Content warning: nonconsensual sexual experience
The summer after my first year of college, I was home with my family when I got too high in an old friend’s bed. This was someone from adolescence whom I’d always been close to, an intimacy produced over the course of long bus rides to and from school across the San Fernando Valley. We would nap together, our shoulders flat against the base of the seat and our legs slung over the row in front of us, a contorted position that left our feet free to touch in the air above our heads. Our closeness was absent-minded. There was nothing I had to do to earn it, nor was anything profound necessitated by our touching.
He was one of the few people I chose to see while back home from Berkeley. We got high, though I more so than he. It was an accident. I lay down on his bed, hoping that the comforter would muffle my heart. My least favorite part of smoking too much weed is how well I am suddenly able to hear my body at work. Everything felt loud and then he was kissing me. He touched me for a while and I listened to my blood. It was all I could hear when he eventually paused and I said, “I need to go home,” and he said, “Are you sure?” And I said yes, and he said, “OK, I’ll drive.”
A few weeks later he left town and asked me to meet him at the park to say goodbye. We sat on top of a picnic table and he told me how long he had been waiting to do that, to be with me in that way. “Couldn’t you tell,” he asked me, “how much I always wanted you?”
Really, I can only remember the feeling of his hand against the most sensitive part of my skin, near the fatter portion of my stomach. When I got home, I put my pants in the wash and went to bed.
This isn’t trauma. I don’t think of it that way. Like everyone else, I had an obligatory quarantine check-in with my most complicated ex. We haven’t seen each other in almost four years, and on the phone, we talked mostly about shame. I was surprised, in locating my shame for her, that so much of it could be traced to this moment. This nontraumatizing memory I had only ever recounted to a few friends as a bizarre mistake, a sudden glitch in an old friendship. I told her his name because he was someone she had known.
Often, I think about his question. Couldn’t you tell how much I always wanted you? I know the answer is yes.
This has happened to me other times, too. As it has to many people. I shouldn’t speak in universals, but they’re hard to avoid. Many of my close male relationships have, over the years, boiled down to something like this: a moment of typical closeness turned sexual so suddenly I too believe we were always headed in that direction. And in a way, we were.
My desire for men has always been very limited, even when I was younger and more open to the possibility of intimacy with them. I don’t have much romantic interest in men, or find them particularly respectable. But I did grow up on the same planet as the rest of us, one where I was taught to value male attention. It’s less than noble — how much this belief, in spite of everything, has stuck with me.
When I’m feeling terrible about my body, this sensation is at its most intense. If a man finds me attractive, even while knowing everything there is to know about me (the dyke stuff, the gender stuff), I’m reimbued with some societal worth. Which is so stupid. But I seek out this kind of attention nonetheless. I wonder what kind of lesbian that makes me.
When I was listening to my heart slosh blood through my body while my friend pressed on top of me, I knew he was doing so without malice. And I knew I had always wanted him to find me desirable, and beautiful. His wanting to be near me — letting my feet bump against his on the bus — was a currency. I wasn’t naive about how he felt. I wanted him to want me. Do I deserve to call this violence? Was I harmed? Am I entitled to the language of hurt if I let the hurt happen to me? What does “let” mean?
I can imagine myself on his bed. It would be simpler to say that I said nothing because I was paralyzed by discomfort or fear, but I don’t think either is true. I was expectant and I was, for a moment, redeemed. My plan had worked. I was irresistible.
Consent violations are everywhere, some more mundane than others. I can process the ambiguity of my memory: the coexistence of panic and nonchalance, both of which are reasonable reactions to danger. What I can’t get past is the role desire plays in this story. My desire for sexual attention, which I know exists even amid harm.
This is something I would never interrogate in someone else, and have no problem accepting intellectually. Feeling obligated to accommodate others (especially friends) is one of the more common circumstances surrounding violence. I know this to be true. But when I focus only on my own experience — beyond the universals I believe and understand regarding harm — I find it impossible to see myself without implication. I know that he betrayed me, and my trust. And I also know that when I asked to go home, he drove me there.
My good friend tells me I might find a little redemption in perceiving men as individual opportunities for taking things. “Steal his stuff!” she urges, gesturing to the white boy who has a crush on me. “What do you want that he has?” But what I want is never an object. I’m a terrible revolutionary. I want everyone to crave me no matter the consequence. Which is a fucked up and dangerous thing to say, albeit a driving agenda of capitalism: For women, success is to be wanted, and to be wanted is to risk violence. As for whether or not I’m a woman, I doubt capitalism cares. And violence is always looming, with or without my wanting.
I didn’t bring this upon myself, but I did have some role in its genesis. It’s a small distinction, but one I cling to. I don’t mean to victim-blame, but I’m not sure I’m the victim. Do I have to be? When I say I see myself as implicated — when I acknowledge that my desire for sexual attention was real — it proves I had some agency. This makes me feel better, in a fucked up way. I need to be in control, even of a bad memory. And this makes me feel worse in a more fucked up way because it means I am capable of allowing hurtful things to happen to my body. I believe this, even while knowing I didn’t deserve it. We don’t really have enough words to talk about it well: all the different ways harm appears, and hurts, in its specificity.
Thinking about choice helps me. My goal is not necessarily to heal. I don’t think it has to be, not all the time. I wonder what sympathies are left for me in a conversation about survivorship and victimhood that has widely evolved into a call for indictments. Right now, I care more about reckoning with myself than I do about reckoning with him. I don’t know how to say that. Though I guess I just did.
Scout Turkel writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]