For the first time in my short life, I am centering my experience as a survivor. I am no longer interested in punishing myself through silence. No longer interested in arbitrary designations of harm-doer and harmed. We are all flawed and broken and it is all of our responsibilities to put us back together.
At 19, I went to a party with some friends. It was my sophomore year of college and by that point I was heavily steeped in party culture. We dragged our feet through the week in the hopes that we could spend the weekend drenched in a drunken stupor, looking for ways to push away the nagging feeling that institutional education had forever broken something inside all of us. We walked up to a 3-story house packed to the brim with the who’s who of campus. I watched my friends make their way to the dance floor & pong table & various corners of the house with a confidence I still don’t understand. How is everyone else so sure of their place in the world?
Pothead that I was, I gravitated to the dusty, beer-stained couch under large plumes of smoke. I sat on the couch, scanning the room and plotting on how I could cultivate a little of that assurance for myself. Smoked my joint and drank 1-2-3-however many beers, hoping I looked just nonchalant enough for someone – anyone – to notice me and validate my taking up space in that packed, humid room. He flopped on the couch, eyes fixed on something I couldn’t identify. Patted down his pockets before pulling out a wrinkled semi-limp blunt. A few more pats and he realized he needed a lighter. He looked up. Noticing me for the first time since he threw his weight on the couch. Wordlessly I handed him my lighter and watched him light his blunt, puff twice and offer it to me. I took it, puffed twice, and returned it. He asked me a question. I answered back. We talked for the length of exactly 2 songs. We finished the blunt. He got up, motioned for me to follow him and started walking without looking back. Where did he want me to go? If I didn’t go would I be alone on the couch again?
Deciding that anything was better than being the pathetic person taking up too much space on the smoking couch, I followed him. We walked to the back of the house. Was this his house? He sat down on the bed and plucked another blunt from his pockets. I have to believe I knew what would happen next. I have to believe that at some point I decided that not being alone was worth whatever had to happen in that room. I remember thinking that I’d probably be into this if he didn’t smell like stale cigarettes and cheap beer. I remember being vaguely impressed if not annoyed by how long he lasted in his drunken state. I remember drafting the story I would tell my friends about the one night stand I had with a cute(?) boy at a party. How impressed they would be at my sexual prowess. I can’t remember his name or what we talked about or even the shape of his face. I can’t remember saying yes or no or how I got undressed. I do remember feeling an overwhelming sense of exhaustion at this 15-minute-long interaction with this person who’s face I do not remember. Like those few moments had exhausted me enough for a lifetime of sleeps. Was that rape?
He finished. We got dressed and staggered out of the room. I found my friends and regaled them with tales of my very first college one nighter with a boy I didn’t care to remember. This isn’t a story about trauma or loss or harm. It's an invitation to a conversation about the murkiness of unintentional encounters. How the lack of decisive communication can lead to confusing and contradictory experiences. I did not want to have sex that night but nothing I said or did indicated otherwise. It took me years to classify that encounter as an assault on my body. It’s taken many more years to identify the ways in which that experience has crept into & polluted my understanding of sex and responsibility. When I told friends or loved ones about that experience, they wanted his head on stake. They wanted to find him and make him pay for the harm he’d caused me. They wanted him expelled. They wanted him to lose his job and friends and be thrown out onto the street. I remember being confused about what hurting him would solve. How would throwing him into a place of isolation and loss, fix what had been broken in me? Why hadn’t anyone talked me through why I felt so uncomfortable being alone that I followed a stranger into a room? Why were they so focused on punishing him that they were willing to ignore what I needed to heal?
I still have a hard time calling what happened that night rape. I felt confused and exhausted afterwards but I still can’t conjure up the anger and devastation that other survivors express. The first time I felt that kind of violation was when a queer woman-aligned partner mocked my pronouns. Or when another partner touched my chest despite my clear boundaries against that kind of touch. Or the dozens of times I’d been drunk and high, puking outside of a queer party and somehow woke up naked in a stranger’s bed. Was that rape?
At 22, I invited you over for dinner. I had just moved to Brooklyn and a mutual friend thought we’d make a good pair. I was less than 6 months out from an abusive relationship with a woman who found my body repulsive. I had been dieting and working out and was eager for a chance at intimate touch now that I was worthy of having my body loved back. You were the first decidedly queer woman I’d ever been on a date with. I was a brand-new baby dyke. Still learning what brand of jeans hid my hips the best. Had just cut my hair at a barber shop for the first time. Still trying to figure out my identity and where I fit in the larger queer culture. Self-conscious, wary and excited, I swallowed my anxiety and plunged chest first into my first real queer experience.
Every night I close my eyes and run through the events of that night. The less than 12 hours we spent together that has since thrown me into an infinite spiral. I invited you over. I cooked. We ate. Did we drink? Maybe a glass of wine. We smoked. I remember struggling to roll the blunt. Who asked to kiss who? Who leaned in? I don’t remember but somehow, we made our way to the bed. You asked if I had a strap. I didn’t. You were disappointed and my confidence was decimated. We made out. I touched you with my fingers. You made no attempt to return the favor. We slept. Woke up. I made pancakes. We ate. You left. I texted you. You said you just wanted to be friends. I moved on. I don’t remember a consent conversation. Or a discussion of boundaries. Being a bisexual masculine-leaning person is such a confusing state to exist in. Depending on who I’m with I have to change everything I know about sex. Was it my sole responsibility as the “top” to initiate and foster that conversation?
My short- and long-term memory have been irreparably fucked by years of opioid & alcohol & amphetamine abuse. So, when your friend called me 6 months later to tell me of my harm, I believed them without question. Even though I didn’t remember a change in body language or a communicated withdrawal of consent, my life up until that point had taught me that my memory wasn’t worth trusting. It didn’t matter what I remembered or what I believed about myself. We believe survivors. Nothing else matters but your experience. Your friend explained: “During sex she said you made her feel uncomfortable. She withdrew consent and you didn’t stop. She’s not angry and she doesn’t think you’re evil but she doesn’t want to share space with you. She doesn’t want to talk. She doesn’t want an accountability process. She just doesn’t want to be around you.”
At some point that night, something you call rape happened and I’ve spent days, months, years, facing the darkness trying to trace it back to the root. I keep searching my psyche looking for the dangerous sex hungry rapist you’ve labelled me as. I wanted to find that part of myself and murder it publicly in the hopes that I’d be allowed to exist afterwards. We believe survivors. What happens when there are two survivors with different experiences? My “friends” say since I’m the chino-wearer in this pairing, I need to accept that my life is over. Apologize anyway. Write a statement. Write *another* statement. Develop an accountability process on my own. Tell the whole world what I’ve done to murder the dangerous sex goblin that inhabits my flesh. Be an example. Let them throw tomatoes at me. Let them project their pain onto me. This is what I deserve. This is all I’m worth.
I believe survivors. You have no reason to invent this. No reason to wish harm on me so yes, of course, I believe you. If I believe you then that means I’m a rapist? What happens next? You ask for nothing but space. You just wanted me to know. Wanted me to live with the harm caused. Fair. More than fair. I believe you so I do as I’m told. Nobody told me that believing you meant foregoing all ambition. Meant painting a scarlet letter on myself. Meant refusing to fall into sex so not to risk another night I can’t fully account for. Meant silencing my own experience as a survivor in favor of my new identity as a harm doer.
The mob is loud and angry. I follow the rules and choose to stay alive. They burn me at the stake over and over and over again. I keep hoping the last time was the last time but I’m learning it’ll never end. “Call yourself a rapist”. “Admit your harm”. “Center the victim”. “Take accountability”. Nobody can tell me what that means. I read through the comments. From what I gather accountability is silence. It's hiding my face and voice as punishment for this unforgivable sin against an undefinable, ever-growing “community”. It is starting every new connection with my tail between my legs, flashing my scarlet letter and praying for clemency. It’s not enough to apologize and demonstrate a change in behavior. My punishment must be perpetual.
I’m in a virtual study group with 50+ people. We’re discussing, “Are Prisons Obsolete?”, the abolitionists Bible. I ask, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” What if that thing defined the rest of your life?” Only silence returns. What if you don’t remember doing that thing? What if your trauma & mental illness have taught you that your own memory is not a reliable narrator? What if that thing returns to wreak havoc every time you rebuild? What if you’re still trying to unravel survival for yourself? What if nobody can tell you what accountability is? Only silence returns.