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.
This Does Not Define Me
I’ve never used the word rape before to describe it, never said it aloud. I know I said “no,” but I don’t know if he heard me, what with my face so hard in the pillow that I couldn’t breathe. My face so hard in the pillow because his hand was firm against the back of my head. Maybe he was trying to make me be quiet; I think we can all agree that there are better ways to do that.
I’m not special; I wasn’t injured, not physically, not like the women who are attacked, beaten, hurt, traumatized. Scarred. I don’t want to distract any attention or bring shame to the strong women who must fight that fight. Maybe, though, the difference between the sex I planned to have and the sex he did have that night, though, maybe that is an attack.
These words are hard to say, even twenty years later. I’m ashamed. I don’t want to be a victim and I don’t want to be that girl again. I’m ashamed of who I was to end up that night in that bed, face down with my head in that awful pillow. He had no emotional power over me. He was merely the tool I used to hate myself.
Can such a man rape me?
Can such a woman be raped?
I don’t remember where my hands were. I know they were useless to me. They didn’t help me breathe. They didn’t stop him from pushing too hard. They couldn’t pull his hand from the back of my head.
Rape is a word that carries tremendous emotional baggage with it: victim, blame, pity. Shame. Violence. Rape is power. Desire for power. He had the power, of course, despite being so many things I didn’t want: pot smoker, heavy drinker, hunter.
It wasn’t like checking a box: power or powerless (check here!). But looking back now, I see it. Coming out of a painful breakup with a married man, I didn’t want the responsibility of a relationship, of truth, of honesty. I wanted to hate myself for loving someone else’s husband. And this man in a crappy hotel room was my path to self-hatred.
I’ve tried so hard to forget that moment, when he came into me hard from behind, doggy style if you will, his legs holding mine too close together. I tried to stop. I just wanted to shift so that it didn’t hurt so much. I wanted to face him, to get control. I wanted it not to be as it was. And then his hand was on the back of my head as I said “no” over and over into that cheap hotel room pillow.
I remember now when—ten years later—the boyfriend whose light helped me fight off my own darkness, who helped me regain my sense of self, I remember when he wanted to try something different, to spice up our love life, something too close to what had happened that night. I could not get away from the vicious memories, the need to pull away, to run away. I remember overreacting, embarrassment, and tears. I couldn’t tell him why. I wouldn’t tell him why.
I thought I could overcome it, this failure. Like I needed to find a way to enjoy it, to get my legs a little closer together because I knew he wanted it. But I knew it would hurt, and it did. And still I tried, because I thought that’s how I would move on. I thought that’s how it would disappear. It wasn’t his fault that I never told him the truth. It’s not about him; it was about me.
It was about all the baggage that comes with the word “rape.”
This is not an appropriation of victimhood. It is instead the realization, angry rejection, and eventually the unsettled acknowledgement that I am—though I don’t want to be—a victim of something. Whether you or I or he or she calls it rape or the consequences of my own actions or the results of a situation that went too far, the fact is that there were two of us in that room and one said “no.” I made poor choices that put me in that room on that night, but I certainly didn’t know what the choices would lead to.
I’ve never used the word rape to describe it, never said it aloud, though it’s been lurking in the periphery of my mind, waiting for me. I pushed the word, the thoughts, the memories, away.
Nearly twenty years later, confronting these memories and truths unsettles me to the point of distraction, to the point of looking for a door out of whatever room I’m in. But confronting these memories also teaches me how far I’ve come in all these years, how far I came of my own accord in so many ways. It is just one small piece of the much larger story that is my life. It may be a moment of darkness, but it does not define who I am.
The magic pixie dust that I most want would wipe this all of this away, turn it into a bad joke about a man in a red thong who doesn’t realize he’s the punchline. The magic pixie dust that I most need doesn’t make me forget, but lets me forgive myself. I can look at myself in the mirror with love, can’t I? Can I look without blame?
