ENOUGH will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories. This week we feature writing from former Rumpus editors.
Of Course, Me Too
Mary-Kim Arnold, former Essays Editor and current Advisory Board Member
I don’t want to write about it. Don’t want to post it on my Facebook wall or tweet about it. I don’t want to participate, but I am not trying to make a statement through my silence. Or perhaps whatever statement I might be trying to make is still too inarticulate, too unformed.
Of course, me too. I grew up in the body of a woman. Of fucking course.
I was raped in college. We called it “date rape” then. To qualify it. Not quite real rape.
And in fact, I was confused, too.
It wasn’t until, on the phone the next morning, I recounted the incident moment by moment to my best friend, that it seemed possible.
“He raped you,” my friend said. I said no, not really. I mean, we had had sex before.
“You told him to stop, and he didn’t,” my friend insisted. “You asked him to use protection and he didn’t. He held down your hands. What about that isn’t rape?”
My lip was swollen from where he had bitten. I ached a little. Mostly, I felt sick to my stomach. Like I had seen something I wished I could unsee.
Eventually, I went to my advisor. To a dean who handled women’s issues. It would be untrue for me to say I remember exactly what they said. But I do know the message was clear. There’s not much to be done.
I wish I could remember exactly what happened after. I didn’t see him again after that night. I wish I could remember if he called and I ignored it. Or if he simply stopped calling. I say I wish I could remember, but I suppose I really don’t.
A few years later, after he graduated, I wrote him a letter. I had gotten his address from a mutual friend. Wrote to him because I wanted him to know that I knew it was rape. To name it. Told him that I was sending a copy of the letter to his parents, who lived not far from where I had grown up. I didn’t do this, but I wanted him to be fearful, even if only for a short while. It was the only thing I felt like I could do.
Years later, he returned to campus for some event and we ended up—by sheer coincidence—the only two people riding the same elevator for what was probably twenty seconds. We both looked straight ahead. When the doors open, he strode out ahead of me. I let the doors close again.
There is no ending to this story. There are only countless variations on a theme, before and since. The boy, ten years older than me who asked when I was seven years old if I knew where babies came from. Told me it would be our secret when he put his hand there. The man who sold jewelry on the street who called out to me, nearly every time I passed, “Do you want to blow me, China doll?”
There are others. Many others. Men who meant more to me, men I trusted more. It is harder for me to write of them.
Lisa Mecham, former Contributing Editor
When I was in high school, I received a package in the mail. I was out when it arrived so my mom left it in my bedroom; a square box wrapped in brown shipping paper waiting for me on my twin bed. My name and address scrawled in pen on top. No return address. This was long before the days of Amazon so packages were an usual occurrence and I was surprised, giddy. Who sent me something?
I ripped it open and unfolded the top to find the box stuffed with shredded newspaper. The anticipation, a warmth building in my belly, I thrust my hands in. They cupped round objects in the box— how, for a brief moment, panic is pleasure—confusion, a shriek as I yanked my hands out.
My mom came running. I’d skittered to the opposite side of my room, as far away from the box as possible. She looked inside and gingerly moved the newspaper strips around, gasping as she pulled up one plump cantaloupe, then another. “What the hell?” she said as she threw them back in the box.
She went to the kitchen to make a phone call. I could hear her voice, “Who sent them? What do they mean?” I stayed on the floor, the box on my bed. The objects inside their nest of newsprint.
The melons. Two melons. I’d never noticed my breasts as anything special. Now they were no longer on my body, they were in that box. Netted rinds, wet orange when sliced. Slimy seeds.
Somebody, some boy, some man—I knew it was a male, in my heart, in the sour of my stomach I just knew it—picking them off a pile in the grocery store. Preparing the box for me, the riiiiippping over and over again of newspaper, how he curved his hands around the melons, bringing them to his lips before placing them inside.
Who sent them? Clearly someone who knew me, who knew where I lived.
My mom came back for the box and took it away. She helped me get ready for bed, even though I was too old for such routines. Pajamas warm fresh from the dryer. Sheets pulled up to my chin. She sat with me until I fell asleep.
I dreamt of everyday objects. Of taunt, of torture.
Navigating the Lifelong River
Lauren O’Neal, former Editorial Assistant
When I was fourteen, I was molested by a massage therapist who was supposed to be easing my chronic back pain. A few months ago, I was sexually harassed by three separate strangers within twenty-four hours, including a man who physically grabbed me and turned me around in order to force me to take his phone number. You can probably infer what the fifteen years in between that were like. And as the #MeToo social media campaign made clear beyond doubt, virtually every woman has had to navigate the same lifelong river of harassment, assault, and/or rape, often much worse than what I’ve experienced. (Many men have experienced this, too, usually at the hands of other men, but that’s somewhat beyond the scope of this particular, short essay.)
