A kind of square-shaped spiral staircase, from above, looking mesmerizing.

Layers of hurt

This is how it goes now. Another day, another man wielding his power like a weapon.

This Christmas, every time I hugged my grandpa, he feigned outrage and yelled “sexual assault!”

At my boyfriend’s parents’ house, after dinner and presents and peppermint schnapps, our conversation veered into dangerous waters. Politics. Racism. Sexual harassment. Lies they’ve absorbed from Fox News, parroted back at us with alarming conviction. Beliefs so entrenched and toxic they felt impossible to dismantle; all our attempts seemed woefully inadequate.

The topic shifted to the recent wave of sexual assault allegationsYou can’t even hug people anymore! they declared. The words collected at the back of my throat, my cheeks flushing hot, desperate for the perfect rebuttal. I sputtered, we’re literally asking people to be cognizant of their actions. To read body language. To take a split second and ask.

God, is what I’m saying so outrageous?

My family. My blood. People I love and respect. People who, ostensibly, love me. But in moments like these, it doesn’t feel like it.

I still remember the searing rage I felt when I heard Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape, how sure I was that it would end him. There was an optimism inside of me, then: no way would we elect this guy. Then we did. And now everything feels different.

We’ve come to a place of consent being painted as a partisan issue.

Rape culture aided and abetted by our president.

Lately I’ve been feeling complicit, like I should have known. A trail of names with Xs through them in my mind. A blur of fucked up stories. Aziz was just another example: I should’ve seen through the cool-enlightened-guy facade. But that’s just it. We don’t want to believe it’s a facade. We want, quite desperately in fact, for there to be good men. Allies. Feminists.

Silly us, we want there to be hope.

We’ve come to a place of consent being painted as a partisan issue. Rape culture aided and abetted by our president.

The Aziz story has been controversial because we all come to it from different places. In the victim’s account, many people see reflections of their own experiences. Insidious, violating behavior. Ignored verbal and non-verbal cues. Ourselves, acting okay in the moment only to fall apart later. The part that made me wince at the familiarity? The “gross, forceful” kissing.

I was at a party once, having a conversation on the couch with a cute guy. We started kissing, and his style was immediately off-putting. Aggressive, intense, heavy on the tongue. The exact opposite of how I like to be kissed. I tried to slow him down with my own technique, but he just plowed forward. Once, his tongue pushed so far into my mouth I remember having to talk myself through not gagging.

When I got home that night, I cried. Unexpectedly, out of nowhere. It hit me: I’d allowed my boundaries to be pushed in exchange for feeling wanted. And it felt terrible.

This is probably the closest I’ve ever come to being sexually assaulted, which is to say, not close at all. The roulette wheel has not landed on me. Yet it feels like it’s always looming. Every time I walk down a dark street at night, my thumb resting faithfully on the trigger of my pepper spray, I wonder — with an odd sense of resignation — if tonight’s the night my luck will run out.

The gaslighting is what really worries me. Locker room talk. A bad date. This is normal, normal, normal — why are you being so ridiculous? With this Aziz story, I found myself scanning comments sections, bombarded by choruses of “why didn’t she just leave?”, and it terrified me how quickly I began questioning everything. Why didn’t I?

We hear echoes of our own stories…

…and then we hear, louder and more deafening, dissent.

This is how it goes now. This is the template. Layers of trauma and hurt. The story comes out: another man wielding his power like a weapon. The account spreads over the news and social media, scrutinized and debated. My friends’ wounds are re-opened. The victim is crucified, of course, her report deemed too salacious, too vague, too poorly-written — discounted in any way possible.

And these men will learn to apologize. They will see other apologies and adjust theirs accordingly. Sincerity will be carefully crafted by a publicist for best effect. The apologies will become meaningless, yet when we call them out as such, culture at large will scream at us “IS NOTHING EVER ENOUGH?”

Fatigue will set in. The public will grow tired of having to think about sexual assault. It’s already happening. The sheer amount of violations will no longer seem plausible, and so there won’t be any believing anymore — as if believing survivors is a limited resource.

Then, at the end of it all, these men will continue be successful. We’ll watch them make art, make money, exist publicly — a final reminder that our country cannot condemn or hold accountable people who create stuff they like. Their crimes will go conveniently overlooked in favor of their work. They’ll star in movies. Win awards. Get elected president.

I wish I could say I stood up to my grandpa. That I had the perfect retort, some sort of sick burn. But instead I chose silence, the safer option. The fight was not worth it. I’m tired of defending my basic right to bodily autonomy. My remaining optimism died with the election. Our truths may be louder, but the opposition feels stronger. And that’s what scares me most.

