Guest post by FrabjousLinz (originally appeared at her LiveJournal)
(Trigger warning: this post talks about sexual assault and rape. It isn’t graphic, but be warned if you have triggering around this kind of discussion.)
I’ve been holding off on this post for a few weeks, what with one thing and another. It didn’t seem so extreme, in light of other stories. But I feel like we need to acknowledge that the less extreme offenses are still offenses. Being silent about them adds to rape culture. Shoutout to Rosie, Sid and the gang at makemeasammich.org.
I didn’t realize I was sexually assaulted for a long time. I wouldn’t have called it that. I didn’t call it anything, really, except for wrong and infuriating, until years later. I have been sexually assaulted besides that time; the kind that most people agree is assault – a stranger grabs my body in passing, because I’m a woman and to those people, my having a vagina means I’m available for fondling. No one disputes that as assault, although no one does anything about it, either. But this one I didn’t even recognize.
It was the first few weeks of college. I was, along with all the other freshman kids in my dorm and around the school, trying to figure out how this whole living without parents and with a bunch of strangers thing worked. All of us on our floor kept our room doors open, my roommate and I included, for large swaths of that first week. People wandered by to introduce themselves, hang out maybe. It was awkward and weird for me as a shy introvert desperately trying to be an extrovert and OK and not homesick and overwhelmed. Desperately trying to reinvent myself into someone everyone would think of as wonderful, witty, and fun. I can’t have been the only one who felt lost and weird and alone. I can’t have been the only one who just kept quiet in the face of constant socialization, even when I would rather have just told everyone to go away.
There were several people who made me very uncomfortable from the moment I met them. Most of them turned out to be harmless, if not people I wanted to be friends with. But one guy made me feel stupid and ashamed for everything about myself just as soon as he spoke, every time he spoke. He had a smug, certain look in his eyes that measured and found everything you did as a sexual come-on, and said so. The first time he came into our room, my roommate and I exchanged a lot of looks, but did and said little to discourage him. I remember I was sitting on the floor, eating a banana. He made a lot of comments about that. (He wasn’t the only one to do that, that year. To this day, I eat bananas by tearing off pieces one by one, instead of just biting it. I’ve gotten so I like the ripping noise and feel, but I started doing it because apparently women aren’t allowed to just eat a freaking piece of fruit without being told it’s all about sex.) I remember him touching my legs, which weren’t shaved, but it was still warm out, so I was wearing shorts. I was embarrassed about the stubble. I was irritated and nervous that he was touching me. I don’t remember when I told him enough, but I do remember I let him touch me for longer than I wanted to. Which was at all. I was trying to be a new, adventurous me. I was trying for urbane, sophisticated, raising my eyebrow at him instead of just jerking away and snarling. It didn’t work. I had to eventually tell him to just stop it. I remember he acted amused and sneering, like he was just testing me. His actions sent up many red flags, but I had put up with a lot of generalized sexual harassment in high school that wasn’t so dissimilar, from boys who were friends. I didn’t like that guy, but I didn’t make a fuss.
Sometime during the next few weeks, I was in another dorm room down the hall from mine with five or six other people, my roommate included. It was a girl’s room, but not everyone in there was female. The guy, the predator, burst into the room with us and threw me down onto the closest bed, dry humped me while I struggled. He was laughing, saying “Oh baby, Oh baby, yes, yes!” in a high pitched voice. It happened so fast, I barely registered he was in the room before he threw me. I flew like I’d been thrown from a merry-go-round. Once I was on the bed, he was on top of me so fast, blocking out the light, blocking out everyone else. I yelled. I thrashed. I could not move him: I was completely stuck. I couldn’t breathe because of his weight, because of the way he had me positioned. I couldn’t get any leverage to knee him or move my arms the way he held me down. I could feel his movement, his laughter, his breath. I couldn’t get him off of me, and my yelling “Stop it! Get off! GET OFF!” meant nothing to him. I was suddenly so angry that if I had had a weapon when he let me up, I would have used it. I am not a violent person, usually, but I felt such a wash of violence come over me like prickly heat: all nausea and sweat and fury. I wanted a knife and I wanted to stab him.
When he did let me up, I screamed, I hit him, I shrieked that he was never to touch me again, if he ever touched me again I would string him up by his balls, I would tear out his guts with a boat hook, I would flay him and leave him to be eaten by buzzards. (Yes, I did. I used to work on imaginative curses for my fiction, so I had these in my head already.) I kept hitting him and kicking him and screaming, which he at first took like “Hah, you’re crazy, what? Why are you mad? It was just a joke!” Looking to the room for confirmation of the joke, of my craziness, fending me off. Eventually he backed up, fled the room, calling me names. I followed him out into the hall, shrieking like mad, yelling anything and everything I could think of. His very large, also football player friends came up to me to block me, back me up, ask me “Why are you treating my friend like that?” I told them to tell their friend if he ever came near me again I would kill him, I would feed his eyeballs to snakes, I would remove his testicles with a rusty fork. I was not quiet. I did not stop screaming. I did back up, and retreated back to my room, still yelling.
The other people in the dorm room when this all happened? Stood there. They laughed when he laughed, laughed when he held me down. Laughed when I started hitting him. They then tried to get me to calm down. I ignored them. My roommate reported to me later that everyone thought I had overreacted, that I was crazy. I told her that I didn’t want to ever be near that guy again, and I didn’t care what everyone else thought. I lost some potential friends for that. I can’t regret it. Mostly we were just thrown together due to our being freshman and living in the same dorm, and while I was sad and felt a little isolated for a bit, I made other friends elsewhere later. But some of those people never really spoke to me again.
I learned a couple of things from this. When I get really angry, I am prone to violence. If you push me far enough, I will make a lot of noise. So much noise. I also learned that it doesn’t matter how much noise I make, how upset I am: most people will ignore me or try to shut me up. The important thing to them wasn’t that I was assaulted, and no one there would have called that assault. The important thing was that I was crazy. I was loud. I was untrustworthy in a gathering where someone might want to do something to me that I didn’t like. So I couldn’t be around those people.
Maybe that’s unfair – we were all very young and unsure. And it’s possible the laughter I heard was as unsure as the people – uncomfortable, trying to understand where the line is and failing. But I do think it was a failure that those people didn’t try to stop him, not so I noticed. And that when I quite reasonably lost my temper and my cool, and fought back, they said I was crazy. Overreacting. To being held down and dry humped like a sex doll, as though I weren’t a person at all. I have no doubt that if I had just taken it, laughed it off, most of them would have thought that I was a slut. That I was asking for it. If he had ever raped me later, and I hadn’t fought him then, during that first assault, they’d think, well, she probably liked it. I cannot regret that I am not friends with most of those people.
I hope that my shrieking and hitting shocked him. I’m glad it made him retreat. It may be that he didn’t want to escalate with an audience. It may be that the other football players talked him out of retaliating later. It may be that other issues stopped him from retaliating, which I know nothing about. I don’t remember ever speaking to him again. I must have avoided him from then on, because I don’t remember any further interaction at all. He didn’t live on my floor, although he had friends living next door to me. But dorms are small places, and I heard things. I know for a fact that that guy raped at least two women later that year. I know for a fact that one of those rapes went unreported. I know for a fact that guy was a predator, looking for prey. I refused to be quiet prey.
I don’t know exactly why he didn’t try again, but I’m glad he didn’t. I wonder if it’s because I was loud, and people saw it. I wonder if I just seemed like too much work. I do feel terrible for those other women. I hope they got help. I hope they know it wasn’t their fault. I admit to small, petty feelings of vindication when I heard I was right about him. I’m not particularly proud of that, but there’s a part of me that just wanted to shout “I was right!” to certain people. But those rapes weren’t about me, and I also admit to being so relieved I never saw him anymore. Mostly I felt awful they’d happened, and awful that it would probably happen again. I hoped he’d get caught, and stopped. It didn’t occur to me that I could have reported the assault. I didn’t even know it counted. Frankly, I doubt the police or campus police would have thought so, either. But I wish I’d reported it anyway.
It wasn’t until the last few years that I recognized what happened as assault. Because it’s not like I was injured or truly hurt, so it can’t have really been assault, could it? We are told, as women, that we should just expect that men will treat us as objects, treat us as subhuman, treat us as though we don’t have any agency or will. That a man can touch us, throw us around, and as long as he’s laughing, that it’s just how men are. (It’s also just how men are when they’re not laughing, but if you’re lucky, you might get to call that assault.) Men just dry hump struggling women on beds. Men just touch women who don’t want them to and make sexual comments about them, what they’d like to do with them. About fruit they’re eating. About clothes they’re wearing. Men just do that, so it’s normal. Assault isn’t normal, so what that can’t have been assault, right?
