The Point of Painful Things

The following may be triggering to those affected by assault. 

 

The rape is not the point of this story. 

You will read that word, what it means, all its weight and history and implications and you will miss the point. Don’t do that. Focus instead on the before and after, as I’ve done my best to do over the past month, and perhaps this will not go down as another assault lost to the wind.

The stranger who stole my dress in the nighttime is not the star of this story. He is nameless, though his face manifests itself everywhere and women find themselves having to burn bloody underwear to forget. I watched the sunny, yellow cotton turn a violent red; a broken honey pot turned artifact of war. I was returned to the doorstep of my host family unceremoniously by someone who didn’t even know he’d just won a battle.

Flight. Fight. Freeze. Perhaps my stillness conveyed something sexy. My screams conveyed that I did not want to die. They rang clearly, uninhibited by alcohol and fueled by fear. That broke the sexy spell of an unmoving body, and suddenly his dick was inside of a someone, not a something. 

The feeling was not once but always. It is when I get grabbed on the train and drugged at the party. It’s my ex boyfriend throwing me around and my friends hiding embarrassing things under concealer. I think our quiet has convinced the world that we are a bunch of some bodies not somebodys. The difference is harrowing.

It took me ten minutes to start screaming. I have yet to stop. The doctors handed me a rape kit and some Xanax and told me to calm down. The world handed me Black skin and a vagina and told me to cover up.

I hand you this story and I am telling you to scream. 

I keep thinking, I can’t believe I didn’t die. They do that out here in South Africa — and everywhere. It was dark that night because there were no stars in the sky. I think of that minute detail often.

I believed, in a sweaty, scathing stupor, that I must ask — are you going to kill me?

Both he and the world looked at me with eyes that said, of course, he’s already done exactly that.

I shook with anger and fear and a thirst for blood and felt with complete certainty that both he and the world were sorely mistaken. 

The HIV prophylactics the paramedics gave me made me loopy. The anti-anxiety meds made me stop shaking. Their questions make me angry. Why didn’t YOU fight back? 

I had to call my mom.

My brother is going to read this. He’s twelve. 

Mom told dad because she had to. I’m telling you because I can. Do not question for a moment, it was violent. You needn’t hypothesize how horrible it must be. I am here to tell you.

I had to call my boyfriend.

I moved across the world and found what I worried may exist everywhere. Now I know, for certain, it does. The rape is not the point. The bruising and lacerations and potential exposure to HIV is not the point. The shaky fingers are not the point. They are all repercussions of a fact which I will beat to death until the same is done to me: the world for women and children is violently unsafe. 

I am a journalist by trade, by passion, by the things I’m good at. I like stories, so let me tell another. 

Once upon a time, on a night like any other, Uyinene Mrwetyana was being raped and murdered in a post office. 

And another. An average of 110 women were experiencing something similar in this country. I got to wake up the next morning. That makes me a special statistic.

I know hopelessness as the feeling of relief when your rapist doesn’t kill you. What pitiless joy I felt at being alive. How clear my defenselessness became in the wake of my entry into adulthood. Black girls don’t grow up, we are robbed and told that we’re being gifted reality. 

You are so beautiful, the world says. Let me tear you in half. 

I literally dare you. 

Let’s not talk about the frivolous stuff. Let’s talk about the small spaces, like the car. And strange men, like the driver. Let’s talk about tough talks, like with my mother. Or rough looks, from my host sister. We can discuss and reiterate and rearticulate and go through all the proper revisions and the fact remains the same. The test results do not change. My heart does not lighten. 

I write to you with the intention of telling the truth, especially when it hurts. I am a journalist, that is what we do. I take this story and I gift it to you all, a nasty present that proves the injustice of the world we’ve been thrust into. If there is no autonomy offered to my body then my brain will take it from here. 

I write to you because I believe in the fundamental change occurring publicly. I want the world to know that even its most protected — the sweet children they place in ivory towers and convince to change the world — even we are unsafe. I want the world to know that my suffering will be very loud. It will be shared and dissected and used for scientific research. I didn’t consent but I’ll give my body up to science, if it helps. 

