A Girl's History of Consent
by Sarah Stuteville
The sound of her voice is so nerdy and determined and yet still, somehow, eager to please. It cuts through the clattering morning and squeezes my chest with a swift brutal twist.
“I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified,” she says from behind the curtains of her blonde hair and I put down my butter knife to rub where it hurts—behind my sternum and a little left.
“Why are we listening to this?” Alex asks, our baby daughter perched on his hip.
“I want to,” I shoot back sharply and then pause, “Why? You think it’s bad for him to hear? You think he understands?” I ask nodding towards our son, the oldest. He’s eating a frozen waffle at our perpetually sticky kitchen table and I wonder if this is yet another example of my underdeveloped mothering instincts.
“I do not remember all of the details of how that gathering came together,” she quavers on, “but like many that summer, it was almost surely a spur-of-the-moment gathering.” And the scene comes into focus in my mind—a rich boy’s house and a summer night that has run into a hundred summer nights.
“I don’t know, it’s just upsetting,” my husband continues, “I don’t want to listen to it. It’s a circus.” A flush is prickling up my neck and I can’t tell if it’s rage or guilt. I suspect Alex doesn’t want to deal with me being upset and is hiding his impatience behind sensitivity—a clever ploy that’s near impossible to confront. I consider trying to anyway, ruining the morning, scaring the kids, being what I ultimately know I am; emotional, impulsive, unreasonable, and very, very angry.
“When I got to the top of the stairs, I was pushed from behind into a bedroom. I couldn’t see who pushed me,” she says as I huff down the hall to listen in private. Crouched on the toilet, I think about her climbing the stairs to the bathroom.
I used to go to the bathroom at parties to just be alone. I had panic attacks when I was the age of the girl in her memory—which were dulled by alcohol but only after I’d had a lot. I often needed the sanctuary of a locked bathroom a few times a night. I’d spend fifteen minutes listening to my ragged breath, studying the contents of medicine cabinets and pressing cold water against my burning red cheeks. Just outside white boys listened to Wu-Tang and hit bongs while clusters of sweet-lotioned girls smoked cigarettes, raided liquor cabinets and plotted. But the girl on the radio never made it to the bathroom that night.
“There was music already playing in the bedroom. It was turned up louder by either Brett or Mark once we were in the room,” she continues, as the country considers the veracity of her story, the depth of her humanity, and then proceeds in the timeless matter of dividing that sum by the power of the man in question.
When I was a kid I got prank calls at home from someone who would ask me if I was alone. “Flip up Fridays” at my elementary school were Fridays when boys would lift your skirt if you were wearing one. I can still feel the breath of the adult men who came up behind me and kissed my neck in a kitchen and on a stairwell. My dad once told me that if a man ever threatened me at gun point, I should run because being shot in the back would be better than what he would do if he caught me. My mom told me to learn how to watch for men who hated women, “They’re out there,” she said, “A lot of them.”
I was ten before I saw an adult vagina. It was in a Playboy I found in my father’s desk.
I had once found a 1960s-era manual for “A Satisfying Sex Life” in this same drawer. There were airplane-safety-style drawings in postures of static pleasure. On one a woman sat on top of a man. Her back was an arch and her two-dimensional hair a-tumble. The man’s legs were rigid and his feet pointed artlessly to the ceiling but his black-line eyes and flat dot pupils were fixed on her. Underneath the photo a caption stated, “women sometimes enjoy a strong smack on the rear during intercourse.”
But these line drawings with their playful suggestions did not prepare me for a 1980s vagina and the woman’s body attached to it. Her brown teased hair falling in her half-mast eyes like poodle curls and mixing with the hay in the bales behind her. Her white cowboy boots up against her orange-brown skin, her legs spread so wide she looked injured. This Playboy would become important social currency for me when I begin offering it up, a few minutes at a time, to neighborhood girls. But first I sat alone on the forest green rug of our TV room, cold afternoon light slanting in the basement windows and studied. Her excruciating vulnerability—so open and limp, so strange and compelling, so easily hurt—flooded me with fear. If I could draw, I swear I would draw her in perfect detail. She is burned in my mind, this woman posed like a sexily stunned barn animal. I often remind myself she also likely exists somewhere today—this woman who helped brace me for what was coming. I imagine she is now a sixty-year-old woman contemplating products in a grocery store or scrolling through her Facebook feed. I wonder what I’d ask her if we met.