I find it easy enough to explain why any one encounter was frightening or repulsive or traumatic, but it’s harder to express the cumulative effect all these encounters have on you as they gather year after year. How you never get a break because even on days when you don’t get catcalled, you’re still bracing yourself for it, still looking for escape routes in case you need to run. How you stop trusting the kindness of any man after the third or fourth time a man withdraws that kindness when you won’t sleep with him. How you can connect intellectually with a male colleague, classmate, or professor and think, Finally, a man who treats women the same way he treats men! only to find out he’s hit on, hounded, even stalked a female colleague or classmate. How unsafe a doctor’s office can feel.
There isn’t a better word for it than dehumanizing. You go about your day implicitly knowing you’re a human full of all your own subtle emotional tides, your mundane concerns and opinions, your contemplations about art and politics and philosophy. And then, without fail, some man shows up to remind you that he doesn’t see you that way at all. To him, you’re not a human with an internal life, you’re a sex object without thoughts or feelings. If he finds you an attractive sex object, he will harass you about it. If he finds you an unattractive sex object, he might also harass you about it. And this happens over and over again until you realize most men see you more as a sex object than as a human, and nothing you could ever do—no selfless good deed, no heartbreaking work of art, no genius invention—would ever convince them otherwise.
Indeed, society as a whole views you more as a sex object than a human, which is why when men hassle and hurt you or any other woman, they almost never face any serious consequences. It would be terrible to slap a human’s ass on a dark street late at night or to masturbate in front of a human on public transit, but to do those things to a sex object? That’s what they’re there for, isn’t it?
And so when yet another man does something inexcusable or criminal to a woman, most people treat it as a sort of minor character flaw and provide endless excuses for his behavior. He didn’t know any better; he’s just clumsy at this kind of thing; he needs a second chance, a third, a fourth.
No one says of a bank robber, “Oh, he didn’t know it was wrong to rob a bank. Now he’s learned his lesson, so there’s no sense in making a big fuss. He doesn’t need to return the money to the bank or face charges. That would be really bad for him! He pinky swears he won’t do it again.” No one even says that of a kid shoplifting candy. But when it comes to harassment, assault, even rape, that’s the most common response. Not an unfortunate response that happens every now and again, but the number one go-to response, from men and women alike.
It’s the response I got from the dance teacher who referred me to the massage therapist who molested me, when, years later, I warned her not to refer anyone else to him. “You must have just caught him on a bad day,” she said. If molesting children can be written off as the result of a bad day, what can’t be written off? If you define women and girls as not quite human, sexual predation becomes a victimless crime, and a victimless crime doesn’t merit any kind of real consequences or restitution.
I’ve spent so much time thinking, talking, and writing about these issues that I didn’t think they could surprise me anymore. I certainly wasn’t surprised by the number of women who posted #MeToo on social media. But then came the parallel #IHave campaign, in which men admitted to their own past offenses against women and pledged to do better in the future, and I was reminded there are still some things that can make me raise my eyebrows.
On the one hand, I’m glad some men are taking responsibility for their actions, and some posts did demonstrate true growth and allyship. Particularly when men committed to speaking up when their buddies said or did something sexist, I felt grateful for the solidarity.
But on the other hand, I truly didn’t realize how many of my male friends had done things they described as “acting inappropriately,” “crossing the line,” making “cringeworthy” comments, “taking advantage,” “ignoring boundaries.” Of course there were far fewer #IHave posts than #MeToo posts, but the number was higher than I would’ve expected. Like anyone, I’d had my suspicions about certain male acquaintances, but those weren’t the ones posting. The ones posting were ones I never suspected. To put it in oversimplified hashtag terminology, I somehow still believed that #YesAllWomen had experienced harassment, but #NotAllMen had committed it.
Although the replies to these #IHave posts are invariably full of praise and admiration—such maturity, such responsibility!—I didn’t feel like patting any backs. Instead, I felt that old familiar feeling: here were men who I thought treated me the same way they’d treat anyone, but now they’d given me reason to believe they didn’t actually quite see me as human. Once you know someone’s “crossed the line,” even when you weren’t affected by it personally, it’s hard to trust that he really prioritizes women’s humanity over his own sexual gratification.
And I couldn’t help but notice that same old pattern, the one where any sin is merely the result of a bad day and bank robbers can keep the money they stole if they just say they’re not gonna do it again, honest. If you really saw dehumanizing women as a serious problem, would you take for granted that you could admit to it on social media in front of friends, family, and strangers? Would you assume that saying you’d try to do better next time would be all the justice required of you? That you’d receive not punishment but applause and endless second chances?
