I am in the student health waiting room filling out required forms, writing in my date of birth and social security number and marital status, listing any allergies I have to specific medications, and I reach a box asking if I have ever been sexually assaulted. I either check the box or I don’t.
In 2006, I met my first real-deal boyfriend. I was a senior in college, 22, and one of those late-in-life virgins, waiting for the ideal circumstances to have sex. When we had sex the first time, it hurt. When we had sex every other time, it hurt. But I had no way to describe what was happening in the dark, no way to talk about it, no language to explain.
In 2008, after we’d graduated and broken up, he e-mailed me confessing he’d cheated with four women (not simultaneously, but just as unimaginable). Like the responsible and terrified educated woman I was, I got tested for AIDS and STIs. During the exam, the gynecologist asked me if I’d given birth. Huh? I’ve never been pregnant. She said my cervix was ruptured, torn in such a way that it looked like I’d given birth to a baby. A human-size baby. I was broken on the inside and nobody knew, not even me.
Either I check the box or I don’t. Do the mornings I’d wake up to him thrusting into me count? Does it count that I stopped thinking I was “having sex” and started thinking “I was being had sex with”? A torn cervix, does it count? Check the box or do not check the box.
In 2011, I started the second semester of my Masters of Fine Arts program in creative nonfiction, and I workshopped a book chapter about these events — it was my first attempt to describe what happened in the dark, to talk about it, to develop a language to explain. Here are selected passages from the chapter:
I never said, “No, no, no.” When I’d cry — almost every time we had sex — he asked if he should keep going. Keep going, I’d say. Just finish. And he would. He could.
What is the difference between saying “No, no, no,” and praying the man you trust will stop when he sees you crying? How about when he hears you screaming?
I would look at him, concentrating every part of me on the mouth that kept saying it loved me … And he didn’t know. I could see that he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong or unusual. He and I could feel things so differently while we were at the center of one another.
A male classmate typed up a one-page single-spaced critique, and in the last paragraph he wrote: “You need to invent a new word for your situation. Diet Rape or Rape II. Caffeine free rape [sic]. A rape substitute. maybe [sic], ‘I can’t believe it’s not rape.’ Just trying to interject a little humor in here. Not sure what to say. I hope your cervix is better.” Nothing but rubber bands go back to normal. I check the box.
The nurse enters the examination room and sits at her desk adjacent to my chair that is the color of wine-stained carpet. She reviews my forms and asks about the box I checked. “Are you in any current danger?” she asks. I am not. Does that mean I should not have checked the box?
The classmate who brainstormed the phrase “Diet Rape” wrote a note in black ink on his critique: “‘Rape’ hints @ a criminal act. Was this criminal?” Do I have to check a box? When I explained to a friend what happened with my first boyfriend, I added the caveat: “I mean, it wasn’t like back-alley rape.” Her response: “Yeah, I was not-back-alley raped too.” This was not an isolated, personal problem.
I am on the exam table waiting for the Pap smear. I think, How did I end up like this? — not just in terms of my feet in stirrups and a paper sheet the only barrier between my private, special fun-time zone and a stranger from student health, but like this, a box checker. In my gown of rough paper, I think of a conversation I had last year at a bar with grad school friends — we were talking about what we lost when we lost our virginities. The three women in the group, including me, had stories of sexual violence. After a few drinks, the male friend grew frustrated and admitted he didn’t understand why women were “stupid” enough to remain in situations of violence or trauma or pain when no obvious force was forcibly being forced at them, at us. He asked, “Didn’t you know he was tearing your cervix? How’d you let that happen? Why didn’t you leave?”
Why didn’t I say no, no, no.
Instead of answering him, I could have gone into even more silence, a deeper fear, an ever-widening chasm of shame. But I did not. The only way to escape being the victim, acting the victim, or blaming the victim is to stand up for the victims. I gathered up all the questions he asked me and asked them of him, to this man who is no longer my friend: “Would you know when someone you thought you loved for the first time was tearing your cervix? Do you even know what a cervix is? No? Are you stupid? Do you get called stupid because someone made a promise to love you, and you were hurt because you trusted him?”
He didn’t understand it. To understand it would be to think about it, which he didn’t want to do. To understand it would mean going through his own history, a history where he might recognize how he hurt someone else or failed to accept what someone else had done because it scared him.
“Be kind to the wounded,” I told him. Those who are abused have to deal with (1) abuse; (2) being unable to talk about it because they don’t know what happened to them or they are ashamed they’ll suffer blame or further distress; and (3) being called stupid for having “let” it happen.
I am staring at the exam room ceiling and breathing deeply when I ask the nurse how my cervix looks now, in 2012. Still torn to shreds like the way I imagine? She says, “No.” She says it’s a beautiful, healthy dome of pink.
Nothing happened, yet everything changed.
I fleetingly wonder: If I had endured this sexual pain, then would I be protected from future invasion, like could my torn cervix inoculate me against future duress? Could I never be hurt again? Could it be like the chicken pox? Could it? Please?
I am stepping out of the paper and putting on my underwear first and hopping on one foot for one sock and then the other and then jeans and my bra and my sweater and coat. The nurse knocks and tells me she’ll call in a week if the results from my yearly exam are abnormal. Otherwise, I won’t hear from her. I hope I don’t talk to her ever again.
I never told my ex-boyfriend about my cervix. Does this let him off the hook? Is he absolved owing to ignorance? No. I’m just afraid he’ll react like the men in my graduate program in New York City — not uneducated, not abnormally conservative or sheltered or unworldly — and he’ll say it wasn’t “criminal”; he’ll say I’m being “stupid.” How stupid. How criminal. What would it mean to have left that box unchecked?
We want it to be true that if we are hurt, it’s not by anyone we love. We want it to be true that if we have sex, it feels good. We want it to be true that if it didn’t feel good, we’d have it in our power to change that, or at the very least, articulate it and be listened to.
I originally (and regrettably) titled the chapter I workshopped “How Not to Lose Your Virginity.” My classmate titled his critique “How to Make a Guy Cringe,” and when I read that I thought, This is his tragedy, too, and not because reading about what happened to me and what happens in the world made him uncomfortable, but because of the way he’s been socialized to sex and violence against women.
I thought the problem was out there, in the back alleys. I believed the classroom was far from the back alley. I hoped the people who used the phrase “Diet Rape” were not in educational institutions, sitting next to me, cringing. It’s his tragedy, too, because the problem is not just out there, it’s also in here, in my classroom, in my relationship, in the way I thought about and talked about and had sex — the problem is in him, Mr. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rape.