One of the first things I learned in my study of trauma was that violence itself isn’t what traumatizes. It’s the lack of agency. Being slapped on your butt cheeks or even punched in the face by a stranger is startling and enraging to be sure. But for many of us, it won’t result in PTSD. Especially if you slap back or simply run away. But being attacked while you are pinned down or locked in an enclosed space with your assailant—that is custom-made for post-traumatic stress.
And agency isn’t limited only by environment and physical force. It is limited by socialization that teaches girls never to hit back, never to express anger no matter how protective that anger might be. It is limited by misogyny, which teaches girls that you only get assaulted if you deserve it. That if you enjoy showing off your body or you flirt too much or you accept a drink, then you owe men access to your body. It is limited by racism, which teaches all of us that a black teenager who even appears to defy authority deserves to be punched or shot. Too many of us are taught that violence is simply a penalty for our existence—and that pushing back against this will only result in more violence.
Anything that immobilizes the body during an attack—whether cultural norms or physical restraint—increases the risk of developing PTSD. This is why affirmative consent is so important and why the SM community uses safe words. Many of us like being tickled and wrestled and cuddled. Lots of us like much kinkier stuff. But we all need a way to say “yes” when we want it and “stop” when we don’t. And when the panic wells up in our throats, we all need to know that request will be heard. And honored.
* * *
Less than two months after Top’s sexual assault, it was the Fourth of July. My family and I thought it would be good to celebrate the holiday with my Thai “friend,” as my parents called him. So I drove Top, along with my 17-year-old brother Allan, to the public pool.
Like many people, I’ve never felt completely comfortable in public pools. Part of this has to do with women’s swimsuits. Up through kindergarten, I had simply stripped off my T-shirt and jumped into my parents’ backyard pool, splashing around in my shorts, bare-chested and grinning.
A one-piece may cover more of my body, but I have always felt more vulnerable in it. On this day, I was comforted that I was flanked by the two people who loved me most. My brother, my partner-in-crime, who had left Mormonism along with me. And the man who loved me. Whatever might happen at the pool, I knew I was protected. I was safe.
* * *
The pool was crowded, and the teen lifeguard on duty already looked worn down by the time I jumped in. I’d never been a strong swimmer. I’d never had lessons. But I could doggy paddle and do a decent frog style underwater. I had loved, since I was a child, to dive down, down, down to the bottom where the light was murkiest and the pressure plugged my nose until it hurt. And, kicking hard against my own buoyancy, I kissed the pool bottom. Then turning face up, I zipped to the surface.
Top and Allan and I all paddled out from the side, where the water was frothing with children, and splashed out towards the deep end. I tried swimming a couple laps, and then I came back to where Allan and Top were treading water. And I splashed Allan. He splashed back. We were all laughing.
Then, suddenly, he grabbed my right arm.
I tried to yank it loose. “Let go,” I said. He clamped down harder and grinned. I did not like that grin. It looked too much like our father’s.
My brother stretched my arm out to its full length across the surface of the pool. It was becoming much harder, though not impossible, to keep my head above water.
I turned to Top, confident that he would take my side. After all, he loved me, didn’t he?
“Can you make him let go?” I asked.
He reached out and took my other hand. I thought he was going to use this to slingshot himself around me, over to where Allan gripped my forearm. I pictured him prying Allan’s fingers off my arm. Or simply asking and Allan, this time, listening.
But Top stayed where he was.
Instead, he tightened his hold on my hand and grinned back at Allan. I felt nauseous as I realized Top had no intention of helping me.
I tried to wrench free of them both, but this sent me under.
It was difficult to surface again with both of them controlling my upper body, one of them on either side, my arms stretched taut between them. When I did manage to get my mouth out long enough to take a breath, I said, “I can’t breathe.” I sputtered water. “Let go.”
They didn’t. Instead, they began to play a game with my body as if I were a jump rope. They whipped me up and down, in and out of the water. Sometimes they pulled in sync. At other times, one of them pulled up while the other pulled down. Sometimes their rhythm was slow enough I could catch a breath when I surfaced. But increasingly, it wasn’t. I began to swallow the chlorinated water. When they did tug me up for air, I surfaced gagging and choking.
Once, when they pulled me up, my brother paused long enough to make sure I heard him say, “This’ll teach you to keep your mouth shut when you’re in the water.” I heard him laugh as the water closed again while I was still gasping for air, water bubbling around my ears.
His words sounded exactly like the refrain I heard nightly from our father.
The next time they ripped me up to the surface, I tried to catch the lifeguard’s eye. “Help,” I tried to scream. Instead, water poured from my mouth. I heard only the softest gurgling of my voice behind the gush of water and spit. It was the nightmare I’d had year after year since I was a toddler, screaming with no sound. Unable to move.
Before I had time to clear my lungs, they dragged me under again.
Each time they yanked me to the surface, I stared at the lifeguard, mouthing the word help. Worrying whether he could see it through the coughing and gagging, water spilling from me each time they pulled me up. I willed the lifeguard to look at me. Once, he did. The teenage boy stared at me for an instant. I saw worry cross his face. Then, I saw him reference the two guys on either side of me. They seemed okay. They seemed to be having fun. They were also older, bigger than he was and thus not worth the bother. He looked away.
And I knew no one was going to help me.
I tried to swing my legs up to kick one of them off. But each time they sensed the extra movement and pulled me down harder. Deeper.
I have no idea how long this went on. It could have been two minutes. It could have been ten or twelve.
When finally one of them let go, the other did, too. Choking and gasping, I paddled as fast as I could to the nearest side of the pool. I heard them laughing behind me. I was terrified one of them might snag my ankle. Or snatch my calf. I could only think of getting away from them. From both of them.
For several minutes, I clung to the concrete edge of the pool, coughing up water and choking. I tried to stop shaking. Saliva stringed from my mouth to the pool deck. I glared accusingly up at the lifeguard. He stared at me stiffly and turned back to the pool. When I finally had enough strength, I pulled myself out of the pool and walked, water pouring off me, to the women’s locker rooms.
I did not look back.