Notes on a Rape Story
An urgent, freely downloadable ebook, Where Freedom Starts: Sex Power Violence #MeToo brings together new and previously published articles on sexual harassment and sexual violence in the wake of #MeToo. Leading activists, feminists, scholars, and writers describe the shape of the problem, chart the forms refusal has taken, and outline possible solutions. Importantly, they also describe the longer histories of organizing against sexual violence that the #MeToo moment obscures — among working women, women of color, undocumented women, imprisoned women, poor women, among those who don’t conform to traditional gender roles — and discern from these practices a freedom that is more than notional, but embodied and uncompromising.
Below we present Larissa Pham's contribution to the book.
First published at The Hairpin: 3/16/15
Annotated: 1/3/18, 1/26/18, 1/30/18
The facts are these: many months ago,
Though I wanted to believe in it, the idea of truth dissolves almost instantly as soon as the essay begins.
I spent the night at a man’s apartment. The circumstances were semi-platonic, tinged with an aura of romance; that is, this person had offered me the moon and I had refused,
In writing this essay, I was conscious of needing to mention, as many times as possible, how much I had said no.
and he said, well, let me give you everything, and will you take what you can? I said, flattered by this grand gesture, I will take what I am okay with.
I was very lonely.
We talked about art.
I was a senior in college, finishing my thesis in painting. We talked about art, and he encouraged me to keep painting, after he saw my work. My work at the time was hypersexual, and focused on images of my body, and it exposed a side of me — a very vulnerable, curious side of me — that he saw too.
He made me feel important.
Looking back on it now, I don't believe I was a particularly good painter. But he told me I was, and I wish I could know now if he was actually telling the truth.
I was used to men who made grand declarations of their affection for me. Because I saw these men as harmless,
I wanted to learn; I was learning what I liked. But in learning what I liked, I also learned that what was supposed to be pleasurable for me also opened me to the possibility of violence.
I placed myself in situations with them that might be construed as romantic. I was deliberate about my boundaries, but sometimes allowed myself to be cuddled, like a toy or stuffed animal. This was seen as strange but not unexpected, a particular and endearing flaw. My friends acknowledged that I was a very tender person, someone who craved physical contact and liked being touched.
It wasn’t so much that I was ever lonely, just that I was always around and I was always so warm. When I went home with boys and girls it was the normal kind of thing I did, and no one ever asked what happened after the door was shut. That never mattered. I didn’t think myself fast or loose, but maybe it seemed that way. It was right enough sometimes that I never bothered explaining why I wanted someone next to me, just to hold. I’m not sure I would have the language for it anyway.
In this man’s apartment, I put on a t-shirt and did not put on a pair of gym shorts. Because he said he cared about me, I felt safe. I crawled into bed and his dog whined at me. “Shh, Buddy,” he said. He got into bed next to me and we talked. I liked being next to another person. I liked the warmth.
Two years after this essay was published, someone recognized the dog's name in this essay, and wrote in an anonymous tip to the Title IX office on my alma mater’s campus, mentioning my name, and saying that this man had also victimized others on campus. The Title IX office then called me, and asked if I wanted to file a complaint against him.
Now my memory becomes clouded regarding the sequence of events, not because of drugs or alcohol but because it is not something I revisit.
For those of us who have experienced trauma — in the moment, and for years after, our memories are shaky around what happened, what we felt, why we did what we did. It's only later that it comes to us: the enormity of what happened.
I feel guilty for how I got there, how I was already in that place, in that bed, in my underwear.
I know that I allowed this man to kiss my neck. I know that I liked it, the way I like being touched. I know I did not kiss him back. He pulled my panties down with his right hand. It was his right hand because I was on the left. I did not say anything, but I did freeze up. “Shh, it’s okay,” he said, and stroked my hair, as though trying to make me melt.
I did not say anything.
To grapple with trauma requires a valuation of the self that allows us to consider that we have been violated. That's not something we all have now, though I wish it were; it's something that gets temporarily taken from us. I can feel myself grappling with it in this essay, especially later on.
