End of 2015 I returned to the U.S. from Mexico adrift on my own sad sea. A lot happened there—including, as I often am, being made to stand up for others (which I did willingly, especially when it came to my kind-hearted, economically disadvantaged students—though less willingly for others in my department, who were less than willing themselves; but at a great personal and emotional cost to myself). I endured, again, an incident of sexual abuse by men I thought my friends, and shattered my ankle in fear of sexual assault (an injury which laid me up for months, while the man from whom I had been running, a police officer who made a threat of rape against me, continued to use my number from an official police report—a misdemeanor on the beach for which I was questioned and released, on the spot—to text and call me). Back in Tucson, I had to start over, after having lived largely away since the age of eighteen, the specter of “finally doing something with my life” (as if I had not, going to college and graduate school, living and teaching all over the world) and trying to build up a professional career, to do, at this point, in my early thirties, what was “expected of me,” a depressing one.
On the shuttle from Hermosillo I met a worldly, sophisticated Mexican woman who told me of breaking her leg jumping from a window in France trying to escape from rape, and how that injury still gave her pain (I had not told her anything of my own experience; she simply opened up to me). She told me of meeting her husband and losing him to cancer, of how “men always know when the time is right for you, and that’s when they come. The good ones anyway.” After we unpacked our bags at the station, she hugged me and said goodbye. She gave me her number and said we should stay in touch.
I arrived back in Tucson looking for love. After months of concentrated research on the subjects of the novel for which I had gone to Mexico, months of research into U.S./Mexico exploitation—of women, of the environment—I had begun sleeping with the light on again. After breaking up with my boyfriend and spending a lot of time alone in my small room in the tropics, reading and writing, my ankle up on pillows, exhausted, I had decided I was ready to forgive men; that because I was ready to love again, I would (as later this mysterious woman would tell me) meet the right kind of man.
Like many women I grew up subject to sexual abuse (subjected to, and subject of my own life and therefore of my own experience, though being made into an object of someone else’s fantasy in many ways erased me). What I did not realize when I went looking for love was that the storm-gorged river of my experiences had reached the delta of my sad sea, swelling me to enormous, sad proportions; what I did not realize was how, having never been counseled for any of it, my vulnerability shone like a beacon on a lighthouse, a third eye directed inward and illuminating my sad sea for the seeking eyes of a certain kind of cold empathy. What I did not know is that I would meet Robert.
In Oaxaca, some of the young female students that I had mentored at the university where I taught had noticed how single I was and made up a boyfriend for me.
“Profa, we saw Roberto at La Papaya, he was looking for you.”
“Profa, we saw Roberto at Chahue Beach, he looked sad without you.”
Robert, also recently returned to our hometown, was half-Spanish, tall, with glasses, blue eyes and curly brown hair; a writer and a teacher, who had gone to my alma mater and knew some of the same people I did, he spoke in Spanish with me and nicknamed me “Mamen,” and spent all his time with me in a childish rush, told me how beautiful I was, how he wanted to stay with me, start a literary magazine, helped me pick out poems for my chapbook, made thoughtful suggestions. Apart from his pushing sex on me on our first date, aside from the way in which he seemed to think, when we were intimate, that he was getting away with something, he was perfect for me. If I believed in fate I would have believed I was meant to meet him.
I poured my heart out to Robert. I poured my heart out to him before I even met him in person (which made me, in the words of someone who knows, “unfortunately perfect for him”). I had never done that before, with anyone; had only written about my difficult experiences in unfeeling grad school, which itself had been painful enough. In retrospect what I needed upon returning to Tucson was a therapist and not a boyfriend.
A year later and I know what the terms “gaslighting, reversal, blame deflection, projective identification,” and “mirroring” really mean. I know the real meaning of the word “manipulation,” though I still don’t know to what extent or for how much of the time it operates consciously (what I do know is how little that matters). I know what insecure cruelty is—something which I already knew, and which I, like everyone, have been guilty of; but in this case something which came quite suddenly out of the clear blue easy and caught me right off guard.
A year later and I know what it is to be raped by someone I love.