Similarly-salacious material

  1. This year one of my 17 yr old male cousins vehemently proclaimed that all women accusing Trump of sexual assault were liars. All of them. I had to practice the most intense restraint ever to not simultaneously slap him and yell at him for 15 minutes. I had to put my hand up, tell him to stop, and leave the room. It was that moment that I realized that in the not-too-distant future when my mom is no longer alive, and I have more choices about who I spend holidays with, some of the very little blood family I have left will be people I barely see – thanks to Trump. I could say I’m glad my eyes are open but also maybe I’d have preferred a little blissful ignorance to keep these family bonds.

    I typed out and erased a few snippets of stories I could share about my past experiences that mimic Grace’s – erased because I don’t think they’re useful here. Maybe anywhere. But I’ve had them. I never knew they were NOT my fault. Leaving and saying no wasn’t an option in my brain. Suffice to say I’m dealing with a lot of decades-late anger and shame but the anger I’m feeling the most is how I lost my job as photography editor of my college newspaper because I stopped sleeping with the editor in chief, a senior. Sure he cited other reasons but none were true.

    The men we’ve seen in sex ed / porn have not paid their dues for their actions. I’m angry about that, too.

    I remember standing in line to cast my vote for Hillary. I was terrified. I couldn’t stop the tears – not tears of hope and pride that I was casting a vote for a female president. Fear, deep fear, as I noted the people I was surrounded by. My fears came true and the next election will scare me even more.

  2. Why does everyone seem to have an awful family these days? I don’t talk to mine either because of things like this.

  3. I don’t normally comment on things, but…

    I have more hope. I have to have more hope to get by. I think more and more people will be able to stand up for themselves. To realize their body is theirs. I think, even though our country is going through a horrible time–we have a DISGUSTING human being as a leader–we’re getting better too, slowly. We’re finally being seen and heard. I think this is the beginning of something far greater, and these are the seeds we’re planting now for our daughters long after we’re gone.

    Sexual assault is real. It’s scary. But it’s scarier when it’s not seen. I 100% understand the silence (my family is conservative…) but we’re seeing evidence that the next generation will not have to be. I choose hope so I can keep fighting. That’s all.

  4. Thank you for summing up all of the things I’ve been feeling so eloquently. It’s terrifying how quickly people are being dismissive simply because it’s easier. Sometimes I feel like we, as a culture, are moving closer to a better place. Other days I’ve given up hope completely. I’m hoping in the end the good days win.

  5. I’m so sorry. I’m very lucky in that my parents are liberal as fuck, so anytime I want to hear justified rage I just ask my dad how he’s feeling about Trump lately.

  6. I very much hope you are right, and I agree that speaking up and spreading awareness are key to progress. This is what I think about when I’m feeling upset about the current state of affairs.

  7. My brother is (was?) one of the most rational people I know, and then he said the other night (after saying he was “tired of seeing sexual assault stories on my newsfeed,” which already got my hackles up) that the Aziz story was just a bad date and not sexual assault, and he didn’t know why people were so angry about it. When I tried to explain exactly why, he just rolled his eyes at me, then stormed off when I went from calm explanations to angry ones, like he couldn’t even be bothered to hear me. Lost some respect for him, to be honest.

  8. I am male, and I want hugs without asking for them; otherwise I’m not interested. I don’t have family here, or friends who hug me, so I can count the number of times I’ve been hugged each year on one hand. But that’s okay, because I’m a romantic and enjoy being sad about things, I suppose.
    If someone wants to chitchat it’s about work; otherwise I don’t have anything to say because I communicate emotionally, not verbally. They can tell me about all their problems, but I’m looking at their eyes and reading their emotions, which is what I enjoy the most.
    In any case, I don’t want to appear as if I want intimacy. From anybody. Because it’s not worth the social stigma – especially when they change their mind later. It’s like that article on why the Japanese population is getting older – because teens, especially women, would rather remain single to avoid the misogyny that is their culture.
    If someone is not sensually and sexually mature, then it’s really a waste of my time; they’re not going to understand all the intricate details I look for as a sensualist myself – and besides a walk in the park, I hardly care for other pleasures, because most activities are emotional bombardment to me, and I’d rather emotional perception.
    So I have this alter ego in my mind, of a female companion. Sometimes we playfully chase each other around like little 8 year olds do, since she is a cat and I am a rabbit. Sometimes she lets me join her in her orgasmic bliss. As a feline, she sees everything and everyone as something to chase or paw at, and it’s my happiness to be her subject so she doesn’t need to be chasing random strangers around; and as a source of pure happiness, she sees everything and everyone as good, as a friend to adventure with, and I look up to her. She is who I relay my emotions to – wordlessly, with paws – because there is no one else who understands.

