Call and Response
"Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, she stands up for all women."
TW/CW: Rape, Sexual Assault
Thursday had been one long, 24-hour, prolonged panic attack. I felt irrationally angry. There wasn’t a clear excuse for my raging bad mood that morning. We had stayed with three lovely and fascinating sisters in Philadelphia, and we were on our way out, on our way to New York City. I had booked us the best seats on the bus, had a good night’s sleep, was excited to be back on the road (even if only for a couple of hours). Despite all of this, there was a feeling of impending doom, a flutter of panic in the back of my brain and the pit of my gut. My skin felt like a large open wound; everything and anything that touched my skin made it hurt and bristle. I couldn’t catch my breath or calm my heartbeat. I was searching for the catalyst, but in the hubbub of packing and getting to the station combined with the lack of food in my system, I was coming up empty.
Ryan and I entered the station and began searching for our other travel-mate, Josiah. I wanted to scream. I wanted to throw down my bags and scream. I wanted someone, anyone, to look at me wrong. I wanted even the simplest excuse to start a fight. And when you want to start a fight it’s not difficult to find a reason.
We couldn’t find Josiah immediately, and I felt something gross and malicious disperse in my veins. A dark anger billowed into and boiled my blood.
“I’m about to be in a really bad mood. I don’t want to fucking carry my stuff around and look for him. He should fucking come find us.” I was like a cartoon bull, steam metaphorically billowing out of my ears.
“It’s okay. I’ll go look for him. You wait here.” Ryan dropped off his stuff with me and wandered off.
What the fuck is wrong with me? I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t process basic directions to find the Subway shop in the train station. I couldn’t understand what I was feeling. I’m not an angry person, but I was angry that day.
I paced between our bags, arms crossed, looking cross, waiting. I glanced up at the television. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was testifying live. Ryan and I had watched about ten minutes before we left that morning. The pin clicked into the hole, and the wheels began turning at last. Earlier in the week I had made a conscious choice to take a break from social media; my feeds being saturated with news about sexual assault, rape, survivors, #WhyIDidn’tReport stories, positive messages for survivors, tirades against rapists. I couldn’t handle it anymore.
I wasn’t dealing with the trauma of my most public rape (the one that went to trial in 2017), but instead with the realization that I had been raped three other times in my twenties. All by people I had thought were friends. All by people who my friends still talk to. One was a roommate. When I was 22 he raped me twice in our apartment. I didn’t realize what had happened at the time. I had been in and out of consciousness, teetering on blackout drunk, both times. He told me it was inevitable that we would sleep together. It’s just what happens when two people of the opposite sex live together. I remember not wanting to either time, but not being able to do anything as he pulled me into his bed, flipped me over, and pushed his way into me. I couldn’t move or fight back, and I didn’t know that I could tell him “no”. I didn’t know that was an option.
The third time was at the beginning of this year. It was New Year’s. My friends and I had gone out drinking, having a fabulous time after a string of shit events that had happened in the past month (job losses, apartment losses, breakups, hospitalizations, breakdowns). The night ended with some of us going back to the place one of us was staying at, a swanky RiNo apartment with a killer rooftop view of downtown. Perfect for watching fireworks. We smoked some weed, drank through a couple of bottles of sparkling wine, crashed on the couch watching movies. Ryan went up to his room to pass out. I stayed on the couch downstairs with a couple of others.
Upon laying down I was in and out of consciousness. I was tired. It had been a long day, I’d had a little more than enough to drink, and I was ready to sleep. The lights were out, and Tropic Thunder was playing on the TV (a movie I’ve seen too many times to admit and felt comfortable falling asleep during). The other woman was also asleep on the other end of the couch. (It was a gargantuan, fancy pants couch that took up an entire room just about.) The man in between us (who also happened to be the other woman’s husband) started texting me. He wanted to have a threesome. He said his wife was attracted to me. They were experimenting with new things in their marriage.
I was tired. I didn’t want to. I told him I was falling asleep.
He said it would be okay.
I told him his wife was already asleep and I didn’t want to wake her up.
He said it would be fine to wake her up.
I made every excuse to stay just where I was and continue on sleeping.
He said it would be okay. It would be special. It would be hot. His wife, he told me, wanted it. Do it. Just do it. It’ll be great. Come over here and let me start playing with you. Everything will be fine. Do it. Do it. Just do it.
I came to sometime later and we were all naked. I didn’t remember agreeing to anything. I didn’t remember undressing. I didn’t remember how things had started After he had watched his wife and I, I was pushed off to the side for him to finish with his wife. I wasn’t touched by either of them. I wasn’t needed anymore.
I did remember thinking many times before that night that I would never want to be involved with this couple. I did remember still feeling drunk when I woke up the next morning. I did remember him telling me over and over as I we were passing back out, after his wife had gone back to sleep, that he wanted to start sleeping with me without telling his wife. I did remember Ryan telling me about a couple of instances where this man had been reported for sexually assaulting other women. I remember telling Ryan what happened as he drove me home in the morning.
“Was it consensual?”
“I think so? I don’t know.”
I didn’t realize until this past week what had been done to me. I did everything I could in my inebriated state to tell this guy I wasn’t interested. And he pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed until I woke up naked and having sex with him and his wife. Or, more accurately, being used by him and his wife to get off on. I certainly received no pleasure whatsoever; I even said as much during the occurrence. I might as well have been a dildo.
I told this story to Ryan and Josiah when we were out one night in Philadelphia. Each word that left my mouth dropped a stone in the pit of my stomach. Each word slowly undimmed and illuminated the truth of what had happened.
“That’s terrible. I’m so sorry.” The look on Josiah’s face was something I hadn’t expected when I started telling the story of the one time I had a threesome. It was a look of compassion and shock.
“I’ll have to see him one more time to get some of the stuff I stored at his place, but otherwise this changes my relationship with him completely.” Ryan took me seriously in a way I didn’t know I needed to be taken.
These three rapes were circulating in my mind and my body. Besides the common denominator of rape, the occurrences shared something else: I had been made into an object. I wasn’t a person in any of these situations. The people who raped me didn’t see me as someone with thoughts, feelings, agency. They saw me as a prop to help them get off, to help satisfy some fucked up need of theirs that they were too immature and unwilling to deal with on their own. I was their cum depository. I was a plastic cup you could find at any sperm bank or doctor’s office. I was a tissue, a jizz rag.
You can have self-confidence out the ass, you can know and believe in your agency as a human being, but when people continue – across time, across social groups, across demographics, lifestyles, cities, jobs – to treat you as an object it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain any sense of worth. And when you’ve never been taught or have never learned how to be treated, when you’ve grown up believing that asking for needs and wants and standing your ground is something to be made fun of, why wouldn’t you let these things happen to you?
Let me be clear, I do not blame myself for these things happening. I blame a system that keeps my mouth closed and fills me with shame for demanding I be treated as flesh and blood and bone and not as a battery operated Fleshlight. I blame a system that places me below any other human being, let alone at the same level as a boy’s cum soaked, crusty sock. I blame the system that tells men – especially cis, straight, white men – that they are special boys who can do no wrong. I blame these men who have learned to use the language of feminism and progress, but who are still misogynistic, racist, classist consumers and defilers in their core. I blame the thousands of years that have taught men it is okay to take what you want without thought. I blame the people who uphold and defend this system of being. I blame the manifest destiny that many men believe to be the marrow of their existence.
Since arriving in New York City on the 27th of September, I have walked three full marathons. I have sunk my feet in the Atlantic, watched the sunset over the East River and the metal-etched skyline of Manhattan, drank a beer at Coney Island in the rain, walked the Williamsburg bridge at two in the morning, wandered, screamed, meditated on the state of my life – all an earnest attempt to understand the things my body was telling me when my mind couldn’t.
I told my best friend, Phil, that all I wanted was to scream and break things in an empty field somewhere. He offered to mail me a baseball bat and $50 of glass from the Goodwill. Instead of taking him up on this generous offer, I happened upon a tweet after deciding to check Twitter for the first time in a week. It was about an anti-Kavanaugh protest happening in Madison Square Park. I made note of it.
The night of the protest I almost didn’t go. I was tired from wandering and having been out late after our successful first book tour event the night before. Ryan said he was just going to go to feel out the energy, to connect to a movement bigger than whatever state we happened to be in at that moment. I tagged along, agreeing to feel the energy, and then leave. The beginning was uneventful. There were too many of us squeezed into too small a space, hundreds of police officers demarcating just how far our anger and hurt were allowed to extend. It was Manhattan at rush hour. The bull horn, rather than amplifying the voices of the women of the Democratic Socialists, turned their voices into garble coming down the line from one tin can to another. But the words were secondary. The power of those pinned down and abused by a system of gross injustice screamed from the bull horn, screamed from the thousands of vocal chords in a unified cacophony.
Then we began to march. We marched for almost two hours from Madison Square Park to the Yale Club near Grand Central Station. And I – we – screamed for hours into the city night. It was better than smashing glass alone in a field. I danced as protesters with drums and tambourines and shakers moved through the crowd. I danced to the rhythmic “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Kavanaugh has got to go”. I screamed until I was blue in the face along with thousands of other humans, “When our rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!”. I lost my voice within the first hour. A stranger gave me a cough drop. Another a bottle of cold water. I kept going. My voice cracked in rage. Our communal grief united in a frenzy of emotion and movement and love. It was a display of emotion and processing and grief and community that I have never before experienced. Not alone, not with friends, not at other protests. It was exactly what I needed.
My dear friend Heather once told me about a communal grief retreat she attended in the mountains. It was a time to bring individual hurt and pain into a group, and for that group to mourn it loudly together. And that is just what happened at the protest, intentional or not. My grief manifested as screaming and wailing and anger and joy and solidarity. I have rarely felt more heard, more listened to than in this crowd of thousands. I joined in yelling with the chant callers, and thousands heard and responded. I was needed in this group. I was acknowledged in this group. Twirling and smiling and singing in the face of a man who called me an idiot, called our movement a disgrace for blocking traffic before being swept away in the raging river of protesters was pure joy. Here I was a fucking human being taking up space, making decisions, and being welcomed in this group; my worth a given not a question.
(I see you sleepwalking through life spewing and confusing and passing as something close enough to awake. But you are still asleep, and I and others like me are masters of the world of dream, having lived in sleep ourselves for so many years. It is right that you should kick and scream and flail when you feel something pulling you from the deep. But the pain and shock are temporary, and we wait with love and open arms on the other side.)
I have been raped four times by three men. These individuals succeeded in a temporary diminishing of myself. They took me for a toy, a static object, without realizing that I am, in fact, a breathing movement, a visceral tempest, a drop in the tsunamic wave of change and justice. They are men standing alone. Men built upon the lies that they are exceptional and their actions excusable. I am a woman, a queer woman, and I receive my power and my voice from the lightning and chorus around me. I am not alone. I am not built on a paper foundation. I am built upon the voices – your voices – that sing into the void around me.
I’m not scared for me or those in my tribe. I’m not afraid of men masquerading as boys. I am part of the storm that is coming into the port. If your infrastructure cannot handle the wave then it deserves to be destroyed.
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© Alessandra Ragusin 2016-2020