I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve had non-consensual sex. I don’t say rape because rape culture tells me not to. I don’t say rape because that means force—being held down, mouth covered, thighs forced apart. That never happened.
The legal definition of rape is penetration without consent. That happened. A lot.
After reading a few essays from Roxane Gay’s new edited volume, Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, I felt a deep unease. Halfway through, I realized I needed to tell my story—even if rape culture instructs me not to.
Five years earlier I had a huge crush on the same boy, and would spy on him while he mowed our grass—so when he showed interest, when my best friend slept with his friend, rape culture told me I wanted it. Rape culture told me I was ready. Rape culture told me I was old enough to decide, even if the law disagreed. I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say no. Rape culture told me that’s not rape.
A few days later, my dad asked me if I was a good girl. Maybe it was instinct, more likely it was the small-town rumor mill that tipped him off. “Yes, I study, get good grades,” I answered. That wasn’t enough. “Good girls don’t have sex,” he told me. Rape culture says no one will respect you now. Rape culture says don’t respect yourself.
A year later, I am standing in a bikini on a street corner hawking a “pay what you want” car wash. How much are teenage girls near naked bodies combined with their labor worth? Two dollars, five dollars, 10 dollars. Rape culture says the consumer decides.
My cheerleading team was working at Spring Training. An injured major league baseball player made me his personal ball girl. I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say no. He calls me for six months. He sends my family a Christmas card from the team. He becomes a five-time all-star. Rape culture says I was lucky he picked me. Rape culture says he was the one who got away — not me.
Rape culture says I should give you a trigger warning now so you know that the next part is a mix of sex and violence. It’s 1993 and I’m at a frat party. The boy with the terrible Boston accent takes me up to his room at the end of the night. He tried to put himself inside places I didn’t want. I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say no. Rape culture says that was just the right amount of sex to titillate some; rape culture says that was just the right amount of violence to trigger others. That’s just the way rape culture likes it.
I remember a joke. There are four kinds of orgasms: The affirmative (yes, yes, yes) the negative (no, no, no), the religious (oh god, oh god, oh god) and the fake—the name of the guy who is the butt of the joke.
Rape culture says it’s funny. Rape culture says you can’t take a joke if you mention that only one kind of orgasm includes consent.
My dormmate is dating a college athlete and I’m friends with several guys on the team. One night, my best friend on the team takes me to his room. I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say no. He lets his roommate watch. He invites his roommate to join. I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say no. Rape culture tells you to respect me less. Rape culture calls me a slut.
I’m working hard at my first job. My boss tells me everybody wants a piece of me. Rape culture says I should feel complimented.
Rape culture tells me not to remember all the ways I’ve been harassed. Rape culture tells me not to count the number of times I’ve had non-consensual sex. Too much time has passed for it to matter. The list would be too long. It would hurt too much.
Rape culture says I shouldn’t tell any of these stories. Rape culture says that because I have no one will value me as a scholar, a woman, a person. Gay’s 30-essay compilation tells me that I must, despite the negative consequences. Rape culture can’t be captured in a slim edition when its proportions are truly epic. We can only challenge and change rape culture if we call it out.
Terrified of what rape culture will tell my son – and the ways he might act upon it — I read articles on teaching boys about consent. He has learned that he must actively ask me to tickle him. When he touches me without asking I remind him that we must ask touching other people’s bodies. He responds by asking if he can touch me. When I say “yes” he pokes my shoulder gently with his slim finger. He shows me enthusiastic consent is possible, if only he can ignore everything else rape culture tells him.