The first time I listened to the song Truth Hurts by Lizzo, I knew I was a bad bitch. I’d grown up listening to countless pop anthems preaching the Power of Woman: Hollaback Girl by Gwen Stefani, Bust Your Windows by Jazmine Sullivan, nearly every Beyonce song. They taught me to stand up for myself against toxic masculinity, and it had the intended effect: no matter what anybody else said, I was proud to be a powerful woman.
Though I felt like a superhero, the society I was raised in left little room for me to test my powers. The walls in my house were paper thin and my parents weren’t very receptive to the prospect of me having male friends. Anytime I went out past 21h00, I was obligated to send messages every thirty minutes letting them know where I was, who I was with, and what I was doing. So, I was a sheltered superhero. My powers worked in close proximity and that was good enough for me -- until I got to university, that is.
Being alone for the first time in my life meant two things: one, I was incredibly lonely, and two, I had every ability to ease my loneliness through the company of friends, whether they be girls or boys. My single apartment became a nesting ground for unparalleled memories, jokes that could never be understood outside of my four walls and stories that spilled over like waterfalls.
Independence was like a drug, and it wasn’t long before I started to test my limits. I kept alcohol in the fridge, stayed out until 04h00, and, god forbid, did not make my bed every morning. And then, as I reached the peak of my ballsy-ness, I decided to do the unthinkable: invite a guy into my home.
The first time I did this, nothing remarkable happened. I made food, we ate, we talked about our hometowns, and then he left. The second time I invited a guy over, it was a similar situation, except that this time the conversation revolved more around common interests than anything else. Therefore, when the third time rolled around, I didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary. Sure, this guy and I had been flirting a little bit, and sure, I knew that in some cultures, alone time together does qualify as a date. But for me, it was an opportunity to get to know somebody better, whether it be romantic or not.
He had been dropping signs all afternoon, so when he tried to kiss me, I wasn’t necessarily surprised that he made a move as much as I was taken aback at the abruptness of it. Before anything could happen, I pulled away.
“This is a bad idea.”
But it was like he couldn’t hear me. Rather than becoming discouraged from my lack of interest, he took it as a sign to try harder, trapping me on my bed and kissing me again. It was through a burst of luck that I managed to pull away and make a joke if only to hide how absolutely shaken I was. Still, he persisted. It took a few tries before I was finally able to push him away, saying with as much assertiveness as I could possibly muster up, “I don’t want this.”
And he stopped. He sat down. And he looked pissed.
I wish I could say that I kicked him out at that moment. I wish I could say that I immediately told my friends about his aggressiveness, warning them off of him in case he tried to make a move on them too. Hell, I even wish I could say that I posted a shady message about him on the Le Havre Confessions and Compliments Facebook page. I wish I could say anything other than what really happened. I stared at him for a few seconds, assessed his anger, and then begged, “I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.”
It’s hard to explain why I said this. In those few seconds, a trillion thoughts ran through my mind at the same time: What if it’s a cultural difference? What if I’m overexaggerating? What will he tell his friends? Will he tell them I’m a prude? Will he tell them I put out? What if I gave the wrong signs? What if it was my fault?
He told me that it was hard not to be mad, considering the situation that I put him in. He demanded that I explain myself. He wanted to know why I wouldn’t hook up with him.
I should have told him that no means no, regardless of why it is being said, and that I didn’t owe him any explanation. That’s what Lizzo would do. That’s what Beyonce would do.
Instead, I made up a lie. I justified my not wanting to get with him for no reason other than I didn’t want to bruise his ego, for fear that he would spread rumors like wildfire when I wasn’t looking. Every word out of my mouth knocked me down a step further until I was standing at the bottom of a mountain that I had worked all my life to climb. My superpowers were gone, and I was helpless at the hands of toxic masculinity.
I keep telling myself that he’s not a bad guy. My friends tell me the same thing, but I can’t seem to separate him from his birdcage hands. I knew then as I know even now the power of his word. He could tell anybody anything, and they would believe him because he was witness to the situation and I was too ashamed of my weakness to say anything about it to anybody other than my closest friends. I tried to remind myself of the cheesy poster that hung in the hallway of my old school: that if I lived my life in a way that was good and honest, then nobody would believe any negative rumors about me. But I didn’t feel good about what happened, nor did it feel like an honest representation of who I always thought I was.
Empowering songs couldn’t stand a chance against how I was influenced by the way the community around me painted women: ten of my words held less worth than one of his, and no matter what, he would be able to fill the room while I would shrink out of it.
Even now, as I write this, I wonder what you will think: She’s clearly exaggerating what happened. This isn’t even a big deal. It’s hookup culture, she needs to get with the times.
I know that this doesn’t qualify as sexual harassment. I know that there are women in this world who are ten times more powerful than I can even imagine who have gone through a hundred times worse and lived through it. I know all of this, and yet I can’t help the slight twinge of discomfort I feel every time I see him. I can’t help but intentionally hold eye contact, just to try to prove to him after the fact that I am a powerful woman, and that if it happened again I would not crumble the way I did that day. I can’t help but stay friendly, because if I start to act differently then maybe his friends will begin to believe whatever lies he may or may not have told them. There’s a lot I would like to do, and yet I can’t help but not do it.
I grew up listening to songs that taught me the Power of Woman, but I also grew up in a society that taught me to hold my reputation near and dear, because you never know what other people will say. There’s a certain fear of societal rejection that keeps pulsing through my heart every time I hear his name, because I don’t know how people will react to a story like this. A girl who was way out of her element thought she could destroy the patriarchy by dismantling the throne of superiority it sits on, and was then proven wrong. It’s not uncommon, but it is unfortunate.
There’s no easy way to end this. Though it’s painful for me to admit, I will probably continue to smile at him and make light of the situation I was placed in. I will probably continue telling myself that nothing serious happened, and that there is nothing for me to feel uncomfortable about. But I will say this: we learn in life only through experience. Our hearts grow stronger only through pain, and our skin gets tougher only through burns. It doesn’t make the process any easier, and it doesn’t always work. I don’t know how I will react next time I’m put in that situation. Maybe I won’t have even the strength it takes to push an aggressive guy away. But I hope I do.