Friday, July 10, 2020

"Housing Dignity"

TW: Sexual Assault

We had just crossed over the border bridge on foot, hauling half a dozen birthing bags with us. As we got to the Juarez side, K. explained that the street we were now on was known for sex tourism and violence. “See that hotel,” she said as she pointed to the left side of the road, “it’s one of the worst.”

We walked down the street while she gave us a brief overview of its history and how thing had changed since Covid. The street was clean, the sidewalks looking freshly repaved. It seemed like any city’s main drag, except the road was crowded with motorist waiting in line to cross back to the El Paso side, as vendors sold snacks and knickknacks to the drivers. 

She told me she was going to get me one of the weekly newspapers as we walked back to the spot where we were to wait to be picked up. We approached a man standing by the large cross reading, “Justicia.” At this point I still had no clue what the cross was, or that the paper tags nailed to it were toe tags from bodies of murdered women. She gave the vendor a few pesos and he handed her the newspaper. I took it, gave the cover a cursory glance, and then we set off to the spot where we would catch our ride. 

We made small talk while waiting. I didn’t know if it was an Uber or another volunteer from her shelter. About half an hour later a man arrived in a van. I’ll call him “O.” 

O. was a soft spoken man with light eyes and a small bit of red scruff on his face. We piled into his van and that’s when I remembered the newspaper. I pulled it out and began flipping through the pages. The first ten or so were just local news. It looked like the alt-weekly’s we have here in the states, so I assumed the back pages would be where “massages” were advertised. 

As I continued flipping through it though, I gasped. Near the middle of the paper there weren’t small advertisements for women offering “services”... no... there were full page pornographic ads. Women were being sold in these pages. Women who’s toe tags could likely end up on the very cross their images were being purchased next to. 

“This is straight pornography,” I exclaimed. O., from the front seat, asked what I was looking at, and when K. told him what she’d given me, he nodded his head slowly and sadly. 

We stopped briefly to pick up another volunteer from the art collective K. and O. work with, then we headed to a lumber yard. 

O. and the volunteer went in to procure the wood while K., Mel, and I stayed in the van. The air was turned off but the door was open, so a nice breeze filled the car as we took respite in the shade. 

K. began telling us about the women she serves. At one point, when talking about the “torture porn” industry taking hold in Juarez, she asked how much we wanted to hear because so much of it was unfathomable to most. Mel and I assured her that we could handle hearing the reality of what these women endure. She said one of the women in her shelter has scars all over her face. Actually, a few of them do, but this one woman’s were particularly bad. “They stuck toothpicks into her skin,” she said.

That level of desperation to survive and make money for your family in such a way, is so foreign to me, but it is very much a reality here.

Eventually, O. and the other volunteer returned and the van was driven into a large lumber warehouse where planks of wood were fastened to the roof of the van. 

Mel and I still had no clue where we we’re headed, as we weaved through the crowded streets of Juarez. Up until this point, K. had been acting as our translator, when O. said something I actually understood. He apologized for his English, telling us he’s slow at speaking it because he has to translate each word in his head first. It was actually quite good though. Much better than the few words of Spanish I know. He made a joke about how he had a “bad face,” which was untrue. His eyes are incredibly kind. He said people in Juarez tell him he looks like a hillbilly because of his light complexion and auburn hair.

As we crawled up a hill in the van, the houses flanking us looked more like shacks. Blankets and pieces of aluminum stood in place of secure doors. Eventually we came to the spot where he was building a house for migrants. K. explained that he believed in “housing dignity,” and that if he could use his skills to do anything, he wanted it to be making sure the migrants waiting on asylum had a safe and dignified place to live. 

We got out of the van, and one by one, he started unloading the planks. Some other volunteers who were already there came over to assist him, and in groups of two we moved the wood to the site where the house was being build. The cinder blocks and frame were already up. A blue plastic tarp served as a make shift roof.

