Oren Herschander "What It’s Like to Experience Sexual Abuse as a Man"
**Trigger warning: sexual violence**
As someone who was in an abusive relationship, I know abuse is more than he said she said.
Abuse isn’t black and white. It’s more like splattered black and blue shades that mix as they drip towards the edge of the frame.
Like a Jackson Pollock painting, abuse appears as chaos. It’s an object of our gaze that only gains meaning once we subject it to our collective interpretations. With some readings more logical and balanced than others.
I learned the hard way that abusers are more than villains or hooded figures in the back alleyways of our minds. I learned that even the people you love, and see in the light of day, can seriously traumatize you.
Smart, kind, manipulative, and unstable people – they’re all hues of men, women, and so on.
An abuser may “love” their victims, and a victim may “love” their abusers too. But within those tinges of love, a victim – and even an abuser – may love the other while simultaneously wanting to die. Sometimes we rest inside a conscious or subconscious that’s an illusion, or an allusion to a nightmare. A dream where you want to move, but you’re stuck, and you can’t fight or take flight no matter how hard you try.
Both victim and abuser might avoid asking for help from friends, family, or mental health professionals – out of fear. They might worry about how the people in their lives, or on the internet, will react to their subjective version of the relationship.
I know how many years I kept silent, and I know how the shame felt as it slid down my throat and through my blood like the toxic waters of the East River.
“How could someone you love be a sexual abuser?” I thought over and over and over as we dated for almost two years.
“This is just your life,” I convinced myself, “this doesn’t happen to men… you could’ve stopped her… it’s your fault… if you say anything they’ll call you a liar… and you have to protect her… she didn’t mean to hurt you… she loves you… and you love her…”
I can only imagine what the hell was going on in her mind, and sometimes I wonder, “Does she know how much pain I was in?”
Almost a year ago, I started to write down my traumatic relationship narrative. But after several drafts, I gave up for a couple of months because I decided in therapy to hold off. I’d tell my story when I was ready.
I was pretty sick with PTSD, consisting of regular panic attacks where random triggers sent me into flashbacks from when my girlfriend sexually assaulted me towards the beginning of our relationship. It was a living nightmare, and every day, I’d relive how I’d push my soul down. I’d remember how she taught me, through her own narrative of being sexually assaulted, that she had done to me what was done to her.
She taught me what abuse was — both literally and figuratively. How could I ask her if sexual assault had happened to me, too? How could I tell her that according to her own definition she’d sexually assaulted me?
“What if I’m wrong?” I’d think over and over. “Why risk saying something over nothing?”
But it wasn’t nothing. And the pain was real even though it was in mostly in my head — and my heart, my lungs, and my soul.
Later, when I’d hear our favorite song, You Make My Dreams Come True, I’d have a flashback, a nightmare coming true when I’d walk down the street.
I felt so alone.
The day before my birthday, my best friend, who was one of the only people I told about my trauma, sent me a story written by Sara Kabakov. It was about her abusive relationship with some famous rabbi that I had never heard of.
I had just pulled into the driveway of my parent’s house, who I was visiting for my birthday, and I read her article. Soon, the cell phone light illuminated my crying face.
The dead engine ticked as the cold air entered it. My tears were like drops of traumatic stress and shame that leaked out of me like blackened, salt-melted snow.
I remembered a passage that I’d read the previous night.
“Many people need desperately to receive this message,” explains Kurt Vonnegut in Timequake on why he writes what he writes. “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”
And so it goes.
A long time ago…
I exit the subway station, where a single working elevator lifts costumed New Yorkers from the stuffy-hell of the One train. I see a guy in a kilt and a fake arrow through his heart step on a discarded candy wrapper. The plastic crackles under his shoe on this chilly Halloween night, and I wrap my stop-sign-red coat around my body as a blurry picture of me buying my ex-girlfriend her favorite candy bar flashes behind my eyes.
I see a skinny kid on the screen inside my head. He’s inside a crowded bodega, stocked with snacks and grey matter, and he looks for a Peanut Butter Twix bar. Then I realize the kid’s me — the star of my memory-stained film.
I remember how I thought I was Indiana Jones because I’d gone on a quest to find a real-life manifestation of our love. In reality, I’d just bought her mass-produced chocolate, peanut butter, and cookie. Two brittle wafers shaped like the letter “I.”
When I snap back to reality, I notice some crushed Solo cups near a yellow plastic bag pinned under an empty Vodka bottle, and my neurons run from the tidal wave behind them — but it’s too late. The weight of when she’d blackout, hookup with strangers, and drown my soul in her booze crashes down in my mind.
Gallons of acid-reflux swish around inside me while her self-destructive behaviors and refusal to get treatment gives me heartburn.
