There just wasn’t enough space in the compact interior of my locked, moving vehicle to fit the two of us plus the tense and awkward rift I could almost see ballooning between us. Hurtling down a strip of asphalt at 48 miles per hour probably wasn’t the optimal time for this realization, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that we were so very near to the end of the line. The conversation had all the essential characteristics of a mid-July denim shorts wedgie – uncomfortable, and slightly painful, and impossible to adjust without considerable embarrassment. There was no discernible way to bridge the gap between myself, a liberal lesbian, and the good Catholic boy I was giving a lift home from class.
I had let it slip out when we were discussing catalysts that took our lives from dreamboats to train wrecks. “I know what you mean,” I’d told him in response to whatever he said, which was evidently so mundane that I no longer remember it. “I don’t know if I’d ever mentioned it before, but I did actually have a boyfriend once. He sexually assaulted me.”
“Oh!” the boy next to me exclaimed, as if he’d just discovered electricity. “That actually explains so much!”
There it was, the moment I had been dreading. It’s not much of a secret that the Catholic Church doesn’t hold very progressive beliefs on LGBT issues; after all, the official website for Courage and EnCourage, the apostolates for LGBT Catholics and their families, are rife with references to “same-sex attraction (SSA)” and “confusion,” as if being gay were an unfortunate medical condition, like a concussion or a disease. With that kind of language being tossed around, I’d gotten used to the idea that my Catholic friends weren’t going to be a major source of support in my life. Still, that didn’t cushion the blow of having one of them essentially assume that my orientation was a result of a negative experience with a man, especially considering that Catholic views on sexuality had more or less landed me in a position full to the brim with the potential for assault.
Back when I was an awkward, chubby, kind of smelly teenager, I attended a Catholic high school, and as one might suspect, required religion classes were inserted into every day’s curriculum to ensure we understood and internalized the many dogmas of the Catholic Church. Given that everybody in the building was capable of getting pregnant, or of getting someone pregnant, school administration rightly figured that a good portion of our religious education ought to center on the Church’s teachings about sex in all their uncomfortable, archaically-worded glory. I can sum up the entire four years’ worth of it in a few key phrases: Premarital sex is horrible and will ruin your life, birth control is the latex lovechild of Satan born to coax the masses into a frenzy of sexual immorality, and it’s fine to be gay but you better not even briefly consider acting gay.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? It was certainly easy to remember; if it sounds fun, it’s sinful. But the harm wasn’t done by what was taught, but rather by what wasn’t. The crux of discussion about healthy relationships focused almost entirely on commitment, and how someone who asks their partner to have sex before marriage is just unwilling to commit long-term and looking for a quick fix, while entirely ignoring the role that human biochemistry and desires play in the affection common to relationships. It’s normal, natural, and healthy for two people who are romantically involved to develop sexual desire for one another, and teenagers aren’t exactly running short of the hormones that make that desire happen. Someone who wants to have sex with their partner before tying the metaphorical knot isn’t necessarily averse to future commitment, or even uncommitted in the first place, just acting on their body’s natural signals. This is just what it is to grow through puberty and begin maturing into an adult; a whole host of new feelings and experiences, created by a swarm of newly-activated hormones and neurotransmitters, nudges you along from childhood into full development.
Unfortunately, what passed for sex ed at my school wasn’t capable of that kind of nuance. As far as school administration was concerned, hormonal rushes of sexual desire were the product of temptation to stray from the path of Jesus, no biological back-sass or fun-loving fuss, and they assured us that while everyone experienced these desires, they were to be stringently resisted until marriage. The pressure was doubled for the girls; we were instructed to cover up and refrain from suggestive behavior if we didn’t want “the wrong kind of attention” from boys, and we were promised that we’d have at least one encounter with a pesky guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer in the bedroom.
As all this was being unceremoniously battered into my brain, I was in my first real relationship. His name doesn’t matter; I’d struggle to give it out now without it feeling like a dirty word. He went to one of the public high schools in the area, but his family was Catholic. That was how we’d met – as sophomores, when he attended a Confirmation group my mom had volunteered to lead. When I look back now, as an older and more experienced adult, I realize that he and I didn’t have as much in common as we thought we did. But at that age, I suffered from chronically low self-esteem and a crippling feeling of social disintegration, and I was so beyond flattered that there was some person who wanted my number that I fell hard. Infatuation is one hell of a drug, with the incredible side effect of turning what might otherwise be a two-week summer fling into a quasi-Hollywood romance worthy of a John Green novel.
One sliver of the picture was inexplicably missing from the snapshot, though, and that was the wild passion my religion teachers had sworn up, down, and sideways that I would experience. When I thought about the possibility of having sex with my boyfriend, I wasn’t repulsed, not exactly, but it repelled me so strongly that I knew in my heart I would never have sex with him. The feelings I had for him were nothing even close to what I felt for some of the girls I knew; I couldn’t think of more romantic things to say to him than I said to a lovely friend who doubted her own beauty, and I never gazed at him the way I did at the girl who sat across the room in third period. It took a few other people asking if I was gay, or at least bisexual, for me to even consider the fact that I just might, by some small chance, not be attracted to men at all.
