Illustrations by Shikha Sreenivas
CW – Contains descriptions of rape.
In early September 2015, I moved from India to a different continent. I was partnered the moment before the plane took off and single the moment it landed. I had been in a committed – and monogamous- relationship, but since I was moving for work with no real return date, we decided to be ‘mature’ and split (little thinking that romantic feelings aren’t simply switched off).
After a few months of getting used to a different life, in a new country, I felt ready, even excited, to date again. Dating apps were new. Late one December evening, my flat-mates convinced me to make a Tinder profile. The possibility felt thrilling.
A few weeks later, I came across A’s profile on Tinder – a seemingly tall and attractive white man. I can’t remember what his bio said, but something about it must have appealed to me. I swiped right. We matched. My bio included the fact that I was (still relatively) new to town and looking for people to show me around. His opening gambit capitalized on this, and even went so far as to claim he could show me the best secret bar in town; I fell, hook, line, and sinker. After some back and forth banter that I thoroughly enjoyed, on Monday we fixed a date for Friday. But, Friday seemed an eternity away. I found him very charming and he was on my mind a lot. I texted him again. Eventually he dropped his number and we moved to WhatsApp.
On Thursday, a day before our scheduled date, he asked, close to midnight, whether I would be up for a walk. As a woman raised in Delhi whose gut instinct was to be cautious (or paranoid, depending on where your line lies) at every little thing, this made me uneasy. But I also liked him a lot. I immediately texted a close friend asking for advice. He said to meet outside so that everything stays above board. But the outside scared me even more – anything can happen in the night, I reasoned. So, I ignored my friend’s sage advice and instead invited A home, thinking that if something were to happen at least my flat mates were around (although both were fast asleep by then).
As soon as A entered, it was clear that he had had a fair amount to drink – something about a disappointing work event. I poured us both a glass of wine. We sat on the couch, talking – what felt like a very natural extension of our in-app banter. It didn’t take very long for him to put his fingers on the nape of my neck and bring me in for a kiss. I remember liking this gesture a lot – it felt like he was taking charge but not in an overtly aggressive way. We made out for a bit, after which he suggested heading upstairs to my bedroom. I agreed, excited.
Once in my room, the first thing he noticed were the political posters on my walls, all vocally professing my leftist leanings. I remember him saying something about how this made him even more attracted to me. As a young woman starved of validation, this was intoxicating. We collapsed into my bed together. He was quick to undress me, commenting on how ‘fit’ I was, making me feel incredibly desired. I didn’t want to have penetrative sex with him, and almost as if to make up for it, I felt compelled to give him a blowjob (this is something I often feel even now, despite being purportedly older and wiser. Something about the assumed male expectation of penetrative sex makes me apologetic, almost sheepish, about declining it, and I try to assuage the unfulfilled expectation with oral sex; I’m not sure that I have gotten any better at not feeling this strange guilt). I obligingly put his penis in my mouth and started to suck on it. I could see he was enjoying this, and I enjoyed that he was enjoying it. It made me feel powerful, that I could make a man feel so pleasured and so vulnerable in such a short time. I kept going. A few moments later, he put his hand on the back of my head and thrust his penis deeper inside my mouth, causing me to almost gag. With a few more thrusts, holding my head with his hand to make sure I was enveloping his member whole, he ejaculated inside my mouth. We lay back on the bed afterward, talking for a while. I enjoyed this conversation too, and remember feeling happy, satisfied, almost giddy, as I fell asleep. He slept over and left the next morning.
On the day of our scheduled “date”, I wasn’t sure if the plan was still on. I texted him sneakily saying that I’d still like to see that much acclaimed secret bar. I didn’t hear back. I was disappointed, but I knew better than to text him again. I carried that disappointment with me for weeks afterward. In the first few days, it was a furiously burning flame of unreciprocated desire, almost tortuous. Gradually, it died down, to be replaced by a dull throbbing sense of despondency for a while.
Two months later, he messaged on Tinder just out of the blue. When I said that I had WhatsApped him the day after our first encounter, he said he hadn’t seen it. He seemed keen to meet. I could sense that this was only a bullshit excuse, he wasn’t really looking for any sort of emotional connection (despite my recollection of our conversation both before and after sex being, to me, amazing). He just wanted sex.
