When Yes Doesn’t Mean Yes
Melissa Febos's "Girlhood" and Miranda July's "Kajilionaire" give us language for when binary consent falls short
This is how the story goes: Jake and I were having a playdate. We were at his house. I have no memory of where his parents were. My parents were at work, miles away in the city. Jake and I were young enough to both unabashedly adore Barney and I hadn’t yet been taught what could happen when girls and boys played alone together. My legs were scrawny and my cheeks were chubby. Jake was much, much taller than me. At some point, Jake led me into a bedroom—the bedroom belonging to his parents—and locked the door. Then he grabbed my tiny shoulders and forced a kiss on my mouth.
My parents like to tell this story because it never fails to entertain at a dinner party. People laugh and sometimes blush and almost always raise a glass to what they call: ‘Jake’s gumption’.
After all, we were children.
I recently watched Miranda July’s Kajillionaire. The film ends with what I interpret as the protagonist’s first consensual kiss. That kiss feels transformative because it’s the first time this emotionally stunted twenty-six year-old allows herself pleasure. It’s the first time she acknowledges her sexuality without feeling like it’s wrong.
Days later, the intensity of my feelings hadn’t waned. I felt confident that the protagonist, Old Dolio was the victim of sexual abuse. My certainty was guttural. There was something in the way she held herself that was familiar. Watching her felt like looking into a mirror.
Kajillionaire explicitly depicts the psychological abuse Old Dolio experiences, but the presence of sexual abuse is left up to the audience. Early in the film, Old Dolio attempts to return a one-hour massage certificate for cash and instead reluctantly accepts a twenty-minute massage. Before the masseuse’s hands even make contact with her baggy top, Old Dolio’s whole body flinches, recoiling at the prospect of touch. The masseuse makes the tiniest impact and Old Dolio yells out that it’s too much. The scene ends with the masseuse holding her hands above Old Dolio’s back, keeping them there, suspended in the air, giving Old Dolio the only amount of intimacy she can bear.
I flinched the first time I let someone kiss me. He was thirteen and his eyes were the color of ice. I said yes. And yet I was terrified. My body was already programmed to anticipate violence. My mother says that as a baby I couldn’t be soothed. That I cried and cried and cried and nothing she did could end my sobbing. She went back to work soon after my birth and shortly after that, was diagnosed with breast cancer. In every photograph we have from that time, she and I cling to each other. On some visceral level, we understood how little control we had—that safety is imaginary. When you’re deprived of comfort, your body accommodates. Old Dolio’s shoulders slouch throughout Kajillionaire. Her hair hangs almost over her face. She’s trying to make herself disappear. She’s trying to protect herself.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve hunched. Sometimes I tell myself it’s because I want to make myself smaller, other times I acknowledge what feels truer: there is safety in invisibility.
When Melissa Febos’ latest essay collection, Girlhood, showed up in my mailbox, I hid the book under my couch cushion for a week. It was too hot for my skin. I’d read her second book, Abandon Me, the year I blew up my life, the year I left a six year relationship that was headed toward marriage so I could travel around the country. That book forced me to acknowledge that I was horribly unhappy. The prospect of Girlhood dislodging another piece of my certainty terrified me.
Since the #MeToo movement began, I’ve licked my wounds quietly, unsure of how to engage with the cloudy intrusions that haunt my body. I didn’t have the language to name what happened to me. I didn’t know whether my experiences counted for anything. What I did know was that every time I entered a new space, I sought the exit; anytime I got stuck on a crowded subway car, I panicked; most nights, if I fell asleep, I’d wake from nightmares shaking; even with partners I trusted, a surprise touch unraveled me.
When I finally read Girlhood, I learned I was right to be worried. Febos holds a mirror up to the violence of being twelve years old and having “a body like those women in the magazines.” She recounts the many men who were compelled by her because of what they wanted to take from her. “Eventually, I understood the strength that was no strength, that was a punishment no matter what I did or did not do. So I let my friend’s older brother close the closet door. I let the persistent older boy dig under my clothes and between my legs. My once-strong body became a passive thing, tossed and splintered, its corners rounded from use. Unrecognizable.”
I became preoccupied by Febos’ use of the word let: to cause, to give an opportunity to, to permit to enter. To me, that usage meant she was confronting her responsibility, that she was acknowledging the role she played in allowing these intrusions to happen to her body. No one forced themselves upon her.
The first person I invited to touch me took advantage of me. The irony is not lost on me. The first person I said yes to took my yes to mean permission for anything and everything he wanted. This is common. Over 1 in 3 cis-women and 1in 4 cis-men will experience sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Those statistics don’t account for people who are transgender, a community who experiences intimate partner violence 2.5 times more frequently.