There were a handful of children that lived in the nearby dwellings, and they were watching on as one of the volunteers poured water into a large dirt pile. The water would be poured, then more red dirt would be added until the measurements were just right. K. told me the kids were waiting to mix the dirt and water together with their feet, and she jokingly asked me if I wanted to join them. I’d already started rolling up my pants when I realized she probably thought I was going to decline. I told her it would be just like that episode of “I love Lucy” where they were at the vineyard stomping grapes and that I was all in. 

Sadly, before the time came to mix the clay for the walls, K. told us it was time to go to the shelter and that she’d just ordered us an Uber. I rolled my pants back down and smiled at the children who were about to have so much fun in the cool clay.

“Housing dignity”... that’s something so few of us in the states have to worry about. For many of us, if we lose our housing, we at least have friend’s who’s couches we can crash on, or family that will take us in. But for these women, they are hundreds of miles away from anyone they know. They have zero community to lean on for support. And women with no roofs over their heads - no roofs over their children’s heads - often have to go to great, soul crushing, debasing lengths to provide the safety and security of a home. So, O. is not simply creating safe dwellings. He’s creating spaces for women and children to thrive which don’t require their dehumanization to simply survive.

When we spoke to K. the night before we left, we asked her to come up with a wishlist for what she would like for the shelter. Preferably in order of the most needed first. One of our big BIG dreams we had was to be able to help O. out with some sort of transportation so he didn’t have to keep hauling wood on the top of his van, but that expense seemed pretty unreachable at the time. 

And then, this week as you all bought out the registry for the THIRD TIME I got an email from the refrigerator company informing me that they don’t deliver to El Paso. 

I was so upset. 

As I was trying to formulate a plan, y’all bought the washing machine, and Amazon informed me they wouldn’t be able to deliver that either. The TWO BIGGEST items on the registry, and probably the two most needed.

As I scrambled to figure out what to do, I posted on my personal Facebook asking if anyone in the Dallas area had a UHAUL style trailer we could borrow because maybe the solution was simply for me to drive the two items back across Texas myself. Within minutes someone said they would cover the cost of a UHAUL so we’d have insurance on it. It still pained me to even think about spending over a thousand dollars (because they charge by the mile) on something we’d only be renting for a few days though. Especially since I knew that money would be better spent somewhere else. 

And then, a few minutes after that, ANOTHER donation came in covering the cost of both the refrigerator and the washing machine in case we needed to cancel those orders (at which point the donations would simply go back to the donors, not NWF - which I’m sure y’all would have donated back, but it still would’ve been such a pain for everyone, so I was trying to avoid that if at all possible). 

All that to say, y’all’s generosity completely floored me, and it also gave me the room I needed to breathe. And with that oxygen flowing again, and some input from our brilliant board, we got to brainstorming the best solution. We realized this might actually be the universe’s way of pushing us into the perfect solution after all. 

Within a day, I was able to find a guy an hour away who builds flatbed trailers with high sides. The kind of trailer that would be PERFECT for hauling a fridge and washer to El Paso. And then we could leave the trailer there for O. & K. to use to haul lumber for the houses.

That was a BIG DREAM item and you guys provided it. I’d say I’m speechless, but if you’ve made it this far you know I’m anything but. But my heart is still so full of gratitude for the good work in Juarez y’all have supported this week. 

K. was speechless though. When I told her the good news I just got a string of head exploding emojis.


TW: Sexual Assault

When you walk into the shelter in Juárez, the first thing you have to do is sanitize your hands and the bottoms of your shoes. There‘s a small wooden table adorned with an assortment of plastic bottles just inside the door. 

With 20 people, a collection of women and children all staying at the shelter, they have to take every precaution necessary to keep them safe from outside germs. 

I grabbed the hand sanitizer first. Rubbing the cool liquid into my palms and all around my fingers. Then I started to spray off the bottoms of my shoes, as I’d been instructed to the day before, with another bottle of disinfectant. 

K., the woman who brought us to the shelter, is always in high demand. As soon as we got there, she was swept away by one of the residents needing her assistance. Mel and I were left on our own, which normally wouldn’t have been an issue, except an older women approached us and started pointing at my feet - saying something in Spanish. I didn’t know if she was a volunteer or a resident, all I knew was that she was clearly trying to communicate something very important to me.

