By Charlotte Lieberman published
Sexism happens every day in ways both large and small. Today, in honor of International Women's Day, we're standing up and calling it out. Here and in the linked stories below, four women share powerful essays about the moments they wish they could go back and rewrite—join in on Twitter and share your own. #WhatIWishISaid.
When I was in my teens, my mom told me never to go to Central Park alone. The park was where people got raped. Rape, I always believed, was something done by a scary man in a dark, desolate place. So long as I avoided them, I would be fine.
The summer after my sophomore year I traveled to Mexico for a competitive internship program. About a month into my stay, I met a guy—a friend of a friend—who I clicked with instantly. He was quick-witted, playful, and interested in my work. He endearingly made fun of my use of the word "anomaly" (anomalía in Spanish). After one date, he bought me a bracelet, and invited me to see a dubbed version of David Lynch's Blue Velvet. He spent the night and we fooled around before bed. I had a crush.
A few days later we went out for beers, then whiskeys, then dancing. He told me I was beautiful and that he loved my "blondish" hair. I was giddy and eager to go home together, though surely alcohol played a role in my enthusiasm.
We went back to where I was staying and had standardly boring intercourse. I didn't have an orgasm. He did. It all felt normal. I placed his needs above mine. I didn't realize there was an alternative.
Every depiction of sex I'd seen (rom-coms, TV shows) until this point went something like this: The man orgasms, the woman moans and looks happy, end of story. Even as a self-identified feminist enrolled in esoteric gender studies seminars, I didn't see the inequality. I had always been easy-going—and applauded for it. The idea of someone—especially a guy—regarding me as "pushy" revolted me. I fell asleep only mildly disappointed that fireworks hadn't gone off. I liked him.
A few hours later I woke up—suddenly and disoriented. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I realized that the guy who had just fallen asleep beside me was now inside of me. We were, apparently, having sex. I knew that it wasn't consensual, but it didn't occur to me to protest because I had just had consensual sex with him. I even thought that maybe I had said it was okay and just forgot. The idea of pushing back felt scarier than voicing what I knew to be true: I was being raped.
Many of us have said "yes" when we mean "no," or nothing when we meant "stop." Many of us have also beat up on ourselves as a result, as I did for the next five years.
I had been conditioned to think of my body as a pleasure vessel for my sexual partners. Yes I identified as a feminist, but my intellectual grasp of Judith Butler didn't come with me into the bedroom. I didn't realize that it was widespread cultural sexism that led me to believe—even subconsciously—that a man's pleasure mattered more than my own. I hadn't yet discerned that sticking up for my ownership of my body wasn't pushy—it was my right.
It took years, but I have finally grasped that, regardless of what signals I may be sending, no one can just do what they want to my body. Just because you have consensual sex with a man at 1 a.m. doesn't mean he can take whatever he wants at 4.
I wish I had said, "Get out of my vagina." I wish I had said, "My body does not exist for your pleasure." I wish I had said, "I am not a bad feminist because I let this happen."
And that's why—for my five-years-ago self and for any woman reading this who may need strength in the future—I'm saying it now.
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Charlotte Lieberman is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work often concerns feminism, meditation, and mental health. You can read her articles in Cosmopolitan, The Harvard Business Review, BOMB,Teen Vogue, and Guernica, among other publications, and her poetry in The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, and Nat.Brut. Visit her at www.CharlotteLieberman.com.
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