Men's work, in part, is about the acceptance and support of intimacy, sensitivity and the strength of vulnerability within masculinity, precisely because patriarchy limits men's emotional expression. This limitation directly harms men, our physical and mental health, even within the privileges patriarchy affords us. It also is part of the violent equations of men's violence against women and our LGBTQIAA2S+ family, friends and community, rape culture, misogynoir (thank you Dr. Moya Bailey)/misogyny and domestic violence.
Within this context, men experience and are harmed by sexual violence, molestation as children and other types of emotional and physical violence. Men, often, project ourselves into women's digital spaces they've created to talk about their stories of sexual violence perpetrated by men, who are statistically committing the lion's share of violence against women, queer folk, children and other men. That said, we have to find our own spaces to tell our stories, to create and sustain healing and find safe and motivated contexts to grow in intimacy, sensitivity and vulnerability. These types of spaces for and men doing this work exist, need to be joined and supported and I hope we can share more about those opportunities for growth. It is with that intent that I share this personal story, a sharing of the clear and unclear stories of my own sexual trauma, to support other men to share, find support and heal in safe context with other men so that we can bring healing and balance into our families, our communities and our own hearts.
CW: sexual violation, sexual content, rape, alcohol abuse, child sexual abuse
[Transferring this writing from my notebook to my laptop was harder than I thought it would be. I had to listen to music kinda loud to get through it, partly listening to “Life Is A Highway” by Rascal Flats….yeah, I know, I’m a sixty year old African living in America and knows what side of the cultural bread the butter is on….but yeah, that song. And that tick tick tick tick hi-hat cymbal pulse sorta saved me from jumping off a not so high building to get this out. It kept me sane, simple as it was, as it is, simple being the key, just a grounding pulse like the clocks they say to put in with a new puppy trying to go to sleep to remind it of it’s now distanced mother and safety. I sat for a while bouncing up and down with that damn hi-hat like the drummer was soothing me like a five year old on a safe and loving adult’s lap.
I’ve learned that there is no real rhyme or reason to what survivors need or want to get them through a day or a night or a court date or a day of work or an emotional trigger. I felt like I wanted to call a friend and tell them that I wanted booze, not a lot of it, but that I wanted some…and I had some available…at that moment, halfway done with this…and I didn’t call any of them (yet). And even though I could see their eyes in my mind, I know they would have wanted me to call them. I know that (I can see you right now). I know that. But I didn’t. That’s a thing I need to deal with, as a man, as a person with my own particular, but possibly not unfamiliar history. Masculinity, being conditioned by patriarchy, and whether men reach out for help or not just might be connected.]
|image by Stockvault|
It had been a hard limit, something that one never wants to experience. I had said it clearly. I knew I had from the very beginning of our six months or so together.
I know I had said it because I didn’t want it to happen again.
One particular time it was done to me was about fifteen years before the direct violation that I experienced about six years ago. I had gone to visit a woman I had talked with for a while online. We wanted to explore some sensual and sexual things together. I was comfortable with and trusted her. She was comfortable with and trusted me. At one point in our visit we were together on her bed, she engaging me in sensual exploration. She asked if she could perform fellatio on me. I said yes.
When I look back at that moment, I remember saying “yes” as if for a strange, new flavor of ice cream. I had never asked a partner for fellatio in my life. Though I grew up in a world of conditioned (roamin catholic) sexual naïveté, I knew that “every cis hetero man loves “fellatio””. So, when she asked, I said yes, unaware that there was a reason I had never asked for it.
When I look back at that moment, I realized that I dissociated. I left my body as my partner wrapped her lips around my penis and began to stimulate me and, I suppose, herself. I wasn’t sure as I think about it. For a while then, as she fellated me, I wasn’t there.
It took me a number of years to realize that dissociation was what occurred that night. I remember feeling empty or not feeling empty or not feeling. I remember lying there. I don’t remember words. I was pretty sure I hadn’t said any during those moments. I knew I had plenty of words before…and then after. It seemed, as I remember, that we continued on our evening in an adequate if not beautifully sexy way. We hadn’t shared vagina around penis sex. I’ve known for a long time that sex can be many times more than that.