Had I not done it right? Had I missed a step? My heart began to race and I froze, not wanting to contaminate anything any further until I figured out what I had done wrong. Another younger woman walked over, who we’d met the day before. She’s 17, and we were told she’d just finished up her nursing studies. I looked to her for some sign as to what I should do. Her face gave me no answers, so I turned back to Mel. “What did I forget? Did I do it wrong? WHERE IS K.?!?” Mel was as lost as I was, and that’s when the young nursing student said, “She like... she like... your shoe... where did you get?”

The older woman then removed her own sandal to show me the hard plastic toe separator. Suddenly, we were speaking the same language because I HATE those too!!! I prefer the fabric kind that don’t rub against your toe pits. Yes, I said toe pits. It’s a thing! Ha!

Immediately, a wave of relief washed over me as I began explaining to them, probably in too many words for the younger woman to translate, that I’d just stopped at Walmart that morning, while we were still on the American side, to pick them up. 

See, I’d come down to El Paso in a dusty old pair of Vans, I knew I should’ve packed my flip flops, but alas, I didn’t. And after traveling the streets of Juarez the previous day, my Vans had rubbed awful blisters on both my pinky toes. 

Mel, my partner-in-crime, had been telling me for a month now that I needed new shoes since I’d been slowing her down at all of the protests we’d attended in May. 

“My feet were just made for flip flops, Mel! I don’t know what else to tell you.”

Mel is sensible and wears sensible shoes, but I’ve never been sensible and flip flops are life. 

I told the two women I would find her a pair next time I was at the store. I’m not sure if they were able to understand my words, but a few hours later we needed to go pick up some diapers for a family with a newborn that just moved into the shelter.

Because there was a recent outbreak which shut down a number of factories where people earned their livelihoods, Mexico is taking this virus VERY seriously. So seriously, that only one person is allowed in their grocery stores at a time. I told K. I could just give her my card and PIN number, but she said she’d feel more comfortable if I just ran in myself, so I did, even though I was completely incapable of communicating with anyone. 

An officer at the front of the store took my temperature, squirted a dollop of sanitizer into my hands, and gave me a small paper number to use when I checked out - I guess to confirm I’d gone through the proper decontamination steps upon entry. As I turned the corner to find the diapers, there is was... a glorious display of my beloved flip flops.

I searched through the racks mad at myself for not getting a better look at the woman’s shoe size, before finding a nice comfy pair that looked like they’d fit just right. 

When we returned to the shelter, I carried in the diapers and a few other bags of small knickknacks and toys we’d picked up for the kids. And then I saw the woman from earlier and remembered the flip flops! I was so excited to give them to her and she was just as happy to receive them. 

We’d told K. about our funny foible early, and how that was the woman the shoes were for. Then she told me who she was. She was a resident of the shelter who had survived a horrific amount of sexual abuse and because of it suffered from Fistula. Fistula is debilitating, and the only other time I’d really heard much about it was in regards to women who’d suffered nearly lethal rapes in the Congo.

(You can learn more about Traumatic Fistula here:

My heart broke for her. We might be walking in the same literal shoes today, but I can’t begin to imagine what she went through on her journey to seek asylum. 

So many of the women we met had similar stories, some with (physical) scars more visible than others because “torture porn” is taking a hold in Juárez and these women have been subjected to things most of us in the states can’t even fathom.

But their smiles, flip flop discomforts, hopes and hearts are still just as real as our own. There wasn’t a woman or child there that hadn’t suffered seemingly insurmountable challenges, but yet they were all still standing. Still persevering, still helping those with whom they shared these walls. 

“We’ve been given much so that we can give much.” That is the motto I live my life by, and it’s clearly a motto this amazing woman lives her life by as well, as she’s now helping care for others alongside those who care for her.