I write to you because it’ll happen again. And again and again and again, and I’ll be damned if I’m not screaming through the whole thing.

Remember, the rape is not the point. 

It is a repercussion. Not for my actions, but for what we’ve decided to tolerate. The aftermath has lasted exponentially longer than the attack. It has been painful in a way which makes one want to die. It is the most regular I’ve felt in a long time. That’s the point. In all my grace and grandeur — in all my brilliance and beauty and perceived importance, I was assaulted. 

There is no safety net. That is the point. 

I wished someone had told me sooner before I realized it is displayed everywhere before me. The ugly truth exists twofold: I can neither pretend this didn’t happen, nor bring myself from putting it to paper. It must be documented. It will not be a secret between me, my rapist, and a God who failed to protect me. It will be another story, another byline, another injury sustained in the name of being alive. 

My new therapist says I must give myself time. He says not to intellectualize my experience. You’re traumatized, he says.

Yes, I reply. I’ve been traumatized. 

You’re in pain, he says.

Yes, I reply. I am in excruciating pain.

Heal how you see fit, he says.

So, I take a deep breath and scream.

 

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Jamaica Ponder, STAA Collective, and Kathy Fernandez

If you or a loved one has been sexually assaulted, you can call the RAINN hotline for free, 24-hour advice at 1-800-656-4673.

 

Sex is Supposed to be Fun for Women – Who Knew?

 

I didn’t know sex wasn’t supposed to hurt as much as the first time every time you had it until two years after the fact. Up until my revelation that sex could and should be enjoyable for women, I was satisfied in my dissatisfaction with sex.

For a while, whenever I would retrospectively wonder why I had put up with so much bad sex, I’d end up blaming myself. I felt responsible for my own complacency with sup-par dick. I explicitly told the men I’d slept with — time and time again — that the sex was great, that I enjoyed myself, that orgasm was completely authentic. And yes, it is so wonderful that we came at the same time. And so on and so forth. 

What a liar!

Why, if the sex sucked, was I sucking dick? Even then in my teenage naivete, I felt a distrust and disliking towards straight men. Yet, I fell into some sort of reversal when naked and attempting to reach some sort of climax — an effort often thwarted by my partners’ inability to locate anything with a nerve ending. 

I noticed my yielding toward the will of gendered power structures I so actively hated outside of the bedroom. And that behavior was rewarded. Or, reinforced with what I’m sure the men I was sleeping with perceived to be positive affirmation. Later into my sexual life, I found the forms of communication used through sex which I had become accustomed were kinda fucked up. Both verbal and non-verbal, were oftentimes completely dependent and in response to whatever my partner was communicating. 

That looked like: 

Him: I want head.

Me: Okay I will give you head. 

Him: You want to give me head, right?

Me: Yes, I want to give you head. 

I actually hate giving head. I hated then and I hate it still, but I’d do it anyway. Me just doing the damn thing wasn’t ever sufficient though. I had to want to do it. At the least, I had to make it seem like I wanted to do it. If my enthusiasm was not where it needed to be, I’d be asking a rhetorical question, to which the answer was already scripted. It never felt as though I could say, “No, I don’t want to do this sexual thing because we did it before and you’re bad at it.” Often, I felt that to be the only truthful response. So I would lie. 

Lying while laying. More focus applied to my moans than anything else. After a while, I decided that I hated sex and began to see it as a tool more than anything else. I rarely finished sex, because I rarely finished during sex. It became clear that once sex had started, to an extent, we’d done the deed regardless of if we came. Ta-da! Done. 

I got very good at faking fatigue from over exertion, exhaustion from lust, electrolyte depletion from sweating — I could find any way to get out of a fuck. It is to this phase in my life which I attribute my theater prowess. 

This happened so often and became so normalized that I wasn’t displeased or even deprived. I didn’t know what I didn’t have. I had never felt properly touched before, and therefore never longed for it nor suffered in its absence. 

