The other week on the R train returning from Brooklyn, I was told by a man sitting across from me that I was going to be raped. I had ignored him for the second time when he said “Ni hao? Ni hao?” So he said, “You’d let me put my dick in your pussy, you’d beg for it, you slut. Your fat ass is going to be fucked. I’ll rape your chink cunt.” He yelled, “Are you going to cry?” and he and his two friends laughed.
Stuck on the bridge across the river, I sat in the car and listened to them divide my body into parts and lay claim to each one. There were only two other men in the subway car, and no other women. I’m not sure if that would have made something about that narrow metal space feel any different to me, or would have made any kind of difference at all. Four seats away, a guy about my age in a plaid shirt and a neatly groomed beard stopped turning the pages in his book and steadily trained his gaze on the floor. An older man standing a little way down the car shifted his briefcase from hand to hand, looked at me and away. I could understand their deliberate stillness. I too was afraid of escalating the situation, of hazarding a response and receiving echo as a physical blow.
So instead I shut down. There was no bodily contact but there are other forms of violence. I sat silent and bizarrely, terribly ashamed as they asked me how I liked cock. I was painfully aware of my own physicality, of the plastic seat sticking to the backs of my thighs, of my straight dark hair and the tilt of my eyes. I thought with a grotesque burble of hilarity that maybe I shouldn’t have worn the silk shirt with the koi fish print today because then I wouldn’t appear a lotus flower chink geisha slut. Then I felt very bad for thinking that, and that I was disrespecting, in some inarticulable way, my mother. But I was also very far removed from any sense of control over what physical space could possibly be mine when those words kept oiling their way across the aisle, so vile I could feel them as sludge on my skin.
I don’t believe I was hoping for rescue, per say, so much as I was desperate for someone to remind me that I wasn’t alone. During those minutes I understood to some degree what it means to be stripped of everything that is unique to you, everything which helps loved ones pick you out in a crowd, and to instead verge on becoming unimaginable even to yourself.
Anger still sometimes clenches my fists in the moments before the subway train screams its arrival on my morning commute. I’m not mad at the two strangers in the car, whose (non-)reactions might appear measured and damningly sensible. I am angry at a culture that has normalized sexual harassment as something to be endured and suffered in stoic silence, because boys will be boys, because this is just something that happens in a city, because you have to learn to anticipate it whenever you venture out into a public space, because you need to learn, little girl, to fear your own body.
I was fifteen when the man sitting next to me on the bus began masturbating. Strangers yip from passing vehicles on bright streets and in dark streets. I have had someone run down behind me in the entrance to the subway, pull me against him and shove his hand down my pants, and run away before I could gather the oxygen to scream. Every woman I know has been sexually harassed or assaulted, verbally and/or physically, and maybe it has taken place in the last month. Sometimes we’ve learned to tell the stories at cocktail parties so they get a laugh; one friend has an entire slapstick routine that revolves around hump avengers. And yes, there is something pathetic about the man calling from the van, and sometimes a sharply toothy grin when you recount the story for your friends at happy hour might be the best defense. So the weight of experience gets lighter. But I am sad and furious in the moments I am reminded how women are taught to expect, however reluctantly, that the occasional grope or catcall is a toll we’re obliged to pay when we leave home.
Victim-blaming discourse and rape culture aren’t scrutinized enough. We should question the ways in which we are trained not to disturb a status quo of silence and invisibility when it comes to any kind of trauma, especially that related to sex. Sex, as it has been defined by certain dominant forces, is supposed to bolster private intimacy and domesticity, supposed to reproduce the so-called ‘good life.’ So we don’t talk about how the allowed structures of sexual desire simultaneously pathologize those outside the socially accepted models, and also disavow those whom the system has failed to protect.
So right now, I just want to speak.
I hear parents deliver tips to their daughters on how to avoid assault along with how to ride a bike – don’t wear that dress, avoid the dark streets, cross your legs when you sit. I have been that daughter. It is couched as a practical and proactive skill set: you find a way to maneuver within the space that you’re given. But what does it mean that I venture onto the subway platform, that I ventured into puberty, already thinking of myself as vulnerable and estranged from my own body?
