Editor’s note: Content warning for sexual assault and death.
We grew up in the shadows of boys and men. They were more important because they would grow up to be businessmen, leaders, the sort of people who solved our problems and saved us from ourselves. We grew up hearing that we should be seen and not heard, that boys would be boys and that someday our prince would come. We grew up excusing bullying behavior because if a boy picked on you, it was because he liked you and that was what we were all meant to want—to be liked, to be pretty, courteous, easily palpable and convenient. Our brothers ignored us while their friends goosed us or snapped our bras and teachers blamed or ignored us because it was easier and at the end of the day they just wanted to chain smoke cigarettes while they graded our work in a way compliant with the standards of our state and municipality. The boys in our class offered us dollars to see a flash of snatch or to touch a tit. Our bodies were valuable but only if they were the right size and shape and color and only for the right price.
“Our brothers ignored us while their friends goosed us or snapped our bras and teachers blamed or ignored us because it was easier and at the end of the day they just wanted to chain smoke cigarettes while they graded our work in a way compliant with the standards of our state and municipality.”
We went to church and listened to stories about original sin or Sampson and Deliliah or the Whore of Babylon or Sodom and Gommorah and we tried to ignore the fact that there were a lot of idiot boys and badass women in the Bible. We sit quietly and recite verses and host fundraiser potlucks and teach sunday school and try to catch the eye of Godly young men and avoid the greeter who lingers too long and stands too close. Or we went to museums and social events with our parents and smiled and nodded and tried to have relevant but nonthreatening opinions and to listen to our elders and betters when they were talking. Even if they didn’t realize we overheard them talk to one another about what a sweet piece of jailbait ass we were. What would be the benefit in speaking up? We could embarrass ourselves and our families and goddamnit, these business relationships kept a roof over our heads.
We sat on the bus in groups trying to avoid the bus driver’s quick hands as he tucked a transfer into the pocket of our jeans. Or we walked home in packs so that the guy parked at the 7-11 wouldn’t whip out his dick at us. We told each other which teachers to avoid because they’d let their junk linger a little too long on our desks or would pat your ass on the way out of class. We wondered if the cute boy in our homeroom class liked us and what it meant to be liked. If being some boy’s girlfriend made us safer. We wondered if it was better to be ignored or desired. We practiced kissing with our friends and some of us preferred that but didn’t know how to say it or if that was even an option so we played it cool and let someone else bring it up.
Disney told us that no fairy tale princess was complete without a prince and later fashion magazines told us in bold print that for only $5.95 we could learn how to be best friends with our crushes. They promised to teach us to drive him wild in bed and to keep him faithful. Anything to sell copies, right?
Men had so much to teach us. How not to be a tease. How not to friend-zone their bros. How not to be a fake geek girl, but to take an interest in sports and science fiction because we’d need to take an interest in something they loved to capture the finite resource of their romantic and sexual interest.
It happened in all sorts of ways. A babysitter when we were too young and too scared to tell. And anyway, he threatened to kill our little sister if anyone found out. It was a teacher who kept us after class or a coach who caught us alone in the locker room. It didn’t matter if we screamed or shouted or begged. There are a million ways to silence a body. It was the cute boy in seventh period who offered to help you with homework. It happened on our first date. It was our prom escort or fiancé or husband or boss. It was the hiring manager when we applied for an internal transfer. It was the lacrosse team. It was the father of the kids we babysat or a boy who let us get too drunk at a party and plastered videos of us all over the internet.
“It didn’t matter if we screamed or shouted or begged. There are a million ways to silence a body.”
It was violent and left us broken or it wasn’t and we weren’t sure what happened, but knew that we didn’t want it and had never been asked or we weren’t consciousness or we were told that this was what we wanted, what we were good for. Didn’t we still want to be liked? To be valued? To use our commodities in a generous way? Wasn’t he entitled?
We were never so glad of birth control or we couldn’t remember if he used a condom. Or the condom broke and we had to buy Plan B right away, or we just tried not to think about it until there was a missed period and a bouquet of pregnancy tests or a rash or a burning pee stream. We did our best to keep our bodies healthy even when everything else felt irreparable.
They called us a slut or a whore, said we were asking for it and why were we drinking or why were we alone with him or why would you put yourself in that situation? Don’t you have any sense God gave a housefly? We stayed silent because we knew no one would believe us. Because he was popular and we were ugly or because he was powerful and we were no one. Or we spoke up and were shut down for the good of the team or the family or his future. Or we followed all the rules and went to the hospital. We blinked painfully at the fluorescent lights while blank faced nurses swabbed our most vulnerable, painful places for evidence and men in uniforms asked us questions that hurt just as badly. We abided by procedure and suffered through all the nightmares and the anonymous messages and threats and when we were finally put up to testify, we realized that he wasn’t on trial, we were. What were we wearing? Why were we alone at night? Where were our friends and boyfriends?
We moved on. Life changed. Sometimes things are better, sometimes not. We recognize one another in our reactions. It is the most painful radar, but it helps us loan strength to one another when one of us is flush with the courage someone else needs.
Some of us didn’t make it. We died at home or in alleys. We died at the hands of the men who did this. We died at our own hands when we couldn’t forget. We self-medicated with prescription meds in lovely homes or with heroin in shooting galleries. We could not score enough, could not get high enough to forget. To outrun fear like a wolf breathing over our shoulder. We died from diseases they gave us that we were too ashamed to have looked at or from cancer that ate away at us until we were hollow. Some of us got strong. Some of us became nurses and doctors and attorneys to tip back the scales of justice. Some of us joined almost exclusive societies of women. Some of us became men and learned to rewrite what that might mean.
“Some of us didn’t make it. We died at home or in alleys. We died at the hands of the men who did this. We died at our own hands when we couldn’t forget.”
The word survivor displaces the ones of us who stopped living. We aren’t more important, just more present. And the ones of us still here are fighting for the ones of us who aren’t. We have the rage of a thousand ghosts inside of us. We are still pissed off and we are demanding justice and we are naming names. We are still here, even the ones of us who aren’t. We are coming for you.
Sawyer Lovett is a writer who lives in Philadelphia with his wife, a dog, and a hedgehog. He’s a part-time bookseller and a full time MFA student who occasionally reviews books for Kirkus and Lambda Lit. He is the author of two books and his work has appeared in Apiary, Hoax, and Cleaver.