Autumn crept into my window recently and peeled open the edges of a memory that I’d closed off and entirely forgotten. Changes in temperature, combined with certain smells and fluctuations in the texture of light can do that apparently… alter the frame just enough that the mind can arch back reflexively.
November 22nd, 2018 - Thanksgiving Day
I took myself on a retreat to Ridgway, Colorado, where I stayed in an Airbnb owned by a man I had heard good things about through mutual friends. He was sort of a local legend - a phenom rock and ice climber who excelled despite having a pronounced physical disability. I am always intrigued by people who overcome adversity to not only thrive, but to become role models to others, so I was excited to meet him and to hear his story.
He came home that evening to the Airbnb from Thanksgiving festivities and we stood in his kitchen chatting about a wide range of subjects. Eventually we meandered our way to the topic of consent, which as you might recall, was quite a hot topic at the time (Cavanaugh, Weinstein, Cosby, Nassar, etc, etc, etc). On this topic, he claimed to be quite well-versed, having been raised by a mother who instilled in him strong values and a deep respect for women. I told him about an exercise I had recently learned called the “3-Minute Game,” popularized by chiropractor Dr. Betty Martin. In the game, you explore the concept of consent in a non-sexual way, where both parties are clear on what is acceptable/not acceptable, what each is willing to receive/not willing to receive, and what each is willing to give/not willing to give. It is brilliant work and I highly recommend checking out both the 3-Minute Game and the Wheel of Consent.
After discussing the game, we sat down to play it - three minutes as the giver and three minutes as the receiver - communicating every step of the way what you want/don’t want and like/don’t like. Children can do this. Perfect strangers can do this. Again… it is not intended or designed to be sexual. It’s a conversation and an exercise.
In our getting to know one another, I had told him that I was still emotionally raw from a breakup just a few months prior and that he was the first man I was in close proximity to since that difficult time. I assumed he would be sensitive to that. He wasn’t. Pretty much immediately he started pushing and overstepping my boundaries and I had to repeatedly hold the line.
I need to pause here a moment and make note of the Extreme power of socialization on female behavior, and the neurobiological trap we often find ourselves in…
Whether we like it or not, and whether it’s logical or not, it is EXTREMELY common for women to want to please men. Somewhere, buried deep in the recesses of our brains lies this vestigial microchip that compels us to acquiesce, to go along with men’s desires and wishes, and to silence our own self-advocation, truth and voice. I’m not referring to direct circumstances that trigger a clear fear response, such as rape, assault, coercion, etc. I’m addressing a more subtle occurrence… the lower grade, yet ultimately destructive silencing of one’s internal compass to appease another. This is a global phenomenon, and although women around the world are learning to be responsible for speaking our truth and exercising our voices right from the start, socialization and biology remain powerful influences. As much as “this” royal bitch hates to admit it, socially and culturally, we don’t want to look like bitches. We don’t want to cause a problem. We don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want to be seen as hysterical or dramatic. Ultimately, we don’t want “him” to be displeased or upset. Such insidious socialization combined with our fight/flight/freeze neurobiology often leaves us with some pretty unsavory, even dangerous circumstances and outcomes. In the midst of an uncomfortable situation the prefrontal cortex can become impaired, causing us to forgo what is in our own best interest where we then default to socialized reflexes and habits. So instead of slapping that fucker and walking out, I put up with his disrespect, his brazen disregard for my boundaries and even… I cringe to admit this… left him a positive review on Airbnb.
I left his house the next day feeling like shit, but I endeavored to forget the incident to salvage the remainder of my vacation. For the most part I was successful, but 2 days later I welled up enough courage to write him an email expressing how I felt, while still trying to be nice and cordial and helpful… because that’s what we as women are socialized to do.
My personal experience of our time spent together was split in terms of truly enjoying your company, our conversation, your affections, and your spirit, and then feeling distressed by what occurred to me as a lack of being heard and respected. We had a conversation about consent, which is defined as: “Permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something.” I don't recall you explicitly asking for permission to do anything to me or to my body throughout the duration of our time spent together, and yet, you took actions anyway. I experienced having to repeatedly, and as gently and kindly as I could, deflecting your advances toward kissing my neck, licking my ears or trying to kiss me. That’s not where I was at. I mentioned that I was in a vulnerable place. My experience of you was that you didn’t hear those words and that you moved into my personal space on your own terms. I believe that the spectrum of consent ranges from the most overt actions of sexual assault and violence to the most subtle of exchanges between two human beings, and that we have the opportunity more than ever before in the history of humanity to fine-tune our listening and our responsibility to one another - to create safety and authentic expression from a place of permission and allowing versus simply taking. Your words toward the end, something along the lines of, “I wish I could tap that ass,” felt hurtful and disrespectful. When I spoke up and said so, I then felt my words dismissed. I believe your response was, “It’s not a big deal, they’re only words and they don’t matter.” Well, words definitely, absolutely matter to me.
I went on to offer resources so that he could delve deeper into the conversation of consent. I thanked him for the opportunity to learn. I told him that I hoped we could remain connected as community members and maybe even friends. I told him that ultimately, I believed he is a good man with good intentions, and all sorts of other saccharine, flowery bullshit that now makes me want to hurl.
Shocker. I never heard back from him.
After a while I pulled another tried and true female tactic… I suppressed the memory entirely. Scientists now have a bead on why we do this. They call it state-dependent learning… a phenomenon where memories created while in a certain mood or state - particularly in a state of stress or trauma - become inaccessible in normal states of consciousness. Those suppressed memories are most easily retrieved by accessing the same or similar state of consciousness as the memories were initially formed within.
10 months later, something in the air, the light, the barometric pressure… who knows… triggered that particular memory and it percolated back to the surface of my awareness. But I’m now 10 months older, 10 months stronger, and I give 10 months less fucks about what people think of me. So I shot him a text:
Hey there. You just popped back into my head and I suddenly realized how much of a cowardly douche you are for having never responded to my email. Hope you’re well.
Took him a few days, but he finally responded and sent me something along the lines of:
I didn’t respond to your victimy message because you didn’t deserve a response. Are you still single? I bet you are, which would explain the bitterness. I’m now in an amazing relationship with a wonderful woman. You have low emotional intelligence and mental problems. Never contact me again.
Ultimately, this gaslighter’s dead to me, and his words eventually rolled right off. His actions on that day 10 months ago spoke volumes of his character. His lack of a simple response to my email, let alone a basic gesture of apology paints a clear picture of how he rolls, and his final words on the matter simply highlight the unfortunate delusion of his adolescent ego.
But enough about him. Fuck that guy. My personal takeaway from all of this is a deep, deep learning. Never again will I throttle my face on that particular rake or twist my ankle in that particular hole. Never again will I trip on that particular lump of shit in the road. I’m now a smarter rat because of that man’s unconsciousness - because of my own unconsciousness - because of our collective unconsciousness. As the great Maya Angelou so wisely said, “When you know better, you do better.”
Three excellent resources on developing a deeper understanding of consent:
Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti