by Fiona Helmsley
I don’t like the word “victim.” Though it’s an accurate description of my role in certain situations, when it’s used to describe me as a person who has experienced sexual assault, I think it gives the perpetrator even more power. Here is the new identity you have foisted upon me. I am your victim. “Victim” refers to our inter-tangled relationship, and whenever I can, I want to be as separate from you as possible. I don’t want to share a word with you.
I’m not the first person to feel this way about “victim.” When AIDS first emerged in the 1980s, people with the virus where described as “AIDS victims.” Some in the affected communities disavowed the term for similar reasons: They thought it was disempowering, that it was giving their lives, their identities, over to the virus. They were still alive, still fighting to live, but felt that they were being described as if the virus had already taken them. Their preference was to be called “People With AIDS.” I don’t have a concise alternative to offer to people who have experienced sexual assault.
There are others things about the lexicon of sexual assault that bother me. I try to rectify this in the language I use, or don’t use, when I write about the times I have experienced it. I will either try to describe those situations, and the dynamics that were at work, or if I can find no other way around it (meaning, mostly, I’m aware of some kind of time constraint), I will use words like victimize. Victimize works for me. It’s a verb, and connotes transition. It’s also something one does, as opposed to something one is.
The first time I was sexually assaulted, I couldn’t even identify that I had been. I knew what sexual assault was, but only in the way that it was shown in movies or after-school specials. I thought that it involved implicit violence, and loud, verbalized resistance, and perhaps even Jodie Foster. All of my points of reference were cinematic, or explained to me by health teachers to involve creepy uncles or “stranger danger.” It’s funny to me to think that I was ever that literal and naive. There were other factors that played into my delayed identification of the assault for what it was. Namely, my feelings about myself at the time. My dislike for myself.
The person who sexually assaulted me was named Trey Roberts. He was a senior in high school at the time, and I was a freshman, 15 years old. The year was 1992. Though my friends and I couldn’t recognize it then, Trey hung out with us because people his own age kept him at arm’s length. He was good looking, and funny, in an uncomplicated way, and had a car, and weed connections. As a friend who could do things for us, he was a score. He dated three of my girlfriends consecutively. I had no interest in Trey Roberts as a boyfriend, which was convenient, because the politics of being Trey Roberts meant that he never would have been interested in me as a girlfriend. The generalized male consensus about me at the time was that I was funny and smart, but not very attractive. Boys like Trey tolerated me because I was part of the package of pretty friends. Because of this, I ended up spending a considerable amount of time around him, and he would often turn to me for relationship advice.
He and I were alone at a local swimming spot the day that he assaulted me. We were waiting for Trey’s girlfriend, one of my best friends, to arrive, and Trey was complaining to me that she wouldn’t have sex with him, that she was, in his words, “a prude.” I remember him saying this to me as if he believed I held some sway over the situation, like I could lead her to reassess her decision, and in turn “put out.” I had no such power, and wouldn’t have used it for the benefit of Trey Robert’s nasty cock, even if I did, but he must have suspected something about me, that turned out to be true: That I wouldn’t repeat to my friend what he had said about her, at least verbatim– that I could be trusted to keep secrets for him. And he was right. I never told anyone, until years later, what happened next. But it wasn’t out of shame, or fear. It was out of ignorance.
I didn’t try to fight off Trey Roberts that day at the swimming spot because I had never thought of sexual assault like this, as happening between two friends, as they did something innocuous, like hanging out, waiting for another friend. I also didn’t try to fight Trey Roberts because I didn’t want his girlfriend, my good friend, to stumble across us, or to hear us, so I wanted what was happening that I didn’t want to happen to be over as quickly, and as quietly, as possible. I knew that if anyone were to find out what had happened between Trey and I, it would be viewed as cheating, and I would be blamed.
Because I couldn’t yet identify what had happened that day as sexual assault, in my gut, on a visceral level, what bothered me about it was the inequity of it. Not only was Trey bigger than I was, and able to utilize that strength in order to force me to comply, in the court of public opinion (meaning, our group of peers and friends), his ideas and definitions of the situation mattered more than mine. My “no” hadn’t mattered to Trey Roberts, nor would it matter to anyone else. This made me angry and resentful, but I never felt afterward that I had been changed in someway by what Trey Roberts had made me do.
And there was this: I disliked myself so much at that age, that I tried to interpret what had happened that day in a way that could make me feel better about myself. I tried to tell myself that Trey had forced himself on me because he found me as desirable and attractive as the friends of mine that he dated. It’s hard for me to write this, but I remember wondering—after accepting that what was happening was going to happen whether I wanted it to or not— whether or not I looked ugly to Trey Roberts as I knelt there in the dirt, his torso above me.
