How Many Does It Take?

  {Trigger warnings for discussions of sexual assault and consent issues, both of which are below the jump. Be aware that this story is also very long, though not very graphic.}

To tell this story properly, I'm going to have to tell it forwards and backwards at the same time. Because I lived it forwards, but only understand it in retrospect. Bear with me, please.

My shortest relationship lasted one month. It was with a guy I'd known for six years, shared dozens of mutual friends, had gone to college with, had been hanging out with pretty extensively for about a year before the relationship started. It was one of those long, slow builds of chemistry between friends that eventually blossoms into dating (my specialty). And it only lasted a month, despite all this, because toward the end of that month, every time he kissed me, I had to fight off the urge to punch him right in the face.

I never told him that -- how could I? How do you explain to someone you care about that every time their lips touch yours, some part of your brain starts yelling HIT HIM, JUST HIT HIM, HIT HIM NOW, HIT HIM HARD. I thought I was going crazy. But it was pretty clear that this was not a sustainable feeling -- I am human and one day my control was going to fray and I was going to do something terrible. So I broke up with him ("This just isn't working for me anymore") and we went back to being just friends. Then drifted apart, as the group dynamics dissolved and grad school took up all my time both waking and sleeping.

Fast forward a year and a half. I'm still in grad school, dating a gentleman I shall refer to as the Romanian, and I come down with a really vicious case of the flu. Backaches, fever, the whole bit. I called him to cancel the next night's date and told him I'd probably be down for a week or so (as the clinic doc had explained it to me). "Look," he said, "I really don't want to come down with this, so if it's okay with you I'll just steer clear and you can call me when you're feeling better."

My reaction to this? Pure, overwhelming, unadulterated relief.

This was also puzzling. Isn't a willingness to help a friend/lover when they're sick one of the most abiding tests of character we have? But there I was, feverish and shaking, so relieved I was almost crying with it. No, not relieved -- reprieved. It was a feeling of safety out of all proportion to the circumstances.

And then I remembered the last time I'd been this sick.

During the third week of that month-long relationship, I'd been sent home from work with a three-digit fever. It was a warm spring, and I was alone in a basement apartment with no air conditioning. Shortest relationship guy -- let's call him SRG because it's nothing like his actual initials -- offered to drive me to his place, where there was an adorable slobbery dog, video games, air conditioning, and someone to make soup for me. This sounded just fine -- remember, taking care of someone you love when they're sick is a moral virtue -- so I took a quick shower to make myself at least slightly respectable and hopped in the car.

I settled in on the couch (beside the dog) while he made me soup and Theraflu. I'd never had Theraflu before, never even heard of it, and quite frankly it struck me as the most marvelous invention ever on account of the way it took all the aches and pains and put them away for a few hours. This was the best I'd felt in days. I should also mention the kind of Theraflu I'd had was the kind chock-full of acetaminophen, and that I'm slightly sensitive to painkillers. Any pain I feel can be killed with just a single Advil -- that's half the recommended dose for adults.

So there I am, finally able to breathe again, feeling fully human for the first time all week, and SRG turns to me and says, "We should totally make out."

I stared at him, blinked a couple times to make sure I'd heard correctly, decided from his expression that he wasn't joking, and attempted a sarcastic, "Um, I'm not really in the mood." Because not even the Theraflu can take away the fever, and I promise you I am still super-contagious, and it is all I can do to stay upright and awake right now, and you think I have the energy for sexytimes? I should also point out that we had not slept together yet -- I was and am a slow mover. At the time I was also a virgin (for a given value of virginity, admittedly -- thanks, Catholic upbringing for making me terrified of spontaneous pregnancy), which SRG was fully aware of.

But he still really, really wanted to make out. "Come on," he says. "It'll feel good." And various other things, all gentle and friendly and smiling. But I do not remember the actual words, because my fever-addled, Tylenol-blinded brain was focused on the one overriding question: What part of this is hot to you? Is it the misery? The listlessness? The fact that I have forgotten to brush my hair in two days? The way I'm only half-involved with what is happening in my own body right now? I could not honestly find in me one single scrap of sexual interest, and was boggled that SRG seemed to be focused exclusively on nothing else.

I kept trying to gently, cordially, smilingly decline making out, but I was exhausted and weak both physically and emotionally, and it was increasingly clear that none of my objections were being actually taken as objections. That the ability to prevent sexytimes was incumbent upon how long I was able to resist, and that the subject was not going to change until I gave in.

"Okay," I finally said. When what I meant was: Let's get it over with.