The Intersection

TW: Assault

We got out of the car near where 16 de Septiembre meets Constitucion.
Her face was there. Painted on the wall nearby, her eyes a flat blue, and dozens of bodyless eyes were floating around her head. The words "te observan" were written at the top. "We're watching."
Karina told us it was a painting by Isabel Cabanillas, one of her best friends. She was an artist who worked as part of several collectives focused on protecting the women of Juarez. They worked tirelessly to counter the femicide that had taken root in their city over the last few decades. They also acted as guides to migrants, showing them to the places where they could access resources and safe lodging. She painted clothing to sell in order to raise money for them. She kept a neighborhood watch. She was doing the work. 
And then, last January, Isabel was shot in the head and chest and left to die in the streets she fought to protect.
She became another pink rectangle with a black cross. A symbol that haunts their community and covers many of the telephone poles, signaling the spots where other woman were found dead. 
The community that she worked so hard to protect was, and remains, rightfully outraged at her loss. 
Marches were held. 
Crowds of women shut down the Santa Fe bridge, under the shadow of another large cross with the toe tags of all of the murdered women. 
They wrapped black bandannas around their faces and chanted "ni una mas." Not one more.
Across the street from "Te Observan" is a painting of Isabel. Purple hair, a big smile. At various spots around the area, purple stencils of an eye boxes in by the words "Isa Vive" can be found. Isa lives. 
She is still doing the work. "They didn't kill all of us,” Karina, explained. 
Forming a triangle with "Te Observan" and the painting of Isabel is ‘Panaderia Rezizte.’ The Resist Bakery. 
In it 'Yorch' and his wife are baking bread. Gorgeous loaves and sweet buns made from recipes that were passed down from his grandfather. They sell the items they bake to raise money, and they donate fresh bread to migrant shelters. They were close friends with Isabel and the bike she was riding when she was killed is placed in a position of honor above the front door. 
“You have to eat, right?" Yorch told us. "This is a basic need. So we’re making bread." The bakery has the electricity of big things packed into small spaces.
The day before we went to the intersection, a man named Omar picked us up from the border and we talked with Karina in his van while he purchased lumber to take to a build site. When we got there, we helped haul the lumber to the side of a small hut, where they were building lodging for migrant families waiting for their immigration court date. 
Small children were patiently being shown how to add just the right amount of water to dusty clay in order to make adobe for the walls of the hut. Just before it was time for us to leave, they finally got to the part they'd been working for - the moment when they could take off their shoes and squish the water into the clay with their toes. The families who will live in that small home will probably never hear the laughter of the kids who helped build the walls that are surrounding them, but I hope they will feel it. It's not a mansion, it will not have air conditioning, memory foam mattresses, or cable television. But it will provide some measure of protection in a world full of agencies, weather, and human beings that almost always do not. It will give them a sense of home and dignity while they wait for their futures to unfold. 
It's the communities of Juarez - Karina, Yorch, Omar, their families, and the hundreds of others using art, and bread, and mud, and sweat, and laughter to heal the brokenness of this world. 
Isa vive. Isa lives. 

~By NWF Board Member, Melissa Miles

Monday, July 6, 2020


TW: Sexual Assault

Everywhere... they’re everywhere.
Black crosses on pink rectangles cover Juárez.
It’s impossible to drive down any street in the city without seeing at least one... often you see a dozen or more at a time. Telephone pole after telephone pole after telephone pole, covered in the crosses. Some are bright pink with fresh paint, others are faded and peeling. People walk passed them without much notice because they’re so common... they’re so.... everywhere.

