On September 4, 2002, I was sexually assaulted. It was a hot, sun-drenched, late summer day backlit by an impossibly blue and near-cloudless sky. Midafternoon, my little street was deserted. I saw and heard no one–only birds and far-off traffic–as I attended to a small chore. When I heard the sexual insinuation, I instinctively knew I was in trouble. I responded nonchalantly to the man who had appeared from nowhere as I gauged how long it would take to get from where I stood to my front door. Later, I would think that the healthy, athletic woman I once was could have aced that distance with animal swiftness. But the woman with MS I am now spends most of her time in a wheelchair and can walk only a few feet without falling. I could hope only to outwit; outrunning had long ago ceased to be an option. I was afraid. Sometimes wit or even animal instinct cannot prevail when physical power predominates. He was on me with action-figure speed, shoving me into the alley that runs alongside my house. It took seconds for him to propel me into a neighbor’s yard and knock me flat, pinning my arms behind me so I had no leverage, no ability to protect myself. I have been in life-threatening situations before. I have been raped before. Much of the work I have done in my life prior to my illness put me in danger, risks I accepted as part of my work. The common denominator of such dangers is men. In a politically correct world, we pretend that men as a class are nor the problem, but the facts contradict that fantasy. Postfeminist lesbianism presumes an equality between men and women which in reality does not now and never has existed. Women don’t have the sense of entitlement that all men are born to; it’s acculturated. Men take what they want because they can. When my attacker decided I was something he wanted, he took me as if I were an item in a shop to be slipped under a jacket or into a pocket. The attack was brutal. I was badly injured physically and degraded sexually. If the man is caught, the police said, they will charge him with attempted murder in addition to sexual assault because of the nature of my injuries. If he is caught. Very few rapists unknown to the victim are ever caught; even fewer are convicted. Although rape is the second most common violent crime in the United States, it is the least prosecuted. I have a picture of my rapist, courtesy of the police sketch artist, but I don’t need to look at the sketch to be reminded of my attacker’s face. Six weeks after the attack, the marks he left on my body had yet to fade: the bite marks on my nipples, the gouges between my legs, the foot-long bruise on one thigh, the grapefruit-size bruise on the other, my blackened buttocks, the soreness in my mouth where he forced it open. Several of my close friends told me I was lucky to have survived. I’ve heard this before about surviving cancer. And while I know it to be true in the cosmic abstract, I do not feel lucky. Were I truly lucky, I would not have gotten sick or raped in the first place. My friends’ words, meant to be consoling, minimize the extremity of life-altering events, making reclamation that much harder. Yet reclaim I must, as must every other woman who has had some piece of her ripped away by sexual assault, whether at the hands of a stranger or someone she knew and trusted. One in three women has experienced sexual assault in her lifetime. Sexual assault is the worst trespass, the ultimate presumption. Unchosen, unbidden, it steals power from us, leeches our strength and self-confidence, diminishes us. It’s the most violent evocation of a woman-hating society that tries daily to make us hate ourselves and our bodies. I like sex. Sex is a vital part of our experience, a portal to life. It’s where we get inside ourselves and another person. It’s where we get raw and open. It’s where it is OK to be greedy or overly generous. It’s where intimacy sears into us so intensely, it can scald our hearts. It’s where we know and are known. Many lesbians use dildos; many of us also use explicit sex talk in bed. But when your rapist used his penis to wound you and sexual language to degrade you, it’s difficult to reclaim the path of pleasure from the source of pain. I have made myself view sex as I would driving a car after an accident or getting up after major surgery: scary and painful, but necessary. The longer one waits to resume one’s life, the more difficult it is to reclaim it. Each time, sex with my lover is less painfully reminiscent of sex with my attacker.
It takes work to supersede the violence of sexual assault, yet when predators try to take our lives or steal the meaning from them, fight we must. Reclaiming my sexuality from the man who tried to steal it and my life was retaliation. I-we–must employ acts of revolt because despite the advances of centuries of women, we remain society’s chattel. The war against women wages daily, quiet but deadly, as women are killed for their sexuality in every country in the world and little girls are maimed through female genital mutilation. In the name of all these women and girls, the survivors like me and those who did not survive, we must fight back. In the face of so much hate and violence, reclaiming our sexuality is subversive and revolutionary. And a final, definitive way of saying “No” to all that has been done to us.