by B. Tyler Lee
16 years ago, on an August night five days after my 24th birthday, a man I had recently loved pushed my naked body down onto a bed and had sex with it, though I didn’t want him to. I tried to push him off me, and I watched his hips continue to thrust against mine as he first grabbed my outstretched fingers, and then, disentangling his hands from mine, gripped my wrists and wrestled them down against the sheets. From that instant until he finished, I remember only the dark weight of his chest against mine and the sight of my left wrist pinned to the mattress.
You might think this is a story about rape, but you’d be wrong. Because, like millions of others before and after me, I’m trying to describe to you a thing that happened to me for which there is no clear term.
16 years ago, a man I had recently loved penetrated me against my will, but you can’t call it rape because:
I removed my clothes for him and lay down
It wasn’t bad (see also: agonizing, violent, painful, brutal) enough
Rape requires intent
Neither of us knew the consent I gave by undressing could be revoked
He still loved me
Let us begin, then, with those two premises: 1) That you may want to call it rape, but it isn’t. 2) There are many et ceteras.
Exhibit A: Obedience
We had a very traditional marriage. At 19 and 20, when we took our vows, I explicitly agreed to obey, right after honor and love.
And I did every time:
When it hurt him that I’d completed my bachelor’s degree before he did and he didn’t want me to have a party, even though I’d never graduated from high school and yearned to celebrate my butterfly moment of GED to summa cum laude, I obeyed.
When I dropped and lost an accordion folder overflowing with three weeks’ worth of grocery money plus the coupons he ordered me to cut and organize, and he told me that I could buy no new food for myself until the next month, I obeyed. Though we had a surplus in savings and little in the cupboards, and he rarely left me anything from his dinners, I obeyed.
When he told me to remove my clothes.
When he told me to lay my naked body on his mattress.
Exhibit B: Sexual Aversion
At least once per week, he reminded me that he found me disgusting. “Disgusting” was a favorite term, but there were others: he hurled “fat” like a shot put, a stone that rattled my formerly anorexic frame, my size 2 body still ten pounds under ideal weight.
On alternating Friday nights, flush from the ink still wet on our paychecks, we’d head to a nearby pizza buffet and gorge ourselves and then rent a video from the dollar rack in the grocery store movie section. We lived for those nights—four-year-old Best Picture Oscar nominees rolling past in our living room, our bellies full of cheap breadsticks and pepperoni.
But even then, even when I reminded myself that I could keep loving him for this, he never wanted to have sex. He never wanted to sleep with me because I was too disgusting for that. My body wasn’t good enough to place any part of himself that he liked, any part of his joy, inside.
B-2: Opposition to Propagation
We lived in fear of pregnancy. I went on birth control six months before we planned to have sex in order to ensure I didn’t conceive, and we backed it up with thin spermicidal sheets that melted inside me, foaming up and spilling over as if my vagina were a churning cauldron.
We wanted to have children, we said, but not now. Not now.
Once, when the blood arrived slow and little and late and I suspected implantation, I asked him to take me to the store for a test. He drove me in silence. We found the cheapest box in silence. We checked out in silence. After we returned home, I disappeared into the bathroom and emerged ten minutes later, secure for another month. I held out the test and waited with outstretched arms for him to hug me in relief. Instead, his face loomed before mine. He pointed his finger between my eyes and said, “YOU. Just took ten fucking years off my life.” He walked out the door and returned hours later.
B-3: Infrequency, Discomfort
As implied in B-1 and B-2, sex remained rare throughout the course of our marriage, especially after the six-month mark. In the final calendar year, we had intercourse three times. I stopped taking birth control in the last four months I lived with him because of the expense, and he stated we no longer needed it because he didn’t want to have sex with me.
Even early on, sex served as a test of both endurance and ingenuity on my part as it often required 45 minutes to an hour for him to complete. I shifted perpetually to his will, contorting myself into whatever positions seemed most likely to make him happy. He was seldom happy.