Wrong. That was assault. Do not accept that men do those things, because most men don’t. People should not do those things. Ever. We, meaning society, have to tell people that they don’t get to do those things, and they’ll be stopped if they do. So that when a predator does those things, we all know that person is a predator. So that young people know assault when they see it, when it happens to them. So it doesn’t happen to them.
We need to change this conversation.
Related on MMAS:
- A Brief History (the Bad Parts version)
- 10 Things Rape is Not
- Letter from Another Jane Doe
- Bree’s Story
PSA: Abusive commenters will be deleted and banned, so kindly piss off in advance. (Comment Policy)
I don’t like being touched. It’s a thing. That whole “three feet of personal space”? Me all over. Get too close and you may notice me inching away (if you pick up on social cues, that is). Unilaterally decide that you need to initiate physical contact, and you may notice my entire body tensing up. Seriously, just don’t do it.
This is not to say I don’t touch anyone ever. My best friend comes up and throws her arms around me at work, and this is welcome. She and I have built up that relationship, though. We didn’t behave that way when we first met. Physical contact is a form of intimacy, and I’m very protective of intimate interactions relating to my person. You don’t get to unilaterally decide we should share an intimate moment any more than I should unilaterally decide that. This is something we come to together, over time.
Some people don’t get that, though. Or they feel like they’re close enough friends with me that they should be able to touch me whenever they choose. They don’t get that even with my closest friends, I sometimes really need that three feet. I mean, really. I can get some really bad reactions, though. And honestly? Those bad reactions make me really uncomfortable.
The more you complain about not being able to touch me, the less I want you to touch me.
Super simple inverse relationship.
Anyway, I wanted to lay down some rules. You may have seen the image I made for Rosie on this topic. Most of those were best as short and snarky, though—when I got down to writing it all out, it turned out I really only had three rules
1. Don’t touch me.
Boom. Simple. No twists, no turns, just…don’t do it. This is especially perplexing with two groups: strangers and coworkers. I don’t understand how anyone thinks it’s okay to touch a person they do not know. I can’t even wrap my head around the thought process there.
Likewise, I don’t understand why you would ever think it was okay to walk up and touch your coworker. Two days in a row at work, I had two separate men come up and touch me—one rubbed my back and one reached around me as I sat at my desk to touch both my arms. Just…why? Why would you do that? (The former, I may as well note, was after no fewer than three years of conversations where I’ve explained to him that I don’t like to be touched. So, yanno…that’s festive.)
2. If I tell you not to touch me, don’t pout.
I had a coworker once who, when he got really close to explain something and I asked him to back up, would make these little irritated noises and say, “Okay…” in that “Whatever, Crazypants” voice. I don’t know what that even is except an attempt to tell me I was not allowed to have personal space and I was wrong for requesting it.
I am allowed personal space, by the way, and I’m not ever wrong for requesting it.
Not only is this juvenile, it’s attempted manipulation. Part of it, I think, is a defense mechanism—but it’s the kind of defense mechanism that places fault on the person exercising their boundaries. It’s an attempt to show them that they are wrong and should come around to the boundary-breaker’s point off view.
3. Don’t complain about not being able to touch me. Ever.
This is possibly the creepiest thing in the ENTIRE. WORLD. I walked in on such a conversation at work once. At work. I was coming back from I’m not sure where, and two (count them, two) of my coworkers were talking to my best friend, complaining about how they couldn’t touch me the way she could. Upon my arrival, they didn’t even try to deny the conversation—in fact, they turned their complaints directly to me. “Yeah,” one said, “I tried to hug you once and you almost jumped over the cubicle wall.”
“Well then don’t do that.”
It seemed like an obvious answer to me.
And yet they continued. On an on until I finally said, “Okay…I don’t feel like should have to apologize for where my boundaries are.” Because that was obviously what they wanted—for me to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry! No, please—come on, group hug! I didn’t mean it!” But no…I did mean it, I’ve always meant it, I still mean it.
This is the creepiest conversation I have ever walked in on, and I cannot begin to express how angry I was. I tried to tell my boss about it, but I was still so shaken, I don’t think it came across that I was trying to lodge a real complaint. I think it just sounded like I was relaying this funny thing that happened—but I sure as shit wasn’t laughing.
I’m writing this right now, and I’m getting angry all over again. You do not guilt other human beings into going beyond their comfort zones just because their comfort zones hurt your feelings. You are a grown-up. Fucking act like it.
I don’t mean to keep harping on rape culture, but honestly, this is part of it. This sense that just because Person A feels a certain way about Person B, then Person B must feel the same sort of intimacy toward Person A. That sort of thought process is what leads to the attitude of “Jane wouldn’t say no” and the assumption of rights to her body.
So there you go. Those are my rules. They may not apply to you, but they may apply to people in your life. Don’t just assume you have the right to touch anyone else, and if you must, watch for signals that your touch may not be welcome.
And seriously? Your feelings don’t trump anyone else’s comfort zone. Ever. Period.
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
All our shapes and patterns need to get together and figure this shit out. For serious.
Miriam Dobson has made this brilliant little infographic on intersectionality. Description beneath the image. If you liked it, you can find Miriam’s work here.
This is an infographic featuring text and descriptions
TITLE: INTERSECTIONALITY: A FUN GUIDE
1. A drawing of a triangle with a smiley face. The triangle is two shades of blue striped. A speech bubble comes from his mouth saying “Hi”. It is captioned “This is Bob”.
2. Caption: “Bob is a stripey blue triangle AND SHOULD BE PROUD.” Bob has a speech bubble saying “YAY ME”.
3. Caption: “SOME PEOPLE DO NOT LIKE BOB. BOB FACES OPPRESSION FOR BEING A TRIANGLE AND FOR HAVING STRIPES” Image of Bob with a sad face, positioned between stick figures holding a sign saying “Down with stripes” and another set of stick figures holding a sign saying “Down with triangles”.
4. Caption: “LUCKILY THERE ARE LIBERATION GROUPS!…
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Really, I ought to capitalize that: Asshole. Because that’s my name for you now. Used to be, when you popped into my head, I thought words like “love” and “sweetie” and “baby” and “honey.” Now, without even thinking about it and without my permission, I think–and say out loud every single time–“Asshole.” Or “Fucking Asshole.” Or “What a Fucking Asshole.”
I can’t believe I ever thought you were one of the Good Guys. That I ever thought you were my friend. I’m so sorry that I trusted you–that I didn’t retain some modicum of protection that might allow me to see you for who and what you really are. I can’t believe I let you hurt me–that you still have the power to hurt me.
I once told you I’d forgiven you. I really wanted that to be true. But it’s not. I can’t forgive you. I don’t know how. I know how to say the words, but not how to make them true. The last time I talked to you I told you how hard the week of our anniversary was for me, and you responded by ignoring me on that very day. Ignoring every attempt at communication and then claiming paralysis, and THEN whining about the unfairness of it all when I told you what an asshole you were. You just kept piling hurt upon hurt, but really, it didn’t matter. You had already done the unforgivable by doing everything you did and then leaving me alone to deal with it all by myself.
I truly hope you get better and cease to cause pain to every woman foolish enough to become involved with you. But my experience has taught me this:
You are a narcissist. You are a serial monogamist. You are a sex addict. You are a man who pretends to be good and then lies and cheats and hurts women over and over again. You are a man who believes you are entitled to have your needs met at the expense of other people. You are a man who has learned what he needs to say after he destroys a life (or several) that will make people see him as a good guy who just makes mistakes and never meant to hurt anyone even though you set out every single day for several months fully intending to lie to me, betray my trust in you, and fuck another woman behind my back in downtown hotel rooms while wondering aloud at home where all our money went. You are a liar and a cheater and you don’t know how to be a friend or a partner or even a good human being.
You are an Asshole.
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
There are times when I want to reblog everything The Belle Jar posts, but really you ought to just follow her. This is awesome and true. You are beautiful, and Dove doesn’t care, but I do. Anne does. Real people care and want you to know that you are amazing and unique and the best possible you that could ever exist. <3
Sometimes I feel like social media turns me into some kind of awful, gruesome caricature of a feminist. I spend waayyyy too much time jumping in on Facebook posts or tweets or blogs to explain why this specific thing, whatever it happens to be, is actually problematic. And I try not to do this, honest I do. I know that it’s annoying as fuck. I know that I come off like I’m Lisa Simpson except ten times worse and with more swears. I know that. I promise I do.
All of this is to explain why I have been so quiet and patient about Dove’s latest marketing campaign, Dove Real Beauty Sketches. I haven’t said anything about it. Nada. Zilch. Haven’t commented on anyone’s links, haven’t tweeted about it, haven’t even whispered darkly about it to myself when I’m alone at night and unlikely to offend anyone.
But then my…
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Trigger Warning for discussion of rape.
This post was originally part of Change the Conversation: A Day of Blogging About Sexual Assault (#pghSAAM) in April 2013. It has been edited since that time.
