NOTE: This post contains descriptions of and comments about violence, specifically sexual violence, and laws and attitudes relating to rape and assault. It may not be suitable for all readers, so please take caution.
A candid, searing essay that ran in Teen Vogue last week – “I was Raped by a Woman,” by Caroline Catlin – reminded me just how important it is to speak up about female sexual assault. No one likes to talk about it, no one likes to think about it, I know. But that’s why we have to.
So I’m going to – write about it. Again.
I can still kind of see it in my head, even now. Just a little bit. With more light than there was at the time, I think, too.
It was 2003, and I was 19 years old, a sophomore at Emerson College. I lived in one of the smaller dormitories, directly across from the Boston Public Garden (the dorm is now a hotel). At the very beginning of the year, a group of us on the 6th floor had made fast friends, and one night, this particular night, we were going to have a party in the empty triple-occupancy room down the hall. Just for the five or six of us; “VIP” only.
It was still cold out – Boston at the tail end of winter, that kind of cold. Without furniture and assorted college student crap, the triple room was big and drafty, more than enough space. I’d staked out a spot, flopping on a beanbag we’d dragged over, my hands tucked behind my head. With a few (badly – college ) mixed drinks in me, I was feeling pretty good. Was I drunk? I don’t know. Maybe? Relaxed? Sure, yeah. Definitely.
One of the party-goers was a girl from the triple room next to the empty one, Sunny. I liked Sunny. She was a bit on the quiet side, with bright green eyes that often cased a social situation thoroughly before she felt comfortable interacting with anyone. Earlier in the year, Sunny had sat in my single room to confess that she a crush on me and asked how I felt. Shocked – I could count the number of people who had told me this on the fingers of half a hand – I was flattered, but did not feel the same way. I said as much to Sunny, that valued our friendship but did not have romantic inclinations toward her. That seemed to be that.
In the months since that conversation, Sunny and I had spent a good amount of time just hanging around in my single room, chatting, often until late. I had confided to her that I had not so much as kissed a girl, never in my life, and that the idea of sexual anything scared the living shit out of me.
Which is why when, without warning, Sunny plopped down on my lap, I didn’t think all that much of it. We did that, the group of us, sat and leaned on each other, mostly for convenience, and never sexually. But I remember noticing that I was a bit pinned, with little leverage to move on the lumpy beanbag.
Maybe Sunny noticed this, too, and that’s why she did what she did. Suddenly, she turned her head and bit me, hard, just above my left nipple. It was jarring, painful, but I tried to laugh it off. She’s just joking around.
Joking. Joking. She’s just joking.
But later. Flat on my back on the bare mattress of a top bunk, friends laughing and drinking below me. My glasses were off, but but I could see her there, a hovering figure climbing the ladder. After a pause, Sunny eased down on top of me, pushing my body toward the wall. “Hi,” she said. Her breath was hot. I said nothing.
Here’s the part I can’t quite remember fully. I think she tried to bite me again, to kiss me, maybe. She moved to my left side, throwing her leg over mine – that I do remember. I was looking at the wall, hands over my head, murmuring nonsense. It’s happening-not-happening. Coherent thoughts filtered through in tiny blips. THIS IS REAL. THIS IS YOUR FIRST SEXUAL EXPERIENCE AND YOU DO NOT WANT IT TO HAPPEN. IF YOU DON’T DO ANYTHING, IT WILL BE OVER SOON.
I came back to myself when Sunny started to move; there was a rhythm to the motion. Her breathing quickened, closer to my ear. The thought rocketed in: she’s humping my leg.
When she was finished, Sunny cuddles next to me like a lover. I wouldnt face her. I was frozen and confused, world in odd orbit above me. It didn’t compute; none of it did. Sunny, my friend. Sunny, trying to unzip my sweatshirt, even after I had the foresight to yank it down. Sunny, who knew me, knew me well. Sunny, grunting slightly in the back of her throat. Sunny, my friend.
At the computer the next morning, I sat, feeling tainted, ashamed, and typed the first thing in my head:
It felt like going to the doctor.
“Our legal system is not equipped to handle woman-to-woman sexual assault,” reads the Northeastern University Press web copy, in 2014. Half a sentence in and I was already nodding. “Our women’s services do not have the resources or even the words to reach out to its victims, and our lesbian and gay communities face hurdles in acknowledging its existence.”
This blurb is for a book called Woman to Woman Sexual Violence: Does She Call it Rape? by Lori B. Girshick, a sociology professor at the Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona. Out of curiosity, I checked the publication date: 2002. Twelve years ago, and just a year before Sunny assaulted me in that dark dorm. Had I known about this book – had anyone else known about it and told me – I might not have felt quite so utterly lost.