A Lucky Girl
Melissa Batchelor Warnke, former Interviews Editor
I don’t believe we live in a world that wants to know the truth about sexual assault and abuse. So I’m not writing for that world. I’m writing for you, if it makes you feel understood or helps you understand. I’m writing for the future, which reminds me that I still, against experience, believe we can’t go on like this.
Age 17: I was studying abroad. My yoga teacher told me he was a very good masseuse. I believed massage was one of his studio offerings.
My yoga teacher invited me to stay after class and, after a standard back massage, turned me over to massage my breasts, then moved his hands between my legs. They stayed there for what felt like a very long time. I tried to breathe and told myself I was misunderstanding something because of cultural differences. I didn’t return for weeks and, when I came back to his studio to request my training paperwork, he noted I had gained weight. I did not report.
So many women had worse experiences, and earlier. My mind tells me I am lucky to have made it to seventeen. My heart says none of us are.
Age 17: I was studying abroad. My host father began massaging my calf. “I wish I could give you a full body massage, Mimi,” he said, running his hand toward my thigh. It chilled me that he used the same nickname that my blood father, uncles, and cousins, those kind men, use for me. I mumbled some excuse and left, wandering the streets and returning home when it was very late. The next morning, I shoved my belongings in my hiker’s backpack and headed to our study abroad office. I reported.
“What do you want to do?” The program directors asked me, kindly. I wanted to tell him how it made me feel, with them in the room. My host father came to the office. I remember what I said to him, but I can’t remember how he responded. I remember they believed me and I was lucky. I knew even then how many women are not believed.
I stayed in a hostel for the remaining weeks. I never saw my host siblings again. My host sisters and I had been so close that we slept in the same bed every night—me in the middle—even though I had my own bedroom. I came to say goodbye to my host mother the day before I left the country when I knew my host father would be at the university. She gave me one of her necklaces and cried and cried. “Why would you leave home so soon, without telling any of us?” she asked me. “We loved you, Mimi.” The necklace is on my dresser.
This was my first understanding that keeping a secret could break your heart but preserve a family’s idea of itself. I prayed for better options—I still prayed then—and found none.
Age 19: A man and his friend were driving me to my house. There are details about why and how. They took a detour, then pulled over. One got out and locked us inside. The other raped me. I said no many times. I physically struggled. My rapist made me call my friend from his phone afterward and tell her that I had gotten back okay. I called him the next morning and told him he was evil. “We had a nice time,” he responded, then hung up.
I did not report because I showered afterward, destroying the evidence, before considering it. I did not report because I would have had to drop out of college to fight a losing case. I did not report because I could not say aloud what had happened. I don’t expect you to understand if it has not happened to you. I am telling you how I experienced it. I only told anyone at all because of a clerical error: months later, a doctor’s bill was sent to my parents’ address instead of mine. Still, I felt lucky. My family supported me. I survived. I am alive.
I am certain that man is a serial rapist. I’m certain that because girls before me had not reported, I was raped, and that, because I did not report, girls have been raped after me. I carry that, though it’s not mine. Sometimes I imagine that man is dead now. It’s more likely he is not.
Age 24: A bike messenger lifted my skirt and grabbed my ass. I no longer wondered why men did what they did. I wondered how he did it with one hand, without swerving.
There are other stories I am not prepared to offer.
Age 30: Even now, I feel I am being indulgent in saying what happened. No important people fall when I talk. I am not an important person. My mind tells me that’s a lie society tells women to keep them quiet. My heart is tired.
Age 30: I consider myself a survivor rather than a victim, but another truth is that many of the best parts of me did not survive. I am not stronger because I have been raped and sexually assaulted. I am more fearful and interior, less trusting. My life is smaller. I think about who that sixteen-year-old girl might have been had she grown up free. I so wish the world got to have her in it. I so wish I got to be her.
Age 30: I have told close friends and family members a handful of these stories over the years. Only one person has heard them all. They are ordinary stories. The few men I’ve told said I was a strong woman, but I don’t feel strong. I lived, and so I continued. That, too, is an ordinary story. A lucky one, even.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change.
We received over four hundred submissions to our initial call and will not be accepting additional pieces at this time. We may reopen for submissions at a future date. We also must acknowledge that the submissions we received overwhelmingly came from white, heterosexual women. While we are actively assessing how we can do better in our next call for submissions, we also believe this points to systemic inequalities that need to be addressed: who has access to healthcare and to therapy, who has been taught to speak up and who has been taught to be silent.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
Visit the archives here.