We talk about triggers a lot, us the women and the queer folk and the people of color, us who would like the world to be a little bit better, a little bit more equal (not just a bit god damnit!) We often mean those little warning labels at the start of possibly inflammatory blog posts or articles.
I still rarely use them. Mostly because there many times when it feels like advertising instead, because we live in a society in which violence is entertainment and sexual violence doubly so. And I can’t even be preachy about it, really, because it works on me too. I also am lucky not to get triggered by blog posts, and when I do end up feeling bad, anxious and lingeringly icky after consuming an article or video, it’s usually because of subtle, strange things nobody would think of warning against.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
I want to talk about triggers in my offline life. The life we used to call the “real life,” before I grew up and realized my real life gets to be what I choose it to be.
He was sweet, which is unusual for a street flirt. I had an inkling he was about to ask me out when he slowed down as I approached, when he changed the side of the road to match mine when I tried to get out of the situation. I didn’t want him to chat me up, but the sun was shining and I’d had a really nice day at work and so when he did, I wasn’t quite able to shut it down. Being cold and dismissive is something I had to learn, and still have to prepare for, or the good old people please inside me rears its smiling Manic Pixie Dream Girl head.
But he was sweet.
He spoke English better than German, which tends to win me over. He asked me what I do and how I like it, he asked what I enjoy in my spare time and showed an interest. And he a sweet, smiling face that didn’t look threatening.
For the sake of fairness, I should say right now that this is not a story about how I was raped. Nothing quite so dramatic and horrible and important. But it is a story about how we got to talking about the tv shows we liked and why not hang out some time this week and watch one together, get to know each other.
I’m an introvert, a tv-hang-out session is my dream first date. And he said he was one, too. I still don’t know if that was the truth. But he gave me my number. He wasn’t pushy for mine, like most of them are. And so I texted him, and we arranged a date.
In hind-sight, maybe I could have been smarter. My alarm bells could have run sooner, like when he acted like I was probably surprised he found me attractive and wanted to go out with me. Or when I finally figured out in one of his texts that he’d followed me out of the train just to talk to me.
He showed up 15 minutes late – which given Cologne’s public transport really isn’t a big deal – but he immediately said, “I bet you’re surprised I actually showed up, aren’t you? I know you’re surprise. I could have texted but I thought I’d like to surprise you.”
I smiled and shook my head. I wasn’t surprised; there’s nothing surprising about a man who finds me attractive and wants to get his hands on me. In fact it is the most annoyingly predictable part of dating in general.
I offered him something to drink. He looked around, at my photos and my books and my DVDs. You know, intimate stuff like that. And he immediately hated my cat. Now, my dad doesn’t like cats either, and it’s not an issue of like-me-like-my-cat, but the way he flinched and aggressively shushed her away was unattractive. And it also put me on the defensive; he had me apologizing five times before we even started to watch something.
That at least started out fine. He took my hand after a while and it was warm and large, and for a second I managed to forget about his hatred for pets and thought that maybe, just maybe, I could be a normal person with a nice date with someone who’s actually interested in me, not just my boobs or my ass, and both of them as fast as possible, please.
It’s not that I am shy or prude (even though neither of these things are bad in any way). But I’ve had sex or intimate touching too early before, and it has always felt to me like I was the girl selling tickets at the box office: For a while, we are both in the same place. We interact, maybe exchange a few niceties, which end up designed to make me smile and hand over the ticket. And in that moment, he takes my body into a dark room with him and I am left on the outside, hardly even able to look in, and definitely not part of the experience.
It’s when he does all the pushing. I let him hold my hand, so it’s probably okay if he wants to put his arm around me, if he wants to kiss me before we’re 15 minutes into the show.
At that point, I told him I really just want to hang out together. I have no interest in having sex or anything like that. He plays offended for a second and then reassures me. We get a little more comfortable and the show continues. He starts kissing my neck, licking it, scratching me with his beard.
I don’t feel anything. I’m not invested in him enough, not turned on enough, just not in the same room.
“I want to touch your skin,” he says as he pulls up my shirt. I pull it down and so he weasels his hand under it.
“Oh, do you?” I ask. I raise my brows and sigh. No. I didn’t stop him. I didn’t say What about what I want? People pleaser. I hate that girl.
I stopped him when he straddled my lap, pulled up my shirt and started peeling away my bra. I said, “Hey. I’m not into this.”
He grinned, made puppy eyes and went, “Awww come on. Just five minutes.”
That’s when I pushed him off me. Hard. It felt good, for one glorious second it felt good.
And then he got angry. I don’t know if you ever tried to explain to a man who’s never even heard about feminist theory or rape culture, that no, I am not accusing him of trying to rape me. But yes, he’s doing something wrong.
It’s not fun. As you may have expected.
I asked him to leave, which he made me repeat I think a total of 6 or 7 times. Always asking whether I’m sure. His voice got loud and aggressive.
“You were okay with it! I didn’t do anything wrong! I respect women! I like you and I know you like me too, I just don’t need a month to decide whether I like someone! You didn’t say no!”
I did. But not very loud. And I certainly didn’t say yes. I didn’t say it with my mouth or with my body. I turned away, leaned away, squirmed out of his embraces whenever I could.
I guess it’s subtle – if it’s all about what you want, and I’m a means to an end.
When he left, I started to cry and I wanted to shower. It took me a while to realize that he reminded me all too starkly of my ex when I was 18. The boy who’d made sex a chore for me, something the man pressured, cajoled, begged, charmed out of me. Never the thing I wanted, desired. There was never enough time to get there.
I never actually said “No” to him, either. I said, “Really, again?” I said, “But we’re watching the movie…” I said, “I’m really tired, can we just cuddle?” I said, “I’m still sore.” I said, “I have to be at work in an hour and I don’t want to shower again.”
I guess all that was really subtle, too.
He also knew what he wanted. And when he wanted something the touching and the groping, the relentless pushing, that’s just something that happens. And when I push his hand away, that’s not saying “no” – I guess that’s saying “Try again in 2 Minutes.”
So I cried. A lot. And I sat, staring into space, going over everything I said and everything I did. And over the way his voice changed and his eyes weren’t cute anymore; they suddenly were the eyes of a man who could hurt me.
I had trouble falling asleep and when I did, I had nightmares and kept waking up bathed in sweat. In the morning, I was still staring into space, starting to come up with appropriate responses: the things I should have said when he belittled my feelings, when he snorted at the idea someone like me could tell him what to do and what not to do. After all, wasn’t I supposed to be grateful for his attentions?
I ended up forgetting my keys, and I cried in the bathroom at work. The service to open up my door set me back 200€ and there’s a part of me that is still sitting here, staring into space, trying to figure out what I could have done differently – yesterday and when I was 19. I’m still a hair’s breadth away from starting to cry again.
And so I write it down. It’s what I do.
The thing that gets me is… I could have wanted him, if he had given me a little more time. If he had talked and laughed and been a person with me, rather than a guy who’s after sex. It’s the least sexy thing in the world, the way their personalities glaze over and I don’t even recognize the fun person they were a few minutes before. And I’m just so, so tired of it sometimes.