But each cross represents a life.
Each cross represents the spot where a woman‘s body was found.
“They will often target migrant women,” my friend K told me... probably in an attempt to make me feel safe. “Because unlike you, they can’t be traced - they know no one will be looking for them.”
Many of these women leave their countries of origin in an attempt to find a safer land, but on their journey the dangers only increase.
When they get to the US border, if they’re not granted immediately asylum, they’re given a court date. Often times it’s at least a year away. And if their asylum is denied all together, they are stuck.
Women from Guatemala, Venezuela, or Ecuador have no way to legally work even in Mexico, without a visa, so they’re pushed into other ways of earning the money they need to survive.... to feed their children.
This frequently leads to sex work. To abuse. To the “torture porn” Juarez is becoming famous for. And more times than not, to death... Because in the eyes of their killers these women are nothing more than property to be used and disposed of.
And this dehumanization spreads. It’s not just migrant women who are property to these predators, it‘s poor Mexican women too, because everyone knows their families don’t have the money necessary to seek justice.
Their value is only contingent on their wealth or documentation - two things so many of these women don’t have - making their lives expendable in the eyes of the killers and the government.
A large cross is on display at the entrance back to the American side of the border. It was originally erected for 8 women who were killed, but has stayed because that was just the beginning.
The black beams rest against a large piece of pink wood. Railroad spikes now surround the cross. Numerous tags are attached to the spikes that flap and twist in the wind. When I first saw the memorial I didn’t give it much thought.
I had no idea what those tags were.
Then K told us they were the toe tags of the murdered women. A group of activists requests them from the morgues and then they hang them on the spikes.
Far too many read, “No Identificada.”
When a murderer is caught, the woman’s tag is removed.
But far too many tags will remain forever on that cross... the only trace left of so many women’s stolen lives.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Raising Activists

The other day, my husband and I went to the store to get some stuff for dinner. Trips to Kroger are the closest thing we have to date nights these days, so we usually take our time strolling down the aisles, enjoying some kid-free conversations.

On this particular day, however, we were only gone for about 30 minutes. When we returned home, we walked through the door to find our daughter, Eddie, curled up in my husband's chair with tears streaming down her face.

She ran up to me, buried her head in my chest, and began gasping out bursts of words, “I shouldn’t have watched it... I shouldn’t have clicked through... but I did. I saw him die, mom. I saw him die.”

My heart sank.

While I’ve been attending protests demanding justice for George Floyd the passed few weeks, even *I* haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the video.

I can’t.

I saw the images.

I read the commentary.

I knew what had happened, but I couldn’t watch a full 8 minutes and 46 seconds of a man’s slow, painful murder - his life literally being snuffed out on camera.

We sat down on the couch and I held Eddie as she told me what had happened through tears and sobs.

She was looking at a friend’s Instagram on our home computer. The friend posted a screenshot of a girl, around her age, in blackface. Her friend then followed it up with another link to the full video of George Floyd’s death to make a point about how vile this teens racism was.

Eddie was mad at the girl doing blackface. She was mad at the cop. She was mad at the world. And her anger was justified.

So I sat with her in it.

That’s what these last few weeks of protests have taught me - how to simply sit with others in their pain, and then stand along side them and fight for change.

Being an activist myself, I know how important that righteous anger is.

It’s the flame that keeps us pushing forward, even when the future we‘re striving for seems damn near impossible - it’s always there to light the way.

I want my children to have that same fire in their belly for justice, but I also know from experience that we can’t live constantly ablaze, or we will burn out before we’ve had a chance to make a real difference.

Later that night, after Eddie’s tears had dried, she came and sat with me on the patio. I told her that I didn’t ever want her to forget how she felt when she saw that video... that I wished she hadn’t seen it... but since she had, I wanted her to lock that feeling deep inside her heart, because it would become invaluable to her one day.

Those feelings are what cultivate an activist spirit inside all of us. Spirits the world needs. That is what George Floyd’s legacy will be for so many people in this rising generation... no matter his past... he gave us ALL a mission for our collective future.

But that anger she‘s feeling right now? It needed to be addressed. It must be handled with care.

It can’t be accessed wantonly, because our rage is so powerful.

So, so powerful.

It’s like a lion in a cage.

If we don’t train it, it will eat us alive.

...It will eat everyone involved alive.

That power must be harnessed, and controlled, and used wisely.

Because at the end of the day, that’s the caliber of outrage it’s going to take to tear down these oppressive systems. Systems that are so deeply rooted in our country that people literally think we’re ripping at the fabric of our flag when we try to tear them out.

But really we’re just fighting to create the very nation that flag claims to represent - one that stands for liberty and JUSTICE for all.

May we all be raising the activists our future needs right now.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Never Give Up... anything

I remember the exact moment that my world changed forever... just like it was yesterday.
My mother was leaning over my bathroom sink when I suddenly saw her rock back onto her heels and let out a long sigh. Her eyes were closed, which made me even more nervous.
“How long do those things usually take?” I asked as I sat on my bed a few feet away.
“It says 3 minutes on the box...” she responded. Then I then let out my own sigh of relief before she finished, “...but it only took 30 seconds.”
“30 seconds... 30 seconds to, to what? 30 seconds to tell me I’m NOT pregnant? I don’t understand. What are you saying?”
She took two giants steps towards my bed as if she was trying to race the giant ball of realization that was headed straight for me. She got there just as it hit, obliterating everything I knew my life to be, and I collapsed into her arms sobbing.
I screamed.
I screamed so much.
I said horrible things that I wish I could take back now but I was just so angry... so angry at myself.
What had I done?
I, more than anyone, knew how hard this type of thing was on a child. I WAS THAT CHILD just seconds earlier. My mother was only 19 when she got pregnant with me, and that was still three years older than I was at the time.
Life was hard for me growing up. I mean, of course, I’m glad I’m here but it wasn’t easy. And now here I was, about to put another person through that exact same existence.
I didn’t know if I could. Abortion was never an option, but there were still so many other choices to be made in the coming months.
For the first 2 trimesters of my pregnancy, I considered adoption. I was only a sophomore in high school so it just seemed prudent. When I would tell my friends I was thinking about placing my baby into another family’s arms most of them would respond with something like, “You should, because are you really ready to give up the next 18-years of your life?”
Those words were continually rolling around in my head.
Back then, 18 years seemed like a lifetime... I mean, it quite literally was for me... and then some.
In the end, I decided against adoption, although birth mothers and fathers are my heroes to this day. The amount of love and strength it takes to make that decision is astonishing.
But I knew I had the means to raise my son, thanks to family support - something so many women don’t have. And while I wasn’t able to give him everything, I was able to give him enough.
Looking back now, I can definitively say I gained so much more than I ever gave up though.
He saved me.
He gave my life a purpose and my heart a mission.
Through him I gained an invaluable perspective of what it’s like to be a pregnant teenager, walking down the halls of my high school through thick clouds of gossip, feeling utterly invisible while also somehow the most visible person in that place.
I gained a bouncing baby boy, that showed me just how strong my body was as I brought him into this world.
I gained a toddler that raised me as I was raising him. We figured out so much of our lives together. I think all new moms feel this way, but by 18 I really was just learning how to live independently for the first time, and it was nice that I didn’t actually have to be independent at all, because my trusty sidekick was always there with me.
I gained the experience of being a single mother for a few years after that - just the two of us against the world - and then I gained an amazing husband and had more children.
I gained a sweet little boy who would retreat into his room whenever those siblings got too loud or out of control... and often times he would let me join him as we hid out together knowing we both needed respite from their rambunctiousness.
I gained a brilliant teenager who always had a mind for math and science but recently surprised us all with his amazing artistic abilities - he gets that from me, obviously.
I gained a young man who works hard, and if I’m lucky will even tell me all about the weirdest customers he‘s had on any given day.
And today, oh, today... so long in the making...
Today my son turns 18 and I’m gaining a full-grown man - a man of character who maybe, just maybe, I can actually start to become friends with now that the bulk of my “clean your room” era parenting is over.
...although, now that I think about it, yeah, he still needs to clean his room.
I have never before given up so little to gain so much in return.
This child, who is now a man, has brought so much joy into my life, and to all those who are lucky enough know him.
And I’m so glad people get to know him. I’m so glad he’s here. I’m so glad I chose life because my own has been so greatly enriched through raising him. In the beginning, it was messy and rough and I cried more tears than I ever knew I had. But those tears have turned to ones of joy now as I watch him grow into the amazing young man he is today.
So, happy birthday, Enoch. I’m incredibly proud to be your mother.
I didn’t give up anything. I gained you.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

How My Sexual Assault Made Me "Sex Positive"... in all the wrong ways.

