The first time I was called a slut, I was thirteen.
It was late August, ninety-something degrees and humid enough to wade through the air. Typical summer in the Northern Virginia suburbs of D.C. V and I were walking through our neighborhood, carrying backpacks full of little plastic cards that offered discounts to local restaurants. We had to sell them as a fundraiser for our high school field hockey team. The proceeds were supposed to go towards buying us new uniforms. We were betting on the football team getting all of it.
Somewhere in between sucking on bottles of water and knocking on doors, we got to talking about—something. School, maybe. Picking up our schedules. I said something that hurt V’s feelings. Our friendship was like that. In the four years I’d known her, I often said innocuous things that offended her, and she would retaliate with sharp barbs. A man we sold a card to asked if we were sisters. We looked at each other and said no, screwing our faces up. He laughed, handed us the money, and we went on our way. I brought it up later, a joke, an I-can’t-believe-he-thought-that. We don’t look anything alike, I said.
Yeah, she responded. At least I don’t dress like a slut.
V was staring at my cotton shorts. Soffe shorts, red, with the elastic waistband rolled down twice because they were too big. My oversized t-shirt hung almost down to the hem.
She walked away from me, left me standing there on the sidewalk while she went and knocked on another door. I unrolled my shorts once. They immediately rode up to my bellybutton, the hem hitting even higher on my thigh than they had before. I rolled them back down. Tugged them so the waistband was on my hips. She shouted across the lawns for me to follow her. Adjusting my backpack on my shoulders, I scuffed my flip flops along the sidewalk, not sure I really wanted to catch up.
The first time I was cat-called, I was seventeen. And alone.
I’d been at college less than a week. I’d avoided every party I was invited to. Narrowly missed my teammate throwing up on me after our first meeting with our swim coach. When I wasn’t in class, I was in my room, watching How I Met Your Mother and counting down the days until swim practices started.
In the mornings, I went for runs. I couldn’t sleep, my muscles thrumming with nervous energy from the lack of workouts and the new environment. First I’d run around campus, jogging between buildings and marking how far my classes were from my dorm, the pool, the dining hall. I ran circles around the athletic fields. Then I ran out by the university president’s house, and along the road that would lead into town.
It was six in the morning, the sun just coming up. South-central Pennsylvania was every bit as muggy as Northern Virginia. I ran along the sidewalk, panting, regretting every decision I’d made since I rolled out of bed.
A truck drove up, slowed as it approached. Rolled down its window. The man behind the wheel leaned out, shouted something about my flat ass, then peeled off. I was so startled I stopped, and watched the white truck disappear down the road and round a corner. I couldn’t tell if the driver was intoxicated—a regular occurrence in small town, Pennsylvania, I’d quickly learned—or if he was really that much of an asshole.
I settled on the latter. Sprinted back to my dorm room and showered. I didn’t tell my roommate when she finally woke up. Just pushed the words aside and asked her if she wanted to get breakfast with me before our Human Comm class.
The first time someone threatened to drug and rape me, I was eating dinner.
I’d spent the whole day in the library studying for my biology final. I was tired. I was hungry. The dining hall wasn’t serving anything for dinner I wanted to eat, but I didn’t want to waste a meal swipe.
I was sitting with some of my teammates, the swim season long since over. I had five days left at this school before I was transferring. They were talking about the party being thrown at the swim house off campus that night. Last party of the year. Becca, they were saying. You have to come.
I’d already made a date with my Netflix account and Mean Girls. I said no, thanks, forced a smile and took a bite of my salad. One of the men made a joke about me needing to loosen up, that I should come and have a brownie. One of the women told me not to, that the brownies would be, of course, laced with weed. I shrugged and said I could have a good time without drinking or getting high, thanks.
One of the other men scoffed, and said it was good I wasn’t going to come, or he just might slip something in my drink and show me how to have a good time. My teammates around the table stopped eating. The first man dropped his fork. You can’t go from joking about giving someone a pot brownie to roofie-ing them!, he exclaimed.
Who said I was joking? The other said, staring me down.
I scooped up my salad, half-eaten. I was still hungry, but my stomach churned. I deposited the plate on the dish return and walked out of the dining hall. I could hear one of my teammates screaming at the man, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
I called my mom as I walked back to my dorm. Begged her to pick me up, to take me home. She reminded me I had to take my finals, that it was only five more days.
Five more days of being alone, I protested. Five more days of locking myself in my room and hiding from my teammates—especially from my teammates, now. I don’t feel safe, I stressed.
My mom talked me down, told me to call her whenever I needed her, but that yes, I really did have to take my finals, and no, I couldn’t come home now. I wiped tears from my eyes when I hung up, as I curled around my computer, watching Mean Girls and munching on a Powerbar. I didn’t sleep.
The first time I was ever called a liar was two weeks later. I told my swim coach at home what the man had said, and he called my college coach, demanding to know why the man was still on the team.
M wouldn’t do that, was the coach’s response. She’s lying. He’s a good guy.
The first time I was kissed, it wasn’t by choice. I was standing in my kitchen with a guy I’d been on two dates with. We’d just gotten back from lunch. My three Yorkies were jumping around, barking, begging to be played with and held and acknowledged. The man, my not-yet-boyfriend, lunged at me, mid-sentence, and pressed his cold wet mouth against mine. I didn’t kiss back. I didn’t close my eyes. I didn’t know what was happening until he pulled back and I could taste his saliva on my lips.
He ran out the door and texted me an apology. I accepted it.
The first time I came out to someone, it wasn’t by choice. The same man, my then-boyfriend, was harassing me, begging me to have sex with him. He was becoming increasingly bold, countering my no’s with reasons I should give in. It’ll feel good, it’ll make him happy. Choking back tears, I texted him, I don’t want to have sex with you because I think I’m asexual. I don’t want to have sex. I don’t feel the same things you do.
His response? Asexuals can still have sex.
The first time I was raped, it was by the same man. But it depends on your definition of rape, if it’s a perfect synonym for sexual assault. Is kissing rape, if it’s not consensual? Because then the first time was in my kitchen. Is groping? Because then the first time was in his living room, when he shoved his hands under my shirt without asking and fondled at my chest while I begged him to stop. Is fingering? Then the first time was in his bedroom, one morning when I got out of my biology lab early, and he snuck his hand into my underwear and wiggled his fingers around inside me without asking. Are blow jobs? Because then it would be the first time I gave in, after months and months of begging on his part, and he had to force my head down while I fought back tears.
Or are those things molestation, some part of the ever-nebulous definition of sexual assault, and does rape have to be unwanted sex? Actual sex, full on intercourse? Not blow jobs or fingering or whatever else might be defined as foreplay? Because then the first time was two years after that first kiss. I’d spent the week before playing the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat, and I went over to his house, desperate to share it with him, the way we shared all our favorite shows and games.
We were barely into ‘Aaron Burr, Sir’ when he wanted to make out, and by the time Maria Reynolds was propositioning Hamilton, he was reaching for a condom while I stared at the ceiling, wishing he would stop. Would ask. Would listen when I said no.
He was obsessed with fixing me, with forcing me into situations where he thought I would feel the same sort of attraction he was consumed by. His corrective rape only convinced me of how broken I was.
The first time I told someone what he’d done, I expected to be called a liar. To be told, that’s not rape. You’re making this up. You just can’t deal with the decisions you made.
But I didn’t get to make decisions. Our relationship was devoid of consent. I buried my face in my hands as I waited for my friends to text me back, to offer advice. I waited for them to call me a slut, to tell me I brought this on myself with the short shorts and spaghetti-strapped shirts and my workout leggings. To tell me I was asking for it, I deserved it, because I wore clothes that revealed the body swimming honed. That I wasn’t really asexual, because of the way I dressed or because I’d been raped. That those things invalidated my claim to the label.
I cried more when they listened, when they told me what he did was wrong. That it was okay to say so, to break up with him and get out.
The first time someone sexually harassed me after that break up, I was wearing a backless handkerchief top and high-waisted shorts. It was April, ninety-something degrees outside and the air conditioning wasn’t turned on in the buildings on campus. I was sitting outside my graduate fiction workshop, a book open on my knees, reading and waiting for my friends to show up.
One of my classmates, an older man, dressed head to toe in gray sweats, arrived first. Looked me up and down and then did another once over. Somebody’s dressed for summer now, aren’t you, he said. It wasn’t a question.
His eyes were on my chest. His tone patronizing, diminishing. I said, yeah, it’s fucking hot outside. His eyes snapped back up to mine. Excuse me? he asked, the emphasis almost cartoonish. I repeated, yes, it’s hot outside.
He moved further down the hallway. He kept staring at me, his eyes roving over my exposed skin, my legs, my shoulders. He was at least thirty years older than me.
That incident was the first time I reported sexual harassment.
After class, while walking to our cars, I told one of my classmates. We discussed going to the professor, to the head of the program, to the head of the department. Possibly making a Title IX complaint.
We decided to wait.
The last submission the man turned in was an aggressive short story demonizing a woman for not putting out sex, for not dressing sexily all the time. It lacked nuance or commentary on the sexist views of the main character from the third person narrator. It was appalling, stomach-churning, especially in the wake of his ogling.
My classmate and I went to the head of the program. Told him about the comment, the staring, the story. The head of our program was disgusted. He promised to ensure the man wouldn’t be able to take any more classes in the future. The man was an auditor, not a full-time student. He was banned from taking more classes in our program regardless.
Real action, instead of ducking my head and letting the world race around me, silencing myself and letting the harm others have caused simmer beneath the surface of my skin while they go on hurting without consequence. Instead of letting V talk down to me. Instead of letting men cat-call on the sides of roads and disappear around corners. Instead of letting men threaten and be protected by the people with power to enforce action. Instead of letting men rape and get away with it. Instead of pretending none of it happened.
Our culture encourages victims’ silence. We berate those that come forward for lying, for seeking attention, for destroying the lives of those they accuse without regard for how the lives of victims have been ruined. We encourage silence. Pretending it never happened. Going about our lives and tucking those things—slut-shaming, harassment, assault—deep inside us, where they tear us apart with fixation and flashbacks and nightmares. Where we internalize them, change what we wear and how we talk and whether we walk across campus alone or in packs. All while pretending everything is fine, that we’re okay with being degraded, objectified, diminished. That it is better to say nothing than to stand up for ourselves and push back.
I’m done pretending.
Rebecca Burke is an MFA fiction candidate at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Her fiction has been published in the Same and Awakened Voices, and her nonfiction appeared in the You Are Not Your Rape anthology.
Featured image: Photograph by George Pagan III on Unsplash.