Because, really, there was nothing to do. There was no evidence, and though my friends gave Sunny absolute hell, it took them a while to make sense of it. In most cases, no one will believe it if someone says, “a woman attacked me.” Less will when they say, “I was sexually assaulted by a woman,” regardless of their gender. Plus, there’s a double standard in place that people boldly uphold without so much as a thought. Comments like, “if she had been a man, I’d have killed her” abound, as do excuses: “she was drunk; she misread you; it was a mistake; she didn’t meant to; etc.” Blame is lobbed at the person who was assaulted. “You could have stopped her; you should have stopped her; she apologized, so it’s no big deal.”
After what happened with Sunny, I found myself re-evaluating everything. Sunny had been a close friend, someone I’d shared my fears with, and yet she’d pounced when she saw an opportunity. Everyone suddenly became a threat. Could they see something in me that made me a good target? What had I done to make myself so vulnerable? I vowed to close it down and started carrying a knife wherever I went. It remained in my pocket until one night, a buddy of mine made an innocent innuendo, an actual joke, and I snapped when she wouldn’t let up, flicking the knife blade open and into place. Later, shaking in my room, I threw the knife in a drawer and never carried it again.
This was over ten years ago. I’m revisiting it why? Because it’s important. It’s critical – for the queer, trans, and LGB communities especially – to acknowledge that women can and do commit acts of sexual assault and violence against people of all genders and ages. A person does not need to be male identified nor have a penis to commit a rape. Women can and do abuse cis and trans women, cis and trans men, nonbinary people, and children.
But visibility around this is nearly nil – though it’s definitely increased since my dorm days in 2003. The prevailing attitude is still that women aren’t rapists or pedophiles; they are victims and survivors of rapists and pedophiles. No one likes to think of mothers, grandmothers, sisters, or aunts as possible sexual predators – that’s a role reserved for fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and uncles. And it is precisely these attitudes that keep woman-to-woman sexual assault reporting on any level at basically nil.
So: what to do?
Believe a female friend when she says that another woman has harmed or is actively harming her. Also believe your male friend, your non-binary friend, or your trans friend.
Do not shut down discussions about sexual abuse perpetrated by women. Wake the hell up and actively acknowledge that it is very, very real.
Understand that making that acknowledgement is not anti-feminist. It is also not going to take away from discussions about male-dominated rape culture, or toxic masculinity, or smashing the patriarchy. These issues can all coexist. Because, lookit, they do coexist.
If you are in a position to do so, make room in rape crisis centers, in info pamphlets, and on resource websites for those who have been raped, molested, or otherwise sexually assaulted by a woman or women. This can be done via inclusive language or explicitly acknowledging that victims and survivors are out there. It really isn’t hard.
Don’t buy into the idea that all relationships between women are free of assault and rape. These relationships are not on a “higher plane.” Nor are queer relationships of any kind, or relationships between partners who oppose or claim to oppose patriarchy, misogyny, and rape culture. No one is immune. Someone who voices an opinion against sexual assault or chants ‘pussy grabs back’ with you does not necessarily practice what they preach. So when someone comes to you and says that they have been hurt by a person you think of as having ‘good politics,’ do not dismiss what they are saying.
Most importantly: show support for everyone in your life who is or has been affected by sexual violence – perpetrated by anyone. And if you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted by a female-identified person, here are a few links. If I have missed any or you have issues with the ones I have put up, please put them in the comments:
Project Unbreakable – this is a wonderful, heartbreaking photo project that showcases user-submitted photos of quotes from their attackers or their assaults (note that the project is no longer taking submissions)
KidSafe – awareness education program for children, parents, clergy, and teachers
Darkness to Light – trainings and resources for stopping and preventing sexual abuse of children
Male Survivor – resource for male-identified people who have been sexually assaulted
Silent Edge – resource for athletes who have been or are being abused by their coaches
Canadian Children’s Rights Counsel – list of statistics on female sexual offenders and predators worldwide. Includes articles
Our Bodies, Ourselves – brief acknowledgement of sexual assault of women by women
“I was Raped by a Woman,” Teen Vogue,12 by Caroline Catlin – an account of date rape perpetrated by a queer woman
“My Mother the Wolf,” The Establishment, by Oriana Koren – an account of molestation and rape of a daughter by her mother
“Lesbian on Lesbian Rape,” Curve Magazine, by Victoria A. Brownworth – article on rape in lesbian relationships
“Can Women Be Rapists?” Dame Magazine, by yours truly – article on female sexual predators
“When Men are Raped” Slate, by Hanna Rosin – article on sexual assault of men by women
RF Jurjevics is a native New Yorker, writer, and art dork. When not drawing scenes of funny animals late into the night, Jurjevics is most often at work at Ye Olde Design-y Day Job, attempting to appease two rambunctious cats, or taking off for a beach day whenever possible.