On February 4th, I posted in the middle of the night on my Facebook page that I was going to take pictures of my butt the following day. This is not an atypical declaration on my part. These pictures were, of course, intended for my self-portrait project. But the post was intended to make me feel committed to taking the pictures in the first place. It was posted with a spirit of irony, and to the best of my recollection, did not inspire further conversation.
That is, until yesterday. I received a message quite some time ago from the friend of an e-friend, and I didn’t see the harm in attempting to foster an e-friendship with him. In our first conversation, which I recall very vaguely, he said something that pushed an uncomfortable issue for me after I had already stated a lack of interest. I did my best to be patient and work through the emotions this triggered, without holding him responsible for how I feel. But yesterday night, he did it again.
The conversation? Well that started with small talk and quickly became centred around that otherwise unremarkable status update about taking pictures of my butt, which has become buried in the past ten days. I did my best to change the subject to something I actually wanted to talk about, by simply answering that I posted one and choose not to post one that I find unsettling at the present time, before going off about what I was watching on television — in gratuitous volume.
It seems to me as I’m writing this that this has happened to me before. Many times. And because of my “programming” and because this society is so immersed in sexism that is often invisible on the conscious level, this has become one of my coping strategies. Overcompensating for my inability to just assertively say “no” by talking far too fucking much about some random aside. Perhaps because I’m too nice, I feel that saying no is too aggressive. But girls are far too often socialized in sexist ways in their early life, that takes their social power out of their hands while they watch men around them wield it. Because I was assigned female at birth, I am no exception to this experience. And the worst part? I wasn’t fully conscious that this was a part of the conversation I found myself in yesterday night. I merely detected an intuitive wrongness that I couldn’t justify closing the conversation over.
So our conversation continued. Here I was, talking in excessive volume about an unrelated topic, when all of a sudden, he expresses he wants to see the photo I haven’t posted. I felt a full stop in my cognitive processes. I’ve felt this before, too. Many times. I reset the path of my thoughts to direct attention to the matter I was being confronted with again, despite having already expressed that I find it unsettling and therefore have not posted it for criticism or dialogue. And I explained that I thought that expressing something as ambiguously as “I haven’t posted this because I find it unsettling” was enough to signal that it was not something I’m interested in talking about. That the sheer volume of unrelated conversation I kept on about should have been a respectful indicator of my intentions in that conversation.
And that’s when he blamed me for his prying, by telling me that because I had said anything about this Picture I Haven’t Posted, he took it as a stream of thoughts that he was freely entitled to remark on. It occurs to me that he specifically made a point of raising the subject of my butt-photos, just to create an opportunity to say “I sure would like to see that!” But that doesn’t matter to him, because I’m to blame for why I find this entire conversation triggering. In his mind, it isn’t that I’ve been subjected to sexism and misogyny (and continue to be subjected to it, by virtue of having had this conversation just last night, for instance) through my interactions with men, and that when a man acts similarly, I can no longer tell the difference between him and someone who has raped me. But in my mind, that’s exactly what’s happening.
I’m thinking of all the times I’ve put up with this kind of behaviour, and worked through all the emotions it evokes in order to salvage the friendship I was clearly invested in at the time. I’m thinking of how this has happened when I had just met a man at a club, and after talking on the phone for a while, we decided to get together at my place. How he asked me about my massage table, and I talked about it for quite some time, making a distinct effort to remark that while some people think I’m doing a rub-and-tug type of massage, I am in fact not offering that particular kind of service. How, even though it was 1 a.m. and I didn’t know him very well, he offered me my minimum donation for a backrub, and because I needed the money, I complied and brought out the towels. How he kept talking to me with his face in the headrest, which made me repeatedly stop what I was very legitimately focused on doing. How he then said he just wanted to turn over, and then how he asked for me to rub his chest, and how I put up a fuss about this because that’s not what I do and I wouldn’t even know what I was doing if I tried. How he finally came out with his expectations for some sort of sexual interaction with me, at which time I promptly threw him out.