Some of you might say I shouldn’t have expected to find anything more than sex on Tinder anyway, although subsequent events have proven the inaccuracy of that statement for me. While it was a bit disappointing that he wasn’t interested in anything more than sex, I could roll with it. I was in my early 20s, and I thought that being a modern, liberated woman meant being “sex-positive”, which I misunderstood as being ready for sex, even at the cost of one’s own desires or wishes for a different kind of relationship (I’m glad to say I’ve learned not to ignore what I want, and to say yes to sex if I want it but also to say no when I don’t want it in a particular way or context). And anyway, I was no longer as interested in him as I was when we first met two months ago. However, our schedules just did not match and we ended up not meeting then.
We did meet a few times in my two odd years in that city though. Each time, the experience was pretty similar to that first time. Each time, I gave him a blowjob. Each time, he put his hand on the back of my head and I almost gagged. In return, he would always make an effort to pleasure me orally, but it wasn’t ever particularly satisfactory. I remember complaining to a friend that it felt a bit like a race to some sort of imaginary finish. Perhaps I should have communicated what I wanted, but I don’t remember dwelling on my own pleasure in those encounters. I had internalized heteronormative ideas about sex to such an extent that to be desired by a man was the primary goal. I was concerned about his orgasm, with little consideration for mine.
In those two years between 2016 and 2018, the #MeToo movement happened. But more importantly, and closer to home, my own politics grew. I had always identified as a feminist, and always recognized that the personal is political, but that meaning revealed itself in new and intriguing ways (of course, this process has no endpoint; I am still learning and evolving and growing every day in the way I think about and practice my feminism).
Whenever I recollected my experiences with A, they didn’t feel unpleasant. I didn’t feel violated or exploited. Yet, over the years, I realized that I had essentially been forced to keep his penis inside my mouth, that he had shoved it deeper by force. And I also gradually realized that in legal parlance, that is rape. It took me time to process that A had violated me: not in the sense of how we usually think of violation (premeditated and/or aggressive), but more that this kind of violation is, well, the norm. And me somehow being inside this definition of sex, not being used to thinking about my own desires, made me go along.
I expected to feel sad, angry, or hurt about that realization. But I didn’t. Then I felt guilty for not feeling them. Why was I – a self-professed, vocal feminist, described by a colleague as a ‘militant’ feminist even – feeling this way? Every time I remembered A, it was with fondness, almost a wry wistfulness for the youth of my experiences with him, a certain strange nostalgia for the young and still-forming me, and this me’s relationship with A. These did not take away from the rational realization that I had been raped, not at all. They simply…coexisted.
In fact, even after my realization that all of these experiences were rape, before moving back to India, I messaged him to let him know I was leaving, and whether he’d like to meet “one last time”. And, it was just as every other time. I think I wanted to recreate my experiences with him – that feeling of finding someone so very attractive and appealing, that giving over of myself to someone else without cautiously considering every angle and potential consequence of the interaction, that recklessness of youth.
After I moved back to India, I have been working almost exclusively at the intersections of law with gender and sexuality, on issues such as reproductive rights, sexual violence, and consent. I take these issues incredibly personally, and my work is very close to my heart. Amidst all this, the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that A raped me (or at least, as certain as a woman can be in an environment where women are repeatedly questioned and maligned as soon as an allegation of rape is made – I found myself questioning myself even as I wrote this piece). Yet, once again, those feelings of hurt or anger or sadness or shame or guilt never came. I have never wanted A to face any sort of punishment, legal or social. Emotionally, I do not feel the need for justice, or revenge, or really any action at all. When #MeToo happened, I did not feel the need to out him as a rapist on social media (or the need to out any of my other abusers, although I did make a general post expressing solidarity with the movement and acknowledging myself as a survivor). I supported the women who did want to speak about their violation. You might wonder why, and I have thought about it a lot.
