On Sexual Assault, Rape Culture, And Navigating "Not Rape"

On Sexual Assault, Rape Culture, And Navigating "Not Rape"
 

This is a really strange post to start the year off with, but please, bear with me. I really struggled with whether or not to publish this. Even now, I'm not sure I'm making the right decision and I'm purposely publishing in the middle of the night in the hopes that by morning it will be buried under the weight of people's constantly updating social media feeds. But I've experience a confluence of events of sorts that has made this topic startlingly relevant in my life again, and even though I don't think I'm comfortable talking about this, I feel compelled to get the words down.

Last night I read a number of pieces on the topic of rape culture. On street harassment, the use of the word creepy to describe predatory men, and the "spidey-sense" that women have developed to detect them.

But before that, I had an old acquaintance (and intermittent hook-up) come over last week under the guise of "catching up", who then proceeded to flat out request a blow job. I turned him down. "Was I sure I didn't even want to lick the tip? Not even a little?" he asked. I gave him a minor talking to about not being a call girl and joked that he couldn't afford me even if I were. Lightening the mood you see. He asked my price.

I spent the rest of his visit visibly pissed; staunchly shrugging off his hugs and offers to massage me, hoping that he'd take the hint and leave. He did. And then I realized that this wasn't the first time he'd tried to coerce me into sexual activity.

But it was the first time I'd outright and unequivocally refused him.

And it was then I'd realized that even though I'd initially been upset with myself for "training him" to expect sex from me by hooking up with him sporadically in the past, it was he who had taught me to confuse his boundary pushing with flattery; his quick gropes and stolen kisses as compliments.

Of all the reading I did last night, the essay that prompted me to write this was Latoya Peterson's "The Not Rape Epidemic." In it she describes her Not Rape: a neighborhood boy forcing his way into her house, restraining her, and assaulting her. A few years later she discovered that her Not Rapist was involved in the brutal gang rape of another girl in the area.

 

"Yes, we learned a lot about rape. What we were not prepared for was everything else. Rape was something we could identify, an act with a strict definition and two distinct scenarios. Not rape was something else entirely."

"Not rape was all those other little things that we experienced everyday and struggled to learn how to deal with those situations. In those days, my ears were filled with secrets that were not my own, the confessions of not rapes experienced by the girls I knew then and the women I know now."

"[...] This wasn’t rape – it didn’t fit the definitions. This was Not rape. We should have known better. We were the ones who would take the blame. We would be punished, and no one wanted that. So, these actions went on, aided by a cloak of silence."

"[...] Not rape comes in many forms - it is often known by other names. What happened to me is called sexual assault. It is not the same as rape, but it is damaging and painful. My friends experienced statutory rape, molest[ation] and coercion."

And it bothered me how much I identified with that. Because then I thought back to this friend of mine and what he said to me last week. And then I remembered the time back in high school when we were out with our mutual group of friends and he offered to escort me to the bathroom, only to pull me into a corner and try to force me to touch his penis. I remembered how later that same night, he pulled me into an empty room and kissed me against my will. I remembered how when we were both back home on break during our freshman year of college, he tried to convince me to let him touch my breasts while I was drunk in the backseat of a car with him; on the way home from a club, and half-asleep.

I remembered that his last infraction was just the latest in a long line of bright red warning flags that he'd been pitching in my direction for YEARS, but I had never known enough to say something about.

Because I'd liked him. He was popular and good looking and smart, and in the age of MSN Messenger and raging hormones, we'd spent many nights as teenagers chatting long into the wee hours of the morning, commiserating about our shared battles with depression and loneliness. I identified with him, and his interest in me made me feel wanted and appreciated during a time when I had grown accustomed to playing second fiddle to my beautiful, more confident friends.

The thing is, something about our later sporadic hookups had always left me feeling empty. He never raped me. This I can say absolutely, for a fact. I was never uncertain about the fact that I was willfully choosing to consent to sex with him. But there was something about his manner that left me cold. The way he would play this game of trying to coax me into bed when we both knew he just wanted to fuck and be done with it. It was the pretense of the matter that irked me more than the actual sex. He always left immediately after.

And then I read these essays and it all came together. I realized why even though I still consider this person a friend; a friend who I'd willingly slept with on more than one occasion, my guard was already all the way up when he came over last week.

It's because I've finally learned to recognize his tactics. I'm finally able to see his feigned interest as the manipulation tactic that it is. I've finally learned to identify all the little Not Rapes that I've experienced with him and many of the other young men I've encountered since my breasts grew in at nine. It's because finding my feminism has finally given me the tools to inoculate myself against the little indignities that women are expected to bear in a society that perpetuates victim blaming and rape culture.

And I realized that the reason I found myself being propositioned like a whore in my own house by a person I'd known for just under a decade, was because I still haven't fully undone all the dangerous thinking that had gotten me there in the first place. I was still the 14-year-old ugly duckling of my social group who had twice as many stories of lewd older men catcalling and flashing me on the street than my more desirable friends. I was still the person who internalized damaging ideas about my worth as a black girl relative to my mostly white circle. I was still the girl who believed that any sexual attention was good attention; because what else did I deserve?

I jumped through a lot of mental hoops at the time. It didn't help that we both went to Catholic school. Because even when he made me uncomfortable, I know that part of me was flattered at the attention. I know that somewhere in the bowels of my brain, I thought his attention meant that I was desirable. He kept trying so that must mean he really wanted me right? And even though it usually meant physically prying his hands off of my body, he stopped pushing whenever I was adamant, didn't he? It was most definitely Not Rape.

But it was sexual assault. And I realized that he and I had bought into the idea that consent for one activity meant implied future consent as well.

We were both wrong.

I know that the situation with this friend as I've described it leaves me open to TONS of victim blaming, but to provide more exculpatory details on my end would be akin to naming him publicly. To strangers on the internet he's anonymous, but anyone who knows me personally likely already has a pretty good guess as to who I'm talking about. I don't want that. I just want to talk about my experience with this and parse through my feelings about it.

I try very hard not to publish things here that are too personal, especially now that I'm no longer completely anonymous, but something about this realization made me want to talk about it. There is no point to this other than for me to see it written down, so I apologize if it's not entirely coherent or comprehensive. But this... it's jarred me. No one likes being labelled a victim and it's unsettling to realize that something not okay happened to you without your realizing it. Even as I type this I waver about whether or not it is worth it to permanently attach my name to something of this nature when now more than ever before, the internet is forever. But words have always been where I've found my power, so I'm latching onto that.