Editor's note: This column includes references to sexual assault, disordered eating, and self-harm. Reader discretion is advised.
I shuffled toward a woman’s room during the first semester of my first year, a trip I could hardly recall the next day. I lay across from her on her bed, trying to decline her invitations to sex. Eyelids low and vocal cords locked, I could barely vocalize my lack of interest except for a weak push under her shoulders while shaking my head. I especially remember thinking about the agency I thought I’d regain the following day while she performed oral sex. Throughout the following months, I constantly convinced and re-convinced myself that it was an insignificant event; she didn’t know she had raped me.
I dealt with depression and anxiety before then. Afterward, PTSD and anorexia nervosa grew my résumé of mental afflictions. During winter break, I began experimenting with razors, leaning over the bathroom sink past midnight while my family slept. I started to feel like a tightrope walker between two skyscrapers. Whenever I fell, concrete did not wait for me below. I would split the air until I landed on another tightrope and find myself in the same place. I perceived cutting as a necessary fee to continue balancing.
I remember examining the prospect of cutting as a child. When I began harming myself with hair pulling and scratching, I imagined cutting as a simple activity to stop. Just, simply, don’t do it, I thought. When I now explain my cutting to others, they tend to ask similar questions. I cannot give a better response than actor and comedian Pete Davidson: “The feeling of it after — you feel really stupid after, but as you’re doing it it feels really great.”
Being sad did not sadden me the most on the days I woke up exhausted and ignored the itch my mental shackles provoked on my wrists until after my classes. Instead, I lamented watching my sanity slowly slide out of sight on the very slippery slope of self-harm. I felt my few genuine smiles form when talking with my parents, grandparents and brother over the phone. My friends brought me food when my frame thinned and eyes sank. I was positive that my existence earned much more attention than deserved; my friends’ concern proved me an unnecessary deadweight who had to be taken care of like a defenseless child. At least one of my fondest memories from then was feeling the warmth of gratitude toward my friends despite arguments about throwing razors away and my hope that turned to embittered pessimism.
Over the summer, I complemented the conscious shushing of my mind with a period of debauchery to escape my new association of sex with disgust. I developed a desperate attempt at finding self-worth through the number of orgasms I could give my partners. Nonetheless, I hated having sex. It became a new form of self-harm, an era of hypersexuality that was essentially a horrid daze I marathoned through. Upon accepting that I did not deserve such self-punishment, I took a break. I still walked across the tightrope, though with less shaky balance. The pressure faded, I regained weight and I felt grateful for my rediscovering self-love.
The loneliness I felt after experiencing rape, especially as a man, did not surprise me. Psychologists and historians note the constant evolution of gender roles immune to “social progress” and “modernization” within our constantly evolving society. For centuries, we have encouraged boys to play sports while we gave girls heart-padlocked diaries. Gender historian Jeanne Boydston writes that the cult of domesticity, gaining traction almost two centuries ago, rationalized that “women were ill-suited to hard labor, to the rough-and-tumble of political life, or to the competitive individualism of the industrial economy.” The adjectives Boydston uses to characterize “manly” work in the public and private sectors (“hard labor,” “rough-and-tumble,” “competitive”) all include connotations of asserting some form of dominance over others, alive or inanimate. Separating a loving, matriarchal household from a macho society outside its walls confuses our boys’ human sensitivity with weakness and preaches women’s weakness as fact.
One century ago, we saw one of the most obvious manifestations of this ideological disease. Famously manly president Teddy Roosevelt, who feared the “‘‘effeminization’ of American civilization,” caricatured the correlation between men finding social esteem through domination and a hardening, rugged industrial economy. This continued obsession with arbitrary gender roles contradicts the emotional wellbeing of the “one in six men [who] have been sexually abused or assaulted,” myself included, who would benefit from emotional support to cushion the universal reactions to assault (emotional shock, disbelief, guilt, anger, disorientation, etc). If Roosevelt’s ignorant opinion remains tradition, humanity cannot escape the shackles of Patriarchal thought. This old and omnipresent Patriarchy instead indoctrinated me with a preference for silence, denial and faux strength. Our barbaric status quo has blinded us to our gender’s legacy of external and internal harm. Investigative reporter Emma Brown explains how sexual harm inflicted on men can catalyze a boy or man’s transition from victim to perpetrator, especially when trauma is left unconfronted.
Acknowledging acts of harm, especially sexual, against men and providing support rather than indifference, disbelief or minimization, is a similar battle. Ending sexual harm inflicted on men and providing emotional support for victims requires more than a dispositional shift among individuals. America must experience an aggregate ideological shift in tune with the mission of Title IX, “to protect the rights of men and women [and] receive fair and equal treatment in all educational and employment areas” and a revitalization of the Equal Rights Amendment. Our Patriarchy has always been a confluence between systemic gender inequality and unresolved harm against men. Ending the systemic hoarding of socioeconomic opportunities for men will gradually shift American society’s opinion from that of Roosevelt’s to one of emotional solace for men, equality for women and non-binary people and safety for all.
Back to my experience with rape, I’m still having a rough time, though I feel myself improving gradually and nonlinearly. My recounting nightmares are vivid. I face a conundrum: I have, I think, the average 19 year old’s sex drive. But I occasionally feel nauseous and have flashbacks when having sex with my girlfriend. On the other hand, I sometimes think back to a meeting I had with my therapist over the summer. He encouraged me to allow myself to impartially examine my feelings. I remember sporadically bawling throughout the day, one of the greatest experiences of my life. When I’m alone in my dorm room, I appreciate the benefits of examining my feelings, probably writing about them and crying.
Kennon Walton is a Trinity sophomore. His column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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