Maybe not today, but some days.
moving back to the city
where i was first raped
is a ready kind of war.
is a map of puckered silence.
a quickened step, a sour sunset,
racing light as it slips to slit. watch
streets like violent silk,
soft savage, keys between
my knuckles, lady scissorhands
ready to slash the sky to violet scraps.
in the dark &
in the day. alleyways:
convenient shortcuts for
some, traps for others, shattered
gold, ghouls glittering on every corner.
a map of pink regret,
corpses of all the girls i know
with names of men marqueeing their
bodies, who can’t go to certain clubs, stores
a minefield of maybe,
of what if he’s there, re-routing
coffee runs to avoid all the hims that
hummed liquored hymns cross our hips
we try to
forget but geography
doesn’t, letters clang against our
temples like flags, marking all the graves.
is like this: a riot of
roses unfolding in my
bath, sugar & lavender
from the farmer’s market
boiling on stovetop, making
syrup so strong you can’t
sour it, can’t erase us, try
& dam(n) an ocean, the
breast that keeps on
feeding, try & cut a
worm, the body
that tills the
t s u n a m i
i drove to dexter yesterday.
passed the house
passed a field of
sunflowers, each black
mouth singing my name,
a chorus of self,
each lionmaned flower waving
me on, propelling me to the
blueberry farm, where my
sister & i filled red pails
to the brim with
& snuck bites
____& went home
______& baked a
for our grandmother
________who is the fiercest silver,
______a pressed diamond
burning in my mouth.
a new map.
after a girl
my sweet, not
if you ever come home,
you’ll find a city bursting with
y e l l o w
A Tightly Held Truth
No one is hardwired to handle a rape. Yet a survivor’s behavior during and after a sexual assault is often called question. At twenty-three, I was out with my coworkers at a bar when I ran into a guy I’ll call “N.” He invited me back to his loft nearby to hang out and smoke a little pot. Even though weed on top of a couple of drinks usually made me anti-social, it seemed like a good idea at the time. We sat on his bed and made out for a few minutes before I decided I needed a short nap, which I intended to take fully clothed.
When I awoke, N had unzipped my jeans and was touching me. Half-conscious and disoriented, I allowed him to slide them off completely. When I realized what was happening, I didn’t run or kick or scream. I closed my eyes and pretended I was somewhere else. Like with a man I wanted to be with. Or floating in a lake. N put his head between my legs, and my body responded accordingly. As soon as I had an orgasm, he stealthily slipped himself inside of me. He didn’t look me in the eye when he did this, nor did he use a condom.
“Stop,” I asked. It was like he didn’t hear me at first—or maybe he didn’t want to hear me. “Stop,” I tried again, my body now moving up and down against my will. When our eyes met, he finally stopped and rolled off me.
“I guess I got carried away,” was all he said.
It happened so fast that I didn’t do or say anything. Instead, I turned so that my back was facing him. He slung his arm over my shoulder. We were both still wearing our shirts.
As soon as he fell asleep, I put my pants back on, tiptoed toward the door, and opened it as quietly as I could. When I got home, I laid in bed, memorizing the grooves of my ceiling light fixture. I knew that I’d never had the chance to consent to sex of any kind, but wasn’t able to fathom what had been done to me. In the scheme of things, it wasn’t so far off from times I’d been pressured into consenting to sex when I really didn’t want to. So, I mentally filed it under “bad sexual experience” and did my best to move on.
A few weeks later, I gave N a ride home after work. Treating him like any normal gentleman caller would better fit the narrative my brain was straining to produce. Just a misunderstanding. It only lasted a few minutes. I’ll be fine. When we got to his house, in a desolate part of town, he asked slyly if I wanted to come in. He was flirting with me.
“I can’t,” I lied with my eyes straight ahead. “I’m seeing someone.”
He looked disappointed and stepped out of my car, his boots hitting the pavement loudly. I wouldn’t hear from him again for another ten years.
When journalists try to explain why it takes women so long to come forward about sexual assault, they often cite fear of not being believed—or fear of retribution. They note the possibility of re-traumatization by police officers or the court system, which can be unlikely to bring a case and even less likely to secure a conviction. No one ever mentions that sometimes it takes ten years just to come out of denial, to make sense of a traumatic experience.
In the decade that followed, I never considered N a sexual partner: a partnership implies both parties’ active participation. Still, I managed to live in denial that I’d been raped. Instead, I changed everything I could about myself, in hopes of escaping the truth. I dyed my blonde hair dark and moved to another city, where I managed to build a career and get married—all without admitting that anything out of the ordinary had ever happened.
This was no easy task. I was in a constant battle with my mind, which I experienced on the surface as anxiety. To avoid specific memories, I had to avoid adjacent ones. Let’s say I were to start thinking about pizza and then let my mind wander to how much I love deep dish, and then back to living in Chicago (my old city, where it happened). At that point, I’d be in enemy territory and need to do something drastic—like curse at myself—to drown out the memory before it had a chance to creep in.
“Fuck. Shit!” I’d yell out of nowhere.
Eventually, my anxiety bubbled over, and I finally had to reckon with what happened.
The longer survivors spend fighting—ourselves, our institutions, or our culture—the less incentive we have to offer anyone else an opportunity to poke holes in what has become, by necessity, a tightly held truth. Because every time you willfully follow a thread of doubt, it threatens to unravel your progress. It leads you back to the event, which you’re forced to re-live before arriving at the same conclusion: what happened was not your fault.
When I was in therapy, ten years after the fact, I followed one of those threads: I emailed N to confront him. This may sound strange, but deep down, a part of me hoped to find some redeeming quality in him. Something that could rekindle an improbable narrative—one I’d worked so hard for so long to believe in. That what happened was just some big misunderstanding. (It wasn’t.) Despite his protest at my use of the word “rape,” he mostly agreed with my account, and even suggested that since I was asleep on his bed, he probably thought I was “into it.”
Hearing his motivations, however unnerving, confirmed that I was not to blame but merely a casualty in a culture where men feel entitled to women’s bodies.
My behavior made perfect sense. It was his that didn’t.
Jane’s True Story
|Jane’s True Story by Sara Kuhns
|Jane’s Super-Ego as Informed by the Dominant Male Culture
|At fifteen, I was hanging out at the pizza place with my friends. Another night watching guys smile and talk to them while I inevitably said something dumb or annoying, like “Who’s Robert Plant?” Another night being alone in a crowd, wearing my brave face, trying to act like I was having a good time. This place was careless with its alcohol. We couldn’t go up to the bar and buy our own, but we could drink.
|Your family loved you, you had friends. Your life was so much better than some. Why wasn’t this enough?
|I drank beer, watched my crush move easily, not seeming to care about this clique or that. I admired his confidence, his ease. I’d stand at the edge of a group, laugh with them, then drink another beer when they dismissed me. I remember turning around, trying to find a place to fit. Then my crush was there. He stood beside me and I got giggly and stupid, but he didn’t seem to care. He grinned and asked if I wanted to get high, I jumped at the chance to hang out with him, laughing when his friend bundled into the car beside me. This was my crush and his sidekick. It was going to be like in the movies; we were going to be friends, and then he would fall in love with me. They gave me a can of beer, passed me a joint. They thought I was funny; they laughed when I laughed; they passed me another can, and shared another joint. I felt like I belonged. I felt safe and protected.
|Pathetic. Looking for self-worth by getting drunk and hoping someone will notice you.
It was 1974. You watched Buster & Billie that summer. It was so romantic, boy falls in love with girl who fucks for self-esteem. You were asking for it.
Then I blacked out.
For the first time.
|The memory is a montage. I remember pain. I remember trying to sit up, not sure how I ended up in the back of his mom’s station wagon. I remember immobility. I remember recognizing an intersection. I remember the red light. Cars lined up, one driver looking at the wagon. I remember not wanting to be there. I remember not being able to speak.
|Being drunk and stoned and blacked out didn’t make you innocent. Idiot.
|I remember beginning to sober up. Trying to fit what I had done in my head. I remember not wanting them to know how unclean, how dirty I felt. And when the one who’d been driving wanted his turn, he took me into an empty lot, pressed me back against a chain link fence. He asked me if I was okay with this. I remember being glad it was night, because shame covered me. I didn’t want him to have that power. I slurred, “Yeah.” I watched him open his jeans. He took out his penis but couldn’t get an erection. He took me back to the car. My crush was sitting at the wheel, smoking a cigarette, nodding. Grinning.||You didn’t get raped. You got stupid.
