Friday morning I woke up full of rage. A coursing sense that I wanted to stab someone was so visceral I could hardly imagine leaving the house without bloodshed. Specifically I wanted to stab a man in a suit. I couldn’t tear myself away from the news until almost noon, scrolling through my Twitter feed in my underwear in bed, not writing, not eating, not even brushing my teeth. This is a familiar feeling, and it seems to come in waves, ebbs and flows in and out of my life dependent upon current events, both personal and political. The last major wave of rage generated a manuscript of poems titled CUNT TEETH and a dozen or so performances drenched in fake blood as The Third Thing.
Nearly every one of my closest women friends has experienced some sort of sexual assault. The statistics about assault have started to blur more and more in my mind as I talk to other women about their experiences, reflect on the cultural norms that have shaped my sexual experiences, and reexamine my own attitudes and impulses. I wonder if it’s likely that every single woman has experienced some sort of sexual assault, if “rape culture” is more of an apt signifier than I fully understood even a year ago.
I have a list of questionable experiences that I remember:
A friend gropes me on a couch. He’s trying to make out with me despite his knowing I’m coming down from a particularly intense mushroom trip and my unresponsiveness. He eventually stops; we remain friends; I never bring it up again.
A friend persists in suggesting we go to his house and have sex despite my resistance; we are at a party and he lives nearby. I am drunk and tired and I don’t want to even kiss him, let alone have sex, but I also don’t want to make the long trek home across town. I say no; I say no; I say no; I relent. I never bring it up again until he gets called out for being a creep and I let him know he’d coerced me, too.
A friend introduces me to a man who happens to be very connected to a network of artists I really want to connect to while living temporarily in NYC. He expresses romantic interest in me and I tell him that in my short time in New York I am focused on finding creative contacts and friendships rather than sexual or romantic relationships. He tries to convince me otherwise, but I remain resolute and he finally agrees we can just be friends. Awhile later he invites me to a party at the center of the network I wanted to access. I go and have a really good time hanging out with him and meeting people. We get very drunk, and I don't remember leaving the party. I wake up next to him in my bed the next morning feeling sick to my stomach. I ask him to leave and he does. I don’t continue deepening my connections to that network of artists. It takes me another couple years to call it assault.
A very close friend, a brother-in-spirit, and I are falling asleep next to another close friend, my roommate at the time, after a night of partying. I’m high and drunk and on the edge of sleep when he pulls me close and says something to me. I cannot say for sure what it was, but the delayed hazy brain memory is something like “Kate, you’re one of my best friends, but I’ve always wanted more.” As my brain catches up and I start to cognize what he’s just said I say “what?” and he releases me and laughs. I don’t bring it up again until two years later when this friend gets called out for assaulting someone.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it is representative. Maybe you, as I do, notice some patterns here. All of these occurrences happened with friends, and all of them involved drugs and/or alcohol. All of them involve some sort of delay in acknowledging what occurred, or in some cases utter silence. There are thousands, maybe millions, of people who would look at my behavior and tell me the problem is me, that my use of drugs and alcohol resulted in my being assaulted, or maybe even that those experiences weren’t in fact assault, but just “boys being boys,” or as a friend of a friend put it after she was raped while drunk: “I don’t know a boy who wouldn’t do the same in that situation.”
The conversation about consent #metoo has stimulated is critical to unpacking the prevalence of sexual assault in this country. The concomitant conversation around drinking and drug use, though, is scary to me, as it frequently devolves into moralizing and disservices survivors. Yes, I was very drunk that night in New York and I probably should not have been so drunk, that time or any other time I've been that drunk or drunker, but it is not a crime to get too drunk. Drugs and alcohol do impair one’s ability to consent, though, and pestering someone until they finally relent is coercion. When fully sober I put up a boundary with the man who assaulted me in New York. He then took advantage of my desire to connect with his network and the fact that I was wasted enough to let my guard down.
