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.
The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
A Thousand Stories
I was out to hear a band and a guy I didn’t know put his hand on my ass. The place was packed, everyone body-to-body, but this was no accidental brush-up, no quick cop-a-feel. He reached around my hip, grabbed a fistful of my ass, pulled me into him, and grinned. “Let go,” I said, trying to jerk back, but he was too—I don’t want to say strong. Using your power, be it physical, societal, or financial to intimidate or manipulate or take something not given—that’s not strength. This guy was bigger than me. He was not stronger. “Let go,” I said again, but he yanked me closer, pressing his crotch into my stomach so I’d know his cock was hard and said, still with that pretentious fucking grin, “You have to say please.”
I’d like to tell you that I spat in his face or kneed him in the balls or staked him through the heart, but I can’t. “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them,” wrote Gavin de Becker in The Gift of Fear. “While at core, women are afraid men will kill them.” I hate admitting that. I hate knowing how fast and often these moments turn violent. I hate that afterwards I asked the bouncer to walk me to my car. I hate how I still don’t listen to that band. I hate the memories that show up uninvited every time I go out dancing, or park my car on a side street, or swim, or clean the floor, or walk into the stairwell at the college where I worked or the restaurant where I worked or the L or the street between the L and my apartment or the alley where I walk my dog every morning or any of a thousand places. There are a thousand stories. Here’s why I chose this one:
I said it. I said please. I asked this asshole, nicely, to give me back my body. Look: I know how small this experience is in comparison, but whenever I hear talk about the “right” way to stand up for yourself, the “right” way to protest, I taste that please: bitter, burning, furious. Ask nicely to make decisions about your own body. Ask nicely for police to stop killing you. Ask nicely for your family to not be deported. Be patient as we discuss whether or not you may go to the bathroom. Be patient as we decide whether or not you are allowed to marry the person you’re in love with. Be calm when there’s a gun in your face. Be calm when there are tanks on your street. Be polite in the tear gas. Smile as your schools are closed. Don’t be so fucking sensitive.
(Excerpted from The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra. Copyright © 2017 by Megan Stielstra. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Harper Perennial.)
Emily Doe and the Ghost of Lucretia
If you look for Lucretia, draped in red and half-naked, it is not hard to find her. Sometimes she is frozen in hopeless struggle, splayed white hands on her attacker’s chest. More often she is portrayed with a dagger in her hand and a desperate gaze turned toward heaven on her face. The point of the knife rests between her breasts, a drop of blood hardening like a gem at its silver edge.
Enshrined in the founding mythology of ancient Rome, Lucretia was a rape victim who called down vengeance on the man who defiled her. Her declaration propelled the Republic into being. There are many versions of her story, but this is the plot: A dutiful wife, a king’s son, and his fatal bargain. She would submit to his advances or he would kill both her and one of her slaves, proclaiming to the world that he had caught her in a forbidden tryst. And then a suicide, hers.
Why did Lucretia turn the blade on herself? Did she have a choice? I don’t think so. Lucretia’s fate was fixed from the moment that man who was not her husband entered her bedroom in the dark. The only “pure” rape victim is a dead one. To stop forever-condemning eyes and doubts about her innocence, she had to stop her heart.
It is not difficult to spot Lucretia’s ghost today, hovering two thousand years later. She’s echoed in the words hurled at “Emily Doe” by the defense attorney in the Stanford campus rape case that unfolded in 2016, questioning her culpability in a crime that devastated her, so typical of the American criminal justice response to sexual assault. In the judge’s firm finality that her assailant should not have to suffer too much. In a father’s assurance that his son’s ruined reputation was punishment enough. In the letters written by friends in support of the rapist. (It isn’t fair to imprison him for her “decision,” one wrote.) To survive rape and then dare to ask for retribution is to jump willingly into a pit of stigma and judgement.
Most rape survivors aren’t like Emily Doe. Their cases have no heroic witnesses. Their attackers are not convicted or sentenced—most rapists are not charged at all, because no report will ever be filed against them. Most will never stand up in court. They might, however, run into their attackers on the street or at a restaurant or in the dorm hall they share—a laughing, walking shadow shaped like fear.
