Chapter Five: Black and White-ish

It seems like everywhere you turn these days there’s another male politician/actor/entrepreneur/singer/journalist being accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault. Some people are surprised by the names coming out of the darkness. Some people are screaming that due process hasn’t been done before these men of power lose their jobs. Others are, of course, attempting to impugn the characters of women who have come forward, especially if they felt their grievances haven’t been aired in a timely-enough manner. Besides waking up every day to see if this sham of a president has started World War Z yet, we all flock to Facebook or whatever ‘news’ source we rely on in the morning while in the bathroom to see who else went down in flames overnight. Who else are we boycotting/trolling/mad at today? What did he do? Who did he do it to? How long ago was it done? Do we try and counter the not-so-good from the past with the good works they’ve done since then? And do I really have to sort through all of these emotions before I have had my first cup of coffee?

I also see people getting taken apart for saying harassment and assault fall along a spectrum, and that you shouldn’t necessarily lump one group of men with the other. People who are rapists or who have exposed themselves to women in the workplace aren’t the same as the guy who grabs your hand walking down the street to get your attention or who makes a gross comment about the sway of your hips as you walk past him on the sidewalk. People come out with pitchforks whenever they hear this comment made! If a man says it, then he is complicit. If a woman says it, she’s a femi-nazi or self-loathing or something else altogether. My counter to that argument from the woman’s perspective, is that she herself has likely been harassed and/or assaulted and has compartmentalized these experiences into their own little boxes of misery. She has put her entire life’s worth of being made to feel powerless in one way or another on her own sliding scale of gross behavior so that she is able to push forward and continue with the business of living her own life. Not letting what happened to her keep her from being successful both emotionally and financially, whilst also burying deep in the back of her mind the knowledge that with each passing day she loses any credibility if she chooses to bring her assailants to justice – if she even knew his name in the first place. She is aware that people will think that if she speaks up at work against the Water Cooler Flirt, people will think she is being too emotional and that they can’t even speak to her without offending her and making her run to HR. That she only thought his comments were inappropriate because she wasn’t attracted to him, but if it had been Copy Room Dude instead of Water Cooler Flirt she would have blushed like a little school girl virgin and loved the attention. I’ve recently seen talking heads on cable news saying that all of these complaints are ruining company Christmas parties, and grown men as asking if they can even say someone looks nice or is wearing a pretty outfit without it causing a complete scandal in the office. Will telling Susan you like her new haircut lead to Ted losing his job? Stay tuned for next week’s episode of “Can You Seriously Not Tell The Difference Between Harassment and a Compliment?” for the answer!

Now. By this point in my post you’ve probably formed an opinion about why I feel the way I do. You either agree with me or are perched atop your moral high horse (who is black and white in color), and you feel justified in thinking about just how WRONG I am on this subject. You cannot fathom how I could think that sexual assault and harassment can be, and sometimes must be, looked at on a sliding scale of unacceptable, and you probably feel good about that opinion. You have decided I am either seriously misguided or a self-loathing, pick me, these-women-should-have-said-something-sooner person. You’ve decided I am not mad enough at the men who are being accused, and feel that because I have given any room for grey space at all that I am essentially victim-blaming, even without saying the actual words. For me, very few things in life are black and white, and I say there are degrees of unacceptable behavior that must be addressed and reacted to accordingly. I shall provide examples for people who are sitting there reading with a furrowed brow already forming their responses to how wrong my views are on this matter. To them, I say to indulge me a bit while I walk you through some of the most painful parts of my life, and if you still don’t understand where I am coming from…well I honestly don’t care if you understand where I am coming from because my views on this as a survivor are pretty set in stone for my own self-preservation.

I am, and will always self-identify as a survivor of sexual assault. I am also a woman who endures sexual harassment on an almost daily basis from complete strangers who feel entitled to my body and my time. Given that I am both of these things at the same time, and I definitely was affected on a greater level by my assault rather than any subsequent harassment I faced, I rank my personal traumas on a sliding scale. I have to wake up every day remembering what happened to me, and live with the idea that instead of calling the police or  fighting back, my dignity got dismantled right in front of my face and I did nothing to stop it. Let’s share some examples, shall we?

I went home with a friend from college for the weekend during my freshman year of school. I remember my mom telling me stories of the fun she had going home with friends during college, and I was so proud of myself for getting on that train to Baltimore that day. I am a nervous person by nature and going so far from school felt like such an adult thing to do since even in college I would call my parents and tell them where I was going and who I was with, just in case I came up missing in DC. That city scared me up until the day I left it, and I haven’t been back to Baltimore at all since this incident. But I digress…After arriving in Baltimore, the plan for the evening was to go hang out at her friend’s house. That was cool with me since I was never a person who enjoyed clubs, and I envisioned sitting around with wine and conversation just like when my friends and I would hang out. I could never have imagined how different my life would become after that night. How different I, myself, would become.

