It was a summer night in Sonoma County, California and I was in a hot tub with some friends and acquaintances. I was looking up at the trees and at the stars beyond them, pure white. Around me people soaked, passed a joint around, drank wine warmed by the hot water, and talked about fucking. They talked about who they were fucking, and who they wanted to fuck, the important stuff that surfaces when a group of people get drunk and high together in the redwoods.
The rough cadence of sarcasm broke through my contemplative bubble. One of the older guys I didn’t like very much stepped into a joke, something about a cute, compliant girl at Stanford. He used the word “consent” like a punchline and I snapped out of my redwood dreams, lowered my head to look at him and squinted my eyes. My heart was pounding. I was fiercely angry.
“Consent isn’t fucking funny,” I said. The hot tub went quiet for a moment before someone broke the tension.
A few minutes later the older guy, a co-founder of a multinational tech company you’ve heard of who hasn’t worked in twenty years turned to me, looking not right at me but a little up and away, like Dick Cheney on Meet The Press circa 2004.
“Just so you know,” he said in a higher pitch than usual, “I actually do believe in consent.”
“Good for you,” I told him, and lumbered out of the hot tub.
“Calmed down, yet?” My vacation home roommate asked me when we were alone together in the dark. Her voice echoed down flatly from the upper bunk. She was good-hearted, but impatient.
I laughed a little, “Yeah, I guess.”
“I gotta talk to him,” she said of the guy, “he’s getting really creepy.”
I suspected people tolerated him because of his money. A month later he brought the Stanford girl to a party.
My friends in those days were black-clad, sarcastic urbanites. We spent years together in a gothic, foggy San Francisco. We dated and fucked each other. Few of us practiced monogamy and most of us played hard with BDSM. I would go on dates with bruises from somebody else and show them off like badges of honor. One summer night a close friend laid me in front of the fireplace in his Victorian home and struck me with white hot pieces of metal, creating a geometric brand that marked my ass for several years. It’s mostly faded now, but surfaces in the sun if I give it the chance.
We went on like this for years, but cracks in our castle were inevitable. The divorce of a central couple created factions. A few people moved back to wherever it was they came from, and I was raped by two people some of my friends knew.
The physical act of being raped was terrifying and painful, but wondering to myself whether my friends would believe me affected me more than any corporeal pain could. Sometimes we made mistakes in rough play. A friend ended up with permanent scaring from knife play she never wanted. Another maybe should have been taken to the hospital after a needle got too close to a vein. We ran fast for the edges. I cried alone at night before I told anyone, panicked with fear that my friends would nod sweetly when I told them and then conclude privately that I had not been raped, that things, as they sometimes did, just went too far.
The two people who raped me were able to exploit this tension. When it was over I was lying on a bed in an expensive apartment, aching to my bones and thankful I had not been killed. I asked, “What did you do?” hoping they might be able to help me with the confusion of my boundaries being violated so profoundly, reaching for any help that might be available.
“This was all consensual,” one of them said to me, “I mean, you’re into this kind of stuff, everyone knows it.”
A few months later, from the depths of a depressive state, I emailed one of them and asked why he had assaulted me.
“I didn’t assault you,” he said, “I talked with [the other person involved] and he remembers you moaning for it. All he remembers is you saying yes. You really need to get over this.”
My rapists laid the groundwork in our community for me to be disbelieved. They said I had a crush on one of them, that he had rejected me romantically. To casual observers it explained my noticeable breakdown. Even to friends experienced in BDSM, it seemed believable. When I told the truth, some believed me, some didn’t.
San Francisco was never the same. I became a different person, more fearful, less trusting. My sex life morphed from a fluid part of my relational world to something fraught and contested. I broke down in the middle of sex, froze, stared at the wall catatonic. All of these things eased over time. Over harrowing, suffering, time.
Looking back I still find it shocking how easily the people who raped me were able to hide behind the label of BDSM to marginalize my story. They were listened to, heard, trusted. I told people I had been raped, they said I was consensually fucked, and a disturbing number of people bought into their story.
Most of my friends don’t live in San Francisco anymore. Some of them have kids. I moved to the desert. But even though time and geography have distanced me from being raped, I live with a persistent fear. My heart pounds when I’m walking from my car late at night. It throbs in my ears when I feel someone is not listening to me, and after a day of the internet buzzing with news that a Canadian radio host lost his job over sexual assaults he claimed were consensual BDSM encounters, I spent a sleepless night on the couch watching mindless television and trying to ignore how familiar the whole thing felt. Underneath the need to be numb was a well of sadness for the women who came forward. I wondered if people around them believed them, I wondered if they had tiny islands of retreat where they could feel whatever they needed to feel, and although my rape was not exposed to a media blitz, I did not have to wonder what it felt like to have someone who assaulted you claim that it was consensual, and further cloak himself with the veil of BDSM.
I don’t have a moral for you, this isn’t that kind of story. I have only lingering pain and tentative hope for a collective erotic landscape that examines itself for cracks, for the dark places where abuse is left to roam unacknowledged and unattended.