CW: This post addresses unwanted sexual advances and may contain explicit language.
By Lilly Bright
“Mommy, I love this beautiful person staring back at me from the mirror!” my five-year-old daughter exclaims from the bathroom where she stands facing the sink. Inwardly I rejoice, then wonder how many of us women think that on a daily basis, or ever? An honest exclamation, wild joy for the person staring back at us in the mirror?
For the past year, I’ve been contemplating how to make a meaningful contribution to the #MeToo movement, a personal experience that could illuminate, an allegory, some teachable moment. Then last week, walking the streets of Santa Monica, an uncomfortable memory surfaced. One of those that never actually left but that also wasn’t a regular visitor. But there it was- Proustian in the way it overwhelmed my senses and severe in the way it challenged held notions of categorization. The event isn’t murky yet it’s felt this way whenever I’ve attempted to package it. For years I diminished what happened because I didn’t say “no” and the harassment didn’t strike me as apparent. But the truth is, a line was crossed, a red zone rife with sexual power-play and coercion. And it went like this:
Cute and influential man begins to flirt. His flirting feels like a favor because I don’t believe I deserve it. Because I’ve been looking outside myself for validation and approval, and I have no real clue about how to love myself. I’ve heard it’s a good idea, even considered the act, but I always stop short or collapse because it seems too risky. And unfamiliar. I flirt back because I enjoy flirting. I enjoy feeling attractive. I enjoy finding others attractive. Also, my star sign says I like to flirt. Libras are natural born flirters. It’s natural and I’m twenty-six. I’m learning who I am and I’m putting myself out there.
I’ve recently arrived in a city where I virtually and literally know no one. I’m into raw foods and the raw food celebrity chef turned restauranteur seems into me. I don’t say no. I don’t say yes. One day I eat lunch at his restaurant. I sit at the countertop because I feel casual and I know the place. I watch a young woman probably my age work the juicer in a mid-riff. I admire her svelte abs and feel chunky and bloated in my sweat pants ensemble even though it’s Juicy brand and in-style. He proffers looks from across the room and indicates he wants to talk after my lunch. I imagine some kind of impossible magical something, like he wants to tell me I remind him of a supermodel or he wants to play me songs wrote on his acoustic guitar. He buys me a beet juice called Blood, which I drink, and says I should come with him upstairs. His apartment is above the restaurant. I follow him.
I think he might have special news for me, something outrageous and enchanting like how he wants to make me the face of his next marking campaign or offer me a partnership position. Something impossibly ridiculous but completely believable to my young, impressionable mind. I follow him upstairs. We don’t talk. He mutters a few things about the view and asks if I want to smoke. He turns around holding an enormous water bong. He mutters something about the quality of his pot and we begin to smoke. I take one toke and get insanely high. Evidently a pro, he takes several hits then instructs me to take off my shirt. I just do it. What am I supposed to do. Maybe this will be my big break. The one I’m been searching for since I was ten. A way out. Whatever it is I’m running from. Somehow we end up on his bed which is a futon placed directly on the floor.
The sun streaming through the window colors everything yellow and feels warm on my bare back. I leave my bra on and he starts touching me, my breasts. He unearths his cock. It’s hard and large and he begins stroking while touching me as I sit there thinking that I should enjoy this or wondering why I can’t let go into the moment and enjoy this or why I can’t just be cool and easy about this really crazy thing that’s happening. It doesn’t take long. I tell myself it’s because I’m hot or whatever and after his cum runs down his hand he closes his eyes and moans. His face glows because the sun is so bright. He has many small pimples.
I try entertaining myself with sexy thoughts but I’m beginning to feel paranoid and blame it on the strong pot and the sun that’s making me sweat, and the blinding glare. He cleans up quickly. It doesn’t occur to me that he’s done this before. He thanks me. I put my shirt back on. Do I thank him? I find the door and leave.
Telling myself this story fifteen years after it happened is how long it took me to put words to it. I used to believe that if you don’t think or say something, it didn’t happen. I’m over forty before I reflect on this instance from a distance, from a place of understanding what violation is and what misuse of power and sexual manipulation are. But I never said “no” is how I framed it. Rather I took care of the dirty feelings that lingered inside afterwards by turning to food, numbing away the pain with lots of it then vomiting so I’d have that cleaned feeling. When those dirty, violated feelings attached themselves to other things in my life, like self-esteem, like my ability to think for myself, my voice, I wouldn’t think about this incident. I didn’t have a category to place it in. I didn’t know how to label it and felt something without a designated folder made it invalid and invaluable. I’m wrong.
When I recall this story from my past, I think of countless episodes in which I was violated and yet, I didn’t say no. I followed a strange guy upstairs to his studio apartment because I hadn’t found my voice and I had a short supply of self-respect. I’ve made a lot of poor choices in my life. I’ve been lucky. I didn’t say no, but I didn’t say yes. Or maybe I did say yes. Is yes the default answer when we don’t say no? I believe the answer is no.
Today at forty-one, I let my daughter regularly say “no”- to the breakfast I’ve prepared, to the clothes I buy her, to my physical gestures (sometimes she doesn’t want a hug). I hate feeling rejected but I get an inner thrill out of her strong and matter of fact response. Her calm. The easy way it rolls off her tongue. I want that for my younger self. I want that for all women. We can’t change the past but we can be mindful of present selves, our parenting. We can teach girls what we wished we knew, what we wished we’d had the courage to do or say. I believe by doing this, beautiful girls, women, we can change the future. We can say yes to saying no.
Lilly Bright is a playwright, performing artist, filmmaker, and movement teacher living and making it work in Los Angeles. She is a mother of two. Lilly spends her weekends Healing the Bay and making rad tiny terrariums of moss and miniature swings. She prefers to go barefoot.