I am deeply tired of a mindset that eternally casts women as potential victims. This is not to deny the victim as such, nor to deny the reality and necessary recognition of suffering. But there must be a way to depart from this frame, within which the female body and identity is legitimated only through her recognition that she is designed as a sacrifice, designed as a precursor to (man’s) fall. (Tale as old as time.) Away from the logic that says that if you don’t take the appropriate precautionary steps to protect your status as potential victim—rather than actual, because then like, ‘we told you so’—you are a slut. Shove on a muumuu. Because you are a wound, you are a hole, so cover it up.
A visual essay “Famous Rapes #1: Old Master Paintings” recently appeared on The Rumpus, which spoke to the ways in which women are constituted as negative space — as a cutout, not to get too Freudian. The artist speaks of “mythological rape” and its popularity as a subject for paintings and bedtime stories. Constructed in coral and cream, the deceptively pretty collages in the essay depicting “famous rapes” outline a great big master fantasy that is in some respects actually about the denial of rape. Rather, this is a patriarchal fantasy about the transcendence of the female form beyond its violation. Under this rule, the crude, corporeal, feminine flesh must be triumphed over; it must surpass itself. (We hate our bodies so.) Lucretia stuck a knife in her heart to protect her honor, and became the supreme model of the virtuous woman. Daphne, stalked across the countryside by a lust-crazed Apollo, was rescued from her treacherous female form when her father transformed her into a tree. Her fingers sprouted leaves. Her thighs clasped together into trunk.
I am so tired of shaming. I am exhausted by a culture that sees its confirmation and absolution in the mortified flesh of the alien body.
Maybe I do harbor some resentment towards the two people who looked at the floor, not more than towards the people who looked at me and saw quarry, but resentment, nevertheless, at their silence as a reflection of my silence as a reflection of the big gag knotted around the world. But maybe I’m naïve. I should ride my bicycle and wind my ankles together beneath my skirt and root them in the ground. So let’s not talk about this. As long as you don’t speak, your words are still yours – you can’t say no, but you’re certainly not saying yes. Right? These days I’m not sure.
In life I tend to be very careful about the words I give to people, and that means that I can be quiet for a long time. But the only kind of silence I want in my life is silence I am able to choose, not to suffer. Sometimes the line is very delicate and I am not always successful at toeing it. I am still trying to understand how silence means both refusal and deference, to stifle and then to meditate.
And maybe I am trying to apologize for failing to respond, for shrinking when I heard “cunt” like a sharp tear in the air. I don’t even know what I would have said had I not lost my voice, I don’t know if a word would have merely amplified his aggression. Would I have waved my finger in his face and cursed and lectured him into becoming a different person? Would I have asked for help or acknowledgement? I don’t know.
But if I couldn’t speak back then, I think that there will always be a need to respond against the monolithic, wolf-whistling onslaught of words and media that give the lie to a more intolerable version of the world, and of all our places in it, if only to give ourselves different choices. We need to be able to address sexual harassment and assault as a daily reality without allowing assault and violation to hide, camouflaged as an institution of daily routine. But if while we’re paying attention we question whatever it is we accept as daily reality, and let it look weirder, more misshapen and fragmented the longer we stare, it might seem possible for the fever dream of a fairer world to slip in through the fissures.
There have been periods in my life when I am so afraid of the sound of my own voice that lest I shut down completely I open my mouth and babble like a loon. It’s not particularly attractive or graceful. No, it’s not ‘attractive’ at all. But sometimes in order to combat the resistances of language you must keep talking. So making noise, however inchoate and unformed, is a start. From there, you can get to “No” or “Yes” or “I am.” And that’s some small glowing reminder that you are present, that you are deserving of compassion and recognition, that you are not just someone’s mother, wife, daughter, sister, but of the simple fact that you are someone.