I am seven years old. Strange women at the public pool touch my hair. They grab me and pull me out of the line to the concession stand. It is frightening and aggressive, but they only mean it as a compliment. I know this because strange people are always stopping me and touching my hair. Whether or not I want them to has never mattered.
I am ten. I am growing breasts, and boys in gym class stop whatever they’re doing to watch me run. I had been excited about my burgeoning body, but suddenly I’m not. Suddenly, it makes me nervous,
I am eleven. I am at Disney World. A strange woman stops me in a shop where I’m looking at little glass animal figurines. She tells me I have beautiful hair, then that I have beautiful eyes. Then she pulls a boy, much, much older than me, to her side, and tells me I should go with him. He looks embarrassed but hopeful. I know I should be flattered, I’m being told I am pretty, and pretty is not a way I often feel. But I don’t feel flattered. I feel singled out, threatened. I run away from the shop.
I am twelve years old. An older friend has invited me to a Halloween party. Most of the people going are older than her. “You know what would be funny?” she says, “You should go as Jailbait.” I don’t know what this means, but I agree. I wear a tiny little wiggle dress, and she tapes a sign to my back that says, “Jailbait.” Men in their twenties flirt with me, and I don’t understand what’s happening. My friend appears and tells them I’m twelve, some of them disappear. Not all. Though I know I am supposed to be flattered, I am not. I know I am playing a role in a joke that I don’t get.
I am thirteen. I wear a 34 D bra, and my classmates in middle school ogle me wherever I go. A boy stops me as I walk into my homeroom and asks me if I’m a lesbian. I don’t know what this means, and the way he says it I’m not sure he does either, but he says it to my chest instead of my face and I know it’s a judgment of my body. I say nothing.
I am fourteen. I am a freshman in high school. A friend, a sophomore, asks me to go to a party at a senior’s house because she’s nervous about going alone. I understand why. I understand a lot about adolescent male threats by now. I agree to go to the party, to help keep her safe, but she never shows up. I am incapacitated and raped. I believe this is my fault. Ten days later I try to kill myself.
I am sixteen. A man flashes me on the street. When I walk to the police station and attempt to report the flasher, the police threaten to arrest me for being out past curfew.
I am seventeen. I run into my older sister’s ex-boyfriend at a concert. He is in his twenties. We make out a little bit, and he follows me home. He moves into his car, living in front of my house, for the better part of a week. I continue to make out with him, but not because I really want to. I believe I have led him on and I am now obligated to keep making out with him. I don’t have sex with him, and I believe that if I do he’ll leave, which is what I want, but I also don’t want to have sex with him. He tells me he loves me, and I feel guilty, and I don’t know what to do. I blame myself for the whole situation, even though he is ten years older than me, and he has moved into his car in front of my parents’ house in a bid to have sex with me.
I am eighteen. I have moved away to art school. I am at my very first gallery opening, and the gallery owner leers at me, presses his body close to mine, pointedly stares at my chest and tells me, “I wasn’t no bottle baby.” I don’t go to gallery openings anymore. I realize this probably means the end of my ambitions to become a professional artist, and although it is not the only one, it is the culminating reason I drop out of art school.
I am nineteen. There are guys in my group of friends that the girls talk about in whispers. Guys, our friends, who grope girls in their sleep. The whispers increase. It’s more than groping. It’s impossible to know how much more because it is only spoken in whispers. Although the men in our group hear these whispers as well, they never call these predators out on their behavior. The predators still appear at parties, by invitation. They continue to molest their female “friends.”
I am twenty. I am beginning to understand that what happened to me when I was fourteen was rape. An old classmate from art school and I run into each other at a party and he asks me on a date. I don’t want to go out with him, but I feel like I have to. He is brilliant and funny and creative, but also depressed, prone to violent outbursts, and determined to discuss my trauma. He manipulates his way into my apartment and rapes me. When I refuse to speak to him again, he comes to my apartment and bangs on my door until I call the police. When the police arrive he is gone. They ask if I want to file a report. I do want to, but I don’t do it. I am afraid to tell the police he raped me, I am afraid of saying the word “rape,” I am afraid of having to face him, I am afraid of the knife he carries and what he might do with it if the police arrive at his door. I am afraid of having to tell my parents, about both assaults. And even though this time I know I have been raped, I still believe I am at fault because I must be at fault to have been raped twice. My assailant begins to stalk me. I awaken screaming every night, plagued with nightmares. I do not sleep a full night for over a year.