    And I’ve met plenty of people of various genders, ages, ethnicities. I’ve been around so many people, who all think of sex the same way. Guys who only speak of pickup lines, or the same boring sex acts, or girls as a score in some sort of sick game that they think they’re playing with their other guy friends – in the presence of women who only laugh at their banter (the guys make sure they refer to *other* girls, to make the ones sitting next to them feel… “safe”). Girls who not only assume I know nothing, but declare that I shouldn’t, and then proceed to talk about relationships and sex in the same kinds of ignorant ways. And then they’re shocked by people who are more openminded than they are, which is why it’s more convenient to just avoid the topic or conversation altogether.

    It’s not about guys hitting on girls, or girls avoiding guys. It really isn’t. It’s about that if people opened their minds and grew up, and didn’t giggle at the word “sex” but rather examined every inch of themselves, emotionally and physically, in detail, they’d see that there’s so much more to what “sex” actually is; to examine the work of art before them, to know that “sex” is not innately satisfying because there are hundreds of intricate details and only a handful of them are purely satisfying to each – depending on their mood – so that they don’t just dive into a situation because that might be boring as hell –
    Then I believe in that kind of world, consent might not be an issue, because people would actually want to know what other people are into, in very specific detail, before they could decide if they were interested or not.

    And I believe the answer, if there is one, is analog, not digital.

  9. E,
    Yes, we live in a fucked up world, where women have to constantly fight against being viewed as little more than visual props. At best, art pieces, the Object, not Subject, under the gaze of men. Your analysis resonates strongly with many stories I am hearing from friends, after returning from the holidays and their interactions with family. This is a battle we all have to engage with.
    Thank you for being a strong, clear voice in this conversation.

  10. I honestly don’t feel capable of a real response… except to say YES. I can’t even talk to people anymore, about basically anything without this all coming up… and Twitter’s straight out. But, yes. Yes.

  11. Yes. I was thinking back to “have I ever allowed sexual acts to take place when I really did not want them, but only went along with them in order not to rock the boat, etc.?” And I concluded that yes. Yes, I have. Within the last year. (Excuse me, getting yourself off when you’re talking to me without asking first and then informing me that you are is a violation, and I wish like anything that I’d hung up, but… you already know how this goes.) I am fifty-fucking-three years old and I couldn’t do it. I went back to the account with fresh eyes, re-read it only for the acts and behavior, and concluded that it was fucking awful behavior. No excuse for it at all.

    But, and there is a but, the article WAS really terribly written, and did “Grace” no favors. Jezebel was right about that. It set “Grace” up for attacks about the wine, the food, and her personal appearance. And then the author doubled down and attacked one of the critics about her age, her hair, and her makeup. That was crap, excuse me, and it hurt. All I can say about that is, if you’re not seeing it, wait until you’re my age and you’re a target for agism. Which includes, BTW, the attitude that sexual assaults on us shouldn’t count because we’re no longer desirable. Instead,we should be grateful. The protective stance for her source? Fine. The attacks? Not so much. She blew it.

    I would very much like, if she’s willing, for “Grace” to be interviewed, respectfully, by a good journalist in a good publication with some editorial standards.

  12. I have to, almost daily, dodge the hands of customers where I work. They aren’t grabbing anywhere extreme – just a pat on the shoulder or something similar. But for me, touching at all is an act that requires at least some tiny level of trust, a trust I’m not going to have with someone just because they came into the store and talked with me for a few minutes. One lady kept touching me, over and over, until I made a much more dramatic step backwards and told her point-blank that I’m uncomfortable being touched by strangers. She at least apologized, but how many other folks would have been offended that I dare to want some say in who touches me?

    And then there’s all those folks who were unlucky enough to have such encounters go beyond the realm of simple touches. I can understand someone thinking I’m too sensitive over my issues with touching (understand, not agree with), but getting upset because someone doesn’t want to be hugged? Or more? Seriously, folks are essentially getting upset because they have to exercise a little bit of basic courtesy and just ASK FIRST.

  13. Your grandpa’s comment is similar to these comments: “You can’t even hold the door open for a woman anymore” or “You can’t even tell a woman these days that she looks nice.” Try this as a response: “What do you mean”? They made the comment, so let THEM point to all the successful lawsuits where the allegation is: “Defendant told me I look nice and held the door open for me”. When they can’t refer to any successful ones, ask them for the ones that were filed but not successful. Hand them your laptop and sincerely tell them you’re interested to read one of them. Because none of the allegations you’ve heard involved a hug. Let the one making the comment about X have the burden of explaining X and, in doing so, the commenter is not going to have an easy time. Don’t make it easy for them. Let them try to “splain” and just patiently watch them confuse themselves such that they never use that “joke” again.

