ENOUGH: Consent Is Not a Gray Area

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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 runs every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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Consent Is Not a Gray Area
Hailey Rollheiser

Will and I had been unofficially dating for about two weeks. I was sixteen. One Saturday night, we decided to go to a house party. We both drank too much, and Will wandered into a bathroom where he spent most of the night puking. I found a group of my friends in another room. Then I noticed Adam, an older guy I had slept with a handful of times. He saw me, too, and headed straight for me.

“Hey,” Adam said. He wrapped his arms around me and I could smell the liquor on his breath. He was wasted.

“Hey,” I said. I moved his arm off my shoulders. I thought of Will.

“You look good,” he said. My friends gave us a stern look. I laughed, and moved closer to them, hoping that Adam would take the hint. He didn’t. Instead, he flicked the light switch off behind him, throwing the room into total darkness. A few girls screamed as others searched the walls with their hands for the switch. A pair of hands grabbed my face, and then someone was kissing me, biting at my lips. When the light came back on, the person pulled away, but now I could see—it was Adam. I giggled, and I thought about all the times we had hooked up before. Will became a distant, blurry memory.

Adam grabbed a hold of my hand and began pulling me toward the door. I reluctantly followed him outside.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m parked over here,” he said.

“No—I can’t.”

“Oh c’mon,” he said. We had reached his car, parked far from the house, far from where anyone might see us. He opened the car door and I climbed into the backseat after him. He lurched towards me, kissing me, biting my lips until I tasted blood.

“Ow,” I said. “No, stop.”

“I want to fuck you,” he said, yanking at my pants.

“No, I can’t. I’m seeing someone.” He pulled my pants off. “No.”

“I don’t care.” I repeated no, again and again but he wouldn’t listen. I clawed for the door handle, but Adam was already on top of me, and he reached over me and pushed the lock down.

 

The next day I woke up covered in bruises and scratch marks, sore on the inside, without my earrings. I woke up to a text from Will asking, Did you fuck Adam? I sat up in bed beside my best friend. I had no memory of how I’d gotten to her house, to her bed.

“Oh my god, I think I had sex with him.” It had felt like a bad dream, a horrible, hazy nightmare that couldn’t possibly be real. I tried to go to work but I couldn’t stop crying, so I went home. How could I have done this? I’d finally found someone I had genuine feelings for, and I’d gone and ruined it for an older guy who had only wanted me for sex. I blamed myself, and Will blamed me, too. I spent the day in my bedroom, screaming, crying, and hitting the ground with my fists. I didn’t understand how it had happened.

I thought it was my fault—I barely remembered it, but I thought I had maybe wanted it. I thought my soreness and bruises were signs of rough sex. When what happened inevitably spread through the school, my peers called me a slut and said that it was my fault. Will couldn’t understand how confused, ashamed, and sorry I was, so he called me a slut, too. I didn’t care about the names because I hated myself so much for hurting Will. But my mind kept coming back to this: reaching, scratching for the door handle. My stomach tightened when I thought back to a dim recollection of not being able to escape. What had happened and how it had happened didn’t make sense to me, because I didn’t know the word to call it: rape.

 

The narrative is further complicated by the fact that I went on to date Adam, after the night he raped me. We never talked about that time in his car—I never even thought about it while we dated—and he was never violent toward me while we dated.

Recently, I read this is common. Not acknowledging your own rape and even dating your rapist can be your brain’s defense mechanism to avoid being traumatized. Categorizing my sexual trauma as “rough sex” was a way to protect myself and normalize what happened. Dating Adam was a way to erase what had happened completely. Now he loved me, so didn’t that count for something?

A year after Adam and I had broken up, I ran into him at a house party. At the sight of him, a friend and I immediately started taking shots together.

“You need this,” she said. She was right, until we were both incredibly drunk and realized it was only 9:30 p.m. The rest of the party was a daze, and I remember staggering around, bored, until he caught sight of me and came onto me immediately. He grabbed my face in his hands and kissed me, and then he was leading me by the hand out of the party. My best friend followed us out the door, pulling me by my arm back inside the party. But Adam was persistent, and I trusted him. I felt safe with him, so I went.

