Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The First Sexual Assault

I've been sexually assaulted several times in my life. For the first time in years, I reflected back on the first of these occasions today. I thought it would be useful to write it up. It was confusing at the time, and I was alone. It wasn't a rape, and there weren't any charges to press.

The man who did it is named Alexander Li Cohen. I am naming him because he is probably now a doctor, and I would not want him to be my doctor, and maybe you don't want him to be yours. At the time he was pre-med. We were both sophomores, and I met him the very day I moved into my dorm that year. He was nice, friendly, a dork. We were all dorks. It was a dork floor in the dorms at a dork school. Most of the people on the floor had been on the "substance free" floor the year prior and they chose to live together again so they could all not drink alcohol or do drugs together. I ended up there by chance, but I'm not much of a drinker so it was fine.

Update: I looked him up. I didn't spend too much time at it, so I can't give you the full story. But he's spent some time at the Mayo Clinic and at Washington University in St. Louis, which is one of the top med schools in the nation. He does pediatric and adolescent neurology. At least he's not an OB-GYN, I guess.

I was a virgin at the time. I'd made out with a guy once. That was it. I had never even masturbated. I wasn't even aware that women could masturbate and was not sure how one might even go about it. I'd only heard the term "fingering" the year before. That explained a lot actually, like why people would snicker in high school when I said in orchestra that we worked on fingering on the E string. They'd always be like, "Are you sure it wasn't the G string?" I didn't get it.

In high school, I told myself that I would remain abstinent til marriage. Actually, I was afraid nobody would ever want to sleep with me. At least if I was a virgin by choice, nobody could know that I'd been rejected by all men. But in college, it became clear that absolutely nobody (except for the very religious students) waited until marriage, and I realized I did not want to either. And, at least one guy had wanted to make out with me, that once. Maybe some day someone else would find me desirable too?

So, enter Alex. We started out as friends, but almost immediately, he took my hand and held it. I pulled it away. He had crossed a boundary. I didn't know the word boundaries yet, or really even understand that I was allowed to have boundaries and enforce them, and that respecting boundaries is important in every single human interaction you will ever have. I did not know that when someone violates your boundaries, they are giving you a signal to get the hell away from them and not go back. My parents violated my boundaries routinely, so I was used to that sort of thing. If I tried to enforce my boundaries at home, I got in trouble.

Alex tried holding my hand several more times. I yanked it away several more times. I should have known then. But I didn't.

As far as I was concerned, we were friends. He was friendly, and that was nice. He was dorky and not what I considered good looking. Well, to be honest, I would have called him ugly back then. I don't think he was ugly, and you might even find him attractive, but that's besides the point. At the time, he was a guy I found unattractive as a romantic partner but a good candidate for friendship.

Around October, we hooked up. He initiated it, and I let him. I did not know what a hook up was. I just thought that if you started making out with someone, then you were boyfriend and girlfriend. He took my shirt off, which was a bit scary to me, but it seemed OK. I wasn't thrilled about it, but it wasn't terrible either. And that's what men and women did together, right? I can't say I got any pleasure from it, but whatever.

The hook up was consensual. I decided that I had been shallow in writing him off for being a dork, and thought I ought to just give him a chance. He was persistent, and clearly interested in me. Rejecting someone just for their looks is shallow, right? So I'd decided that I'd just let him do his thing and whatever would happen would happen. I was too shy to initiate anything myself.

After it was done, I thought we would then be dating. But he immediately said that he did not want to date. He was confused, he said, and he liked other girls. I retorted that I liked other guys. And that was that. Thus I was introduced to this strange concept of "making out with someone who is not your boyfriend," also known as the hook up.

We hooked up a second time, maybe a few weeks later. This time he said that he "wanted me" but also he thought it was a bad idea. Wait, what? I saw him as such a dork that it did not occur to me that he was a sexual being. Did he mean like, wanted me?? Like, that way? I asked if he was a virgin. He wasn't. Oh. So he actually meant it.

Well, that was flattering. It was a game changer. For years, I thought nobody would ever desire me sexually. Now someone did. And, quite frankly, I had enjoyed the hookups. They were pleasurable. I wanted to be his friend. Or his friend with benefits, although I did not yet know that term either.

Looking back, when he said he "wanted me," he said it first of all as if sex between us was even on the table. It wasn't. Not with consent, anyway. It was just this given that he was assuming, that he wanted it, and if he decided he was going to get it then he could. As if my wishes had little to do with the decision, and it was just all up to him.

He never actually got to know me, and find out how I felt about sex. Or maybe he did know but did not care. I was TERRIFIED of sex. Terrified of being naked with another human being. Terrified of pretty much everything past second base. The only way anyone was going to have sex with me at that time was via rape. Because consent from me just wasn't happening. But Alex did not either know or care when he spoke as if sex with me was an actual possibility and it was up to him to decide.

