Get Outta My Bedroom, Trump!

My boyfriend brings his tablet to bed. “Did you hear the latest on Trump?” he asks. “No,” I say. I don’t want to hear it. “Get that thing out of our bed.”

I’m serious.

I have a good man. It’s what you’d call a reciprocal relationship. I do my share of the laundry, cook dinner half the week. He doesn’t think that changing diapers is a favor and likes to give and receive oral sex. But this whole thing with Trump right now, it doesn’t affect him the way it affects me. Why? Because he’s a white straight man and Trump’s America is a white straight man’s America. And the fragility of our little domestic utopia is clearer to me now than it has ever been before

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The headlines are all saying the same thing: women are under attack. Yesterday, Trump defunded Planned Parenthood. He wants to control women’s bodies, their wombs, and this gesture is far more threatening than a quick grab of the pussy (although the two, I insist, exist on a continuum). (Mother earth is also under threat; as is PBS and the Council for the Arts. Not to mention black people and muslims. It occurs to me that here he is: the Antichrist.)

Am I safe here in Canada? Will my daughters be safe? Will they have access to the same—not better, the same!—choices that I had? (It’s hard not to feel hysterical when this shit that you thought was so done comes back. )

In my life, I’ve had five pregnancies: two births, one miscarriage and two abortions. My first abortion was a medical abortion which I had when I was twenty-one. It was April 11. I marked it in my journal, and it was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make. You see, being prochoice doesn’t mean you’re proabortion. I was raised in a family that frowned on abortion, although saw it as sometimes necessary. My mom was raised Catholic, and she had chosen not to have an abortion with her final child despite my dad’s desire that she have one.

Despite this, I told my mother right away. Both my parents said they would help us if we wanted to keep it, but we decided that we didn’t. We made an appointment at the clinic for a medical abortion, the kind where you drink a glass of orange juice with something in it and then a suppository that starts your contractions. It’s supposed to be more natural, and I guess it was, because it was excruciating.

At the clinic, there were two girls in the waiting room. We sat beside each other in identical teal chairs. They were speaking in Spanish. It wasn’t a clinic that offered any services other than abortions, so I knew why they were there. I wanted to test out my Spanish so I asked them where they were from. They hesitated but then I guess they figured I was safe.

“Mexico,” one girl said.

Now, just like those Mexican girls, America’s daughters will be looking for their abortions in Canada. The ones who can afford to anyway.

After I drank the juice, I went home to wait. A few hours later I started to get these horrible cramps. I bled and howled and screamed for a day, my boyfriend smoking and reading paperbacks on my back porch because I wouldn’t let him in the house. Eventually the pain passed. My breasts stayed tender and swollen for about a week and the bleeding stopped at around the same time. There were tulips in the garden.

For a few years I held a tiny vigil on the date. I imagined this little soul that was back out there, waiting for me to be ready again. I remember thinking, you can come back when I’m ready little soul. And exactly eight years later it happened again. This time I wasn’t in a relationship and the dad wasn’t sticking around. But I was 29 now and ready, so I kept the baby to raise on my own. If I didn’t have the abortion at 21, I’m certain that I would have had one this time.

Nothing can prepare you for the challenge of being a single parent. Few divorced people can really understand what it is like to actually be a single parent, completely on your own, with no support from your child’s father. Even fewer men can understand what it is like to give birth to an infant and be its sole provider in a world that is by and large hostile to women and children. That some rich white men are now making this decision for countless women makes me physically sick. It makes me have truly murderous thoughts.

Because of the difficulty of raising a child on my own, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to handle that kind of stress again. My second abortion was a few years ago with my current partner, before I was certain about the relationship and where it would go. I wanted to keep the pregnancy, but he didn’t. And I knew that having a baby on my own again was not an option. I remember clearly the moment I knew I was going to abort. It was 10 pm and the kids were in bed and we were arguing. Ever since the pregnancy test, he had become recalcitrant and  cold. Our arguments had a blunted, circular rhythm and I was so frustrated I could feel the moons of my fingernails pulse. At that moment, the road was clear. I picked up a glass of water and hurled it at the wall. Its arch was so clean and true that it became emblematic. I left the shards of glass on the floor and walked to the depanneur to buy a beer, knowing that I’d made my decision.

