It’s hard to write about this topic. It's hard to separate the truth of my experience with what others think ought to be true, to figure out where my responsibility departs from the responsibility of the men I've known, to figure out how to discuss this in a way that's easily accessible to anyone who might come across it.
Possibly a good analogy here would be the idea (and reality) of white privilege. It’s hard to recognize white privilege if you’re white because it’s such a part of your experience. You don’t notice it, and so you think it doesn’t exist. That’s kind of what it’s like when you’re a woman. You get so used to it, you don’t always see it. When I think about sexual predation and sexism and the rape culture, I have a hard time sorting it out. What’s normal? What’s sexist? And why are they so commonly the same thing?
Although I grew up Catholic and believed strongly that I shouldn’t have sex with someone that I wasn’t in love with, I wasn’t quite willing to commit myself to waiting for marriage. That seemed a long time in the future—and also like a bad idea. Test drive before you buy, and all that. But I wasn’t willing to rush into anything, and sex seemed like a really big deal.
In high school, I met this boy; we’ll call him Tommy (for his cologne, of course). He was really handsome, really smart, and really nice. We met at Model UN. I was part of the Russian delegation, and he was France. He had turned around to listen to something I said, and I saw him see me, double take, and then for the rest of the night, he would turn back around and just look at me with this goofy smile on his face. I was smitten. For the dinner break, he approached me. Would Russia be interested in joining France for dinner? Yes, of course, yes.
I was very attracted to him, and it became obvious he was attracted to me too. We started dating immediately.
I will admit to a certain immaturity. At 16 I had never kissed a boy, and for all that I devoured romance novels by the ton, I wasn’t super anxious to be physically involved. Sharing body fluids still had a certain yuck factor, and I was absolutely appalled at the idea of touching a penis. Even through the clothes. I think I can analyze myself now and say I was afraid of physical intimacy because it meant a certain loss of control, a lack of inhibition where someone else could see who and what I was on the inside when I myself didn’t even know. As a teenager, though, I just thought I was skittish.
But Tommy was patient, and when we kissed eventually it was fine. I guess it was fine, I don’t really remember it too clearly. A few months in, his parents went to Vegas for a weekend, and we had a small party at his house. There were three couples, us, the rest of France (Tommy’s best friend and girlfriend), and one of my best girlfriends and her boyfriend (France’s little brother). We hung out, then eventually separated to make out. It was at this party that I had my first dry humping experience. I lay still and let him do his thing.
I was excited. Not sexually excited, more like giddy. A handsome, smart, nice boy was turned on by me. I felt responsible for his erection and subsequent ejaculation and that made me feel good.
This is where it gets tricky for me, and I’m willing to bet, for other girls and women as well. I liked that Tommy was turned on by me. It felt powerful. I felt powerful. The problem is that every time we went on a date after that, he expected that I’d be okay with him humping my leg again. It was all right at first—like I said, I was thrilled someone wanted me—but my sexual education had focused on abstinence. No one had ever talked to me about the not-sex-sexual stuff that I might find myself involved in.
When I didn’t like our sexual activity any more, I didn’t know that I could say no to him. I didn’t know that I didn’t need a “good reason” to stop doing what I had been fine with before. I didn’t understand my being uncomfortable with it was a good enough reason. I’m not sure when I went from feeling powerful to feeling dirty. Feeling used. I do know that when I realized I felt that, when I realized I didn’t want him doing that to me anymore—because it had certainly stopped feeling like a mutual activity and begun feeling like something I endured—I didn’t think I had the right to say no. I had given him the okay before and now I felt like I had to continue saying yes. In more clichéd terms, I had made my bed.
At prom he had a run-in with a rich asshole who’d said I was hot, so hot that I’d never fuck Tommy. After prom, he drove us up to a deserted spot near my parents’ house. When I asked what we were doing up there, his response was that I had better know what we were doing up there. I sighed and put my seat back. I didn’t think I had a choice. After all, it wasn’t sex. He wasn’t “hurting” me. But he was angry at me while he did it, and I didn’t think it would ever be over.
It wasn’t too much longer after that that we broke up. I thought there was something wrong with me that I didn’t want to do that with him anymore. I thought I would go back to my guy friends, my safe guy friends who didn’t want anything from me, and just figure it out later.
A few years after that, when I was 18, I was at Books-A-Million doing some New Age reading. A man approached me, a fireman I knew because his station was around the corner from my father’s dojo. He was in his fifties. He greeted me and came over to see what I was doing. I was reading up on Virgos in an astrology book. He said that he was familiar with the book and that there was a section on romantic and sexual compatibility. He told me his sign and said we should see what our compatibility was. I stared at him a moment because I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly. When I kept staring, I managed to sputter that I was only 18. He shrugged and said age was just a number. Then he took the book from me, turned to the section, and began reading the section out loud. Evidently, the sex would be fantastic.