“The sound of their laughter indelible in the hippocampus”
“Don’t get your hopes up about this,” Alex says walking into the bedroom where I sit in a stupor on the edge of the bed. I’m halfway through dressing for the day and my nursing bra is successfully strapped but the legs of my work pants are abandoned at my knees. “He’ll get confirmed anyway; they always do.” His previous sensitivity has now been replaced with political cynicism—another trick of men looking to escape treacherous conversations about the way things are.
“But this time she’s white and rich and not even that pretty. They don’t have any reason not to believe her!” I shoot it back before I realize what I’m saying and then look down at my bare thighs in shame.
The bus stop was no place to be on your own. Bridget had been recently flashed by a man in a bomber jacket. “At first, I thought he was wearing a weird pink belt,” she said, “But then I realized he was pulling on his dick.” Bridget had red hair like a banner and was from California. We became friends in the way of eleven-year-old girls—with bold abandon and shrewd practicality. We were both new to middle school. We were also both a little too weird to assume we’d successfully build new social lives at a huge public school full of kids who seemed like adults, and adults who seemed like they wanted to be anywhere else.
There are older boys who live around the corner from the bus stop.
“I didn’t know we were whale watching today!” yells one from his retaining wall perch. I pull my turquoise jacket around my still childish tummy.
“We’re coming for you little bitch,” shouts the other followed by brays of amusement.
On the days I am walking alone and I hear the sound of their cussing, I go the long way around even though my mom says I shouldn’t alter my pathway home in case I go missing. But when I am with Bridget we walk past them and don’t give a shit.
Bridget’s mother has a tremendous collection of dirty books including “The Clan of the Cave Bear” series, a story of a beautiful human girl abandoned to be raised by Neanderthals who rape her regularly, until she is claimed by a human man named Jondalar who is sensitive and has a giant penis. The book sits on the bedside table and we read it one at a time, flung across her mauve-flowered bedspread, while the other keeps watch from the doorway.
When we turn 13, Bridget and I decide to become obsessed with the same boy. Caleb lives with his mother and stepfather a few houses down. He has rusty hair, big white high tops and his “real dad” lives in Wyoming. Most importantly, he is both a little nice and a little mean to me, and his mom leaves her Camel straights on the back porch where we can steal them.
I have grown four inches in less than a year and started keeping a log of my food in a spiral notebook. Uncles tell me I’m losing my baby fat, squint past my glasses, ask when I’m getting my braces off. I am not pretty, but boys and men seem to see potential and look at me with appraising eyes. They yell things out of car windows and slide next to me on the bus—putting their sweaty hands on my leg and then scrambling away laughing horsey, crackling laughs.
Bridget takes Caleb head on, declaring her love in notes with sparkly heart stickers and applying lip-gloss in the grass of his yard hoping for a sighting. She sing-songs his name with a mock sexy voice and generally makes a love-sick pest of herself.
But he and I have another way of speaking. When he wants to hang out with me, he comes out and plays basketball in his driveway at the top of our shared alley. The hollow, echoing thump of his ball against the pavement is proof that he’s thinking about me. We play horse on days when we still feel like kids or I sit in the driveway and watch his “layups” when we’re feeling like teenagers.
Caleb’s mother has glittering hooded eyes, high cheekbones and a husky voice just this side of gravelly. In my memory she is always barefoot, always in cutoffs and always smoking. Caleb’s stepfather was an occasional, dark presence in the house. He worked at a factory, one of the few that was left in the Seattle area in the 1990s. And while I have few memories of him, I knew that he was dangerous. Whenever he came home—dropping his keys with a clatter on the table and stalking to the kitchen —I left without a word.
When I was nineteen my family doctor gave me a small prescription for valium to help with the attacks that increasingly made every space feel suffocating, every conversation like an inquisition, every day a lengthening stretch of dread.
“The logic,” said the doctor, “is that once you’ve taken one of these and know that it will stop an attack you’ll feel in control and stop having them.” He told me that all the signals pulsing from my body—that something was terribly wrong, that very bad things might happen at any moment, that I should try and escape at all costs—were just my body misfiring, a flight-or-fight response on the fritz.
Everyone knew my gym teacher was a “perv,” but we never said anything. A high school boyfriend, angry at me for having broken up with him, trashed me to his friends, called me a “slut,” and said that I smelled bad. One night at a party a guy I knew, and liked, pressed on top of me after I got drunk. I don’t know if I could have stopped him. I don’t remember if I cared or just thought that’s one of the ways people have sex. Once a boss ground his hard-on against my ass and told me he wanted to “put his hands all over” my body.