We went to a feminist clinic near his apartment. The streets were icy that morning, and I was nervous. The last time I’d let someone perform a vaginal exam was during the birth of my daughter, an experience that was so traumatizing that I had nightmares about it for over a year and refused to take her or myself to the doctor. But now I was going to the doctor for the first time in years, and it was to get an abortion no less.

And to my surprise, everything about the procedure itself was positive. The nurses were respectful and casual. They calmly told me about the procedure and what my options were for sedatives. The doctor was a woman, like me, who was funny and engaging and didn’t talk down to me. I decided that I didn’t want to go through the agony of my first abortion. A natural birth experience was something I wanted, but a natural abortion I could live without. The medication made me drowsy, I went to sleep, and when I woke up, I was on a small couch in the recovery room. There was no bleeding. I had a follow-up appointment at the clinic a week later, and I still go there every time I need a pap smear. This clinic, run entirely by women, provided me with the best medical care I have ever had at a time in my life when I was so raw and emotional that a trip to the supermarket required a herculean effort.

A couple years ago, still with the same man, I found out I was pregnant again. Our relationship, more stable now than it was before, was ready for a child. Because I wanted a natural birth this time, I had a homebirth with an unregistered midwife. Blue eyes, curly light hair, our daughter looks like something out of a Dick and Jane Primer. She’s the poster child for Trump’s new fascist era, and if I hadn’t had that abortion before, she probably wouldn’t exist.

 

After my daughters are both asleep, I head to bed without my phone. I leave my laptop on the kitchen table. The nightstand is now a place for Lydia Davis and Thomas King. I don’t want Trump’s face in my bedroom any more than I want a hologram of a tiger. It’s not relaxing. It gives me nightmares. My boyfriend, understanding this, leaves, because he loves me, because he respects me, because he knows that this affects me more. He takes the tablet to the study where I can’t see it, but I still hear it growling softly behind the door.

 

 

Am I Becky?

Tenesia was my best friend in kindergarten. She was also my most memorable opponent. You can picture me with my blonde hair and pale blue eyes, looking like a Nazi poster child in need of a bath, and Tenesia with her gravity-defying hair, her broad cheeks and full lips, looking like an escaped member of the Jackson Five. Most days, Tenesia and I were thick as thieves. I loved her.  In my dirt yard in New Mexico we chased cockroaches, squeezed the ends of succulents, swam946030_10152809166910623_400021861_n in the pool. We liked roller skating up and down the block together. We loved to move, hated boys, climbed trees, ate enchiladas, talked and talked. 

Continue reading Am I Becky?

Jian and all the boys like him

The first time we meet it’s at the Ivanhoe on Main street, a bar where drug addicts and students mingle. Located by Vancouver’s bus depot which marks the border to the lower east side, it is the kind of place I would not go alone, although it is a popular enough place among my peers. Beer is cheap, two dollars a glass. This is Ivanhoe1999, I’m only 20 years old, but that’s old enough to know the beer here tastes like piss and the carpets smell the same. This is where I meet the guy who turns out to be my rapist, although I won’t know to call him by that word until much later.

After all, what is rape? It seems like something that should be relatively straight-forward in its definition, yet when you talk to people it is clearly not all that clear. What constitutes consent? What is the difference between date-rape and aggravated sexual assault? Do rapists who make an “honest mistake” get put in the same category as the armed cartoon-like stranger lurking in dark alleys?

