A conversation on rape and wanting for words
Sometimes I imagine that I have written down an account of all the moments that haunt my sex life and submitted the whole portfolio to some discrete authoritative body that makes determinations in these cases: the “grey” cases. They deliberate and then deliver the results.
A presenter rustles open an envelope, takes a breath, and declares…
Sometimes they say, “Yes, you were raped! That time that thing happened, it WAS rape. And so was that other time.” And I can breathe a sigh of relief because now I KNOW what steps to take. I was raped and now I get to choose how to mobilize that information for myself.
But other times the envelope opens and they tell me, regretfully, “No, what happened that night and then that other night wasn’t rape. That was just bad sex that you realized afterwards you weren’t into.” And then what am I supposed to do?
Some part of me is so ashamed that I anticipate relief, that I find myself grasping at the term “rape” when it is so obviously not to be desired. Does that make being a victim of rape a “coveted status,” as some people would have us believe? No, vehemently not. But at least if you call it “rape” it has a name; at least you’re given a lexicon with which to work. What about the bad sex that hurts your heart and your body that somehow just doesn’t quite fit what you understand as rape?
And, in the end, the whole thing about the ceremony and the envelope and the declaration is just an absurd fantasy. What if somehow, someday, I could say for sure that I was raped? Somehow I don’t see that feeling like an award…
This is an iteration of a fantasy we have, where an authoritative body designates experiences that resist classification, relieving the discomfort of having had a sexual experience for which we have no appropriate language. While we want to classify these experiences, we also recognize that classification is not enough. Embracing imprecision seems like a potential way forward, but we see dangerous and unwanted political consequences associated with this practice. Here, we attempt to work through this problem and account for experiences that we cannot and possibly will choose not to categorize.
What follows is a cross-section of the conversations we find ourselves having these days: our unanswerable questions, fears, disclosures, and unsatisfying resolutions to accept the ambiguity of our experiences. Alongside our conversation are some of the moments that have fed into our thinking about these questions.
|The time you used your hands to grab my head and push it up and down on your penis when I was going down on you, not hard, but enough to make me wonder if maybe, just maybe, for you my mouth was just another hole, that stayed|
SLV & RJB: We have agreed that while this may or may not be a conversation about rape, it is definitely not a conversation about the type of rape that we were taught to fear.
We find it impossible to accept that expressing these experiences, given their nature and our privileges, will not somehow subsume others’ experiences. These privileges are numerous: we are doing emotional labour in the form of writing in a public forum and various loved ones support us as we do so. We will likely not face materially negative consequences for having thought what we have thought and written what we have written. Our voices are louder than some of the voices around us, and we recognize this. However, acknowledging these risks does not, for us, mean that silence is a solution.
|The times you indicated your interest in having sex by slapping your erection against my body, those stayed|
SLV: The decision to write this piece—to publish it—has not been an easy one for me. However, after reading Amanda Ruggeri’s piece about trying to challenge the perception of rape victim as a “coveted status,” I realized I needed to attempt to understand these experiences that have been haunting me. Writing this seemed like a way to start.
|The time when I was drunk at a party and I had just met you and we ended up in a bed together and I think it was my idea but I was so drunk that (almost) all I remember is throwing up and when I woke up my nipples were bruised and when I saw that in the shower all I could do was cry, that stayed|
RJB: My desire to formalize our conversations has also been inspired by other people writing about rape, though I can’t point to a single article. I used to not even be able to speak the word rape, but I feel encouraged now by the work I see people doing: discussing their own experiences, refusing to be silenced, and building new ways of understanding. I want to cheer for all of these powerful and brave people putting up scaffolding and consulting each other, doing foundation work and kicking the shit out of anyone who dismisses or tries to undo their labour.