Then he put himself inside me. I felt it suddenly and I let him do it for perhaps fifteen seconds and then I said, “No, stop” and he pulled out. He went down on me and I started crying even though it felt good.
This is an impossible scene to write, but also the scene that I had to write to assure you that this rape story was worth telling. How awful the language we ascribe to sex is — either clinical or pornographic, bristling with allusions when I want it to lay flat. I don't know if I would have written this paragraph the same way, or at all now, but if I hadn't written it, there would be none of this at all.
Then he put himself inside me again and I said, “I can’t,” and he said, “Shh, it’s okay,” but it wasn’t. I was crying and breathing fast. I said, “No, no, no.” He attempted to comfort me. Eventually I fell asleep.
In the morning, he drove me home.
I felt sick. I felt dead. I went to class.
I was sexually assaulted my freshman year of college. It was a very clear-cut situation. The ex-girlfriend of a boy I had (unbeknownst to me) just stopped hooking up with was very drunk at a party and when she learned I was bisexual, she said, “That’s so hot!” and then pushed me up against a wall and kissed me and put her hand down my pants. I was eighteen. I was wearing a man’s white v-neck shirt and blue denim cutoffs, and black thigh high socks.
"What was she wearing?" I knew it didn't matter, but because I was presenting this to an outside audience, suddenly it did.
She kept going after I squirmed. “Stop,” I said, and I pushed her off.
Years later, a friend of hers would recognize me at another party. “She’s not normally like that,” they apologized. It surprised me that her friend remembered, because it was an event that some part of me had diligently worked to forget. “I don’t care,” I said.
I never reported it.
If she had been a man, I don’t think I would have reported it, either.
I have not reported this latest thing, this rape that I am only just beginning to talk about.
What would I say?
But the Title IX office did call, because someone said that this man had not only victimized me but others. When the office told me that, my perspective changed. Suddenly, I understood that I was one of many, and not only that, but given the power dynamic between us — he was on staff; I was an undergraduate — there was potential for him to continue to exercise this kind of power. I filed a complaint. Not for myself, necessarily, and I made it clear when I spoke to the office; it was for those who I didn't know, who I wouldn't know, who I didn't want to come to harm.
When I told a friend about this man, many months later, he said, “Larissa, you were raped.” Because I looked at him blankly at first, he said it twice.
“I don’t want to think about it,” I said, and covered my face.
I felt sick. I felt complicit. I had not intended to tell a rape story, but then I began telling it, and in telling it, realized it had been rape.
This is the moment so many of us are standing at now.
The thing about the man who raped me is — I was burning to be touched, but I did not want to be touched by him. I also did not not care about him.
I knew him well. We had text message conversations that spanned hundreds of lines.
After he raped me, though, we fell out of touch. I can’t remember if it was before or after that night, but I have a visceral memory of being at the student health center, getting a prescription for something, and while I was in line, he sent me a picture of his dick. I remember opening it, totally shocked, disgusted and scared. I hadn't wanted it, and I wrote back to him, telling him I was upset, that I didn't want it. It made me sick to know that he had invaded me without even being physically present; that his erect penis could disturb even my psychic space without my consent. It’s that incident — the photo — that I feel most violated by, rather than the rape, which maybe isn't so surprising.
Anyway, after we fell out of touch, I deleted all our text messages. But I guess he kept them, because when the investigator called me to tell me the verdict, he mentioned that he had been shown all our texts, as proof that I hadn’t been mistreated. I don't remember now what they said; I'm sure they painted some kind of picture that was at least partly true. But a crucial part was not true — or merely missing — and not visible to a bureaucratic investigation.
We sometimes talked on the phone for several hours. I was very fond of him. His love for me, or whatever one might call it, seemed like a kind of a punctuation mark, the uncomfortable tail of an otherwise competent and friendly beast. It made me feel uneasy and good. I wanted to be loved.
Still. I didn’t owe him anything. I don’t deserve what happened. I must continue to tell myself this.
