When Yes Doesn’t Mean Yes

From Electric Lit:

This is how the story goes: Jake and I were having a playdate. We were at his house. I have no memory of where his parents were. My parents were at work, miles away in the city. Jake and I were young enough to both unabashedly adore Barney and I hadn’t yet been taught what could happen when girls and boys played alone together. My legs were scrawny and my cheeks were chubby. Jake was much, much taller than me. At some point, Jake led me into a bedroom—the bedroom belonging to his parents—and locked the door. Then he grabbed my tiny shoulders and forced a kiss on my mouth.

My parents like to tell this story because it never fails to entertain at a dinner party. People laugh and sometimes blush and almost always raise a glass to what they call: ‘Jake’s gumption’.

After all, we were children.  

I recently watched Miranda July’s Kajillionaire. The film ends with what I interpret as the protagonist’s first consensual kiss. That kiss feels transformative because it’s the first time this emotionally stunted twenty-six year-old allows herself pleasure. It’s the first time she acknowledges her sexuality without feeling like it’s wrong.  

Days later, the intensity of my feelings hadn’t waned. I felt confident that the protagonist, Old Dolio was the victim of sexual abuse. My certainty was guttural. There was something in the way she held herself that was familiar. Watching her felt like looking into a mirror.  

Kajillionaire explicitly depicts the psychological abuse Old Dolio experiences, but the presence of sexual abuse is left up to the audience. Early in the film, Old Dolio attempts to return a one-hour massage certificate for cash and instead reluctantly accepts a twenty-minute massage. Before the masseuse’s hands even make contact with her baggy top, Old Dolio’s whole body flinches, recoiling at the prospect of touch. The masseuse makes the tiniest impact and Old Dolio yells out that it’s too much. The scene ends with the masseuse holding her hands above Old Dolio’s back, keeping them there, suspended in the air, giving Old Dolio the only amount of intimacy she can bear.  

I flinched the first time I let someone kiss me. He was thirteen and his eyes were the color of ice. I said yes. And yet I was terrified. My body was already programmed to anticipate violence. My mother says that as a baby I couldn’t be soothed. That I cried and cried and cried and nothing she did could end my sobbing. She went back to work soon after my birth and shortly after that, was diagnosed with breast cancer. In every photograph we have from that time, she and I cling to each other. On some visceral level, we understood how little control we had—that safety is imaginary. When you’re deprived of comfort, your body accommodates. Old Dolio’s shoulders slouch throughout Kajillionaire. Her hair hangs almost over her face. She’s trying to make herself disappear. She’s trying to protect herself.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve hunched. Sometimes I tell myself it’s because I want to make myself smaller, other times I acknowledge what feels truer: there is safety in invisibility.

When Melissa Febos’ latest essay collection, Girlhoodshowed up in my mailbox, I hid the book under my couch cushion for a week. It was too hot for my skin. I’d read her second book, Abandon Methe year I blew up my life, the year I left a six year relationship that was headed toward marriage so I could travel around the country. That book forced me to acknowledge that I was horribly unhappy. The prospect of Girlhood dislodging another piece of my certainty terrified me.   

Since the #MeToo movement began, I’ve licked my wounds quietly, unsure of how to engage with the cloudy intrusions that haunt my body. I didn’t have the language to name what happened to me. I didn’t know whether my experiences counted for anything. What I did know was that every time I entered a new space, I sought the exit; anytime I got stuck on a crowded subway car, I panicked; most nights, if I fell asleep, I’d wake from nightmares shaking; even with partners I trusted, a surprise touch unraveled me.  

When I finally read Girlhood, I learned I was right to be worried. Febos holds a mirror up to the violence of being twelve years old and having “a body like those women in the magazines.” She recounts the many men who were compelled by her because of what they wanted to take from her. “Eventually, I understood the strength that was no strength, that was a punishment no matter what I did or did not do. So I let my friend’s older brother close the closet door.” 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

4 thoughts on “When Yes Doesn’t Mean Yes”

  1. It has always seemed to me that there is an inescapable apprehension threshold that must be crossed for women (I can’t speak for men) leading up to the loss of virginity in particular (and no doubt for all sexual activity). Assuming no malicious circumstances and age-appropriate exposure, this is likely universal. It’s hard for me to look at something “universal” in normal context as something that should be much lamented for its unfairness. (It’s like complaining about learning how to walk or about death — we all go through it.)

    That said, the issues of “malicious circumstances” and “age-inappropriate” remain, and I do sympathize with the potential trauma-inducing consequences. But I am less supportive of the notion of making a trauma or crisis the core of one’s entire life. “It hurts” is not a useful response for disaster. “How can I make this better/find a more constructive way to move past this?” is far more healthy. This is easy to say and hard to do, but life does take work, and that struggle is far more admirable than the dwelling on unfortunate circumstances. The latter is too much like staring into a black hole until it expands to take over your life.

    • Since it is not uncommon for this sort of thing to happen when the individuals may have reached their full physical maturity, but not reached their full adult emotional maturity and confidence about themselves, the potential for honest misunderstandings and misreadings of what the other person’s responses mean unless there’s a clear verbal “No”, the opportunities for honest misunderstandings are huge. Morning-after regrets on both sides are not uncommon.

      This does not excuse anyone for pushing past the bounds another person has set and communicated, however.

      • All true, but I imagine we can all recall the general uncertainties around our first sexual encounters, even with merited trust on all sides, and not knowing whether something felt was actually a problem or not (weird vs, say, scary or repellent or even painful). The opportunity to decide in the midst of uncertainty or confusion that “no” might be the best response may come too late, given those hesitations.

        Honest misunderstandings, as you say. And not much to be done about it. Growing up is awkward, and things happen, even under the best of circumstances. Usually best not to make too much of a big deal out of it.

        Rueful laughter is probably a better approach than passion for one’s first encounters.

        Now, being actually victimized is a different matter altogether. (Dishonest behavior.)

        I’m the last person to particularly recommend women going virgin to their weddings in the old mode, and yet there is something to be said for the moral courage that results from the knowledge that something somewhat mysterious and possibly not initially pleasant was going to happen at a particular time with someone you trusted, and that you would probably like it eventually, if not necessarily initially. And it had to happen, for children. It was what a married woman did.

        I certainly sympathize with the desire of most women to, as it were, “read ahead” in that particular book in the modern era, but it does mean that their first self-educational encounters are probably more likely to result in unexpected “snags”.

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