Trigger warning: In this post I use vulgar language, I discuss sexual assault and sexual violence, and I talk about the long path towards healing. There might be tears, there might be anger, and there might be pearl clutching. There might also be multi-syllabic swear words in here. Sorry, in advance.
So much of social media is discussing the latest in sexual assault tragedies, a Hollywood heavyweight by the name of Harvey Weinstein.
I won’t go into detail, because this particular essay does it just fine for the both of us, but the publishing world is dragging this dude from coast to coast, laying bare every sordid, disgusting, horrific, dehumanizing, demoralizing thing he’s ever done. If this cat sneezed on the train without covering his mouth, someone is publishing footage of him doing it, and rightfully so.
If you’re out here destroying countless women for the sake of getting your jollies off—one particular woman noted that the more fearful she became, the more excited he became—then you deserve to have every horrible element of your being aired out for us to pour over.
I know what it’s like to be one in a long line of women being ruined for the sake of a man laying claim to a power he believes should be rightfully his. I know what it’s like to be the remaining end of the incense—left to contend with the dirt and ash he left behind of me, strewn across a table, to be swept up and tossed out.
In my early writing on this blog, I wrote a lot about dealing with the way the assault changed my life, and how it contributed to my weight gain. Being assaulted in my sleep makes it hard for me to relax in a quiet room, which meant I couldn’t sleep unless soft music or white noise was playing. Being kidnapped as a child means I am subconsciously keenly aware of threats to my safety. (If you’re curious, that’s a polite euphemism for “I’m paranoid like a motherfucker.”) Being brought to the point of orgasm during an assault compromised my ability to let another person give me one until years later.
But every so often, I receive an e-mail asking me how I was able to heal from these experiences. Because I’d stopped writing about it so much it must’ve meant I was over it, right? It was no longer such a BFD in my life… how did you make that happen, Erika? How do I stop being so broken?
How do you reckon with being the wreckage?
I don’t know, love. I don’t.
I didn’t stop writing about sexual assault because I was over it. I stopped writing about it because I experienced it again—a man, a man who I’d kind to and spoken to when I saw him on the street, stood inside the glass doors of my apartment building and masturbated while staring me in the face as he saw me walking towards my building, effectively preventing me from going in without passing him, a man with an erection and a need to do something with it. I tried to pretend he wasn’t looking at me and jerking his miserable dick as he watched me, so I tried to put a pillar between the two of us. He instead relocated, dick in hand, hand furiously pumping, so he could see me beyond the pillar. I then knew, he was watching me.
When I saw him an hour later, he was wearing different pants.
To make matters worse, he still felt entitled to my attention. He continued to speak to me whenever I was out, and I began to ignore him. I’d roll my eyes at him. I’d snarl. I’d broaden my shoulders, prepared to put my fist through his chest.
And, one night, as I was walking my dogs, he came up to me, about ten feet away from the other side of the street, and called out to me. “Miss, miss, did I do something to you? You’re all mean to me now.”
I never thought I had a Brooklyn accent until that moment. I never spat out the “f” in “fuck” so hard in my entire life.
“Are you fucking serious right now?”
He looked dumbfounded. “What? What did I do to you?”
“Are you seriously fucking serious right now? You’re seriously going to ask me that?”
I had an 80lb teddy bear masquerading as a pit bull on a leash when we were having this conversation. And, rest assured, I love my Saki. But if I ever wished for her to be a murderous, flesh-thirsty dog fighting beast in any moment, it was that one. I just wanted to sicc her on him, to tear him to shreds. I wanted to cross that street, pin him against the wall, and claw my nails through his skin and tear him into dog food. I wanted to feed my dogs human flesh that night.
Instead, I stared a hole into him, until he was so weirded out that he sauntered off into the sunset. A sentient trash bag. A walking, talking, pile of garbage who leered at me as I walked towards him, in my own building, jacking off.
Everything I needed to know about sexual assault, I learned from a 73-year-old black man who I considered a lifelong mentor, a man whose absence in my life I deeply regret. He taught me everything I needed to know about why people do the things they do even though they cause harm. I just didn’t realize it yet.
We frequently had conversations about power dynamics and interpersonal relationships. He explained to me, quite clearly, that my consent is power. Consent—the affirmation that something is wanted, warranted, desired, approved for my inclusion—is control. I may not be able to control the actions of others, but I always have a say in whether or not their actions include me.
