ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series runs weekly, most often on Tuesday afternoons. Each week, we will highlight different voices and stories.
You Always Remember Your First
“There’s a party,” he yelled from the open window of the car, “and everyone’s coming!”
“Where,” I asked, startled and flattered by the attention of a high-school boy.
“In your mouth!”
Tires squealing, the car took off, but I stood, frozen in place on the sidewalk. Stunned into inaction, the sound of blood rushed to my head—a sound like drowning. I was too young to truly understand the meaning of their words, but not too young to glean their purpose. Not too young to feel each word like the jab of a knife. Each shout, each laugh, each sneer an assault.
My friends and I have compared notes over the years. What did they say the first time you knew that you were being harassed?
“I lost my virginity; can I have yours?”
“I’d look better on you than that dress does.”
Once you were aware of it, you noticed it more. Sometimes they were less poetic. Sometimes they were threatening. Sometimes you decided it was better to run back home than continue to your friend’s house. The familiar route suddenly seemed too open, too unknown, too unprotected. Each time, the feeling that you were the one who had done something wrong, the feeling that the air had just become a tiny bit thinner.
We talk about it now, my friends and I, shaking our heads over steaming cups of coffee. We are grown-ups and mothers and successful, able to compartmentalize the experiences and relegate them to another place, not here; another time, not now. We talk about it then sigh, retreating for a moment back to that sidewalk on that street with that car going by. Or to that club, the one we frequented in university. Or to that boardroom, the one we will be sitting in again next week. In that moment, we leave the recollections and the words hanging in the air—air that feels as if it has just become a little bit thinner.
How old was I? Eleven. The same age that my daughter is now.
She is eleven, an in-between age: reaching, arms outstretched for consoling hugs and the last piece of cake, and adolescence. She jumps from trampolines and tree limbs, her resolve to let neither her mother nor her fears hold her back growing stronger each day.
“You wise little thing,” I said to her at ten days old as I pushed her in a stroller, walking the busy streets for the first time following her birth. “This is all yours. Believe it.”
She passed milestones like a champ, like an expert, despite her dawdling parents and their clumsy attempts at guiding her along infanthood. She crawled, she walked, she talked. She began school and learned to ride a bike. We celebrated firsts as they came and went, surprised at the arrival of each, though anticipating them from the start.
Eleven. The signs of young adulthood unmistakable now. She sits on her bed, listening to pop songs and movie soundtracks while she writes plays and stories and rules for entering her space, soon to be posted on her bedroom door.
“Now comes the hard part,” I say to my husband. He thinks I mean puberty. He thinks I mean the moody tween years, the reckless teen years. The pulling-away-from-us years. But these are the things I feel equipped for. The natural ebb and flow of growing up, of changing bodies and changing minds. I can handle these things. First time staying home alone, first bra, first crush. I’ll be ready when she is; I remember those firsts. But there are other firsts I remember as well.
It’s inevitable, I think, stealing a glimpse at my daughter, now eleven, still self-assured, still happy, still sheltered. Where will it happen? Will she be walking home from school, like I was? Will it be the first time she is dropped off at the movies without an adult? Which will come first: her acceptance of her changing body, or somebody else’s unauthorized claim to it from the window of a passing car? Perhaps her introduction to a world where consent and privacy is ignored or obliterated will be a school gym locker room, where insecurity and cruelty can shatter the last thin layer of childhood naivety with only a few words.
I have boobs. You have braille.
You better hope for a bigger chest. It’ll distract from your ugly face.
Slut. Prude. Tease. Nympho. Goody-goody.
Who will be the first to cause her to feel shame? To cause her to forget all that I have tried to arm her with, arm her against, protect her from? How long will it be before we stop counting the firsts that build her up and start counting the firsts that tear her down?
I see the fight for respect, for consent, play out online and in the papers. I hope it’s not too late. I hope that wars fought with hashtags and viral videos are enough to change legislation and minds. I hope that by time my daughter becomes visible to the world, respect and equality are as much of a public health absolute as wearing a seatbelt or a condom. I hope that street harassment is treated as something as disgusting and harmful as smoking. I hope it happens soon.
I hope there is not a time, twenty-five or thirty years from now, when my daughter sits with her friends over steaming cups of coffee and discusses the first time she was sexually harassed, chuckling, then sighing as words and memories hang in the thinning air.
My First Time
Some would call it rape.
I flinch, for it makes me uncomfortable to say it, think it, type it. It seems too heavy, too awful, too extreme for what happened—too heavy, too awful, and too extreme to have happened to me.
Something like rape couldn’t happen to me. I’m not the girl featured on a nightly news headline with sirens flooding the background. I’m happy go lucky, always smiling, a girl who dots her Is and crosses her Ts and takes care of herself.
How could something like rape happen to me?
Hasn’t rape always looked like the violent assault in a dark alleyway? Isn’t rape a crime to be carried out by some hideous psychopath lurking in the shadows, scoping out his prey?
Rape doesn’t look like the smooth hardwood floors and clean gray pillows of a beautiful apartment in the suburbs, or your elite-university-educated, well-employed friend with the soft eyes and a charming smile. Rape certainly doesn’t look like a friendship of four years with the guy who always walked you home after you both finished working the 1 a.m. shift, the one you could talk about life and relationships with at your favorite coffee shop on the corner across from campus.
There were no dramatic screams in the night, no bruises, no brick. Just a gasp of pain when I felt it go in without a discussion, warning, or condom.
He stops. ”Oh, sorry.” He sounds genuinely concerned.
“It hurts,” I whisper, and he pulls out. I am in shock, my mind reeling as I try to figure out what to do, until he gets up, his demeanor suddenly cold. “Well, I guess we technically just had sex,” he says brashly.