Actually, I thought I had the whole sex thing pretty down. Guys loved sleeping with me and frequently wanted to do so more than once. I usually declined, opting instead to find more bad dick elsewhere. Neither party seemed to be aware that the sex was good for one person, since we both actively expressed a singular, male viewpoint. I call this bedroom hegemony. It’s like regular hegemony in the way that we’re convinced the unequal distribution of power is normal when really, it’s not. 

For example, I don’t particularly enjoy having a penis rammed down my throat. I don’t like having my head pushed in any direction. I like being choked, but you’re supposed to squeeze the sides of the throat, not the windpipe — that is how you kill someone. I don’t mind having my ass slapped, but I will be upset if I can’t sit down the next day. None of these are outlandishly deviant preferences. Though, I realized these were things I didn’t like because men kept doing them to me without asking. 

I would say nothing. Actually, I would pad my silence with a bunch of well rehearsed “oohs” and “ahhs”, not that anyone was listening anyway. In my mind, since everyone was doing it, that was just sex, right? 

It wasn’t until I started watching porn that I realized why all these men fuck like they’re trying to hammer a nail into a cement wall. The prevalence and seemingly formulaic incorporation of violence into mainstream porn fascinated me. The women, to whom I naturally  paid the most attention, rarely looked pleased. When they did I instantly questioned if it was as performative as I myself had grown to be. Porn is graphic, you can see everything. What I was seeing looked painful. I then understood, men are being taught that violence is sexy. Yuck.

There is an overbearing theme of domination and objectification of women in porn. This isn’t necessarily a nuance, but when applied to the behavior I experienced in the bedroom, the themes transfer over. I see the unrealistic expectations and understandings of sex bleed from the internet into my actual bedroom. Sometimes that’s in the uncomfortably rough way men have handled my body. Often times, it’s in the overwhelmingly male focus and narrative of our sex. We’re done when he’s done. White flag means game over.  

I notice the confidence in men who have bad sex. Clearly they don’t know they’re bad, and they’ve been bad for so long, they think they’re good. To which I say, we need to stop lying to men about their pipe game. 

We’re doing ourselves a disservice, sure. But it’s easy to walk away from bad sex with a smile and never look back. I used to pull that all the time. Though, what we’re also doing is reinforcing male delusions of grandeur in the bedroom. Do not let the age old myth that he who fucks the hardest and fastest wins the race. He who comes first does not actually win. In the name of vaginas, anuses and orifices otherwise used in sexual activity, tell guys what they’re doing wrong. If not for yourself than for their next partner. Consider it as passing it forward. 

Once I made the connections between my own displeasure and the looks of boredom on porn stars’ faces, I started speaking the hell up. “I don’t like this,” “touch me here,” “do not even think about it.” I wasn’t a dick about it, but if the service wasn’t up to par, I dismounted, packed my things up and took my butt home. 

I had to explain to a lot of guys that no, that wasn’t how you did that. And they listened. If we needed to, we stopped. When I wanted to, I took the time to explain what I liked and how they could improve. It made my sex longer, better, and hotter. The active dismantling of male dominance in my bedroom made me love my bedroom a lot more. Made me love sex a lot more. Made a lot of guys into the men they are today. 

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Francesca Iacono, Tamara Chapman, and Dakota Varney

 

I Stuck a Finger Up My Boyfriend’s Ass

Jacob does not talk about sex. He’s good at it, though, so I encourage him to talk about it with me. But he’s always had a much more reserved relationship with sex, although he openly loves his penis. I, unbothered by his modesty, spoke about sex — my sex, our sex, sexual health, sex in politics, sex in the news, sex on planes — freely and oftentimes loudly and at inappropriate times. Jacob would never dissuade me from screaming from the rooftops about intimacy. Rather, my boyfriend had a tendency to broach the subject in the liminal spaces of our lives. 

Brushing our teeth. Tuesday evening. 10PM. “Baby, why do you prefer having a threeway with two girls and not two guys if you consider yourself to be straight?”

Waiting at the gas pump. Sunday before family brunch. 8AM. “Angel, do you think it would feel good if I used the vibrator on the little space between my balls and my asshole?”

