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They Didn't Care That I Was Raped, They Cared That I Was Queer

When I told him what my girlfriend did, he asked a shocking question: “Wait. You’re 'gay'?”

Please note: This essay contains detailed descriptions of sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers.

I went to work the day after I was raped. My hair was still matted, but I’d managed to change out of my pajamas. I told my co-workers that I was sick.

It certainly felt true. Everything had gone sick—heavy and metallic. The left-behind spaces inside me felt lonely and rotten and curdled, like I imagined the leaves of household plants felt after you touched them with your unbidden fingers. Cafeteria food seemed sickly sweet. Nothing was real anymore—not even me.

Feeling manic, I cornered the one co-worker I trusted. He’d confided in me once or twice. I told him what happened in an overspill of words. I explained how she’d pinned me over the couch, shoved down my absurd pink pajamas, how she’d hurt me over and over again. How I’d screamed no, but it was like I’d said nothing at all.

He was quiet at first, though he had the decency to look appropriately horrified. When he finally spoke, his question startled me.

“Wait. You’re gay?”

Getty

I wasn’t, actually. My girlfriend—my eventual assaulter—had bragged about turning me, but believed I was still “into men.” She was right, I was, but it was hard to convince her that I was far from straight. My bisexuality wasn’t murky or uncertain to me, but it left her shaken.

At the local hole-in-the-wall lesbian bar, where I’d taken to drinking a bottle of water in between each beer to keep up with her, she’d been convinced I was staring at a masculine stranger. I remembered peering at the person's hat to make out the words on it, which she took as flirting. In the car, she said to me, “I know what you were thinking when you looked at that dude.” When I told her she was wrong, she stepped hard on the gas. Back at my apartment, the altercation turned physical.

The aftermath of sexual assault is foggier and less linear than we’d like it to be. I left her, more reluctantly than I’d like to admit, but that didn’t stop the nightmares that left me gasping for breath. Stretching out my shaking hands in the dark of recent trauma, I attempted to grasp hold of something, to follow the scripts I’d learned—tell someone, go to therapy, call a domestic violence shelter—only to find that they didn’t apply to me, as the survivor of rape by my girlfriend.

Strange, I thought: The assault had happened because my partner knew that I still liked men, yet I couldn’t get help because it was a woman who’d assaulted me.

The therapist I found, like my co-worker, was more interested in my sexuality than the sexual violence itself. “So, do you think you started dating women because of an abusive history with men?” she asked, scribbling furiously. “Did men mistreat you when you were young?”

I called one domestic violence shelter whose representative was empathetic but nervous. “Frankly,” she said, “I don’t know what to tell you.” Their services were for women assaulted by men. Perceived as “confused” because of my bisexuality, I felt indecipherable to those who were, I thought, meant to be helping me sort out the mess.

I realized, as I was narrating, that they did not believe I was a credible narrator. Eventually, I stopped telling the story altogether. There’s no use, I figured, in narrating a story that nobody believes.

Zach Guinta/Unsplash

The systems in place—linguistic, institutional, political—that provide the framework for how we talk about and wrestle with sexual violence may have viewed my situation as unique or out of the ordinary, but sexual violence against bisexual people is all too common.

Bisexual and queer women are sexually assaulted many times more than heterosexual women and lesbian women, leading in turn to higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 74.9% of bisexual women—in comparison to 46.4% of lesbians and 43.3% of heterosexual women—report having experienced sexual assault other than rape over the course of their lifetimes. This disparity also holds true for bisexual men, who experience sexual violence at higher rates than both gay and heterosexual men. About half of bisexual women have been raped, and also experience higher rates of all forms of intimate partner violence. (It's worth noting that these reports don't disclose the gender or sexual orientation of the assaliants.)

In the Journal of Bisexuality, Nicole Johnson, Ph.D., and MaryBeth Grove give a few possible reasons as to why bisexual women are so much likelier to experience sexual assault, rape, and other forms of intimate partner violence. Most notably, they argue that both bi-erasure and hypersexualization contribute to the higher rates of victimization. When bisexual women are consistently presented as liars, unstable, or dehumanized sex objects, they claim, they are in turn possibly more vulnerable to abuse.

As a bisexual woman then in a relationship with another woman, I experienced much of the familiar stigma associated with sexual fluidity. What Johnson and Grove call “bisexual harassment” can come from all sides at once. To the dominant heterosexual community, I was “just experimenting” or aiming for attention. To some lesbian-identified individuals like my then-partner, I was a threat—untrustworthy and potentially unfaithful at every turn. Some cis men, meanwhile, thought I might be a sexual novelty, privy to mental instability and hypersexual flings that were all for their own benefit.

In the cultural imagination and media stereotypes, bisexual men, women, and non-binary individuals are often erased or represented as “lost.” I’ve rarely felt confused about my sexuality, but after I was raped, I did indeed feel lost. Who could I run to, and where was my safety net?

Ultimately, in the wake of trauma, what most of us are looking for is a home or shelter, even if temporary: the crook of an arm, the compassionate care of a clinician, or the warmth of supportive community. For certain populations under the LGBTQ umbrella, that metaphorical shelter is harder to find.

I’m still looking.

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