I am teaching now again (another group of economically disadvantaged students toward whom I feel a similar affection). I am poor, too. A month after my ex-boyfriend raped me a second time, in June, two weeks before my birthday and a week before beginning by teaching my first class (not, I think, a coincidence, as I had told him about my new job, when I was lured back), I moved out of the apartment I shared with another woman into the home of a friend once removed, a transwoman I knew through my little sister and our acquaintances.
At the time, I still felt uncertain about transgenderism. I knew there were people with genuine feelings of “being stuck in the wrong body,” though I thought a lot of this might be more social than physiological, psychological than physical, another symptom of not quite fitting just so into the blue or pink box prescribed for you by patriarchy. I knew little about the extremism leading the charge of the transgender movement in Western countries. When I moved in with Rambo, I was largely innocent.
Seven months later, after having grown close to him (a misgendering he would never forgive me for), and learned a lot about his life, about his childhood and neglectful parents, his marriage, bad on both sides (though as everyone always says “it had some good times”), his early shyness, his struggle for identity across a broad spectrum of subcultures, from the geek culture of comic books and superheroes to the masculine identity of motorcycles to the lure of onstage dancing, to the realization, in the end, that he was a woman, upon my moving out he picked a fight—suspecting, perhaps, that I had never really seen him as a woman—Rambo, 6’2, covered in tattoos, without hormones or surgery (though that made little difference to me; one can be a transman or a transwoman, but one cannot live the reality of what it means biologically to be the opposite sex) accused me of being a SWERF and a TERF (I had explained to him my views on the sex industry), wrote posts about “white women privilege” oppressing transwomen, decided in the end that because I had spent the last seven months crying, socially withdrawing and having nightmares, experiencing panic attacks and flashbacks to the rape by my ex-boyfriend, finally diagnosed with and prescribed drugs for PTSD, in therapy and recovering, that I had been “traumatized” by men and this might be why, when offering to sponsor him for a private sauna in town, when he asked if he would be welcome at the all-women’s night I had responded “ask the organizers.” Why I implied that a penis, regardless of to whom it belongs, might be frightening to some women. I was traumatized and so—so very like a woman!—I was hysterical; irrational! Neither my thinking nor my reading on the issue mattered to him at all.
I don’t care about Rambo’s exhibitionism, his loud proclamations of “sex positivity” (and the implication thereby that I am sex negative), I don’t care about his love for burlesque, “sex work” and pornography. It’s his business, and my social criticisms are my own. I do care that when I decided to move out and move on he acted as if I were breaking up with him, passively-aggressively mean while nice to me in person, as if I had rejected him. Though I had inquired before I moved in, and gently reminded him while we lived together that his polyamory, if it meant a lot of people to and fro in our small space, might be a problem, he had two different girlfriends over three nights of the week while I was moving.
While I lived with Rambo I felt small. There was no room for my stuff in his house; my pots and pans and other non-bedroom possessions, neglected in the yard, were one day unceremoniously thrown away. I never bought furniture for my room, because I felt I didn’t really belong. I drank too much in my depression and made myself as small as possible in his space. I tried to be generous with my money and kind. I was not always perfect; I borrowed his lipstick and didn’t give it back, I didn’t always do my fair share of the cleaning. But I gave him money and beer and food, I tried to help him with a legal matter with his landlord, I was gone often, summer and winter vacation, weekends visiting my parents. Though he was there for me while I was suffering through the worst of my post-traumatic stress, by going out of my way for him, by giving him distance, by dancing around him and his issues, I did a lot of the emotional labor of our household; and when I left he did not act like a woman, he acted exactly like a man.
During this time, as I scrambled to finish classes and procure new ones, as I felt pressure from two different sources to press charges against my ex-boyfriends, a man I didn’t know offered me large sums of money to sleep with him. It was hard to understand why; he could find a younger, thinner, better-looking woman easily enough, yet he persisted, while I resisted, by ignoring him.
The more I ignored this man, the higher the sums of money became. I wondered what was wrong with him; what was his game? I felt tempted, to meet with him, see if he would cut the check, tempted, to set up rules to prepare and protect; to see if it really was, after all, just sex (“just sex”). After all, the year before I had just given it away, to someone who just threw me away, someone who did not like hearing “no.” Someone who raped me, to mark me, after having pretended, in the beginning, to care about women, to be supportive; someone who gave me trigger warnings unnecessarily, for books and magazines (now, after what has freshly happened, I can’t stand to watch plots about sexual violence in movies or on television; now I really do need trigger warnings). The year before I slept with someone who said he loved me and then treated me as bad or worse than this new man might treat me. Why not get paid for it?
I admit I was tempted. I make little money with no benefits working as an instructor at a community college. I calculated recently that for the half-online course I built and the time I put into it I made less than the minimum wage because I care about my students. I was tempted by this stranger’s indecent proposal. What he was offering as a monthly salary was more than I could ever imagine making per annum in my lifetime.
Did it feel flattering that a man would want to pay me, a woman in her early thirties, who had never felt beautiful, that much money to sleep with him? Was it, in some way, a sign of my desirability, not my buyability: that part of what made me rare as diamonds included my mind and thoughts?
I remembered Rachel Moran writing in her memoir about her life as a homeless, prostituted adolescent, writing about one occasion in which a handsome older man took her to his place, where he had candles lit, a bath, an expensive spread, massage—a romantic setup any woman might want; how she wrote that she might have enjoyed her sexual experience with this man had he not, at one point, turned to her and confessed his great excitement that she did not want to be there.
The romantic setup was, after all, a cruel joke, a parody of what a woman wants. What he wanted—the john—was the young Moran’s lack of consent. He delighted in the fact that she did not want to sleep with him, that he had to pay her.
Even in the most innocuous of scenarios, in which this strange man I’d met was not a pimp and not a player, not a rapist, not a killer, at the very least what was he getting off on—this idea of power? Why buy me over some younger, prettier, cheaper, easier, less wary woman? Because I thought I could not be bought?
Because he was buying someone smart, someone who felt herself above that? Because, certainly, if he found out, it would make it all the better that I have a history of sexual assault, mistreatment at the hands of men, that I compromised my very well-being for the temptation of the money I so desperately needed, to pay off my student loans, buy a car, buy a better standard of living?
How much of it would be because, as one upstanding rapist on Reddit so articulately put it, the sorority girls just “threw their cunts after him,” and it got boring after a while? Did easy sex with escorts who made their living at it get boring after a while for this rich young realtor, who sent me emails upping the price per month as I ignored him? Did he want not me but what I represented—as I have often been symbolic to men (symbolic of their desires and their failures)—an older, more sophisticated, smarter, still-desperate woman? Were egalitarian, consensual relationships boring for this man too? (And this, I thought, was the best case scenario—that he was offering me obscene sums of money to pay for inequality—to purchase from what he saw as an intelligent woman my sexual humiliation, to purchase my debasement, to purchase my integrity).
Instead, I opted to take a small and cheap downtown apartment and share it with a much-younger woman. Instead, on my own, I opted to keep trying.
To add a fourth and final dimension to this triangle of confusion (why not get square, after all, with my female problems), I fought, again, with my father.
As a young child I was willful and rebellious, and so I was not his favorite (and I no longer care that he felt traumatized by the mental illness of his own mother; I no longer care when he projects that unfairly onto me). As an older child, I was well-adjusted, outgoing, a good student and popular, smart and talented (although, as always, a tomboy). When I was twelve I got sick.
I stayed sick until I was fourteen. I had a terrible disease that, though it gave me a resting pulse of 112, a pulse which topped 200 when I climbed stairs, though I had tremors, sleeplessness, phantom bee stings, a feeling like light rushing through my head which caused me to lose consciousness also gave me heightened aggression and rebellion, which were, in everybody’s minds, the main two symptoms.
I fought, during this time, furiously angry with my father and sister (my little sister, who had been set up, through no fault of her own, as the good one). At my inner-city middle school I disdained my teachers, first in the gifted and talented program and then, dropping out, in the main school; all of whom who seemed to me mostly incompetent (my English teacher, a good teacher in a subject which I loved, thought I was an angel; my contempt for social constructs and the people who upheld them was never clearer than during these two years, but I gave my deference and attention to those I felt had passion). I disobeyed my school principal and school counselor for the same reason (for not taking seriously an egg in a school project on how to care for babies I was told by my school counselor I would “be a bad mother”). My mother tried desperately, dragging me to pediatricians who rushed to hasty psychological diagnoses based on little evidence and to endocrinologists who failed to do simple blood tests; the doctors ignored my physical symptoms and sent me to psychiatrists and psychologists in what amounted to a kind of conversion therapy.