Yet, you still hoped he’d love you.
|They took me home stone-sober. My head as clear as a coastal morning, shrouded in the fog of self-judgement. They parked on the street, and the friend asked me which room was mine. He asked me to undress in front of the window. I said, “Alright.”
|Who the fuck would’ve wanted to watch your skinny-assed, no-breasts-chest undress?
|Inside, I told my parents the party was okay. I went to my room, looked at night pressed against the windows, and turned off the light. Crawling into bed in my clothes, I stuffed the covers against my face, soaking them with silent regret. Humiliation covered me that night. Took me again. Then it invited morning, and I lay under every blanket I owned, exposed.
|I don’t feel sorry for you. Just sorry that I was you.
|I was shit.||Yeah, you were.
|One of my friends called, told me I was wasted when they saw me leave. I wanted to ask why they didn’t stop me; instead, afraid of blame, I quashed regret and sorrow. I told a different story. I lost my virginity to my crush. “It was great,” I said. Soiling my reputation to save my soul.
|I don’t even know where this logic came from. Don’t even think of claiming this is a rape story.
|I gave myself permission to stay drunk, high on anything I could find. And whored my way through high school. Each boy fed my narrative, allowed me to pretend I wasn’t dirty, unwelcome, ugly.
|Bullshit. You felt the judgement. You knew they threw you away when they were done.
|I imagined myself powerful, my open legs a weapon. Truth was, I was just a broken girl. A liar who could barely believe her own stories.
|Not quite. You accidentally had an orgasm and discovered a new drug of choice. Goddamn whore.
|I dropped out. Ran away. Left the Midwest for California. I thought sunlight, like bleach, would purify. But the stain of self-loathing is hard to remove. Dousing it with alcohol, scrubbing it with PCP, just blurred the edges, spread it over a larger space. I could hide in the pit of myself. I even let myself forget.
|Do you know what you did to your family? They didn’t even know if you were alive. Privileged ingrate.
|Until it happened again four years later. It was Halloween, and I’d gone to a concert in Denver. I was disappointed because I wasn’t high, and I couldn’t find my friends. I stuck out my thumb for a ride. This time there were five. When they were through with me, and tired of my sobs, they left me in the foothills of the Rockies. In the middle of the night. One of the guys got out of the van, and when I backed away from him he said, “Christ, I’m not gonna do anything to you.” I remember being paralyzed, again. He turned me around, pointed at the dark road down the hill, and said, “That way to people.”
|You know, if you hadn’t been hitchhiking, if they’d pulled you off the street… But you’re forgetting you’re the same girl that fucked her way through high school. That shit doesn’t magically disappear.
|I remember watching the tail lights of the van float up the hill, and finally disappear. Somewhere a cow mooed. Somewhere, something howled. I remember how raw my body felt, how cold and exhausted I was. I wanted to curl up on the side of the road. I was ready to die and afraid of dying at the same time. I was a coward. I turned to look down the hill and a single light, like a star, seemed so very far away. I started walking. Hunched, with slow, quivering steps. I was so afraid of the darkness around me, I couldn’t think.
|Leaving you in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night was a shit thing to do.
|A lifetime later I rang a doorbell at three in the morning. A police car came. The officer had me show them where the guys dropped me off. He told me he’d kill them if he could. At the station, they interviewed me; when the detective asked if I’d taken any drugs at the concert, I told him I was given a hit of acid, but it didn’t work. He didn’t believe me. He didn’t believe anything I said.
|Sounds like a music video. But you still remember what your teeth sounded like, you were so cold.
What was it going to take to wake up and stop using mood-altering substances. Fuck. How was I supposed to make something good of my life if you continued to exercise such bad fucking judgement. God, I hate you. You disgust me.
|A different policeman drove me back to Denver, stopped at the gas station where the van had stopped after they picked me up. I watched the officer talk to the cashier, a young blond guy who looked at me for a minute. When the officer got back in the car, he told me he had the license number of the van, and that the cashier remembered hearing them talk about what they were going to do to me. My eyes burned. I remembered laughing in the front seat with my “friends.” I was inviting them to a post-concert party. I remembered the cashier looking at me.
See, guys know how to look out for each other. What was it going to take for you to figure that out?
|They had all that, but told me the guys had alibis.