However, in taking up that work, I am worried about being defined by these past traumas. My concern is that by talking about these experiences, I will position them as causal, all-consuming of my being, and life-alteringly traumatic instead of simply a set of experiences that, in part, comprise my life.
|The time that we were still using condoms but you hadn’t put one on yet and you pushed your cock inside me “just to see what it felt like” and I was furious and pushed you away and told you to go put a condom on and then come back and then you lost your erection and yelled at me that you couldn’t get it up when I was mad at you, that stayed|
SLV: Agreed. But then I also have to ask if these experiences can be both: formative but not determinative?
RJB: I hope so, because it’s so fraught otherwise. Leslie Jamison articulates this concern perfectly for me in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”: “the dangers of a wound,” she writes, are “that the self will be subsumed by it… or unable to see outside its gravity.” The potential consequences of having past assaults framed as integral events in our lives, then, are two-fold: we risk inhibiting our ability to understand others’ experiences as unique unto themselves and separate from our own, and we risk the reduction of our interiorities.
| The time you fingered me so hard that I bled, and then when I wasn’t looking, you wiped your hand on my sheets. Later, you pretended to notice the bloody smear for the first time and told me I must have gotten lipstick on the sheets. I don’t wear lipstick, but saying that let you make the blood my fault, and that stayed|
SLV: It terrifies me to think that I might be reduced, in my own mind or by others, to the sum of these (in some ways) fleeting moments in my life. And yet, since I can’t seem to let them go, it feels wrong to call them fleeting. How can I understand my rawness and fragility in these moments without letting it define me? There don’t seem to be any helpful answers in the popular social narrative of rape; rape is painted as the most violent, violating experience anyone could be forced to endure. You’d be better off dead than raped, we are told. It is all or nothing: complete devastation or unproblematic acceptance. And since that is not how I feel about my experiences, it is as though there is no space left to set these moments aside and examine them quietly for myself.
| The time that I was sleeping at the back of the bus lying across the seats, and you were lying on the floor beneath me, and you took my hand and started using it to jerk yourself off and I woke up and was furious because we were on a school trip and you cried and told me you didn’t want to lose me, that stayed |
The time at that party when everyone was in the next room and you were all over me, hands up my shirt and down my pants even though I kept pushing them away, kept pushing you away. You smelled like beer. I told you I didn’t want you to do that when anyone could come walking in and so you grabbed my hand and took me to your room, took off my clothes, started rubbing your cock against my body until you came all over my chest and then went back out to the party. We still hadn’t had sex at this point, but since that’s not “sex” I guess you didn’t think that contravened my “boundaries.” It did; that stayed
The time that we started having sex and then you reached up and started choking me and I didn’t know what to do and then I didn’t know how to talk about it so I didn’t and then later when I confronted you about it and you said that you had done it because you thought I would like it, that stayed
RJB: And I so desperately want to have a space that is defensible and yet also welcoming. My current strategy blends long-suffering irreverence with a lot of privacy: I don’t talk about sexual trauma unless a conversation has moved that way already, or unless I’m calling bullshit on an apologist. When I do talk about sexual trauma it’s in an I-endured-these-things-and-they-stayed-with-me-but-ultimately-I’m-not-fixated-on-them-even-though-it-would-have-been-nice-if-they’d-never-happened sort of way. I’m not comfortable with either of these strategies, but they’ve helped me talk about my own experiences of assault and coercion without fear of any external repercussion. If someone chooses to believe that a person is solely defined by trauma then I’m happy to point out their ignorance and say goodbye. I’m more interested in addressing the tone I take when I do actually speak, and that is because I am acutely aware of the fact that the way I speak impacts the way that others speak. I am actively invested in ensuring that my discussion of my own experiences in no way silences or subjects others to fear or shame.
SLV: Yes, having the space for these conversations is so important. For me, writing is another way to find that space. But it is a fraught exercise as well. As Stacey May Fowles discusses in her piece “What Can’t Be Published,” writing about one’s violation becomes an “all-encompassing process.” She writes: “[This process] pushed at me to expose more and more, until I was a walking open wound, telling stories I never intended to tell, revealing facts I never intended to disclose.” And once the story is out, “if executed properly, not only are you forced to face the reality of your own horrific experience, you also present it, raw and unfettered to strangers who can do with it, and say about it, what they please.” I do not want to be an open wound. But some part of me is wounded and I do not want to fester. In another piece, Fowles writes: “In our search for closure, we often fail to accept that violence alters us permanently.”
