I am far from what you’d call a “perfect” feminist. I rely on a combination of Joe and the cats to catch the spiders and other creepy-crawlies that enter my home. I rely on the man of the house when it comes to household maintenance. And when I opened up my News app the day after the Golden Globes to read the details of a woman’s sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, my immediate reaction was, “That’s not assault. That’s a bad date.” And I felt really bad for calling it that. I did some soul-searching, because I’d thought I would have been the first person to embrace all my sisters, including this one, and say, “Yes! Speak up! You’re so brave!” And for the most part, I had, even before the #MeToo movement came into being. However, with this particular story, we’d hit the inevitable grey area of sexual assault. This woman hadn’t been dragged into a dimly lit alleyway and gang-raped. She hadn’t been molested at a tender young age. She’d been on a date and the guy had gotten handsy and she’d let him have his way.
Except hers wasn’t a bad date. And neither was mine. Because there’s a difference. A difference that the recent backlash against the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements—the cries of “witch hunt” and “attention-seeking”—has made me question. It's made me question whether I was actually assaulted.
Until now. Because it’s a big difference.
Fifteen years ago, I was a seriously doe-eyed and seriously inexperienced 21-year-old college senior. I found myself falling for a damaged, wounded, grieving widower — just my cup of co-dependent cocoa. On the surface, I cared for him. In my gut — a gut that I’d been conditioned to ignore if it made the other person feel better — I knew he was dangerous and disturbed.
But I wanted to help him. I felt it was my calling to help him.
Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, I found myself in a dark room with him, naked on a pull-out sofa bed, with him kissing me and touching me and on top of me. He still had most of his clothes on. Everything was moving too fast. My instincts were conflicting with my head and my head was conflicting with my heart. My entire body was tense. I was shaking uncontrollably. I started crying.
Then he put his finger inside of me and my previous fear exploded exponentially in a moment of panic and vulnerability and violation. I don’t like this I don’t like this This isn’t right Please no But maybe it’s helping him but no no This is too much. All of this in my head all at once. My instincts couldn’t take it anymore and I pushed his hand away.
And then he came right back.
He came right back to where he’d been and I hated it but I gave in. I let him poke me and grope me and show me no concern and keep going because I hoped I prayed I believed that I was helping him heal. Eventually he gave up trying to make me climax. He abruptly got up and went to the bathroom and left me there, exposed, tear-stained, and alone. When he came out of the bathroom, he was naked, all the way at the end of the hallway. He turned to face me, his body in silhouette in front of the harsh hall light and on display like some sort of lesser mammal. He said, “Now we’ve both seen each other naked.
“Now we’re even.”
A little over a year (and lots of therapy) later, I met Joe. Several months (and lots more therapy) after that, I found myself in another dark room, naked on another bed, with Joe kissing me and touching me.
And I flashed back. I was right back there on that cheap sofa bed. With him. My entire body tense. My breath catching in my throat. Every cell shaking.
And then Joe stopped.
He abruptly stopped and he backed off and he asked, “Are you okay?”
And I felt safe enough to say, “No.”
That, my friends, is the difference. That is the difference.
Joe stopped. The other guy didn’t.
I don’t know what this means for the “movement.” I don’t know the exact details of anyone else’s experience but my own, so I don't know that I'm qualified to judge who has or hasn't been assaulted.
But I do know that this isn’t the only grey area. I do know that moments of vulnerability or coercion or disrespect or harassment or power-play or blatant rape have happened to every single woman I know. Every single one, in some way, shape, or form.
I do know that a man shouldn’t need to be hit over the head or shown a sign with the word “NO” written on it in neon Sharpie to know when he’s crossed the line. I do know that “consensual” is damn hard to define, and even harder to prove when it’s her word against his or God forbid she was wearing something slutty.
I also know that “consensual” really isn’t that hard to define at all.
That’s the difference.