In late Spring of last year, I stood outside my front steps, beaming in pride, as my five-year-old son pushed off on his bicycle — riding it alone for the first time. He kept turning his head back, face enveloped in afternoon sunlight, delighting in his success.
The swell of joy I felt was short-lived and shocked out of me, as my gaze drifted across the street.
I stood, imprisoned in my own body: a hollowness overcame me, constricted by a primal electrical jolt impeding movement, as if my lungs had forgotten how to draw in the next breath.
There he was. Walking a dog. Chatting with my neighbours. The man who raped me had just moved onto my block.
Mine is only one of thousands of accounts, a grain of sand in the desert of #MeToo stories taking over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram this week. The hashtag first originated 10 years ago by black activist, Tarana Burke, who aimed to draw attention to sexual assault in marginalized communities. The two words ‘Me Too’ are breathing new life into Burke’s public storytelling impetus, as wind on a wildfire.
Burke’s idea was simple: that if she herself shared her story, then others might follow, and ultimately, men might begin to understand how pervasive sexual assault, sexual harassment, and rape are, and how shame has served as a silencer of women.
#MeToo rampaged back into the spotlight as accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s serial violation of women broke in the news.
My story happened years ago. But I didn’t even recognize it for what it was, at the time.
I was 17 years old. He was my boyfriend. We’d been fooling around in the top floor of a cramped apartment, where he was house sitting for friends. Everything was going along as it should: it was fun, exciting, safe. Until it wasn’t. When he forced himself inside me, I was shocked and frozen.
“What are you doing?” I asked, surprised to hear my own voice emerging as a whisper, not the scream it sounded like inside my head.
“Nothing” he whispered back, pushing himself in further.
I tried to pull away. I tried to push his hips away from mine with my hands. I said no. But it was as if every action I took hadn’t happened. Almost as if I weren’t even there.
After, I walked to my friend’s apartment, who lived nearby. I think I must have been half jogging, head down. I remember the numbness I felt in my thighs, the vacuum of space, blasting through my chest, where muscle, organs, and oxygen should’ve been. When I arrived I told my friend, “I think I just lost my virginity.”
Her eyebrows shot up. I remember her smile curling wide, in slow motion. She cooed and embraced me. It was a celebration. I was all too ready to follow her lead, and erase the shock I was feeling: to eliminate it, and rewrite the narrative.
This wasn’t a nightmare. It was a milestone.
I never told her what really happened.
The next day I went back to that tiny apartment, and initiated sex with him. It felt like an out. Like the only way I could regain control. Of course, it was miserable, the opposite of what sex should be. But I felt I had conquered something, that had failed me, just 24 hours earlier.
I stayed with my boyfriend for nearly two years after that. I finally left him after a fight on the street. When I threatened to break up with him, he grabbed my wrist and yanked me in closer threatening me under his breath. It was dark, a summer night. A man, standing at the bus stop across the street saw what was happening and shouted out: “He’s an asshole! You don’t need him.”
I broke free of my boyfriend’s grip and raced home in the darkness, fuelled by rage, and liberation. I never spoke to him again.
I’d see him around town, over the years. Once at the farmer’s market, with my first child, still a baby, in a carrier on my chest, another time, at a restaurant. Just seeing him, I’d be seized, from my legs to my throat. Inevitably it would cost me two full days, each time, lost to a sickness manifesting in anger, self-loathing, regret, and always confined in my own body, that had been so betrayed.
How could this be my reaction now? How could I have normalized it then?
Here’s how. There’s a layered complexity that lives in women, drawing its strength from all of history: the blade of shame, and questioning, always pointed in the same direction. The burden falls to the person who has been violated to explain exactly what has happened, and how, and why.
Why didn’t she fight harder? Why didn’t she leave him sooner? Why didn’t she report to police? Some people may ask these questions of my story.
Here are my answers: Neurobiology. Trauma psychology. The instinct to survive. It’s all there in the research (often conducted and led by women).
I am willing to post #MeToo on social media. I am willing to share my story in detail, as I just have, for the first time in public.
I’ve told my story. Now I humbly ask, to stop turning to women to reshare their trauma. Turn to the men, who are traumatizing. Turn to the men who are silent bystanders. Turn to the men who say nothing when a rape “joke” comes up. Turn to the men who do nothing when they see a man harassing a colleague. Turn to the men who do nothing when a friend confesses they are a rapist.
Maybe the next time around the words in this column will come, not from a woman who was violated, but from a man who has abused. It’s time we call on men to summon the bravery that’s expected of women every single time a serial rapist makes the headlines.
By Maggie Rahr, a freelance journalist living in Halifax.