A man walks up to me at a meeting. He is in his sixties, fat, tanned to the color of belt leather, and his nickname is the Mouth because he never shuts up. (A joke I heard recently: what’s a support group for people who talk too much? On-and-on-anonymous) I’m wearing something form-fitting under a loose cardigan, and he opens the sides of my sweater to get a better look, with an “aren’t I just the naughtiest” expression like he is stealing a cookie. Inappropriate goddamn behavior, but I just stand there, frozen. I think I might have whined a single mousy, “Dude, come on, not cool.” But the part of my brain that hits the klaxons when a moment of social awkwardness is impending was evacuating my wits, leaving me to laugh kind of weakly rather than roar my disapproval.
Later, of course, I was furious, not just with him, but with myself. Why? Why is my first reaction a worry that it’s going to be awkward? It should be awkward. If I walked up to a male acquaintance and pulled out the waistband of his pants to get a look at the goods inside, it would be very awkward.
Ten years ago, when I was still drunkenly snorting coke in the bathrooms at 12-step recovery meetings, I met this one slimy asshole at the spot that would one day be my home group, and he scooped my drunk ass up like I was money left on the sidewalk, whisking me back to his place, away from prying eyes. This kind of thing is generally frowned upon by people in recovery, the idea being that you ought to give a person a chance to dry out a little before offering them the opportunity to make some bad decisions for themselves. People who go for sobriety newcomers are known as “thirteenth steppers,” and no one likes them. I once heard a particularly disgusting specimen of this type remark that you need to “bang them before the hospital bracelet comes off.” These are people that want punching.
I know I made the drunken choice to get in that dickhole’s car, and I know I made it in part because he promised to get me a job and I thought I owed him something, so there’s that. And, shit, it’s been a decade, but every time I see him—squat, ugly, limping bemulleted– all I can think is how satisfying it would be to hit him with a stop sign. I wish I had, ten years ago. I wish I had said stop, instead of just thinking it really hard at him.
I once heard someone espouse the belief that rape is just a fight that you lost, but it’s such a specifically sucky kind of fight. It is deeply sucky that someone should be enjoying themselves so utterly, sauntering off all satisfied, while you are left with all the rage (along with its dance-partner, shame. They are tap dancers, those two; you can feel their routine right inside of your rib cage).
Full disclosure: I haven’t had the experiences with trauma and abuse the way so many women I love have. Through absolutely no virtue of my own, no has one ever knocked out my front teeth or dragged me into some bushes. No one ever slipped me any drugs that I wasn’t already eager to take. What did happen to me: coming to, wasted, in the backseat of a cab with the driver’s hand up my dress, or someone pressuring me into some shady sex and me being young and uncertain of how to get home on my own, or some dick at a meeting opening up my sweater to look at what was underneath. I don’t feel that I have a right to even be upset about these things, because they are not as bad as other women’s shit, and because I have been so complicit in allowing them to happen. A volunteer, not a victim. Someone who rides her bike with no helmet and breezes the red lights, expecting other people to be careful. Foolish.
Also, the things that have been done to me are so fucking ordinary that they don’t even feel like a story. The indignities of the patriarchy are as common and clichéd as something really common and clichéd. I have no words for talking about the wearying effects of everyday brutality towards women that haven’t already been used by better writers than myself. So I tend to leave the topic alone, along with other things that I believe are better left in the hands of professionals.
But the fact that the markers of rape culture happen so frequently that they have become a predictable and boring narrative makes it worse. One in five women walks around with serious sexual trauma, right? Imagine if one out of every five people you knew were victims of amputations. If your chances of reaching middle age with all your limbs intact were less than your chances of, say, rolling a particular number on a die. Try to picture one in five people walking around minus a thumb or a foot or an ear because someone was a drunk asshole in college, or because a random d-bag just really strongly felt it would feel so good if they just removed your leg. This would be a national emergency. Kids would get taught about it in school by anthropomorphic puppets. A task force would be appointed. There would public service announcements about avoiding the chop. But what happens when the victims are mostly girls, and there’s no stump to stare at?
My sponsor, who by virtue of that relationship sometimes feels like the big sister I never had, is celebrating 18 years of being sober this week. I joke that her sobriety could now buy a pack of cigarettes or a dirty magazine; it could vote. It could go to war. And I go to her anniversary this week, and there he is: my thirteenth-stepper. Still bemulleted and still limping around unsmited. The last time I ran into him at my meeting, I cornered him and I told him: I don’t know how you feel about what went down, but if you want to make it up to me, stay the fuck out of my homegroup. And yet here he is, large as life and twice as ugly. And every time he hails a woman who is my friend, I want to kick him until he is dead.
But I don’t. I pretend he isn’t there, I laugh a little too loudly with my friends, and I lie and tell people he doesn’t bother me, even though he does. Why am I pretending? Why is it so important to my brain to avoid an awkward confrontation? Why does his night get to be easy? Mine sure as shit wasn’t. Why can’t I just once look a man square in the eye without doing that laughing thing that I do when I’m uncomfortable and just say, Get the fuck out of here before I fucking kill you. Walk away or l will leave you to pick up your teeth with your own broken fingers.
You’d think by now I would understand that no one is coming to protect me. No one is going to be more invested in my safety than I am. Not a sponsor, not a boyfriend. When I told Sketch about the man who opened up my sweater to look at my tits, he went to go find him and bark on him. But this was strangely unsatisfying. I took a self-defense class once, and in it, we practiced yelling at invisible attackers. A good yell is a decent defense, or so they tell me. I just hope that next time I can unleash it in time.