The boy I let harm me is the first boy to tell me he loved me. Our relationship began in a park that faced onto a busy street. He set the time of our meetings. One day, I arrived late. In his fury, he took hold of my wrist, snaking his knuckles around my veins. I’d made him look stupid, he said. I apologized until I ran out of ways to say sorry; without a word, he let go of me. We didn’t speak for a week. The silence was agony, but I took his anger to mean care. A pattern developed: I’d show up early and wait in that park for hours, sitting on a bench with my back to the entrance. Either he would appear or he wouldn’t. When he did, he’d approach from behind and put his hands in front of my eyes. I found this romantic: The uncertainty, the intensity of newness; I was sick with anticipation. Now I understand this to be the cycle of abuse. He controlled our meetings. He controlled how I spent my time when I wasn’t with him. Later, in his bedroom, with all the shades down, he controlled what I did to him.
He’d start by turning up the volume on the television. In my memory, COPS was always playing. I can still hear the shrill sound of the sirens, the static of the police radios, the particular panic of someone being chased. Then he’d summon me to his mattress. It was a twin bed with camouflage sheets. His father was a veteran with a drinking problem who had taught him to value strength. I don’t remember the first time the boy instructed me to go down on him. I only remember the way it felt when he yanked my hair, the imprints his nails left in a horseshoe around my neck. It was easier to do what he asked. I wanted to make him happy.
I turned my body into a vending machine. He paid with promises of love and then selected what he wanted from me.
“Not speaking of a subject can turn it into a secret. Secrets, if initially a source of power to their keepers, often transmute into a source of shame over time. If you act as though a happening is unspeakable, then you begin to think of it as such.” That boy and I were barely fourteen when he knelt on the ground in the park and proposed to me with a Ring Pop. I pretended not to notice that his bright eyes had become bloodshot—that his skin stank of alcohol. The promise of a love that would not abandon me compelled me to disregard the pain and truth of what was happening. I slid the enormous red sucking candy onto my finger and promptly lost myself completely.
At twelve years old, Febos is invited into a bathroom by a group of older boys and subsequently asked to choose one of them. She chooses strategically. Instead of picking the one she has a crush on, within whom she recognizes the mark of violence, she picks a boy with a girlfriend, hoping that his relationship will serve as protection. Predictably, it doesn’t. He takes exactly what he wants from her—well, almost; she artfully negotiates him down to a hand job. Afterward, she reflects: “I felt deeply embarrassed, not only for myself and what I’d consented to but also somehow for him, because I knew he’d done wrong.”
Sexual negotiation ripples throughout Girlhood and is dissected most explicitly in “Thank You For Taking Care of Yourself” an essay that encompasses almost half the book. It centers around Febos attending a Cuddle Party: a social event designed to allow touch-deprived adults to engage in safe, nonsexual physical contact. Before the party begins, the organizer walks the attendees through a strict set of rules, the most important being: “You must ask permission and receive a verbal YES before you touch anyone.” If a person says “No”, the requester is instructed to respond, “Thank you for taking care of yourself.”
Regardless of this clearly defined framework, once the party begins, when Febos is approached by a man she has no interest in cuddling with, she immediately consents. “I did not hesitate to assess if I really wanted to [cuddle] with him. I had no lucid thoughts about it at all. I simply agreed, and we settled on the chenille-blanketed floor…. I did not think: I do not want this man’s body curled around me. My uneasiness did not occur as a thought at all. It was more like a shift in temperature, a change in the light, a texture inside me that roughened.”
As Febos described the unwanted caresses of this strange man, my entire body tensed. I pulled a blanket up to my chin and cradled my legs against my chest. The moment she said yes, but really meant no, I heard myself saying yes—or, not saying yes, but walking to that boy’s bed when he told me to, slipping underneath his camouflage sheets, unzipping his jeans, opening my mouth, not feeling anything but the dull threat of what might happen if I stopped—what he would do to me, or what I would have to acknowledge about myself.
Febos refers to this as empty consent and understands the imperatives that encourage it as, “the need to protect our bodies from the violent retaliation of men and the need to protect the same men from the consequences of their own behavior, usually by assuming personal responsibility. It is our shame, our embarrassment, our duty alone to bear it.” I’ve never named the boy who abused me. I took responsibility for what happened between us. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I began to redefine our relationship. I was silent for so long because of my shame. I never told him no. I let myself turn into an object, a source of pleasure that could be poked and prodded until it emptied of value because I believed he loved me. I failed to see that love for what it was, undercutting the possibility of my safety.