One of the most damaging rape culture myths facing us today is that of the prevalence of stranger-rape: that is, a stranger following the perfect victim down a dark street, pulling him/her into an alley, and raping him/her. Yes, it happens. I’m not denying that. But I am here to tell you, in case you weren’t aware, that it is the exception—not the rule.
I’m not here to talk statistics, however. While they’re very important when it comes to forming opinions based on factual information, the point of this exercise is to share my perspective. And my perspective is this:
I have been raped multiple times. Some of my rapes have been pooh-poohed by others due to the circumstances—these are the “gray-rape” scenarios. Others get a pass from those same folks because there was apparently sufficient force or lack of substance abuse involved for the responsibility to lie firmly in the lap of my rapists (my cup runneth over). My sexual abuse started when I was four and continued into adulthood. And not one single time did a scary stranger pull me into a dark place and rape me at knifepoint. Not one single time.
The same goes for nearly every survivor I have spoken to in my over half-a-century on this planet. Many have been raped. Many have experienced rape multiple times. But right now I can’t think of a single example of scary stranger rape of the kind rape culture tells us are hands-down, no-question, “legitimate” rape.
Date-rape. Acquaintance-rape. Passed-out-drunk-rape. Too-paralyzed-with-fear-to-resist-or speak-rape. You-didn’t-say-no-enough-times-rape. Making-out-and holy-shit-your-boyfriend’s-penis-somehow-found-its way-around-the-crotch-of-your-short-shorts-and-past-your-underwear-into-your-vagina-rape.
No scary strangers. No dark alleys.
And most rapes of the kinds described above go unreported because, like the woman in the last scenario I describe above, maybe you didn’t even realize it was rape because you never said anything and you even continued to date the guy, but when you think back and remember that night, you know you didn’t want or expect sex, and now you remember—why didn’t you remember this before?—that you burst into tears at that moment and he asked you what was wrong and you said, “Nothing.”
And it was still rape.
It kills me to realize how many are living with the very wrong belief that what happened to them wasn’t rape because it wasn’t perpetrated by a stranger with a knife in a dirty, dark alley behind a dumpster. When we perpetuate the myth that only forcible, stranger-rape is “legitimate” rape, we create a culture wherein victims are not only disbelieved, they disbelieve their own senses—their own inner knowledge that someone they know and trusted has violated them.
Rape is rape no matter where it happens. No matter who the rapist was to you in the moments before the rape occurred. Rape is rape even if your friend/lover/spouse didn’t set out to rape you. Rape is lack of consent. Period.
And I’m not going to shut up about it.
- Most Victims Know Their Attacker – National Institute of Justice
- Female Victims Of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 – Bureau of Justice Statistics
- Law and Order: SVU (Shakesville)
- #SAAM Facts: Arm Yourself (makemeasammich.org)
- I Am Jane Doe (makemeasammich.org)
PSA: Abusive commenters will be deleted and banned, so kindly piss off in advance. (Comment Policy)
Guest post by Ro
Note: Ro transitioned several years ago. However, she lived in an isolated setting and had no access to transportation. Late last year, she moved to a village and what follows is her incredible experience. (Originally published on Facebook.)
This is perhaps the most important post I have made on Facebook. Please read.
I am blessed with the best friends ever. What follows should stun you. In November, I moved to a very small village in Wales. When I got here, I didn’t know anyone. I would go down the pub and hang out. I wanted people to get to know me. For the most part, I would just sit there and nod and smile at people. However, I did meet two of the most amazing people I have ever known.I have known this couple for only two months now. Absolutely the nicest people I’ve met in Wales. They live very close to me. It’s one of those friendships where you feel like you’ve known them for years. They have known and supported my new gender identity since the first time I met them.The wife and and another female friend went with me to the pub when I first used the woman’s loo two weeks ago. They came as my support team. How cool is that?
I went back to the pub with the wife again last Thursday when I was told by the bartender that I couldn’t use the proper loo. Even though we had just met, my friend was outraged. She walked out of the pub with me and was so very concerned about how I was feeling. She knows me better than I know myself. I was sort of in shock and it took a few days to sort out my emotions. I posted about it here and got remarkable advice and support. Thank you!
She and her husband are boycotting the pub. How cool is that?
I met her, her husband and their 2 wonderful children at a different pub on Sunday. They told me they had been talking with their families and friends about what had happened. They made an offer that totally floored me.
They, their relatives and their friends have made an incredible offer: they want to go to the pub with me again. Not only are they going there to stand up for me, they are offering to go dressed in the clothing of their opposite gender.
Not only will the men dress as women and the women as men: they will go to the loo for the gender they present.
Let me repeat that: New friends, their family and friends (who I haven’t met) will not only support me in my legal right to use the appropriate loo, they will cross dress and use the appropriate loo. Most of them have never met me.
As soon as I was alone, I had a good type of cry. How do I deserve friends like this?
Again, I live in a sleepy little village where everyone knows everyone. A couple I only recently met, their friends and family (again, who I haven’t yet met) are willing to do this wonderful, amazing and brave thing.
I told them that I want to meet with the pub landlord first and discuss the issue. If he doesn’t agree to do the legal thing, I don’t know if I will take them up on their offer.
But, regardless, I stand taller and more confident that these amazing people are willing to stand with me.
I am blessed. I am amazed. I am lucky.
This is why we’re here people: to stand up for each other. I never thought I would meet such wonderful people.
I am grateful to them beyond words. And I am grateful to each of you who support me here on FB.
If others stand tall for me, I must stand tall as well.
Life has never been better. How cool is that?
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
Today my friend Anne is on the receiving end of all sorts of criticism for the post I shared with you yesterday in which she bravely considered a future when her son might cross a line despite her best efforts. You see, Anne realizes that even though her little boy is two years old now and loves his mother more than anything, one day he will experience–as we all do–a need to go his own way and take his cues from sources that do not love him with all their hearts and want him to be and have the absolute best.
I have known Anne less than a year, but in that time (in addition to getting to know her personally and coming to call her a friend) I have read many of her posts on The Belle Jar and have been at turns moved to tears, anger, nostalgia, a strong sense of simpatico, and fits of giggles. Her ability to bring herself–her personal stories–to her constant struggle to contribute to the greater good means that her work (on TBJ and elsewhere) reaches more and more people every day. And that means that in addition to the thousands of people who need her stories and words–either because they weren’t quite awake and she splashed their faces or because, like me, they’re out here fighting the same fight and desperately need the solidarity and ideas and perspectives and common vocabulary to do what we do–there are those who will tear her down.
Some of these people just don’t get it. Others are on a crusade to expose the evils of feminism. As for the former, I can only hope that some seed has been planted and germinates even now in the depths of their brains. But the latter? Allow me to submit that they are the true measure of the impact Anne is making. I don’t envy her the negative attention, the stress, the bad feels that I know even now are making it hard for her to do the important work she’s doing. But I, for one, want to say that I’m counting on Anne to take what strength she can from all of us who love her, love what she does, love her stories and her strength and her courage, and remember that what all of this means is that she’s doing something right.
And I’ve known that all along. <3
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
As always, The Belle Jar explores the questions facing us all with courage and strength. I learn so much from my fellow bloggers, and I’m so grateful. Each of our stories and voices are unique, and as long as we write from the heart like Anne does, I believe we’ll reach the people who need to hear them and encourage others to do the same.
[TRIGGER WARNING: rape, sexual assault]
When I was 22 years old, I went to a party at a coworker’s house. Between the alcohol and the intervening years, the night is mostly a blur of photos I saw the next day, but a few parts of the evening remain clear to me—particularly toward the end.
It was a party of the “we’re young enough to still be super excited about legally buying booze” variety, and I’m not even sure exactly who was there anymore. Toward the end of the night, though, I found myself in the garage with a few people—it was set up like an extra living room, with a rug, a lamp, and a couple couches. People slowly filtered out until it was me and two guys.
I’m sure they were both perfectly fine looking (I don’t remember), but I was particularly attracted to one of them. No idea what his name was or how old he was now—I knew him for maybe an hour out of my entire life—but I remember that I really wanted to make out with him. Not have sex with him. Just make out with him.
So three of us are in the garage. I forget the specifics of the conversation that led to this, but we were joking around and Other Guy asks some question like, “Why are you in still in the garage?” I said, “I’m waiting for you to leave.” It sounds mean, but I remember it not feeling mean in context, and we all laughed. I just don’t remember the context.
They exchanged a knowing look and Other Guy left. I got off my couch and went to sit at the edge of the couch where the guy I fancied was lying down. We started making out. Yay me, right? Then suddenly, I remembered—my obligation.
I’ve never had sex, see. To this day. I have reasons, but they’re irrelevant to this conversation. The point is that I knew I wasn’t “allowed” to kiss someone for too long without telling him we weren’t going to have sex, because otherwise he would get super pissed off (whoever he was). I prided myself on not being naïve, see. I prided myself on “not being stupid enough” to expect someone to respect my not wanting to have sex right that moment.
