I am lucky, I am blessed, and I am privileged. I don’t particularly like these words, but just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean they’re not true. Luck suggests I have no agency in my own life, that good stuff simply happens to me. A lot of times, my life feels that way. Blessed implies religion, which I’m really not down with. And privilege, well, a lot of people have accused me of being oreo, coconut, white, so yeah.
These three things have a big role to play in how my existence has turned out. You see, I was raped by the neighbourhood bully when I was six years old. I didn’t understand what rape meant. I was six years old, so this is what I understood.
I understood that there was another boy who liked me. He was kind and sweet. He was my friend. We experimented. We tried to do the things we saw in a movie. Well, I tried to do them. He just played along because he liked me. And I chose him, because I knew he liked me, and that he would never hurt me. I didn’t even know what it meant to be hurt.
It was harmless. We went into the servant’s quarters, locked the door, slipped under that powder-blue herrignbone bed-cover with the spongy patterns and the silky fringe. We kept all our clothes on. We lay down on our backs facing upwards. Then we punched and kicked the bed-cover above us so that it made lumps that rose and fell, just like the movies. And we giggled and moaned, just like the movies.
The house-help heard us. She came banging on the door and yelled at us to come out. I didn’t know why she was so upset, or why she said the boy shouldn’t come over anymore. We hadn’t done anything. But my parents liked him, and his parents liked me. So we played at his house instead. We didn’t get under the covers again, but we cuddled on the sofa in their sitting room and watched TV. His mum thought we were cute. We can’t have been more than 5 years old.
This nice, sweet boy, he wasn’t my boyfriend. He was my friend. I liked him, but I wasn’t into him, not really. I know, because I got asked all the time, by the other kids. They asked me who I had a crush on. Kids are mean, and they wanted to hurt my friend. They wanted him to hear me say I liked someone else.
I understood another boy. This one I didn’t like so much. Because he was loud, he smelled, and sometimes, he was mean. He ‘patronised’ me. I didn’t know that word – I was five years old! But he talked to me slowly, like I was stupid. I hated that. And his sisters were kind of bitchy. I think he liked me though. He’d grab my hand and kiss it, and I would hide it behind my back and wash it with lots of soap, because now it smelled like him. I never told him to stop though. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
I played with him and his sisters, because they were there, and they – at least – were willing to play with me. I remember being in his room, playing cha mama. They said I should be the mother and he should be the father. They told us to get on his double decker bed, the lower one, and put a sheet over the front so they couldn’t see us.
They told me to lie on top of him while they counted. We had our clothes on, and they counted for a long time. I didn’t like it. It felt … wrong. I didn’t want to be there. When they pulled the sheet away, I went home, and I didn’t play with them again. I still see him sometimes, as an adult. He’s considered hot now. Mature, couth, nicely put together. I smile, nod, say a few polite words, then I walk away thinking about his slow words, and the way he used to smell.
Did these incidents have something to do with the rape? Did the kids look at me and see a bad girl, the kind of girl it was okay to do bad things to? Did I bring it onto myself? Did that loud opinionated six year old ask to be raped?
When it happened, it was different. It was terrifying. I tried to scream but nothing came out. The world was spinning, I felt dizzy. I was choking. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die. And there was light. So much light. And spiral staircases, and dogs. When it was over, I ran. I ran and ran and ran. My legs hurt.
I don’t remember feeling any pain. All I knew was that I didn’t want it to happen, that I tried to make it not happen. That I couldn’t tell anyone because it was bad manners and I was a bad girl. And I guess I hid it well, because nobody noticed.
People say rape is about sex. I had previous incidences – innocent activities that were about sex. At least, a child-like version of sex. This wasn’t like those other ones. I wanted those other ones. I was willing. Even the mother-father game, a part of me wanted that. Not all of me, but a part of me. And I had the choice to walk away.
