(Content Warning: sexual violence, rape culture)
There’s this song that I like by LA-based pop-punk band The Dollyrots called “Watch Me Go (Kiss Me, Kill Me).” In it, cutie pie lead singer Kelly Ogden divulges the tales of multiple men in her life who have done her wrong.
“I’m gonna tell a little story,” she starts, “about the ones I left and left me / You’ll know if you’re one ‘cause you know what you’ve done.”
And I think that’s why I’m writing this anonymously.
Not just because the specific guys in question, whose mistakes I’m hanging out to dry here, don’t need to be named to recognize themselves – but also because, truth be told, it could be any guy. It could be you.
And I want you to sit with that possibility.
Because although some of these stories are associated with men who were also manipulative or emotionally abusive toward me, most of them were deeds done by “normal” guys. Cool guys. Fun guys. Smart guys. Men who loved me deeply (yes, even the toxic ones). Men who, despite what I’m relaying here, I don’t necessarily hold a grudge against.
Guys I still call my friends. Guys who probably have no idea how horribly they fucked up – how they’ve left me with a rotting knot in my stomach and a fear of saying no.
I want you to read this and not be sure if you’ve ever done it, to trace back all of your steps and still not come to a conclusion. To realize that that’s how entrenched rape culture is – that you have no idea whether or not you’ve violated someone’s consent.
And that’s not to say that this is a cis men’s-only problem – because it’s not. I date regardless of gender, and my experience has been that all people can do this. My ex-girlfriend who was so drunk out of her mind that she didn’t realize she was forcing herself on me that night, that I was pushing her away. A lady one-night-stand who bit me so hard, it bruised dark purple, even though we’d never covered pain play as an option. A trans guy with puppy dog eyes that implicitly guilted me until I reluctantly rescinded my no.
Anyone can violate a person’s consent without realizing what they’ve done. But I want to talk specifically about how cis men have done this to me – about how men who loved me, in their words and their actions, have done this to me – to the point that it’s become a pattern.
“And you deny you’ve done wrong,” the pre-chorus to The Dollyrots song goes. “Well, I’ve kept my mouth shut too long.”
So this is me, finding my voice – the one that you ignored when I said no.
1. Frank: ‘If You Loved Me, You Would Do It’
My first boyfriend was an accident.
I was in a relationship when we met, with a young woman who I loved deeply, and he was the most crush-worthy guy in my high school friendship group. He was cute and funny and sensitive – the kind of “nice guy” that you couldn’t help but coddle through his heart-wrenching stories of women doing him wrong. And he told the story of his last girlfriend to anyone who hadn’t heard it yet and was willing to listen.
In short: She wrote to him from Bible camp, breaking up with him through a scribbled letter, because God told her to. At least, that was his version. Given his penchant for twisting stories to shine all of the good light on him, though, I doubt that this was an entirely accurate account. But when he squeezed in the fact that the break-up triggered him into self-harm, of course any kind person would validate his pain.
And while I do not, by any means, believe that self-harm – or any mental health issue, for that matter – is inherently an attention-seeking or sympathy-soliciting behavior, I do think that abusive people can turn it into one for their benefit.
So when our late-night phone conversations turned from his hurting himself in grief, and into his threatening self-injury should I not date him, I felt trapped. I couldn’t be responsible for someone’s suicide, could I?
And so, my first boyfriend was an accident.
And truth be told, while I identified at the time as bisexual, there wasn’t much about a cis man’s body that roused excitement in me. I was seventeen and had never been up-close-and-personal with a penis, and I liked it that way. I didn’t understand how they worked (they can move on their own?), and I had no desire to have one near me, let alone inside of me. And this, he told me, was indicative of my latent lesbianism.
“Have you ever seen a bisexual old woman?” he asked me. “No. Because eventually, you have to choose.”
I knew that this was ridiculous, although it took me years to learn the term biphobia, but he was adamant in his assertion that if I didn’t want to touch, taste, or ride it, that I must not care about him at all. With tears in his eyes, he begged me, regularly, to prove that I wasn’t a lesbian and that I really could love him the way that he loved me.
He took it out and showed it to me – pushed it into my line of vision when I looked away. He rubbed it against my arm, trying to convince me that touching it wouldn’t be so bad. He asked me – over and over and over again – to put it in my mouth.
“I don’t want to,” I said.
“You’re a girl,” he told me. “You’re supposed to like it.”
And when I finally attempted, feeling out of options, to acquiesce – just the tip – his hand pushed against the back of my head, forcing me into a sex act that I never agreed to, that I, in fact, had adamantly refused.