When we weren't hooking up, he held me at arm's length. The hookups were sporadic, and he always initiated them. It was like your average Disney movie, in which I as the woman had to wait for the male to desire me and come to me. I had no agency. I was a beggar and could not be a chooser. My option was Alex or nobody, and it was to accept the little he was willing to give me, or nothing. So I took what I could get, hoping that if I could somehow make myself desirable enough that he'd give me more.

The third time we hooked up was right before Thanksgiving. He came into my room, and we started making out again. I can't remember if my shirt came off or what. But this time he put a hand down my pants. I removed it. He put it there again. I removed it again. We continued this way for some time.

I don't know if we discussed it or not. I can't recall if the word "no" escaped my lips. The whole act embarrassed me. Having a vagina embarrassed me. The idea that someone else could touch it embarrassed me. And it had all kinds of embarrassing attributes that I will not get into here, but which you are no doubt aware of, such as the smell. It was too embarrassing to talk about, but it was also embarrassing to let him go ahead with what he was doing, calling both of our attentions to this embarrassing body part of mine that I could not talk about.

Finally, I gave in. I had been reflexively refusing, and I began to think: Why am I saying no? I couldn't come up with a reason. "What's the worst thing that happens?" I thought. "I enjoy it?" So I let him. No, I didn't enjoy it. I kept waiting for something to happen, like in the movies, that would make me behave in some sort of appropriate way. Screaming? Moaning? I wasn't sure what. I was supposed to express pleasure and gratitude, right?

He went back to his dorm room in the wee hours of the morning, and then flew home for Thanksgiving. I flew to my grandmother's and had to process the aftermath of that at her place, without anyone to discuss it with. I think I was reading Lord of the Rings, which Alex liked but I didn't, as part of my attempt to win him over.

What had happened to me? Was it a rape? I didn't think so. I had given in, eventually. In the end, consent was there.

Alex treated me like I did not exist for most of the rest of the school year. He wasn't even my friend, let alone my anything else. Without my knowledge, he began sleeping with my friend Jen (also now probably a doctor). One day, when she told him she wasn't interested, he came back to me. We hung out for a bit, and I actually apologized to him for what had happened. I was raised to believe that "it takes two to tango" and therefore if something goes awry between myself and anyone else, I am always partly at fault. Then we hooked up again. This time, the clothes stayed on. The next day I found out that I was sloppy seconds to Jen, and that Alex was actually interested in a third girl, who he thought was proper girlfriend material, unlike the two of us.

What let this happen? Plenty. Maybe Alex was socialized that his masculinity depended on his sexual prowess. That he had a right to sex and girls were the gatekeepers of it, and their refusals to him were unfair. Certainly, he cared nothing about respecting boundaries. He cared nothing about me, or my subjective experience, or my pleasure. He was there to take something for himself, and that was it.

I was the victim of a lifetime of abuse at the hands of my parents, traumatized and shut down as a result. I reacted to all advances from men by shutting down, and I probably froze or dissociated in that situation. That's my go-to tactic for dealing with painful things that happen to me, and I do it all the time.

At the time, I was not aware that my family was abusive, or that what I had suffered was trauma, or that I was freezing. I saw myself as a healthy young woman who was capable of making her own decisions and standing up for herself.

But there was also the socializing that told me that my self worth came from other people's approval, and one way to measure that was by men's sexual interest in me. I saw myself as a failure in that way, fully undesirable, and I was flattered, and surprised, and pleased that Alex was interested in me. It shocked me that anyone would be interested in me. And maybe if I turned him down, there would be nobody else who wanted me.

I saw my lack of experience with men as a failure, and as a sign of my own unlikableness. It was not until years later that I discovered that the actual reason for my slow start with boys was because of a fear of intimacy, rooted in the trauma I'd suffered. I was hoping that Alex could rescue me from my own inexperience, so that I could finally say that I'd done with boys what everyone else did. But I was also terrified of doing those things with boys, and trying to hide that fear even from myself. Shove down those emotions, dissociate, and just get through it. That's what I do.

Most of all, I did not understand the concept of boundaries. That I should have boundaries. That I have a right to enforce them. That a violation of my boundaries, even one as innocent as holding my hand, is a red flag to tell me to get the hell away from whoever is doing it.

In that moment, when I thought maybe I'd just let Alex have is way and I might enjoy it, that's what I was missing. Even if I had opened up to the idea of exploring more sexually than I had considered before, he had proven himself as the wrong man to do it with due to his lack of respect for my boundaries.

They tell young girls to have sex with people they love and trust, and I had already decided that I was going to do it before marriage, and possibly going to do it without love. But you shouldn't do it without trust, even if it's just a Tindr hookup. There needs to be some base level of trust, established by respecting one another's boundaries. That's what I wish I knew when I moved into that dorm sophomore year.


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  2. Very similar here. Similar family of origin. Stated so well. I thought having sex would make me valid. Turns out it just made me used.