ENOUGH: Letting Myself Breathe
ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series runs weekly, most often on Tuesday afternoons. Each week, we will highlight different voices and stories.
Letting Myself Breathe
I had something on my mind, and my girlfriend could tell. I was working on being more open, better at communication, so I finally said it.
“Do you ever just… leave your head when you’re having sex with me?”
She looked troubled. “No. Never.”
I felt exposed, and waved her off. “Oh. Never mind, then.”
“Does that happen to you?”
I couldn’t deny it, or let the conversation end there, so I tried to explain.
I lost my virginity to my ex-boyfriend when we were in high school. Before we started dating, he relentlessly pursued me for a year and begged my friends to ask me if I liked him. I didn’t like him and I didn’t want to date him, but everyone around me had started dating, so I felt the pressure to have a boyfriend—in hindsight, classic compulsory heterosexuality.
Even though I started flirting back and smiling as he followed me around, I still felt the impulse to ignore his texts and to avoid him. My body tensed when he touched my hand. I felt uneasy around him and his friends, like I was someone only to be ogled at.
I think my body was trying to stop me from getting hurt, but I didn’t listen. Instead, I became his girlfriend.
Our relationship started out like a friendship. We mostly joked around—I even asked if I was his best friend. But he asserted that he didn’t want another friend. He wanted someone to hold, kiss, and fuck. Every time he touched me or looked at me, his endgame was sex.
Many teen movies and television shows have an awkward sex scene where the girl is unsure if she wants to sleep with her boyfriend, and the boy whispers sweetly to her, says things like, “Babe, it’s chill.” Eventually, they’re either interrupted by a masked murderer or everything goes fine. These films and shows affirmed my anxieties around sex, but I never even felt the same desire to “do it” that the teens on screen expressed. I kept waiting for my feelings to change, for me to want to kiss him, to feel like my friends who said they loved giving blowjobs.
How can you like that? When am I going to want to do that?
I put off sex for as long as I could—a few months—until my boyfriend snapped. “I don’t want to be a virgin in college,” he said. “If we don’t have sex soon, I’ll have to break up with you.” As incentive for me to put out, he claimed a female friend had offered to sleep with him if I wouldn’t.
His ultimatums terrified me. I felt I didn’t have a choice but to give in.
There was nothing romantic about the sex. It hurt; I was uncomfortable, but we kept going. He told me to relax, so I inhaled and exhaled and tried to will my body into sedation. As he moved, I stared at the tan walls of my bedroom and focused on the paint bubbles and small cracks. I looked at my popcorn ceiling and recalled a rumor about a boy scrapping the bumps off the ceiling and them landing in his eyes. When I was younger, I was afraid if I looked up, I’d see the kernels falling on my face and be blinded.
My boyfriend finished, and his rage brought him to tears. He was so angry it hadn’t gone the way he’d imagined or how his friends had described it. I apologized. We had sex again. I waited for it to be over.
Sex wasn’t always like that with him. Sometimes it was okay; sometimes I liked it. But I spent the majority of my time on my back, resigned and dejected, with my hand limply touching his shoulder. I stared at the walls and imagined myself somewhere else: walking down the sidewalk, sitting at my desk at school trying to stay awake, talking with a friend about Glee. If we’d just had a fight, I wondered what I could do to prevent him from getting angry again. Or, I thought about the time I was harassed at a bus stop, and how he’d responded, “Men target girls like you because you’re shy and submissive. You need to learn how to stick up for yourself.”
Once, he was having sex with me and said, “I wish you weren’t such a starfish. It feels like I’m raping you.” My body seized up. I was appalled and embarrassed. I probably comforted him, apologizing in an attempt to placate him. He grew frustrated, huffed, rolled his eyes, and kept going.
My body continued to reject him. When he wrapped his arms around me, I panicked. When he kissed me, I pulled away. When he looked at me, I burst into tears. He screamed at and ridiculed me, and I stopped sticking up for myself because what was the point—everything was always my fault.
During my junior year of college, I met someone. I was enamored with her, and my boyfriend noticed. He texted me constantly to ask where I was and with whom. If it was her, he’d groan about how I never spent enough time with him. His quota was for us to have sex at least once a week, so every weekend I drove to his apartment to appease him.