 Increasingly, popular discourse has been willing to entertain the idea that rape is not something done solely by masked criminals. Discussions of rape come in and out of public discourse with relative frequency, and the term “rape culture” which was coined by radical feminists in 1970s has received increasing attention with the spotlight now on Jian Ghomeshi. At 20, I had not heard of “rape culture”. However, my early experiences around sex were marked less by eroticism than by shame and power. My first sexual experience, when I was twelve, happened in the bedroom of a boyfriend who decided to take off my shirt and suck on my barely existent nipples. I did not object; I was too surprised. I was also too uncertain. Perhaps, I thought, this is normal. In hindsight, it was a ludicrous attempt at adult sexuality, but in truth it scarred me.

What scarred me was not the act itself, which was only unpleasant, but my boyfriend’s retaliation when I broke up with him the next day. In what can only be described as a kind of public shaming ritual, he found me in the park, threw me on the ground by my hair and spat on me. He said something– slut or bitch, I can’t remember. Around me stood a circle of my peers– some of them my friends– who did nothing. Their silence was what I remember, and their lack of willingness to look at me. I was so aware of the existence of rape culture before I actually heard the term, that when I finally did hear it, it was like discovering the name of a bird or a flower that you’ve, quite literally, seen since childhood.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of women– from bell hooks to Camilia Paglia– who reject the concept. On the Canadian scene, rape culture made its way into The National Post with commentator Barbara Kay last year. She claims that the term mischaracterizes male behavior and results in misandry: “You can produce any culture you like if you dumb deviancy down. If you change ‘against her will’ to ‘without her consent,’ as we have, that is a huge paradigm shift from what we used to think of as rape: i.e. forced sex. And if a drunk woman can’t give her consent, another moved goalpost, she is ipso facto raped.”  Kay’s comments here– which claim a radical distinction between acts that are against someone’s will and without someone’s consent– advocate a return to the masked criminal definition of rape. More significant, Kay’s comments represent questions of the law as questions of cultural definition, which is interesting for those interested in the dialectic between culture and law, but fundamentally misleading. (For a more detailed look on the importance of consciousness and active consent see Supreme Court ruling here.) Kay’s thesis is unsurprising to those familiar with her conservative anti-feminism.        

More surprising (at the time) was Jian Ghomeshi’s lack of comment last year during a debate that he organized between Lise Gotell and Heather McDonald around rape culture on his radio program Q. Ghomeshi’s reluctance to intervene when McDonald’s denial of rape culture quickly turned to rape victim-blaming shocked many of CBC’s faithful listeners.  Canadians were perhaps less surprised by Ghomeshi’s lack of comment on rape culture when he fell from grace after showing CBC producers a video of him appearing to sexually assault a woman. It wasn’t exactly the first time a celebrity’s reputation has been bemoiled by a sexual assault accusation, but it was a story that I followed obsessively unlike many of the others. Why? Because in this particular instance, the person in question was somebody I liked. Also, because it appeared that the issue was not whether there was consent; the stories seemed to suggest that absence of consent was precisely (and importantly) what turned him on.

A woman goes back to a celebrity’s house. A woman who is planning on having sex with him. Instead of kissing her, he slaps her, instead of seducing her, he degrades her. He then pretends like everything is normal. He might offer her a ride home. He might ask her if she will see him again for cocktails. For those who have read accounts of the women accusing Ghomeshi, the stories all sound strangely familiar. They follow a pattern of normalcy, bizarre and disorienting violence and then normalcy again. What makes him so successful in evading reprisal is that he is, otherwise, as a lover at any rate, so incredibly boring.

My rapist is also boring. He is the nephew of my English professor. It is my second semester at college, and I love this professor. The last Friday of the semester, my professor invites our class to join him at the Ivanhoe. It must be winter, which in Vancouver means rain.  Class gets out at dusk and the sky, which has been heavy all day, begins to fall. Because I love this professor so much, I’ve come to the Ivanhoe even though it is a bar I do not like.

