The Face of Rape Culture
Content Warning: descriptive language of abuse, sexual assault, violence, trauma
Michel volunteers the story of a significant event, during which a woman forced herself upon him while he was inebriated, and this is why he finds it more difficult to be intimate with women than with men.
This is our first date and our main course hasn’t arrived yet. I sip my Chartreuse and glance over my shoulder to view the liquor case on display. Today in Chicago, the president came into town to cast an early ballot. Here we are in the midst of transition, fastening a surreal sheen to our choice of dinner topic. I must have knitted my brows and pouted my lower lip as he wrapped up his story.
“Don’t make that face,” he declares with a smile as if to show me it’s okay. “Or at least don’t make it because of me.”
I understand his reaction, a similar core reason why I hesitate to share details from my past. No matter how dreadful the story, it would be reflected even more so to inspire sadness and pity in another, especially if she happens to bear an especially attractive gaze.
We are looking into the face of rape culture. We are changing it to one of consent.
I confess. The way my last committed relationship ended there were questionable, or perhaps not-so-questionable, actions that occurred in the conclusion of us. Weeks following, at the sight of each golden-colored truck, I keeled over on street corners, gripped with nausea and gasping for relief. A few minutes a day, a few weeks a year, felt appropriate considering this wasn’t my first pass.
In Oregon, sharing the tight sleeping quarters of a camper with someone new, I fought a prolonged trial with myself to the backdrop of dogs arguing. Muffling my sobbing as best I could, I resisted the urge to punch someone for uttering, in a seemingly humorous context, the poor combination of words “fuck you in the ass.”
Michel reaches his hand under my stool seat and pulls me several inches closer. We had shared enough to warrant the slight brushing of knees.
In response to heightened stress, I was given two models to emulate:
1. Surrender - curl up, cry, allow and receive incoming torrents of misdirected anger, measure your strength by how well you can embody a living punching bag
2. Annihilate – punch, kick, ridicule, bloody, make manifest in another the pain you cannot contain from your own failures and disappointments
And the hybrid:
3. Surrender into self-annihilation - options abound with sharp edges, fire, and deprivation tactics
Breathing helps immensely in the decision-making process. So does sleep.
Whatever happened in May already happened in 2008. There are distinctions between a truck and a hotel room, and bloodstains in undergarments are easier to conceal than bruises to the neck, but both occasions are marked with the cavernous sensation of hopelessness and the peculiar desire to vanish into nothingness.
Don’t make that face. For the sake of brevity, I’ll save 1994-2002 for another date.
There is most definitely a difference between yes and no, but at times, we are not given the opportunity to answer and are not taught how to create the opportunity.
I have an inconspicuous way to hold myself in public when I need to feel held. I begin to curl the fingers of one hand around my other and move them toward the counter. Instantaneously, Michel offers his open hand to substitute. In a flirting of fingers, I could tell from the moisture of his palms and the shallow rising of my diaphragm, we are pushing ourselves.
This is my first time exchanging traumatic sequences as an introduction to a potentially romantic evening. I admired the sphere of trust that expanded around us, enveloping us snugly in our moment of mutual recognition. We marveled that regardless of our sufferings and pain, there is such a brilliant range of human experiences to live. And our lives are no less and no better as a result of this range.
Our knees and our hands maintain our sphere in silence, so we do what travelers do best, release and celebrate the moment. Through harmony or chaos, the passage of one moment, one partial breath, to the next creates the stories for us to tell.
Before their final release, our palms gently clasp in gratitude for the dance through time and the indescribable way we managed to help each other heal. Steadily, we navigate our trust outside to open air where we take turns face-gazing.
“I’d like to kiss you if that wasn’t clear. Can I kiss you?”
I rest my back against brick and respond, “Yes.”
“Are you sure?”
I understand his reaction, double-checking my statement, matching the word with the face of consent.