CTA Red Line, Jarvis stop. Heading to get Ethopian food. 5:13PM. “What were you saying about using food in sex when you were on the phone with Phoebe last night? Frozen grapes sound fun.”

Aside from these rare, random occurrences, Jacob was otherwise silent — which I mistook for vanilla. And after this particular rendezvous, I must argue his sexual appetite is much more fluid than I’d previously given him credit for. By which I mean, I was not expecting it when he asked me to stick my finger up his butt.

Now, in my defense, I hadn’t ever had anyone ask for a finger up there. And I’d been around. So when Jacob, my 6 foot 2 inches ex-football player, “manly-man” boyfriend asked me if I’d ever touched someone’s ass before, my immediate response was almost: have you?

Instead, I asked him what he wanted me to do. Partially out of curiosity but mostly out of ignorance. If he wanted me to touch him, he was going to have to show me exactly what he meant. He got nervous upon being asked to explain. After a lot of “uhs” and “umms” I finally got a rhythm down, gently pressing the tip of my pointer finger against his hole, pushing slightly further in when he motioned for me to. He would nod with what he liked, and adjust my hand when he didn’t like what my finger was doing. His dick was in my face, so I started giving him head at the same time (Something I actually know how to do!) .

The whole thing lasted about eight minutes before we got to the good stuff (can anyone say, intercourse!). Afterwards, once we had rehydrated and gotten our morning coffee, I asked Jacob what compelled him to ask for such an act. To which he responded that I should relax and be more open. Again, I was stunned. 

“You were nervous,” I told him. “The way you asked made it seem like it took effort.”

“It did take effort,” he shrugged. “You know — imma dude. That type of shit…” he trailed off. 

“Baby, I don’t know!” Jacob grabbed me by my waist and pulled me into him. Normally, I was the one who pushed for experimentation in the bedroom. 

I introduced him to the vibrator and the handcuffs. Whipped cream and frozen grapes were also all me. Our only collective effort had been roleplay, which I attributed to all the ridiculous storylines in shitty mainstream porn. So, having him tell me to broaden my horizons was an unexpected shock to the system. 

He laughed when I said nothing. “I know you always like for us to try new things with your body, I figured we could do the same with mine.”

Incrédulous, I asked if I had done a good job. 

He answered in the affirmative. But told me to be more sure of myself. “I want you to touch me,” he said. “That always feels good to me.”

Mentally taking notes, I asked if he’d ever had anyone do that before. 

Affirmative again. What? I thought. This man had been holding out on me. “Jacob!” I slapped his arm. “Why are you just now telling me?” 

“Because it’s embarrassing!”

“I literally write about sex for a living!”

“Being a man makes it hard to ask!”

“It shouldn’t.”

“But it does.”

“What made you ask if you were so nervous?”

“You literally write about sex for a living.”

I burst into a fit of giggles, “You just don’t want me to think you’re gay!”

He pinched my sides, making me laugh again. “You know I’m not gay.” He pinched me again. “And so what if I am? I still like fucking you.”

And, he was right. On several fronts. Firstly, I did know his preferences. Secondly, so what? A quick Google search will reveal how the prostate is, in many ways, the male “G” spot, rendering stimulation not only natural — but encouraged.  I laughed to myself. I should know better than to relegate male assplay solely to the sex lives of gay men, I couldn’t avoid my automatic bias towards butt-stuff. 

He paused as I re-situated myself on the bed across from him. “You’re always talking about sex,” he said slowly. “You’re explicit, but you’re precise. It’s almost clinical.”

I swatted at him. He dodged me, “Hey! It’s not a criticism. I’m just saying, you tell me what you like.”

“I do,” I agreed.

“And you’re so direct that it’s impossible for me to misunderstand you.”

“That’s why our sex is good,” I said.

“That is why our sex is good,” Jacob agreed. “But it could be better.”

“For you,” I stated.

“Exactly,” he agreed again, grabbing my feet and pulling me towards him. “But for that to happen I have to communicate.”

“I fucking love communication,” I lamented into his shoulder, biting him gently, for emphasis

“So yeah,” he said, pulling me up and pushing me towards the bathroom. “I had to tell you that I like fingers up my ass.”