Let’s rephrase for just a second: I had already accepted that my role as “sexual partner of any kind” universally meant that I was expected to do whatever my “partner” wanted. I understood that I was a minority and a freak, so I felt it was my obligation to get it out of the way early.
I need to put this as plainly as possible: I was wrong on every count.
I sat up quickly and spat out, “We’re not going to have sex.”
The words hung in the air for a second, and he looked at me as though I’d said, “I like pie!”—not upset, not pleased, just…thrown. “Okay,” he said and, satisfied, we went back to making out.
Under a minute later, he was unbuttoning my pants.
I sat up again and pushed his hands away—we struggled gently for control of the button, and finally I refastened it and covered it with my hands. I looked up, and he was irritated.
“Just because we’re not having sex means you can’t take your pants off?”
My brain said, “Well…yeah,” but my mouth only stuttered. I finally managed to get out something like, “I don’t want to,” and he didn’t force it as such, but he was pissy as hell. And I believed that I deserved it, because I was the freak. I was the outlier. I remembered the look he and Other Guy had exchanged. They had both thought he’d be out in the garage getting laid. I had made them both believe that, and I had implied sex by wanting to be alone with a boy I thought was cute.
In case you’re just tuning in, let me be clear: I was wrong on every count.
But because he was now pissy as hell, I felt like I had to make it up to him. So I tried to make him not angry with me by going further than I actually felt comfortable—not very far, but definitely further than I’d wanted. And I felt ashamed.
I was ashamed that it made me uncomfortable.
Not that I was doing something that made me uncomfortable. The actual feeling of being uncomfortable shamed me.
I froze. The combination of discomfort and shame and the shame of being ashamed all spiraled together until I melted down and had a panic attack right there in the garage. I cried and apologized ten or twenty times before I ran out. He made no effort to pretend like he gave a shit about anything except the fact that I was no longer touching his body. I locked myself in the bathroom to collect myself—the house was dark with people sleeping on the floor scattered across two rooms. When the guy finally came out of the garage, Other Guy made a rude comment about how long I’d been in the bathroom (har har, asshole) and I just felt even more humiliated. I finally went to lie down on the floor in the other room. I wanted nothing more than to go home, but I was in no shape to drive.
After lying there for at least an hour, though, I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep. I didn’t want to see him in the morning, and what if he came over to me during the night?
I say night, but it was 4 a.m. when I finally walked out the door and crawled into my Jeep. I should not have been on the road. My last drink had been hours ago and I lived nearby, but neither of those are the point. I was too drunk to drive.
But that’s the choice. Stay in a house where I was deeply uncomfortable on a number of levels (some part of me was aware how aggressive he’d been, but I was too busy blaming myself to properly acknowledge it), or don’t stay in the house and risk driving home. (And yes, now I understand the concept of getting a cab, but I was 22 and lived in Southern California—hell, what’s a cab?)
I wonder sometimes—if I’d been more sexually active at 22, would things have turned out differently? To be clear, I am in no way making comment on anyone else’s life choices—those are your own, just as mine are my own. But for me, personally, I wonder if he would have pushed harder if I hadn’t blurted out that sex wasn’t an option. I wonder if I would have been too afraid to stop him from unbuttoning my pants. If I had already had sex, I think I was just insecure enough that I would have wanted him to think I was cool…by not protesting.
This knowledge scares me. Because I shouldn’t have had to stop someone from trying to remove my clothing. Forcefully stop, actually. I should never have had to answer a question like, “Just because we aren’t having sex means you can’t take your pants off?” Because honestly, what the fuck kind of question is that? If that’s not blatant manipulation, then I need to re-up my Merriam-Webster subscription.
The night I didn’t get raped came down to luck. It was nothing I did or didn’t do—I was so insecure at 22, I barely did what I did. It shouldn’t have had to come down to luck. I shouldn’t have had to push someone’s hands away from my pants once, let alone multiple times. I shouldn’t have had to struggle for control of my clothing.
I was lucky. So many women are not. And this, folks? This is rape culture.
This is our culture.
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
Last fall  when the GOP was falling all over itself to determine who in their ranks could make the most asinine comment revealing their ignorance about rape and biology and pretty much everything, Soraya Chemaly wrote this article on HuffPo reminding us of some very relevant (sourced) facts re: rape. I’ve chosen a few I think are particularly interesting/topical/important/timely to explore a bit. (See the above article for additional sources.)
Most Rapes Go Unreported
Many, many survivors do not report their rapes. The Department of Justice estimates that fewer than 50% of rapes are reported each year, and gives a low estimate of 300,000 yearly rapes nationwide. The Center for Disease Control has placed their high estimate at 1.3 million. I’m inclined to go with the higher number since, of my rapes, I’ve reported fewer than 50% myself (only one went to arrest/prosecution), and none of the many cases of child molestation (some of which were absolutely rape or attempted rape, and yet see how I still make a distinction) were ever reported to the police.
Most Rapists Never Serve Time
The statistic says that 97% of rapists never serve time. That’s based on the following from RAINN:
Of the 46 rapes (out of this statistical 100) that are reported, only 12 of those reports lead to an arrest. Let’s think about that for a moment:
In 34 out of 46 instances, when a rape victim files a police report regarding his/her rape, the police don’t even bother to make an arrest.
Consider that statistics have also shown that most rapes are not, in fact, stranger rapes, but are committed by someone the victim knows. And then remember the hundreds of thousands of rape kits that sit untested on shelves in police department evidence lockers across the US (one of mine in Dallas, TX). Because prosecuting rape is clearly not a priority in this country.
From Wikipedia via the National Institute of Justice:
“18 percent of unsolved alleged sexual assaults that occurred from 2002 to 2007 contained forensic evidence that was still in police custody (not submitted to a crime lab for analysis)”; 2) One major challenge is that 43% of law enforcement agencies “do not have a computerized system for tracking forensic evidence, either in their inventory or after it is sent to the crime lab”; 3) On average, 50–60% of kits test positive for biological material that does not belong to the victim; 4) Survey responses indicated that there may be some misunderstanding of the value of biological evidence. 44% of the law enforcement agencies said that one of the reasons they did not send evidence to the lab was that a suspect had not been identified. 15% said that they did not submit evidence because “analysis had not been requested by a prosecutor.”
So, we don’t bother testing rape kits if no one asks us to, or because we haven’t identified a suspect. Wait, I watch cop shows—isn’t DNA one of the ways cops ID suspects who have raped before? Oh, for that to work they’d need to test even more rape kits, and in this country, we’re way too busy with the war on medical marijuana to worry about justice for rape survivors.
32,000 Women Become Pregnant Resulting from Rape Each Year
That’s right, Todd Akin: According to the National Institute of Health, rape results in 32,000 pregnancies yearly. In fact, in a 2003 study, scientists found that pregnancy occurs twice as often as a result of rape than of consensual sex.
Our analysis suggests that per-incident rape-pregnancy rates exceed per-incident consensual pregnancy rates by a sizable margin, even before adjusting for the use of relevant forms of birth control.
And yet, right-wing politicians who think their hearts are in the right places believe it’s perfectly ok to restrict Plan B, the “morning after” pill to “emergency rapes.” You know, those stranger rapes that happen more often on television than they do in real life. Thanks, GOP.
In 31 of these United States, Rapists Have Parental Rights
Imagine for a moment that you’re a woman who has survived rape and become pregnant. Should you desire an abortion, 24 states require a waiting period. Should you decide to keep the child, the rapist can sue for parental rights in 31. This is a nightmare I can’t even bring myself to imagine for more than a moment. And yet thousands of women face this in our country each year–hundreds of thousands live with it even as I write.
Here’s a handy graphic from Huffington Post showing how each state rates when it comes to laws regarding pregnancy resulting from rape:
Most Military Rapes Go Unreported
The Pentagon estimates that in the US Armed Forces, 80-90% of rapes go unreported. In 2011, 16,500 rapes were reported. I’ll let you do the math. Estimates place the number of male rape survivors in the military at anywhere from 8-37%—much higher than in civilian life (but possibly lower than in the prison system, depending on who you ask).
Also, I’m going to quote this one directly from the list:
I have no words for how fucked up that is. <—Except those ones.
Prison is a Rape Culture All Its Own
It is estimated by some that prison rape is one of the most underreported forms of rape. Some will tell you that when it comes to rape culture, prison has the outside world beat hands down. Personally, I don’t see it as a competition, but I am well-aware (as are most of us, I think) that prison rape is a huge problem not only in our prisons, but for our society. Our “correctional system” breaks people and then releases them back into the world where they’re completely unequipped to survive and thrive. At least 20% of prison inmates experience rape, and if you’re LGBT, your chances increase significantly.
From the Bureau of Justice Statistics:
- An estimated 4.4% of prison inmates and 3.1% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in the past 12 months or since admission to the facility, if less than 12 months.
- Female inmates in prison (4.7%) or jail (3.1%) were more than twice as likely as male inmates in prison (1.9%) or jail (1.3%) to report experiencing inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization.
- Among inmates who reported inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization, 13% of male prison inmates and 19% of male jail inmates said they were victimized within the first 24 hours after admission, compared to 4% of female inmates in prison and jail.
- Among heterosexual state and federal prisoners, an estimated 1.3% reported being sexually victimized by another inmate, and 2.5% reported being victimized by staff (table 8). In contrast, among prison inmates with a sexual orientation
other than heterosexual (including bisexual, homosexual, gay or lesbian, or other), 11.2% reported being sexually victimized by another inmate, and 6.6% reported being sexually victimized by staff.
- Similar differences were reported among jail inmates, with heterosexual inmates reporting lower rates of inmate-on-inmate victimization (1.1%) and staff sexual misconduct (1.9%) than nonheterosexual inmates (7.2% and 3.5%, respectively).
Rape as a Weapon of War
Again, I’m going to take these directly from the list. These numbers serve as a startling reminder that rape—especially male-on-female rape—is and has always been considered a good way to humiliate your enemy and reward the troops for a job well done.
- Number of rapes noted in commonly used World War II statistics: 0
- Number of rapes of WWII concentration camp inmates: Untallied millions
- Number of rapes of German women by Russian soldiers at the end of WWII: between 1m and 2m
- Number of women raped in 1990s Bosnian conflict: 60,000+
- Number of women raped per hour in Congo during war: 48
Actions vs. Words
The above only scratches the surface. There is so much work to be done. A reader commented today on Always Aware that we need less talk and more action. I’m in total agreement, and yet I feel paralyzed in the face of all this to do anything but read and learn and write and discuss and try to understand what it is that will turn our culture around—to understand what actions I can take out in the world to make real change.
I’m planning a road-trip sometime in the future, and I’d like it to be a thing of action and not just words. I’ll be thinking more about what that means, but if you’ve got any suggestions, please let me know.
- Most Victims Know Their Attacker – National Institute of Justice
- Female Victims Of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 – Bureau of Justice Statistics
- Rape-related pregnancy: estimates and descriptive characteristics from a national sample of women – National Library of Medicine
- Sexual Victimization In Prisons And Jails Reported By Inmates, 2008-09 – Bureau of Justice Statistics
On the Web:
- Why I Won’t Publish Your Comments About False Rape Accusations – Rethink the Rant
- Is the United States the only country where more men are raped every year than women? – Feministe
- Sexual Assaults on Female Soldiers: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – TIME
- Always Aware: Keeping Our Eye on the Meaning of SAAM – The Sin City Siren
- A Brief History (the Bad Parts version)
- Always Aware
- I Am Jane Doe
- Letter from Another Jane Doe
- Bree’s Story
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
The Sin City Siren joins the #Always#Aware campaign for #SAAM. Yeah, feminist blogging collaborations are awesome. This one has evolved with feedback from readers, which is even better (working to clarify the message). Your feedback and participation are welcome. <3
I love feminist blogging collaborations! It’s why I participate in so many blog carnivals and feminist tweetchats — to hang out with other feminists! Well, not so much hang out, as type with them. But, you know what I mean.
As Rosie explains in this post, the point of the #AlwaysAware campaign is to highlight the need for awareness and education. But it’s not about making another campaign that puts the onus on victims. It’s about exposing the ever-present-threat-experience of rape culture. We live in a society that sets up a misogynistic, false-binary system of oppression of “people to-be-raped” and “people who are rapists.”
Here, I’ll let her explain:
The point is that (most)…
View original post 180 more words
Guest post by Sara
Sara asked me to help her share this story of coming to terms with who she is and how she feels about the way the world treats her. More about Sara at the bottom of the article.
From a very young age, I remember being subjected to the idea that I needed a man to “rescue me”, to “make me complete”. We are shown Disney movies in which the princess needs to be rescued, comedies where the leading lady is doing everything she can to nab a man, and movies in which women are portrayed as “lacking” if they aren’t married to a man.
So while I’ve been conditioned my whole life to believe I need “rescuing” and that my life is not full unless I’m sharing it with a man, is there any wonder I’ve hesitated to name myself as gay?
Is it any wonder that I’ve spent my dating life cycling through men, trying to find the one that would fit, yet never been able to be fully happy?
The feelings I had towards women were shameful and disgraceful, according to my religion, my parents, and even society. I wasn’t allowed to be attracted to women. I wasn’t allowed to act on those feelings. I was expected to grow up, get married (to a man of course), and pop out babies.
Yet at the age of 16, I couldn’t deny the attraction to women any longer. I started telling people I was bisexual, because that seemed to cause less revulsion than stating I was actually gay. I truly thought this was the truth at the time, and for many years afterwards, because I believed I was attracted to men. There may even have been a period in my life where I was attracted to men, just not sexually. I just went along with the gender paradigm and did what was expected of me.
I can honestly say that I still find some men attractive. Don’t get me wrong, I do. But as soon as I remember they have a penis hidden beneath their clothes, that’s it. I’m out. I just can’t do it anymore.
I can’t stand feeling disgusted, dirty, and guilty after sexual encounters with men. I can’t stand feeling this way even during these encounters, which happens a lot more often these days.
I can’t deny who I am any longer.
I. Am. Gay.
But, it’s come to my attention that I’m not gay enough for some people.
Let that statement sink into your brains for a few minutes there, folks.
I’m not gay enough.
When I had identified myself as a bisexual woman, I felt like I never really had a place. I wasn’t straight enough to be straight, and now I’m not gay enough to be gay. What the hell?
So, because I’ve had long term relationships with men, instead of women, I am not a viable prospective mate for a lesbian. I’ve been told that they would be too worried that I’m just “going through a phase” and would eventually leave and go back to a man.
It doesn’t seem to matter that during every sexual encounter I’ve ever had with a man, I’ve been picturing a woman so that I could get through it.
Oh, you’ve been raped? Abused? Molested? I don’t want to date someone who’s choosing women just because she hates or is sick of men.
You know what? I’m not sick of men. I also don’t hate men. I’m just not sexually attracted to them. The thought of having sex with a member of the opposite sex literally causes me the most horrendous anxiety attacks.
I’ve been told that early sexual trauma can cause homosexuality. I don’t know how true that is. What about the men who were molested by other men when they were little? Does it make sense that they would choose to be attracted to the same gender that caused them so much heartache? In my case sure, maybe it makes sense. After all the horrific sexual abuses that were perpetrated on me, maybe I do feel safer with my own gender. Maybe that is why I am more attracted, sexually, to women.
I certainly don’t feel like I had a choice in my attraction to my gender. But I’ve stuck with men for all my serious relationships, because I was conditioned to believe that it was expected, nay, required of me. I wanted to get married and raise a family, and God forbid I try to do that with a woman!
So I stuck with what I knew: Men. Even though I wasn’t attracted to them sexually. Even though I had to close my eyes and picture a woman every time I had sex. Even though by doing this, I was shutting away a very large part of myself in the process, and causing problems in my relationships.
I remember actually saying the words to my first long-term ex, “I think I might actually be gay.” I can’t say that I remember his reaction to that, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a positive one.
But finally, I’m ready to admit the truth. No matter how much easier it would be for me to be straight, no matter how much I wish I could be straight, I’m not.
I. Am. Gay.
I brought it up at a very small prayer meeting the other night with a few other women and my pastor. They were so loving and supportive, and told me that they will love and accept me no matter what. That means so much to me.
I got the strength that same night to finally admit it to my husband. He was shell-shocked and very discouraged, but he didn’t get angry with me, and he didn’t say that he hated me. He did say that he wished I knew this 4 years ago before we met, or at least 2 years ago before we got married. I feel badly because I know this is hard for him, he doesn’t know how to handle everything, and I wish I could somehow make it easier on him.
But then on my way in to work this morning, I remembered these conversations I’d had with openly gay women in the past, and it bothered me. A lot. Which is why I’m writing this.
You don’t have the right to judge me just because I’ve always dated men.
You don’t have the right to tell me that I’m not gay, or that I’m not gay enough.
You don’t know my story, and it’s not fair for you to jump to conclusions about me before you do.
Hasn’t the gay community suffered enough from discrimination? Why would you want to put me through the same things that others have put you through? I deserve to be loved and accepted too, flaws and all, just as I would do for you.
But if I’m not gay enough for you, then maybe you’re just too narrow-minded for me.
I work for a game company. Of late, I’ve taken issue with some of the content we’re receiving, and I’ve been everything but quiet about it. I’ve written letters to management and blatantly refused to work on it. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably heard me talk about it.
