People can change, I learned, but sometimes they don’t change enough.
I’ve never written at length about the ongoing sexual harassment and abuse that polluted two years of my life. Shards of that story have made into a column here and there, most notably my review of Big Little Lies and my post-election blast of outrage. For the most part, the experience remains an inky stain on the otherwise normal timeline of dating ups and downs that stretches across my 20s.
There are times, like when I watched Big Little Lies last spring, when certain sexual misconduct stories hit too close to home. I become very quiet and withdraw for a while. Once home, I have a good, forceful cry, and go to sleep. The next morning is better. But there will always be another Louis C.K., another James Franco, to make another day’s prison of my past.
The #MeToo movement is being tested. We are discovering that not all stories involve secret door-locking buttons that prevent escape; not all characters are as obviously repugnant as Harvey Weinstein. Even the most progressive among us are hacking testimonies to pieces, searching frantically for the one detail that makes each story not that bad. They say these stories aren’t worthy of publication or discussion, and that they harm the movement rather than challenge a broader toxic culture. We should be careful. We might go too far. You know, this shit.
Despite judgement from the right and the left, I am moved to join the chorus of voices. Not to publicly name the person who put me through hell, but to craft an affirmative record that stands with all the other truths being spoken. To draw a line in the sand that says never again. I shift from paralysis to empowerment, looking for waves in the movement to push me enough into the latter to write.
Here is an opening, so I write.
Just before my college graduation, I met a guy my age who quickly became a close friend. We started hanging out regularly, going out for ice cream or to the movies, watching sports together. It was lovely. And then all of a sudden, it wasn’t. He began to take his penis out when we were alone. He rubbed himself through his clothes while we were playing video games. He stripped naked and asked me to sit on his lap and watch porn with him. The change caught me off guard. But like so many of us in these situations, I rationalized away all of the bad behavior. I told myself that this was a temporary hiccup – maybe he didn’t know how to tell me that he liked me – and that soon he would turn back into the person I had first met. We could both forget about his unhealthy fixation with sex and porn. We could go get ice cream again; a simple, proper date.
I was horrendously wrong.
As I waited around for the person I once knew to reemerge, the months that followed escalated into an endless, incessant barrage of sexual demands. Each time I told him that I was uncomfortable and refused to comply, he would either tell me that I was being ridiculous or push, badger, or coerce me – sometimes for hours– until I gave in out of sheer frustration and exhaustion. If I tried to change the subject or distract him by talking about something else that wasn’t sexual, he would get massively angry. He would verbally berate me, give me the silent treatment, or threaten to sabotage my relationships with our mutual friends.
If I was out at night, he would demand that I come home. A few times, he would see me out with friends of the opposite sex and blow up my phone with texts, demanding to know who the guys were and “what they got” from me. As is typical of harassers and abusers, he always upped the anger and control when I was somewhere without him, or during times when I had moved on and was interested in dating someone else. All of these behaviors were often made worse by his binge drinking, and our encounters often ended with me in tears.
I didn’t tell anyone. I was too ashamed that something I thought I could change had gotten so out of hand, so I lied, dismissed, laughed things off. Eventually, after coming clean to a few family members about the actual nature of our relationship, I stood up to him and we ended contact.
We didn’t speak for a long time. And then there he was, asking for a second chance at a real relationship. He told me, unsurprisingly, that I was not the only woman he had “done this to.” He told me that he had since gotten help. Wanting to believe that people can change, I gave him that second chance. The harassment and abuse stopped, and for a while, I was relieved. But I soon realized that his sense of entitlement and superiority wasn’t going to go away. The issues with control and the undermining of my career and interests continued, and in the end we both knew that it wasn’t going to work.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say that I wish I hadn’t dated this person again after what he had done. But that would be a lie. I’m glad that I made this choice, because if I hadn’t, the lesson may not have been as clear. I felt so much stronger and clear-headed the second time around, so much more sure of myself and what I wanted in a relationship. People can change, I learned, but sometimes they don’t change enough.
During that time in my early 20s, I survived by downplaying what was happening. I stacked it up against the worst case scenario. At least I was never hit. At least I was never raped. By doing this, maybe I could dull the pain; alleviate some of the anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts that accompanied that period of time. But when I took specific incidents and ran them over and over in my head, I reached the same conclusion every time. Yes, I was violated. Yes, I know it in my bones. Sexual activity doesn’t have to be rape for it to be a violation. Coercion doesn’t generate consent.
No stranger online can pose a question that I haven’t asked myself a hundred times. So when, I ask the critics looking for something that makes things not that bad, do the women and men of the #MeToo movement relinquish the right to tell our stories? Which detail is the one that invalidates what happened to me? Maybe it’s that I kept silent for too long. Maybe it’s that sometimes I was worn down from all the coercion and badgering. Maybe it’s that I went back to him and hoped for a better outcome. Maybe in an alternate timeline, I could have taken any of the thousand exit ramps out of that dark mess instead of the particular one I chose.
The only answer I have is that maybe my truth encroaches on your comfort. And I know, because it encroaches on mine too.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.