B-4: Disgust (Reprise)
My weekly trips alone to the Kroger across the street resulted in a series of brief, polite conversations in the produce section with a manager, who was tall and kind and as dashing as a man wearing a store-issued polo could be.
One day, he sidled shyly up to me in the lettuce and said, “I don’t know if you’re married or anything, but I’ve always thought you were beautiful and wondered if you might be willing to go out with me sometime.”
I thanked him and told him that yes, I was married, but expressed my gratitude and flattery—and, I hope, sincerely hinted that I would be interested were it not for my ring.
Later, I told my husband, though at this remove, I’m not sure why I did. I’d venture this was a result of magical thinking, a fear that he would somehow discover it through my words and actions, and I would be in trouble for not having come clean about my transgressions (in the form of exchanging grocery aisle pleasantries). Regardless, he had one question:
“Is he black?”
I said I didn’t know what that had to do with anything.
“Was. He. Black?”
I said he was.
“Oh, well, that’s why, then. It’s because you’ve got a fat fucking ass. They like that, especially on white girls. That’s the only reason.”
We were together for three and a quarter years and married for a day and a half before we lost our virginities. Despite my insistence to the outside world that I was saving myself for marriage because of my faith, I know that, had he been interested, we would have had sex starting at about nine months into our relationship, after he gave me a promise ring: a tiny pre-engagement stone perched atop a yellow gold band he knew I hated. Half-naked on hot nights in his car, I tried to convince him, but he held out. This seemed, to me, a result of his goodness, his adherence to a solid moral code I should be following but was failing at. We had oral sex a handful of times and flushed with guilt afterward, but that remained as far as we took things until the night after our wedding.
This confused and conflicted me. On the one hand, I believed him to be stronger and more fiercely faithful than I. On the other, the prevailing cultural narrative held that hormones morphed teenage boys into raging fuckbeasts who wanted nothing more than sex with nubile girls, and only a few things more than sex with not-so-nubile girls. At 17, 18, 19, the unexpressed concern that I simply wasn’t attractive enough dogged me. Which was the bigger compliment: breaking my hymen or leaving it intact? I could never tell—and, in an evangelical family and community, I could also never ask.
B-6: Disgust (Hearsay/Refrain)
“No one else will ever love you. Look at you.”
“If you ever get fat, even if it’s because you’ve been pregnant, you should know that I’ll never touch you again. I won’t divorce you, because that would be wrong, but I won’t touch you or come anywhere near you.”
“I don’t know if I should let you take my last name when we’re married. I’m not sure you deserve that honor.”
“You’re lucky I wanted to marry you. No one else ever will.”
Exhibit C: Separation
Days before this incident, I told him I wanted to separate. I’d said “until death”; I’d claimed divorce went against God and everything I stood for. And yet there I stood, telling him of plans to stay with friends for the time being. Another man’s clear and sustained interest in me at work acted as a catalyst, it’s true, but I didn’t leave for him—though I would have never found the reserves within me to go if it that man hadn’t made me feel capable of changing my story.