Meanwhile, a breeze frees the yellow plastic bag from under the heavy bottle, and I remember the scene in American Beauty where Wes Bentley’s creepy character shows Kevin Spacey’s daughter a video of a floating plastic bag.
“This bag was just dancing with me,” the character tells a fictional girl. “Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes.”
My bag looks like this flimsy thing with plastic feathers — a sweetness in the gale — while a slight wind tries to lift me from the weight of my past abusive relationship.
“That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid,” creepy Bentley says inside the Oscar-winning film. “Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember…”
When I look away from my plastic bag, I see my ex-girlfriend — and in whatever the hell the negative version of serendipity is, she heads towards me with her new boyfriend wrapped around her arm. She’s dressed as a zombie in my eyes.
I remember how her blue eyes would suspend my disbelief, and would give me faith in the shape of cosmic wholeness — until our love story broke into the real-life chaos told in the moonlight and urban smog between us.
After she stops at an apartment building a few feet away from me, my heart fast-forwards and my palms cover themselves in a layer of sweat. The time she touched me after I said no, after I said I wasn’t ready — it all comes back.
I had wanted to wait until we got married, like I kept telling her, so I asked her to stop. I wouldn’t consent, but she kept insisting — told me she needed it as she pulled my naked body towards her. I said no again, but as my arms rubbed against the tattered couch in that supply-room filled with an old drum-set and rusted symbols, I realized I couldn’t move. Why did I take off my clothes? I don’t remember. I felt like a passenger in my own body, and if I close my eyes now — I can hear my voice as I feel her thin, but powerful arms around my waist.
“No, no, no,” I hear as I watch her push me into her. It’s less like a movie, and more like a twisted, fun-house mirror — reflective memories distorting reality.
I think about how I broke-down, and cried in my room after she left. I wanted to forget how she forced me to penetrate her.
She cried the second it was over, and claimed she did an awful thing and wanted to die. So I immediately forgave her, and I saved her by pretending nothing had happened — choosing love over pain.
Little did I know, my life would get stranger than any fiction I could possibly create.
When we make eye contact on the street, my anxiety feels like a sheriff who’s out of bullets as his dystopian town is overrun by the undead.
“She’s just another zombie,” I tell myself as she looks at me behind a thin layer of make-up and pretend blood. “She can’t devour my heart again,” I whisper… as I rewind again.
A couple walks into a costume store downtown, and laughs at Ronald Reagan and Marilyn Monroe’s plastic-wrapped faces on the shelf.
As I rewatch our second date, I pity my past because — in a twist of dramatic irony — I know what comes next, but all I can do is remember.
I remember when she told me how her dad smacked her toddler-face after she flushed his bible down the toilet. I couldn’t look away, and then she told me how her mom left her — as a little kid — at Target. I had slipped into her past, and had started to drown while all her pain sunk in.
“How could she forget her kid at a Target?” I’d ruminate. “Were the employees, in their faded red shirts and khakis, meant to act as makeshift babysitters while her mom went off to see the man who’d become husband number four?”
Or was it four and five? I don’t remember, and sometimes I wonder, “What’s fact, fiction, or both?”
When her mood would suddenly change, the dynamic light in her eyes turned static and she’d shut down like an unplugged television. She wouldn’t let me in, and she’d instead give me the silent treatment. Her feelings expressed as white noise.
“I must’ve done something wrong,” I’d imagine, “I need to know what, so I can fix this.”
But she’d tell me to leave her alone, and call all me a jerk for trying to fix her.
“I want to help,” I’d say, “tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
“Just leave me alone, you don’t get it!” She’d yell, and after I left, the separation anxiety would write horrible narratives in my head.
“What if she hurts herself?” I’d wonder, and the night her old roommate died of suicide due to a struggle with depression would replay in my mind.
In bed, she cried and made me promise to never leave her, so I brought her close till our heartbeats combined. I held her all night, let her tears wash over me, and I tried to understand how someone could experience so much pain without dying.
The sun set along the highway as we drove to visit her dad. She told me, if it wasn’t for me she probably would have killed herself.
After that, I worried about everything I said to her because I believed if I told her that I wasn’t in the mood for sex, or I tried to break up with her — she’d kill herself. And I could not let that happen. She’d already been through enough, so I had to give her a happy ending.
I was obsessed with saving her. But I was only an amateur writer. I wasn’t a superhero, or even a psychological professional. I was so confused.
Towards the end, I wanted to die. It was in the context of what would happen if she cheated on me again, and my death seemed like the easiest plot device.
“This must be my fault,” I thought and continued to have sex with her as I attempted to rewrite how she forced me to lose my virginity. An act I was told would cut me off from my connection with God. To Karat (“to cut off”) my soul from the ineffable because of premarital sex.
“This is love,” I thought. “And love isn’t abuse. I did something wrong. This pain is my punishment. I could’ve stopped her.”
I had sought control by telling myself stories. And by trying to escape from my victimhood and my confusion, I’d slowly cut myself off from humanity with a delusion.
After she cheated again, I saw something reflected in my pool of tears. A fresh page sat in front of me, and it was time to start another draft of myself. It was time to mend my broken strings — to adapt, and pick myself up.
When my obsessions about how she might hurt herself stopped narrating my life, and I started to call my first sexual experience for what it was, sexual assault by someone who loved me, I began to rebuild my destroyed soul with therapy, hard work, and medication.
Eventually, I started to realize there was another way to reinterpret the world.
And as her new boyfriend, who’d become her fiancé, stands in front of me, I wonder if she’ll eat his heart too. And as the zombie and her man creep forward, I compulsively consider what to do.
I want to be brave. I want to fight the zombie who was once the person I loved, and I think about how in all of the zombie shows, those who can’t check their emotions, to blow the blood thirsty creatures away, usually end up getting bitten, and become zombies too.
I muster the courage to say hello, making sure to keep my face expressionless — trying to prove to her that I’m not scared of her anymore. But I am — although I’m happy to be scared instead of terrified. I’m happy to be human.
“Yoooooo,” she laughs, rolls her eyes, and walks into her silent supporting-character’s building.
As I walk the last few blocks back to my apartment, I appreciate how I’m dressed as myself, and I realize how proud I am of my character development — how I got knocked down, but got up without blowing any zombies — or masked humans mistaken as zombies — away.
“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world,” goes a line I believe in from American Beauty. “I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”
I hope openly talking about my trauma might help you in your own special way because I believe in you and want to hear your story if you find the safety to share.
I have never met Sara Kabakov and Marc Gafni. But I know that Sara has done a lot for people like me, or us, by sharing her story. Thank you so much, Sara.
I recommend, Marc, if you really want to do the right thing in line with the Torah, maybe take your own advice and publicly or privately express deep remorse through an act of teshuvah (repentance), because you know that not acknowledging the pain of a fellow human is in violation of Jewish Orthodox law.
To cite the sage Hillel, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.”
Oren creates digital art and narratives. Contact him or follow him on Twitter if you’d like to contribute towards his new interdisciplinary project that explores the connection between puns, machine learning, empathy, and mental illness.
Oren Herschander's piece "What It’s Like to Experience Sexual Abuse as a Man" was originally published on Foward.com on 16 November 2016 and is published here on 12 January 2017 with Oren's permission.
It’s Not Me, It’s You: Overcoming self-blame after sexual assault**
**Trigger warning: sexual violence**
It’s not you, it’s me: this phrase often fits a particular mold. Person A meets Person B. They go on a few dates and there’s promise for the relationship to continue until there isn’t. Incompatibility rears its inevitable head and Person A or B, hoping to spare the other person’s feelings, utters that cliché, cringe-worthy phrase. Usually through the lens of the individual saying the phrase, it actually is the other person, but still they say it. It’s easier that way; it’s easier to avoid the conversation and potential hurt that could result for both parties — put the blame on themselves instead of facing reality.
As a survivor of sexual assault, I eat, sleep, and breathe this phrase — or at least I used to. For the longest time, I thought it wasn’t him, it was me. I thought I was somehow responsible for what happened. It seemed easier this way. I knew I had been wronged but thought I was overreacting or I was the cause for the hurt that happened to me. Maybe I was too trusting, too passive, I didn’t say “no” enough, I lead him on. To be fair to myself, this was a completely normal response. After all, the evidence that seemingly refuted my feelings was apparent. All previously formed personal schemas pointed to the false, alternative narrative— the one where I was at fault. He seemed like a good person. I thought I knew him. We used to date. He was close to and remained good friends with several of my girl friends. The night of, he was so drunk. Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing. Except, we drank from the same bottle of liquor and it rendered me helpless and him a predator. And still, I thought it must be me — not him.
Except, we drank from the same bottle of liquor and it rendered me helpless and him a predator.
When I told my friends what happened, their doubt was so obvious it was almost tangible — an uncomfortable thickness filled the air like heavy fog. It was clear they did not want to purposely hurt me but still, “like are you sure? That doesn’t sound like something he’d do.” Evasive retorts like this felt like actual blows to the gut, capable of knocking the wind right out of me. It was clear where they stood. I must have been lying or exaggerating because if I were telling the truth, the implications would be so much more devastating than the thought of their 16-year-old friend stretching the truth to hide promiscuity or garner attention. If I were telling the truth, their dear friend, my assailant: someone they grew up with, cared about, and admired was capable of something so unspeakable; something they too were particularly vulnerable to just for existing as females. Their entire world view could be shattered. Seemingly good people are not capable of this kind of thing.
