Being woken by a mouth salivating between my legs and readying me for consumption is how I remember my life as a young bride.
Batting at the head with a limp hand while struggling to wake up was pointless, ditto rolling over, and by the time I was awake, it was too late. This is one of the most enduring memories of the ill-fated union I entered into aged 19 and exited three years later.
Another is my then-husband accompanying me to the doctor’s after I returned from a study trip abroad during which I was raped by an acquaintance. “He forced himself on her,” he tells our family physician. It only takes five words to downgrade horror to a euphemism, my person to a pronoun, and consign us both to namelessness.
This man I loved — a handsome professional nine years my senior with many letters after his name — routinely objectified me without a second thought. Like his beloved car, I was just another accessory designed to enhance his social status. “This is my wife, she speaks three languages,” is how he used to introduce me at social gatherings. It’s been many years since the divorce but the recollection still stings.
Being denied a first name and introduced as some property complete with features list was dehumanizing.
And yet, good guys often do the same.
In a dominance hierarchy, this kind of talk is routine. It is something many women have gotten used to as it’s easy to overlook, easy to tune out, even easy to dismiss as normal under certain circumstances. We let it go because running the risk of unwanted confrontation by drawing attention to language seems more trouble than it’s worth.
I’ve done it, and I know that I’ll do it again, because I haven’t got the emotional wherewithal to fight every battle that comes my way. Let’s face it, who does? That’s how we tend to forget that words matter. We tend to forget words are how we humans communicate with one another, and that’s why we give harassment a free pass: to keep the peace.
And soon it’s not about words anymore but about body language as the preferred method of getting one’s point across.
Like many who read the transcript of the conversation between Donald Trump, Billy Bush, and Arianne Zucker, I suddenly found myself faced with the shameful remnants of a long repressed memory.
That of being pulled by the crotch on an Amsterdam dance floor toward — and by — the man I was dating at the time almost two decades ago. As a reflex, I refused to dignify the gesture with any acknowledgement. I also decided no one around me could possibly have seen it. With a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach, I wrapped my arms around my date, and carried on dancing.
For dignity’s sake, or at least that’s what I told myself at the time.
Even though I wouldn’t understand this until much later, what happened there was sexual assault. It wasn’t new to me at all, but it was something I had become expertly skilled at denying. So strong was my denial that I refused to see other humans degrading me as wrong.
Instead, I saw myself as the wrong — rather than wronged — party, and carried a lot of shame as a result, shame that was neatly tucked away from view, deep inside my heart, silent. I still carry a lot of shame, but something changed after the Trump tapes: I started writing about it.
I’ve come to equate silence with tacit complicity. Silence is an unspoken acceptance of every instance of sexual assault I’ve ever experienced as a black mark against my character, my morals, my intellect. In the same vein, I struggle with the word victim because it implies — to me — an abdication of agency I can never agree with, regardless of how accurate it might be. Instead, I prefer the word survivor because surviving means rising above, overcoming, moving on.
Because, again, words matter. While I may not have had any choice in how my story unfolded, I have a choice in how I tell it. Also, I’m lucky: I have the privilege of still being alive. Sometimes, there’s no escape from sexual assault and it’s fatal; sometimes, there are no survivors, only victims.
With this in mind, is it any wonder so much silence surrounds sexual assault?
Much like denial, silence can be an act of self-preservation. I’ve pretended all was well so I could keep going. I used to tell myself and whoever enquired about my love life that I was a weirdo magnet, on account of my attracting men with a non-standard take on human relationships.
The way I saw it, I happened to have an unfortunate gift for bringing out the worst in some men, the same men Donald Trump’s son Eric called “ alpha personalities”. To any woman familiar with sexual assault, the term means domineering men who zero in on a woman’s insecurities before they pounce.
Or, rather, before they “move on” a woman. Again, words matter.
As a somewhat introverted, bookish type, being approached by an “alpha personality” was always a source of much consternation to me. What’s a shark doing talking to a minnow, I’d ask myself. But because, out of principle, I’ll talk to anyone — curiosity drives me, after all — I once ended up in a very destructive relationship with a skilled conversationalist and orator. And then I discovered he never wrote any of his speeches nor had he read a single one of the books he alluded to. He also had his own book entirely ghostwritten by his long-suffering assistant without crediting her. His culture was a fabrication, a mirage, something he wished he had but never possessed.
