Nadia was enchanting from the moment she crossed our threshold. Thirty-one years old, a natural beauty and an open, sincere spirit that flowed immediately from her steady handshake and engaging smile. She came to our home for a week’s respite from her demanding job and the clamor of big city life – camera, back pack, two David Sedaris books and hiking shoes in tow. She was well prepared to have the mountains wash over her spirits.
The week progressed with an exceptional grace that changed her position of an Airbnb guest into something resembling family, or at least family of choice, and we found ourselves hiking with her, sharing meals and staying up late for long discussions under night skies. The conversations were multifaceted and void of awkwardness: her clarity of thought, skill at storytelling, ease of expression, and curiosity enthralled me.
She spent five days exploring the mountains, rafting and sampling craft beers and reserved with anticipation her final two days for a visit from a gentlemen caller whom she had met previously and was now courting her. She liked him. He was well-traveled, fetching and professional. Although they lived in different parts of the country, he had offered to come to Colorado and had reserved a hotel room for himself and offered to take her on a day trip deep into the mountains. It would be their first real date and she was complimented and delighted by his attention. On the day of his arrival, we sent her off with hugs and an invitation to bring him to dinner: a gesture that touched her since her own mother had never met any of her suitors. I drove to work, almost wishing I was young again.
Ten hours later I returned home, fresh salmon and brie cheese in hand; ready to greet her new beau and feeling a tad giddy as well: young love remains infectious. I found her sitting on the couch, wrapped tightly in a knitted throw and watching Netflix. I opened a bottle of wine and we spent the night quietly working through our mutual anger.
She had provided him with explicit expectations and wishes well in advance of their meeting: she was not going to sleep with him this early in their relationship. He had pushed and pushed, ignoring her boundaries and trying harder to get what he wanted. He wheedled, manipulated and threatened until his pushing became a strong and physical violation; she felt invisible, betrayed and powerless as she defended her herself. She managed to get away by kicking and scratching, and now was left with the hollow victory of disarming him. He blamed her, of course.
It is likely that you have had a similar evening as Nadia and I did, perhaps even multiple such evenings. Those evenings, wherein a woman breaks through her shame and embarrassment to allow another to bear witness to her sorrow, pain and anger, are echoed all over the world. We probably say the same things to each other and ponder the same questions. We speak about the anger, fear, humiliation, depression, guilt, and loss of self-esteem. We speak about feeling dirty and our luck to still be alive. We speak about the difficulty of disassociating sexual assault from consensual sex. We shake our heads in bewilderment when we hear the same justifications that some men use to explain away their wrongdoings. We recognize coercion; we know the threat of violation; we can feel the difference between power and sex; we understand the difficulty of defending ourselves emotionally and physically; and we do not project blame when some people panic and freeze rather than fighting back or remain petrified by interminable social pressure and do whatever they can to make the pressure stop, even if that means relenting to it. Above all else, we know that this is not consent.
We also know that it is still the men who buy the drinks and dinner and that we all fall prey to the norm of reciprocity, the expectation that people will respond favorably to each other by returning benefits for benefits. And yes, in every culture, it is still the men who have the power in both the bedroom and the battlefield and women remain the tools of their wars.
Yes, we know all this. Good men and good women everywhere recognize that placing the burden on others to resist your attempts to get your way–rather than putting the burden on yourself to leave unwilling people alone–is deeply unethical and selfish. Good men and women know that ‘No’ means no. “This wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time”, Nadia remarked on the night of our conversation. “It’s just that it eats you from the inside out. It makes me feel as if I don’t really exist.”
Nadia left several days ago but I am still thinking about her. She told me that her visit with us was life changing and that she was grateful she had come and meeting us was what she needed. I am still speaking with Nadia in my head, saying the things I wish someone had said to me when violence and violation ruled my life. I know that as I send my thoughts to Nadia, I am trying to speak to myself.
Yes, the world is evolving and we are creeping towards civilization. Yet in the refugee camps in Sudan, the streets of Philadelphia, the dorm rooms of prep schools, the sanctuaries of churches, the corners of Guangdong Shenga, the buses in Pakistan, the pristine peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the countless mansions, shanties, apartments, hallways, tents, cabins, penthouses, castles and cottages planted on the earth- we still do not know that ‘No’ means no.