On Sexual Assault, Love, And Blurry Lines

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Brianna Santellan / Unsplash

When I was three months into my first “real” job, I was living the highs and lows of being an assistant and making a sincere attempt at adulthood (or “adulting” as we’ve chosen to label the act of being out of sheltered college). I was 22, in my first corporate job, learning the importance of time v. money, and wondering “is this it?” I was adjusting, to say the least.

One night, my boss gave me tickets to a gala in Brooklyn, and I brought my on-again/off-again love as my date. On short notice, he was as good as it got. We had reconnected on his return to the tri-state area, and I was excited to play dress-up with him. After dinner, entertainment, and a pit stop to a bar with two strange strangers, we headed back to my apartment where we were accustomed to playing house — him staying over and making himself comfortable.

Although years had passed since we last kissed or shared any intimacy, our flirtation and romanticism persisted. It was no different that evening. We fell asleep. Shortly into my half slumber, I heard him say, “I can’t feel my arms,” as he started flailing them around. I ignored him because his aches were not uncommon. I may have mumbled an “are you okay?” But I mostly paid him no mind.

What I can only imagine as minutes later, I felt the arms he couldn’t feel, wrap around me and his fingers slide into my pajama boxer shorts as he made an attempt at fingering me. I wasn’t fully awake, but I froze. I had no idea what was going on, why or how. I didn’t turn around to face him. Neither one of us tried for any foreplay. My mind was screaming, but I didn’t move. I didn’t do anything. Not soon enough, I moved just enough so his hands had to retreat.

The next day, he stayed asleep as I said goodbye and went to work feeling confused and disgusting. I told him over the phone that what he did wasn’t okay, that in some respects, I wanted him, but not in the way he showed. I wished him well and I, not-so-gracefully, ran away.

I told myself I wouldn’t let something like this happen again.

A year later, I was four months into my second “real” job; thanks to a promotion. I was living the highs and lows of the transitioning into a bigger role and continuing to make a strained attempt at a balanced life. One night, I was in my best friend’s bed enjoying what was easily one of the greatest slumbers of my adult life when his fingers found their way into my shorts, but this time, I was asleep like a rock. I didn’t realize what was happening until I felt physical discomfort. I remember him asking me if I was okay, and I let out a whimper. He stopped after what seemed like five or ten minutes when he realized I was not enjoying it and I wasn’t responding.

The next day, I was in shock. I left his apartment and felt like a shell of a human. I felt like blood had frozen in my veins and the air was trapped in my lungs, unwilling to let me breathe out.

I didn’t want to walk around knowing that the person I saw the whole world in, could hurt me and take advantage of me as he did so later that day, while it was fresh, we sat down for what would be an all-too-pleasant conversation where I wouldn’t call it sexual assault or sexual misconduct. I would own it. I would take it on as my mistake. I would dissect what happened and try to resolve it cleanly. I did the introspection and conclusion for the both of us so it could be wrapped up neatly.

We made an attempt to share the blame, but I tried desperately to take responsibility. Although he mentioned being surprised at how well I was taking it, he let me do the work. I did so almost happily because I didn’t want him to feel guilty or “bad.” I knew I could handle it so I enabled him. I enabled him and excused him so he could live another day in his ignorance-is-bliss and entitled life. He didn’t treat me any better or any worse after the fact. We went on as if nothing happened.

Someone who isn’t willing to untangle and rework the mess that is gendered double standards and sexual violations after a situation that shakes the ground they stand on, is not someone who is ready to repaint the landscape of their own lives and even greater, of the community they live in.

I know — These aren’t the same situations. These aren’t the same men. They do not resemble each other in the slightest unless you follow astrology and care that they are both Leos (is that yet another reason to have expected this treatment?).

In the first situation — it occurred in my home; I walked away, and eventually, came to peace with what happened by acknowledging that the person who took advantage of me was not the same person I loved years before. In the second situation, I was in his home; I didn’t walk away; I stayed to remedy the situation. I tried to reframe the narrative and change the implications of his actions. I stayed for months, unwilling to call it what it was — sexual assault. They may not be the same. After all, they are two different people, but they exposed me to situations that are reminiscent of a violation of trust and friendship.

What did I expect? I was asking for it by being in bed with these men. That is how I’ve silenced myself and told myself that, put aside these incidences, they are good human beings. They are important to me.

Testosterone knows not what it does. Right? I’ve told myself and others that it was a slip-up. It wasn’t even an assault, merely a violation, an act of misconduct. I water it down. I simplify. I sweep it under the proverbial rug.

Why did I stay? Because like a religious fanatic, I believed in these men and nothing could knock over the pedestal I placed them on. I believed they were great. I believed they could and would do the work to change and grow from this unfortunate experience.

As far as I know, they have not asked for my forgiveness because I handed it over on a silver platter. They have not acknowledged how their actions shocked my system and led me to question who I am to have loved two men who have taken from me like the boy and the giving tree. I am no stump like the giving tree. Every day, with gratitude and with intentionality, I fight to reclaim my sexuality, my wholeness, my sense of being, and my bliss.

I say I am resiliently stupid and stupidly resilient. I make mistakes. I test the waters. Sometimes, I play with fire or sparks. I let my curiosity get the best of me. I push too much, too far, or too hard because I know my resiliency will catch me when I err. I think mind over matter and press on. My resiliency knows no bounds and that is the best gift and curse.

I don’t walk around afraid this will happen again. I’m not afraid of getting knocked down because I find hope and joy in the struggle to get back up. I don’t believe if it does happen again that I will handle it any differently, but I am not in any sort of negative way because I have always found tremendous, even absurd, gains in my pains.

I’ve now spent time, but little energy, trying to reconcile my love and adoration for the person who has shown up for me over and over again, and my disgust and upset for the person who violated my trust when he put his hands where they didn’t belong. I went on loving these men by believing that, somewhere, however deep, they cared for me, and that is all that mattered. I didn’t need to see it to believe it was there.

I forgave what they did. I held them accountable for a minute, but let them off the hook because I did not want to live in my pain and couldn’t stand knowing that they would experience any sort of discomfort. I made myself a little bit smaller in my passivity and in my quick turnaround to heal and make like nothing happened. They didn’t have to think about it. They were not asked to repent. They were not asked to change. I expected more from me than them; after all, boys will be boys and girls will be perfect (or else).

Today, the question is not: are we these terrible things (misogynistic, sexist, anti-feminist, fueling a double standard, etc)? The question is: do we know we are these things?

If we know who we are without shame and without judgment…

If we are aware without shame and without judgment…

If we are reflective without shame and without judgment…

If we are willing without shame and without judgment…

to dig deep and discover how we got to this place where the lines of how we maintain trust and protect the vulnerabilities of friends, lovers, and admirers are blurred and indistinguishable — that is when the honest work and revision begins.

I’m there. Where are you? TC mark

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