I was actually the second person on our team of three to get up in arms about it. The first was my boss (we’ll call him Joe for ease of storytelling)—the only male on our team. Joe was far and away the angriest person in the building about it—up until the day he quit over it. Before he quit, though, Joe made plenty of noise about it himself. We were deep into this discussion before we realized the higher-ups thought he’d been raising such a fuss on behalf of his team, comprising two females.
I spoke to HR about the content a few days later, and many aspects of my most recent letter came up. As we spoke, however, I discovered that everyone assumed my female coworker and I were the truly upset folks—despite the fact that Joe never implied a single thing to that end. When I corrected HR, she was shocked. “Joe??”
She said he needed to tell the company how he felt about this content. As a man.
Yes, he was my boss, and had she said “as a manager,” that’d be a whole different story. But those weren’t the words, and that wasn’t the intent. He had written numerous emails, attended a number of meetings, and made his feelings very plainly known, but the whole time, management assumed he was batting for us—myself and my female coworker. His words would have inherently carried more weight if he had made it clear that he had been speaking for himself as a man rather than speaking for two women.
So here’s what I can discern from this:
- The automatic assumption is that a man simply wouldn’t disagree with this content; therefore, he must be speaking for a woman.
- When the assumption was that he spoke on behalf on two women, his words carried almost no weight.
- Were he to speak explicitly for himself as a man, the words would carry significantly more weight than when he was thought to be speaking for two women.
At the end of the day, when his resignation letter made it clear exactly who he was speaking for, the content still went through. Even so, that doesn’t negate everything that came before it. It doesn’t take this bad taste out of my mouth.
How many women equal one man? Obviously more than two, but how many? Three? Five? How many female voices carry the same weight as one male voice?
How many of me do I need to be taken seriously?
I have been aware of predators since childhood. Since I was four or five years old and first had a man’s penis in my mouth. Contrary to some knee-jerks here and elsewhere, the fact that I’m aware of predators in my environment does not mean that I think all men are predators. It’s one of those double-edged swords women so often find themselves at the wrong end of: If we get raped, we should have been more careful. If we’re careful, we’re alarmists (worse, we’re FEMINISTS) who believe all men are out to rape us. There’s no winning with some people.
But those are not the ones we seek to reach this month. Over the next few weeks, while the Steubenville wound is still open and oozing, it’s our job to appeal to those people who are not yet aware (or not yet aware that they’re aware) but are ready for awareness. We’re not preaching to the choir or trying to make the blind see–we just need to be vocal enough and authentic enough to reach those who are out there listening, absorbing, and becoming warriors in their own time, at their own pace.
I’ve seen it happen. I know how powerful our stories can be. Share yours. The world needs your voice.
Note: Lest anyone think that the point of #AlwaysAware is to put the onus of rape prevention on potential victims, it is not. The point is that (most) women are always aware of potential of violence. We are taught to be afraid and trained to be vigilant. Sexual Assault Awareness Month is not for us–it’s for people who don’t spend every day of their lives alert and aware and looking for ways to keep something like this from happening to them. It’s for people who don’t understand how often women experience assault. It’s for those who believe that women, not men, should be responsible for preventing male-on-female rape. Until we’re all #AlwaysAware of the problem of rape culture, women will continue to bear the weight of that awareness all 365 days of the year.
I’m adding new posters as often as I have time to make them. I’ll replace the one at the top now and then, and add alternate ones here.
The idea for “Always Aware” started with a Twitter chat with the Sin City Siren and was further inspired by the above illustration by Laura Boyea (used with permission).
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
by Robert J. Howe
Note: This story may be upsetting to some.
This story is about how authoritarian regimes deform human relationships, even—especially—the most intimate ones. It is also a story about how people can’t be controlled, and the unintended consequences of trying to do so.”
Spring at the Phyllis Schlafly Correctional Facility in Broward County. I’m here to visit my mother, who will be fifty-eight in a week. This is no kindness to her, or me. It is a state-mandated visit. I am a living reproach.
I have never seen my mother when she was not in one phase of pregnancy or another, and today is no exception. She looks tired and done to death. The lines around her mouth have solidified since my last visit; they are set in the stone of her face. She looks—she is—angry. She has been angry ever since I can remember.
“Hello, Bryan,” she says. Despite her angry expression, this comes out almost gently.
I have spent a lot of time in therapy, ostensibly coming to terms with the fact that my mother didn’t want me. I am still required to check my weapon at the prison’s armory, lest I take revenge on her. This is absurd: she could not have had any feelings on the matter one way or another, as she didn’t know me then. What she didn’t want was to raise any children for whom she couldn’t adequately provide. The alpha and omega of her life problems revolve around what she considers adequate.
She has a crooked smile, when she smiles, from where her jaw was broken. The arresting officer stepped on her face to keep her from swallowing evidence. If her dead bolt lock had held three more seconds, we would not be facing each-other across the scarred wooden table.
“Hello, Elena,” I say.
She eases herself into a chair, unnaturally skinny except where she is unnaturally round. Half a lifetime of bearing rich women’s children has left her calcium-depleted and stick fragile, and her pale, sweaty face is made more unattractive by the reflection of the green visiting room walls.
We don’t talk much during these visits; it hurts less that way. It is part, too, of my mother’s strange Bushido. What we can do, is look into one-another’s green eyes without flinching. My mother understands, as do I, that between us there can be no feelings of guilt or regret. At least, this is what I like to think. Almost everything I know about my mother, I know from reading the official reports. Prison has a way of making everyone’s life into roman à clef.
There are no guards in the room, a strong reminder that every word and gesture is being recorded. This is another reason for our sphinxlike communion. It is harder, though not impossible, to get blood from a stone. All this notwithstanding, there is something she wants to tell me.
My mother was almost as old as I am now when she had me; that pregnancy was no childish fling.
“You have got to be kidding,” was my father’s sole, and last comment to my mother. He never came home from work that day. The Legal Aid lawyer told my mother it would cost more money than it was worth to have him skip-traced, so that was the end of that.
Abortion was still legal in a few states then, but Florida wasn’t one of them. My mother regretted the necessity of an abortion, both because she had wanted what she thought was her “twilight baby,” and because she’d have to have it done illegally; New Jersey, the closest free state, was as financially inaccessible as the moon, what with residency requirements and medical records transfer fees. The day my father walked, money became the big issue. My older sister and brother were just six and seven, respectively, and no one else was going to pay to bring them up. My mother couldn’t work pregnant, and they couldn’t live on what the anemic AFDC provided.
There was a doctor who would do it at Misericordia, in Pompano, and list it as a Dilation and Curettage, and her health plan would have even paid the bill. But two days before the operation a couple of suits from the National Reproduction Administration took the doctor away in the middle of the night. It seems she’d established a questionable pattern of performing D&Cs on women with no significant medical history.
That’s when my mother started answering the classified ads in the back of women’s magazines. She was careful. She was patient. She almost got away with it.
My desk is always heaped with paperwork, and today is no exception. So many case folders cover the tabletop that I can’t find a place to set my coffee. In those folders, more often than not, is all the information I need to do my job. By the time I have finished my coffee, I’ll have closed three cases over the phone. Three more anonymous buff folders will then take their place. It is a rare day that I go into the field.
I have been asked, more than a few times, how I feel about my job. The unspoken subtext is always, Does it bother you?
There is, I’m afraid, not much to be bothered about. It isn’t a case of not seeing the forest for the trees; I am so mired in the minutiae of the profession, that it is more like not being able to see the tree for the bark. It is all statistics: looking for the deviations from the norm. I wouldn’t know half my clients if I saw them on the street. What I know are their telephone bills, mortgage payments, medical histories, grammar school grades, even preferences in movie rentals.
Some would argue that it is easier to do my job thus insulated. They are right, but not the way they mean it. It is simply that there is less to remember this way.
My mother’s wrists are chafed from the restraints. Two years ago she dove from her bed stomach-first onto the floor. The D.C. lawyer and his wife who were waiting for the baby got a million-five from the Broward Special Corrections Department for mental anguish. My mother got padded leather handcuffs.
When I look at the raw spots on her arms, I notice that she’s tensing her muscles so hard the veins stand out like the surface of a relief map. Her face is completely composed for the cameras, however. I don’t know what to make of this, but I am careful not to stare, nor look away too quickly. I’m rewarded with the ghost of a smile too quick to register until it’s passed. So, I was meant to notice the flexing.
A guard comes in, they call them matrons here. This is a deliberate choice with 1950’s connotations, I think. She stands next to the table, stolid and dumb in her blue blouse and skirt, and signals us that the visit is over. It is less than half the time normally allotted to mandated visits. This is my mother’s small victory: our silence makes them too uncomfortable to endure watching for long. I think my mother would like to say that she is proud of me today, but cannot. To say that would be a tacit confession of her guilt. Any approval of me would mean she was wrong thirty years ago when she tried to flush my fetus out of her body. Still, it is this tacit understanding that allows me to go on with my life and my job.
