If we are to talk frankly about the conditions that lead us to use terms like rape culture, then perhaps we need all sides to take ownership of the experiences that add up to something so big and insidious and normalized.
Even now, over 20 years later, I can’t bring myself to use his name, though I remember it—first and last—because this is the Internet, and I don’t want to engage with those who knew him and would instantly dismiss this story as another girl who can’t take a joke, or accept that we were just kids, and nobody knew any better. But when I was 10 years old, a boy in my class saw me swinging at recess, and glimpsed flesh through the armholes of my sleeveless shirt. He gave me the first nickname that ever stuck: “Twin Peaks.”
This would have been the fifth grade, 1991, during or just after the TV show’s short, but memorable run, and I’d bet my left one that pubescent girls the country over were given this same nickname by the same type of boys. But I was 10, and the only girl in my class (probably untrue, but that’s how it felt) to have grown breasts, or breastlets, and my mother had not yet bought me a training bra. By the time I wore one regularly, boys in my class had grabbed and slapped and pointed at my chest for a year or more, and I understood the bra to be an object of shame, a way to contain something that forced boys to behave badly and get detention.
It is this latent, but lifelong shame that rose uncontrollably in my throat as I read Melissa Febos’ recent personal essay at Granta. Among important meditations on the symbiotic relationship between transgression and female sexuality, and amid gorgeous maritime metaphors organic to the essay’s setting on Cape Cod, “Kettle Holes” explores the lasting and complicated resonance of a childhood rivalry-cum-sexual-attraction between the narrator and her bullying neighbor, Alex. When Febos reached puberty, around the same age as me, her relationship with Alex, the bus stop jock who “wore the same shirt for four out of five school days,” turned from splashing together in the kettle hole lake of their neighborhood, to an abusive dynamic in which Alex challenged Febos to staring contests, arm-wrestling, and other feats of strength and determination that Alex always won and always lorded, relentlessly and nastily, over Febos.
But it was when Alex began to spit on Febos, eventually bringing her to tears, that Febos confronted the sinister undercurrent beneath Alex’s teasing: “In some inchoate way, I understood that desire led to fear which could lead to hate—all without obliterating that original want…In the year that followed, I came to better understand the lessons about the female body, the ones that tell us punishment is reward, that disempowerment is power.” The essay rewrites, with impressive nuance, the old adage about the boy who teases you because he likes you. It unpacks the violence encoded into these adolescent scenes where girls are taught to “just ignore” the boys, lest they tempt them into further meanness.
As so many women eventually learn, such boys will often not be ignored. And as the revolutionary #yesallwomen campaign devastatingly revealed, the lives of women are shaped by the men boys like Alex often grow up to be, the ones who believe their attention—however expressed or imposed—is a compliment that should be treated as such. After Febos cries, Alex backs off (though continually pushes down the book she tries to hold up between them), saying, “It’s not because I don’t like you…I do.”
The reader is not surprised when, in a few years’ time, Alex leads Febos into the woods near their houses and puts his hands under her clothes. The scene feels as inevitable and timeless as a summer romance movie, only starring all the wrong characters: a boy who has nothing to gain except more power that he’ll use to commit more hurt, and a girl who is not filled, but stripped by his touch. I was not surprised, but I was saddened, right alongside Febos, her body representing mine in so many dark, familiar woods. “We parted without speaking,” Febos writes. “I knew we would never speak of it, might never speak again. I didn’t care. I didn’t want anything from him, except what he’d already taken. And I could never have that back.”
You act like you hate me, the inscription reads, but we both know the truth. These words survive in my high school senior yearbook, written by a boy I’ll call Jordan. Jordan sat behind me in our Participation in Government class, which was taught by the mayor of our upstate New York town who either never noticed or cared that Jordan spent most of class whispering sex acts into the back of my head, and twirling strands of my hair around his meaty fingers. I seethed at him in response, ripping my hair out of his hands until broken strands of it littered my angora cardigans. But Jordan was more popular than me, and I feared him.
Our teacher, the mayor, assigned a research project to be completed in pairs. Jordan and I were paired together. I knew I could not ask for a different partner without Jordan knowing—we were assigned in class—or without explaining to the topmost politician in my community, and a friend of my father’s, why I didn’t want to be paired with Jordan. So I accepted the circumstances, and set to work on my part of the project, hoping to keep the work divided in half, completed separately.