I am learning to embrace the contradiction inherent to accepting the permanence of my wounds as a form of closure. The pain, confusion, and humiliation of my experiences will never go away. Those feelings will continue to haunt me. But perhaps by looking these ghosts in the eye, by welcoming them in and letting them make themselves comfortable, I will learn to live with them. They can pull up a seat next to the other component parts of me: all welcome.
|The time that night before I was going away for the summer and we were at a friend’s party. Saying goodbye, you walked me to the car, but then kept stopping me from leaving, saying you didn’t know if you could handle long-distance, that it would be too hard, that you were tired of the back and forth. The conversation was filled with ellipses and unvoiced threats… You implied that the only way you could stand it was if we had sex, right then. I wanted to have sex, but not at a party, and not under the looming threat of the end of our relationship. Finally, I drove us to the beach and we had sex in the backseat of the car. It was our first time and that stayed|
RJB: I also wonder how to talk about our experiences without infringing on those who have their own struggles of categorization: I understand that language can hurt people regardless of intent. For example, if I choose not to use the word rape, I could make someone who did use the word rape for their own similar experience feel as though I was disavowing their trauma. Inversely, if I do use the word rape to describe my experiences, I could traumatize someone who had a similar experience and chooses not to call it rape. As much as I fantasize about having my experiences filed away into “rape” and “not rape,” I would feel violated and likely be LIVID with anyone who endeavored to categorize my life. Sometimes, I feel like I should just offer a content warning: “I am about to discuss an occasion in my life where my sexual agency was not respected. I am conflicted about whether to call it rape but that does not mean I will EVER try to name your own experiences for you. If you want to talk about this, I am totally open to doing so.” For the times when a content warning is impossible, I have no idea what to do other than talk as carefully as I know how, and apologize and own my ignorance if I hurt someone.
|The time that we went to that cottage for New Year’s and the walls were paper thin and even though we had our own room we were with friends and I said if we were going to have sex we had to be really quiet and you kept intentionally bouncing me around so loudly and loudly narrating what you were doing to me enough that I told you I was finished having sex with you so we stopped and then I went to sleep and I woke up to you masturbating against my leg and I didn’t talk to you until the next day when I said that this was just like the last time someone used my sleeping body but instead of crying and saying you didn’t want to lose me you said that it was my fault and I shouldn’t have blue balled you and that the last time had nothing to do with this time, that stayed|
SLV: Agreed. One of the most paralyzing aspects when articulating my own experiences is that I do not want to somehow undermine the private or personal work of survivors and activists. In other words, I do not want to infringe on the individual trauma and healing of survivors by somehow speaking over them. Equally, I do not want to counteract the work being done by feminist activists who struggle daily against a culture that chooses to deny the existence of rape rather than confront its prevalence. As a result, I find myself without a language to talk about my experiences at all. I admit that I am stuck on this. Even as I write this piece, I cannot fathom whether I would use the word rape going forward and I am terrified that I will be judged one way or another for this decision. I feel sick at the thought of giving fodder to rape apologists and worse still imagining that I am somehow detracting from survivors whose experiences are different from mine.
Being unable to use to word “rape,” however, means I’m struggling to find the language to vocalize these experiences at all. I am left with phrases that gesture obliquely toward “bad experiences” or being “taken advantage of.” But, as I said, what is most frightening and frustrating about this inability to parse the ambiguously-termed components of experience is that I worry I am contributing to a culture that refuses to stand up and call rape what it is.