But in his mind, I had proved something to him in that moment – that I really, really loved him. It took me months to build up the courage to break up with him, to convince myself that his self-harm would never be my fault.
And it took me even longer to realize that no doesn’t mean guilt trip me, that you can’t demand sexual favors under the guise of improving your self-worth, that sexual assault doesn’t always happen through force, but sometimes through coercion.
If your yes comes through only because you’re afraid of what will happen if you say no again, or because you’re being shamed into believing you’re hurting someone by exercising your autonomy, that’s not a yes.
And if you’re not respecting that – if you think it’s appropriate to convince someone to do what you want – then you’re being violating.
2. Adam: ‘Do I Really Have to Stop?’
When I called my best friend crying the next day, trying desperately to grasp onto language to describe how the night had started, she offered the word magical.
“Yes,” I said.
The night had started enchantingly. My biggest high school crush, ten years later, had called me on the phone to say he was on his way to scoop me up. I had just moved back to my parents’ house for a summer before embarking on a new life journey, and having caught word of my return, he wanted to welcome me prodigally.
I ran upstairs to change into something that said “I didn’t put effort into this, but just to be clear, you really missed out a decade ago when I would have died to kiss you.” I wasn’t expecting – or even wanting, really – anything to come out of this night. I had a girlfriend, and she was the love of my life, and I was happy, and I wasn’t going to ruin it – not even for him.
When I jumped into his rusting, blue pick-up truck, he looked over at me with the biggest grin on his face. “Where to, darling?” he asked, his low, coastal accent dipping his syllables. It was already getting late – nine or ten o’clock – and the stars were shining brightly. I shrugged, open to any adventure.
“You ever been to Virginia?” he asked – which was two states away. And when I shook my head, he said, “Me neither. Guess that’s settled.” And after stopping at a gas station for a map and some snacks, we were on our way.
It was a long, late drive with no radio service, so we had to resort to a number of games to keep us entertained and awake. We started with each of us naming a topic and a band – “Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the style of The Beastie Boys!” – for the other one to improvise a song out of. But we eventually turned to a game of Truth or Dare, which devolved into Truth or Truth, as driving on the highway in the woods isn’t the safest environment for dares.
As we slowed into the first town in Virginia that sounded promising, street lights twinkling in the truck’s windows, he asked: “Why didn’t we ever date?”
I guffawed. (I really hate the word guffaw, but it really is a perfect description of what I did then.) “Are you kidding me?” I asked, mouth agape, leaning forward to look back at him directly in the face. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I’m not,” he laughed. “I’m serious. Why didn’t we?”
“Because you didn’t like me,” I answered.
“Oh, come on,” he groaned. “Yeah right! I asked you to my junior prom, and you said no.”
“My parents wouldn’t let me!”
“Nah,” he said quietly. Leaning against the headrest, he looked ahead, as if in a reminiscent dream. “You were always too good for me.” He smiled, content with that memory, as we pulled into a hotel parking lot.
It was two or three in the morning at this point, and it didn’t make sense for us to go back home. We asked for a room with two beds and plopped ourselves down. And as soon as we sat on separate beds and then met eyes, the tension in the air was palpable.
You know exactly what’s coming next. I don’t need to regale it.
But when he lay down next to me, he asked, harkening back to our game of Truth or Truth, “Is this innocent?”
The word no hardly touched my lips before his mouth did.
Somewhere between that kiss and the subsequent removal of clothing, my brain suddenly kicked into gear – girlfriend at home! what am I doing? I can’t do this! – and I knew that I had to stop it, all of it, before the damage was irreparable.
And so it was then, with his mouth at my hipbones, that I said, “Hey. Stop. Stop.”
And of all things, he said, “Why?”
Although I had a million answers – because I have a girlfriend, because I don’t want to do this, because this was all a mistake, because I don’t need a fucking reason – I couldn’t figure out how to make any of them come out. I wanted it, but I didn’t want it. And I didn’t know how to explain that.
No flight. No fight. Just freeze.
And so, although some weak version of “I can’t do this” came out, the activity didn’t stop. My enjoyment did; I sat, staring at the ceiling, detached from my body, wanting it all to end. But the activity didn’t.
And so that’s why, the next day, I was on the phone with my best friend, crying, because I didn’t know how to sort out what had happened, what I had done wrong, whether or not it was—
It was years until I learned that just because you didn’t kick and scream didn’t mean it wasn’t; that just because you liked the person didn’t mean it wasn’t; that just because you had willingly flirted with them, gotten into bed with them, kissed them, took your clothes off for them didn’t mean it wasn’t; that just because you didn’t have a response besides “stop” didn’t mean it wasn’t; that just because you continued seeing the person didn’t mean it wasn’t; that just because they loved you didn’t mean it wasn’t.