I was bad. I was a bad kid. I was not supposed to have greasy hair, wear no makeup and baggy Jncos. I was not supposed to talk back to teachers. I was not being a good girl. I was not being a girl.
My father has never forgiven me. We published a book of poetry together when I was seventeen; he let me design the cover and put my name first. Still, he has never forgiven me.
He has implied, over the years, that I am unlovable, volatile, temperamental, though I don’t fight with boyfriends (as I told him; I just get sad and cry) and my friends see me as kind and sweet, if mischievous (when I am happy), which was also my personality as a child. My parents have implied, over the years, that I have taken advantage of them, though I have received scholarships, made my own money, been autonomous, and have grown up a woman in an era in which though I am now more qualified than my father was when he received a tenure-track position at the same institution I am offered a job as an adjunct. I have grown up a woman (and thereby economically disadvantaged by my sex) at a time in which both men and women have suffered economically. The money my parents have lent me, in college and on a few other occasions, like my students loans for undergrad hangs over my head. That is, until the day I can make enough money—can compromise my beliefs enough?—to pay them back.
After offering to help me move my father became impatient. He acted angry with me, mean, belittling, though he had told me we would “have a relaxed moving day” and “take some time for lunch;” suddenly he wanted to go, now, and be back in two hours (all it took in the end to move the last half of my belongings into my new apartment).
He was angry I had criticized his favorite television show the night before, a show about the trials and traumas of a white man falsely imprisoned for the rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend. I said I was tired of rape and murder as a plot point for the development of male characters.
He was angry because two weeks before I had grown incensed when in passing at the dinner table he had denied the wage gap’s existence; I sent him, among other articles, the Senate joint committee report on the wage gap in the U.S.
He is angry that his children don’t agree with him about issues of race. He feels unfairly picked on, criticized (he always tells me to “grow a thicker skin”).
I was angry at him for, after an amicable discussion about substance abuse and twelve-step programs in which we veered off onto the topic of abusive men and their fathers, he had dismissed me with the comment “most people don’t have as much drama in their lives as you do.” I was angry for him for calling men hitting me and raping me “drama.” I was angry for the implication that I was somehow to blame. I was angry with him that I have identified over the years with men with abusive fathers, some of whom have turned out to be violent. I was angry with him because I have been assaulted while minding my own business—at work, on the subway—not in relationships, not drunk, not in a short skirt; in a word, when I didn’t “choose.”
I was angry with him because he does not understand the epidemiology of revictimization, a much-studied phenomenon. I was angry with him because he does not understand anything about what it’s like to be a woman.
* * *
I got drunk the other night and told myself “no.” No. I will not waver.
I will not join the “sex is work” crowd even if I am poor. At what price my dignity? At what price my mental health, at what price my safety? I entered into the relationship with Robert because I wanted to love someone, and to be loved. Love and sex should be shared freely, not coerced economically or otherwise. That Robert had different intentions was not my fault.
I will not back down when Rambo insists on being allowed into women’s spaces. As my sister unapologetically put it, “I am a big believer in women’s spaces.” I will not back down on believing biology is real, and that women are oppressed for it. We are not oppressed because we wear heels and makeup. We wear heels and makeup because we are oppressed. Being a woman is not feeling pretty, and feeling pretty, while it feels good, is not empowering.
Radical ideas are rarely popular. It is not cool to say that women’s self-objectification does not grant us power. It is not popular to say we cannot reclaim something which was never ours to own, that the claim to female sexuality has been deeded and titled to the patriarchy. It is not edgy to say that glorifying transactional sex is putting a brave face on a bad thing, glossing over our inequality, making the best of a bad lot in a world driven and defined by male “values” of greed, competition and lack of empathy.