“And I know you’ve lacked interest in reciprocation” he said, turning on the shower for me.  “But let me know if you change your mind. Pretty sure I have a butt plug somewhere around here.”

Still partially catatonic from the narrative switch between Jacob and myself, I hardly had time to process his first comment before he left me with more.

“Maybe once we get married I’ll let you peg me,” Jacob said, pulling closed the glass shower door, then leaving me to marinate in my shock in private.

So… yeah. That’s what happened. That’s how my finger ended up in my boyfriend’s butt. And, uh, it’s most definitely going to happen again. I hope my mom never reads this. 

 

Photo (in order of appearance) by Willow Gray and STAA Collective

Why Doesn’t Everyone Have Access to PrEP?

The killer’s name is Gilead. I hadn’t heard of it before and I thought the name sounded oddly, almost eerily familiar. 

With some light googling I managed to find out that Gilead is an American biopharmaceutical company that makes antiviral drugs. It’s also the name of that heinous country from Margaret Atwood’s book-turned-TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale — which seemed like an odd coincidence, until I kept researching

Truvada is one of the drugs made by Gilead Sciences. On the commercial market, it’s sold and advertised as PrEP. It’s an FDA approved medication which, when taken continually and properly, reduces the risk of contracting HIV by 92 percent. Super effective, cheap to make — less than $60 a year according to the New York Times — and super easy to administer. So why isn’t everyone taking PrEP? 

Namely, because it’s absurdly expensive. 

The price of PrEP has risen over the years, with Gilead turning a profit of $14,000 per patient. No one else has previously been able to manufacture the drug because Gilead wouldn’t release Truvada from its patent. Since they’re the sole proprietor, they get to name their price, so they inflated it by 25,000 percent. Finally, after significant public outcry and protest, the pharmaceutical giant agreed to allow a generic version of PrEP to be made — but only by one company and in 2020

While it’s estimated that there are over a million people in the U.S. who would potentially benefit from the medication, only about 225,000 are currently on PrEP. Guess who most of those people aren’t: the Black (38%) and Latino (29%) men who have sex with men and made up 67% of HIV diagnoses in 2016  the majority of whom live in the South.

Meanwhile, Gilead Sciences is sitting comfortably at #199 on this year’s “Forbes Global 2000” list, with a market capital of $80.3 billion

Gilead actively depriving high-risk communities of access to PrEP is also avoidable, seeing as the trial research which established PrEP was substantially funded by the Federal Government. We live in America, so the government has “March-In” rights, which means they can come in and take stuff back if companies don’t comply with government and public interests. If they really wanted to, the government could take the Truvada patent from Gilead and give it to a generic pharmaceutical company to make at affordable prices. That clearly isn’t happening. 

Despite Gilead recently reaching a deal with the Trump Administration to donate enough drugs to treat 200,000 patients for 11 years — one of the largest pharmaceutical donations in our nation’s history — it’s not nearly enough to cover the million-plus people who need treatment. It’s a fake move, and people are dying for it. 

HIV is still classified as a global epidemic, and the U.S. Government consistently fails to treat the disease as the lethal threat it can be. The continuation of unnecessary deaths is disproportionate along lines of class and race, which I argue isn’t by coincidence. It’s important to recognize where we are protected and where we are not. 

Sex and sexual health rights within communities of color have long been used as a weapon by the government and private corporations alike. As a journalist and, more importantly, a woman of color, I do my best to spread the word when I hear about how the powers that be choose to handle our bodies. Hopefully, we can use what we know to gain more autonomy over our own bodies, drawing power from education. 

Use rubbers. Get tested. Ask your doctor about PrEP. Be open with your partners. We can learn a lot from what is being stolen from us and channel that into advocacy, awareness, and action. 

 

 

For more information on what PrEP is and how it works, click here

To join the activism surrounding access to the life-saving drug, check out the #BreakThePatent campaign

For New York Times Daily podcast episode on the subject, click here

 

Photos (in order of appearance) via breakthepatent.org and by Dariana Portes. Art by Brigid Stafford.