We? What we? Is sex what has happened? I force myself to let out an empty chuckle. “Yeah, I guess so.” Betrayal sits at the tip of my tongue and I swallow, letting it fill me slowly. Well, then. I guess this was technically my first time.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my body and sexuality. Sex certainly wasn’t talked about in my household; we draped black tarp over the topic and shoved it into the corner.
I was taught to always button my shirt up lest I give men “ideas.” Sex ed. taught me that abstinence was key. School also taught me that it was shameful to bare my legs, a lesson well-ingrained by my middle-aged gym teacher who made regular rounds around the high school during warm spring days to peek under the desks and pull girls out in the middle of class: “You, you, you—to the principal’s office.” I was in running shorts after gym class when he pulled me aside and said, “Why don’t you go home and put some real pants on.”
I never liked my legs, anyway.
My parents weren’t religious but I loved learning about Christian values and God. I loved having a greater sense of duty. For years, I attended Sunday service by myself at my local evangelical church where they preached about the sins of sex before marriage and the glory of waiting.
I took it all in like a sponge. Thoughts about my body, about sex, about boys flooded me with guilt; my discomfort with my sexuality combined with insecurities about my body became a rock that I wedged between my psyche and my physical being. I was scared of my body; I felt uncomfortable inside of it. I associated intercourse and sexual activity with violence and sin.
I beat myself up mentally again and again throughout the years, ashamed of the fears I’d had. I told the boy all of this. When I told him, he apologized that I’d felt this way. He expressed empathy and concern, like the friend he’d always been. I felt safe and secure, nestled in the comfort of his apartment and the warmth of our trust.
Yet, here I am, suddenly in enemy territory. The red sirens of my thumping heart blare in the back of my mind as I stare at this stranger pulling a t-shirt over his head. “Coffee?” he asks.
As I leave his apartment later, my smile feels like plastic. I remember how my skin itched to shed his touch even as we hugged good-bye.
I guess I just had sex.
For a couple of weeks, I tried to brush it off—covered sex and all its mysteries in black tarp again and shoved it into a corner of my mind. I even went back to him. If we had sex consensually, then maybe what had happened wasn’t such a big deal in the first place. I desperately wanted to exert control over the situation—to prove to myself that if I went back to him, it meant that he hadn’t actually hurt me. That I wasn’t raped.
I was still incredibly nervous, but I’d made up my mind. Having downed some liquid courage, I realized only halfway through that he didn’t have a condom on. I wasn’t on birth control yet, I exclaimed. “Oh,” he said, and calmly went to get a condom.
I fell asleep that night to the feeling of creeping dread. What had I done?
The next morning, I was flooded with panic, regret, and a stewing sense of anger. I blamed myself, but I was also appalled at his lack of responsibility and his casual reaction when he realized what had happened. He knew about my fears and was much more experienced than me; I knew this from his many stories of summer flings and sexual escapades. I felt as though things were spinning farther out of my control—this person could really hurt me. Perhaps he wasn’t intentionally trying to harm me, but he didn’t seem to know or care whether he had.
“Want me to give you a ride back?”
In the car, I finally work up the courage to ask about the previous night. He doesn’t seem to understand my outrage or concern. He thinks I am overreacting. “I wasn’t even close,” he scoffed.
“That’s not the point,” I immediately shoot back.
It feels like we’re trying to talk to each other from across an unbridgeable chasm. I look at him, and find him increasingly unrecognizable. He thinks we are talking about biology, but I am talking about respect.
“It also happened two times. The first time, I wasn’t ready or prepared to have sex.” I start to allude, in the gentlest of ways, to the first time. He immediately becomes defensive, his head snapping toward me.
“What are you saying?” His voice is hard, goading.
His question looms over our heads, an ugly, heavy balloon ready to burst. I know if it does, it will destroy our friendship permanently. More importantly, it will manifest a truth I don’t yet want to acknowledge. I want so badly to let the words tumble out but they stay stuck in my throat, because this feels safer. I turn to face the window and we ride the rest of the way in silence.
After forty-five minutes that feels like ten years, we pull up in front my apartment.
“Have a good rest of your weekend,” he says.
“Thanks. You, too.” I close the car door.
I haven’t spoken to or seen him since.
It has been years since both incidents. Thinking about the events that transpired between us brings a deep feeling of shame and embarrassment. The shame is twofold: I am ashamed of having continued to maintain any sort of relationship with him afterward. I find I’ve somehow convinced myself that since I returned to his apartment, it couldn’t have been all that wrong. I continued to invite him into my life, didn’t I?
Yet, I know what happened was wrong. This brings about a second wave of shame: I feel ashamed that the incident still disturbs me; that I find myself distressed, though I may try to disguise it, when telling a few close friends what happened. I tell myself that as sexual assault incidents go, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Others have experienced far worse and here I am, letting this small incident fester and affect me so.
Slowly, over time, I have uncovered the black tarp. Reading and hearing stories from other survivors and having conversations with the strong, supportive women in my life have allowed me to feel more comfortable with my body. Through reflection, I have learned the invaluable lesson of being gentle with myself and my body. It is possible to be grateful for what didn’t happen without invalidating the experience of what did. Any violation is still one too many, and I am allowed to grieve. In recent years, I’ve made it a priority to take care of my body and to have a relationship with it.
My first time was most certainly not the stuff of fairy tales, not like what I’d read about in teen magazines or seen in movies. I think I will always feel a sense of loss: a loss of trust, a loss of autonomy, a loss of friendship, a loss of what my first time could have been.
I suppose if there is one silver lining, it is this: when the rape happened, I didn’t feel as if I had the voice or the strength to say “no,” to say that what he did was wrong, or to stand up for my body. I do now.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary 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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