Fifth article in Secular Woman’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month Series
by Jennifer Forester
When I was five, I decided that I wanted to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour, and I went through all of the motions: I asked him into my heart, assumed he accepted, and was baptized before the congregation. I remember vividly how afraid I was to be baptized; the thought of the water closing in over my head filled me with panic, but somehow I went through it, understanding that I had been washed in metaphorical blood and was now sin-free in the eyes of God. What was not possible for me to process in my gloriously naïve five-year-old brain was that, in return for the unconscionably horrifying experience of vicarious redemption, I had agreed to surrender my will to a being who could not express his will to me excepting through the men who controlled what ostensibly came from him. My body was to be a temple, a living sacrifice to God, and no one ever explained to me that, in the end, the difference between person as temple and person as toilet are negligible: they are both things. Neither have the will to decide what will and will not happen to or in them, and neither have the capacity to protest when their will is violated.
Naturally, being five, I didn’t hear much about sex, although I was raised much more openly than most of my Christian peers. The twisted fascination of the religious fundamentalist with the myriad manifestations of sexuality did not start to interfere with my awareness of the conflict between my Christian faith and my own desires until early in my adolescence as I—who had precociously noted the beguiling nature of my masculine peers years before my body signaled any sort of readiness for their attentions—became the recipient of male attention, welcome and unwelcome alike. As men began following me when I walked in public, as boys began to return my affections, the exhortations to purity began. Boys would want to do things to me, but I should not let them. I was to remember, at all times, that my body was a sacrifice to Christ and a gift to my future husband (who, presumably, would be returning the gift; at least there was no double standard in my household). What negativity did not seep down from my mother, who at the least had a truly egalitarian vision of mutual abstinence for Christians, worked its way in from elsewhere, poisoning my understanding of my body and its new, unfamiliar hungers. Sex was something that boys would want to do to me; it was not something that I would do or share. There was never any conception that I might be getting what I wanted out of some hapless boy; no, I was a vessel, for my God and for the men who would try to use me. My virginity would be a sacrifice to the man who would love me enough to wait until I was married, but a sacrifice it would be.
At fifteen, rather than losing my virginity in a thoughtless moment of passion as did so many of my fellow Evangelical kids, I made the calm, rational decision that I was ready to have sex with my fiancé who, at fourteen years old, was obviously as equipped as I was to enter into a healthy, mutually fulfilling sexual relationship. We spent days getting our plans together, making sure that we would have a plausible excuse to feed our parents—who were most certainly not in on this or supportive of it—and that we would have condoms, unlike our less fortunate peers who did not plan ahead. Although I was still a Christian, I never felt the cognitive dissonance, guilt, or fear that I should have had about this decision; somehow all of that didn’t leak down to me. No, what was missing for me was a concept as powerfully positive as the abstinence-only guilt is damaging: I lacked a model of consensuality. Lacking this, he and I, two children with only our religious and cultural messages to go by, proceeded to have sex in precisely the way that you would expect. He held me still while he painfully thrust in and out of me and then, while I lay on the floor bleeding and weeping, feeling every bit the living sacrifice I had pledged to be, he told me to put my clothes on so that he could play video games.
This never struck me as odd, never felt like the stab in the back that it should have; after all, I had simply transitioned from temple to toilet, and it was natural that he would use me in the same way that God used women: as an uncomplaining dispensary for bodily fluids and ideas about myself. The time before he finally, irrevocably raped me, under circumstances that I could point my finger at and say, “Yes, that was it!” was filled with a thousand little transgressions.
The time he wanted to have sex in a practice room and I was afraid that we would get caught, but he told me that I would do it if I loved him.
The time he convinced me to perform oral sex on him—an act I found repulsive at the time—by telling me that he would find someone else to do it if I wouldn’t.
The time I was about to move to another state and he broke down and cried until I would have sex with him in a movie theater because “he would miss me so much.”
The time he broke up with me but told me that he still wanted me and, as I wept, he pulled my shirt off of me and proceeded to use my unresisting body.
The times I fell asleep at his house and woke up with him rubbing his penis on my lips, the time his idea of experimenting with BDSM was to hold a butcher knife to my throat while I cried out that he was terrifying me.
This, all of this, building to the time when I would finally say the word “no” with enough emphasis that this constant, unrelenting assault on my body and mind became something that I would be able to, once and for all, definitively attach the word “rape” to, even if it took until a year later for me to be able to do so. I, the teenaged version of the good Christian five-year-old who pledged her body as a temple to the Lord, functioned as if I had pledged my body as a toilet for the boy-man whom I loved every bit as much as I had loved Christ before. My consent, my will, were irrelevant, and so I treated them as such, hollowed myself out to make room for the verbal abuse and the affection and the hatred and the jizz, if only he would love me the way that Christ had when I had given up my right to consent in my youthful naivete.
It’s enough to say that he held me down, that he called me a bitch, that he told me that I fucking wanted it and that I had it coming; it’s enough to say that I bled again this time and that I tried to fight him off. What’s striking isn’t the violence of what he did or the extreme duress under which it occurred. No. The part of what happened that is so shocking is that the only difference between the time when he finally raped me for real and the time when I consensually lost my virginity is that he cursed me and I fought back. The rest was the same: the bleeding, the pain, the fear, the utter disregard for my humanity, the casual walking away. There was little difference, to me, between what I called rape and what I called sex; I had never been given a model for it other than “what married people do,” leaving me with “crying and bleeding on the floor” as my default for what unmarried people did. My options were to consent to cry and bleed on the floor, or to be forced to do so. I laid myself out on the altar and called it consent, not knowing that there were other options. It was what good Christian girls did when abstinence failed them.