Some friend.

So many more. I am young, and, as I've mentioned, have lived rather sheltered, yet even my limited experiences could provide an entire book of anecdotes. Betrayed, let down, turned away from by those who should have been looking out for me. People who were supposed to be my friends, my family, people who were supposed to love me the most, people who were supposed to be The Good Guys. The ones from whom I learned the values that shaped how I interacted with those boys, boys any girl would have been comfortable taking home to the folks. And I did mostly the things that I thought were the right things, but after the fact I was always wrong. Moreover, I was now acting like a victim, and shouldn't I be ashamed of myself. Just... be quiet. Get over it. It's no big deal, after all.

Only it is a big deal. You know, I learned some of those behaviors myself. I'm ashamed to admit that. But it's true. Sure, I knew that being pressured made me feel kind of bad about sex... well, except that actually, I didn't know. I didn't know enough to realize it was pressuring. Every time I felt funny, I was informed I was being oversensitive. Therefore, all I had was a vague squicky feeling in regards to some of my sex life that had no real explanation. When something is so vague and formless, it's difficult to learn anything from it, so all I learned was that, oh, if I don't want it right then, it's up for negotiation, so, if he doesn't want it right then, that must also be true. Why then did he get so upset when I played the next part in the game and started coaxing and touching? Why did any resulting sexual liaisons end up being so unsatisfying? What was happening?

What was happening was that I was not being respected in my relationships, and I was, in turn, not respecting my partners. And we all thought we were doing just fine, except that we were kind of messed up—that's just how it is in these helter-skelter times. But the sex was great. Well, maybe. He usually thought it was greater than I did. Even the one I pressured too much, the one who showed me without knowing it that I'd learned to abuse.

And now I'm writing again, and I'm back in my story, and Nina (my character; I have called her Nina) has been given the thing I never had... never realized I had? Never used, at any rate, at least not effectively. Her voice. Stop. No. Help. I never said them. Well, sometimes there was no or stop, but not such that I was taken seriously. If I had said them again, more forcefully, louder, there was many a time he would have stopped. There were times I know it would have ended right there; perhaps he even would have been contrite, but for whatever reason, my lips would not or could not form the words. And there were other times... you know, as long as I was confused about my rights, or what I wanted, as long as he or I or both of us were able to create doubt, as long as I never expressed any desire not to continue, then I am able to tell you that I have never been raped. And I haven't. I've explored, I've learned things the hard way, I've sown wild oats, I've been vulnerable, been taken advantage of surely, but never raped.

I'd had a fight with my boyfriend, and he hadn't called me for more than a week. I was sure we were through. I was upset. My friend (with whom I'd had a few risqué encounters in a bygone time) invited me over to cheer me up. When I got there, he had just finished a workout, and was feeling amorous. I'd expected to watch a movie, cry a little, and maybe eat cookies, and was not really in the mood for making out. I told him I wasn't up for it. I probably sounded wishy-washy. I felt pretty apathetic about everything. He said okay, and we sat on the couch.

Suddenly he'd pulled his penis out of his pants and was masturbating, and I had no idea how on earth to react. He reached into my shirt. I felt numb. I didn't stop him. He pulled me on top of him, rubbed himself between my breasts. I didn't really know what to do, so almost on instinct I held them for him and thought "Good heavens, when is this going to be over?" Why was I playing along? Couldn't tell you. No clue, to this day. The guy was big and strong, but he was a pushover; if I'd said no again I'm sure he'd have stopped right there and been apologetic.

Finally it seemed to dawn on him that I wasn't into it and he let me up. I said, "Um, hey I know, let's take a shower." All I could think was I smelled like his sweat and it was horrible. We washed. He touched me. I went home. The next day he said he felt like he'd taken advantage of me. I agreed, told him I needed some space. I never talked to him again, though later when he added me as a friend on Facebook I accepted... I always felt guilty that I'd rejected his friendship over the incident. I mean, it was my own fault for not speaking up. Anymore, I'm not so sure.

When was it, exactly, that he'd realized he felt like he was taking advantage of me? Only after? Or during—or before…?

Once a boyfriend of mine told me there was no gray in rape because the woman should never stop fighting or hitting. I had no words to tell him how ridiculous that was, so I said nothing. I've sometimes regretted not at least trying, though with that particular boyfriend, trying to explain anything of that nature to him was rarely worth the resulting argument.

Nina (in my story) said a clear "No. Stop." Other than that, she was me, pushing, turning away, unsure, scared, but not fighting or hitting, because who wants to hit someone bigger than you? I can't back it up. I'm not a fighter. A hit is a challenge. Don't start a fight you can't win. That's stupid. I'm a pacifist, if I got in a fight I don't know what the hell I'd even do. No one has ever tried to rape me.

But he tried to rape Nina. She said "No. Stop." He kept going. What do you do when a push, a no, an "I am not comfortable with this" isn't respected? And how do you develop as a person, a lover, a social creature, how are your interactions affected and molded over time, when it happens again and again? For Nina, who received different messages, the solution to this quandary was to yell. But why call for help when you know no help will come? Why speak out when you know you will be silenced, blamed, just receive anger or indifference on top of whatever else has already occurred? At that point, why refuse? Why not ask for it even? At least then you're in charge. I have initiated sexual acts I was reluctant or even downright unhappy to perform. It felt more comfortable than the unknown and unspoken possibility, dim but compelling, of and if I don't...

Nina screams. She knows she doesn't deserve the treatment she's receiving. She trusts that she'll be believed and helped if someone answers her cries. Her friends weren't asked to come, this wasn't prearranged, but they put two and two together and didn't care if they hurt his feelings, they come, just in case, because the alternative, that Nina would be hurt, was not a risk they were willing to take, however small that risk. They pull him away. There is no blame, there is no scolding her, there is no accusation that she should have been able to handle the situation herself. They acknowledge a wrong has been done and support her. They don't make excuses for him. The friends I wish I'd had.

What has happened to me was not rape. But it was a culmination of attitudes and words and actions, and it was nurtured by family, friends, peers, teachers, media, a society at large in which I was not given an atmosphere that supported me standing up for myself. Why should I? Anyone else standing up for me was few and far between (I have some good friends too, but they can't make up for EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD I'VE BEEN IN CONTACT WITH). And it's not like you can point the lack of support out to them, because they will just respond that I should stand up for myself; what am I, a weakling? And then when I did stand up, I was a whiner, complaining, overreacting, overemotional, and the slut who asked for it. So if I'm always wrong anyway, why bother? And I stopped bothering. And I was ripe for the picking. And it's a color that so many men know how to see, and for which so few can resist reaching once they see it.

It's not gray. It's not nothing. It matters. It has real affects on real people. It takes its toll. I'm still struggling to find and use my own voice, to take mastery over my own body and self and feelings. Still trying to truly absorb the message that I matter, and how I am treated by others matters.

I've never been raped... but.

Oh, gods.

I feel sick.

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