Editor’s note: The author’s identity has been withheld by the Editorial Board due to the sensitive nature of the article.
Humans understand things in contradictory pairs. We are not standing still if we’re moving. To move to a new place means leaving behind another. Enter/exit. Open/close. Dark/light. Yes/no. Raised in a world of binaries, our socialization generally leaves very little room for gray areas — a simple fact of existence I find exhausting. I am neither Indian nor American. I exist in the gray in between. I fulfill neither my parents’ expectations nor my own. I exist in the gray in between.
You know the one place that gray area does not exist? Consent.
When I said no, I meant it. Where was the gray?
When I asked you to stop, I meant it. Where was the gray?
The bitter, metallic taste of fear comes first. Quickly following is the overwhelming sense of helplessness as you realize that all of your claims of being a fierce, powerful feminist won’t help you. Won’t save you. To be at another’s complete emotional and physical mercy? Well, that’s the most debilitating factor of all. Except there was no mercy, was there?
Not you with me. Not Layla with her stepdad. Not Erin with her attacker. Mercy requires consciousness of another’s being. Mercy requires you to see us as people. I didn’t feel like a person. I tried not to feel at all. Not the bitter, metallic fear or the crushing helplessness. I tried not to notice how quickly I went from valued companion to sex object. Objectified. Disrespected. Degraded. Commodified. Except even commodities have some value.
And you. “I didn’t mean it. I don’t remember it.” The taste of beer in your mouth didn’t wash out the taste of fear from my own. Yet, only one taste is ultimately valued.
“He didn’t mean it. He was drunk. He’s always been respectful before.”
Six months. Six months that your state of mind was more important than my own. Six months that the “noes” and “stops” were lost amongst whispers of your desire.
But none of that compares to what I’m doing to myself. Eyes closed, it’s your face I see. Your body pressed against mine. A movie reel on repeat with director’s commentary.
“And here, she asks him to stop, but she doesn’t scream. And here, freeze frame on that look of self-disgust. And here, watch her pretend nothing happened when she realizes he doesn’t remember it in the morning. Watch her let him kiss her goodbye.”
“I thought I made it up. Sometimes, I still think I did,” says Layla’s reel.
There was no gray in my lack of consent. But the rest — the before and after, the excuses and denials, the justifications and rationalizations — is gray like the sky above me, like the water in front of me. Gray like my ability to hate myself and my inability to hate you. Gray like at least it wasn’t violent. That makes it more okay, right? Gray like I’ve seen worse, counseled worse. Gray like attempted rape isn’t as bad as actual rape. Gray like you’re not a monster, just the villain in my story.
The lies we tell ourselves to excuse your behavior must end. I know far too many people like Erin, Lauren and now…me. To stay silent is to be complacent.
I was complacent then. I will not be complacent now.
In the midst of all the gray lies my life raft, black as night and solid as diamonds: NO. And the unwavering knowledge that that should have been enough.
Drowning in an ocean of gray, I cling to one word. And as the waves crash around me, threatening to pull me under, I can only hope that it’s enough. Next time, at least.