Gabrielle Bellot: The Story I Kept Hidden
On Brett Kavanaugh, Sexual Assault, and Not Staying Silent
The second time I went on a date with a man, I hadn’t expected him to take advantage of me. I was naïve. He didn’t look like anyone I thought I should fear; I hadn’t as yet learnt that anyone can violate your trust, your body, perhaps most of all the ones you don’t suspect. He was a little taller than me but lanky; he had buzzed brown hair and wore rectangular glasses that slightly obscured his eyes when they fogged up. His smile was crooked in a cute way.
We’d met online. At the time, I was early into transitioning. For most of my life, I’d been in the closet, riding the witch’s broom of my dreams instead, where anything could happen, where I could love freely. In my daydreams, I was usually a girl with another girl, sitting together in a cluster of bamboos near my home, lit a chiaroscuro chartreuse by the flickering bulbs of fireflies, or I imagined us on a fantastical stone arch overlooking a grand valley of ice, a landscape unlike any in my Caribbean home; once, I fell asleep and dreamt I was a princess named Nemona who lived in a purple submersible that, like Nemo’s, traversed those depths of the seas where it is perpetually evening, and, as I lay on my waterbed—which, of course, contained darting fish—the girl I loved tumbled out of my closet, having waited for a disapproving father to leave.
But I desired boys, too, even if the scale of my preference always tipped towards being with other women. Particularly when I’d just come out as a pansexual trans woman, I was curious what it would be like to be with a man. I’d been with a guy once before he-of-the-crooked-smile, this first one a grinning rotund man who lovingly massaged oil into my back before fucking me and made me feel like a little queen. My good, if casual, times with that first guy made me excited about the prospect of seriously dating men as a woman.
When this new guy sent a message, his geeky cuteness and smile emojis disarmed me. He texted a silly photo of his flat, thin chest in the pose of a self-deprecating bodybuilder. I felt comfortable around him, and when he offered to pick me up for a date, I said yes quickly.
We got pepperoni pizza at a place called Barnaby’s, where we chatted over the roar of a sea of small children and aggravated parents. He occasionally stammered out of nervousness, which made me smile. He seemed charming in a nerdy, somewhat awkward way—and, as a fellow nerd, that was fine by me.
He took me back to his place. It was a ramshackle grey-brown home, two stories, miasmic with the odor of marijuana. His roommate offered us a bong, which he said contained a particularly strong strain they were trying out. Despite a Caribbean stereotype, I’ve smoked cigarettes before but don’t care for weed, so my tolerance was low. Still, I wanted to fit in, so I took the bong. His roommate smiled as I awkwardly fitted it over my fuchsia mouth like, I imagined a moment later, a penis. His roommate chuckled, and then I laughed, too. We smoked and passed it around. My date pulled out an art book from a fantasy game to show me.
After a while, I began to drift off on a gondola into a thick fog. The high felt heavy; it was almost the hazy disorientation of being drunk, whereby everything seemed to move slower, my body less responsive to my thoughts, and although I was aware of it, I didn’t know how to stop it. I silently panicked.
The guy put his hand on my thigh and smiled. Although I felt out of it, I smiled back. Get through this, I told myself. You’re still in control.
I let him take me up to his room. We lay on his bed, arms intertwined. I wasn’t in control. I was fading. To my surprise, I started to fall asleep, until he tapped me to ask if I was okay. I tried forcing myself awake. We began to make out, then messily undressed. As he pulled back from kissing me, he cocked his eyebrows and half-grinned in a way that made me giggle from the cringe.
I thought things were okay. I told him I was okay with anything except for using a certain part of my body, which, as a trans woman, I felt uncomfortable with; I said I didn’t want anyone to touch or use it during sex.
Suddenly, he grabbed that part of me. He began stroking me, then went down on me. I told him no. He kept going. I pleaded. Stop, please stop, no. I asked if he understood why I didn’t want him to touch me there. He paused, looked at me, then shrugged and went back to work on me. I panicked. I didn’t know if his roommate knew I was trans; if I screamed and he walked in, what would he do? What would the man on top of me do? But I yelled anyway, and he finally stopped.
