‘But for birds and above all mammals, the male imposes himself on her; very often she submits to him with indifference or even resists him. Whether she is provocative or consensual, it is he who takes her: she is taken.’
– Simone de Beauvoir
Though right after the incident I experienced what I’ll call a hyper-feminine period, in which I wore all skirts and dresses and tights and sleek, high-heeled boots, as well as the usual jewelry – I loved jewelry – after that came a time during which I dressed androgynously, in plain black or gray shirts and black jeans. During that time if I put on a skirt I felt stupid, like prey, and that being a woman, or what I had thought of as being a woman, was just an act. My bracelets and necklaces felt ridiculous on me, and though I’d once been someone who’d live off peanut butter sandwiches for a week to be able to afford a new piece of jewelry, I now had second thoughts about the pieces I left the house wearing, and would, before entering public places, take them off and drop them in my bag. During that time, when a strange man at a Starbucks stopped by where I was sitting to ask me about what I was writing, absentmindedly touching the table, I had to contain the sudden urge to stab his hand with my fork.
But back during the period of feeling and dressing very femininely, aware of myself as generally physically weaker than men and something that could be had by them, I moved toward what I feared instead of away from it. I remember going to the house of a man I’d just started seeing to have sex for the first time because I was afraid of sex and men; and because I now felt propelled to put myself in the power of relatively strange men, to see what would happen (I would think later), to see if I’d be not-violated. Though aroused – I got intensely aroused at strange times after the incident, and everything seemed to revolve around sex, around the problem of having it or not having it, of men – I remember the sense of the situation feeling unnatural, in that in pursuing sex I felt like I was jumping across a dangerously wide gap, across something that should’ve been bridged, and that my way of dealing with the terror of falling into the gap was to run and leap over it.
It was the first time I’d been to his place. The living room looked half-ransacked, like someone else had recently moved out of it, and he wore shorts and a T-shirt that made visible the shape of his muscled shoulders and chest. We said some flirtatious things to each other, and when I complimented a small jade carving of an elephant on a table in the living room he said I should have it. Whoever had left seemed to have taken the bed frame too and in the bedroom there was just a tall set of drawers and the mattress where we lay. In the midst of it, he acted put out when I asked him to get a condom, kept complaining about it as he got up naked from the mattress to go to the drawers.
He was in perfect shape, his body like a body from a magazine. But there was something arrogant both about how he moved and in his acting so put out about the condom, like he couldn’t believe I would ask such a thing of him, and the arousal I felt before abruptly switched off by the time he got back to the bed. I didn’t stop it though. Not even after he told me that to stay hard wearing a condom, he’d need to first enter me from behind. It’s my penis and you’re requiring this condom, not me, he seemed to be implying, apologetic in a slightly deflected way, as if on behalf of the penis. Despite my having gone numb to him and the whole situation, it seemed out of the question that I could stop it, that I could further upset him by disrupting what had been set in motion – later I’d be told by a therapist that having been sexually abused predisposed me to feeling unable to say stop, to going on ‘autopilot’, to pleasing the other – and I even pretended to enjoy it as he directed us through various positions, or at least to hide that I felt nothing but blunted repulsion and, deep inside myself, alarm. Afterwards I stood with him by the window to observe the beauty of the red-gold sunset over the glassy blue-gray sheet of the lake. Look at the sky, he said, his voice tender with some new feeling for me. I did not feel a sense of beauty though. I felt rather that I should feel a sense of beauty that had abandoned me, and I was annoyed – maybe that I couldn’t feel it, or maybe that he wanted me to feel what I couldn’t feel, or that he had not seen through my pretending, or, maybe, probably, I was annoyed at the preposterousness of his thinking something romantic was happening when all I wanted was to flee the room. I made some excuse, said I had to get straight home, and when I did get home and pulled up the drive I thought, Well that was awful but I’m fine, and saw that he’d texted me to say I’d forgotten my gift. Then, oddly, I wished urgently that I’d kept the elephant that, in the moment, had seemed wrong to take. I wanted to have gotten something valuable from the experience that I could hold in my hand. Crossing the threshold of the door I felt suddenly unsteady, and as soon as I sat down, I briefly blacked out in the chair. And it was not long after this experience that I went through a period of dressing androgynously for a while.