That’s the thing about rape. Sure, a man may have sexual interest in you, but that’s not what makes him come after you. Women don’t generally get raped in broad daylight, or in public streets. Because that’s not acceptable. Instead they get cat-called and groped and insulted, because their attackers know nobody will stop them from doing that.
A few years ago, several women got stripped in the streets, because their attackers knew nobody would stop them, not even the other women. And in some situations, like war, unrest, riots, then women do get raped in public, because in that context, their attackers know no one will stop them.
Rapists don’t rape because they are aroused.
Rapists rape because they know no one will stop them.
And rapists are not always creepy guys in dark alleys, or macho men who spike your drink, or a late night matatu full of men. Sometimes, most times, rapists are nice guys who had a bad day and took it out on you because they knew you couldn’t – or wouldn’t – stop them.
They lost face somewhere else, so they rape you to get that power back. In reality, it’s all about them. It has very little to do with you. In fact … it has nothing to do with you. You’re involved, attacked, raped because you’re … there. But the real violence is all about them.
That’s why most times, your rapist is your boyfriend or husband who got yelled at by the boss, wants sexual healing, and knows even if you say no, you won’t do anything to prevent him from forcefully fucking you. It might be your in-law who has always lusted after you, but now he’s alone with you, and he knows no one will believe you.
He could be your brother or father or uncle or cousin or nephew who is unhappy with his life and knows that forcing himself on you will boost his ego and make him feel powerful. He could be your relative’s friend – or enemy – who wants revenge against a man you love and uses you as dangerously effective collateral damage. He could be your ‘nice guy’ date who is fed up of being friend-zoned, and who ‘fucks’ you because he knows you won’t make him stop.
And yet … even though it was never about you … you will blame yourself.
You will carry it with you. Always.
There’s a triggering piece about a woman who – in her own words – made breakfast for her rapist. He was her date, she brought him home, he got into her bed. And when she said no, he told her she was beautiful and did it anyway. I understand that, because a few years ago, it happened with a boy I liked. I’d slept with him before. I’d told him what I liked, and what I didn’t like. I explained why I didn’t like it from the back. I’d told him over and over, both in bed and out of it. He said ‘I know you don’t like this, but …’ and then he did it anyway.
My face was in the pillow, so he didn’t see me crying while he was inside me. Afterwards, we cuddled. I told him, again, why I didn’t like it from the back. Because it hurts from my childbirth injury. Because it degrades me. Because I don’t like being fucked like a horny dog. He listened. He said he was sorry. He said we wouldn’t do it like that in future. He never called me again.
In the story about bacon and eggs, she says making him breakfast erased it. It made it a bad date instead of rape. It made him a nice guy instead of an attacker. It made her beautiful. But it scarred her just the same. After he left, she cut her hair, went goth, made herself unapproachable and unattractive, so that nobody would want her ever again. If they didn’t think she was beautiful, they wouldn’t want to hurt her.
That guy, that night, in her room, in her bed. He didn’t rape her because she was beautiful. He didn’t rape her because ‘no means yes’. He raped her because there was nobody to stop him. He raped her because even though he heard her say no, he knew she wouldn’t stop him. Just like it happened to me.
There was another boy, a nice boy. It was a different time in my life. I lived in Dar, worked in a Muslim office, and wore light flirty skirts and sleeveless tops to work because it was always so hot. We had been flirting for months before we finally went on a date, because he’d constantly ask me out and stand me up. When he finally picked me up for the date, I was surprised he’d actually shown up – and I said so. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but yeah.
It was a nice date. We bought pizza then drove to the beach, ate, talked, watched the waves. Cops came by at some point and told us we had to leave, and we giggled because we were just eating. We had barely touched. We went to his house. He had no chairs, so we sat on cushions on the floor, drinking tea and watching cartoons while his room-mate blasted loud music from the bedroom.