I made the calculation that sharing my hurt wasn’t worth the potential of his destruction. Along with other violence, he threatened suicide when I initially left him. In school he was belligerent, high on pain pills, intoxicated from his father’s whiskey— a father who was likely emotionally and physically abusing him. When the boy started a drunken fight in the gymnasium, I was terrified of what his father might do if he got suspended. I pushed the boy outside and wrestled him onto the grass with the help of our school’s soccer coach.
Afterward, no one asked me if I was alright. I don’t blame them. I never let on that I was breaking.
A part of me still cares for that boy, cares for the broken pieces I know he’s made of. I recognize his fault lines. But if he harms another person, I have to live with my complicity. I google him every few years, mainly to make sure he hasn’t overdosed. His drug abuse is the reason I finally found the courage to leave him—not because of the harm he was doing to me—I left because I couldn’t bear to watch him destroy himself. Last year, when I typed his name into the search bar, I discovered that he saved a toddler from drowning while working as a lifeguard. He trained for his lifeguard certification in the pool at my childhood house.
The primary reason I’ve had trouble talking about what happened to me is because my experience doesn’t fit any description. I know I wasn’t raped. If I brought my allegations to a court, the court would say that I’d consented.
Now, I’ve come to understand that my consent was empty. Febos describes empty consent as “the legacy of centuries of abuse and oppression,” meaning that unlike what we’re taught in sex-ed, saying no does not ensure our safety. On the contrary, saying no invites the possibility of cruelty. Women have been conditioned to appease men, to accommodate their preferences, to use our bodies to provide them service: to cook, to clean, to fuck, to birth their children, to care for those children, to be silent, to make their lives easier by placing ourselves in a secondary role and conforming to their desires.
After reading Girlhood, I finally asked myself: When we were children bonding over a purple dinosaur, why did Jake lock his parent’s bedroom door? Did he anticipate that when he approached my small body, I might say no? Did he consider that his mother might find us—that she might open the door before he could get what he came for? When did he begin seeing me as an object, as something he could possess, as something he could control?
Jake and I wound up at different elementary schools. It was only after puberty that I saw him again, still much, much taller than me, in the halls of our high school. By then, I was already beholden to the boy with the Ring Pop. I once asked Jake if he remembered what happened between us and he looked at me with innocent eyes and said no.
I believe him.
In the writing class I teach, I give my students the option of submitting work I won’t read if they don’t feel ready to share it. I’ve never quite known how to respond to students when they choose this option. I usually write an email telling them that I respect their choice and that I’ll honor their privacy, but it’s never felt like enough. Now, I’ve finally found words that will mean something.
Thank you for taking care of yourself.
In Kajillionaire, Old Dolio is played masterfully by Evan Rachel Wood. She embodies what it means to hold trauma inside you. She’s always stiff with tension, hunching her shoulders and covering her face with her hair. Her voice is emotionally level, evoking a numbness that’s meant to mask her pain. She tries to present herself as unfeeling, but the moment she encounters someone who treats her with kindness, the rawness of her hurt unravels. Watching her on-screen, I felt a piercing awareness deep inside my body. When you’ve been mistreated, sometimes the smallest compassion can undo you.
After the boy with the Ring Pop, I built a wall around myself. Intimacy became an impossibility. When someone I cared for tried to kiss me, I jerked backward. The prospect of being touched, even tenderly, awoke my raw nerve endings. What looks like affection can quickly escalate to violence—I had learned this lesson. So, I closed my body off, depriving myself of pleasure in the name of protection.
It’s likely that the intense connection I felt for Evan Rachel Wood’s Old Dolio was magnified by the knowledge that offscreen, Wood had recently come forward with her own experiences of horrific emotional, physical, and sexual abuse from an intimate partner. I’d read every line of her testimony and I understood, in some small way, what it meant for her to speak against her abuser, a man in an enormous position of power.
About the experience, Wood has said “I used to think being strong was not being affected.” For years, I held the same definition. I thought by not acknowledging the countless afternoons I spent letting that boy claw his fingers into me, that they would lose meaning, that their hold on me would weaken. But they didn’t. My resistance was twofold. I wanted to be powerful enough not to let the intrusions disarm me. I was also acutely aware that what happened to me was not that bad, as coined in Roxane Gay’s anthology of the same name. My abuse had an amorphous shape. Yet the toll it took on me, physically and mentally, followed the same path of trauma that so many survivors of violence walk. I’m finally beginning to claim my experience. To name it. But this is only a start.
As Kajillionaire played, projected against a blank wall in my apartment, I watched Old Dolio’s stilted movements and felt Evan Rachel Wood’s movements, and also my own, tip-toeing through a world that has taken so much from us. For the first time in a long time, I let myself sit inside the pain. I didn’t turn away from it. At the end of the film, I felt the heaviness of the hurt temporarily lift when I watched that body—what had become our shared body—find its first true source of comfort.