We went downstairs to his room. Then, deliberately and with turn-off aforethought, I proceeded to attempt the most lackluster kissing anyone has ever achieved on purpose while knowing better. The squid tongue, the sloppy drool, the dead-fish hands, no head tilt, no rhythm, no involvement from anything below the neck. All while keeping a timer running in my head, trying to judge when I could finally try and call a halt, trying to figure out how long was long enough.

And then I started to fall asleep. The Theraflu was working.

Now there was some urgency -- at that moment the worst thing I could think of was falling asleep in this room, with this man. I abandoned the countdown. "I'm getting pretty sleepy," I said, trying to sound apologetic. "I think I'll just take a nap." At this point I realized my shirt was off. I honestly do not remember how or when that happened, and that lack of memory creeps me out to this day.

He agreed and left the room. I like to think my Terrible Kissing Olympics had something to do with it, but I'll never know. I spent an hour laying beneath the covers, shivering, while the aches came back and the sore throat made its presence newly felt. Soon after he drove me back home and I went straight to bed.

Two years later, the realization that the Romanian -- who I had slept with -- found nothing appealing about a feverish girlfriend felt like the best gift he could have given me. It felt safe. I had no idea what to do with this at the time.

Several more years pass. I get my masters, meet Mr. Waite, get married, become an erotic romance author. (Virgin --> married --> erotic romance author = less than five years. That's gotta be some kind of record.) There's a lot of talk about consent in the online romance community, and it builds on things I gleaned by reading Savage Love and Control Tower by Mistress Matisse, both of which appeared in The Stranger during my high school, college, and grad school years. I start noticing how refusals are treated in Romancelandia. I start catching up on the state of feminism online, which is best described as a glorious, frustrating mess. Most importantly, I start reading the stories of other women -- women who've been raped, women who've given in under pressure, women who've felt obliged to submit to men who felt entitled to sexual gratification, no matter what the woman thought about it at the time.

I learn that what happened to me -- what SRG did to me -- qualifies as sexual assault.

I have no cogent idea what to do about that either. I feel that even thinking the term is taking things too far. I go through the laundry list that many of you will by now be very familiar with. It was no big deal, right? I mean, it's not like I was physically hurt. Maybe I didn't make myself clear enough. So many people go through actual rape. It's condescending and patronizing of me to equate a little making out with what happened to a real victim. I should have told him to stop asking. I should have pushed him away. He's a lawyer now and you haven't seen him in years -- what's the point of bringing up old stories and tainting this guy's reputation among those of you who know you in day life and not just via the internet?

And then I remember his girlfriend previous to me -- another college friend. They'd dated since day one of freshman year, and they were that couple that everyone knows is going to get married as soon as they graduate and were going to live happily ever after. My college has a ridiculously high percentage of alumni marrying other alumni, and SRG and Previous Girlfriend seemed tailor-made to fulfill that prophecy. But, strangely, they'd broken up in rather a mysterious, dramatic fashion, details of which were only vaguely sketched in. I remember something about her running out into the snow during a Christmas trip with family, and breaking up with him via phone. At the time it was shockingly inexplicable: what on earth could this nice, normal guy possibly have done to push things to such a point? None of our friends -- and I was closer with his friends than with hers -- could make sense of it.

From where I sit now, the idea of what happened there chills me to the bone.

Suddenly I feel very grateful for whatever wordless part of me started yelling. The hitting voice saved me from something very ugly. I don't like to think about what would have happened if I hadn't listened. I had a great deal invested in this relationship -- again, we were very close friends and were hanging out with the same group of close friends.

SRG did try to get me back, about a month after we broke up, by telling me he'd been about to tell me he loved me, and what did I think of that? And I had one moment to feel terrible, and another moment for the hitting voice to yell some more, and then I realized it was totally possible for me to shrug and purse my lips in sympathy and say, "Oh, that's too bad." And he sat there and waited for quite some time before realizing that was all he was going to get. Even at the time, I felt kind of proud of that.

Since then, I've told this story to a handful of people -- Mr. Waite, certain others, once to a roomful of friends just to see if I was brave enough to get through it. (True story: it was a little awkward.) The fact is that this event lingers: the hitting voice was the first symptom, but was by no means the last. There's a lens now when I look at the world, a color I couldn't see clearly before. A current friend now lives two houses down from where this took place, which I only learned when I went to help assemble ribbon flowers for an upcoming wedding. My hands shook so hard the entire time that I burned myself pretty seriously with a glue gun.

My hands are shaking now as I type this.

The reason I'm telling this story today is because of many things. I've been thinking about telling it for a while. But last night I watched Senator Wendy Davis filibuster a ridiculous abortion bill in Texas, and read about the entwined misogyny and racism in SFWA, and on top of all this crap I found an Awl interview about Redditor Ken Hoinsky funding a seduction manual on Kickstarter and I read the following sentence by Maria Bustillos: I can think of a thousand ways whereby a woman could easily (easily) extricate herself from such a scenario if she were an unwilling participant.

Which: I am glad that Maria Bustillos thinks there are a thousand ways of saying no. I just wish SRG had cared to listen when I said it.

Also, if you're arguing that no coercion is implied by Ken Hoinsky's advice, maybe pick a word that is not "extricate." We lit-crit types notice verbs that give the impression one is pulling free of clinging tentacles, or tangling threads, or sticky substances.

And then there's this gem from the same piece: The literary aspect of this thing, where the parameters are on the woman's side, say like in Pamela, or Pride and Prejudice, the woman's resistance is in part to do with her imperfect understanding of herself, as well as of the man. But she comes to understand herself, and she comes to understand this man, and that is the basis of her acceptance. Both the man and the woman learn, and change.

This takes the cake for Most Pretentious Way of Saying "She Really Wanted It." I mean: "imperfect understanding of herself." Come on.

Pamela, for one thing, was written several centuries ago by a dude, and should by no means be used as an ethical guide for the modern datescape. Pride and Prejudice is an excellent novel and one of my favorites, but the aggressor in that novel is not Mr. Darcy. It is Mr. Collins, who uses every kind of social pressure to try and get Elizabeth Bennet to marry him. He winks at her first refusal, saying he's sure she'll accept the second time. He mentions that without this marriage her family will become destitute upon the death of Elizabeth's father. He deliberately misunderstands her statements, hears what he wants to hear, and its only because of her father's support that Lizzie's refusal is allowed to stand. Whereupon Mr. Collins goes off and marries her best friend, a woman with even less ability to refuse him, and remains self-satisfied and loathsome to the end.

Ken Hoinsky's book, quite frankly, will make Mr. Collinses -- or worse -- of every man who takes its advice. I'm thrilled that many of the comments on Bustillos' piece seem just as appalled as I was by the content of the text. I understand Hoinsky has apologized, but I honestly can't bring myself to click play on that video without getting queasy so I'll have to trust the transcript on that one. And trust is a harder thing for me than it used to be. I can't even trust fictional heroes who send up red flags, much less real-life strangers who have the potential to foment a great deal of harm by proxy. I've learned to grit my teeth and let pass the many Hoinsky's of the world, because life is short and I've got books to write. But something about watching him get an even bigger platform to demonstrate his profound lack of Getting It was just a step too far for me today.

You know who else doesn't Get It? SRG and the many men who've done similar things, who are doing them right now to women and other men. SRG to this day probably thinks he did nothing wrong. I wonder if he even remembers the incident, or if it was just a momentary blip. Ken Hoinsky had no intention of encouraging rape and sexual assault, he says. But this shit happened to me. This shit, shit precisely like this, was a damaging moment in my life. And you watch Ken Hoinsky trying to put the pieces together in the interview, and genuinely attempting to get it right, and he hasn't been at it nearly long enough to understand, and he's kind of awkwardly chagrined, and that is not fucking good enough. This is not an abstract, theoretical puzzle: this is not like being wrong about Kant and then laughing at yourself because you learned you were wrong about Kant. This is about the fundamental safety and humanity of half the human population. I didn't understand it when it happened to me, but that did not stop it from hurting me. Rape culture is phenomenally difficult to, ahem, extricate oneself from.

But yesterday one Texas senator decided to stand up and speak out, and by midnight there were millions of us standing and speaking with her. A chorus of voices raised in support and protest. Today came the news that DOMA and Prop 8 were both dead. While this doesn't take away the Court's shame for invalidating the Voting Rights Act earlier this week, it's good to know that we have fewer battles to fight than we could have. And suddenly we know how strong we can be when all of us stand up, when every voice is raised, when all of us speak at once.

So it's time for me to speak.

In writing this, I've had to constantly resist the impulse to apologize. Sorry for thinking this is a real problem, I want to say. Sorry for being traumatized by one April afternoon, by a relationship that barely even existed. Sorry to those of you who know whom I'm talking about, who may now feel like you have to choose sides. Times like this I take comfort in my small blog readership, I really do. I know I've been lucky: I wasn't physically hurt or scarred, the assault was never repeated, it dazed me but didn't tear me down. But the sheer ordinariness of this incident is haunting. And what we don't need, precisely what we do not need, is a dude telling other dudes to just go ahead and grab a woman, touch her without asking, ignore unstated and stated boundaries, she'll secretly like it, she'll respect you for it, this is what it means to be a winner, this is what it means to be a man.

That advice will hurt people, guaranteed.

I am not the first person to say this and I will not be the last. How many of us does it take?