I remember lying sprawled out on my back on his bed as he yanked me to him by my ankles. I remember the lamp casting a dim yellow reflection onto his face, making him look feverish and ill, like the Cheshire Cat. I remember him slapping me across the face, hard, and telling me to shut the fuck up. I don’t know what I had tried to tell him.

I woke up the next morning and sat up frantically, sick and in shock that I was in his bedroom. I told him I didn’t remember how I’d gotten there. He said, while snickering, that he had fingered me in the back of the cab, and that I had been moaning, in front of the driver. He laughed, and looked pleased with himself.

“No,” I said. “I don’t believe you.”

“Well you did.”

And that was the last time I ever saw him. He was a predator, targeting girls who were younger than him, drunker than him, less in control than he was. He sought sexual power over girls who were unable to resist his advances. Still, when friends ask me why I hate him, I don’t tell them the real reason.

 

I didn’t have sex for eight months after what happened that night. I didn’t let anyone touch me at all. I decided that I had been sleeping with the wrong people too often, and I wanted to wait until I was seriously dating someone before I had sex again. During those eight months, I began regularly sexting with several guys I knew from high school. I sent pictures and videos through Snapchat almost daily. I felt powerful, in control, and desirable. These were emotions I almost never felt during sex. In some way, I think I knew that something had been taken from me, and controlling the way my body was perceived was a way to take my power back.

When I did have sex again, it wasn’t with a loving boyfriend like I had originally planned. I took home a stranger from a nightclub. I slept with him, and when we were finished I became vicious and cruel. I told him to get the fuck out of my apartment, that I had only wanted him for sex. He became upset to the point of tears. I laughed in his face and slammed the door when he left. Later, I recounted this story to my friends and we all laughed at the one-night-stand I had reduced to tears. I took joy in the power I felt over him, and felt a strange sense of victory.

After this encounter, I continued to sleep with strangers, exerting power through sexual aggression. I bragged to my friends, twisting the stories into tales where I was in control. I repeatedly slept with men who were cruel or degrading toward me. The rougher the sex, the more empowered I felt. I thought I was reclaiming my body, but with each increasingly meaningless encounter, my self-worth shrunk and my boundaries disappeared. I became deeply unhappy, began binge eating, and struggled with depression and anxiety. I smoked weed multiple times a day, slept at unusual times, and binge-drank on the weekends until I vomited. What I didn’t know then, I understand now. This was how I coped with what had happened to me.

I was in my third year of university. In the literature courses I was taking as an English major, I often wrote essays examining works through feminist critical theory. As I was learning more about feminism, the Me Too movement was also blowing up in the media, and I read each new piece with fascination. It was shocking to me to learn how widespread sexual violence really was. As I read so many survivor accounts, I began to recognize a familiarity within the stories. I realized it had happened to me, too. Twice.

Soon after this realization, I was out with a friend, at a bar. I hadn’t told anyone yet, but I felt emboldened by the alcohol we’d been drinking. I leaned towards her and spoke into her ear.

“Adam raped me in high school.”

She responded without a beat: “I was raped in high school too. And he filmed it…” I remembered when this happened. The boy was popular and well-liked. The video had circulated and everyone called her a slut. I remembered how she would get drunk and cry. I had trouble consoling her because I didn’t know what to say. I never heard anyone say it might have been rape.

 

Years later, I am still unpacking this realization. Most of the time, I try to forget. I avoid thinking about it for too long or I begin to feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness. I stifle the memories and tell myself that I’m okay now. But every so often I’ll think of my hand reaching for the door handle in Adam’s dark car, or of his teeth in the dim yellow light. I think of the ways I suffered, without understanding why.

I was like many girls in that I blamed myself, and I refused to ever use the word rape. My experiences felt like gray areas of consent, but they weren’t—I just didn’t understand consent. I didn’t understand the power dynamics that exist within the patriarchal systems that allow boys and men to get away with the violence they inflict on others’ bodies. Most of all, I’m grateful to be alive, thankful that I never tried to physically harm myself beyond self-destructive behaviors or tried to take my life.

Adam took something from me, from my body, and although for a long time, I was unable to acknowledge it, my body knew I had suffered a loss and this loss sat in my soul, eating away at who I was, until I no longer recognized who I had become. But I’ve found that missing piece and I’ve taken myself back, and he no longer has power over me. No man does.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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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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