Most rape survivors have not published statements affirming their right to be heard, to be seen, to be believed. Instead, their words are muffled by the noise of a thousand eager skeptics. They shoulder blame that should belong to their rapists. They live with guilt and shame that they do not deserve, a quiet burden that can fester and distort. For the crime of survival, we brand them as sinners.
The news cycle has forgotten Emily Doe, although she is still waking up with a weight on her back that was not there before. To etch her honest experience into a speech for public consumption was a courageous act. She remains anonymous, but she knew what she risked by raising her voice in a world that doesn’t want to hear her truth.
Her message to the judge and the court and America ends with a note of hope, despite having spent one whole year of her life being buffeted and battered by raging forces outside her control, despite all the people who shut their ears and minds against her:
I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you.
It is time to bury Lucretia. There is no grace to be found in penalizing the innocent for the sins of the guilty. If we want to put rapists behind bars so they don’t strike again, if we want to encourage victims to report their assaults—we must stop treating their living souls as tarnished goods. They are not sullied; they are not dulled or lessened or stained. They are human and whole and full of light.
One boy has a poster above his bed of someone’s tits with the word GOALS underneath, a mock motivational poster. It’s funny! It’s ha ha funny! so I ha ha laugh! and after sex he says you have nice breasts, but you know that already, and I do know that already, and future-me will wish I had said something about goals, and future-me will wish I hadn’t shared my nice breasts with boys who have fake motivational posters on their walls. One boy says do you know him? when a stranger tries to rip open my shirt at a party. Another boy says nice tits! to me at a different party, but because I don’t like it when people talk about my nice tits outside the room with the fake motivational poster, I dump a beer on his head and future-me is #pleasedwithmyself. Future-me will do a lot of head-scratching about why past-me cared so much about what boys thought about my body. Future-me will remember that one boy said come home and another said call your mother and another said never forget how much you hurt me. Luckily for no one, I have an excellent memory, and future-me will remember how another boy wrote I love you with every drop of blood in my heart in an e-mail, which freaked me out, but wasn’t the worst thing a boy would say to me. Wasn’t like the boys who said nice ass, nice breasts, grow your hair long, wear your hair short. Said too short, not short enough about my skirts, because I wore skirts even though I hated my legs, because this was California and I was in college, was that kind of girl or not that kind of girl depending who you asked, just don’t ask me. Future-me is now the kind of woman with goals, a poster-woman for goals, the kind of woman who gets shit done, a buzzkill who frowns when someone makes a slightly sexist comment at a party, who drains her glass of wine and leaves early because why stick around until someone says nice tits? I do my best to leave before nice tits o’clock, but it’s so hard to get the timing right. I’m the kind of woman who says it’s all about timing. What kind of woman isn’t? We’re all sick of waiting our turn to speak, we’re all drowning in tit-talk and short skirts and not-enough-wine-in-the-world. Sorry to be such a buzzkill. Maybe you didn’t hear me the first time: I’m the kind of woman who gets shit done, who is done giving shits, who is getting her buzz on. I’ve got goals and I’m killing it. You could say I’m the tits.
Digging through the Sediment
Let me tell you about the time when I stood up and said no.
I knew I had to do it because he was a good guy—a feminist! The kind of guy who wouldn’t be dangerous, and would hear me. I knew I had to do it because I couldn’t take the slight, the you-don’t-matter, lying down again. I was cracking at the seams, oozing so much rage that my face had settled into a permanent, resting don’t that vibrated like timpani. I had buried my softness in a shell of fuckoffness.
He made a comment, and it wasn’t even about me. For months, it had been comments about him, other women, what he liked in bed, how tall she was, how young. He wasn’t trying to sleep with me, so it didn’t count. He was just a good guy with bad boundaries, and nobody had told him to stop, yet, so how could he be blamed? If nobody says no, it must be okay, right? It must be okay.
