The impulse is to start with a list.
The first boy who asked me out wrestled me to the floor in a locked room and held scissors to my throat until I said okay. I was twelve.
At fifteen, on a family vacation, I was separated from other girls and women by a man who worked at the resort, and he pulled my swimsuit from my hips to expose me, saying, “We have to see if you are a woman.”
During the welcome meeting at my college dorm, we covered, almost exclusively, the importance of curfew and not leaving male friends unattended because in the past boys had gone to other girls’ rooms and raped them, which made me wonder why I’d believed an all-girl dorm was safer.
In my twenties, a man asked me for cash in a parking lot, and my first thought was that if I got in my car, he might overpower me, rape me, kill me. It was the middle of the day. It took every bit of courage to tell him I was sorry, I didn’t carry cash, and pray he’d move on. Instead, he stuck his hand in my pants, and I gave him the three dollars I had. Of all the times I’ve felt violated by a stranger, this one burned the most because of the money, because this was a theft that anyone else would acknowledge. And then, when I sought counseling to work through lingering anxiety over that day, my male therapist asked if I regretted engaging with the man because, if I’d ignored him, nothing bad would have happened.
And then there’s the long-term boyfriend whom I still struggle to speak privately about, let alone publicly, because I know my version of our relationship and his version will not match up: I was in an abusive relationship/he loved me. It’s far too complex to even begin to address here, compounded by the fact that, as soon as I say I was in an abusive relationship, the chorus asks, “Why did you stay? What were you thinking? How could you put up with that?” Or worse: “It takes two people to make a relationship.” When I was with him, I used what I now think of as The Boyfriend Filter: every time something terrible happened, I asked myself, How does he see this? and from there, I completely demolished my own lived experience, my own reality, in order to manage his behavior toward me. He taught me to do this.
So did every school dress code, every self-defense seminar, every warning to be modest/pure, every rape case where the victim was blamed in the media, every teen show where the pretty girl eventually rewards the nice guy with her body because he tried hard enough, and on, and on.
The impulse is to list every instance that proves the point, from the ones that stand out so starkly I still see the face of a man I made eye contact with for less than a minute fifteen years ago, to the ones that feel so small by comparison that I can trick myself into not feeling them—which is it’s own kind of tragedy. But if lists of violations and traumas worked, if they could break down the walls of willfull denial, then the brave people who have shared their stories publicly before me would have already accomplished this. In some cases, maybe it strikes a note with those already disposed toward empathy and compassion. I guess there’s hope in that. But the list of ways I’ve been violated is not for those who are already forming a dismissal of it before I finish.
This is the catch-22: I want even just one of my scars to be enough for another human to reflect, to care, to change; and yet, why must I prove that I’ve been harmed in the first place? It’s not enough to say, “I’ve been violated.” If my most horrific example won’t convince others, then the default is to initiate the onslaught, as if the sheer magnitude of all the violations taken together will then mean something. For those who want to understand my reality, this isn’t necessary, but for those who don’t, even the onslaught is futile. And then I’m back where I was before, filtering, trying to understand others so that I can find some way to get them to understand me.
What I have learned is that this is pointless. A person who doesn’t want to see you will not see you, and at some point, it does more damage to keep trying than to disengage. I don’t owe my story to anyone. I share it sometimes, cautiously, filled with panic, because I’m grateful for the people whose own stories make me feel less alone and less ashamed, and because, the very worst constant in all these negative experiences of my life is the silence, how the most visceral fear and pain I have ever felt can be turned into a lie—how the certainty of what I feel in my body most intensely, through silence, can be taken from me, too.
It feels defeating to draw a line, to say, “Here’s where I stop trying to convince them.” It feels like giving up. When adrenaline spikes through me and my breathing falls shallow, when my hands shake as they are now, when that spot in my abdomen pulses like the start of a charley horse, I worry that I’m letting fear control me instead of standing up for myself and others. But I didn’t save myself from a toxic relationship until I was willing to draw the line, to not need him to validate my reality. I don’t know what that means for sustaining a meaningful conversation around this issue. I just know that it was the most important rebellion of my life.