ENOUGH: Let’s Dispense with Brave
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.
Just Trying to Live While Being Female
This Is Not a Dress, This Is My Armor
I can’t imagine growing up in a female-identified body and not having some experience of, at a bare minimum, the verbal controls used to keep us in our place. No one is shy about telling women how we look, how we should behave, what spaces we can and can’t be in. I find it surprising, however, to sort through my catalog of incidents and realize that I never experienced a more physical form of sexual predation until I moved to Chicago.
I’m not laying this at the feet of my city—these things happen everywhere. I’m putting this on the fact that I now take public transportation with more frequency. A woman on public transportation puts her body up for grabs (as does a woman out in the world anywhere, really). Being crammed together on a train gives certain individuals a ripe opportunity. I’ve had not one but two guys decide my shoulder was a penis-rubbing post. I had a guy pretend to slump forward asleep and let his hand fall on my thigh. I was wearing a dress that day, and I didn’t wear dresses for a long time afterword so as not to provoke extra attention. I knew it was bullshit but it felt like a thing I could do, a way to reassure myself. I’ve had a guy step right up against me on the escalator up from a subway platform. I was wearing a dress that day, too, so I guess I was asking for it. I never wore that dress again.
It is so easy to question our instincts. Did that just happen? Am I making this a thing when it was unintentional and innocent? This is how a brain handles trauma. We don’t want the violation that has happened be something we must acknowledge. A part of us splinters. Denial is easier. A self-gaslighting, as it were.
It’s been a while since I have experienced physical harassment. I like to think the years have hardened my face into a “don’t fuck with me” scowl. But recently during a sideways rainstorm where I was walking home soaked through despite my umbrella, a guy walking past me turned around and grabbed my ass. I was wearing a calf-length black skirt (like nuns do, clearly asking for something). This time, I only questioned what happened for a second. I turned around and walked back toward him, shouting, “Why the fuck did you do that? Do you want me to come for you?” and quickly realized I was threatening a fight and had no weapon beside the wet umbrella in my hand. My fury burned out under the onslaught of the rain. I was tired, cold, and just wanted some dry clothes and a mug of hot chocolate. What would fighting get me anyway? I was ready to take a stand, though, while that coward just skedaddled away.
There are too many stories of partner violence (a constant physical assault) and too many stories of rape (the worst sexual violation one can think of), and in the shadow of these stories, street harassment falls under the category of, “Well, it’s not as bad as that.” But street harassment is one of the upper circles of the hell; it means being a perceived vulnerable individual anytime we go out into the world. These experiences are all a part of that hell. How do we find our way out of here? Do we wait for a Virgil to guide us through to paradise? Do we simply share stories to survey the depth of the hell we’re in? There is a comfort in sharing, at least.
Meanwhile, when I put on a dress or skirt now, I’m going to think of a line which Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale appended to Atwood’s great work: “They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” The bullshit is going to keep coming, and it’s all fuel for the fire. That fire is never going out. Do you want me to come for you?
A Word with You
Michelle D. Bowdler
- What people say
It’s the worst thing that can happen to someone.
I can’t imagine how you got through it.
You’re the bravest person I know.
- Also what people say
I’m surprised it is still so much on your mind after all these years.
I know someone this happened to and they were never the same.
You made a great life for yourself in spite of it.
Living well is the best revenge.
You are so brave.
- And sometimes
I would kill them with my own two hands if they were caught.
Bastards. Assholes. Cowards.
I wish I was as brave as you.
- And one minute later
Thank god you lived through it.
I couldn’t have survived losing you.
That would have ruined my life.
You’ve got some big balls there, kiddo—a characterization quite far from the truth.
- And then you read what politicians, judges, and reporters say:
If it’s a legitimate rape, the body has a way of shutting that whole thing down.
Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.
Women shouldn’t just say they were raped to get free abortions.
We don’t want to ruin a young man’s life for a mistake or miscommunication.
It all comes down to he said-she said.
Why did the alleged victims wait so long to speak out?
They are just looking for attention or money.
She is simply not credible/not credible/not credible/not credible.
- And then the alleged leader of the free world says
You can do anything… Grab em by the pussy. You can do anything. They don’t mind.
- What is brave anyway?
Walking over coals?
Diving from a cliff?
Speaking out when your voice feels buried in your throat and you know a slap is coming?
Climbing over the Alps to escape the Nazis?
Taking a chance after failing?
Loving someone when you don’t know how?
Trying to be happy?
- And why exactly that word, over and over again, that word. Because really,
I was asleep in my bed.
The door opened.
There were two men.
They had a knife.
I wanted to live.
I did as instructed.
So please let’s dispense with brave.
It is a word of solitude. Of infinite aloneness.
Maybe try anger.
Maybe a head shake.
Maybe a picket sign.
But never brave.
Please, I beg you,
Haiku for the Morning After
Times My Pussy Was and Wasn’t Grabbed
From behind by a stranger on the street.
From the front, down my jeans, barehanded, at a rock show at the Hammerstein. The guy said he was the group’s manager, and he led me down a hallway that led me out of the club and he grabbed my pussy and he shoved me out the door, which was locked from the outside. The show had not yet begun.
Junior high, in the hall before classes. A boy slammed me up against a bank of lockers and suddenly there was no space between us.
When I was five or maybe six, and the babysitter’s sons made us take off our pants and rub up against each other. Anyone who refused was shoved into a basement cabinet and kept there by force until they relented. I refused and was kept by force in the basement cabinet—the size of a child’s coffin—until I relented.
At a high school graduation party, where a very drunk, very strong friend knocked me down and pinned me to the ground with his body until a couple of stoners hotboxing an RV heard me yelling, came out and got him to let me up.
In college, there was a lot of booze and drugs and in some ways, this made it easier. I had no tally to keep while blacked out. I always said yes. College is fun.
Sometimes my pussy was not grabbed.
When I told one boyfriend I was leaving him, and he offered to drive me to work in his little red Scirocco, but he drove by work, and kept driving, all the way to the dunes, deserted this late in the season, until I told him okay, okay we’re not breaking up, let’s talk more about this later, at which point he stopped kidnapping me and returned me to work. When I told him later, again, that no, really, I was breaking up with him, he told me there was a gun in the house, a gun in our house, a gun I’d never known existed, and he hoped I wouldn’t steal it as I was moving out.
Another boyfriend choked me as I stood on the front porch of our house. A house I hadn’t lived in for months. A house with some of my things still in it, with rent still paid for by me.
My body retains the weight of these hands. They press—not memory’s ghosts but with the presence of real bodies. Real bodies that still exist in the world and touch other people, with permission, I hope.
This litany though, it’s not the whole story. Sure, it’s deadly serious. It wants you to take these experiences seriously, but you should know: for a long, long time, the author did not. I did not take these experiences seriously. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say I didn’t take them at all. I pushed them down and went on with my life making the normal amount of good and bad decisions. Failing and succeeding the way people do.
For me, this is the worst thing of all: that this litany is so typical and universal of women’s experience—tame, really—that it is nearly invisible to the bodies in which these trespasses live. I can talk about the weight of all those hands, but in the end, it’s a weight that’s immeasurable, and so not a weight at all. That’s just a metaphor, soft and diffuse, to help people understand the ways they do harm to others. Take this weight. Slip your hands into these ghost hands like gloves. I don’t want to feel them anymore.
What I Was Wearing
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.
Visit the archives here.