No. I was wrong. My truth, my pain didn’t matter. I didn’t matter.
It didn’t take long for me to buy into this fallacy. And believe me, I never would’ve referred to it as a fallacy at the time. In fact, it hurt too much to even think or talk about it at all. Post-traumatic stress was a leech, sucking away all of my happiness, all of my energy, all of my optimism, and sense of safety and security. Most mornings, I woke up with a sense of shame that could’ve swallowed me whole. But I tried to put on a brave face, act like everything was okay so I wouldn’t have to feel like a burden — like I was overreacting and imposing on other people by talking about it and feeling. One night, my mom, sensing something was wrong, sat on the edge of my bed like a TV-movie and spoke softly, “sweetheart, are you depressed?” No, I was just tired. Over school-issued chicken nuggets and chocolate milk, my friends told me my smile seemed fake recently. They wondered why this was as we sat ten feet from his lunch table in the high school cafeteria. I stole a few glances at him and told them they were crazy — I was fine.
…my friends told me lately my smile seemed fake. They wondered why this was as we sat ten feet from his lunch table in the high school cafeteria.
Overtime, somehow my brain compartmentalized the memories of what happened and how it left me feeling. I became desensitized to seeing him several days a week in school. I stopped internally swearing at the back of his head in economics class, where he sat directly in front of me. I mentally retreated when my friends talked about him or casually brought him up in conversation — “he is sooooo funny, what a charming guy,” — but, I became so used to this that numbing eventually took over. Conscious thought of what happened faded. Unfortunately, the effect of what happened never faded. It colored my everyday existence and became a part of who I was and still am. It was alive in my passivity, my insecurity, and my perception of myself and my own value (or lack thereof). It materialized as broad strokes over the canvas that informed my view on the world around me. Outwardly, everything was fine and at surface-level, I believed this. I lived this ill-fitted tale. But that night left an imprint on my brain. And since the human brain is so evolved, sophisticated, and efficient at protecting us, it tried it’s very best to make sure I wasn’t aware of the cerebral tattoo I involuntarily possessed. Sure, I was jumpier, more anxious than others, and yeah, I was projecting scary false narratives on strangers I knew nothing about, but this was just part of my personality. TV shows, movies, and articles about sexual violence made me anxious, and my self-esteem was so low I developed social anxiety, but all of this was just me being me. I often felt like a burden just for talking about myself or sharing parts of myself with others — like I wasn’t fit to take up space in this world — but I was so used to those feelings, I wore them like armor. I couldn’t truly let anyone in. Most of these thoughts were unconscious, but continuously displayed themselves in my every waking (and sometimes not waking) moment. And still, I was in denial. It was still me, not him.
I often felt like a burden just for talking about myself or sharing parts of myself with others — like I wasn’t fit to take up space in this world — but I was so used to those feelings, I wore them like armor. I couldn’t truly let anyone in.
After seven long years passed, my counseling master’s program required I attend six personal counseling sessions. I was mortified at the thought of having to talk about myself for so long and knew trauma may come up, but understood why it was necessary. In the intake, I acknowledged what I always knew happened: I was a survivor of sexual violence. A few sessions in, I began to talk about what happened to me and my healing progressed from there. I began to further accept not only what happened, but how it affected me, and I received the validation I was starving for. My counselor believed me. I was not being ridiculous or over dramatic. I didn’t do anything wrong. He made a choice to ignore what I wanted and do what he wanted to a body that wasn’t his. I mattered, what happened to me mattered, and I deserved to be heard.
I mattered, what happened to me mattered, and I deserved to be heard.
Facing what happened head-on has lead to a roller coaster of emotions. Some days I feel great, I feel empowered, I feel happy and confident as though I can take on the world. And others, I want to hide away and pretend the scary world doesn’t exist. Healing isn’t a linear process and I certainly can’t snap my fingers and feel better. People I trust and care about are capable of hurting me, and that’s a scary thought. After everything happened, I was constantly looking for confirmation of the negativity in our world. It’s everywhere. That’s still a part of me — it’s not going anywhere anytime soon— but with all that is scary and negative in the world, I know there is also infinite beauty and love. I try to remind myself to look for confirmation of that and confirmation in myself, because I deserve that. I deserve to be valued and appreciated. My experiences and feelings deserve to be validated. I deserve a healthy self-esteem and existence free from the turmoil he created that night. And most of all, I deserve to live with the reality that I did not cause any of this. It’s not me, it’s him. It was him all along.
***This testimony was submitted by a 26-year-old female, school counselor and survivor from Western New York. It is is being published here anonymously, to protect the author's identity. The author originally published this piece on Medium.com on 22 January 2017, it is being republished here with their permission on 15 May 2017.