If I had to describe myself at twenty, this is what I would write.
A hyper-verbal, defensive, funny, and skinny skate betty. A poet, thin-skinned and capable, ambitious and in love with the idea of love. A lonely girl from a big family who was open to everything and acutely aware that, at any moment, the next man I met could be the one to change my life.
Back then, I didn’t understand all of this. Back then, the world was brightly new, as if each person and place I stumbled across was coloured and voiced like a cartoon and it was all I could do to eat it up as quickly as I could. Back then, I didn’t know that all of this was a perfect storm. Back then, I could never have predicted that the next man I met really would change my life.
In each of my novels, I’ve written about young women who push at the limits of their sexuality, who test how men react to their bodies and words and personae. In real life, I say all the time that every woman deserves to do all of this in safety. But that safety isn’t guaranteed and has never been. We can talk all we want about consent or violence or power, or consent and violence and power in combination with each other, but these conversations are abstract without women saying, clearly, how those three things have marked their lives.
In the summer of 1997, I was a few weeks away from turning twenty-one. I was a very particular kind of late 90s girl. I had pink-dyed pixie hair. I managed the poetry section at a bookstore. I wore big pants and a wallet chain and drank Guinness. Maybe you saw me, or someone just like me.
I was also deeply worried that I would never fall in love, while at the same time attracted by the idea of sex for fun. I had had relationships before, all of which had lasted no more than five weeks. Most of the boys I had dated were sweet and the things we did together were pleasant, if not exactly mind-blowing. By 1997, I thought I knew what feminism and sexual freedom meant, and, academically, I probably did. I wanted to fall in love, but I also didn’t. I wanted to know what a relationship based on sex alone might be like, but I was also a little scared. There seemed to be a palpable cloud of change enveloping me wherever I went; I felt like I was teetering on a cliff and it would take just one man, the right one, to grab my hand and convince me to jump.
He found me. He followed me down the street on his skateboard. I gave him my number and our first date, which wasn’t really much of a date, was strange and beery and punctuated with silence and his odd proclamations about the Armageddon and surfing. But he was handsome and tall and athletic. So we met again a few days later.
By now I knew our relationship was never going to turn into love. I just didn’t like him that much. But I thought he might be a fun partner, someone with whom I could finally have the kind of sex I had been reading about in all those goddamned poems I stared at every day. The kind of sex that left you rubber-jointed and silly, that walked a knife’s edge between easy and painful. I thought I could do that. I thought I felt safe enough.
When the sex started, it was without pretense, and it hurt. I asked him to stop, and he told me he wouldn’t and that it would get better. I asked him to stop again and he refused. I drew my arms back to push him off me, and then he began to hurt me in earnest, on purpose, for another forty-five minutes. I stopped saying no. I stayed silent until it was over.
I saw my body during this time with the clarity that only comes when you’re in great pain. He was beating the shit out of me, in places that no one who saw me in clothes would ever notice. That body didn’t seem to be mine but I knew it was, and I wanted to die. At the time, I was five feet four and 110 pounds. He was six feet three and weighed just under 200.
When he was done, he chatted to me like this was normal, like I wasn’t breathing jagged breaths and shivering, curled up naked on a mattress. Eventually, I put on my clothes and saw him out. I dragged myself back to bed and fell asleep, the smell of his sweat still on my sheets. I didn’t even care. I just wanted to sleep.
Several hours later, I woke up in a new kind of pain, the kind that blinds you, the kind that allows you to see the blood pooled around you, but numbs your brain so that you can’t process what all that blood actually means. I tried to stand up and fell down, three times. My sister took me to the hospital. I didn’t tell her what had happened.
The doctors and nurses, every single one who saw me, asked me if I had been raped. I said no. They clearly didn’t believe me. I wouldn’t have believed me either, but it was the truth, at least, I thought it was the truth then. In my head, the fact that I had decided to have sex with him before we had ever touched cancelled out any refusals I might have expressed while he was hurting me. After all, I could have pushed him off me, right? Well, except that he was twice my size.
I went home in the morning. I went on with my life, with school and work and friends. I dated again, got married, gave birth to my son, wrote some books, got divorced and began dating, yet again. I thought about silence, about how my desire to experience just one thing used to feel like a sin that needed to be punished and how fucked up that was. I remembered, sometimes, that man from the summer of 1997 and wondered how he might remember me, if he did at all. I walked through the next 19 years still learning, but safely, what I wanted from love and sex and companionship, and I cursed the fact that I learned so much from an experience that was so, so painful.
All of this is something that I haven’t been ashamed of in quite some time. I’ve written about it before, in fiction and essays. I’ve spoken about it at conferences and with friends. But, right now, in the middle of a tornado that is inciting discussion about power politics and rape culture and privilege, I wanted to be bigger about it, to draw for people a more detailed portrait of a certain kind of young woman who tries to live the sexually free life she thought the world was promising her, only to find herself broken and confused. That young woman may never speak to the police, she may never speak to anyone, but she deserves our empathy and consideration. I was that young woman once. I know how she feels.
Jen Sookfong Lee was born in Vancouver, where she now lives with her son. Her books include The Conjoined (ECW, 2016), The Better Mother (Knopf, 2011), and The End of East (Knopf, 2007). She is a columnist for The Next Chapter on CBC Radio and teaches writing in the Continuing Studies department at SFU. She contributed work to Room's issues 39.2 and 39.4, and Room's upcoming fortieth anniversary anthology. She will also judge Room's first annual Short Forms contest. This essay originally appeared on Jen's blog, and is republished here as part of the No Comment project.
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