By Hari Ziyad
*This piece has been published with permission of the referenced ex-partner. Other relationships may have been slightly altered to protect specific identities.*
The first time I was sexually assaulted I must have been 9 or 10 years old.
I was violated by two family friends who were brothers and who would have been about 14 and 15.
Or maybe that was the second time.
The first time might have been by an older female cousin around the same time. She pressured me to go into a closet and make out with her. I think we may have done more, but I don’t like to think about that.
I didn’t object to any of these interactions. I was too young for that to matter, of course, but it was difficult for me to make sense of the fact that I consented without having the agency to do so, thus I had a hard time using the words “sexual assault” to describe what happened to me for the longest time.
I don’t like to, but I still think about those events constantly. They affect me. I am different because of them, and sexual assault is exactly what they were.
In high school, the boys played a game called “nut check” in which they’d go around and grab or hit each other in the groin area. I have no idea who or what started this – the devil, probably – but it was routine.
It was also sexual assault.
I can’t remember the first time I sexually assaulted someone else. I recall clearly that, as a teenage boy, I touched people – boys and girls – without their permission. I never played the nut check game, though, that would have been too close to admitting I was queer, but I did ignore consent. I thought I was just making jokes, of course, and I didn’t mean anything by it. The victims would generally slap me away and shrug it off. They shouldn’t have. It was sexual assault.
I don’t like to think about that either.
It’s not uncommon for me to go out to clubs and be touched by people I did not invite to touch me. I’ve been in situations where I have had to say “no” multiple times before the person stopped trying to force me into some sexual act. Perhaps it’s just me, because I rarely hear anyone else talking about it, but sexual assault is a horrifyingly normative experience.
Or at least I don’t hear anyone else naming it as sexual assault.
Two nights ago, a friend laughed with me about how he brought a boy home in whom he had realized he had no interest before they left the venue where they met, but because they had already decided to go home together, he felt compelled to follow through. They fell asleep and my friend woke up naked.
He laughed about how awful the boy was. This was sexual assault, I told him, but he didn’t want to think about it.
And the people who assault don’t want to think about it. And most people who have been sexually assaulted don’t want to think about it. So no one thinks about it.
Even though 1 in 5 women in the U.S. report being a victim of rape or attempted rape.
The last time I assaulted someone was a few years ago. He was my boyfriend at the time, and a friend now. Before I wrote this, I asked him if he thinks what happened was assault. He says no, we were both drunk, it didn’t go far, I stopped when he told me to etc. etc. etc., but it was. I was drunk, but not as drunk as he, and he could not consent to me putting my hands on him.
Maybe I didn’t know how drunk he was.
Maybe he told me earlier in the night what he wanted.
Maybe I didn’t mean to hurt him.
None of that matters. It was sexual assault. I told him that I know he doesn’t feel that way, but, by definition, it was an assault. He shrugs and asks me what I’m doing tonight.
He doesn’t want to think about it, either.
Sexual assault happens. We have to talk about it. We have to own up to it.
I don’t think we yet have the language to discuss the sexually violent things we do and experience. It is so normative and yet so terrifying that it’s almost as if addressing mere reality makes us all demons, and no one wants to be a demon.
We all have demons, though. Who is going to tame them if we pretend as though we can’t see them? As if we don’t feel them scratching at our bones from the inside, trying to find a way out? As if we haven’t seen them burst through? As if we haven’t been attacked by them?
I don’t know if what I did makes me a monster. Maybe it’s not that simple. I was a monster in the moment, for sure, and a monster as long as I didn’t admit to what happened. Maybe I’m still a monster. More importantly for me, though, is the acknowledgment that there is a monster in me somewhere, full of a violent demand to own what isn’t his to own and to claim bodies that don’t belong to him. He has gone unchallenged throughout his formative years when he should have been learning about consent instead of the positions people shouldn’t place themselves or the clothes they shouldn’t wear to avoid violation. He has been bred and groomed by a patriarchal system that says whatever he does is okay. That says don’t think about it. That says it isn’t wrong. And if it is wrong, it’s only so if you admit to it.
When the news of Bill Cosby’s admission broke, I went into Cosby-defender-shaming overdrive. Why must we wait until an abuser admits abuse before we accept that it’s abuse?
But the answer is simple: if we don’t wait for admission before an act becomes a violation, so many more of us are implicated. If what I did was wrong before I admitted it, then that would make me a monster. And I was.
I was tearing into Cosby defenders, but I was really tearing myself apart. I had to. I want that demon annihilated and it is still in here – in me. It was in those two boys when I was 9, too, and in my cousin, and in those high school boys grabbing each other’s dicks.
It might be in you.
I’m not writing this to say that because assault is routine and some of us have done it that it is okay. I’m not writing this to say assault is normal so we have to accept it as a natural way of life. I write this piece with more trepidation than I have ever had in writing anything because I know the monstrosity that is sexual violation. I know that I’m putting the monster inside of me on display and I may never be able to tuck him out of sight again. I know that he might be all you see when you look at me from now on.
But we can’t fix a system that we perpetuate without fixing ourselves, and we can’t fix ourselves until we admit that we need fixing.
I have never raped, but I have looked at a rapist in the mirror and have seen him smiling back. Right now, I’m more terrified of him than Cosby.
If Cosby is a rapist, I’m a potential rapist, too. If his defenders reinforce the idea that rape is acceptable, those of us who have attacked others and go about living as if we did nothing wrong reinforce the idea as well. If Cosby is a monster, I’m nothing more than a monster in remission.
And I don’t want to think about that, but I have to.
Hari Ziyad is a Brooklyn-based storyteller and the Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitR. Their work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Ebony, Mic, The Guardian, Colorlines, Paste Magazine, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire and The Each Other Project. They are also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose and contributing writer for Everyday Feminism.