Movie dates were difficult. I was always keenly aware of how the main character reacted to the men around her, because I knew my boyfriend would draw a comparison. The Edge of Seventeen was no exception. When Nadine asked her male friend if he’d like to have sex with her, then immediately rescinded the offer with “I’m just kidding!” I panicked. Then, after she pushed away a boy who forced himself onto her, my unamused boyfriend turned to me and said, “You’re just like her.”
I asked the woman I’d been spending time with to meet me in a secluded place on campus. We sat down, and out spilled everything he’d done to me. It was like opening box after box of incriminating evidence: he’d told me I was stupid; he obsessed over my weight; he accused me of flirting; he blamed me for all of his problems. She was, rightfully, horrified. Often, she needed to stand up and start pacing to calm herself down. I’d never known someone who’d gotten so angry on my behalf before. She explained that he was coercing me into sex, and I was mortified.
After finally admitting to myself that he was emotionally abusing me, I dumped him. It wasn’t easy. He drove to my house, asked me to talk with him in his car. My mom didn’t allow me to go outside to meet him, so he waited in the driveway for hours. My mom noticed I wasn’t crying. In fact, my face registered no emotion.
“Aren’t you upset?”
“No,” I said. “Should I be?”
She smiled and shook her head.
I looked myself in the mirror and thought about my attraction to men, or lack thereof. I started dating the woman who helped me leave my ex. I came to terms with being a lesbian. Because I felt supported by my girlfriend and by my online friends, I worked up the courage to tell a mutual friend of my ex’s and mine what our relationship had really been like. She’d asked.
We walked down a crowded sidewalk near her apartment, and I awkwardly laid everything out. Speaking stiltedly, I told her how he “felt like” he was raping me. When she seemed receptive to my story, I was relieved. I even came out to her.
Not long after, however, she confessed to me that she felt sorry for my ex because she knew he truly loved me. “He was so heartbroken to find out that you were gay,” she said. It was clear that she and our other friends had chosen him over me. Later, I sobbed into a pillow as my girlfriend stroked my back.
Why couldn’t she feel sorry for me, too?
I began therapy in 2019. Going over the details of my life—my parents, my sexual identity, my friends, my anxiety—left me feeling like I had nothing left to hide. But my girlfriend felt there was something I was not ready to tell her. Something I was still reckoning with, regarding sexual abuse. I couldn’t figure out what she meant.
He coerced me into sex, but that’s not assault, right?
I consented to everything!
She said, “He truly loved you.”
Our sex was bad because I’m a lesbian.
It was my fault.
But when I read the stories of victims of rape and sexual assault, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they sounded like me. I was quick to anger. I couldn’t trust anyone, and I was constantly afraid. I related to their shame, self-loathing, and fear. Either we were the same, or I was really, really empathetic.
I needed my girlfriend to remind me: he knew I was uncomfortable, he knew I didn’t want to have sex, he saw me barely move, and he called it rape.
I finally asked my therapist, “If my story is so much different from theirs, why do I feel this way?” I realized that I was asking permission to be a victim.
She replied, “If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck…”
I tried my hardest not to cry. I sucked in all of my negative feelings, longing to distract myself with something else. I didn’t want to face this truth.
She asked me if I liked having sex with my girlfriend, if I wanted to do it, or if I said “yes” only because I felt too guilty saying “no.”
“I do, I do, I don’t, but…”
Even when I held the woman I loved, I still felt my mind escaping. I was detached, somewhere else, and shocked when I realized it. I fought to force myself back into my body. I didn’t want her to know something was wrong, but it kept happening.
My therapist told me that if I started to lose myself—if my mind left my body—to stop having sex. I protested, but she reminded me that I knew, realistically, that my girlfriend would respect my boundaries.
“You need to take care of yourself,” she said. “It’s the only way your body is going to heal.”
I was tired of being afraid. Tired of letting things happen to my body when I didn’t want them to. I hated how I lashed out when I thought I was going to be hurt. I hated how I’d isolated myself from everyone who loved me. I wanted to be confident and bold again. I wanted to stop re-traumatizing myself with memories of how he fucked/coerced/assaulted me. I wanted to stop being afraid. I wanted to stop blaming myself.
My body is healing slowly. I can feel myself changing, my ability to say “no” growing. My girlfriend and I communicate. I continue to process what happened to me.
Sometimes, I still feel a part of me gets lost, and struggles to find its way back.
When this happens, I let myself breathe.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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