The first time my Russian mother told me about rape was while we were watching a soap opera. There was a scene in which a private detective was interviewing a man who had tried to rape a woman in a car. She had beaten him off and then fled into the woods, never to be seen again, presumably murdered.
“If she had just put up with it for a few minutes, she’d still be alive,” my mother said, scooping up and eating another handful of nuts.
Two associations immediately formed in my young mind: One, that rape is preferable to murder, and two, that not being raped was solely my responsibility in life.
My mother is the kindest and gentlest woman in the world, and she always made me feel extremely loved and cared for. But her outlook on relationships was shaped by the values of the chauvinistic society in which she spent most of her life, and she passed those values onto me when we moved from St. Petersburg, Russia to Brooklyn, New York when I was five years old.
Because I love my mother, it took many, many years for me to realize that many of the things that she taught me were wrong. Whenever I disagreed with a guy or an expressed an opinion, my mother would sigh sadly and say, “You’re so aggressive and unfeminine, you’ll never find a man.”
It wasn’t just my mother, either. When her female friends talked about sex, they often used the phrase “я отдалась,” which means “I gave myself up,” and said “он имел ее,” which means “he had her.” Sex, it seemed, was a favor that women bestowed upon men in return for other things, like love or security. Men had sex. Women gave into sex.
As such, I was always afraid of saying no to the men that I was dating, especially when it came to sex, and so often ended up having it when I didn’t really want to. I would give into it with a sigh of resignation and spend the experience vacantly staring at the wall — it felt like, as I was taught, an unpleasant but ordinary part of life.
This is not a problem that’s at all exclusive to Russia or other chauvinistic cultures. Nearly all of my American female friends have found themselves in situations in which they agreed to have sex with a guy when they clearly didn’t want to, and even though the guy kind of knew that, he went ahead with it anyway. Even though it wasn’t rape, they knew in their gut that it was wrong.
When I was younger, I got way too drunk while drinking wine at the apartment of a guy that I thought was my friend. I remember hazily lying on the floor while a bad movie was playing on the television and murmuring the words “I don’t want to” as he ripped open a condom wrapper with his teeth.
It was a “textbook” sexual assault, but it was not the situation in my life in which I felt most sexually violated.
That happened with one my ex-boyfriends, an American guy who considers himself a hardcore feminist. He’s a good person in many ways — a loyal friend, a devoted boyfriend, an obedient son, an animal lover. One night last winter, he really wanted me to have sex with him because I was going on vacation for a week and he wouldn’t “get any for a while.” At that moment, there was nothing that I wanted less. I was very sick, I was stressed out about packing, and I honestly wasn’t 100 percent interested in the relationship anymore. I had tried to break up with him several times, but he would break into tears and tell me how much he loved me and I would feel so bad that I would say let’s just forget the whole thing and turn on Netflix.
So this time, like so many others, I gave in to sex, because he had asked so gently and so nicely and had brought me medicine and he loved me and I was his girlfriend and I felt like I sort of had to.
Afterwards, he said, “Thanks for doing that. I know you didn’t want to, so it was really nice of you.” I sat there aghast. I know you didn’t want to, so it was really nice of you. Like I had brought him a hamburger or done his laundry.
Even though I had said “fine” and even though it was decidedly not rape, I felt so much more disgusting and violated in that moment than I had the night the night of my actual rape.
In Russian, the word for rape is “изнасилование,” which literally translates to “out of force.” My ex-boyfriend definitely did not rape me, but the sex we had certainly felt forced.
When men don’t want to do something, they just don’t do it — it’s that simple. If they don’t want to have sex, they just don’t have sex. They don’t feign a headache or cramps like my female friends. If they don’t want to be in the relationship anymore, they just say so. They don’t come up with a million logical reasons that can stand up in a court of law. They don’t feel like it anymore, and that’s that.
Eventually, I realized that mentality was much healthier than the submissive one instilled in me by my mom. There wasn’t any one big epiphany moment. Some of it was moving out of my parents’ place; some of it was watching Beyonce’s Lemonade. Enough was enough.
So I’ve started saying no to men. A lot and without explanation. When a guy asks me to do something I don’t want to do – be it dancing at a nightclub or having another drink on a date or doing anal – I look them dead in the eyes and say very coolly and politely, “I’m sorry, I just don’t want to.” It’s the best feeling in the world. Better than an orgasm, even — it lasts longer.
Since I’m reasonably new to this, I always expect the men to respond by throwing their hands up in the air and saying, “Well, fine, b*tch, then I’ll find someone who does!” But, by and large, the guys respond by shrugging their shoulders and saying “OK.”
I relayed all of this to my mother recently, expecting an argument. Instead, she looked at me contemplatively and said, “You know, sweetie, I’m starting to think maybe you’re right.”
By Diana Bruk