I made a pro/con list for our relationship (outside of the logistics of the apartment and joint bank accounts and our shared Jack Russell Terrier). Things I could remember and love. Things I couldn’t take. Samples:
His enthusiastic head banging when his favorite songs came on the radio
A sweetly rhapsodic Composition 101 narrative essay he wrote about meeting me, as naïve and overwrought as any love-stricken freshman essay ever was
The stuffed Huckleberry Hound he’d bought me once on a whim
His utter dismissal of the people who hurled terms like “white trash” at us
His appreciation of my inventive cooking, a creativity born of poverty, and the pride he took in telling friends and family what I could do with so little, sometimes inviting them for dinner just to see what could happen on a shoestring
His joy and satisfaction in dismantling a car engine to diagnose and correct the problem
The afternoon in Barnes & Noble when he said he looked forward to seeing my book on display there one day
The terror in the dog’s’ eyes as he dangled him from his choke collar until he almost passed out—or did
The CD, his favorite at the time, that he crushed in one hand because I’d angered him by laughing with my sister—laughter not directed at him, but which angered him nevertheless, and which meant I was to blame that he could no longer play this particular album of contrived, popular alternative rock he so loved
The screaming when the counters weren’t cleaned fast enough or well enough, or when the vacuum missed a bit of lint, or when dinner wasn’t ready soon enough
The strict color order in which he arranged my clothes and forced me to maintain them in the closet
The way he stood in front of me, holding one hand over the mouthpiece of the cordless phone extension so that no one could hear his breathing as I spoke to them on calls—how he stood close, looking me in the eye, the finger of his free hand over his lips, for all but the most perfunctory of conversations
The day he threw my apartment key at my head because he was angry he’d let his own car run out of gas
The dog’s whimpers as he kicked him
The times he’d punched the walls instead of me, intentionally missed slapping my face by fractions of inches, and shattered the phone on the kitchen floor to make his points
The breath that left my body at every thunderbolt mood shift, even after all those years—the way I never knew when the moment would sour, for me or anyone else, animal or human, and the panic that had taken up residence in my bones
Exhibit D: Whispers
At some point during the incident, I murmured either “no,” or “don’t,” but I’m still unsure which word. I don’t think he heard me, but I can’t be certain.
An argument in favor of him not hearing me is that he didn’t stop.
An argument in favor of him hearing me is that, at least as I knew him then, he wouldn’t have stopped if he had.
Exhibit E: Rapability
E-1: Rape Jokes
In middle and high school, groups of boys sometimes told me that rape jokes shouldn’t unsettle me because I never had to fear sexual assault: “Don’t worry. You’re too ugly to rape.”
I am “friends” with some of these men now as adults on social media. Their interactions with me do not indicate that they believe me ugly any longer, but I’m not sure where the benchmark sits for rape, or if I ever arrived. The fact that I’ve never been raped leads me to believe this remains true.
E-2: Break Ups
My husband, back before he became my husband, had told me that if I were ever raped, he would still be my friend and would help comfort me, but that he would have to break up with me, and he hoped I understood. I did.
After the incident, he indicated that he wanted me to stay more than ever. Ergo, no rape occurred.
Exhibit F: Lies
I have lied to you from the instant you started reading this essay. Before that, even: my name is not B. Tyler Lee. Neither of the two full names listed here were among my names at the time.
This didn’t happen 16 years ago. Perhaps it occurred 19 years ago, perhaps 14, but I won’t confirm here.
August isn’t my birth month; I was born in another season entirely.
I don’t know if it happened five days after my birthday because I only recall that it was within a few days after—perhaps two, but no more than six. This I do know.
The grocery store wasn’t a Kroger, but if I revealed the name of the store, it would narrow the region.
We were not 19 and 20 when we married. We were 18 and 20, both 21, 20 and 21, both 20, or 19 and 21. It doesn’t matter. We were young.
My birthday prior to this incident was not my 24th. Would it make it seem better if I were older? That seems somehow more palatable—the older the woman, the better equipped she is to handle it. Except I wasn’t. I was younger, but I don’t want to say how much.
I cannot be trusted.
Exhibit G: Failure
I, too, did a terrible thing. I left the dog with him.
Though I adored the dog, I couldn’t find a way to circumvent his demand to keep him. At this long remove, I know that I could have built a legal case based on animal abuse, but all I knew then was fear and that I couldn’t conceive of how to say no to him. I couldn’t wrestle the dog from his arms, but I could carry my body and two suitcases full of clothes and trinkets and leave. I took a single carload of items and saved myself.
Months later, his own father punched him in the stomach for kicking the dog, and that has given me hope for both of them, dog and ex-husband, all these years.