I bring my friend, Mindy (not her real name), because we plan on partying later. Mindy is hot in the most conventional sense of the word. Six feet tall, blonde, her mother was a British model when she was young. Mindy looks like a Bond girl and has also done some modelling. But she isn’t available because she’s married to a tattooed drummer named Eli (also not his real name). My professor’s nephew, let’s call him Jason, wants to sleep with Mindy. He is trying to impress her, trying to be funny and/or clever. He keeps talking about the books he has read. He’s in grad school. He doesn’t know that Mindy doesn’t take his uncle’s class, that Mindy works as a waitress and that she is not interested in college. Mindy is not impressed.

“Who is the loser?” she asks, although not loud enough for him to hear. She doesn’t like the way Jason styles his hair, which is parted in the middle and in a sort of bob; it lays flat against his head. He reminds her of a goat. Predictably, Jason starts hitting on me when he realizes Mindy is taken. I don’t mind his hair. I think he’s kind of cute. “What are you girls up to after?” he asks. “We’re thinking of getting some coke,” I say. Jason wants to hang out, wants to pay for the drugs. We let him, but we get sick of him soon. He’s trying too hard. We do not care about how smart he is. We leave him on the street corner halfway through the night, jumping into a cab and telling him bye. We are mean to him. By this point, he already has my number.

Why do some men rape?  December 2012: a group of men gang-rape and kill a young woman in Delhi. This was not a date rape. It was a premeditated, clear-cut aggravated assault. A medical student, Jyoti Singh had been to a movie with her male friend. They thought they were getting on a bus, but it would prove to be a torture chamber, where she would be repeatedly raped and beaten for hours, finally dying from internal injuries sustained after her attackers decided to rape her with a rusty steel pipe. She and her companion were found at the side of the road barely breathing, thrown from the bus after her rapists were finally through with her. Rape is fairly common in India; however the violence of the crime, the level of planning that it required and the fact that it resulted in virtuous woman’s death, left many people around the globe stunned.

Why would anyone do such a thing? In the early days after news of the Delhi attack spread Heather Timmons asked this question to psychologist David Lisak.  Lisak lists biological, historical and cultural explanations for rape, but ultimately warns against seeing rape as motivated by something purely sexual: “I think sometimes the sexual element clouds our understanding of what rape is. Fundamentally, it is targeting a group of people they hold hate for.” In short, rape is a hate crime, motivated by a profound antipathy towards women and targeting that part of her anatomy that makes her female. But rape is also about entitlement and control. If a man feels that he is superior to a woman, then rape is a way of asserting that superiority, of proving to her and to himself that she is the weaker sex. What happens when the victim doesn’t die? What happens when she doesn’t even act damaged? The date rape survivors who move on with their lives–we are harder to immortalize. We are easier to hate.

Jason calls me to see if I might like to come to Victoria to visit him. With Mindy’s negative impression of him out of the way, I say yes. “Bring some work to do,” he says. “I have a paper to write that weekend, but I’d really like to see you.” Jason is a graduate student at the university that I am thinking of applying to for my undergraduate degree. I am attracted to him. I want to see him. I know that I will probably have sex with him. Saturday morning, I catch the ferry from Tsawwassen to Vancouver Island. It is a grey day. The sky is heavy. I feel nervous, knowing that I am going to the house of someone I do not know very well, but I don’t really worry too much. He is my professor’s nephew after all. At the ferry terminal, Jason is waiting in a black Tercel. He waves to me, and I throw my bag in the back of his car. We give each other an awkward hug.  

“Sorry about being rude to you that night,” I say.  

“Yeah,” he says, “that was pretty lame.”

I don’t say anything. I know he’s right. The conversation shifts to innocuous subjects. He is casual, friendly. I feel that I have been forgiven, and notice that he has changed the style of his hair. I also notice that he is older than me, well-established in his twenties. His hand, clutching the steering wheel, looks bonier than my own hand which is still soft and girl like. The tendons stick out like ropes along his forearm.