I’ve often said, in the years since this happened, that no place in the world is more aggressively heteronormative than Catholic high school, and that’s an assessment I’ll stand by until my dying breath wheezes past my ancient and wrinkled lips. See, in the world of Catholicism, homosexuality is a “disordered desire” and acting upon such desires is considered a grave sin against the divine purpose for sex and marriage, both being supposedly intended for one man and one woman because their parts fit together to cause pregnancy. I’d counter that divorce and remarriage would technically fall outside those bounds, as well, but we’re not talking about that. We had every theological argument against gay marriage pounded into our skulls while they screamed that it was charitable, it was respectful, there was no discrimination there. Sure, the only way a gay Catholic could get to heaven was to live a completely celibate life and never even consider dating someone of the same sex, but it was a loving response to homosexuality! Furthermore, the idea that it was natural and healthy to explore your sexuality and discover what you really preferred was categorically rejected as a falsehood invented by the Sexual Revolution of the 1970’s to lure the youth into the deadly embrace of sexual sin. Clearly, this was an immoral attitude that existed only to encourage life-ruining promiscuity; no good Catholic abiding by the laws of God needed to figure out their sexual self, because such a notion was completely secular and preposterous.
With all that ire echoing in my ears, I started to get a little scared about what it meant that I didn’t feel any sexual desire for my boyfriend. I knew what the Church said God’s penalty for “living the gay lifestyle” would be, and frightened of the possibility of going to hell, I didn’t see much choice but to try to force myself to be straight. To make matters worse, depression had taken up a squatter’s residence in my brain and wasn’t planning on accepting an eviction notice. After two suicide attempts and a brief stay in an inpatient psychiatric clinic, I was desperate for something stable and reflective of the socially acceptable definition of normal. I wanted to slip on the guise of a regular Catholic school student, like a masquerade ball costume or a second skin, and forget the sideshow act I saw in the mirror. So I clung, frantic as a thirsty woman in the desert, to a boyfriend I had affection but not attraction for, simply because I wasn’t in the frame of mind to do any soul-searching fresh off the noose.
I’m not really sure why he stayed with me, if I’m honest. I won’t pretend to understand it because I don’t live in his head, and thank God for small mercies on that front. Maybe he was going through just as uncertain of a stage of life as I was; maybe he needed something resembling stability in his life, too. Whatever the reasons, he stayed, and his patience wore thin pretty soon. Too flush with hormones to read the nonverbal cues, or maybe just too pigheaded, he wheedled and whined for physical acts I wasn’t comfortable even thinking about, let alone participating in. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t made my boundaries clear, either. We talked about boundaries the night we kissed for the first time. But I guess he had figured that boundaries, like traffic laws and anti-plagiarism policies, were just guidelines not meant to imply actual restrictions.
It all came to a head on an early spring day. I’d say I remember it like it was yesterday, but truthfully, it’s just those few minutes that stick in my brain. My oldest sister’s first pregnancy had just ended – a miscarriage, devastating news for me. I’d been looking forward so much to having my first niece or nephew that hearing that she’d lost the baby felt like losing my own child. It happened on a Friday, and my boyfriend and I always got together for a few hours on Friday nights, some of our only time together since we went to separate schools. By that point, we’d been messing around for a couple of months, I suppose. That’s right, I gave into his cajoling and pressuring because, at seventeen years old, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being the lonely weirdo whose boyfriend broke up with her after she got out of the mental hospital. Secretly, I’d hoped I would start to enjoy it, but it was always more about trying to keep him happy, trying to convince him to stay. The night my sister miscarried, though…I couldn’t keep up the charade. I couldn’t pretend to be in the mood when I wasn’t, so I didn’t. I broke down, I told him I didn’t want to do anything sexual that night because I needed space to process and come to terms with what had happened. He agreed and turned back to the television, and I thought it was over.
In case you haven’t figured it out, I was a very stupid teenager. If my other boundaries didn’t stop him, there was nothing to suggest this one would stop him, either. I don’t know how much time passed before he was working on me, kissing down my neck, sliding his hands down my body. I froze up, not really resisting, but not reciprocating, either. I kept thinking to myself that I couldn’t disappoint him, that maybe just this one time it would make me happy to make him happy, even though it never did, even though it always made me feel worse. When he’d worked his hand into my pants, he paused. “Are you sure this is okay?” he asked in a whisper.
My parents were downstairs. If I’d yelled, if I’d made a scene, they would’ve come running to my rescue. Or maybe they wouldn’t have. Maybe they would’ve just been angry and ashamed that I’d let a boy guilt me into sexual favors. There, in that moment, was the illusion of the power to say no and make the moment stop. But the question was loaded; it assumed I’d changed my mind in the first place, and I hadn’t. I remembered the look of disappointment and embarrassment on his face months earlier, when I’d pushed his hand away once before it could move too low on my waist, and in the immense emotional pressure of the moment, I thought to myself, Saying ‘no’ won’t change anything. It won’t stop.