It is the last day Caleb and I will ever be alone together. Sun gently filters through the curtains of his living room. We’re playing Duck Hunt; the orange gun is greasy from handling. Caleb crowds closer and closer to the screen, pulling the plastic trigger with increasing urgency.
The house is empty but for us. It can’t be the first time, but it seems like it is and both of us are aware of the deep dark silence of the rooms beyond the TV. Everything seems to be slowly disappearing, pulled into the gravity created by the few inches between our crossed knees.
“You suck at video games” says Caleb, not for the first time, as the screen emits the electronic sounds of my defeat.
“My dad won’t let me have them,” I remind him. But then, in the spirit of this new alertness between us I add “I mean I like, read and stuff.”
“Ooooh!” He hollers, pulling a loose fist towards his mouth, acknowledging this tentative venture into flirting, “Look out! she likes books, not Nintendo like us normal dummies.” His freckled hand reaches out and tweaks my owlish tortoiseshell glasses and then shoves me lightly on the bare skin below my purple tie-dye.
His hand is dry and warm and the feel of it stays on my arm. I want to hold this new interest of his and I scour my mind for ideas.
“But I can still beat your ass at Tetris,” I say, proud of cussing.
Our knees now touch when he settles back with the new rectangular controllers and hands one to me, my thumbs taking up their instinctual positions on the buttons.
After a few rounds I am miraculously winning, but Caleb is moving away from me. He’s up on his knees and his body is jerking around as he angrily attempts to get his neon cubes lined up. When the final boxy shapes on my screen flash and disappear, I pump my fist in victory and turn towards him in anxious hope.
“See?” I tease, “Ass kicked!”
But before the words are even out of my mouth, he’s lunging towards me.
His fingers are curled around the Nintendo controller, and in the swift punches he makes to the left side of my face, I feel knuckle and hard plastic.
My right check is pressed into the shag and my feet scrabble beneath me.
I am not small, I never have been. So it’s surprising how easy it is for most men to pin me, hold me still, grab my wrists and keep my arms at my sides. Caleb’s sudden strength that afternoon was the first time I felt the whip of masculine rage, so often coiled just below the surface. I would learn to read the signs better over the years—when to demure, concede, soothe, freeze, fight, or get the fuck out. But it takes time and experience to know your own gut, especially in the spaces where fun and fear mingle so easily.
One time, while at a festival in another country, a group of men started pulling off my clothes but I escaped. At a party in New York, a man leaned into me and said, with a smile on his face, “You know you’re just a bunch of holes to be filled up.” I have been threatened rape by internet trolls and casual passersby. When I was reporting on refugees a man grabbed the side of my head through an open car window and slammed it against the door frame and then squeezed and twisted my breasts furiously before walking away. Ten years ago a co-worker walked into my office, closed the door and started rubbing my neck and moving my head back towards his crotch, but I jumped up and he stopped.
That afternoon at Caleb’s house my luck came in the form of his stepdad’s keys in the lock. Their rattle and scrape against the doorframe acted as a neutralizer. Suddenly I was up and running, arms stretched out toward the blinding sun beyond his looming silhouette. I moved so quickly I only vaguely heard the receding shout of, “what the hell was going on here?” before the slam of a door behind me.
I already knew not to tell. That more bad things would only follow. I was to blame for the things I wanted. For flirting and failing. For making him angry.
That afternoon I ran straight to my basement where I pressed the swollen side of my face against the cool fabric of the couch and stared into the empty black box of the TV.
My husband was right. The judge did get confirmed, “like they always do” and now my daughter and my son will hear his name for years to come. As I still hear the name of the judge who won his seat humiliating another woman on primetime TV thirty years ago.
“The details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult.”
I got my ass grabbed while wearing my first (and last) bikini in a wave pool at a water park at thirteen. I few years ago I had to excuse myself from a conference session to escape a colleague’s hand on my thigh. Most times I walk home at night I put keys between my knuckles. Last month a deranged man outside of my office building downtown called me an “ugly bitch” and aimed his fist for my chest—though I moved fast enough that he only glanced off my shoulder.
A few minutes later after I returned home from Caleb’s, my father thumped down the stairs and flicked on the light. He was holding my glasses by one twisted stem. “I found these on the porch, I think Caleb brought them” he said with concern, “Are you ok?”
“Yes,” I answered as though the lie were pre-programmed, my empty sound of my voice still echoing towards me across the decades, “I fell when I was over there.”
About the Author
Sarah Stuteville works at a civil rights organization in Seattle. A former journalist, she has reported from over a dozen countries. She is the mother of two, studying to become a mental health worker and working on a memoir about Postpartum Depression.