A dominant narrative has an intimidation effect. When your story is different, you are more likely to keep it to yourself, rearrange it, or dismiss it entirely, for not measuring up. As ideas about what constituted sexual assault became more broad and inclusive as the 1990s moved on, introducing concepts like date and acquaintance rape, and no (always, no matter what) means no, what didn’t change was the motif that sexual assault should damage you, or at the very least, alter you in some profound way.
I have felt, sometimes, when I’ve told my story, that this is what the audience wants from me. Like a blood lust: A “broken” lust. Maybe it makes for a better narrative arc, the collapse, followed by the empowerment, the phoenix- like rise from the ashes. Maybe it’s about reparations: a sense of reparative justice becomes that much more imperative when a person has clearly been hurt. But because I can’t tell my story this way, I have been made to feel that I must be even more profoundly damaged than I realize.
When I was 17, I tried heroin and fell in love with the high. It’s a high that is easy to fall in love with. I was in and out of treatment for most of my twenties. While I was a client at a woman’s halfway house, I saw a therapist who spent a considerable amount of time with me going back and forth over my history, looking for the uncle, the cousin, the family friend, whose actions against me had made me into the drug addict that I had become, and who had made me, what my therapist said, was “cold” and “disconnected” when I talked about being sexually assaulted. The therapist was somewhat relentless: we had to find the man, he said, because it was his actions against me that had led me to medicate my pain with drugs, and later, to work in the sex industry.
I became aware that other things were different about my story when I found myself feeling alienated by the way people would react to it, especially when I wrote about it, online. It made me feel uncomfortable to hear “you are so brave,” over and over again. When I told a friend that I felt this way, she told me that I was just being “humble,” like the real issue was a modesty one. But that wasn’t it. People’s offers of solidarity seemed predicated on the notion that I needed them to help hold me up. I wasn’t telling my story to feel whole again, but the implication that I must have been seemed to be everywhere: The implication that I must have been broken because I had been sexually assaulted seemed to be everywhere. Trigger warnings implied that there were things I could no longer handle. Out of one side of their mouths, people were telling me I was brave and strong for being candid about what had happened, only to tell me out the other side that there were things that I was just too fragile for.
I told myself, again and again, to just ignore these feelings. To just accept that the intention behind the response came from a good place. But the irony seemed intense: I felt no hesitation about talking about being sexual assaulted, something that I had been told again and again should have been hard for me to talk about, but was hesitant to address my sense of alienation about people’s reaction to the assault. But I couldn’t ignore my feelings, because I knew how much perpetrators of sexual assault got off on the idea that they had broken us. I felt like to kowtow to this identification, to call myself a victim, or let other people refer to me as one, was to make porn for them.
As the 1990’s rolled on, at the same time that ideas about what qualified as sexual assault broadened, sex-positive feminism came into vogue, and women became sex workers not just out of last ditch economic necessity, but out of a want for empowerment, and sexual freedom. “I can sell my body if I want to,” Kathleen Hanna sang, in her band, Bikini Kill. Courtney Love, Kathleen Hanna, Lisa Carver, Cookie Mueller: these were the women that I looked up to, all of whom had been sex workers. I wanted to be like them, strong, I imagined, and confident in my sexuality. Also, as a young woman who had come out of two plus decades of thinking of herself as “the ugly girl,” I was curious to see if men would be willing to pay for my company. I had started using heroin, and sex work conveniently provided me with money, everyday, that I could use to buy more. I could be high and feminist at the same time, I told myself. It sounded like the dream.
What happened to me was this: I was sent to see a client, and after he paid me, he became rough. It became clear to me that he was going out of his way to hurt me. I told him to stop, or I was going to leave. He said, you will stay until I finish, or you will give me my money back. He must have had some idea about the behind the scenes workings of escort agency sex work, how, after I had called the agency to tell them that I had arrived, and been paid, from there, I became responsible for the agency’s money, whether their fee came from the client or directly from me, they didn’t care. The compassionate, understanding den mother willing to hear my side of the story was a fallacy, as was the bodyguard/brute waiting somewhere nearby, ready to back me up. The reality was I would be on the line to pay the agency myself. So, I decided, I will just get through this. As my time with the man continued, I figured out what he wanted. Every time I told him to stop, told him how much he was hurting me, his breathing quickened. He wanted to make me cry. He wanted to see me cry. I think of this man whenever I write about sexual assault. It shapes the language that I use. I never gave him what he wanted. In the event that he, or someone like him, might be reading this, I won’t give it to them now. This is the primary reason I disavow the word “victim.” I know how much perpetrators of sexual assault enjoy thinking of us that way.
Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry. Her writing can be found in various anthologies like Ladyland and The Best Sex Writing of the Year and online at websites like The Weeklings, The Hairpin, PANK, and The Rumpus. Her book of essays and stories, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers was just released by Paragraph Line Books.