A violated my boundaries and I do believe that A’s acts are unjustified. I do not forgive A for what he did to me. But, I hold that rational, logical belief along with an absence of negative feeling. In fact, I hold it alongside a presence of positive feeling – not for A’s acts, but for everything else (I’ve even been smiling while writing this piece), for the kind of person A was – immensely smart, funny, attractive, and excellent company and conversation. I feel even grateful to him for being a significant part of my own sexual journey, for helping me to realize what I find attractive and what I don’t, and how often there is such a thin line between those two categories, a line that wavers based on my own position in life, my mental health at a particular moment, and myriad other factors. It’s not either, that I am blaming myself for not recognizing the experience for what it was. Quite the contrary. Most of all, I am trying to be kind to myself – to not blame myself for not immediately knowing it was rape, or for not feeling guilt or anger now that I do. I am grateful to myself—for being able to carry this lived experience, and the memories of how it made me feel, and all the accompanying confusion, with me. My relationship with A helped me understand what kind of relationships I want: conscious, intentional, and mutual. My own emancipation has been so much more important to me than A’s punishment, as a (perhaps unconventional) feminist response to the violation itself. I can say I’m much older and wiser now, and that perhaps something like this wouldn’t happen to me again (which is not the same as saying it was my fault).
Last year, I was back in that city for a few months. One evening, while walking to my primary partner’s place, the thought of A popped back into my head out of nowhere; I think I had seen someone on the street who looked like him.
In a very spooky coincidence, the next morning I checked my Tinder, and there was a message from him. We had not spoken since I moved out of the city about three years ago, and I hadn’t told him that I had moved back. He asked if I would like to meet. I said yes but didn’t really commit to a time. Once again, due to busy schedules, we didn’t meet – but he messaged a few times and even dropped his number (forgetting perhaps that I already had it from two years ago).
I couldn’t meet him before leaving the city because of how much I had on my plate. But every time I did ponder meeting him, there was no strong opposition. There was merely… ambivalence, undecidedness. Eventually I let time take its course, and it didn’t happen. But again, I was surprised by my lack of negative memories of him. I’m pretty certain that were I in a position to be able to meet him tomorrow, I would not immediately say no. I may not say yes, but I would not immediately say no.
“Rape” is always a negative word. But we are also told what kind of negative we are all supposed to see it as. We’re told that rape is a “deathless shame”, a fate worse than death. And that our reaction to violation should match this feeling. In progressive conversations we might agree, that there is no such thing as an ideal rape victim. Yet we tend to portray the experience of rape and the feelings of survivors in black and white . This might be the pressure of how legal and social systems think about rape victims – without asking rape victims what they think. Our need to punish rape often translates into an insistence that the survivor of rape conform to our expectation of what they are feeling. But in lived life, this black and white does not always hold true. For example, there are those who continue to be in love with their rapists, or those who love them because they are family, or people they have grown up with. Our unwillingness to accommodate that feeling creates a double shame for such people. The fact that they feel these things does not cancel out the truth of violation and violence. The insistence that they should want the same thing the law mandates, sometimes is very far from the justice that might make them feel better.
As a lawyer I say this with some unease. We live in a landscape inundated by the logic and rationality of the discourse of law. But we need to equally consider the logic and truths of emotion. When we think that way we would root our responses in what makes the rape survivor feel better, rather than what makes society feel better, in accordance with what it deems the story of rape or assault should be. Is it the law we serve, or the needs of victims?
In all my personal experiences and professional work, I have learned that the word “justice” means different things to different people. In my own case here, much of my “justice” came from my own feminist grappling with my experience. It came from my understanding how much patriarchy played a role in it all, the personal growth that emerged from this understanding, and my gradual (work-in-progress) liberation from sexual norms in which women’s desires really aren’t important. For another woman, the sense of justice could come from the rapist acknowledging their wrongdoing. Yet another person might want their rapist to apologize or be held accountable, or seek therapy. Others still, might want the rapist to be legally punished.
I write this not to deny any experience, but to make more space for more experiences in this dialogue, and hope for a more diverse and meaningful journey of justice. Rape is abhorrent and often a horrible thing to survive. At the same time, can there be room for survivors who don’t feel shame or guilt or sorrow, like me?
M is a lawyer who is originally from Delhi but is still figuring out where in the world she belongs. Her only skill is ranting about feminism, but for fun she likes to read, dance, and travel by herself.