Our eyes do not meet while the matron is in the room, and my mother is led away without looking back.
My mother finally narrowed it down to three advertisements that looked amateurish enough not to have been planted by the NRA, and were ambiguous enough so as to draw minimal attention. All three were for Riviera Diet Supplements—bootleg Roussel Uclaf pills—black market abortions being too dangerous, too easy to track, or both. She went to the library then, and looked up back issues of the magazines. Two of the ads had run for several prior issues, so it was a good bet that they were already under surveillance. The third was brand new.
The next step was a driver’s license under the name of a cousin who’d died as a child, with an SRO address. The rooming house address served two purposes. First, when it was time to get a post office box, it was less likely that an SRO address would trip a flag in the postal computer; it was entirely reasonable for someone living in a rented room to get their mail at a p.o. box. Post office boxes in middle-class residential neighborhoods, which ours was, usually alerted the Postal Inspection Service to a violation of the mail obscenity laws. The second reason for the SRO address was that, in Florida, there were far too many to register their tenants weekly, or even monthly. The annual, retroactive registration would turn up my mother’s nom de guerre, but by then she’d be just another desperate, half-remembered face in the clerk’s mind.
All of this cost money—a mid-quality forged license, (ones that could pass at a DWI checkpoint cost much more than paper good enough to fool a bored postal clerk), p.o. box rental—and the pills. They came in lots of six, packaged like vitamins. Some unlucky women had gone through all this, in fact, and had gotten nothing but vitamins. There were six to make sure the job was done. The feminist underground calls them étui, French for “small purses.” The NRA agents call them six-guns.
In the long run, of course, it was still cheaper than having another baby and staying home for the prescribed two years. That same week she found work as a secretary in an insurance company.
I come back from lunch and find that the pattern section has left a list on my desk. Only two names are in my area of responsibility; Evans, Theresa J, and Frawley, Taneka (none). Evans can be put off; I request a background jacket and set her name aside until it comes through. The Frawley folder is on my desk, so I will start with that one.
It is, as I recall, a fairly obvious case. Multiple postal flags, feminist literature subscription—cancelled fairly recently, unmarried, works as a B-girl in a beach club on the strip. Associate’s degree in accounting. Dangerous because she is smart enough to know she’s got a high profile. If at all possible I will perform the search while she is at work.
I bring the folder to the Warrants window, where an NRA administrative justice signs, dates, and seals a premises/vehicle paper. I kill fifteen minutes waiting for the warrant to register by Teletype with the local police. I use the time to check my weapon: I don’t often go into the field, and I go to the shooting range even less frequently. My Glock automatic has a seventeen-round clip, and I carry a spare clip in my jacket pocket. If this is not overkill, I am in the wrong line of work.
The folder stays on my desk—too many classified sources to leave the building—but I slip Frawley’s photo I.D. out, an enlargement of her Florida Driver’s License, to take with me. She is a common looking Black woman, over thirty, with an old-style “natural” hairdo. In the picture she is smiling.
The light in the visiting room is always bad—the cameras can record in the infrared if need be—adding to my mother’s washed-out look. She has just delivered the thirty-fifth baby of her sentence. There is no telling how many more she will bear; she has, in the grim double entendre of Special Corrections, consecutive life sentences.
Since she did not try to throw herself on her stomach to crush the fetus, drink her own urine to poison the fetus, or commit any other act of fetal assault, my mother is entitled to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee during her seventy-day recovery period. Then it’s back to a strict pregnancy regimen as an incubator for some other privileged couple.
She draws hard on her Marlboro. In the silence of the visiting room the stale, dry commissary cigarette pops and crackles like a miniature forest fire. We stare at each other through the smoke. Her arms are no longer raw from the restraints, but she’s built up a pad of callus tissue on the inside of each wrist. There are other changes, as well.
I suddenly realize that she has a facial tic, even though she seems otherwise composed. I have never, in fact, seen her other than utterly composed, so this pad of flesh twitching under her right eye seems the equivalent of a scream. I almost comment, but then the tic stops, and reappears under the other eye.
Could she, I wonder, be doing this deliberately? If so it is a phenomenal display of fine muscle control.
The tic stops again, and for a few minutes we sit in companionable, if absolute, silence. She stubs the cigarette out and sits forward, her arms resting on the table. After a moment, I realize that the flesh on the inside of her forearm jumps every few seconds. This reminds me of the last visit, and her vein-popping muscle tensioning. That will have to be enough for today, whatever it means. The matron, battleship-like in her stiff blue uniform leads my mother back to her dormitory area.
One of the most common mistakes women in my mother’s position made was using the p.o. box solely for their illegal transactions. As camouflage, my mother used the p.o. box for all kinds of things under her assumed name: she sent away for free recipes, subscribed to inexpensive magazines, ordered little things from mail-order catalogs, and wrote herself long, innocuous letters on her word processor at work, signing them with one of three fictional childhood friends’ names that she’d picked at random from out-of-state telephone books.
She said at one point, that if nothing else, assuming her whitebread, straitlaced, alter ego’s mindset had replaced her contempt for women on the rolls with sympathy. It was always the good girls who got into trouble; too timid to go through the NRA’s red tape to apply for birth control, and too afraid to buy on the graymarket. As a result, they bred themselves deeper and deeper into poverty, using their own loneliness and the scant infant stipend as justification.
On the day the pills arrived, my mother was careful to not vary her routine. She checked her box at lunchtime, as usual, and put the pills in her purse, then went off to lunch with her friends. After work, she picked my brother and sister up at daycare, took them home, made dinner, did homework with them, and read them their bedtime stories. She put the pills in a waterproof container and hid them inside the toilet tank float, a place, in her limited experience, she thought startlingly novel.
Two days after the pills arrived, my mother was ready to go through with the abortion. She waited until a Friday night so that she would have the whole weekend for the pill to work. She called the three girlfriends most likely to phone her, and said she was taking my brother and sister upstate to an amusement park (one she’d taken them to before—no break in the pattern there), and wouldn’t be back until Sunday night. She unplugged the phone and set the answering machine. Then she sat down at the kitchen table and tried to think of anything she might have missed.
All of this, she said later, made her feel as if she were planning her own suicide.
I swing by the bar where Frawley works, to make sure she’s there. There are enough businessmen in jackets drinking lunch so that I don’t stand out and spook her. It takes almost a quarter of an hour to find her, since she has changed her hairstyle and looks younger in person than she does in the picture. She is making change for a customer when I leave for her apartment.
I could just shatter the lock and walk in, but then, even if I find nothing, she will know her apartment’s been entered. Better, in all cases, to use finesse. It takes ten minutes of finesse to get the heavy tumbler to click over, during which time two neighbors have walked by. Each time I managed to slide out of their line of sight—not that they would interfere—but if Frawley discovers that there’s been a man in a jacket and tie at her door, it might spook her as much as finding the lock smashed.
Inside the house is neat and organized, but somewhat dirty. It is the house of someone who isn’t home a great deal. There are, however, clothes in the closets, half-used toiletries in the bathroom, and fresh food in the refrigerator, all indicating that this is her real address and not stage dressing.
The current telephone bill is on her desk, opened. I don’t need to look, however; I’ve seen it already. I look through the personal papers in her desk, then get down to searching the apartment. The key, more than cleverness or intuition, is method. In my mind, I divide the room into imaginary grids, and search each one minutely. This not only insures that no spot is overlooked, but that each square foot is seen with a fresh eye.
I turn up nothing. I resist the temptation to research the odd places first, and start at the beginning of my grid again. The first search was entirely non-destructive. I left everything the way I found it, and used only my fingers to probe soft objects like pillows and cushions. This time I cut open what cannot be easily palpitated, and I pry up any loose hardware, tilework, and woodwork I find.
Still nothing. I am about to start my third, deep search when I hear the door. As much as I dislike confrontation, this one seems unavoidable.
My mother’s recovery period has stretched to two months because there are currently no sponsors. Summer is always the slowest season for surrogate wombs, and increasing competition from the private sector has lessened the demand slightly in the Special Corrections system. Whatever the reason, my mother seems to be enjoying this period of relative freedom.
“Hello, Bryan. What’s it like in the real world, these days?”
This is more than she has said to me in twelve years of bi-monthly visits. I wonder if this hiatus in her sentence is wholly the cause of her good spirits.
“About the same,” I say. “You look well.”
The truth is, she looks better—she has put on some weight, and it makes her face look years younger. Anywhere but in here, though, she could pass for someone who has just overcome a serious illness.
She sits for a long time, studying me. It is not like our usual silent communication—it is as if she is seeing me for the first time. The scrutiny makes me uncomfortable. I feel it is somehow a violation of our tacit understanding.