I didn’t want to be the one. I shook. I expected that nobody would listen. I expected catastrophe. I was used to the pushing down, the silent endurance. I have always put a smile on my face, shaken it off, tried to not let it bother me (it bothered me), let it go (it lodged), and cooperated (because I thought I had to, or because I was confused). I have told myself I liked it, liked him, or at least it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t hate him. He wasn’t repulsive. It could have been worse. I could have done worse than Sam and Derrick and Christopher and Michael and Josh and Matt and Bob and Richard and Jesse and Steve and all the ones whose names I don’t remember or never knew.
Maybe they didn’t mean it the way I took it? I’m sensitive, always so sensitive. It’s less about him than all the hims that came before. They’ve piled like sediment, the first a film on the bottom of the glass. The second, a film on top of the first film, a lighter shade. The third, thick like molasses. Soon the glass was close to spilling, and I was stuck teetering through work like a waitress with a martini on a tray.
I said no because I had no place left. I had looked for someplace, anyplace, to add another layer of sediment. But at the brim of the glass, there was only the book of a woman on fire. Ice-cold hands. Ash in the mouth. Stone in the heart. Bile on the quiver in the throat. Tears.
I didn’t actually say, “No.” I used the words “not appropriate.” And I softened it, saying that I just wanted him to be a good guy, that I knew he was better than this, that it could get him in trouble.
He was calm and he agreed. And he thanked me for the feedback. No yelling.
Still, I had lost my footing in the world, and was back at twelve, becoming visible, monstrous, womanflesh. My ligaments were ungluing. The secrets the secrets the secrets were brimming over. And this is the injustice. Far greater than what was said, or how it was said, or whether he was sorry, or whether he will change this time. I was a mess for a week and him? He left that moment as easily as he’d stepped into it, as though nothing had happened at all.
A Feeble No
‘Beta, don’t say no,’ Aunty will coo,
while she serves you
You are four when you learn
that your stomach could explode
but you must respect Aunty by eating a sixth
and a seventh.
‘Don’t be like your sister,’
Uncle will hiss
at the stubborn girl who has folded her hands
and overturned her plate
and let both ghee and parathas spill.
At twelve, your sister
will refuse a ride in Uncle’s car
and buy you an ice lolly
on the walk back home.
Watch it melt into sweet, sticky
on your summer dress
while she talks.
‘Say we drove back with him.’
That same year at school, you will learn
which music teacher to avoid.
The boys will tell you
you have nothing to fear.
‘Who will touch a bullock like you?’
At nineteen, your father will tell you
to throw a jacket on that dress.
You’ll make a habit of wearing
your backpack down your front
you get on
the Churchgate fast train to college.
Until a man grabs your butt.
You’ll become an expert
who can tell
from the look of the man
five feet away
if he’ll knock into you
You’ll learn to say no with your elbows.
And not now, please, with your mouth.
You’ll say you have work and meetings,
you’re unwell this Saturday and the next.
You’ll make human rings around dancing friends.
You’ll cross your legs tight, tight
until your thighs chafe from the sweat.
You’ll drink five fewer drinks.
Let your hand hover on speed dial.
Lock your car door a hundred times.
Text friends the word ‘safe’ before passing out at home.
Like Cinderella, you’ll have a curfew.
But never a dance with a Prince.
Instead you’ll have boys
(straight out of bad movies)
who will tell you they love you
for a wager.
You’ll hear 500 is the going rate
to fuck you.
When your drunk boss puts a hand on your knee
you’ll put a hand on his hand
to hold it down against
the strange gravitational pull
hands up instead of down.
You’ll show up to work the next day.
Overnight, at twenty-five,
your friend will become a statistic.
Her security guard will steal her keys,
and creep into her flat while she sleeps.
Later, the judge,
will say ‘her boxers excited him,’
much before she says ‘he stabbed her 16 times.’
You must remember she said
no with her hands
with the sharp of her fingernails
with every kick she drove into his groin.
You must remember how she fought
for little things
like your right to use the office printer.
Try to be a good girl.
And remember how she blew fish faces
in the glass
just before lunch.