{CW: Sexual Assault}
Last year, Jessica Valenti, a well-known feminist author and activist, spoke at SMU in Dallas.
And even though we disagree on a few keys things (like whether or not NWF belonged in the Women’s March) she wrote a book called ‘Sex Object’ that I absolutely adored, so I went.
Not only does she talk about the sexual harassment she experienced as a young teen simply for being born female, but she describes in her book how often women will objectify themselves because, after all, if it’s going to happen anyway, we might as well at least control some facet of our own exploitation, right?
As I read her words I realized she was telling my story.
I can remember thinking if men were going to use my body for their pleasure no matter what, I might as well pretend I was calling some of the shots.
So I did.
By 18, I’d convinced myself that hook-up culture was empowering, and that I was only being “used” if I chose to view it that way. Maybe true equality meant *I* could become the user.
I’m not sure exactly what I thought I was using, as my sexual interactions were seldom good (something on par with what an overwhelming number of women seem to be saying these days about one night stands and *their* satisfaction levels). More often than not, it was merely performance art on my part as I acted out all the tricks I’d read and rehearsed in Cosmo magazine over the years. I was a liberated, sex positive woman. This is what we did, or were supposed to, right? So who cared if the pleasure was mostly one-sided?
Look, as long as I didn’t call the guy before he didn’t call me, we were equals in my book. I was just so empowered... or something.
But the more I unpacked my own experiences and what led me to this type of mentality, the more I realized it wasn’t the full story. There was a moment - a crucial moment - when everything changed for me.
I wasn’t always like this.
There was a time when I *did* view sex as a deep intimate connection between two people who loved and respected one another. It was precious. It had value. It was a gift, not a tool used to grab power or be weaponized for control.
When I was younger, I had only had two serious boyfriends, both of whom I loved deeply.
I broke the first one’s heart, and the second one broke mine... when at 16 I told him I was pregnant and he decided not to stick around.
My life was suddenly a mess, and I became easy prey.
I’d just started working a summer job, one I felt lucky to even get because I knew I would start showing soon and was afraid no one would hire me.
The only problem was, two weeks into this new job the manager pulled me aside and told me he’d made a huge mistake. He simply didn’t have the hours available in his budget to bring me on. And since the three older boys, whom I knew from high school, had all worked there the previously, they had seniority and I was gonna be let go.
Then, just as I was about to burst into tears, he told me how when he mentioned this to the guys, all three of them offered to give up ten of their own hours each week so he could keep me on.
I was beyond grateful. I owed them all big time.
Before leaving work that day one of the boys pulled me aside and as I thanked him for what they’d all done he told me they heard around school that I was pregnant. He promised he wouldn’t tell our boss, because he said they knew I needed the money for more important stuff than they did.
My secret was out, but I trusted them to keep it safe.
Of the three guys there was one that was just a little off. He was chaos and energy, all the time. He was the one I got along with the least.
But a week or two later, he followed me home from work one day, even though I told him not to. I let him inside and he asked me where my room was. I told him he really shouldn’t be there since my parents weren’t home, but he ignored me and walked up the stairs.
My mother, with her best intentions, had always told me not to “create an environment where someone could take advantage of me.”
But here I was. I had just created it, and he was going to.
He kissed me. I let him kiss me. I owed him. He took off my shirt. I let him take off my shirt. I owed him.
He took off my pants and I tried to slow him down. At this point I felt I’d already given him enough... but he disagreed.
Tears streamed down the sides of my face as he had sex with me. I didn’t fight him though. I said “no” clearly and loudly, but I didn’t yell. No one was there to hear me anyway.
I just froze and let him finish.
These are all the tiny little details I ran over and over again in my head the following days.
These are the things that didn’t make it a rape. He just “took advantage of the situation” I told myself. A “situation” I allowed to be created the moment I let him into my house when no one was there.
In my mind, I was to blame.
Two days later, I saw him at work. I didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t want to be anywhere near him, and for the most part he left me alone until almost the end of my shift.
That’s when a man came in and I guess he was being a little too friendly because this boy came up and took over, shuffling me off to clock out.
Was he trying to make amends for what he’d done? Was this supposed to be chivalrous? Did he suddenly realize just how easy it was for him to take advantage of me and now in some sick and twisted way he was trying protecting me from another man doing the same?