By extension, if consent is power, the appeal of committing an action against me without my consent is an attempt to diminish my power. It is an attempt to take from me the right I have to govern my own person.
The conclusion you draw from this, is that sexual violence is not about sex. If it were, what would be the point of risking crime, charges? Consensual casual sex is a thing for a reason. If rape were simply about sex, there are too many avenues—hook-up apps, parties, and nightclubs—for getting the job done. You might not get taken home to Mom and Pops, but you’ll at least get your nut off.
The difference between consensual sex and sexual assault is the lack of consent. The power dynamic, the imbalance of power in favor of the person committing the act is intoxicating enough that it’s worth the risk. The boundary pushing, the line-stepping—for those who aren’t taught to value concepts like consent and autonomy, it can become addicting. It can become habitual.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the bulk of those who’ve violated someone’s boundaries once have actually done it repeatedly. Your own president of these here United States has bragged about doing it. The power imbalance is enticing, even arousing. Remember, one woman in particular specifically mentioned that the more scared she became, the more aroused Weinstein was.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to have power as a human being, and all the ways we give portions of our power to others willingly. Elected officials speak for us, religious leaders guide our spirituality, partners frequently make decisions for us. Money has power—no, money is power—and we dedicate massive portions of our time towards getting as much of it as we can.
I think a lot about the ways we’re influenced to give our power away, our right to choose. Corporations spend millions of dollars to influence us to buy from this company instead of that one. People try to ply you with alcohol in order to “lower your inhibitions;” in other words, influence you to be less difficult when it comes to giving up what they want. People drug you in order to render you compliant, make you less likely to deny them.
The power lies in being able to choose, and people are constantly trying to influence that choice, or take that choice from you altogether.
When I realized this, I realized that my multiple assaults over the course of my life weren’t about me as a person. They weren’t about me being pretty. They weren’t about my clothes. They weren’t about me being where I should’ve or shouldn’t have been. They certainly weren’t about me being the perfect or imperfect victim. They were crimes of opportunity—I was a missing link in a chain needed to be complete in order for the rapist to get what he wanted. If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been the next unassuming victim.
Boy, was that freeing. There wasn’t something special about me that said “pick me! ruin my life! I’m waiting!”
Realizing that helped me let go of the shame I felt around being a victim—this wasn’t something I telegraphed to a predator, it wasn’t me who committed the crime, and it wasn’t shameful to be the one to sweep up the ash the criminal left behind.
What else freed me? Understanding that the quest for power, on the part of so many, is such that the likelihood of an attack is ever present. That means that it could be 9AM or 9PM, in broad daylight or in the dead of night. Assault isn’t about one time being riskier than another; it’s about the thirst of an attacker and their willingness to risk for it. I no longer felt burdened by a need to be “home before dark.” In a world where people are being snatched into vans in broad daylight anywhere, the risk is always great.
And, lastly. I no longer shoulder the burden of what I choose to do in the event of an attack. I realize that the choice is always to fight or relent, and both choices are equally okay. In the moment, I can say, “I will never let another piece of shit asshole do this to me again” and fight ’til the death, and feel good about that choice. I can also say, “He’s going to kill me, oh my god what about my babies, I just hope this is over soon,” and do what I think might help save my life. Consent by force is not consent; we don’t even let contracts signed under duress stand up in court. Either choice is okay, and neither choice should be a source of shame for me—the shame isn’t my burden to bear. That lies at the feet of the rapist.
We spend so much time talking about the importance of teaching the value of consent—not because we’re delving deeply into what consent should look like, but because we’re still debating whether or not consent is always easily acquired. We’re constantly listing situations where consent is not always possible, instead of asking ourselves, “how is sex possible if consent isn’t?”
We’re talking about how onerous it is to have to always ‘interrupt’ the ‘moment’ if we’re asking, “would you please have sex with me,” instead of detailing the deliciousness of having your partner whisper in your ear, “you want to fuck me, don’t you?” We’re encouraging women to be fearful and ashamed of sex and sexuality, instead of owning it—their power, their right to choose sexual intimacy in a responsible way—describing the freeing feeling of straddling her partner’s lap and lovingly looking in their eyes and answering, “yes.’
We’re unwilling to budge on our own understandings—likely because if our understanding shifts as individuals it would mean accepting that we’ve done wrong, too—and it means the conversation is at an awkward stalemate.
This stalemate guarantees that sexual violence will be a latitude line on the axis of power that so many thirst for. I just have to be ready for it when it spins back in my direction.
For more on my writing on sexual assault: