I wake up from the pain. My body is dazed and I try to say something, but no words come out. I notice tears dripping down my cheeks, but I can’t leave my paralyzed state. I can’t speak, but my thoughts are clear. It hurts. I wonder if I’m going to throw up, because the shame is pushing its way up my throat, giving me a foul taste at the back of my throat.
He is doing something to me, something I haven’t agreed to. Maybe he took my being asleep as silent consent. I try to protest again, but the shock stops me and I’m ashamed. That’s the saddest part of the whole thing, that I’m the one ashamed of what my boyfriend is doing to my body. I feel anger and fear, but at the same time an inner admonishment not to confront him. Because what would I say? Excuse me, but are you raping me?
Afterwards, I didn’t know what to call what had happened. Since I hadn’t yelled, fought back or protested, I felt that it definitely wasn’t bad enough to press charges. And I’d been curious about the thing that he did, which made me even more ashamed. So I didn’t say anything, to him or to anyone else. I’d forfeited the right to. Embarrassingly enough I knew better, because I’d heard about cases where women reacted exactly like this, but I’d thought, “I wouldn’t be ashamed, I wouldn’t keep quiet.” So sad, to be so small and so ordinary.
Half a lifetime has passed since then, time I sentenced myself to pay off in guilt. Guilt that I’d said a friendly hello to that ex when I met him on the street, without ever having talked about what happened. Guilt for being a bad feminist who didn’t do anything, and shame that I could feel a desire for sex that was similar to what he’d done. And finally, I doubted my own credibility. Was I even entitled to feel bad about that night? To remember it, maybe even call it…
I’ve never been able to decide on a word. Nothing feels right.
The law is clear. Sex without consent isn’t sex, its assault. But what does etiquette and common sense say? That it’s more appropriate to grit your teeth and bear it, rather than shoving and screaming. Pain or discomfort are easier to handle than breaking social rules. With that logic, it was perfectly reasonable for me to choose his comfort over the value of and right to my own body.
For us to begin setting boundaries, we have to effect a change in attitudes that make them possible. That is why we are talking about this. Regardless of our sex, nobody benefits from a climate where we can’t talk to each other, and where we punish those who dare tell their stories of sexual violation.
I was sixteen the first time I thought, “It’s happened to so many people.” I’d barely started exploring sex, but already there were stories spanning from rape to the things we didn’t have words for. Gray areas. Tomorrow, magazines and newspapers will be filled with stories about it. Because today is the day when we, instead of feeling shame, start talking to each other.
We don’t know what’s happened between Assange and the women who have filed rape charges against him. But we do know that the women who dared to press charges for a perceived crime have been met with disbelief and hatred. That’s a reflection of a structure we recognize from a myriad cases, even where a conviction has been the end result.
I don’t write to make anyone responsible, but to show how incredibly hard it is to talk about sexual violations and boundaries. I write because I’m not alone. There are hundreds of stories like mine.
It is with deep gratitude I hold your hands today.
This blog post is a translation of a piece that ran in Svenska Dagbladet, one of Sweden’s largest newspapers, on December 19th 2010.