CW: This essay discusses sexual assault.
By Beatrice M. Hogg
After hearing all of the recent media reports of sexual assault and improprieties, I wanted to think, “Glad that never happened to me.” But, like most women in this country, I couldn’t do it. In one way or another, it has happened to all of us. I have friends who have been raped and assaulted; amazing women who at some point barely escaped with their lives from domestic abuse. Some still have physical scars and many others still harbor emotional scars. When I started to think about my own life, I was surprised at all of the incidents that rushed to mind, some that I hadn’t thought about in years.
In my tiny coal-mining hometown, there was a small grocery store, owned by a husband and wife. When I was eleven or twelve in the late sixties, I would walk up there alone with a list of things to get for my mother. I always dreaded when the list included a meat item. That meant that I had to go to the back of the store, where the husband worked behind the meat counter. Almost every time I would go back there, he would come out from behind the counter to give me a big hug. His hugs always included a squeeze or a grope of my burgeoning breasts. I never told anyone. Would my father have believed me? In a town were everyone was armed, would he have gone up there with a shotgun? Would he have accused me of lying? Who was more credible, a shy little black girl or the friendly white grocer who everyone in town loved? As I took my meat purchases to the front of the store for the wife to ring out, I used to wonder – did he do that every girl? Did she know? I was overjoyed when the store went out of business.
In my freshman or sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh, I remember an incident in downtown Pittsburgh that occurred while I was waiting for my bus home. A young black guy stood real close to me and started talking to me. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember that he made me uncomfortable. His unwelcome comments and invasion of my personal space made me feel trapped. I could see the bus slowly coming down Liberty Avenue. “I’m gonna kiss you,” he whispered. “Please don’t,” I responded, never making eye contact. “I’m gonna do it anyway,” he said loudly, and planted a rough kiss on my lips before walking away, strutting as if he had made a heroic conquest. As I sat on the bus, I cried, ashamed and embarrassed by the unwanted attention. Why would someone walk up to a stranger at a bus stop, harass them and touch them? But I never told anyone.
A few years later, I was in Baltimore to attend the graduation of one of my cousins. Since I felt shy and uncomfortable among strangers, left the party early to go upstairs to the apartment of another cousin so I could read a book and listen to the radio. The quiet, empty apartment was a refuge from the hectic activity in the apartment below. After about an hour, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Was my cousin coming up to check on me? The boyfriend of another cousin entered the room. “Why you up here all alone?” I smiled went back to my book. But he started touching me, putting his hands on my breasts and touching my thighs. “Do you want all that good body to go to waste?” I can’t remember much about the incident, but I remember he kept repeating that comment about “good body” until either one of my cousins came upstairs or he gave up and left. I never told anyone, as I knew that my cousin really loved her boyfriend. But I made sure to never be in a room alone with him again.
My second sexual experience was with a neighbor. He used to come over my house and we would dance to my favorite records. I didn’t know anything about sex, so I just lie there and let him do what he wanted. A few days later, he asked me if he could borrow money to get a suit for his grandfather’s funeral. I gave him $70. Soon, he had told everyone in town that I was a horrible lay and that I paid him $70 to have sex with me. Everyone one laughed and believed him. I was humiliated again.
A family friend was doing errands around my house. It was hard to work full time and keep up with yard work at the house that I inherited after my father’s death. But after completing the work, he used to sit and talk to me. He asked me if I was lonely. He started kissing me. He showed me how to give him head. Soon, we were meeting in motels and I was giving blowjobs as he drove on the Interstate. It seemed dangerous and sometimes fun. “Don’t you want to make me happy?” He would always ask this question when I balked about getting involved in threesomes, going to theaters to see porn, or engaging in anal sex and bondage. It took me over a year to realize that a man twice my age was taking advantage of my inexperience and loneliness to satiate his personal need for power and control. But I never told anyone. He was a respected husband and father, the son of a minister. I didn’t want to wreck his home. I internalized the idea that I was a sexual being, but not a being worthy of love. I was just “good body,” an object to be used.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1988, I encountered homeless men for the first time. One night, I was walking back to my rooming house after an unsuccessful day as a canvasser. A man stepped out of the shadows. “Give me some money.” I politely responded that I didn’t have any money. “Take it out your pussy,” he snarled. That wasn’t the only time that I heard that demand. Men would pass me on the street, smiling and asking for money. “Excuse me, Ma’am.” “How ya’ doin,’ sis?” “Why don’t you smile?” When I ignore them or say I don’t have money, the comments change. “Fuckin’ black bitch.” “You ugly, fat bitch.”