Fifteen years later, there I was naked on the couch with my partner, who I’ll call Ellen, those six or so years ago, all abuzz with sexual energy and exploration. This wasn’t our first sensual, sexual experience, nor was it the last, as far as I know, but for the record, because of that, we had talked about what was space for engagement and what was a hard limit, a line that we didn’t want crossed, an experience or activity for which we would not give consent to and said as much.
I told her. I know I told her.
But there we were on the couch. I remember enjoying our connection, And I remember her moving her mouth to my penis, fellating me. I remember being silent. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t form words . I couldn’t move. I was dissociating. I was dissociated.
I laboriously raised my hand or hands to her head in the only way I could in the moment to try to make her stop. My hand had no force that would grab her head and push it away or do anything to make her stop. My voice wasn’t working. My hand were only able to drop on her head in my lap. The resistance, the flight, the fight, the moment of necessary and heroic self-advocacy and sexual agency never came.
I struggle(d) with being able to call it rape, as any survivors of sexual assault often do, depending on the nature and conditions of their assault and how deep that assault dragged them into trauma. Some survivors go years, decades without naming what was done to them as rape or even a crime that could be adjudicated or even something that should never have happened to them, something that they didn’t deserve, something that has been anti-culturally normalized, but should never be accepted as normal.
I struggled with it. Hard.
It wasn’t until after that relationship fell apart like a predictable house of cards, looking back at it. I had actually broken an agreement with Ellen, a technicality, but one I had agreed to and that, in itself, is never ok. I was never a perfect partner with her or some others and I own that and their ramifications. And I wouldn’t have known how to get out of that relationship with Ellen, who had violated me if it hadn’t been for having broken that agreement she had asked for and I consented to. I don’t say that to absolve myself from that particular or more general behavior, but to say that it was pivotal in my getting beyond what was a relationship I shouldn’t have been in.
The weight and depth of Ellen’s violation of my body and consent didn’t surface until three months or so after we had broken apart. I heard that the mind, the heart, often waits for safer spaces to face the reality of traumatic events.
Well, it surfaced. Hard.
For what was about three or more months after my mind and body met to calculate the hurt of what Ellen had done, I, as I now always say, “couldn’t get enough alcohol into my body” to make the pain subside, to make the reinstigated earlier life trauma connections go away. When I mention it to particular friends, their eyes widen a bit, as to say “tell me something I didn’t know” or “duh, you were swimming in it”. I think it was the time I started telling people that my therapist was named Jack Daniels. I’ve stopped repeating that inelegant statement for a bit now. That said, I had even gone to a therapist through the Employee Assistance Program at a prestigious Boston University I was teaching at at the time. The therapist proved inadequate and even harmful, seemingly in hindsight set aback, afraid of what may have been brutal introspective honesty and vulnerability, some details of which she was unable to hold or navigate.
And I might have been tipsy the one time I saw her. There’s an instructive
Cliche metaphor in here for how patriarchy blames mostly women, femme presenting and queer survivors, targets of rape and sexual assault when and after they have ingested alcohol adjacent to sexualized violence. (#MenTakeNotice)
When Ellen violated my boundaries, assaulted me, raped me, I was in a daze for a while in the time that followed that day, unable to fully articulate what had happened to me, inside of me. I know, though, that on that day, at some point, I was able to say that what she had done didn’t feel good, that it wasn’t what I wanted, wasn’t what we had ever agreed to do, was wrong. She got angry, visibly, verbally, telling me that my hands on her head was a signal, as is commonly reported, as my desire for her to keep going. It, of course, was not. I had told her I never wanted that done to me. And she had done it…on the couch “that her son sat on”, as people do in houses, as I would often say as I tried to acquire perspective, to understand, to make sense, healing and empowerment out of what had occurred, what she had done to me that day.
It was pretty clear that even before and during that period I so desperately wanted to just turn my emotional lights out, I had experienced some sort of sexual trauma in my earlier life, that something had happened, something bad had happened.
I was not only naive in my youth, but I was agreeable, having learned well to seek and attempt to make peace with and beyond a family dynamic that was regularly enough rife with some level of conflict. I would have been a prime candidate for one of the international legions of children sexually abused, historically and presently by violent, criminal christian priests (or nuns).