Jason lives in the basement suite of a house. Glass doors lead onto a patio. The apartment is nice, sparse but well-lit with only one room, a bed in one corner next to the bathroom and a small screen which separates the bed from the desk. Immediately upon arrival, Jason gets into the shower. I am surprised by this, but I don’t say anything. Instead, I put down my bag and sit on his bed. I remove my hairpins and lay them on the bedside table. I wait.   A few minutes later he gets out of the shower. He comes to me on the bed and removes his towel. He has an erection which is level with my face. I think I laugh. I can’t remember. He then leans over and kisses me, but without tenderness. He is pressing my shoulders down on the bed. My feet are still on the floor, and I feel them lift as his weight settles on me. I am surprised, but I kiss him back. After all, this is why I am here. Then he is fumbling with my jeans. He pulls them down, pulls down my underpants, and thrusts his penis inside me. “Wait,” I say. I am not ready, he is hurting me. He says nothing. His eyes look into mine but they are not friendly. He does not try to kiss me again. His eyes are black, opaque, like drops of crude oil.

“Stop,” I say.

“Shut up,” he says.

He is holding my hands on the bed, his arms weighted against my arms. I squirm but it only excites him. He finishes, a short hard grunt. Then he gets up and dresses.

“Do you want to get something to eat?” he asks.

His face is now casual, friendly. I know that something important has happened but I don’t know what to call it.

According to the American Psychological Association, normal responses to sexual abuse include shock, fear and disbelief. However, these are short term responses and are often replaced by defense mechanisms that have more far-reaching effects. Of the various defense mechanisms which are a response to trauma, repression and denial are considered two of the worst, since they alter the nature of reality and can lead to maladaptive behaviors. Unlike repression, suppression, the conscious effort not to think about traumatic events, is actually quite adaptive. According to Harvard researcher George Vaillant, suppression is “the defensive style most closely associated with successful adaptation.” Humor is also thought to be one of these more adaptive defenses against trauma, as is sublimation– the use of art, writing, sports or other socially acceptable pursuits to channel the negative energy generated from a traumatic event.

In rape cases where a high-profile figure is the accused, public backlash against the accusers is almost a given. People like me, who watched events unfold in Ghomeshi’s case last year, were fascinated to see how this progressed. First one accusation, the predictable argument, the now cliche invocation of Fifty Shades of Grey, and finally the shattering of Ghomeshi’s defense with a slew of credible women all claiming to have been assaulted by him at one point. The backlash against these women was also predictable– why didn’t they come forward sooner? Why not press charges?

I’m guessing that most of these women chose to forget about it. They chose to forget about it because it was something they could, more or less, forget about. Was the backlash against these women that they had not come forward, or was it because they weren’t damaged enough? The expectation that a woman be somehow destroyed by sexual assault, permanently damaged, incapable of moving on with her life is part of the same cultural attitude that permits rape and sees women as natural victims. And if Jian is allowed to be irrational and mercurial why can’t the same defense work for those he assaulted? Objections are made when date-rape is discussed at the same time as rape’s more violent manifestations, but I think this objection is misplaced. No one is disputing that what happened to Jyoti Singh is worse than what happened to me or many other women who have been date raped, just as no one would dispute the distinction between petty theft and armed robbery. However, both are theft, and in the case of date-rape and aggravated sexual assault, both are rape.  They follow a similar logic; they are both defended and supported by rape-culture. 

Sunday morning I leave before dawn and take the bus to the ferry terminal. Jason is still sleeping and I make sure not to wake him. The air is damp and it plays lightly in my hair, which I now wear loose around my shoulders. In September, I will go to the university. I will see Jason around campus. I will chat with him. I see him around campus with his girlfriend. I store what has happened between us, a kernel for a future mind, an event that is so mysterious and so banal that it becomes archetypal. Or perhaps, an event that is so universal that it needs a symbol, something feminine and ordinary, like an egg or a lost hairpin.