It occurs to me, forced back on myself like this, that it is possible my mother has finally gone insane. I have always assumed she was harder than any person or institution she came in contact with, but insanity is the second most common cause for termination of sentence. Of course, the insane trade one kind of prison for another, and if they are cured, they are returned to Special Corrections. There are precedents, though few of them.
Her voice pulls me out of my reverie.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“I asked if you’ve ever seen your father.”
This, of all things, I am not prepared for. In the six months from her arrest to conviction, my mother never once uttered a word about my father, or at least none that were recorded.
“No,” I say. “Why do you ask?”
You were never curious before, I want to say, but I can’t bring myself to break our unspoken agreement, even if she has.
The silence grows again, and though she doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable, I am. I begin to wish for the matron to come, silent and implacable, and lead my mother away from me. Instead I stare at the wooden tabletop.
“I wish I had gotten to know you better, son.”
That admission is shocking, in front of God and the cameras, as it were, but no more shocking than her calling me son. It is a word that has not passed her lips in my presence in thirty years.
“Your brother and Vivian were here to see me last week. Ed apparently pulled some strings. Do you know they have three children now?”
“No,” I said, numbed by this spate of information. It is as if Reagan’s face, carved into the South Dakota hills, had suddenly come to life: the oracle of Rushmore.
“Do you ever see them, or your sister?” she asks.
“No. I know I should…” I cannot believe I am saying this.
“I don’t really think they want to see you, anyway.” She says this seemingly without a trace of spite or malice. “You would make them almost as uncomfortable as I do.”
I don’t know what to say about this. I have never been so acutely uncomfortable in my life. Mercifully, the matron enters the room then and stands next to my mother.
“Well, Bryan, goodbye,” she says, looking me directly in the eye.
I fumble for a response, but by the time I can force out the words, she has passed behind the gray steel door.
“Goodbye,” I say for the cameras.
It occurs to me, as I collect my weapon from the prison’s operations room, that none of my mother’s feats of muscle control were in evidence today. I suddenly wish I had asked her what it all meant.
The last thing my mother did, before she took out the pills, was to call her National Health Clinic branch and complain about abdominal pains. The triage nurse asked the usual questions, including whether or not my mother was pregnant. She said she didn’t know.
The nurse told her to call back if the pains got worse, or if there was any bleeding, and to stay off her feet. My mother hung up and went to get the pills from the toilet tank.
She was drying her hands when they knocked at the door. My mother started to hide the pills again, then she heard the ram against the door. She ripped open the foil package too quickly, sending the pills scattering across the floor. By the time she retrieved one, the police were through the front door and searching the apartment. There weren’t that many rooms to search.
The bathroom door exploded in just as she put the pill in her mouth. The next second her head was crushed against the tiles and something in her face snapped. She felt the officer’s blunt, bitter tasting fingers probing her mouth as she passed out.
She woke up in Broward Special Corrections’ hospital wing, and has been in one part of the compound or another since. I was born seven months later, in the prison Nursery.
I was placed in the same home as my brother and sister—though they were moved out within a year of my birth. I stayed until I was eleven, then I was sent to a military boarding school because I had become a disciplinary problem. The state paid my scholarship to the private school, with the understanding that I would enter government service as soon as I was eligible. That was pretty much what happened.
I really don’t regret it.
Frawley has just set her purse on a table in the foyer when I turn the corner. She looks at me for a split second, then snatches the purse up again and dives out the door. We burst out of the building’s lobby, she several yards ahead of me. She is wearing black tights and running shoes—her off duty clothes, I gather—and is opening up the distance between us rapidly. I have to make a split-second decision: do I continue to chase her, or do I draw my weapon now, while I am still close enough to steady myself for a shot?
Had I known I was going to arrest her today, I would have brought backup. I draw my weapon and pound to a stop in front of a parked car. She opens the distance even further while I get my sights steady. I hold my breath, using the car’s roof as a rest, and squeeze off three shots.
The last one drops her. I’m completely winded by the time I am standing over her.
She is shot through the backside and lower stomach. Blood is everywhere, and she is vomiting weakly. A woman is screaming as I go through Frawley’s purse—sure enough, the pills are there. Two packets of them, in fact.
The ambulance arrives after the local police, but before my colleagues: if they are going to save the fetus, they will have to get Frawley’s body to the operating room very quickly.
Far from being over, this incident is just starting for me. I will be held over the next two shifts writing reports, having the pills tested by the lab, being counseled by the service psychiatrist, and making my obligatory appearance before a grand jury.
At least I will get the next five working days off.
“I heard you got one,” my mother says before she’s even seated at the wooden table. “You must be proud.”
I realize that it is going to be as difficult a visit as the last one. I did only what was necessary. I don’t relish the grislier aspects of my job, as do some of my colleagues—I prefer to avoid conflict, where possible. I decide the best tack to take with my mother is silence, at least until I can puzzle out her mood.
“I heard she bled to death right there on the street.”
Where, suddenly, is all this antipathy coming from? Who knows how these rumors get started? The paramedic said Frawley died almost immediately—from shock.
“Are you embarrassed?” she asks. “That would be something, at least.”
I see that this line of questioning is not going to wither away in silence.
“I’d rather not talk about my work.”
“Not to me, at least,” she answers. “So, what would you like to talk about, son?”
That word again. Inexplicably, I feel my eyes prickle.
“How come you’re not smoking?” I ask. My voice sounds perfectly level.
“I’m back on the production line again,” she says, laughing. “You know, I was beginning to think you’d actually thrown your weight around a little to keep me off the breeding line.”
“I can’t do…”
“No, no. Don’t apologize,” she cuts me off. “I’m not blaming you. It was a crazy notion to begin with.” There really is no rancor in her voice.
For the first time ever, I am uncomfortable that the cameras are recording all this. I cast around for a safe topic, then something occurs to me.
“I noticed that you had a facial tic, last—no—the time before last. Is it some kind of medical condition?”
“Your concern is a bit belated, I think. But no, you know it wasn’t a medical condition, I think.”
“I was doing it on purpose…”
“Nobody can control their muscles like that.”
“You can, if you practice. I have nothing to do here but practice. Did you know Indian holy men could stop their heartbeats?”
I look at her blankly.
“No, I don’t imagine that’s the kind of thing you know much about. Well, it’s true. If you practice enough, you can control all the muscles in your body.”
“So I can control my body.”
We have, it seems, skated back onto thin ice again. The radical feminists have always referred to women’s reproductive offenses as taking control of their bodies.
“It’s all right,” she says, “you don’t have to say anything. I just wanted you to be here.”
“You know I come whenever…”
“No, I mean for this.”
She smiles at me, then she closes her eyes. When she opens them again, they are unfocussed and her face assumes an expression of unconscious concentration, if there is such a thing.
I see, suddenly, that the muscles of her abdomen are tensing mightily under her prison smock. It takes another few seconds for me to realize what she’s doing.
I knock the table over trying to get around it, but it is already too late; blood gushes from underneath the smock, making a crimson blotch from waist to hemline.
Guards rush into the room, and less than a minute later, the medical team.
“Christ, she’s bleeding out,” the doctor in charge says.
“What’s going on?” the guard supervisor, a man, wants to know.
“She’s got a massive hemorrhage—looks like a bad miscarriage.”
My mother’s eyes focus again, and she looks into mine. I am unable to look back without flinching.
She coughs, spraying flecks of blood across my face.
“Oh, man,” the doctor groans, “She’s bleeding from everywhere.” He’s young, and sounds afraid.
She is loaded onto an aluminum stretcher. I think about taking her hand, but the moment passes in a blur, and she is being bustled out the steel door, presumably to the prison hospital.
There are, I notice, bloody footprints left everywhere by the medical team and the guards. I right the visitor’s table before I leave.
According to the trial transcript, the triage nurse at the National Health branch—a fifty-year-old widow with the improbable name of Meredith Sanction—called NRA to report a possible reproduction violation. NRA, of course, already had a folder on my mother. Since they could not get an agent there in time, however, they authorized the state police to make the arrest.
Meredith Sanction testified that my mother’s call fit the classic self-abortion pattern. Meredith Sanction’s own marriage had been barren. It is on the record that the magistrate admonished the defense lawyer for pursuing irrelevant testimony during Mrs. Sanction’s cross examination.
The magistrate took less than fifteen minutes to reach his decision. Sentencing was delayed until my birth—presumably so that my mother would not self-abort in the face of a life sentence.
The minister concludes his ceremony over my mother’s grave, then hurries in out of the rain. My brother and sister stand as close to the grave as they can without having to look at me. My brother cries openly, and my sister stares, dry-eyed, at the brown rectangle in the turf. Only I can see the casket.
I still have two days off before I go back to work.
Robert J. Howe is a writer and editor whose fiction has appeared in Analog, Black Gate, Electric Velocipede, and other publications and anthologies. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop (1985). Learn more about him at his website.