3. Connor: ‘It’s Really Not That Big of a Deal’
He was an animal rights activist, talked a big game about women’s rights, and sometimes surprised me with cannoli from the bakery down the street.
We had a meet cute: He delivered pizza to me from a GrubHub order, and I thought he was so adorably sexy – standing outside in a gray zip-up hoodie, his dark curly hair dripping from the rain – that I awkwardly texted the number back to say, “I’m sorry if this is inappropriate, but…”
He fell hard and fast, which was only a little bit uncomfortable, and mostly a lot a bit sweet. He took me out to dinner at the restaurant where he worked to show me off to his friends. He kicked his roommates out of the living room so that we could watch my favorite movie. He wanted me to meet his parents after we’d only been seeing each other for a month. He accidentally whispered, “I love you” into my hair one night when he thought I was asleep.
I had been seeing a few people at once when I’d met him – a woman that I’d fallen for at first sight at a queer social event, a guy I met on the Internet and intermittently visited for good pizza and better sex – but I felt like this could turn into something substantial.
And so, even though for the six weeks that we dated, we hadn’t committed officially to a monogamous relationship, he was the only one that I was seeing. And I felt happy about it. He was nice. I mean, he brought treats for my roommate’s pet fish, for Christ’s sake.
One night, while we were having sex, though, he motioned to take my bra off. I was on top, leaning down into him, and his hands brushed against my back, fingers on each side of the clip on the strap. I wasn’t interested in having my bra taken off – sometimes having my breasts bouncing free in that position feels awkward – and so I playfully removed his hands and put them back on the bed.
He smiled, maybe thinking I was playing a game. His hands went straight back to my bra, aiming to take it off. This time, I shook my head, and I moved his hands again.
“Come on,” he said – not angry, just slyly.
“No,” I said, clearly. “I don’t want to.”
And a wave of annoyance flashed over his face. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
I squinted my eyes, confused.
“We’re already in the middle of fucking,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense that we can do that, but we can’t do this.”
“But I don’t want to,” I said. “That’s the end of the conversation.”
“Okay,” I said. I hopped off of him, threw on a pair of sweatpants, and started walking down the hall to the bathroom. I felt the tears stinging my eyes, embarrassed and violated, and I wanted to be alone and out of his sight when I started crying.
“Don’t act like this is—” he started, not finishing his sentence. “I think you’re letting feminism go to your head. It’s really not that serious.”
After I cried it out, I came back into the bedroom. He motioned for me to come to him, so that he could hold me. I let him, even though I didn’t want to. I wanted to tell him to leave so badly that it’s the fantasy that I eventually fell asleep to. I wanted him out – out of my bed, out of my apartment, out of my personal life.
But echoing in my head was his claim that “it’s really not that serious.” And I didn’t want to be that girl, did I?
But the truth is that just because you agree to one sex act doesn’t mean that you agree to all of them. Just because you’re doing what one person thinks is further down the scale of intensity doesn’t mean it’s free game to do anything leading up to it. Just because you don’t think it’s “that serious” doesn’t mean that it isn’t for someone else. And just because you want to do something doesn’t mean that you can.
It’s not overreacting to call someone out on their pushing the boundaries that you set. The only one overreacting when I say that you hurt me, and you try to gaslight me into believing that I’m wrong, is you.
I wish it had been easy to choose these stories – to have such a limited number of encounters to choose from, that I could bang out one, two, three vignettes and call it a day.
But it wasn’t.
I cherry picked these. From my pile of sexual violation stories, I chose the three that were the most varied, to try to get across how many different ways that this can happen – how insidiously sexual violence can creep up in a person who from the outside, and even from the inside, seems to be inherently good. But I could have chosen any number of examples.
I could have chosen to tell you about any number of times that men’s hands wandered all over my body, doing nothing but gripping tighter, stronger, when I tried to push them away; how many continued to kiss my mouth when it wasn’t reciprocating, clear body language that I wasn’t engaged; how many told me, in so many words, that I was wrong when I explained what I liked and didn’t like in bed, never trying the former and continuing to do the latter.
I could write an entire book of these stories. And so can many of the women that I talk to about it.
“First you kissed me,” The Dollyrots sing in that song. “Then you killed me.” Our souls withering a little bit each time we find love, just to have our bodies taken for granted, our no taken as try harder, our silence taken as a given.
But we don’t have to be quiet. We can share our stories. We can stop thinking of them as incidences of bad or uncomfortable sex and start calling them what they really are: violations of consent – and as such, sexual violence.
Because we deserve a safer world – especially in the arms of those who say they love us.