I’ve never considered myself particularly lovable, so when love is offered I’m hesitant to spurn it. I’m used to getting the crumbs of a full thing, the rest out of reach. It makes assault like this difficult, when I consider the role I’ve played in an interaction that hurt me. How I want to blame myself for it. How I can’t help but think I may have invited it in, how I don’t deserve it, how no one deserves this.
If you had asked me at the time, or ever, if I wanted to have sex with him, I would have said no. Nothing about his body appealed to me. There was nothing about him that made me want to fuck him.
He used to ask me if I would fuck him, if I found him attractive. I didn't, really, but I wanted the attention. I would say yes, I did. I was lying, to himself and to myself, but that doesn't really show up in a text message transcript.
Here is a caveat that only makes sense to me. I write it down as proof of how warped my boundaries were formed. If I had hated him I would be a better victim.
I still don't hate him. I wish he would disappear from the face of the earth, but I don’t hate him. I hate that he thought it was okay; I hate that he fundamentally misunderstood the power differential between us; I hate that he did horrible things to other women. But I feel bad for him, too, because I don't know if anyone taught him what the right thing to do would have been. I don't think I should have been the one to teach him, but someone should have.
If I hadn’t known him so well I would be a better victim. I brought this upon myself, I think. I deserve this.
The possibilities of what I could have done or what else could have happened unfurl before me like a reflection in one of those dressing room mirrors; two opposite each other and a long hallway of you stretching into the infinite distance. I’m standing there in the house of my memory, scrutinizing my face.
Was it my fault?
Did I put myself in that position, and am I responsible?
Is it rape if I know the person who did it?
Is it rape if I didn’t say no, but I didn’t say yes, and I cried after?
I want to tell you I cried, so that you know that I didn’t want it. I want to tell you I suffered, so that the story I told you is plausible. The narrative of rape is only enabled by a woman’s pain.
And women’s pain is the condition necessary for a rape story to exist at all.
I must have suffered. I must be experiencing some kind of trauma. I must be damaged somehow. I am a rape survivor. I am not, however, a particularly convenient victim. I spent the rest of the night there. I let him drive me home.
It has given me so much relief — so much belated, blissful relief — to hear the stories of other women and their experiences. To hear about all the ragged edges of what happened. To know that none of us were perfect victims; to know that many of us have these stories and these confusions. If our only choice is to be a perfect victim or to be complicit, it leads us into this warped territory. If I can say, "No, it wasn't your fault," to you, when I hear your story, maybe I can say that about mine, too.
Mostly, I just feel complicit in breaking the parts of me that are broken.
But this model of myself started a long time ago. This myth, this story, this coping, whatever. It starts long before I ever met the man with his dog and spent the night in his bed.
I got pretty late in life and all at once. Suddenly everyone wanted me just because of how I looked! What a thought. People were nice to me and interested in what I had to say. I was giddy with power.
Is it really power, though, if you're still subjugated within it?
So I fucked a lot, because it was easy. I never knew what was good. I considered it my lot in life, being promiscuous and pretty and sort of out of control. I thought this was something I deserved, the being hurt all the time.
I wrote this, once; I can remember where I was when I wrote it. There were all these ways of being and none of them seemed to fit because I thought I would never deserve love and never be lovable and I want to say now, in annotation, that that wasn't true. It might have felt true then, but love — and pleasure, and joy — are possible.
In my head, understand, these are connected. I earned this. Happiness is not something you earn or deserve. Neither is pain. I deserve this. I didn’t. You don’t. I am complicit.
[IT’S NOT ABOUT RACE, I SAY. I HAVE NEVER BEEN FULLY HUMAN. IT’S NOT ABOUT RACE. IT’S NOT ABOUT RACE. I CAN’T TALK ABOUT THIS.]
This is the point where the essay really begins to break down. I'm losing it here, because I'm trying to express things that I don't have the language for. It has to do with the systemic devaluation of selfhood that occurs when you are nonwhite in America, and which spreads through all of your life like a sickness or a color, until you think it has always been that way, that you have always lived here.
When I read about rapes before, in personal narratives or local news reports, I was always astonished at how often these girls knew their assailants. How they continued to go to parties, to share hallways or bathrooms or lives. Why didn’t they say anything? How could they go on like that?
