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.
It’s the Love, Stupid
Natalie C. Houchins
A young man I trusted sexually assaulted me when I was five years old.
My assault robbed me of the luxury of being ignorant of lascivious, predatory, abusive men that is afforded most girl-children until puberty. There comes a time in almost every woman’s life when, in one way or another, they come to know that the men of this world are not merely icky and riddled with cooties, but also capable of annihilating you—physically, sexually, and psychologically. For me, this happened before I had laid the foundation that knowing good men early on might have provided.
It seems that women have a kind of collective sadness around this. Being attracted to, and/or materially dependent on, our oppressors has had an indelible, melancholic effect on the female psyche.
After many embarrassing years of falling apart after hearing offhand comments, watching supposedly silly movies, or just feeling a man’s gaze on me as his wedding band glints in the sun, I have come to realize that I’m a little, as they say, “extra,” when it comes to all of this. Being hypersensitive is painful, but what I’m feeling almost always becomes public conversation. It’s like being assaulted gave me some kind of psychic ability where gender politics are concerned.
When I remember that day in June 1998, the sun dappling the ground, doves cooing lazily to each other, my throat excruciatingly raw from crying, I don’t feel particularly angry or sad. What’s done is done. I’ve made peace with the event itself. I’ve forgiven those who were at fault.
What continues to haunt me after all these years is the war waged every day in my head and heart between the opposing forces of attraction to and love for men, as friends, partners, and family members, and the bone-deep distrust I feel towards those same men. I used to feel extremely isolated because of these feelings, but as I’ve gotten older and have connected with more survivors, and with the emergence of #metoo, I feel a great unspooling of loneliness. Together, in the light of day, we are finally acknowledging the grief that touches us all.
While there have been notable exceptions, in my life men have remained mostly silent on this topic. They are, I suspect, frightened of saying the wrong thing. They’ve seen all the angry women on the Internet. They’ve seen all the men losing their jobs. They have other things to think about (spoiler alert: so do I).
Or, they get offended. They take it personally. They play devil’s advocate to “keep me on my toes.” They take issue with my rhetoric or “style.” They make sure to remind me that #metoo will have a backlash and if we’re not careful, all our handwringing will be for naught. (“Romance is dead! Men don’t know how to talk to women anymore!”) They critique the writing of an article I share, instead of asking me why I shared it. They’ve heard about “toxic masculinity” and don’t want to be categorized that way. Not all men are toxic! And it’s really harmful to imply that about men that aren’t toxic! We just might turn toxic on you if you’re not careful!
I was in a play in college where my romantic interest said, in response to me asking why we were still together despite all of our problems, “It’s the love, stupid.”
Of all the beautiful lines in that play (References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot by José Rivera), it’s this line that haunts me the most. When I’m doing the dishes, writing, zoning out, watching TV—I’ll hear it.
I once had a friend tell me that I’m his “go-to feminist” because I don’t “sound like a total bitch” when I’m talking about it. I was flattered because 1) I was twenty and only just starting to wake up, and 2) that meant I was effective.
Since then I have come to understand how problematic that comment was, but I’ve also come to understand that the best way to convince people of something is to remind them how it concerns them personally.
It’s the love, stupid.
If women didn’t love men, if a great many of us weren’t attracted to them, didn’t desire them in our lives in some way, we wouldn’t waste our time shedding tears about their lack of understanding the dangers women face. My assault wouldn’t still linger the way it does. I might currently be sipping a drink on an island somewhere surrounded by my female friends.
Instead, I’m here.
Perhaps I am hypersensitive and off-base, or perhaps I have reached the point where desperation has forced me to reveal myself. Whatever it is, and no matter how uncool I may seem right now, I will tell a great secret to any man willing to hear it.
We’re angry at you. Yes, you. Even if you yourself would never commit such a terrible act as rape or assault or harassment, we are looking to you, have looked to you, for some kind of sign that what happens to us is not okay. Your silence reinforces what other men do, and it slices me in the gut.
In equal measure, we love you. We love every bit of you. Even and especially the bits that you don’t particularly love about yourself. You matter, too. Your healing matters, too. You accepting yourself and your role in society matters. You telling me that you’ll go to the Women’s March with me matters. You liking that article I shared matters. You asking me questions about my experience matters.
When someday men get it through their skulls that our freedom is bound together, that the pain they feel about not being man enough is inextricably tied to what women experience at the hands of men and boys who are trying to prove their masculinity, perhaps you’ll understand.
Still, I love you, stupid. I love you.
after Hayley Kiyoko’s “Girls Like Girls”
Once, you found silken garters stowed beneath your childhood blankets. A charcoal river in the shape of body. You slipped through to find Mama on the other side, her spine now un-crumpled, her hair a surf, her feet clamoring to the frantic music of lost years. Her feverish eyes fixed
_________________________________________at some point beyond your shoulder, watching
the siren you’ll be in another country, the type of boy you were taught to want.
I can defend myself, you offer
his throat’s shallow casket: maybe that’ll turn me on
& your teenage bedroom walled with girls you’ll never kiss, each magazine glossing the ache you’re learning to smother. Killings so brief they’re almost painless. Chocolate gasping Happy Valentines’ Day bottled for three years on your topmost shelf. The accompanying note with your name softened on peach-pink notepaper, proof that tinfoil hearts in a girl’s palm could stay
_____________________________________as dusk backlighting dark hair. The sweat on her nape drying as she arrows herself with a gymnasts’ practiced grace in Phys Ed. class. You’re sunning yourself on the silver bleachers, pretending you’re salted anchovy: slight enough to be invisible. Tender enough to eat. Metal hissing against your cheek as she rounds the track’s red tongue again. Her burnished legs gasping across the grasscut field, swimming through a dream where her fingers alight your damp palm, each nail perfectly trimmed. The echo of her single long breath ending in your throat. & how you later gestured at boys in a magazine when required. How long after you are six the boy is burying you again.
Someone, somewhere, is always saying this:
I’m sorry please me
it was a joke when I you
Now & again you are back at the loneliest staircase you’ve ever unravelled hours in, this ascension smoothed by decades of white-shoed feet. Your hands illuminated only by rain on the windowsill & washed out by hush, your spine still years from hurt. Still years before contemplating widowhood, sister unburials, sifting yourself for each man the women in your family forgave. Still years walking into her, staying
because there, then, is the moment you were safest. Here’s the weight of first love in your palms, the miracle of her heart rabbiting in your mouth. Here’s un-blooding the pre-wound. Here’s lightning irradiating an open field. Here’s the moment before the glow diffuses into its bruised afterimage, when you can still see yourself haloed in the eyes of a girl who loves you. Here’s your falling star, whole.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original 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. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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