by Danielle Navarro, 15 Feb 2019
This is not a post I want to write. It is not a story I want to tell. It is not a story I want you to read. I am ashamed to put words to it, scared to say “me too”.
I have so many reasons not to write this. My inbox is overflowing. Deadlines are rolling past. I have so many things that give me joy, in my work and in my home, that I could focus on instead. I could write about my excitement about the Aarhus open science workshop I’ve been invited to, or the satRday workshop in Johannesburg. I could write about my joy at the simple act of taking my kids places they want to go.
Instead, I am hiding in a tiny nook in the library, trying to stop my hands shaking, trying to keep my tears from falling on the laptop I’m hunched over, trying not to let the flashbacks steal my words. This time. This time I’ll get the words out. How many times have I written this story, posted it in quiet corners of the internet, I wonder.
The word I am so afraid to speak. I use it sometimes, almost defiantly, as if inviting someone to challenge my claim. But I don’t ever say much about how it happened, how long I have kept my silence. How many months, years, decades have passed, and in all that time I have spoken her name only twice. Once to my partner, once to my therapist. I am still so completely afraid of her, so scared that she will find me, and so terrified of what she could do to me if she knew how badly she broke me. If her memory disagrees with mine, as I imagine it does, I would not have the courage to contest her version, and so I cannot name her.
In any case I do not wish to accuse her, merely to be free of her.
It happened over weeks, in bits and pieces, and after so long my memories are fragmented. I’d broken up with my girlfriend a few weeks earlier. I remember putting on my skinny jeans and bonds t-shirt, happy with my appearance for the first time in weeks. I remember her hand on my thigh, unasked. I remember being pressed against a chain link fence, frozen and half naked in public, crying as she played with me. I don’t think she saw the tears. I don’t think she heard when I tried to say no. I remember escaping her, that first time, though I suppose in retrospect that first time also counts as assault.
I remember the one time I didn’t escape. I don’t know how she ended up in my apartment. I don’t know how much I’d drunk. I didn’t know how to stop her going down on me. I froze. Again. Again, I froze. I do know how ashamed I felt, how betrayed I felt by my body when I came anyway.
“Is that all?”
I can still hear her voice. I wonder if my memory of it is accurate after so many flashbacks and unwanted replays. I remember feeling shame that I had come and she had not, so I let her fuck me - to rape me a second time I suppose, or is that a third time? Or fourth? Who’s counting? - to get her out of the apartment. I don’t know why I let her do that.
I met her for coffee the day after, and politely declined to see her again.
I did try to tell people. I tried. The words came out wrong, over and over again, and everyone congratulated me for getting raped. My voice betrayed me again, and no-one was listening to the parts I wasn’t saying. Women don’t rape men. Everyone knows that. So when they do anyway, none dare call it rape. Even the survivors. Violation. Shame. Discomfort. Disgust. Loss. Those words I could think, if not speak, but rape wasn’t a word I could use until years later, after I had begun transitioning. As a woman, I could at least say the word, and this time people would hear it.
My deepest, darkest fear is that this is where my gender identity was born. To have become a woman only as a trauma response to sexual abuse is a terrible thought, and I hope it isn’t true. Yes I can think of reasons why it might not be so, and yes in a sense it doesn’t matter - I am who I am no matter how I came to be her - but that vicious little whisper is a hard one to ignore.
When my wife and I first started having sex, a long time after the rape, she asked me for consent. No-one had ever done that. I had never understood that I had the right not to consent, that I too deserved the right to bodily autonomy, that I could be more than a docile thing to be used. Very early in the relationship, she asked me point blank if I’d ever been sexually abused (years later she told me she’d never seen anyone so skittish about sex, and guessed something was wrong). “No,” I told her. “Of course not.” I wondered why I suddenly felt so cold, so ashamed, so scared, and I put it out of my mind.
I drink, and I wish I did not. I start to drink when I am forced to remember her, and I keep drinking in the hope that I will forget her. It’s not a good habit.
I still freeze, too, in the face of other people’s interest in me. Post-transition, people - both men and women - will flirt with me sometimes. It’s nice to feel attractive, and I genuinely don’t mind the attention. It really is nice. But I still freeze. Every time. I am constantly grateful that the people in my life - even the strangers who flirt with me - understand and respect affirmative consent though, because I have learned that I still cannot make myself say the word “no”. I think it, though. My voice still betrays me, and I play along with it every time, hoping I’ll find an exit route before anything bad happens.
I startle easily, still. It drives my wife nuts.
Years later I vomited on the train when a woman behind me was wearing the same perfume as her. I lied to my best friend who asked me what happened. I told her it was just the stress from caring for my terminally-ill mother. I’m sure that was a large part of it too. Watching the woman who raised you die of cancer, helpless to do much more than sit with her, isn’t the easiest experience. Watching your father fall apart with grief isn’t the easiest thing either. Mum’s death was the second worst thing to happen to me in my life. I still miss her, wish I could ask her what to do now, how to heal, now that I finally have some of my words back. Disjointed, disorganised, of no probative value, but at least I have them. At last.
I wonder if I will have the courage to commit the words.
Maybe this time.