Content warning: sexual assault, violence
I scroll through Facebook and see the words scattered through my feed: Me, too. The two-word code to show belonging in a club no one ever asked to be in – no matter what they were wearing, no matter how much they had to drink, no matter where they were or what they said. Me, too. I have experienced sexual harassment and assault. But my stomach drops at the thought of typing those words and then moving on with my day because it is impossible to talk about my experiences with without also thinking of all the times I said Yes or said nothing when everything but my voice screamed No!
The patriarchal religion of my childhood home stifled my sense of anatomical autonomy in its nascent stage. Children were barely people, without a voice or any right to say no to an adult, and female children, in particular, were valued only for the women they would grow up to be. Women who existed to please men, ease their burdens, bear their children. Women who kept a tidy house and rarely wandered from its confines. The miracle of growing up in such a religion is that I did not become a victim of sexual assault until I was on the tail end of 15 years old. I’d been somehow permitted to date a man in his twenties in the hopes I would marry young enough to guarantee my wedding-night virginity and my start my vocation as a wife and mother.
We were in my driveway, saying goodnight, when the dairy farmer kissed me. His 20-something-old hands wandered to my not-quite 16-year-old breasts. I pushed them away, and he laughed. He told me not to be shy. He really liked me. He knew I wouldn’t sleep with him, but surely I wouldn’t deny him this little bit of pleasure? Maybe he had me figured wrong. Maybe I wasn’t the girl for him. I was desperate to be wanted. My hands remained at my side while his violated me. My parents’ religious grooming combined with their emotional neglect bulls-eyed me for an older man who knew exactly what he was looking for in a girl. A teenage girl. I stayed silent, just as he knew I would.
My disgust at what I allowed nourished my belief that I was unlovable, that my only worth lay in being used by others. Whenever a man deigned to toss affection and desire in my direction, I gobbled it up, eager for more. After the man in the driveway, I was lucky enough to date decent guys who respected the few boundaries I had left intact until I married one of the good ones. But my insatiable need for what passed for love from others kept me from sticking to my vows for very long. Another man ten years my senior set his sights and then his hands on me. A few kisses shared in corners at work led to plans to spend the night together while my husband was away, but I changed my mind the day of the planned night and told him I could not have sex with him. Until I got drunk. Until he took me to his house. Until I worried I owed him something for his kindness and slept with him anyway.
More loathing. More need. More men. One threatened to tell my husband about us if I did not give him a blowjob in my living room. It was easy to refuse that time, though I had let him kiss me and touch me for weeks despite my own misgivings. I was tired of the deception. He did not follow through on his threat. Another man, one studying to be a pastor, accompanied me on a lovely hike in the woods where he propositioned me. When I refused, he told me he could rape me and I would not be able to tell anyone because then people would know I was a cheater.
“Fuck off,” I said with more courage than I felt. I rushed back along the trail to my car, sick to my stomach and listening for footfalls behind me, praying I could make it to my car before he made good on his threat. But I stayed quiet. Telling anyone seemed pointless. No one would believe me, I thought, and anyone who did would still find a way to blame me for tempting him and then chickening out when it was time to make good as a Jezebel.
I have locked myself in bathrooms for fear of being raped when a man I was spending time with wanted something I would not give him. I have kissed men I was not attracted to because the lesson that I was no good unless a man wanted me was ingrained deep enough to survive even after years of therapy. It didn’t matter if I wanted him in return. And when I dated a superficially charming man while my husband and I were separated, I used my body to calm him from his worst rages, proffering sex in exchange for something like peace, something that wasn’t choke-holds, shoves, wrist-wrenching, and screams about how unworthy I was of anyone’s love and attention.
Does “Me, too” include those moments of my own betrayal of myself because of lessons I was taught before I realized what I was learning? Does it cover the damage wrought by a broken system so ancient and enmeshed in the goings-on of daily existence that its followers cannot fathom life being any other way? Does it allow me to be angry with the perpetrators, the cat-callers, the violators, and still somehow give myself grace for what I did to myself, even when I knew better? I don’t know.
What I do know is this: I am a 33 year old woman. A mother of a teenager. I have been married for fourteen years. I work for a nonprofit and volunteer for hospice. I write, crochet, and love my animals. I have been sexually assaulted or directly threatened with sexual assault by people I knew more than ten times since I was 15. I have been sexually harassed literally too many times to count. I have hesitated in speaking out because some part of me believed I was somehow to blame in nearly every situation, but after typing over 1000 words, I can finally say the two I share in common with far too many:
A penchant for eavesdropping and a need to complicate everything created a writing career for Leah Senona. She is fortunate enough to live in Landrum, SC with her family and as many animals as she can sneak into the house. She can be found online on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/LeahSenona) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/leahsenona).