Nothing ever came of it.
|Of course not. Today they call it rape culture. You know, boys will be boys and it’s a man’s world, sweetheart.|
“When will I stop being ‘the raped girl’?” I wondered aloud to my friend Tyler, smoking Marlboros on the sidewalk. It had been three years since a stranger raped me in a Tel Aviv alleyway, dust and shadows and crumbling cement. I wanted to escape the label the attack had cast upon me; though nobody called me that out loud, I felt myself forced into an identity I hadn’t asked for, and I resented its accompanying pain.
I thought I already knew the answer to my own question; I could stop being “the raped girl” when I could think of the alleyway, think of Israel, without panicking. When it was just a place, no longer a nightmare.
For years after the rape I expected never to return to Israel. I hoped that by putting thousands of miles between myself and the alleyway, I could escape it.
Years later, I still couldn’t.
I decided to go back.
I blacked out drinking the night before I got on a flight back to Tel Aviv. I fell to the ground in my friend’s driveway, threw up in a diner bathroom, and ignored what was coming. I preferred feeling nothing to feeling pain.
As the plane landed in Tel Aviv I felt like my body was being compressed, like I was shrinking. I couldn’t breathe. I pressed my spine into my seat as the wheels touched down, as if a shift in a single passenger’s bodyweight could force the plane to reverse. I had never wanted to be anywhere but my present location more than in that moment. Not in the alleyway, not in my trauma therapist’s office, recounting my worst moments. Nothing was actually happening to or around me. Just inside me.
Being in Israel was not the hell I had imagined. I had forgotten how walking through Jerusalem feels like walking through history; how the Negev is so silent that when the wind blows, it sounds like a symphony; how blue the Mediterranean appears, bluer than the sky.
But I was not there for the cities or the sounds or the sea. I was there for the alleyway, to prove to myself that it was a place, not a nightmare. Anticipatory anxiety is always worse than the thing itself, and the best way to stop it is to do whatever I was anticipating.
So I went on a walk. I walked past the sushi stand on Rotschild and Carmel Market, past the spice vendors and lightbulb shops and abandoned, graffiti-cloaked buildings, past the apartment building I used to live in, and down Florentine Street. I crossed a basketball court and faced the exact spot I was raped.
There was the wall I had stared at; the streetlight that had beamed stripes onto the dirty ground at my feet; the ledge he had pushed me onto. Murals covered one wall, smudged paintings of flowers and words in Hebrew. The wall belonged to a preschool. I imagined kids playing catch in these shadows, cops and robbers around these corners.
A fence blocked the entrance to the alleyway now, so I stood staring between its bars, crying as silently as I had that night. I turned around and walked away, headed for the sea.
I expected to feel more pain than I did returning to the alleyway. But that was not the real pain.
The real pain was doing the things I had done before the rape: revisiting the brunch spot with the rolls and getting bleached beach sand in my sneakers and renting a ridiculously bright red car and floating toes-up in the Dead Sea and living off sun-warmed hummus and carrying with me a bottle of seventeen-shekel wine, cheap and sugary and tastes-like olives, just like all the bottles I had drunk years before. I buried it in my backpack and lugged it all around Israel.
On the last night of my trip I opened it—using a fork and a fist—and felt the pain of being unable to access the self that drank it, the self I was before a few hours later being raped with the taste of that wine still on my tongue. It was the last thing I tasted before my rapist and tasting it for the first time since the last time was the pain. Codas are patterns and therein lies their power.
Sometimes people tell me that I am brave for “surviving” rape. I don’t agree.
It was not the experience of being raped that I survived.
I survived what came after: the fact of being trapped inside a body I despised with a fresh, searing hatred of which I had not known I was capable. I survived weeks of hiding a rainbow of bruises from my family, of hiding a story from everyone I knew and met, of hiding from myself. I survived a reorganization of my world to allow for random people to do horrible things to good people. I survived the knowledge that violence is possible, no matter how much I try to mitigate the risk—a knowledge that many people do not grasp, and that would help end widespread rape if only they could. I survived the disturbing revelation that I could wish somebody dead, and wish that I had killed him. I survived telling my story.
We are victims of what happens to us; survival is what comes afterward.
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 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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