Instead of a group of her friends hanging out at home, we went to some guy’s house who she was sleeping with and he had a roommate. It was weird, like being set up for a blind date and not knowing it was happening, but I tried to be cool about the situation like I hang out in strange men’s homes all the time. No big deal…all the while I sat there stiff as a board because if this had been a date I already knew this guy wouldn’t be anyone I would be interested in. He had just recently gotten out of jail, seemed more than a little rough around the edges for my personal taste, and something about his energy seemed…off. I was not comfortable being around him because I think he thought I had been brought there *for* him, and that was clearly not the case.

We sat around talking and I was watching the clock getting more and more over the situation with each passing minute. Just when I was hoping we would be leaving soon, my friend and her dude disappeared into the back room and the music was turned on. Clearly I knew I was stuck there for a while. This was before Uber and I didn’t know where I was to call a cab and leave, so I sat there and waited.

The guy could tell I was nervous, and told me not to worry. That we were just going to chill and watch some TV until our friends were done, and that I didn’t need to be in the corner sitting stiff as a board. He offered to bring me something to drink, and I naively accepted. I asked for water and he brought me wine. I was thirsty and my mouth was so dry that I took a sip. One sip was all it took for me to know he had put something in it. I kept pretending to drink to throw him off, and all the while I noticed the movie on the TV had been replaced with a porno where the actress had a similar shape and skin color as myself. I also noticed in between blinks which were lasting longer and longer that we were no longer the only two people in the room. He had called over a group of his friends, and they were all standing over me. I never took more than one sip of the drugged drink, so I didn’t black out, but I was definitely not coherent and I was also paralyzed by fear. The man are all watching the porno and talking to me about doing to me what they saw the woman doing on screen, and I kept trying to find my voice to scream for my friend in the back. Neither my voice nor my legs would work. It was at that point when I was surrounded on all sides of the bar stool I was sitting on, the stool was picked up with me on it, and I realized I was being carried off to the other bedroom. I had to think fast. When we got near the bathroom I pretended I was going to vomit and rolled off the chair. I locked the door just in time, but the group of men were trying to beat the door down. I made violent vomiting sounds to throw them off and ran the shower to drown out the phone call I made to my cousin Craig for help. I had my phone tucked in my bra, but even after calling him I couldn’t tell him where I was or how to come find me. I was helpless and alone and terrified.

The pounding at the door stopped, and eventually the roommate opened the door by picking the lock. I was on the floor by the toilet, curled up in a ball crying, and he suddenly became kind again. I knew it was an act and I played along because I didn’t know the angle, but I was still trapped in the bathroom. He told me it was safe to come out, that he sent his friends away, and that he was sorry if they scared me. I tried yelling for my friend again, but the music was just too loud for her to hear me and I wasn’t getting past this guy to bang on the door. I looked at the front door, but I had never been in an area like this before and somehow being outside was more terrifying than staying inside because of the trees, darkness, and isolation.

It was in this moment where the friend laid his cards on the table and gave me the kind of choice I pray nobody reading this ever has to make in their lives. As a ‘thank you’ for not letting his group of friends run a train on me, he was expecting me to show him some gratitude for being such an upstanding guy. And I got to choose how I thanked him. I could thank him with my mouth or I could thank him with what was between my legs. But he made it very clear that gratitude would be shown or those men would be called back over. So I made my decision, was stripped naked by a man for the first time in my life, and lost a little bit of myself that I’ll never get back that night. It was the single most horrific evening in my life, and my very first sexual encounter of any kind. I put that experience in a box and buried it. I told my friend what happened, she confronted him, he denied it, she believed him, friendship over. She even gave him my number so he could check up on me and ask if I wanted to see him again. I hate her to this day. I feel like I hate her more than I hate him, but even as I write these words I have a hard time articulating why that is. All of these emotions and memories live in a box at one end of my spectrum.

After I take the brief moment every single day to relive one of the most horrific instances of my life, I then have to prepare myself to have fortitude against every single man I will encounter that day who will touch me without asking, make lewd comments about the shape of my posterior and what they imagine they could do with it, or demand I give them my number even after I tell them I’m involved with someone.

I have to prepare for any rejection I give to be met with violence, because I have endured violence in the past. I have been followed down the street being screamed at by a man I would not speak to while walking alone. I have had a man drive in reverse down a one-way street to try and get my number, then when I told him I wasn’t interest he threw a glass bottle at me, called me ‘fat’, then drove off as I stood there in complete shock of how close that bottle came to breaking the front of my face. Elevators? I want to stand in a back corner so that wandering hands don’t touch my behind and then get blamed on it being crowded. Construction sites? Terrifying. The gas station? I’ve been getting proposed to at the pump since I was 12 years old. Men can be so goddamn disgusting towards little children, it makes my stomach turn.