I am twenty-one. I am having my wisdom teeth extracted. I am under sedation and I begin to wake up. The dentist laughs as he administers more drugs, and the only things I am aware of are the dark, the pain, and the laughter. I am transported to the party seven years before where I was raped. I spend the next hours sobbing uncontrollably, unable to explain my overwhelming physical reaction. I am subsequently diagnosed with PTSD.
I am twenty-two. My second rapist is still stalking me. He is sending me death threats. I have moved. I have changed my phone and email. I have stopped leaving the house. He emails detailed stories about abducting me and skinning me alive. My boyfriend persuades me to go to the police, but the police tell me there is no crime. They tell me, “It sounds like a bad breakup.” They refuse to file the report which would allow me to get an order of protection. One officer offers to “scare him” at work, off the books, and I accept, knowing I am being granted the gift of male aggression to protect me from male aggression. The letters finally stop.
I am twenty-seven. I take my toddler twins to a public march against sexual violence. I begin to speak publicly about rape, about my own rapes, and about the need for social change. I also begin to receive regular anonymous rape and death threats.
I am twenty-eight. I am pregnant. I am in a class with a former colleague who once dragged me into HR mediation because they were bothered by the size of my breasts. I wear low-cut tops to class, a silent, “Fuck off.” My professor lectures while staring at my chest, and although the quality of my work does not change the grades he gives me begin to fall. I do not feel I can speak up. I want to finish the class and finally, finally, graduate from college. Although I have known for eighteen years that my breasts are neither my fault nor permission to mistreat me, I fear they excuse whatever reactions men have and I fear my pr0fessor’s retaliation if I complain. I say nothing.
I am twenty-nine. While out to dinner with a group of fellow moms a man leers at my chest, bending down until his nose is inches from my breasts. I confront him and he laughs at me. I confront his friends, who support him. I confront the hostess at the restaurant, who shrugs helplessly. I leave.
I am thirty. I am called for jury duty. It’s a rape case, and when I calmly answer the judge’s questions during jury selection, I am dismissed because I am a survivor of sexual assault. Everyone called for jury duty that day who have experienced sexual assault or who knows somebody who has experienced sexual assault is dismissed. Nobody is asked if they have ever been accused of sexual assault.
I am thirty-one. I tear my rotator cuff and require surgery and years of physical therapy. Four months into PT, I lay on a table and my therapist stretches my arm behind my back. I am in pain, and he and another therapist begin laughing at me. It is not intended to be unkind. It is supposed to be friendly laughter. But I am again transported to the party sixteen years earlier. The laughter of men breaks me. I have no idea how to speak up about the way medical professionals behave with patients, particularly female patients. I am afraid of male anger, male resentment, and male aggression.
I am thirty-two. A serial sexual predator becomes president.
I am thirty-four. A serial sexual predator is appointing a serial sexual predator to the Supreme Court. My PTSD is out of control. Nearly every woman I know is beside themselves.
Like every woman, I wake up each day knowing it may be the next day I add another story to the incomplete list I carry with me of my own dehumanization, my own oppression and exploitation. Like every woman, I calculate risk with every word I say. I am constantly censoring myself. I am constantly fighting with myself to give up the relative safety of silence.
I wake up each day and a serial sexual predator is still president. He is still pushing the appointment of a serial sexual predator to the Supreme Court. I wake up each day to another horror in the news, another rapist pleading guilty but set free, another man abusing women and getting away with it, another warning to shut up, to stay in my place, to sit on my hands and be grateful, grateful, because I don’t have it worse. Although I can’t help thinking it, I also know it is a threat. “Don’t act up, or you WILL have it worse.” I wake up each day and wonder if today will be the day I can’t take it anymore, that we can’t take it anymore, if today is the day women burn everything to the ground.
I am thirty-four years old, I am the mother of three daughters, and each day I wonder if they are more protected by my silence or my voice. Each day I wonder how many days have already been quietly added to their own list. Each day I wonder how many days they have left before their humanity is reduced to their cup size.
Each day I wake up, and a man who is credibly accused of raping a thirteen-year-old is president, and he is appointing a man credibly accused of attempting to rape a fifteen-year-old, and my fear of retaliation and aggression does not change. But each day my anger, the threat of flame and rage and destruction burns hotter in my chest.
Each day I wonder what it will take for men to fear my anger more than I fear theirs. I see them, closing ranks, protecting their own power, clinging to their own privilege. I see them, I see that they fear the indignant rage of women.
I know they do not fear it near enough.
Read more about living in rape culture here: Aziz Ansari and Passive Aggressive Rape Threats
Read my most recent post here: When Nowhere Is Safe
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