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.
Untangling My Rape
Haley Kamilla Sherif
What I remember: her insistence that I touch her breasts, the way her tank top showed the delicate curve of her back, the way her pubic hair felt against my leg. This is not a post for the faint of heart. But neither is rape. Rape does something to you; you carry it with you forever. Even once you’ve emotionally untangled the truth, your body, always guarded, doesn’t ever forget.
I’ve written about my rape since two months after it first happened. That was October of my sophomore year of college. I was newly twenty-one. What I know now, I didn’t know then. Women were new to me. Drinking was new to me. I was vulnerable, naive, a virgin… and then I wasn’t anymore.
I first submitted an essay about my rape to a writing workshop at my college. I wasn’t calling it rape then. I didn’t understand that rape could happen to me, could happen off-screen. The frequent scenarios I watched play out on Law & Order SVU didn’t even remotely match my evening. The thought never crossed my mind, until it did.
In a writing workshop we talk a lot about fault. The room is divided. Half of my peers think I hurt her, the other half thinks I was hurt. Tonight I wonder if both can be true.
The “me toos” fill my social media feeds for days. He touched me when I said “no.” I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it happened to me. I couldn’t tell anyone I felt so much shame. He took something from me. Me, too. Me, too. Me, too. I don’t see the female pronoun ever used. I’ve looked. Carefully. I understand hard things by looking for allies who have been through them also. But what happens when no one talks about being raped by a woman? What happens when the hard thing is taboo?
Three years and many therapy sessions after the rape, I sit in another writing workshop. We pass around my story. The room is full of females almost twice my age. One sweet, introspective woman raises her hand, “I’m almost forty and I had no idea women could rape,” she says. Her gaze meets the floor. She’s embarrassed. I am, too. We need to do better, I think.
Messaging with a peer from high school last week, we retort back and forth about same-sex rape. Things like: It’s never talked about. Argh!! We need to talk about this more! Damn it. I don’t want this to be the world my sister grows up in.
Too late, I think.
That night all those years ago, before I knew what would be taken from me, I knew what I could give. I’m a giver, my therapist says. I give this woman the chance to talk about things she needs to. We talk about philosophy and dating and the philosophy of dating. She stands up for the upteenth time to use the bathroom. I notice she’s drunk. It shames me still to write those words because my immediate thought after doing so is, I should have known better. How could I call this rape? Who am I to say that? Do you see what I’m untangling?
We go outside while she smokes a cigarette. The bouncer flirts in a dangerous way with her. I can tell she feels that his weight and height are a threat. Those are the common denominators we look for. This is what I’ve been taught my whole life. Walk to the other side of the street if he looks at you too long. Keep looking straight ahead as he catcalls you. If he brushes up behind you, say something. He is dangerous. He is suspicious. He could hurt you if he wanted to.
I think about all the stories I’ve heard since the first time I told mine and labeled what happened to me as rape. The room full of women who all shake their heads. The one woman who says, “You have to find a way to reconcile the two women.” I ask, “Which two women?” She says, “The woman you were before and the one you are now.”
There’s reconciliation in the untangling. A loosening of the threads, a going back over the details of a night that will forever be ingrained in me. An attempt to find a kind of peace. Because it will never be normal. Sex will never be something I take lightly. Do you know what I remember? How she kept kissing my ankle. How it made me crazy with want. How I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth, nervously put on pajamas, not wanting to show anything I’d chosen to keep hidden until then. I was still choosing. I didn’t want it. I didn’t say no. But, I never said yes either.
If you sit in enough rooms and share your story enough times you’ll begin to hear a similar refrain of: metoometoometoometoo. A tear in someone’s eye. The way someone smiles sadly at you. The eye-contact of recognition. You have to learn to live with it. I’m never shocked to learn some can’t.
She takes my t-shirt off. Unties my sweatpants. I still have the pair because the tie is too loose where she pulled at it. These are the only words I remember exactly from that night:
Me: “I haven’t had sex before and I don’t know if I want to tonight.”
Her: “That’s not what your body is saying.”
Even typing those words out I begin to doubt myself. Did that really happen? Why didn’t that alarm me? Why did I think that was okay?
Reasons why: she was a woman; she was pretty; she was older; I had invited her back to my apartment; we were in my bed; I felt I owed her something; we had fooled around for an hour; she bought my beers at the bar; she took an interest at me, thumbing the photo of me as a baby sitting on my mother’s lap that was taped to my wall at the time.
The truth: she was a woman; she was pretty; she was older; it doesn’t matter if I invited her into my apartment/my bed/to take off her clothes; it doesn’t matter if she paid for my drinks/my food/my whatever; it doesn’t matter how many right questions she asked or how much she related.
You don’t get to go back to before no matter how hard you try.
I was weary the next day when she sat on my fire escape smoking a cigarette. I was weary when my friend congratulated me the next day. I had done the thing that all the other things led up to. I was a part of the club now. Deflowered. More mature. I’d been places.
I do make one phone call to someone I trust a few days after. The woman I trust cuts me off in the middle of telling her how both the woman and I had been drunk, it doesn’t feel right, it feels like…
“Don’t go down that road,” the woman I trust says. We all have a way that we protect ourselves, not going down that road, I’m guessing, is hers.
