ENOUGH: The Quartering Act

By

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.

***

The Quartering Act
Rachael Petersen

Before men learn to rape, they learn to speak. Before the thrusting fingers, before the throbbing cocks and groping mouths, their words violate. Long before their forearms form muscles, their syllables pin me down.

Before I am raped, I am insulted.

It starts with a nickname. I am eleven years old, at my best friend Diana’s pool party. The Texas sun beats down and cicadas roar as we lick melting ice cream on the patio. Drops of cookies and cream fall onto my red, polka-dotted, two-piece swimsuit, its straps digging into soft skin.

(I didn’t love my body, but I hadn’t yet learned to hate it. When I am asked to draw a portrait in school that year, I include short declarative sentences in definitive black crayon: My eyes are green. My hair is long. My cheeks are round.)

At the pool party, a popular boy proposes a cannonball contest. I scurry to the diving board, poised to jump.

“Watch out, it’s Shamu the whale!” the boy cries. Others join, shielding their eyes as though my cannonball would cause a tsunami.

A moment of confusion passes before I realize the whale is me.

I jump in the water and emerge baptized by fiery newfound shame.

My nickname spreads through the halls of my elementary school. Boys shout it on the playground as they kick soccer balls past my clutching hands into the goal. Jealous rivals condemn me when I am cast as the female lead the school play. “But you’re too fat to play Becky Thatcher, Shamu!” they balk.

Shame becomes my religion, Shamu the highest of holy prayers. I whisper it again and again to myself like scripture, searching for the deeper message underneath: my body has value only insofar as it delights or disgusts others.

Something ignites in me, a vigilance borne of living in a body not entirely my own. I walk through the world electric, hanging onto the words of boys for the next declaration of worth. When I try on earrings at Claire’s, I wonder if Corey would like them. I ask my mom to buy neon hairbows like Sarah and Rebecca, girls whom boys proclaim pretty at lunchtime. My body exists only in relation to the imagined appraisals of Tom, Joseph, Corey, Derek, Luke.

Throughout my childhood, my body provides shelter for the aggressive opinions of boys. My mind keeps them alive, nurturing their judgments like enemy soldiers under a Quartering Act of the soul.

After my first-grade crush calls me Thunder Thighs, I see only his words in the mirror where my legs should be. When my family goes to South Padre Island that summer, I wear baggy shorts to my knees over my swimsuit, even in the water.

When I cut my hair to my ears, a round-bellied cowboy prevents me from entering the women’s restroom at a movie theatre. “Girls shouldn’t have short hair,” he snaps in a Southern drawl. I feel his disgust take root in my head, sprouting strong strands with ends that will not split.

I become occupied territory, vanquished by endless taunting, judgment, pronouncements, appraisals. There are so many ways to invade a body without touching it.

Like the conquered adopting the language of conquerors, I begin to speak in the tongue of the victors. The captions of my third-grade portrait read: my cheeks are really round. My thighs are too big. My hair is too short.

In middle school, I try to stave off verbal invasions by reducing the size of the territory. I limit my daily food intake to a yogurt and five carrots. I lose ten pounds, then twenty. After swim practice, I blow-dry my limbs to regain feeling in my mottled arms and legs.

“You’ve lost yourself,” my brother says to me one day, without realizing that was exactly the point.

Somehow, by taking up less space, my body only attracts more interest.

“Check out the new girl,” John says every day during band practice, leering behind his baritone sax, “Rachael got hot.”

Positive or negative, phrases continue to colonize my flesh. Praise now vies for space alongside insults that have refused to vacate their encampments.

When I start eating again in high school, my body erupts into a vengeful bloom, unfurling like a Rose of Jericho after a rainstorm. My mother takes me to a mall in Austin to buy new clothes. I sob when the Victoria’s Secret attendant wraps a measuring tape around my chest and declares me a D-cup.

“You should avoid push-up bras,” she suggests. “You don’t need them.” She flings a mess of limp, pink cotton bras over my fitting room door. I fume at the sumptuous form I’ve become.

My contours require a new cartography. Boys begin surveying before I can explore this unknown terrain. The captain of the soccer team christens me “Miracle Grow” in front of calculus class, in honor of the breasts that seemingly sprouted overnight. “Is Rachael hot, check y/n” reads the note he passes around class.

At camp that summer, I walk into my dorm to find a boy rummaging through my dresser drawers.

When confronted, he whines, “but everyone wants to know your bra size!” His reconnaissance mission succeeds. For weeks, wide-eyed, pimple-pocked boys will whisper “32D” as I pass.

When my boyfriend tells me I’m the biggest girl he’s ever been with but he loves me anyway, I don’t know whether to feel complimented or insulted. I wonder if it is possible to be both at the same time. I wonder if this confusion—more than my breasts—will be the defining mark of womanhood.

When I graduate high school, I transition from a world of words into one of actions made possible by those words, a culture of violence scaffolded by quotidian declarations of women’s worth.

At my first college party, a boy fingers me so hard I bleed all over my lime green sheets. I know to say “no,” so I say it over and over and over. I pray that I can speak my way to safety.

After he leaves, a popular blonde girl named Sue finds me drunk and sobbing. She wears a beer maid costume dusted with glitter. Mascara runs down her face. One white thigh-high stocking bunches at her left ankle. She grips my shoulders and fixes an urgent, steady gaze.

“Look, it happened to me before, too. It just… happens. It happens… to all of us,” she stutters.

First, they do it with words, I think to myself. Then, they do it with fingers.

One oppressive Houston evening, I run along the oak-shaded grove lining my university campus. A stranger in a rusty truck drives by and yells, “YEAH, FATTY, YOU SHOULD BE RUNNING!”

When I recount this incident to my father, upholding the stranger’s remarks as evidence of my hideousness, he sighs.

“You live your life waiting for people to confirm your worst fears about yourself,” he admonishes.

He is only half-right. My worst fear is not, as he assumes, that I am fat; rather, I fear there isn’t any room left for me to inhabit a body haunted by the hungry ghosts of men’s estimations.

I throw myself into my studies; I decide that if words can invade a body, perhaps they can also defend and reclaim it. I spend a semester studying sexual assault and domestic violence interventions and interning at the Houston Area Women’s Center crisis hotline. I study how to speak to, about, and with women. For eight hours a week, I document cases of wives battered by bat-swinging husbands, of nieces touched by salacious uncles, of violated women alone in the city with no one to call. I book urgent, anonymous hotel rooms for pregnant mothers escaping violent boyfriends.

But mostly, I listen. I listen to how women sound when they speak their truths—when they recount them hurriedly in rushed tones, or boldly between sobs, or calmly in the sober light of day.

As director of my college feminist organization, I organize workshops where nervous nineteen-year-olds eat cheese puffs and practice sexual communication strategies. “I like it when you touch me like this,” they motion with yellow-dusted fingers. “Could we try this sometimes…” the say between swigs of root beer.

I feel at home amid women learning to build bridges back to their bodies with language. I practice pronouncements that set new limits for where my reality begins and men cannot trespass. Slowly, I build up an arsenal of language to expel the occupying armies of men in my mind.

“I’m having a really good time tonight, but I don’t want to have sex with you.” I teach a handful of college freshmen this phrase before I use it myself. When I finally do, I fall asleep comforted by the definitive pronouncement, and by the familiar face of a friend sleeping next to me.

I awake to grunts, thrusts, a world where my speech was unheard, unvalued, unheeded.

When I suggest to my friend that he raped me—the term I’ve learned to describe nonconsensual sexual contact—he explodes.

“How dare you use that word?!” he snarls.

Rape. Rape. I swallow and feel its silent truth burn in me.

The next time I find myself falling into the bed of a man I like but don’t want to fuck, I try the line again: “I’m having a really good time tonight, but I don’t want to have sex with you.”

I awake again to a familiar face, a familiar force.

This time, I know better than to say anything. I resign myself to the possibility that my words do not matter, and that my body will never be mine.

Years later, while doing fieldwork in a a foreign country, I am raped again—this time, by a stranger. The next day I walk up to the town cemetery, mounds of stones stacked atop permafrost on a high plateau. Black bruises are forming on my arms under my parka. A ring of darkness fills under my eye. My body feels as foreign and as hostile as tundra rolled out before me.

Frigid air stings every inch of exposed skin, but inside, a hot rage boils. It razes my inner landscape, brighter and cleaner than anything I have ever known. Pain displaces the insults and praise that once found a home in my bones.

As I look out on the frozen ocean, I utter, “this is my body, and it was raped.”

I wait for voices of blame, but hear only silence.

“This is my body, and it was raped,” I scream louder, to no one.

I do not know if I will tell my story, how, when or to whom. But I know this feels like the truest thing I have ever said.

***

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.

Visit the archives here.