That time we were walking home late at night and you kept trying to feel me up in the middle of the street even though I told you not to and then you were angry at me for being “grumpy,” that stayed
The time that you were fucking me from behind and reached around my throat and used my neck to pull yourself deeper and keep me stiller and choked me and kept my face forward in the process and I couldn’t speak and couldn’t look at you and later when you asked what was wrong and I couldn’t tell you yet and so said nothing and then later again when I eventually sat on your lap and cried because you had taken my voice and it had happened before and I hadn’t been able to tell you and you cried because you had hurt me and you understood and you were sorry, that stayed
That time we were broken up but ended up hooking up at a party. I kissed you and you took my hand and went in search of an empty room. I was drunk; I didn’t realize what you were doing, but we ended up in a bed, then we were interrupted. I wanted to have sex with you, to have some connection, but I was so embarrassed to be “caught in the act.” I left the room, expecting you to follow, but you didn’t. I finally found you in a bedroom down the hall, waiting for me. We snuggled and then you started having sex with me again. Without warning, you started pushing into my ass. It fucking hurt and I cried out, so you stopped. I didn’t want to believe you could have done it on purpose. You wanted to keep fucking, though, and I realized as I was lying there that I hated it, but I didn’t want to ask you to stop just in case you didn’t because then you’d be raping me. Instead I told you coldly that I wasn’t going to come. You tried harder. Seeking affirmation, you asked if you’d ever made me come and I told you yes and then you stopped, but that really stayed
RJB: We must prioritize the question of how we can talk about our sexual alienation productively without summoning the language (“grey zones,” “non-consensual sex,” “bad sex”) that has been appropriated to aggressively discount and deny accounts of sexual violence.
This problem also makes me consider whether I would categorize my experiences as rape in some contexts and not in others. On some level, I accept the terminology of rape and sexual assault as they relate to the circumstances I’ve encountered. As a result, I might choose to employ that language to demystify these experiences. Using the words “rape” and “sexual assault” insists that they are real things that happen to real people. However, in other circumstances, safer circumstances, where I don’t feel the need to make a point, I would not use those words, because I am still not comfortable using them. These are the peculiarities of the personal being political I suppose: I try to honour the fact that personal situations are political, and still retain an iota of privacy over them. Maybe this is hypocritical and maybe it is not. I don’t know.
SLV: A scary thing I have realized is that I will probably never be able to name and move on from some of these moments. All I can know is that, starting with the journal entry I wrote this year about my sixteen-year-old self’s “bad experience,” I have committed to working through these experiences out loud and in the light. This work has been at least partly motivated by writers like Fowles. As she discusses, “writing is risk […]; it is an act of figuring out a feeling, a way of lending structure to an experience that feels impossibly fraught, a process of giving value to suffering.” While I relate to her sense that writing about rape can rouse a “particular brand of overwhelming hopelessness,” like Fowles, I also choose to accept the risk of writing. I need to value those moments of suffering in order to understand my feelings; I also choose to take it on because I care about how these conversations play out and I want to be able to speak new perspectives about rape, sex, and consent without choking.
RJB: It’s a scary thing not to know how my thoughts about these experiences will evolve over time. We are taught that people are meant to be coherent, stable wholes. But nobody is constant, and I won’t ever apologize for the fact that my memories and traumas evolve in unpredictable ways.
SLV: Something that inhibits the evolution of our thinking is the Idealized Rape Narrative, a term Margaret E. Ikeda uses to describe the understanding of rape as a physically violent stranger-perpetrated attack on a specific “type” of victim. The pervasiveness of this narrative is one of the reasons that I find the term “rape” continues to sit wrong with me even though I know that, were I to hear about my experiences from someone else, I would not hesitate to agree that, as non-consensual and coercive sex, they “count” as rape. I am a feminist. I am supposed to know what rape is and how to think, write, and talk about it. Aren’t I?