Another time it was the handsome businessman I’d been dating who instigated the sex, and when I told him I wasn’t ready for it, he ignored me and began stimulating me with his hand. On the way to the bedroom – he’d put an arm around me to lead me up from the couch where we’d been kissing and toward his bedroom – I again told him I wasn’t ready to have sex, and his only response was to lean in and kiss me. The hallway in which we walked seemed to be shrinking, closing in on us. In the bedroom, aroused in a mechanical way but still not wanting to have sex with him I sat there for a moment on his bed thinking, Really it is much more trouble to resist him – feeling anxiety about disappointing and upsetting the man, who happened to be significantly bigger and stronger than me, and I worried that in his mind he might feel I owed him for the drinks and dinners he had bought me – so I decided to go through with it, at which point I convinced myself I was taking control of the situation because I said that we would do it with me on top. On top of him though I still felt uncomfortable, hurt even, because my body wasn’t going along with what my head had decided I could take, and after he told me to switch positions, to be on bottom, it got worse. When I say rape, understand I am not calling him a rapist because I never said Stop or No, but that with him looming over me, me who couldn’t fool my body into thinking it wanted this, the word rape, with each thrust, announced itself in my head. This man, apparently aware that something very wrong had happened, was afterward angry at me for having disassociated during the act, complained it was like I wasn’t even there, and when he got up to go to the bathroom and came back to find I’d put on my panties – I suppose he saw them as a barrier, and in fact as soon as he’d stepped away that’s what I’d wanted, a barrier, had begun fishing for them in the sheets – he observed in a critical tone, You put them back on. And then, sarcastically, How sexy. From where he stood, backlit by the light from the bathroom, I could see that at surface level the situation was appealing: for from the bed in this very nicely and expensively furnished apartment I was looking up at a tall, strikingly successful person of Nordic good looks, who’d a few hours earlier offered to take us on a trip anywhere in the world I wanted, but now none of it mattered because I felt raped and even my perception of the spatial quality of the room had changed, everything in it somehow appearing at a remove.
After this time it seemed nothing I owned was good enough to wear, and I went to a secondhand boutique to get a designer dress I couldn’t have afforded new to wear to a date with the next man, with whom I was rebounding from the breakup with the businessman; but outside of the shop where I’d seen it fit beautifully I couldn’t stop being uncomfortable in it – not physically, but in imagining how it looked to others and most especially men; and intermittently would come the feeling of looking pretty and therefore fragile somehow and like I was pretending to be something I was not anymore; but then for this same reason the feeling of having power over the man.
Despite that I could see in his face and feel in the air his attraction to me, he never complimented my dress, and when he went to the bathroom and another man seeing him leave came up to me just to tell me I looked ravishing in the dress, I felt relieved. Drunk, his eyes like dying lights, this strange man was not hitting on me, but had the air of being a grieving yet amused observer of what was happening at the bar, and he really had come up just to compliment me on the dress like you might compliment someone on an achievement; and by the time I turned to see my date emerging from the bathroom the other man had disappeared.
That night I was so mysteriously attracted to my date that something in the air between us seemed to vibrate, and even when we technically weren’t touching at all we seemed to follow and feel each other’s gestures and movements like taut, imperceptible cords were strung between us. Though not exactly ideal because we, but most especially him, had had way too much drink – later after he became sober I would find out he was an alcoholic, and I suppose that was why even with so much drink in him he was still so present and more observant of my feelings and reactions than any man had been in a long time – as we later stood on his porch we simultaneously seemed to be aware that we would make love, and for the first time in years there was no resistance in me toward him, the man, and everything I said he heard and saw in my expression; and it was with this level of attention he touched. Afterwards, he was more emotional than others had been, and the joy and gratitude and relief that flowed out of him with the words was as fascinating and sweet and funny to me as it was debilitating, in that the more feeling he directed at me, the more unable to express anything I became. I feel so safe, he told me. And then, what are you thinking? studying my face, and whatever I said back was a lie because what I was thinking was that I was astonished he had with such real curiosity posed this question.
Because I had not been this close with someone in such a long time I was not ready to let him know my thoughts, too, which were all of the above, and surprise that I had come to this place – not the actual place of his bed but the place where I could feel what I felt, the surprise of what we had made together.
And had it and he not come to me at exactly that time in my life, I honestly think I might never have slept with a man again.