My rapist spreads my legs. It feels awkward. I don’t know how many hours have gone by, but I concentrate on the brightest thing: my microwave’s clock. Time feels inconsistent. She puts her tongue inside me. It feels rough against my skin. It doesn’t hurt so much as it feels like something is probing my insides. Like an alien. Something foreign.
She sticks her finger inside me. That does hurt. I pretend to enjoy it. I moan. She moans back. This continues.
Later I will ask her if she had a good time. If she was faking it. She says she never has a problem getting off. Or maybe that wasn’t her, but another strange body I sleep with. All the sex I’ve had feels forced. Feels unnatural. Feels tangled.
I know she rubs herself against me, because I remember the peculiar texture of hair on hair. I don’t remember passing out next to her, but I do remember coming to, laying naked besides a strange woman. There was something nearly touching about it. I didn’t feel betrayed; I felt grown-up. The rest came later.
I repeat the story of my first time to my first girlfriend. She tells me it sounds horrible. She doesn’t use the nonconsensual, but it’s implied that she will do better. She does not. We have sex the first night I meet her in real life. I’ve flown over one hundred miles from Boston to her city. She promises me kisses and sleep, but instead we fuck. She stares at me as she sits there and fingers me. Typing this, my stomach churns. Because I now know it didn’t feel right, but then, I lacked the ability to say “no.”
We have sex a lot that weekend. I hurt terribly. Everywhere. We make the decision that next weekend and the next three weekends I visit her (the span of our relationship) that I will fuck her and she will rub my back. “Fair, right.” she says.
It’s a statement. What do I say? I can’t remember.
After the first girlfriend, there is reprieve. I finally learn what to call my first time when my second girlfriend asks me to tell her about my first time. Why is it that we like to hear about our partner’s past sex life? I’m fascinated by it because I’m always trying to catch up, to compare, to see what it might look like if what happened to me hadn’t. Girlfriend two doesn’t mince words. It takes her two minutes to change my life for good. Her use of “nonconsensual” dings a bell inside the deepest part of me. I think I say something like, “Oh.”
Watching an ad for Mariska Hargitay’s NO MORE campaign, I start to cry. Oh.
Three years later a woman comes into the bookstore I am working at at the time. She has a NO MORE fleece on. I look at it long and hard. “They do good work,” I murmur. Her brows furrow, “How do you know us?” she says. Oh, I think. “I saw an ad once,” I say, and then the line moves.
I befriend my rapist months after what happened. Maybe it makes me feel better that I know where she is. Maybe I like that I call the shots in our relationship. But I don’t, not really. I’m always visiting her, bringing her food and cigarettes and booze even though I’m sober. I’m always answering her phone call, helping her through her crisis and her next crisis. Once, she texts me, “Don’t freak out, but I’m suicidal.” I stop on the snowy Boston sidewalk and think, So am I.
I break off our friendship because it’s hard work being friends with your rapist. It’s too hard for me to confine my thoughts of what happened to the very back of my mind.
My third girlfriend likes to one-up me. I tell her about my rape. Her response: “I’ve been through worse.”
I learn to hide my scars which isn’t hard since there’s no real external evidence. I work hard on being normal. On pretending casual sex is what I want. I toy with sobriety because I can control what I drink and what I don’t. There’s a solution for drinking too much, which is stopping. What is the solution for living with rape?
I’m scared to touch my rapist’s breasts when she offers them to me that night. Something inside of me feels… off. It’s like the moment before you get seasick or the seconds before you wake up from a nightmare, so sure that you never will. I’m trapped. I should like this. This is sex. I don’t have anything else to compare it to.
Later, a gay male friend of mine will ask me what her breasts felt like. I’ll hesitate. “What, you didn’t touch them?” he asks. He’s offended. How can I say I’m attracted to women and yet my first opportunity to touch breasts and I say, “no.” Oh, I think. It was the only choice I got to make that night.
I’d like to believe that we are more than our stories—an accounting of past events. But this is a story I’ve told so many times and still I can’t understand. I hold onto the hope that if I can untangle my rape story, I can untangle myself. I want to straighten out, leave the past where it belongs, put down roots elsewhere.
Time passes. I start to forget. I’m reminded at the strangest of moments: a place we’ve eaten at together, her name popping up in my newsfeed. I unfollow and unfriend. I walk another way. Then one night, I walk into a room. My rapist is sitting on the couch. Casually. Until we almost make eye contact. I sit with her for over ninety minutes. We don’t talk. I’m not here for her. It’s a narratively pleasing ending: running into your rapist in a safe room, where we are both held, where we could both forgive. The entire time I watch her sweat and fidget from the corner of my eye. I’m making her uncomfortable. I don’t budge. And when I do, I walk out satisfied that at least I make her uneasy.
I’m not a vicious person. I’m careful not to give away her identity or any specific details that aren’t mine to give. But I will never stop talking about what she took from me. I will never stop telling me story. Untangling it, hoping that eventually I’ll be satisfied, no longer curious about the words I did or did not say, no longer clinging to the hope that it was all just a bad dream.
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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