We started making out, and I told him to stop because we didn’t have condoms. I said we could fuck, I wanted to fuck, but only if he went for condoms. He didn’t want to, it was too cold. I said I should go home, because I needed to be up early to put my baby girl on the school bus. He said not to worry, he’d drop me home at 4.00 a.m, which would be good, seeing as I had no idea how to get from his place to mine. I suck at directions. So we cuddled on the floor and fell asleep.
The next morning I asked him to drop me home. At first, he refused, told me to go on my own. He saw the look on my face as I started to gather my things, so he grinned and said I was lucky he was such a nice guy. After all, he said, if he had really wanted to have his way the night before, I couldn’t have stopped him. I froze. He grinned. He drove me home. We dated a few more months, but I was always on edge around my ‘nice guy’ after that.
There’s a stereotypical response to rape. It follows a script that some writer distilled. You burn your clothes. You go into the shower and scrub your skin until it hurts. Then you curl up and cry. Real life isn’t always that formulaic. Real life sometimes turns out like the story above, but not always.
Sometimes, real life turns you into a nympho, because on some deep level, you feel like being ‘oversexed’ will keep you safe. After all, they can’t take your sex if you’re giving it freely. And it raises a wall of sarcasm to hide vulnerability.
Real life subconsciously turns you into a tomboy, because being a girl is ‘weak’ and if you look and act like them, they won’t want to hurt you. They won’t want you. Real life makes you a tough-talking, loud-mouthing, brash, unattractive feminist, because if they’re put off, then they won’t want you, and if they don’t want you, then they can’t hurt you.
Real life makes you consistently, unwittingly, pursue unavailable men. Because if you can’t have them, then they can’t hurt you. It makes you fall for younger guys, because you’re smarter, wiser, and stronger than they are. They can’t control you, so they can’t hurt you. Their safety makes them attractive, and you are drawn to this safety without even knowing that’s what attracted you.
Real life makes you long for the guy who wants you as a person, not just as a sexual object. But deep down, in a place you can’t willingly access, it also makes you feel you’re undeserving of this kind of interest. So when it happens, it confuses you. It jars you. I mean, why does this boy like me? There must be something wrong with him. And if there’s something wrong with him, then I’m not attracted to him.
It makes the good guys, the right guys, the safe guys … it makes them unattractive … because they are unfamiliar … and we can only like what we know. And remember, all this is unconscious, self-preserving reflex. Half the time, you don’t even know you’re doing it. All you know is that the guys that like you are ‘dull and boring’, and the ones that don’t are hot as fuck, pun intended. The genuinely ‘nice’ ones are good to you. They’re kind and sweet and generous. But you feel nothing for them.
They’re potatoes. Sweet potatoes.
That’s been my life for the last 30 years. I’m 36 now, and I’m just realising why I fall for all the wrong guys. I’m drawn to the young ones who can’t hurt me, the unavailable ones who don’t want me (and therefore can’t hurt me), the ‘just for sex ones’ because at least I understand them. They can’t steal what I’m giving willingly.
And yet my deepest desire is to be wanted for me, loved for me, not just for my body. Human psyche is stupid, because I end up dismissing the thing I want most. I’m actively working against what I want, and I didn’t even know it. It’s easier to stay within the realm of the familiar.
How did I figure this out? Age, time, growth, therapy. Mostly therapy. And I am grateful that my luck, blessing, and privilege allows me to have therapy. I finally realised that as a result of the rape, I feel unworthy of genuine affection. So I subconsciously ward it off even though I want it more than anything.
How do I fix this? Fuck if I know. I’m hoping my therapist has some ideas. Because once I can accept that I do deserve love, then maybe I can recognise, attract – and accept – the right kind of men into my life. And who knows, I might even give them a chance and let them in.
If you have experienced rape, it’s not the end. Whether is was five minutes ago, five days ago, five years ago, five decades ago … you probably have wounds you can’t see. Find someone safe. Talk to them. Recognise your hurt so you can let yourself heal. And allow – hard as it may be – that sometimes your healer might be a good man, because they’re not all trash.
♫ Deliverance ♫ The Script ♫