It is not popular to say that a man does not get to define what it means to be a woman. It does not matter what he has suffered himself because of his nonconformity to masculinity under patriarchy; he does not get to define what it means to be female. His desire for an identity does not mean he gets to define or redefine my life for me.
It is not popular to say that a male desire to be a woman is often about a desperate desire for straight acceptance or for female acceptance, about pushing women’s boundaries, and sometimes about appropriating utility; after all, why do women need men, when a handful would do to continue the population? Why is the concept of “true love” and “soulmates” sold to women from birth, while men are told to spread their seed? Why are women told to spend their time and energy and money to cater to male desire, so contrary to nature, in which colorful males court plain females who regard them much of the time with disinterest?
If men wish to lose this mantle of desperation, they must do so by treating women as equals, not by subjugating, abusing and confusing them; if men wish to compete for a mate they must do so through love, not hate. In the long run love is a better and more sustainable tactic than fear, and those men out there who wish to become bad because they think women like “bad boys” should think for just a moment about why this is, why a class of people might come to identify with their abuse.
And to all those who think the female body is the more attractive—a misogynist and heteronormative idea pushed on both sexes—examine deeply for a moment the word “objectification.”
Now try to find the oxymoron in that last sentence. It’s the contronym of “depthless,” the paradox which governs all meaning.
Let’s all be empowered to not aspire to power. I have never needed to “be” anything; I think, therefore I am, and I would hazard a guess that in the world are many things that are but don’t think. I think, therefore I am; what more use for identity?
There is no timeline for my life. I have no need to live up to anyone’s expectations but my own, and they should not be based on what others want of me: a career, money, a family, in a capitalist, heterosexist, violently patriarchal world. They should also not be based on others’ collective idea of revolt.
I will never apologize for who I am. I will not assuage my father’s guilt, though I do not blame him. I will not accept his help if its means his anger. I will not accept his hypocrisy on the subject of my sensitivity.
I am not bad. I was never bad.
I will never accept that women’s trauma is drama, that when my ex-boyfriend held me down and raped me, and I went into shock, and he did not bother to check if I was breathing, it is no different than Rambo’s hurt feelings; our conversation about the all-women’s nude sauna he told me afterward was “traumatizing.”
The hurt feelings of men who insist on being women are not the same as the hurt bodies and lives of women all over the world, as the violence enacted upon them because they are women, because they are women and can bear children; the choice of identity, regardless of existential angst and agony, is not the same as the choice of rape or death we face for being women as a matter of course.
I will not back down, on any front. I will not see myself as bad, as mad, as thoroughly distasteful, a force to be criticized into domesticity. I will not see myself as an object come alive and threatening its owner, as unfairly smarter than the men who feel jealous of me, a rogue sexbot who has sprouted AI and just needs a little reprogramming.
I also will not see myself as “uppity,” as “ugly,” as just not right for patriarchy, a disgusting creature that must be put in its place. I will not see myself as a hateful bigot for refusing to give in to men’s feelings.
I will not see myself as a commodity. I am not, as some men think, for sale for the right price. I will not be bought because of what it means in a personal and political sense for a woman to sell access to her body. If I suffer from dissociation from my self and body due to sexual assault, how will the dissociation from my self and body of prostitution be of help to me?
I will be poor before I will choose to sell my body, because, unlike so many women sucked into this entrenched system of abuse misnamed an industry, I do have a choice. It will be hard for a while, and it will be hard to do anything that does not, in some way, in this world, compromise my realest beliefs, but that is one front on which I will not compromise; and I can do something else.
I will not see myself through my father’s eyes. I will not see myself through my rapists’ eyes. I will not see myself through my roommate’s eyes. I will not see myself through my buyers’ eyes. I will not see myself through any man’s eyes. I will not see the world through any man’s eyes.
I refuse to kowtow, to bow down, to heel and scrape. I refuse to capitulate.
I will remember the girl of twelve, her arch disdain for paper-thin social constructs and the coercion that it necessary to uphold them; I will remember the girl of six, up in a tree, down by the creek, till dusk.
Athena, goddess of war, goddess of wisdom. Lift the veil up from mine eyes. I have not yet chosen.