As the days and weeks wore on, I gave up. I honestly never thought about reporting it because in my mind it wasn’t a rape. It just couldn’t be. My victim sash was already too full. The single teen mom badge was taking up so much space, there was no room for a rape survivor patch as well.
Over the following months my belly grew, and the awkwardness around my coworker began to fade. My mind started trying to figure out how to set all of this right; how to change the narrative, even if only retroactively.
I began to think that maybe just maybe I’d be able to kill two bird with one stone if I could somehow learn to love him, or at the very least like him. Then it wouldn’t have been rape, and I’d still only have had sex with people I cared for deeply. My record and reputation would be renewed.
So I tried. I did.
We “dated” even though he had a girlfriend the entire time. He took my to a school dance and talked to the child growing inside my womb.
We became friends.
I was never able to love him the way I’d loved my previous boyfriends, but we did form a bizarre connection.
And just like that, I wasn’t assaulted anymore. He just “took advantage of the situation” that one time, but amends had been made and we could all move on now.
Years later he was completely out of my life, and I truly felt as though I’d beat the system. I somehow managed to reverse my own victimhood.
My son was born, I graduated, and before I knew it I fell into hook-up culture hard, even though at this point, I, more than anyone, should’ve known better.
This life would never serve me well. I was too broken.
I don’t know how I didn’t end up with any diseases or subsequent pregnancies as my life became totally wheels off. But I do know that the pain I felt from that one moment broke something inside of me, and it never went away as hard as I tried to convince myself it had - it simply reverberated throughly the years in smaller destructive waves.
As a 35-year-old woman, I look back now and my heart breaks for the younger me. I was doing exactly what Valenti talked about in her book. I was hurting myself before anyone else could hurt me again - telling myself I wasn’t a victim while victimizing myself over and over, relentlessly.
It ruined sex for me for many many years because that act became nothing more than a tool. It was how I could control men, heal them, hurt them. And I used it accordingly. It was power over another person which felt better than the powerlessness I’d become so accustomed to, but it had nothing to do with their human dignity or mine.
After years of reflection, and being loved the right way I like to think those wounds have begun to heal. There’s still a scar there for sure, but they’re on the mend.
I know what good healthy sex looks like, which is why I scoff at most of the things labeled “sex positive” these days.
They are anything but.
They are exploitive and destructive. We deride men for their “toxic masculinity” and their unwillingness to connect to others and show emotion while simultaneously praising toxic femininity - this idea that women should be able to bounce from person to person, feeling nothing. Feelings, when it comes to sex, are a weakness to be avoided at all costs. There needy and desperate. We strive to be as callous and closed off as the worst men, and we call that progress.
This wasn’t meant to be a #whyididntreport story, or at least it didn’t start off as one.
My purpose for writing about what happened to me was to hopefully help other women understand just how knotted up experiences like this can be, and still are, in the heads and hearts of so many of us.
Sexual assault is hardly ever cut and dry.
It impacts us for years and years from deep within our psyche.
I’ve only recently begun to come to terms with what happened that day 19 years ago and gain any true insight. For me it took sitting on a couch, a decade after my assault, telling a friend over a glass of wine about how this boy “took advantage of the situation” and her looking me square in the face and telling me I was raped.
I was raped?
Wow... maybe I was raped.
I said it out loud and it’s like the sutures came flying off of this unhealed wound.
If we can’t admit it to ourselves, then how can we tell another person, let alone report it to anyone beyond that?
And how many of us simply try to undo it, because that’s what women do? We are problem solvers. We are fixers. We are creative and strong as hell. But sometimes our perseverance backfires and only serves to cover up that festering wound indefinitely. But until it’s opened up, and given oxygen, and cleaned out, it will continue to make us sick and eat away at our minds, bodies, and souls.
In order for us to heal we have to purge this hurt from deep within our beings. In order for us to love others and see their pain we have to be able to love ourselves. In order for us inoculate our daughters and sons against this same sickness, we have to become whole and uninfected ourselves, so that we can help them avoid these hurts... otherwise this cycle will only continue for generations and these lies will be mislabeled as “liberation”.... keeping us all sick.

(Originally posted on the New Wave Feminists FB page)