Five years ago I was riding my bike 45 miles to the bus station to visit my friend In New York. It was late; but I didn’t have a car, rural America is lacking in robust public transport systems, and it was peak tomato season so I could hardly ask for a day off. A few minutes after 11pm, 43 miles into my journey I was pulled off my bike by a heavy-set man. When I screamed in fear, he strangled me into silence. He ripped off my clothes. After threatening me with a knife, he raped me on the side of the high way wearing a zombie mask.
Since the attack I’ve unwittingly found myself in a number of coercive, “rapey” situations. Being confronted with a man’s unwanted sexual attention triggers the PTSD I have; despite a year of intensive Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. The idea of consent is fuzzy to me. I’ve almost never experienced consent in practice. What I have instead experienced, is the constant silencing of my voice; denying my right of agency, minimizing my ‘no’s, the prioritising of others’ pleasure before my own.
I’ve been stumbling in and out of various abusive entanglements with men for years. The only criteria that mattered: he wasn’t forcing himself on me. What I failed to see was that not being a rapist doesn’t qualify someone as a good person. I didn’t have any warning systems for pathological liars, abusive, controlling partners. I gave people the benefit of the doubt.
I didn’t understand that when someone starts exhibiting jealousy, or subtly insulting you, that kind of behavior isn’t a one-off. It won’t stop. Or even stay the same. It will only get worse and worse. I’ve made all types of excuses for why I’ve dated shitty men. Last year when I was seeing someone with no long term potential, my friends asked me why I was with him.
I said he wasn’t a psychopath. He didn’t constantly accuse me of cheating. He didn’t question me about my whereabouts. He didn’t fill me with fear or anxiety. But in the end he didn’t provide an iota of emotional support when I needed it. And that’s when the wispy strands connecting us withered away.
Alone, I was face to face with how flawed my philosophy had been. All along I had been defining him by what he wasn’t. My sole priority had been avoiding an intensely triggering situation.
What I’ve realized is that not being a rapist isn’t enough.
Not calling me a whore isn’t enough.
Not lying constantly isn’t enough.
My standards have been completely warped. I need to learn to be more wary; to recognise the different strands of manipulation that can be used, until I can differentiate between false charm and true kindness. Until I can establish emotional, physical and spiritual safety I need to embrace being by myself and ultimately redefine what I am looking for. I need to have the self-love to stop celebrating mediocrity, and know that just me, for now, is enough.