Bodies like mine were never meant to be cared for. They are always to be advertised, yet perpetually hidden. People like me are a warning, warding off wayward, intrusive thoughts of freedom. Pleasure is not meant for us to have – it is taken from us.
I was raped when I was nine. A childhood friend, a few years older than me, did it. He was one of two older neighbourhood boys I started exploring my body with. Until then, our fascination with our erections led us as far as touching and feeling the shame and condemnation building up in our penises at the most inopportune times. We liked the sensations; however premature they were to us.
On the day I was raped, the weather was wonderful.
It was the height of summer in Cape Town, on the South African coast, and I had invited my friend around for a swim. As always, we touched and played with each other under the water – incorporating our little explorations into the rules of our make-believe games. When we had enough of swimming, we would lay our towels down on the hot paving and lay on our bellies to dry in the sun. Eventually the sun always got too hot for us and we would seek out shade.
Although there was ample shade along the boundary walls enclosing the pool, he insisted that we go to the other side of the house where the garage wall and the neighbour’s boundary wall made a concealed alleyway. He told me to stand facing the wall with my hands up. I was not allowed to see what he was doing behind me. He pulled my shorts down and gently penetrated me. The shade suddenly seemed too much, with me still not allowed to see what was being done to me.
I did not make a sound. I didn’t say a word. It was nothing like what we are told rape is. Nobody fought, nobody cried, nothing was sore. In fact, it felt nice. To even consider that I had been violated would have demanded many impossible explanations from me, regarding my own participation in it and the fact that I liked how it felt. That I was supposed to give permission for it to happen was a thought I had never encountered before.
If anything, the worst thing that happened that day was that two boys had done what is reserved for men and women at best and teenage boys and girls at worst. My shame had not come from the violation but from the sexual affirmation of my queerness.
I was led and instructed by boys older than me to believe that this was a natural progression of the exploration of our bodies. This later happened with the other neighbourhood boy too. What I didn’t know was that they, crossing over into adolescence before me, had come to understand my body as a site on which to practise the power they were already being socialised into.
In the absence of protest, the only other understanding I could have was consent, even more so because it was not violent.
Not only was there an absence of protest, but I started actively seeking it out. They were both latchkey kids, so after school, under the guise of going to play, I would seek them out at their homes so we could do it again. I suppose, to repeat it made it valid or acceptable.
I understood myself to be desirable to boys, which allowed me to normalise my queerness. In those moments I was not repulsive for liking boys. It was the validation I kept seeking. These experiences laid the foundation for an enduringly insecure relationship with sex and consent for me.
The sex I was going to have, although I denied it to myself for years, was always going to be a secret. How does one seek help for being violated during an act you are not supposed to be partaking in, in the first place? Even when I was no longer trying to hide my queerness, I was still hiding my sex. Nobody wants to hear about gays having sex anyway, right?
The years that constituted my openly queer explorations of sex hardly alerted me to my entitlement to consent. The power dynamics of my first experience of penetrative sex informed me that sex is something that is taken from me, whether I agree to it or not. That first instruction not to look behind me to see what he was doing remained the rule with which I conducted all sexual relations.
For most of my adult life I have not felt able to stop sex or intimacy due to discomfort, nor refuse sex after participating in flirtation. Even when it felt violent or painful, I did not believe I could stop it because, in the same way as then, I knew myself as an object without a desire for pleasure and that initiation meant unconditional commitment to the experience.
I had never seen an example of queer sex, normalised and acceptable as a form of pleasure. What it should have been was a mystery to me. The insidiousness of heteronormative gender roles ensured that I performed the submissive, passive role becoming of my femininity while serving only as a receptacle of a man’s desires. The lack of reference to healthy queer sexual practices and the long shadow of shame and secrecy around queerness breeds the perfect conditions for queer men to be sexually violated over lifetimes; robbed of language and support to defend ourselves.
Throughout my life, men have raped me multiple times and I made sure to cover it up. I did not know that I could say “no” or “stop”. For most of my sexually active life, sex has been painful and harrowing and to me, that was just the way it was. The residues of self-recrimination for practicing unnatural sex, combined with violence and force as my only frame of reference, told me that sex served to punish me and pleasure someone else. It was the price I paid for being desired and entertaining flattery.
My innocent exploration of my body bore down under the weight of shame for my queerness – things children are not supposed to know about.
It still shakes me to realise that the conditions under which I came to sexual awareness were designed to be so unsafe and shameful that I could have spent my entire life knowing only violation. Violation that was my responsibility. It is with this realisation that I contemplate just how deeply enmeshed we are with the violence of rape and sexual assault. So deeply that one can go their entire lives not knowing that they have been raped, save for the lingering of a deep despair nobody cares to notice, until we say: “Yes, me too”.
A map of sexual assault
I go to the wall behind the house
Index finger stretched in purpose
Waving meaning through the air
Here is the place I call the first time
I was nine
This is the place my eyes gasped
This is the place my heart dropped
That is where my guilt talked
Here is where my soul walked
There was the way the child laughed
He was soft
To the left is where his laugh stopped
In between is where the light docked
There was the way he grew up
Here was the way he sought love
The roads don’t finish here
To walk on them is to run out of air
Just enough to take a shallow breath
Not quite loud enough to say
Excerpted with permission from Intimacy and Injury: In the wake of #MeToo in India and South Africa, edited by Nicky Falkof, Srila Roy and Shilpa Phadke, Manchester University Press.