I spent five years with a man who never loved me. He needed a place to stay. I didn’t know that he had just gotten out of prison. I lived with him for two years before finding out that he was a convicted sex offender. But even when his probation officer showed up at my apartment, I remained loyal. He said I was unattractive. I was too fat. I was too dark. My short hair made me look like a boy. Something was wrong with me because I couldn’t achieve orgasm. I forced him to cheat. After I told him about my best friend arresting an ex-boyfriend who tried to strangle her, he laughed and put his hands around my throat. When he wasn’t working, he sat in the living room and masturbated to porn movies all day. When I tried to kiss him, he told me that I was repulsive. I followed him to another woman’s house. When I confronted her, she repeated all of the secrets that I had shared with him and laughed in my face. I hit her and she called the police. Finally he moved in with her.
“I don’t find out attractive, but we both have needs.” I agreed to meet a friend of a friend for sex. He wasn’t interested in dating, or even meeting for coffee. He was fifteen years younger than me. I was an embarrassment, not a woman he would want to be seen in public with. But I was an outlet for his sexual frustration. The last time we had sex, it hurt. It wasn’t long after I found out that I was plagued with fibroids. I asked him repeatedly to stop, but he wouldn’t. I left his house and never saw him again.
It was the last time that I had sex. It was eighteen years ago. I’m almost sixty, but I’ve never had an orgasm. Masturbation just makes me cry. No man has ever said, “I love you.” When the waves of loneliness become a tsunami, I think about killing myself.
But when I think about my experiences, I resign myself to the fact that it’s safer to stay at home. I tried dating sites, but the comments make me sad. Men ask if I can meet them at night, but only at night. One man said that he had an hour in the afternoon available for sex, but that was all. A stranger at a music venue in Los Angeles offers me a ride home. I think back to the walks that I used to take on the road near my home, until the day that a man stopped his car in the middle of the road and tried to convince me to get in his car. A parking lot search for friends after a music festival ended abruptly when I walked past a group of white men sitting on a car. “I hear nigger bitches give good head,” one of them shouted. Women experience sexual improprieties all of their lives, but most heterosexual women at some point are able to cultivate a loving relationship with a member of the opposite sex. I wonder if my years of mistrust and years of involvement in inappropriate relationships and encounters have doomed me to a life of infinite singleness. Have I internalized these experiences so deeply that I will never experience true intimacy? Will my final sexual experience be abuse at the nursing home that is destined to be my eventual prison due to a life of bad choices and missed opportunities?
To be female in America is to have a complicated relationship with sex, desire and vulnerability. To be a female of color compounds the issue. There are millions of stories to be told, million of stories that will be forever repressed. But as I move forward, I pledge to not become my stories. To not let fear and rejection lead me back into dark places. To never give any man, or any person, the power to make me ashamed, embarrassed or demoralized ever again. To not let the past determine my future. But to be brave enough to share my stories and stand with my sisters who never told anyone and assumed that they were the only ones.
Beatrice M. Hogg has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BA in social work for the University of Pittsburgh. She currently works as a social worker for the County of Sacramento, assisting families experiencing homelessness and domestic violence issues. She writes a column for The Billfold and is working on a memoir about homelessness and long term employment. Most recently, Beatrice has written about domestic violence on her blog.