This could be painted as a typical mating dance, to be honest. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been drunk the first time I had sex with someone, and I know the same is true for many of my peers. Hundreds of romantic comedies have been premised on male persistence. So-called “hookup culture” is well documented with regard to Millenials, but the Kavanaugh hearing underscores the fact that none of this is really all that new or particular to my generation. I felt compelled to take responsibility for what happened to me in New York out of shame for my drunkenness and guilt at my conflicted feelings about a guy I wasn't supposed to like. On the afternoon of the day I woke up next to that man in my bed I spoke to a friend and told him what happened; he responded by telling me I had been assaulted. I explained that, no, it was my fault: I clearly must have wanted it to happen all along or we wouldn't have been at my apartment. It was just further evidence that I’m just a drunken slut. Eventually I came to realize that whether or not I did actually like him a little, I was too drunk to actually consent, and he had manipulated the situation to get what he wanted.
Drinking to get laid is a contemporary social and sexual lubrication ritual that many, if not most, U.S. Americans participate in. It’s so pervasive that in my experience friends who decide to get sober usually struggle for a long time to connect with others socially. I got older; I tempered my consumption of alcohol and lost my taste for hard drugs, but I do wonder about things I don’t remember. I thought about all this as Brett Kavanaugh “confessed” his love of beer during the hearing and as I read about his yearbook inscriptions, and his reputation among classmates in high school and college. I thought about the friend who’d sleepily confessed his decade-long hidden feelings for me.
When that friend was called out for assaulting someone I took responsibility for him, as my role in our friends group was usually the caretaker. I “believed” his accuser and I attempted to hold him accountable by moving him into my house and asking him to be sober while he lived with my fiancée and me for a few months. I wanted to help him figure out how he would address the situation. I put quotes around “believed” above because while I had long since taken up the practice of believing people who say they’ve been assaulted, deep down I was convinced he didn't do it. Never mind that he didn’t remember the night in question, willingly admitting to being blackout, I knew he couldn't have done it for various reasons involving intimate knowledge of his patterns and physiology. It was surely some sort of misunderstanding, but nevertheless a perfect opportunity for him to reflect on and curtail his substance abuse and reckless behaviors.
I was wrong, though. He did do it. I know that now, not because I got a clear narrative of what "actually happened," either from him or his accuser, but because I took him into my home and learned more and more (too much, really), about his struggles, neurosis, addictions, and compulsions. I still love my friend, but I had to make him leave my home, and I sadly couldn’t include him in my wedding months later. He has had to, will continue to have to, account for the things he did, and I could not shield him from that.
That experience taught me the horrifying lesson that despite my card-carrying riot grrrl feminist status I have been just as indoctrinated into the culture that perpetuates sexual violence as the men and boys who have assaulted me. I have no idea what "actually happened" the night my friend did the thing he's been accused of, but I don't need to. I need to believe people who say they've been assaulted. Period. Given the mental acrobatics I had to do to convince myself I hadn't been assaulted in New York, and how difficult it still is for me to call it that, I am pretty ashamed that I ever questioned my friend’s accuser. I know firsthand that it’s almost impossible to call assault assault, that our culture trains us, women especially, to make accommodations for men and explain away shitty behaviors. That's rape culture. I am part of it, too.
Just as I have been assaulted in ways that are so normal I couldn’t discern them as such until years passed I have also made accommodations for the behaviors of my friends and loved ones in ways I didn’t even realize I was doing: brushing it off, not bringing it up, taking responsibility—noticeably, all of these socially deferential behaviors are stereotypically gendered feminine. I saw this socially deferential female conditioning surface in Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s amazingly brave testimony. The contrast between her measured and, as she describes it, collegial tone and his entitled man-baby histrionics was in and of itself a perfect encapsulation of the results of how we indoctrinate people into the two dominant genders: the woman works hard to make all parties happy, and the man demands the thing to which he feels entitled. In this case it’s a Supreme Court appointment, in others it’s a woman’s body.
Kavanaugh’s accusation of Ford being part a political conspiracy mounted by Democrats and the Clintons struck me as not only ludicrous with regard to Ford’s willingness to testify, but indicative of a deep misunderstanding on his part, and I would venture to guess the part of many U.S. Americans, including many Senate Republicans, as to what politics are and how they might be wielded. Dr. Ford’s testimony is most certainly politically motivated: she has sacrificed herself, risked her own “annihilation,” in the hopes that it will result in the political gain of blocking an abuser from a seat on the Supreme Court where he would exercise a power few will ever access. This isn’t personal, Brett, it’s political.