But I didn’t say anything, either. I let my rapist drive me home.
Having divulged this part of my history: am I more sympathetic as a survivor now? Or am I merely proof promiscuous girls will eventually earn their place?
For so long, it’s felt like these frameworks are the ones that must stand in a court of law. But there are other arbitrations that feel more vital right now. I am happy that it's starting to break down — whose pain matters most; whose pain is valid. But we have much farther to go.
It has been several months since I was raped. I use the word gingerly. As I write this, I am the most in-love I have ever been in my short and hectic life.
For what it's worth, as I write these annotations, I'm in love now, too. It feels worth mentioning — that a landscape of love which felt so out of reach is a place that I can arrive in, and arrive in again; that though I thought I was not worthy for so long I am here, somehow, and safe.
I have been needy and scared and anxious and clingy. I have been monstrous. This is because I do not know what love is or how it looks.
What I meant was: we don't know how to talk about desire, which means that consent as a concept both political and practical is fantastic in theory but the slipperiest thing to put into practice. It's impossible to talk about consent without also talking frankly about desire. And for that to happen, shame must be removed, and guilt, and these feelings of abjection that line the sentences in this essay.
I walk around it. I observe it and wonder if it will ever be mine.
When I told an ex of mine that I had been sexually assaulted, he said to me, “No wonder you’re into all that weird stuff.” I asked him what he meant by that. He said that every girl he knew who was kinky had been kind of fucked up. I asked whether he’d considered maybe every girl was kind of fucked up.
He didn’t have anything to say about that.
I like weird stuff. I like being a little hurt. It turns me on when men pull my hair back or when they grab my throat. I don’t think it has anything to do with being fucked up. Or maybe it does. Maybe it’s about control. Maybe it’s about the exchange of power.
I'm fairly certain that I included this in the essay to complicate our understanding of power, though reading it now, I'm not entirely sure I got all the way there. I'm gesturing at it. But I do think it's absolutely important to consider the difference between consensual power exchange — BDSM — and nonconsensual power exchange. Power is an erotic field, but recognizing that doesn’t mean we have to invite violence.
I used to sleep with a guy; he was big, ex-crew, probably six-four. A real American boy. Blonde curls. He liked being tied up. I couldn’t get over it — it was pretty, my red rope on his skin. But I wanted it the other way. I didn’t want to be dominant. I spent the rest of my life asserting myself, I wanted none of it in bed.
The person I ever loved most — once, he handcuffed me. It was a drunk night and we were happy. And I got on my knees with my hands behind my back. And he guided me, gently, the way my head moved, his hand in my hair. And I felt so safe there on the very edge of my self.
What I’m trying to tell you is that the weird stuff isn’t because I’m fucked up.
Or maybe it is.
Maybe both can exist at once.
I’m trying to say, it’s not bad. I’m trying to say, don’t tell me I’m damaged. I’m trying to say we are all collections of our traumas and that all these things can coexist. The rape and the love and the rough.
I saw him, the man who raped me, at a place where I knew he probably would be.
In November of 2017, the Title IX office finished its investigation into my complaint. Title IX provides colleges and universities with a way to arbitrate instances of sexual misconduct apart from the criminal justice system. This is, on its face, a good thing: Title IX means that we are trying to move away from criminalization as a response to harm, at least for mostly young, mostly privileged, college students. But there are still flaws within the system, namely, that it is still a kind of bureaucracy, one that remains obscure, and is still burdened by the same patriarchal, sexist, and potentially racist modes of thinking that have gotten us into this whole mess in the first place. A system is only as good as the people who put it into place, and our systems are, for the most part, sorely broken.
So, it was justice I was seeking, and I suppose it was justice that I got: the investigator called, said that the committee had determined that a violation had occurred. Oh, I thought. So a violation did occur. But what justice was in there, really, when he had already left the institution and was potentially headed to who knows what other college in what other small town? What had he learned, if he had learned anything at all?
I was hoping that he would be punished, but he wasn't, and I am beginning to understand that punishment isn't really the way we learn, anyway.