  14. Same as a frog [or is it a lobster] in slowly heating water. Feels good at first then it’s too late to escape.
    Same a the Jews being blamed for their own murder by staying in the Concentration Camps in World War 2.
    Dark side of humanity.
    Don’t forget the past but all the more reason to doubly enjoy the good in life and treasure trusted friends.

  15. I broke through a decade of repression of my assault in the middle of an argument with a contemporary. He had made some ridiculous comparison saying how burdensome it was to ask that he (really, anyone) refrain from making rape jokes. And it kept escalating, into why was I taking away his freeze peaches, why did I care so much, why why why. And I snapped, I don’t remember what I said but I remember that he stopped, and that it felt like a panic attack. I can see the image of the game store burned into my retina from just beforehand, lit in stripes through the vertical blinds on the front window. The last moment of a decade in which I’d locked away the assaults I’d survived and never talked about.

    To this day he doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t make light of sexual assault. Nor does anyone else in that D&D group. It’s one of the things that makes me glad I’ve been out of that state for almost 3 years. As someone who has had the public retort, while I know my experience isn’t everyone’s, there’s not always a catharsis to be found.

    Thank you for sharing, Piphy. <3

  16. The “just a bad date” take is really the one I’m having most trouble with. A bad date is one on which your date is boring, or talks about themselves the entire time, or is significantly late for no good reason, etc. It is NOT a date on which the person continually and aggressively pushes for sex without clear consent, and then keeps doing it after clear non-consent.

  17. I’m one of the 68% of survivors who DIDN’T report. I’d just gotten out of an abusive relationship so I was not up to any kind of drawn-out legal process plus I have a documented mental health history, I didn’t know the guy, I *thought* we were on the same page about “I’m down with mutual fun but NOT down for PIV” because I’d tried to make that clear, and the only standard rape culture “good victim” checklist item I would have had going for me was I’m white and he wasn’t which is obviously about 5 million kinds of fucked-up in its own right.

    Or in other words, rape culture sucks, NOBODY should be victimized, and I want to scream at everybody’s shitty relatives/society in general about this shit because they either genuinely aren’t getting it or they just don’t WANT to get it because then they might have to examine their own behavior and that of their friends/relatives/buddies etc.

  18. “You can’t even hug people anymore! they declared.” – I would be happy about that if only it were true! (In France total strangers may hug and kiss you as a greeting…) And I wonder what your grandfather would have said if you had jumped back as if he were on fire and apologized…

    A long time ago I read somewhere that forcing children to give a good-night kiss to Auntie even though they don’t want to is the first step to setting them up for becoming victims of sexual assault. Because it teaches them that their body is not theirs to do with as they want, that their personal boundaries are not important.

  19. Alternative response: “So don’t! We are perfectly capable of opening doors ourselves, thank you very much.” And I’ve never been very keen on compliments about my looks either – often enough the do feel like sexual harassment to me! (Anybody seen the episode of The Good Wife where an employee complains about being sexually harassed by a male client telling her her breasts looked nice and asking her bra size? The complaint was dismissed because the client was a gay fashion designer… And I wonder: What difference does that make?)

  20. If a girl says no, even if it is a quiet no, then stop what you are doing & don’t do it again. If you feel any resistance or awkwardness to your advances, then stop what you are doing & don’t start it up again. Guys for some reason think woman are not serious when they say no or push them away, they will keep trying. No means no, it’s really simple. Just because a girl doesn’t start screaming & hitting you, doesn’t mean she wants it. In these situations, woman go into shock & fear, even strong confident women. It’s like woman are programmed from caveman days to let it happen or risk death. It’s deep in the subconscious that woman need to obey. It’s especially shocking when it is a friend because you never thought of the possibility that they would take advantage of you. Afterwards you just end up blaming yourself because you didn’t fight & the guy thinks that is consent.

  21. this issue is maddening because all the media talking about it shifts the focus of what sexual harassment is. no, it’s not any touch! it’s not hugs! it’s not sex! it’s ALWAYS, ONLY sexual harassment when they break the boundary or when the victim has no power to set the boundary in the first place. what is so outrageous about making sure that your touch is actually wanted?!

    but of course we’d rather see seven billion new articles on how “if we don’t sexually harass people, the marriage rates with crumble, people will start murdering each other because of hugs, humanity will go extinct because nobody has sex anymore!!”

  22. I think things are improving, although things like this always takes some time. But when i see the younger generations, I’m in general optimistic.

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