Trigger Warning: This piece contains a graphic account of a sexual assault.
Saying “yes” to sex doesn’t always guard against acts of sexual violence.
I was 19 when I decided that I was ready to lose my virginity.
I chose to go with someone safe, that I had known my whole life, Jack. Our families had the sort of intermingled storyline you only hear about in soap operas. He was older than me by about seven years. What felt comfortable about him was that having grown up in the same hell hole, he was screwed up in all the same places. I didn’t need to explain things to him or tell him my stories. He already understood.
I went to his little prefab house on a chilly October night. I thought I was ready. I was on birth control for my irregular heavy periods, so I had birth control covered, and I was wearing matching baby blue bra and panties. I got there early and sat on the swing set in the little playground of his neighborhood. I will never forget the feeling of foreboding that came over me as I sat there. I wrote it off to nerves, and it probably was. But in hindsight it feels horribly portentous.
When Jack arrived home, he put on the movie Top Gun and we started drinking rum and Cokes. We had barely gotten through the first dogfight of the movie when Jack asked if I wanted to take it to the bedroom. I said yes. I undressed in the dark and shivered in the cold. I dove under the covers, where he covered my body with his. It felt warm and delicious. He kissed me and began trailing kisses down my stomach. I was shocked by him going down on me. In my Baptist girl naiveté, I never imagined a man wanting to put his face there.
Suddenly, it was as if something snapped in his brain, and the man I had known my whole life was gone. In his place was a man who entered a violent rage. To this day, I believe he had some sort of psychotic break. He proceeded to sexually brutalize me. He bit my left nipple so hard he nearly tore it off. The room was dark, so I am not clear if he used his penis or a nearby object, but he literally tore through my vagina and then for what seemed like hours he penetrated my abdominal cavity with his penis. He stopped occasionally to go down on me and to slurp the blood that was freely pouring out of me.
Then as quickly as it had come, his madness was gone, and he seemed bewildered by why his room, his bed, and both of us were covered in blood. I was equally bewildered. I had heard that first sex hurt, and that you bled, so I was busy trying to match the torture I just experienced with what little I knew about how sex was supposed to work.
I got to the hospital on the verge of dying. There I was revived with defibrillator paddles and blood transfusions before undergoing emergency surgery to repair the laceration that extended from the opening of my vagina through my cervix. The physical damage caused multiple miscarriages in later life and meant that when I was able to carry to term, both of my children had to be born by cesarean section. It was a contributing factor to the problems that led to a series of surgeries this summer.
This week, there has been a lot of discussion about nice guys, rape, and consent. So much of it has centered around what constitutes consent. For me, the conversation has been painful, because by all the definitions we have been discussing, what happened to me was not rape. I agreed to have sex. My consent was even enthusiastic. When the pain started, I was too confused, and then in medical shock. I do not remember everything, but I do not believe that at any time I withdrew my consent. Even though I went to the police, Jack was never prosecuted because I had consented. I was in his bedroom by my own choice, and had undressed myself.
For years, I never talked about what happened to me as rape, and to this day, I struggle to use the word because it does not fit the definition of rape that we use. I said “yes” clearly and enthusiastically. How do I discuss this, how do I talk about the resulting PTSD, the lasting physical damage, and the schizophrenic attitude I have developed about sex when I do not have the right to use the word “rape”? The woman who woke to being non-violently penetrated by a man she had been flirting with has the right to use that word, and that is, in fact, as it should be. But I do not.
A couple of years ago, I read about a woman who liked to have her ponytail pulled during sex. She was with a new partner, and she asked him to pull her ponytail. He did so but did it with such violence that he crushed vertebrae in her neck. This was a sexual act she agreed to; in fact, she had even asked for it. But at some point, it went horribly wrong for her. She does not have the right to say she was raped. Still, what happened to her was violence in the context of sex, and she will live with the consequences physically and emotionally for the rest of her life.
I agree with Alyssa Royse that good guys rape without realizing it. But I believe the opposite is also true: Monsters sometimes have consent before they sexually brutalize women.
Clearly, consent is not enough. We need to stop believing that all men who have sex with women without consent are monsters, and that men only behave like monsters sexually when they do not have consent. We need to talk about what really happens between men and women, which is complicated, messy, painful, and sometimes deadly—but most often wonderful.