And yet, even that man’s legendary temper was no match for a charisma which seemed to be all-encompassing. I eventually understood it was easy to manipulate those who looked up to you as long as you didn’t live among them.
At the time, I was in a precarious professional situation, and he was in a position of power. It never even crossed my mind he could only have been interested in the packaging I came in and the labels on top of said packaging rather than what the packaging contained. Because I’ve only ever identified as a human rather than a pair of lumps on the front, a pair of humps on the back, and a trio of penetrable holes. But to men like him, lumps, humps, and holes are all I am, and all I can ever be — a sexual relief solution at worst, a social adornment at best.
“Take it like a woman,” he said, knowing I loved him fiercely, defiantly, defensively, and — clearly — unconditionally.
Pinned down by the wrists in the guest room of a full house in a remote location, there was little I could do but submit as quietly as possible. I didn’t want to make a fuss, I didn’t want to wake anyone up, and I didn’t want to be forced to do anything if I could choose to do it instead.
To be clear, I made the decision to give in rather than have the decision be made for me. Admittedly, the distinction between the two remains blurry and thus questionable.
This decision — or how I remember making what I refer to as a decision — was the only act of self-preservation within my reach, with self-respect written in tall, bold capital letters on the price tag.
Even though I should have known better then, I somehow managed to convince myself I’d bounce back again, as always. Self-delusion was my armor. After all, my lover’s behavior was, I reasoned, a side-effect of living in an overly macho culture and I was just meeting expectations. Never mind that those expectations were someone else’s and not my own. What I needed and wanted that night was a hug, a little affection, not penetration I wasn’t ready for.
In case this is still a source of confusion to some men, sexual intercourse is not the most valuable gift you can bestow upon a woman. Nor is it an inalienable right of yours like, say, free speech. On this subject, had my lover tried talking to me that night, he may have realized I had lips on my face, too.
But he didn’t.
And so I learned “Take it like a woman” doesn’t mean “I love you”. It was nothing but a command to submit, a reminder I was his for the taking. An erroneous assumption on his part. A woman can belong with a man but she can never belong to a man. Even if she loves him. Even if she’s living with him. Even if she’s married to him. Even if she’s the mother of his children.
As my lover discovered, willingness and consent should never be bullied out of a woman as the human body can’t fake what the mind doesn’t want.
Not that the pain his assumption caused me even registered. The illusion of his discovery was mine, and mine only.
When lewd remarks Trump made about women in 2005 resurfaced during the 2016 presidential race, women in America started sharing stories of sexual assault.
Online, in print, on TV, we grew a momentum designed to send one simple message to men: enough! The conversation lasted a hot minute. On Nov 8, 2016, America had the chance to let Trump know she wasn’t his for the taking. She submitted instead, courtesy of an archaic electoral system set up centuries ago.
As Dr Christine Blasey Ford put her life on the line to try and educate America about the character of Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, sexual assault was once again under the spotlight. For another hot minute. And women were back to being the target of slut-shaming, ad hominem attacks, and, in the case of Dr Blasey Ford, death threats.
Since the day of his inauguration, Trump has been reminding us daily that our bodies solely exist for the sexual enjoyment and reproductive use of men like him, men who legislate about organs they do not have and about how to use them. That America should now be represented at home and abroad by an individual who deems it acceptable for half of the population to treat the other half like a commodity is an ever-growing orange stain on the moral fabric of this country.
Aghast, I observe this America reified by the current administration and see a country with which millions of women like me have little in common besides mutual contempt. Rape culture and sexual assault have become so normalized that even so-called feminist editors won’t publish pieces about it unless they’re “original” or the writer is a celebrity. If you’re not willing to turn your story into clickbait, forget it.
I’m expected to share all the juicy details in the bid to force readers to empathize but self-respect continues to prevent me from selling off my privacy to the highest bidder.
If you need to be titillated because you can’t read between the lines then you, too, are part of the problem, regardless of what gender you identify with.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.