I had been an altar boy, later a Knight of the Altar in my t(w)eens (a roamin catholic youth group akin to boy scouts for altar servers). I was available, sometimes or one time (and this is a photographic memory I have of this) left by my parent(s) with one of the male church congregation. I remember crying, maybe at five or six, that my father was leaving me with a man that seemed a stranger or at least undesirable to me, for whether five minutes or one hundred and thirty seven, I don’t recollect, but I remember sobbing heavily. I was available. Sometimes, I hung around after mass as an altar boy to straighten up, staying after school to pray (seriously) at the Mary statue behind the church (yeah, I was all up in that) or participating later in just about every church organization as their youth representative (ok, I just said I was all up in it). I did get my thigh squeezed under the table by an adult woman during one of the church council meetings.
Any priest, a lot of church adults or odd and sundry others had access to me. This was in the sixty’s in a small New Jersey town, when and where people let their younger children walk to school and other places by themselves. We know those nostalgic reminiscences may have signified, but did not guarantee safety in those travel independences. I would have followed the friendly stranger man to his windowless van to see his puppy.
That said, I still don’t know. I have no picture in my mind (save one that came through during an energy healing of a man reaching his body across my body, my groin. It felt like it was evidence). I don’t have any corroborating priest, brothers, nuns or monks to say I acted differently after I had met with Father or Mister Anywho. I had no tape recordings or security camera footage that could help me flesh out a story that not only made pain, but sense. I just knew later I had watched “Spotlight” three times in the theaters and about ten or more times when it got to Netflix. It was as if I needed to see it, again and again, that it, upon the next viewing, might reveal some new informational detail or pathway or my name as a defendant.
I knew I had a strong memory of a person close to my family* stroking my cheek as I seemingly woke up once in my bed (I was in my early teens), acting as if asleep like I had been letting them finish something while I acted like I wasn’t in there, in my body. I didn’t have any other memory, image, any information, of anything beyond that moment, though one of the last times I talked to that person on the phone, something triggered and, soon after, I was not only drunk, but just about paralyzedly so, later finding myself almost passed out cold outside on the stone steps next to the pond that is a block away from my residence under a particularly freezing winter moon. I was not ok or safe that night.
And I knew I had behaviors and patterns that some trusted friends track with people having abuse or trauma pasts. And they would know. Too many of them know. Too many.
But I couldn’t, can’t complete the stories or any story that tied me so horrendously from my past to that moment naked on the couch unable to speak or effectively name itself or able to angry away Ellen’s actions so I could come back into my body and willful agency or even instinct.
But there was and is a story somewhere waiting for me to find it or for it to find me. Clear or obscured, the story is there in the shadows when Ellen violated my stated boundaries, then gaslit me in the trauma and dull absent pain of that moment, that ten minutes, that hour, that day and never took responsibility for what she had done (not in that moment, not ever). I remember her angry, frustrated face looking back at me as she left the room, me trying to make impossible sense of why I felt like I was walking away from my own drowning death or watching myself walking away from my own drowning death. How long does dissociation last?
For months into years, I shared digital and embodied social spaces with Ellen. Even seeing her name on screen at the time could plunge me back into a dull pain darkness and a quick dunk in three fast beers or a visit with my liquid therapist, Mr. Daniels. It took a while for that edge, just seeing her name, to be softened, dulled, differently weaponized or painful. It was a long time before that moment in public space when I could pass by her, without engagement, and feel like emotional safety was still something in that moment that belonged to me.
This writing is important. All survivors’ stories are important. Sometimes it takes a long time to realize when you are one, a survivor, and that you’ve survived multiple painful moments, some, yes, without a clear story. I’m not sure if it’s any harder as having a full awareness of the story.
For years, my body has been telling the story, telling a story, telling multiple stories to me. My body has gone through many experiences around these traumatic moments. A Dagara ritual experience sent me into a deep connection with some important detail that put a confirming name to that person my memory recalled stroking my “sleeping” face that time so long ago. My body, wise and often unfamiliar, tells the story. My mind wants, needs detail, clarity and resolution and a clearer path to healing.
All this, that was awakened that day on the couch with Ellen, years of bodily, emotional and informational struggle came crashing quietly through me, into me, against me when she crossed that boundary, broached the limits I had previously asked her not to. I know I said it. I know I was clear. And I know she didn’t care. I know she wasn’t taking any accountability (nor would she ever). I knew I felt painfully alone in those moments. Later I would find out more (though I had known for some time before, in a much different way), about how, horrendously, I wasn’t alone.
© 2021 Ukumbwa Sauti, M.Ed.