People don’t like to talk about sexual abuse because it makes us feel uncomfortable- I don’t think our distaste with it is any more complicated or sinister than that. I don’t believe it’s because we don’t see it as an important topic to discuss. We have an aversion to being present with uncomfortable emotions, but it’s not until we lean into that discomfort that we can perceive the lesson it has to teach us. I didn’t learn anything from being raped until I faced what I was avoiding: my own responsibility.
It happened to me again at 27- I guess life really is cyclical. Except life isn’t a circle, it’s a spiral, and since the first time I was raped, I’ve climbed up many steps.
The first time it happened I was so sexually inexperienced I couldn't tell the difference in sensation between sodomy and vaginal penetration. The first time it took me a moment to catch on to what he had chosen to do to me. This time when I was sodomized without permission and without warning- an act pregnant with entitlement- I acted.
This time I had the courage to meet the conflict I'd involuntarily been thrown into, instead of freezing out of shock and staying silent out of denial as to what was really happening. Last time I hadn’t wanted to believe, wasn’t ready to accept, what was being done by someone I had invited in- had wanted in- only moments before.
When I opened myself to being vulnerable with someone and he chose to capitalize opportunistically on this vulnerability instead of treating me with respect and tenderness, an instantaneous, polar shift of emotion was required of me in order to respond appropriately. It is no small feat to shift from arousal, feelings of bonding and trust, to full comprehension of betrayal and danger. If I froze instead of acting, I am willing to bet I am not the only woman to have responded in this way.
The problem was, once it was over the first time, I felt I couldn’t complain, as I had failed to respond appropriately in the moment. “Who would believe me when I went through with it?” I thought. A real darkness developed after I failed myself the first time- after I wasn’t there for myself when I needed me most- and I wasn’t going to go there again.
This time I asked him if his asshole was somehow different than mine. I asked him if he'd like it if I shoved something up his ass without warning and without asking permission, or at all. I asked him if he thought porn was real life. He then told me something that lit within me a light of awareness:
"I've done it lots of times to girls,' he said defensively, 'and they never said anything."
They never said anything.
The sentence echoed in my mind and it hit me violently then, that every time I had chosen the easy route and avoided confrontation when something happened I was uncomfortable with, I had been part of the problem. Not saying anything doesn't mean those women weren't in pain, didn’t feel betrayed or used- it only means they chose to stay silent. Most frightening is the potential that women overall have become conditioned to accept this type of treatment. (I’m not saying that anal sex can’t be enjoyed, but without consent, explain to me how that’s not rape?) I realized that moments when I hadn’t said what I had wanted to say, moments when I hadn't shared how I really felt, I had unwittingly set the stage for some other woman to experience the same thing. I felt sick.
The truth is, no man can know what you don't tell him.
There is no way for him to know he's crossed the line unless you gather your courage enough to assert your own boundaries and tell him he's done so. Assuming most men aren't intending to be abusive, it's our responsibility as women to let them know when they've gone too far. Otherwise, the next time they will act based on the misinformation you gave them. Our actions contribute to shaping who they are, as we are all shaped by our experiences.
There are many different neurotransmitters released during trauma, such as the bonding hormone oxcytocin, the release of which is triggered by genital activity. If it’s true that neurons that fire together, wire together, what can we infer about the effect that bonding hormones and abuse have when influencing the same moment? What is being wired together? Add on complex emotions created by the experience, such as shame and guilt, along with the average person’s aversion to conflict, and we’re left with a cocktail of confusion. It is no wonder women’s responses are muddied.
I thought about how outspoken a woman I am, comparatively. I thought about how hard I had found it to speak up and was faced with the realization that women who are more timid must have it much worse. I cried thinking about the disservice I'd done them in my life, and saw very clearly the importance of women sticking together.
I haven’t found it easy to stand up for myself, but I have no such ambiguity when it comes to standing up for other women. Ironically, what I’ve discovered is that the way to stand up for other women, is to stand up for myself.