But Jordan now had pretext to come over to my house, and after a week of his pushing, I relented. It was embarrassing. Jordan lived in a large, split-level house on a hill where the wealthiest families in town lived; I lived on the bottom floor of a duplex with my single mother. My mother was home when Jordan came over, but left us alone to work at the kitchen table. Jordan catalogued all the oddities he saw—my mother’s dusty antiques (cheap farmhouse trinkets, not orate, Victorian pieces), the uneven flooring, the chipped-paint on our cabinets from where our cats scratched them, the Corelle bowls and plates in our cupboards that Jordan said his grandmother had. The classist statements cut from a different direction than the touching and the sexual remarks, but they merged into my feeling even more powerless. Jordan needled me the whole time we worked, sticking me with his superiority, ending each puncture with, “I’m just joking!” while my cheeks burned with anger.
And then, moments before he climbed into his parents’ black SUV, he grabbed the back of my head and shoved his tongue into my mouth, and, like Febos, I did not stop him. I could not imagine how.
After reading “Kettle Holes” and against my desire not to, I found myself wondering about Alex. I wondered if Febos had ever looked him up on Facebook, and what his page would say about the person he’s become. I also thought of Brock Turner, and wondered where Alex fell on the debate of whether or not Turner had committed rape when he fingered an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. I wondered if Alex had read the victim’s statement, or Turner’s father’s statement. I wondered with whose words he identified.
Anne Theriault theorizes that many men who see themselves as “good guys” have failed to condemn Turner because, in some dark and private corner of their minds, they also recognize themselves in Turner. Extreme and violent actions like Turner’s may be a line they’ve not (yet) crossed, but Theriault believes plenty of these men have at least shared Turner’s mindset when he targeted a drunk girl alone at a frat party. “They’ve gone to parties with the intention of hooking up with someone,” Theriault says, “they’ve zeroed in on the vulnerable girls, the drunk girls, the girls who seem like they’d be easy to take home; they’ve assumed that silence or a lack of clear refusal is the same as consent.”
It is impossible now to remember how many times in my teens and 20s that my silence was taken to mean yes. The alcohol plentifully involved has rendered many of my memories unreliable, but there were less drunken times, too—times I reluctantly gave a blowjob in order to avoid another kind of penetration I couldn’t see a way out of, times I let myself be “talked into” that penetration, which now seems a flimsy form of consent at best. I don’t consider these incidents to be rape, but that doesn’t stop the bile from filling my stomach each time those images slip back into my consciousness. It doesn’t stop the revolt I feel when certain names pop into my friend requests online. It doesn’t stop the shame and rage I feel when I reluctantly accept those, too, because I’m still afraid to say no.
Jordan is one of them. He recently commented on another friend’s post about a spate of sexual assaults that had occurred near her university, compelling her to change her walking route. He lamented the ordinariness of women having to take such precautions, and even seemed to be familiar with some important statistics about it. He’s a Democrat now. A Hillary supporter.
I want to be glad about that. I want to think he’s become someone who wouldn’t grab the back of a girl’s head to kiss her, or to push down on it until her mouth is touching his penis.
We are finally starting to listen to the victims of institutionalized sexism and sexual assault, and though I would never want to diminish those voices, I sometimes wish I could challenge Jordan, and Alex, and all of the “good guys” out there to a #yesallmen campaign in which they share narratives about the times, however rare or reflective of their ethics, that they pressured someone into having sex, or proceeded under the assumed permission of silence rather than asking for explicit consent, or checked in with their partner along the way, or took a drunk girl home with the intention or hope of sleeping with her, or told a woman she should smile more, or commented on a woman’s body, or even engaged in locker room talk with their male friends about the women who may or may not have enthusiastically consented to hooking up with them.
I wonder if such men could ever be as courageous as the women who tweeted and shared their stories, added them to the hashtagged catalogue, and often even used their own names. Their real names.
A named thing asks for interpretation, and it’s there, in the meaning-making, that we gain our control, or find it again.
If we are to talk frankly about the conditions that lead us to use terms like rape culture, then perhaps we need all sides to take ownership of the experiences that add up to something so big and insidious and normalized. We need to name the component parts together if we are to dismantle the whole.
Febos admits that she wishes she could go back in time and tell Alex no, and of course I wish the same for myself. It is not an exaggeration to say that every woman who has ever taken me into her confidence has told me such a story, her regret and her pain and her ongoing fear—now, of my judgment, of the world’s—becomes present to me even as she slides into the body of her past, a body that, to use Febos’ terms, could compel, but not control those who desired it, hated it.
“But more than anything, I want to apologize to that girl,” Febos writes. “How could she have known? She survived the best way she knew. The true telling of our stories often requires the annihilation of other stories, the ones we build and carry through our lives because it is easier to preserve some mysteries.”
I could tell you other stories than the ones I’ve told here. Worse stories. Better stories.
Imagine what could happen if we heard the stories of all who’ve had to learn how to live with themselves. Forgive themselves. Reach deep within themselves, past the stories they’ve told themselves about themselves, and dredged up the gnarled truths that, in their surfacing, would become treasure.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.