And liked her noodles flat and Malaysian.
and took lunch breaks to shop sales.
Remember last night
and the cupcakes. And how
she broke her diet
for the first time in months
to eat not one.
Make them raspberry in your head.
Double layered Red velvet.
Cream cheese and blueberries.
Note: In September 2017, the High Court in Delhi, India overturned charges of rape against filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui. In his order, the judge wrote that in instances where the accused and the victim are familiar with another, lines of consent are blurred. Specifically, he observed: “Instances of woman behavior are not unknown that a feeble ‘no’ may mean a ‘yes’.”
Unspeakably Meaningful to Me
Yesterday, a man in my Facebook newsfeed posted photos of a scantily clad Rose McGowan with the headline, “Oh, Harvey, I think we had a misunderstanding…” It was not a joke. The implication was that McGowan’s attire in her publicity poses had contributed to her sexual harassment. Furthermore, that by portraying women in sexualized clothing or for that matter nude, our culture creates the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.
When I was nineteen, I was raped while wearing heart-shaped Lolita sunglasses. It was 1978, the summer break between my sophomore and junior year of college. A boy I met had given me the gift of the heart-shaped Lolita sunglasses and when I put them on he’d told me I looked fetching. And even though I considered myself a feminist, I also considered myself girlish and playful. Being told I was fetching made me feel beautiful and desirable, and I liked that feeling. I wore those glasses every day, all summer long, until I was raped.
I’ve never believed that those sunglasses were an invitation to my rapist to rape me. Were my unshaved legs an invitation? I did believe—I felt—that they were an announcement. That’s partially why I wore them. I wanted the world, as well as myself, to see a sexy and fun young woman.
Years later, I learned that Sue Lyon, who played Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s film, never actually wore heart-shaped sunglasses in the movie; they were worn specifically for the publicity photos taken to promote the movie. They were an advertisement created after the movie was made. Furthermore, in Lolita, no one is hurt because of their attire, since the story of Lolita is fictitious.
In films, in theater, in advertising, in stories, dress is both costume and character.
Real life is more complicated. In Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Elizabeth Wilson writes that “Dress is always unspeakably meaningful.” Attire covers, protects and can, symbolically, act as an extension of the self. It can signal wealth, status, and perhaps, I’ll grant, availability, up to a certain point. It’s that point—the one between image and reality—where culture attitudes like the one expressed in my Facebook feed, as well as by Mayim Bialik in her op-ed for the New York Times, still seem to be stuck.
Certainly, those sunglasses became unspeakably meaningful to me. But were they to my rapist? Even though I didn’t believe they caused my rape, that question continued to haunt me. For a long time after my rape, I was frightened that my attire had directed significance—blame—to an uncomfortable place. To me. Because taken to its most acute, disturbing inference, the semiotics of clothing implies that I should have been paying better attention to what I was wearing.
Is there a link then between attire and violence? When asked if their victims clothing played any part in the assault, most convicted rapists can’t remember what their victims wore. I wonder if Weinstein remembers? Old ladies, infants, and men are all the unfortunate victims of sexual assault. In an article in the Washington Post, Mikki Kendall wrote, “Despite the fact that 9 percent of sexual assault victims are young men, we don’t insist that they dress differently. We don’t warn young men not to tempt their teachers with their bare biceps, knees or other body parts.”
It should be clear by now that cultural beliefs like the one I encountered in my Facebook feed, proclaiming that rape can be prevented by the victim’s behavior or attire, are myths as false as they are reassuring. Though painful, it would still help to me to know that putting those sunglasses on my face impacted what happened. At least then I can imagine having agency and power. I did not have either because both were taken away from me. What is also clear to me, is that the sexualization and objectification of particularly, but not uniquely, the female body, shifts the responsibility for the violence perpetrated upon it, back onto that victimized body.
That’s the point of advertising, to convince us that we are powerless to objectification. To convince us that the image is the reality. But we are not powerless. I’d like to believe that most of us, possess the cognitive capacity to differentiate between a photo, a story, and an actual person. I’d like to believe we have that much civility.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is 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.
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