This is vague to protect his privacy, though I’m not sure why; I suppose because he doesn’t know he raped me. I am feeling complicit again.
I looked at him and felt a little sick. Then I felt nothing. I wasn’t there to see him; he was an accessory, another thing in my life the way the rape was also just another thing in my life, another way I had been violated; but who makes a list of violations when she knows it could go on and on and on?
I ran into him at a coffee shop later and — startled — I said, “Hi!” He didn’t say anything. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. Maybe he realized then he’d killed a part of me that night. I suspect he’s aware he wronged me somehow but I don’t know how much he knows.
Is it fair of me, to want him to reckon with it? To want him to grapple with it as I have grappled with it, because it feels like most men never do any of this hard work at all? Is it fair of me to want to have the understanding and apology without doing the work? Is it wrong for me to want him to wear the stench of shame for as long as it takes for him to understand why it wasn't good, what he did, even though I know that he was just a person and that I am too?
I think about what happened that night and float outside of myself. I still don’t feel particularly lovable. I wonder if not being lovable is what got me in that fix in the first place, if lovable girls don’t get raped. (They do.) I wonder if this is what happens when you don’t play by the rules. People say there are no rules anymore, but there are, sort of. It’s a different kind of respectability politics, a different kind of acceptable harm, a different kind of ownership of the action and the reception, the doer and the deed.
I don’t know when I’ll stop thinking it was my fault.
Almost a year out I think about damage. I think about harm. I think about how quickly someone can pass through your life and hurt you and carry on. I think about how long I’ve been healing, how very long it will take to feel [good, worthy, deserving, inherently lovable],
Here the essay breaks down again. I don't know what to put here, even now. I know that this valuation of the self, of the person, of the individual and her desires, is of utmost importance. There is so much beyond these brackets — years and years of harmful messages, of systemic, pervasive racism, of emotional trauma. There is so much that has been warped and must be learned afresh.
and meanwhile I’ll keep doing things that might hurt me and meanwhile I’ll keep existing as a tight bundle of contradictions. And it has to be okay.
There’s no point to this.
If I believed this line to be true, I wouldn't have written any of this. I wrote this line because it allowed me to put what happened away and go on with my life.
I just needed to write it.
Writing was a way for me to unpack an incident that lay so deep at the heart of so many things that hurt that it had absorbed all their fibers, like a burr deeply embedded in wool. It was a way for me to engage with the astonishing poverty of language surrounding sexual violence.
There is so much ambiguity in this essay, so much that I grapple with and am still grappling with in these annotations. It would be easy for me, especially now, in this politicized moment, to turn my back on this and say that I am surely certain it was never my fault. I could be that drastic about it, and I don't blame those who are. But I know that would be a lie, at least in my heart, and I know I wouldn't feel good writing it. All I know is that the best way I — and by extension, hopefully more of us — can learn anything from what happened to me, what has been happening to me, what has been happening to all of us, is to look this ambiguity right in the face. To reconsider the narratives we have been given about each other and ourselves, and to reconsider the narratives we have written for ourselves, all our lives, about love and violence.
I needed to feel my way through this, unpin the responsibility, put it different places, pull apart the guilt. I needed to know where this came from, where the pain went and how the pieces work. It’s bigger than me. It goes back for longer than I have words for.
I’m trying not to apologize. But in apologizing, I show my hand. It’s important you see that too.
I wanted to show you my hand — where it rests in the story, where I moved, where I saw myself to be making decisions. I wanted you to see every step; I am doing it again, even now.
I wanted you to know that I saw myself an agent in this story too, even if in the end I do believe that violence was done to me. I wanted to show you this because I want to imagine a world beyond an abuser/survivor binary, where our interactions with other people are as equals, where we recognize each other with our whole selves. I want us to reckon with what it means to know our own desires, deep within our hearts.
Larissa Pham is a writer in New York. Her work engages with themes of the self, intimacy, narrative, often within the context of visual culture, and previously, she worked at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, focusing on support for survivors of sexual and other forms of violence. She is the author of Fantasian, a novella from Badlands Unlimited, and her work has also appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Guernica, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere.