When I first read this essay, my life was changed. Someone had classified what happened to me, not just once, but several times in my childhood, throughout it in fact. Someone had experienced it too. Someone had given it a name, said it was wrong. I felt empowered.
In mainstream society and even in some liberation movements, we have a hierarchal relationship to sexual violence. Rape is classified as the most brutal form of sexual violence, and maybe it is. However, its often personified as a stranger jumping out on a wildly attractive, ulta-feminine white woman because he just can't contain his sexual desires. She screams no loudly but her attempts are futile. Womyn of color are often reluctant to speak out about the sexual violence we've experienced, partly because mainstream society tells us we're not as worthy of protection as white women. This archaic, stereotype of how rape happens is a white ideal that serves to protect the notion of white womanhood and persecute men of color. However, most rapes don't play like out that and all sexual violence is not rape.
Not rape. The not rape epidemic. Its not rape, or its not that archaic stereotype of rape, but it is the trespassing of bodies. Its the stealing of something, the betrayal of your safety. Its the sending of a message, that you're not worthy of that safety and that your power is only in the physicality of your body.
Here is one of my stories of not rape:
Antoine was a boy in my elementary school class. He was tall and light skinned and had a bumpy face, complete with beady eyes. He was a menace to my class, the class clown, constantly in trouble. He touched my butt. I couldn't even tell my mom face to face, I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed that I had talk about my body, something so intimate, to my mother. I wrote a note and hid it in her car, hoping she would find it but not talk to me directly about it. She didn't, instead the next thing I heard about the situation was when I was called to the school office. She came with my now step dad to talk with some officials (I think the principal and the vice-principal) at my school. I think Antoine was suspended. I wasn't the only girl he had been touching like that and it wasn't the only time he had bothered us. All of the times he bothered us, we asked him to stop, to leave us alone. He never did. Our white, female teacher never did anything to stop us. None of the other boys in the class did anything. We were young black girls, it didn't matter, we were already disposable, hypersexual, worthless.
The important point here, is that he knew what he was doing was wrong and he knew that we didn't like it. He knew that I wanted it to stop. He showed me that I didn't have any power in the situation to make someone stop touching my body, a body he felt he had full access to. It was my elementary school body and he had more rights to it than I did. Maybe what's just as crucial in this situation, was the fact that this elementary school boy's power dynamics were already shaped in his own mind and in his own life; to believe that he had the right and the ability to touch me, to touch a part of me that was deemed intimate by society and by himself, and in turn, by me. I realized after that moment that my butt was something that was sexual, before that I thought the reason boys liked me was because I had a pretty face and my hair was long, which is arguably just as bad. Now I knew that boys liked me because I had body parts that they didn't, not necessarily because they liked those body parts, but because they were socialized to deem those body parts sexual and desirable. I wonder now about the messages he was sent, about how his body may have been violated, what was it exactly that made him see us as objects to be touched and not heard. He wasn't a man yet, at least not age wise, but he definitely had male privilege or the beginnings of it. We were girls of color, being violated by a boy of color, showing us what the hundreds maybe thousands of interactions we would have with men of color from here on out would be like, showing us the oppression that we would endure from our counterparts for maybe the rest of our lives, showing me what my body meant to the world around me was more important than what it meant to me. The more our butts grew, the more our breasts grew, they grew not with self-discovery, pride, love or excitement but with embarrassment at what also growing guys would say about our bodies, how they would touch us, what names they would call us, and what ways we could stop their vulgar comments. We could never match their dangerous wit, we weren't trained in how to objectify anyone, we were trained to be the opposite: quiet, accepting. No matter what we said, we couldn't make these young boys understand what their words were doing to us, how they were shaping our self-esteem with their comments.
In this interaction was also about consent and self-esteem. My power to consent to anything was taken away from me because my power to have my "no" heard and heeded was denied. I was victimized. This story/interaction is classified as "not rape" because it wasn't rape but it did set me up on a path for continued victimization, which rape is a manifestation of. If women can't have the power to say yes, they won't have the power to say no and have it listened to and heeded either. The body is integrally related to self-esteem. Two things can break a person's self esteem: sexual violence and being subjected to the the male gaze. Two things that womyn are victimized into. Two things that I have been pushed into.
Messages like these from the boys/men around me, the media, and my family all culminated to show me that my power was in being more attractive than other girls. If I wanted attention from boys/men, I needed to dress scantily, I needed to keep my hair done, I needed to be dainty, ditzy, and cute, because that was what boys liked. I was trained to make pleasing the opposite sex one of my goals, my aspirations and if I could get boys to like me more than they liked other girls, that I won at something, I succeeded, I had power. This is the way that power dynamics get fucked up by patriarchy, it makes those without power feel like they need to do stupid shit to get it and it makes those with power fight to maintain it by abusing it and violating others. This "compete with other girls for guys" mentality stayed with me for many years and is still something I struggle with. Before these messages, I didn't compare myself to other girls to see why boys liked them more or less than they liked me. I thought guys liked me because I was just as beautiful but just in other ways. But that's not the way it was at all. Guys liked me or didn't like me based on how much I fit into society's constructed desire for those men. Desire is constructed for men. Womyn are the subjects of the male gaze and therefore try to manipulate their looks and behavior to fit into what men have been socialized to see as desirable. Its an oppressive, sexist, and queerphobic approach for both. To allow no room for diversity. Its taken me a long time to get that feeling of desirability and self-love back and I'm still working at it.
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS:
What is your not-rape story? Please share. Tell me, in the form of essay, song, poem, journal entry, experiment, photograph, anything you want, your story of bodily trespassing, and I'll post it here. If you are thinking of submitting, please be sure to read the original Not Rape essay from Latoya Peterson of Racialicious. You can also read the comments there to get more people's stories of Not Rape. You can remain anonymous. All submission or questions here. Please help spread the word.