In the fall of 2017, I started sharing this experience with a few close friends and family members; the #metoo umbrella made me feel that the story could be told. It gave me and millions of others the space to be heard without having to use prosecutable language. I’ve struggled with sharing it openly because there’s no one breaking point—no single item that I can point to and say is THE thing, nothing bad enough to warrant being a “real” victim. And, though I don’t want to be a victim, having a story that sits in the territory of Not Quite Bad Enough to Matter also served to render my voice irrelevant.
But then #metoo made it okay to share, and websites and networks that defined domestic violence and abuse gave me the phrasing to discuss it. And for a few months in the fall and winter of 2017-2018, I used the term I’d not dared use before: I said rape to five different people. They listened and didn’t contradict me. An invisible web of governing bodies and internet strangers had offered me a framework to gauge what shouldn’t happen—and suddenly, I felt secure in my deployment of words like cruelty and assault. Like coercion.
But then, early in 2019, the current presidential administration and the Department of Justice contracted those frameworks and definitions, stealing the language once more.
With that in mind, here are my final statements:
Statement 1: DoJ 2020
Some years ago, my husband at the time told me to undress and lie down, and I did so. We had uncomfortable sex. I moved out two days later, and we divorced the following year. Though I wish that final encounter had not occurred, I gave nonverbal consent. Despite my claims to the contrary between October 2017 and February 2018, this incident in no way qualifies as rape.
Statement 2: In Perpetuity
Somewhere between one and two decades ago, when I was no older than 24 and 6 days, a man I had once loved and had sworn to obey ordered me to have sex with him. He had terrorized and controlled me for years. He tracked my movements and time and listened to my phone calls. He isolated me from friends and family. He reigned over our household with insults, shouting, physical threats, and financial constraints. He strangled our dog, sometimes until he passed out, and reminded me that he could do the same to me. I wanted to leave and told him so two days before the incident. He came back to me the next morning, gazed adoringly into my eyes, and delivered his response: “I’ve considered it, and I think we’re ready to start a family.” I asked if he’d listened to me at all. He said he had. And he very clearly had.
Consumed by fear, I couldn’t refuse him. I tried to push him off me. I whispered “no” or “don’t,” but I’m uncertain which it was and whether he heard me. Naked and frozen to the mattress, I waited until he finished. He’d made me stop taking birth control months before and had always wanted to use at least two forms of contraception prior to that night. I reminded him of this and said I didn’t want to have a child yet, and he said he knew.
He was trying to get me pregnant. He was trying to keep me.
Later, he would return with other, more subtle plots to make me come back to him: guilt trips about vows and cars, the dog and money. Over him losing my support as the primary breadwinner. But this served as his opening gambit: entrapment through attempted conception.
Given that I refused consent to the extent available to me in my state of fear at the time, and given his clear intention to impregnate me against my will, it feels like rape—that hard-edged, four-letter word—could apply, yet I know it doesn’t.
But sometimes, when I wake in the morning and turn to see my left wrist against my mattress too close to my face and my heart bangs against my ribs as if it’s trying to escape, I long for a word to cling to once more.
For between ten and twenty years, I have kept in my story, and I’m still not sure why I’m sharing it now. Because the trouble with language—especially the language of crime and violence, the language of the barbarism that one human being can commit against another—is that if you don’t have a word for the bad thing that happened, no one ever needs to know. No phrase in our common lexicon describes the precise event that happened to me, at least as most laypeople see it.
Somewhere between the low bar for love (biweekly pizza and stuffed cartoon characters) and the high bar for prosecutable abuse (what’s enough—black eyes? anal abrasions? cigarette burns down the spine?), there must exist a way to discuss degradation and toxicity, the levels of unhealthy behavior we endure because no one can be arraigned for it.
But as it stands, if we’ve not been offered a lurid enough word or a pristine enough description—if the semen doesn’t belong to a stranger, the screaming in the dark didn’t come from a child, the woman in question never lied or stole or donned a g-string—then the story never warrants telling.