And I’m thinking of that particular situation because of the degree of investment I had in this friend who was asking about a picture I took of myself that I find unsettling enough to question whether or not to publish it. But I’m also thinking of the time I was in desperate need for a roof over my head for the night, in the end of February in Edmonton. I hadn’t slept for three days, and had barely eaten. I hadn’t accepted a drink from anyone, nor bought one for myself. I had been conned out of my last $100, and locked out of my home. As a result of asking if I can crash on my so-called friend’s couch, I wound up being raped on that very couch while I was too exhausted to fight back — I was passing out as he took my pants off, and I woke up with him holding my legs apart as he forced himself into me. My psyche split in half to stop the room from spinning. Like it has happened to me before and would happen again.
I’m thinking about how this isn’t a rare experience for me. Like when I’ve made plans to hang out and watch a movie with a male friend, and wound up being jumped on while he tries to force me to make out with him (this has actually happened more times than I can count). It doesn’t matter how quickly I tell that person off or throw them out, either. It’s already too late. I’ve already been violated because I’ve already spent a great deal of time and effort trying to salvage a friendship from subtle forms of sexism and misogyny.
And when I’m not physically or sexually violated? I find myself waking up in my dark apartment, seeing my partner on my couch with my computer on his lap. As I make movements and gestures that should indicate to him that I am, in fact, awake, he puts the computer down on the seat next to him, and starts masturbating. I feel humiliated. I feel angry that he’d rather be alone touching himself than come back to me in the bed we share together so that we can cuddle. I feel paralysed and speechless, and I cover my head with blankets so I don’t have to see or hear him. And when I look at what he was masturbating to, while he’s away at work? A story on literotica about an empty-headed, cock-hungry bimbo whose thoughts as she is being raped revolve entirely around her perpetrator’s penis — what it feels like to have his penis moving in and out of her body (a description that eroticizes her experience of this rape), coupled with the urgent hope that her perpetrator will just prematurely ejaculate this time. This time. Another story on the same website, that by its very title is about a mother and daughter sexually assaulting a man (the mother’s son, the daughter’s brother) together while he sleeps. Another story on the same website, in which a woman comes home to find her roommate and boyfriend masturbating in front of each other, and is so overcome with erotic feelings (rather than rage) that she’s compelled to drop to her knees and start giving him a blowjob to reward him for cheating on her. I begged him to stop, tears streaming down my face. I caught him again within two weeks, and he deleted the cookies and history when he was finished so that I couldn’t accuse him of betraying my trust.
These are a very few examples of an entire lifetime of similar experiences, and all very mild in comparison to the majority of my experiences. These are just a few reasons why I can’t tell the difference between someone who feels entitled to my body without regard for my interest (i.e., sexually objectifying), and someone who just doesn’t have very good social skills and relies on acting like Teenagers In Films Being Depicted By Adult Actors. Why saying “Well maybe he’s just socially awkward/inept” doesn’t disarm me. Perhaps it’s just that they also rely on my silent obedience to signal consent. Or that they simply don’t hear or listen for silence.
My experiences with misogyny and sexism mean that I have trust issues with everybody. It means that I don’t have the energy it requires of me to try and abstract a friendship from these experiences as they start happening to me. It means that when someone tries to defend sexism and misogyny instead of challenging and confronting it, I have to question whether or not I can trust them — would they even believe me if I told them I’ve been raped, or would they blame me for it or try to convince me I asked for it? It means I live in constant fear that I’ll have to re-live the same thing all over again if I allow a person to continue subjecting me to misogynist and sexist fuck-ups like what is mentioned here (which, again, is hardly even a gesture at the worst I’ve experienced). It means the only control I have is to retreat, withdraw, and isolate myself socially. And history has revealed to me that this is the fastest way to put myself at risk. There has to be another way — it isn’t all my fault, and I shouldn’t be the one paying for it.