I sat there while he read the whole thing. I didn’t know how to stop him. I didn’t want to be rude. But I also couldn’t figure out why he was doing that to me. Why would he think he could talk to me like that, about that? When he finished, I said an awkward goodbye and slid out of the chair and went looking for my sister. She was shocked and infuriated and thought we should tell my father, but I was embarrassed and disgusted and just didn’t want to think about it. When the fireman would come by the dojo after that, I always made a point of being very busy with other students. Eventually, he disappeared.
I think my dad would have hit the roof if he knew about either situation. If I had told him about Tommy, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have also gotten into trouble—been on the receiving end of “Well, this can be what happens when you put yourself in that situation.” I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten any blame for the fireman. But what kind of recourse would there have been? Dad would have threatened to beat him up or shoot him, and I would still have been spending most of my waking hours at the dojo, just a few feet from that fire station.
For a long time, I really was naïve. I didn’t get the double entendres at lunch, and my guy friends would take great delight in explaining them to me. But I eventually discovered there was also a lot of fun to be had in continuing to “need” the jokes to be explained. I protected my perceived naiveté and soon found that in return it protected me from a lot of uncomfortable situations. If I could pretend I didn’t understand when a friend made an awkward pass, then I didn’t have to deal with it. I could continue our friendship without having to acknowledge the friend wanted more. This was my protection. I’ve had guy friends whom I love dearly tell me flat out that single men aren’t friends with single women they don’t want to have sex with. I, who grew up in a dojo, surrounded by men and boys, who would have considered my guy friends my best friends throughout most of high school, can think of no more than three I would have ever considered kissing, much less doing anything else with. If you don’t want to be in the friend zone, news flash, don’t be someone’s friend. But I digress.
Perhaps that was cowardly—pretending not to notice. Perhaps some of you reading this think it was mean. Someone complimented you by showing interest and you just pretended not to know! You’re a bitch. Well, maybe you’re right. But maybe not all attention is flattering. Maybe I don’t want every interaction with someone’s who claimed to be my friend saturated in significant glances and loaded innuendo. But maybe, more importantly, we don’t tell girls or show them that it’s okay to not return the feelings someone else has for them. We don’t tell girls that they don’t have to feel guilty if a situation is now awkward or a friendship now ruined. We don’t tell them that that’s not their fault. And we certainly don’t tell boys to back off when the answer’s been no in the past. There was a great piece in The Daily Beast about “perseverance” and how it’s okay to keep trying to get the girl even when she’s said no. Even when it’s weird and annoying. Or stalkerish.
You think, maybe, I’m being all woman-y about this? Are you thinking maybe girls should just realize all that on their own? Some do, I imagine. But I think a lot are like me. A lot are taught that you have to be polite, that you don’t argue, that you don’t complain. I’ll even go so far as to say women are taught not to inconvenience people; they’re taught to smooth over awkward situations, to never ever raise a fuss. We're told not to overreact. Don't make a mountain out of molehill. Gaslighting is something a lot of men use brilliantly, maybe even unconsciously, and it always puts the girl at fault.
I don’t think I’m the only woman who’s been in that situation. So what do you do? Is that the point you break up? Call the cops? I guess it depends on how badly you’ve been hurt. But at what point did we teach our boys, our men, that no means yes? At what point did we decide that people are not responsible for their actions?
I want to be clear here. In all 3 situations I experienced, I never felt like I was in danger. I never thought I was being attacked. I wasn’t afraid to be alone with any of those men, but that’s kind of my point. None of these situations is acceptable. Each of them made me feel less than and degraded. None of those men had any compunctions about doing what they did. And that’s not okay. I did not want these things to happen, but they did. And I had no tools to protect myself. These are the “little” things women are dealing with regularly. This rape culture can be a lot more subtle than a stranger putting a knife to a woman’s throat.
Yes, we know it’s #notallmen. But I dare you to shut up and ask your women friends, your wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers, daughters, aunts. Have a drink first if you need to--hell, pour them one too--then shut up, and ask them what their experiences are.
I guaran-damn-tee you that you’ll learn something you didn’t know. My father and brothers certainly don’t know about what I’ve written here. But you know what, my children will know. Because we should not be embarrassed to speak the truth of our experiences, and even if we are embarrassed, we should not allow that embarrassment to keep us from trying to change that culture.
No, not all men are like this. I married one who isn't like that, thank God. But the fact that Griffin is not this way is not an indicator that we don't need to talk about this. Griffin doesn't negate my prior experiences. He is his own experience. And not everyone has a Griffin or even knows a Griffin. Saying not all men are like this is to say that because not all people have cancer, we shouldn't look for the cure. We have a problem on our hands here. And we need the "not all men" to join the "yesallwomen" so we can suss out the root causes and heal. All of us.