By Andrea Kneeland
One time, toward the end of our relationship, my ex decided he wanted to have sex. I forget what I was doing – I think I was hung over and curled fetal on the bed – but I can’t be totally sure. What I do remember for certain is that I started sobbing after he began and he said to me “It’s a real turn off when you do that.” Then he flipped me over and continued to have sex with me until he was finished. I didn’t say anything. I just sobbed harder. I kept sobbing for a long time after he’d left the room.
Prior to writing this, I had only ever told one person this story. That’s because I didn’t know what it was. I don’t know what it was. I never said no. I think about it often and am filled with shame every time.
I was born in 1980, just on the cusp of the millennial generation I guess, but really I came in at the tail end of Gen X. When I was growing up, the culturally accepted definition of rape, as I understood it, was forcible. It was screaming no the whole time. It was attempting to physically remove a person from your body. The bar for rape was set pretty high. If you asked a rapist to please at least use a condom, it was no longer rape.
The bar now is lower, in theory. At the very least, if a person says “no” or is incapacitated and cannot provide consent, that’s rape, cut and dried. But even with the lower bar, some people will read a story in which a girl says no, eventually gives up and stops saying no, and because she doesn’t continue to say no the entire time, some people reading the story will be reluctant to call that rape.
I don’t blame people who go there first. This reaction is deeply internalized and was certainly fostered by the generation I grew up in. It took me years to get to a place where I wasn’t saying “Well why didn’t she do this? Why didn’t she do that? Why didn’t she keep saying no?” I still do it sometimes. I have to check myself.
It doesn’t matter why she didn’t do this or that. What matters is that she didn’t want it.
Some people will call it a “gray area.” They’ll wonder if the abuser knew he was being abusive. Perhaps it’s unfair to call a guy a rapist if he didn’t realize he was raping someone. Perhaps it’s unfair to call a guy an abuser if he didn’t intend to be abusive. One time when we were walking through a BART station, my ex choked me so hard that I had trouble breathing for hours afterward. He was just fooling around. He meant to fake-choke me, not real-choke me. He laughed and apologized. He probably honestly didn’t mean to do that. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t abusive. Just because a guy didn’t “mean” to rape someone doesn’t mean they didn’t rape them.
Some people will argue that a woman would never stay somewhere with a man if he’s raped her. They argue the same thing about women who are being abused. For close to a year, my ex refused to refer to me by my name. He referred to me instead as “bitch,” “whore,” “cunt” or “slut.” He pushed me to the ground regularly. I stayed with him. Just because I stayed doesn’t mean I wanted to treated that way. Just because she stayed didn’t mean she wanted to be raped.
Some people will argue that calling all forms of non-consensual sex rape will minimize the suffering of people who were “really” raped – were raped violently, were raped even though they struggled, were raped even though they screamed no the whole time. I used to be reluctant to call my relationship with my ex abusive because I felt like it would minimize the experiences of women who were “really” abused – women with broken collarbones and black eyes – women who were not me. But eventually I realized that calling my relationship a “bad relationship” didn’t amplify more serious forms of abuse. All it did was minimize my own. Calling rape “coercion” or a “gray area” minimizes the experience of the victims in ways that are so harmful it’s hard to articulate. It robs them of legitimate words to describe what happened.
I am humbled by the women who have come forward recently to recount their experiences with Stephen Tully Dierks. I am humbled at how detailed they were in their accounts. They must have known that their accounts would be ripped apart, that everyone would ask “Why did you do that? Why didn’t you do this?” That even though they said no, that even though they resisted, people would be reluctant to label their experience as rape, or even abuse. That a major media outlet would settle on the word “coercion.” I am humbled further by watching a large community of young writers identify what has happened as rape, without flinching, seemingly without having to stop and evaluate their ingrained, knee-jerk reaction. I am humbled by watching women step up and name names instead of just stewing in a mix of shame and silence – a mix that I think is familiar to too many women. And I am hopeful. I’m hopeful that we’re witnessing a paradigm shift in this new generation – a shift away from asking women “Why didn’t you keep saying no?” to asking men “Why did you keep going?”
Andrea Kneeland’s first collection of short stories, How to Pose for Hustler, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms. You can read more of her work here: andreakneeland.com.