In addition to daily, run-of-the-mill harassment, I have been violated by people with whom I shared an intimate relationship. I have had partners lie about putting on a condom. I have had partners pull the condom off during sex. These are both instances of rape. In that very moment the act becomes non-consensual if I never agreed to having sex without protection, but who has ever gone to the police with this complaint? I just recently learned they even gave this behavior a cute little name – Stealthing. Sounds like something a superhero would do or a private detective, not a person who just exposed your body to STI’s and an unwanted pregnancy just so he can enjoy the moment more without a latex barrier.

Even a man I had been dating for months allowed friends of his to drug me at his house and take pictures and videos of me in various stages of undress. I was then blamed for not being able to hold my liquor and acting out of control around his friends. I can only pray nothing else happened while I was blacked out because I have many hours that I cannot account for from that night. I found out the truth a few weeks later because his roommate let slip at dinner that they had intentionally gotten me intoxicated and doped up as part of a hazing process to join their friendship group. And he was so bold that he admitted this while we were having dinner with my mother present. I didn’t say anything. I did not confront either my boyfriend or his roommate in that moment. I just stopped eating, gathered my mother who was holding her knife like she was about to do some serious jail time if I didn’t get her out of there immediately, and I left. Sadly, just as in college, I did not report him to the police because I was embarrassed and knew I couldn’t prove what happened all those many weeks later. Plus he was well-respected and admired in the community, and I knew it would be my word against his. I just froze the memory, put it away as a lesson learned, and kept moving forward. Again. I wish that I hadn’t, but I did, and now for me it is too late to say anything.

The perversion of Rape Culture is that it does not only extend to outward manifestations of violence towards women. And in this area, there are none who are without blame. We all have to own the mess we’ve created. We must own every ‘boys will be boy’ comment that took personal responsibility from the child for his bad behavior because those lessons and exceptions have followed him into adulthood. For every time we made not being raped the responsibility of the woman and not the man, we as a society must own it. For every time a woman felt she had to lie about having a man or being gay or anything else besides simply not wanting to give a random stranger her phone number, we must own that. Teaching little girls that little boys hit them or are cruel to them because they have a crush. Not teaching little boys how to communicate feelings and intentions with genuine emotions and not simply forgiving their hyper-aggression towards women because ‘boys don’t cry’. By being told we are being ‘too sensitive’ if we actually *do* speak up about behavior we found offensive, especially in the workplace. By allowing ourselves to be slut-shamed for not being a virgin or for dating multiple people at a time. By feeling that we owe anyone an explanation for our bedroom behavior so that we aren’t viewed as a whore. By allowing any dialogue at all that does not cement the phrase ‘NO MEANS NO’ and the fear of prosecution, persecution, and penalization into the minds of each and every man and woman out there to make it known that the days of victims fading quietly into the background are done. Until we made pedophilia as much a deplorable crime to some people as being homosexual or wearing a mini-skirt at a bar on a Saturday night (I’m looking at YOU, Alabama). Until we make it where women and men feel empowered to speak up, come out of the shadows, ruin the lives of those who ruined theirs, and make society itself a caustic and hostile environment for these behaviors, we must all sit back and allow the victims to come forward with their stories. And we must allow them to put their trauma on whatever scale they need it to be on to help them cope and live their lives with the dignity they deserve.

I will continue to keep certain actions compartmentalized and view assault on a gradient because that is *my* coping mechanism. I am deeply affected by it all, but the pervert who got handsy in the elevator isn’t the same monster who raped me. He could be that monster to someone else, but I cannot take responsibility for every hypothetical worst-case scenario out there or I will lose my mind. While I agree that embarrassment and punishment should happen to anyone who abused their authority to dehumanize a female colleague, I just can’t put a cat-caller and date rapist in the same category. I cannot say the person who took a stupid and vulgar picture pretending to grab a woman’s breasts is the same as the person who took a drunk girl into the alley and raped her behind a dumpster. I cannot punish the douche-bag boss who said I looked ‘exotic’ the same way that someone should be punished for exposing themselves and ejaculating in front of a subordinate as a show of force. Those men are different to me. They could be monsters to someone else, and everyone else will compartmentalize these behaviors differently based on their experiences, but for me they are not the same.

We are all responsible. We are responsible for the men being raised feeling entitled to a woman’s time and body. We are responsible for the women who forgive and ignore it. And we are responsible for media and entertainment that project women’s bodies as being used at the discretion of whoever can overpower her mentally or physically. We are all responsible. And we should also acknowledge that everyone’s trauma will feel different to someone else. That people who react on a sliding scale of awful aren’t trying to be complacent and aren’t condoning the behavior, but we are saving our reserves of outrage for the charges that most reflect the worst moments in our lives. Trauma is not black and white. People are not black and white. Life is not black and white. Therefore my personal logic dictates that outrage cannot be black and white either. And it isn’t. And my views on this will remain unchanged forever, or until the parts of me that have been broken and damaged are made clean and whole again.

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