When I was a child, sometimes my sister and I would fight. That is to say, she would fight with me, while I attempted to stand quietly and wait for the tide of her anger to wash over me.
Once we had a physical fight because I accidentally ripped her shirt. For most of the duration of the fight, I held her wrists while she promised to stop attacking me, until eventually I would let her go and she would again lunge for my throat with her nails. My parents were upstairs. They heard us fighting. They did not come down to see what was going on until later.
I think that many fights are like that in real life. I think that many instances of sexual assault or nonconsensual sexual action, whichever nomenclature you prefer, are like that. Somebody is upstairs, and they do not want to know what is happening. Somebody attacks while the other person stands still and waits for the fight to be over.
I am not inherently a passive person. I have done my fair share of accolades-gathering in my lifetime. I have traveled across this country by myself many times, driven myself from Oregon to Minnesota, been to 14 countries. And yet. There is something in me that is frozen. I am a small child, rocking back and forth, waiting for the fight to be over.
My sister was born blonde and blue-eyed in a society that loves children who are blonde and blue-eyed, girls especially. Not her fault.
My sister was born to a mother who identifies as white but is treated as a racial other by most members of the suburban elite she has chosen to live alongside. My mother is Ashkenazi Jewish, which theoretically means she is white by decree. Except there are many Ashkenazi Jewish people with darker skin tones, likely because so many of our ancestors were raped by Russians and Hungarians and history knows who else. We carry these traumas ungracefully, as the members of the Ashkenazi community who we choose not to see. Left in between racial identities, some of these women, my mother among them, internalize the self-hatred of white supremacy. For my mother, it made her mean.
It made her convinced I would wind up like her. She had few friends growing up, and was convinced I would end up the same way. She chose not to recognize the slew of friends I had who were people of color or less economically wealthy than me, friends of mine she treated like problems who would go away if she ignored them. Eventually I stopped seeing them, or they stopped seeing me, the both of us ashamed of what we were too young to name. And so my mother called the daughters of her friends, my friends, and left me no one else to care about. I did not like these girls. They did not like me. We were thrown together like two orca whales in the same too-small aquarium. Eventually they tried to kill me, as though I stood between themselves and freedom.
I did not know how to fight back on my own behalf. I had no one to teach me. They hurt me very much, and so I no longer wanted to see them. And my mother claimed I was incompetent at making friends.
My mother claimed many more things besides. She said I was depressed and fat and crazy long before I was any of these things. She yelled at me for my ingratitude and for asking her to be quiet and for any attempt I ever made to assert myself.
I remember watching my sister and my mother yell at each other. My mother tells this story as though I were autistic, as though the two of them were too loud and overwhelmed me. In fact, I watched them and thought, why don’t I have the courage to get that angry?
It has taken me more than 30 years to learn how to get angry at my mother.
Back then, I did not know how to be angry. I thought I was incapable of anger or any other ‘negative’ emotion. Perhaps that is because when I tried to express these feelings, my mother reacted as though I had punched her in the face. Being sad meant I got sent to therapy. Being angry meant withholding affection or a timeout or some other means to silence me. I was sick a lot as a child. There was a lot inside of me that needed escaping.
And so when my sister got angry at me, I did not have the tools to fight back. I did not know how to fight for myself. No one had ever fought for me.
My parents tell this story to this day, and say, ‘our daughters fought.’
That may be technically true, but it is not the truth. The truth is, my sister is blonde and small-statured and blue-eyed and able-bodied and white-passing in a society and a household that appreciate all of these things. I am none of them. Her physical traits give her social status, deserved or not. I am smarter and stronger and I went to a better college and I am the first in my generation of my extended family to earn a graduate degree and and, but still. She makes more money than me. My parents love her, and tolerate me. My extended family treats me like an orangutan in the shape of a human being. And some part of me, the part my mother shaped, believes it ought to be this way.
And I thought, I should let him go so he will find a beautiful blonde skinny white-passing able-bodied girl to love the way I wish he would love me. And then he did. Exactly as I intended. Only….
I like myself just fine. I treat myself the best I can, the very best I know how. But I still do not know how to fight for what I want. I am learning, I suppose. Trying to learn. As an adult. While resenting the years I spent being simultaneously told I was worth nothing, and yelled at for living my life badly.
This is not a he said/she said story. But it is also a he said/she said story.
Because when one person has far more power than the other. When one person is born into substantial social status the other does not have. When one person knows how to lie and manipulate and deceive. When one person truly believes they have the right to get what they want and need, even at the cost of another living being. When the two parties to the fight live in a society that says one person’s story is more credible by virtue of the inherited traits of the person who produced it. When learning to tell our stories credibly is itself an activity that comes from being born into substantial social status.
I am not saying, believe all women. For G-D’s sake, don’t. I am a woman and before that I was a girl. I know that girls lie. I had a ‘friend’ once who used to pretend to be dead or dying for hours on end just to torment me. I had another friend who broke off our friendship because I had dared get coffee with another girl. Girls are just as capable as boys of lashing out when their feelings get hurt. Girls are just as capable of lying.
The difference is, boys are taught to lie about how much they hurt girls.
The other difference is, boys are taught to hurt girls and think it doesn’t count or doesn’t matter. That girls don’t count and girls don’t matter.
Just like white girls with more privilege are taught do to girls with less.
Because that is how power works.
So no, don’t believe all women. But figure that women as a whole are more likely to tell the truth than men, about sexual violence. About ten thousand times more likely. Because we have been taught our entire lives that men are worth more than we are. And men have been taught the exact same thing.