I whispered back, “Sure.”
I know, logically, he finished what he wanted to do and pulled back, satisfied with himself. He bragged about his measurements so much that I’m pretty sure he fancied himself a Casanova in nerd’s clothing, a breed I’ve since been told is affectionately termed “the neckbeard.” He and I no doubt remember those few minutes very differently. While I’m sure he thinks of it as a conquest, maybe his first, I think of it as the world record for most decades of nightmares crammed into the space of two or three minutes. Even now, reflecting on it, my mind can’t seem to process it as a real event that actually occurred, instead preferring to see it in the hazy blacklight of last week’s fever dreams and sour acid trips.
The relationship fell apart a few months after that, and he moved on with his life. I stayed stuck in that Friday night on the upstairs love seat, with a sweaty palm down my pants and the desperate thought in my head that “no” wouldn’t change anything. The crazy part was that the words “sexual assault” never crossed my mind, not in those days. I had the silver-screen version of sexual assault cemented firmly in my mind, and seeing as no knife-wielding stranger clad in a balaclava leapt out at me from the bushes in the darkness, I didn’t think I’d been a victim of sexual violence. I thought I was just a sad, pathetic teenage loser who couldn’t move on after her first relationship.
Then the shame and the guilt set in, every day after lunch as I sat in religion class and heard about the evils of premarital sex. I was beginning to nurture the idea that something deeply wrong had happened that night, but I thought it was my own fault. Big shock, I know, with all those beautifully positive influences in my life. I thought I’d invited it on myself with all that flirtatious behavior, and I should’ve said no a little louder or a little firmer, and anyway I should never have been so weak.
The mental agony went on like this for two years before I finally had a breakthrough. Long-suppressed memories began to nag at me. They were the vexing pets of my bad upstairs neighbors, anxiety and depression, gnawing on my thoughts until the edges frayed and the façade unraveled. I began to suspect that it wasn’t my fault, after all, that something truly terrible had been done to me by someone I had once trusted. That single, pivotal thought dominated my brain’s top 40 hits: “Saying no won’t change anything.” What had my instincts known then that I hadn’t seen, or hadn’t wanted to see? It tormented me. I told my story to a few friends and asked for their thoughts. They all responded with shock, and revulsion, and burning hatred for the punk who had dared put his hands on me. But the moment that cemented it was watching Anderson Cooper moderate the second presidential debate and level a harrowing question at then-candidate Donald Trump:
“You described kissing women without their consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women, do you understand that?”
It felt like discovering electricity. If a meteor had hit me right at that moment and blasted me into the center of the Earth, I still wouldn’t have sunk any lower than my stomach did hearing those words. It was all the confirmation I needed. What happened to me wasn’t silly, or trivial, or a bad date, or my fault. It was sexual assault.
Now, I’d love to tell you that the realization was liberating, but it really just signaled my entrance into a whole other arena of pain. I remembered him in high-resolution detail, and I hated him, and I kind of wanted to kill him. The thought of him being happy when I was so miserable after what he’d put me through made me sick with rage. When a red-haired customer pulled up to the coffee shop I was working at, I served him quickly and excused myself to the back room to have a panic attack. When another boy asked me out, I panicked thinking of his hands on me and told him we wouldn’t work out. When I tried to think back to that night, my mind went dim and searched for it in the catalog of bad dreams instead of memories.
Eventually, I stopped taking the noise from my terrible upstairs neighbors and decided that, as landlady and sole proprietor of my brain, I ought to get a say in which tenants move in. I found myself searching for therapy that I could afford on the budget of a college student working a minimum-wage barista job and landed in online therapy. I stayed up late one night, explaining my reasons for seeking treatment to a representative, and they put me in touch with a trauma therapist. Over the course of a year, she helped me find a voice and a spine to roust the lousy squatters in my head and define my life not by what happened to me, but by what I would make happen. Slowly, I inched past the coercion and assault my ex-boyfriend made me to suffer, and less and less of my headspace revolved around him every day. Still, I never lost sight of the ways it shaped my experience. I’d be lying if I said my interest in forensic psychology wasn’t partially fueled by a need to prove I no longer feared men like him, at least in the beginning, just like I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t partially fueled by a drive to help people that had been victimized like I had. I stopped calling myself “victim” and started calling myself “survivor.” I stopped surviving and started living.
Many miniature personal journeys later, I sat in a car with a good Catholic boy, giving him a ride home from class and hearing him exclaim like he’d just discovered electricity about how much sense my sexuality made in light of my victimization. I didn’t have the social graces to know what to say. I let him out at his front door, wished him a good weekend, and watched him go inside with the confident stride of a man who thinks he’s won the argument.
“God almighty,” I chuckled to myself, and pulled the throttle into drive.