After he drove me back, I felt ashamed. It was a quiet shame, something soft that curled up inside me, then hardened. I didn’t even realize, immediately, the severity of what he had done to me. I minimized it. I had felt terrified in his room in the moments when I wasn’t in control—when I felt disoriented from weed, when I didn’t know if he would stop trying to fuck me in a way I didn’t want, when I realized that shit, I’m in a stranger’s house, and I don’t know if I can outrun him if he gets angry and violent because I’m shouting no, no. I was accustomed, by then, to men sexualizing my body through catcalls and crass pickup lines, as well as being propositioned in public for sex by total strangers. I also had a memory, by then, of an uncle in Dominica, where I had grown up, who had made advances on me that I didn’t fully understand until, one drunken holiday night at a party, he told me I was sexy and that he wanted me. I had never seen this uncle again; it happened right before I decided to never return home because I didn’t know if I could live with any chance of happiness in such an anti-queer society. But I had never had a man grab me like that, resist my pleas to let me go, make me feel powerless. I was lucky that he stopped.
I know I made some bad decisions that day. I went to a man’s home without really knowing him well; I smoked with a low tolerance for ganja. But none of those things gives anyone the right to force themselves on my body. Nothing gives anyone that right. Nothing that I wear or do gives anyone the right to use my body without my consent. You would think this was common sense. If someone has to say no repeatedly, that’s probably an indication that they actually mean no. Yet far too many men—not solely men, but primarily men—appear to believe that women’s actions are to blame when we are assaulted, a position that not only shifts the culpability onto a victim but that also reduces men into pathetic entities incapable of resisting their lustful urges.“What do you do when your words against us conjure up something? What do you do with a monster you make?”
When I hear the President of this country ask, dismissively, why women would wait to come forward and call women who make allegations “really evil people,” it feels like a slap in the face. And then it reminds me why so many women never speak up at all, even now, but instead let our memories curl up into a deep place inside us, until we can almost believe we’ve forgotten them.
In Amber Tamblyn’s haunting, lyrical novel, Any Man, a mysterious woman known only by her dating-site name, Maude, attacks and sexually assaults a series of unsuspecting men. Less a flesh-and-blood assailant than a conglomeration of the most pejorative things men call women—harpy, bitch, witch, hysterical, slut, freak, leech—Maude haunts the pages like a phantom. Maude, in other words, is what such men and misogyny created: a true monster, a true horror. Call us enough names, she seems to whisper, and we may just become the thing you see us as—and what, pray tell, would you do then?
What do you do when your words against us conjure up something? What do you do with a monster you make?
Sexual assault is never forgivable, regardless of the victim; Maude is no hero. And, to be sure, we must always remember that anyone, of any gender, can become a victim of assault. There is a long, shadowed history of women as the victims of abuse and assault, which intersects with a long history of assumptions about men’s societal, patriarchal rights to violate and be violent with women’s bodies; but, as Tamblyn points out, we must remember all victims, including those who are not women. Any Man caused some stir for focusing on male victims in the era of #MeToo, but, as Tamblyn has said, “this is not about reversing gender roles,” but, rather, about creating a wider view of the possibilities of assault. (And, sadly, men may listen more when it’s men being assaulted—which isn’t right, but so it goes.) And Maude, Tamblyn has suggested in interviews, is largely the creation of misogyny. She is “a sort of projection of all of society’s dehumanising of women”; Tamblyn wanted to take “the terms and the words that are used to describe [powerful women] and create a woman that is those literal things.”
There’s almost invariably an element of misogyny in abuse and assault, even when the assailants in question don’t realize it. Misogyny, as Elias Canetti says of cruel laughter, presupposes a sense of grotesque superiority—mental, physical, sexual. To look at a woman’s body and believe, with grin or grimace, you have power, ownership, sexual conquest over it—what is this, if not a delusion born out of believing, at some level, that you are superior to the body before you?
The newest Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh is also, arguably, the creation of misogyny—and that is true simply because of the cavalier, dismissive way his case was handled by many conservatives.
I believe in the truth. I tend to side, as many of us do, with those brave enough to come forward; it’s a little easier to believe, when you experience harassment or abuse yourself, how such things can happen, how such things can curl and furl into shameful secrets we fear to share. I believe in fairness; I don’t write this out of any kneejerk assumption of Kavanaugh’s culpability. (I do, however, believe he is very likely guilty of some or all of the allegations of attempted assault and of general, well, ugh-ness.) Instead, what strikes me about this entire debacle is the cruel way that it slaps me in the face as a woman.
If the party of Mitch McConnell—for he is perhaps guiltiest of all—cared about the truth of the allegations that Kavanaugh had put his genitals in a woman’s face, tried to drunkenly rape another woman, and possibly even participated in what were essentially gang-rape parties, most of the Republicans failed to show it. All that seemed to matter to the conservatives in question was confirming Kavanaugh. If he seemed like a squeaky-clean stereotype from an earlier time—captain of a varsity team, a top grade-getter, a lifter of weights, a coach for girls’ sports teams, a polished white man—then that meant he was clean. How, after all, could someone who got good grades and lifted weights possibly commit a crime? How dare someone attack a man who looked like a good guy? If you appear good, you must be, right? As a result of such infantile reasoning, the President and other conservatives began to attack the credibility of Kavanaugh’s accusers even before Christine Blasey Ford testified against Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh had already likely perjured himself in his earlier hearing; his refusal to answer most questions in his testimony, as well as his obfuscations—Devil’s Triangle, for instance, is much more likely a sex act than what he claimed it was—chipped away further at his credibility.
Still, regardless of whether or not Kavanaugh is guilty, the way the allegations against him were handled by the GOP was a slap in the face of women who come forward, a slap in the face of the #MeToo movement, a slap in the face of justice for women—for reproductive rights, for voting rights, for sexual justice, for LGBTQIA equality. If the GOP truly cared about justice, they would have given the FBI far more time to investigate the claims against Kavanaugh; after all, one of the most damning allegations—a claim by Julie Swetnick that Kavanaugh was present at and even perhaps participated in acts of gang rape at parties—wasn’t even part of the investigation, and many witnesses or people who knew the persons in question claimed they were never contacted at all. All the GOP appeared to care about was confirming a Supreme Court Justice so that the court would lean right (despite the fact that America, statistically, leans left on many issues).
They also likely wished to create a public precedent for pushing against #MeToo. All conservatives accused of sexual harassment need to do now is point to the Kavanaugh case as a way of signaling to their base that women shouldn’t be believed. Kavanaugh has become a preposterous bulwark against assault allegations—and he is also a political strategy to fight the possible blue wave in the midterm elections. How dare you vote for Democrats, Republicans will ask, when they treated an upstanding man like Kavanaugh so badly? When, in the words of the President, the women’s testimony amounted to a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats?
The GOP has long been a party defined by a tacit acceptance of boys-club toxic masculinity (and, at times, so has the Democratic Party); now, the GOP has transformed this into a sinister, silencing dictum.
Some conservatives reacted to Kavanaugh’s confirmation with an almost megalomaniacal glee. A frequently inflammatory Republican representative from North Dakota, Kevin Cramer, took the debate over Kavanaugh as a chance to attack the #MeToo movement as a whole. “[Y]ou’re just supposed to believe somebody because they said it happened,” he complained. According to Cramer, the women in his life—his wife, daughters, and mother-in-law—were no fans of believing people who came forward. “They cannot understand this movement toward victimization,” the North-Dakotan said. “They are pioneers of the prairie. These are tough people whose grandparents were tough and great-grandparents were tough.” Referencing the epochal hearing over Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault and violent debauchery, Cramer added that “[t]he world got to see close up how ugly [#MeToo] can be when you go too far.”
Eric Barber, a councilman for Parkersburg City who infamously left the Democratic Party after claiming that the left was “anti-Christian,” perhaps exemplified the crassness best of all. “Better get you’re [sic] coathangers ready liberals,” he wrote on Facebook in a sentiment as pestilential as his punctuation in a now-deleted post.
All of this should be a battle cry worthy of Boudica or Nanny of the Maroons. We cannot stop sharing our stories. Our stories are our power, our Scheherazadian key to survival. And we have work to do. We need the stories of trans women and non-binary people, just as we need the stories of cis women, just as we need the stories of anyone, anywhere, who has been a victim. We need clueless men to understand that victims do take time to come forward, that it is never okay to take advantage of someone’s body, that boys will be boys is a toxifying insult as much to boys as it is to girls. Silence sometimes heals; now, we need to heal by speaking up.
But it’s hard. I want to learn to forgive, even after I’ve been hurt—not to forgive to absolve someone of their wrongdoing, but to start a new, sanative conversation. Yet that conversation is meaningless without a fight to keep making our stories count. And above all, as much as they scare me, I don’t want to forget those red memories, don’t want the sunshine of a spotless mind scrubbed free of pain. Instead, I want to remember how it hurt, because remembering that pain is what saves us in the end, even if we wish it were otherwise.