|The times when over and over again I said I would prefer that you came inside of me rather than pulling out and coming on my body and you ignored me and kept spurting ejaculate on me and my few clothes and trying to get it in my hair because it was “what you were used to,” those stayed|
RJB: Imagine a situation where there are two of me. The one that is not-me (but still me) approaches me and describes my alienating sexual experiences as having happened to her. She asks me whether they were rape or not and tells me not to worry about hurting her with my judgment. I would have no problem telling her that rape is any instance of sexual contact without her consent, and that, since all of these instances definitely did not involve her consent, they all constitute rape or, according to the Criminal Code of Canada, sexual assault. I understand that having been raped does not mean being physically overpowered and penetrated by a stranger. I suspect that the biggest rape myth I must overcome is the question of a perpetrator’s intent and how utterly absent it is from rape’s definition. I have not learned yet that it is possible to both love someone and rape them. I know that rape is about a lack of consent and not about intent, and yet I still do not know it.
|The time, the day after that other time, when you wrote to me to say that you felt terrible about what had happened; that it wasn’t fair to me; that it had plagued you all day. You still loved me, you said, I was gorgeous, but you should never have done what you did. When I responded to tell you how shitty I felt, how I wondered where love came into it at all, how angry, and hurt, and cheap I felt, your reversal was complete and immediate. “I didn’t say that love came into anything that happened.” You could not take responsibility for my inward feelings, though you were sorry, of course, that I was feeling unhappy. You hoped I could find myself “a happy spot to rectify anything mentally.” You weren’t the villain. Then you quoted Cicero at me. That stayed|
The time that we were still using condoms but you hadn’t put one on yet and you pushed your cock inside me and when I glared at you your eyes widened in sudden realization and you went and got a condom and came back and we continued and I forced myself to give you the benefit of the doubt, that stayed
SLV: And how do we talk about this with the people we love? The inability to divorce act from intent is a huge problem in how we understand rape and that has a direct impact on how we are able to talk about our experiences in our most personal and intimate relationships.
RJB: Given that thinking and talking about these experiences is so central to me, it is vital that I figure out how to talk to a partner without being scripted by this toxic logic. It’s something I struggle with. I know that rape is defined by the survivor, not the perpetrator’s intent. Yet I often find that a partner becomes paralyzed by their fears when faced with my own. “I’m afraid I’m going to hurt you,” they say, as though the saying forecloses that possibility. It’s an attempt on their part, I think, to ensure that I am aware of their “good intent,” and to elicit my assurances that I know that they would never try to hurt me, but it ignores the fact that rape can happen regardless of intent. I’m tired of seeing this trap materialize in my own relationships.
SLV: This question of how to talk to a partner about what are, I realize, wounds that I carry, is a very tricky one because it directly confronts my fear of being defined by these wounds (or having these wounds defined for me). I both want to be able to give a lover a map of my scars, to recognize the permanence of their topography, and to contextualize them in the atlas of my experience. As a person who instinctually clings to silence and privacy even when I am certain that speaking and sharing is what I need more than anything, for me to hand over this particular map to someone I love and whose opinion I care about is a wrenching experience. What if they are disgusted? What if they are embarrassed by my revelations? What if they are utterly unaffected? However, the more I talk, the more I write, the more I share, the less afraid I am. What I have found so far is that when I give voice to the moments that haunt me, those moments begin to lose the very qualities that make them haunting: their secret shamefulness and the possibility for judgment that they carry with them. ♦
ABOUT SLV & RJB:
Cohabitants of the womb formerly known as the devil’s stomping grounds.
Anonymous, “Trigger Warning: Breakfast,” via Medium
Breanne Fahs, “The Politics of Turning Rape Into ‘Nonconsensual Sex,’” via The Feminist Wire
Stacey May Fowles, “Boy Next Door: Growing Up In The Shadow of Paul Bernardo,” via The Walrus
Stacey May Fowles, “What Can’t Be Published,” via The National Post
Emma Healey, “Stories are Like Passwords,” via The Hairpin
Jim C. Hines “Writing About Rape,” via Apex Magazine
Margaret E. Ikeda, “Meeting Francie Nolan at a Rape Survivor Support Group,” via The Toast
Leslie Jamison, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” via VQR
Amanda Ruggeri, “I Was Raped, and I Stayed Silent about My ‘Coveted Status,’” via The Cut
Margot Singer, “Call it Rape,” via The Normal School