The Harpy

How to Live in a Female Body

‘I have chosen to fight, to raise a big and hideous and ungovernable howl for the girl I was and the girls who have yet to be’

by

There’s a moment in every woman’s life when she discovers her body isn’t her own.

At the first uninvited touch, the first catcall, the first time the word “no” is said but not heard, she realizes it was never hers. Or not entirely — not like she thought it was, elbows and knees and thighs moving under her power, the whole many-celled complex of flesh subject solely to her will. To some it will always be property, to be moved and manipulated, admired or denigrated, for their own fleeting pleasure or gain. To move in a female body is to carry yourself through the world as a flicker of will in a machine others consider a tool for public use.

I was fourteen the first time I let something happen to my body. I hovered just inside myself, in the space where I knew what was happening to me had little to do with what I wanted, or what would give me pleasure. I lay back feeling the minutes pass with unsultry slowness, letting the whole thing commence with little involvement. All I wanted was to keep the peace and keep what I thought, back then, was love. The assignations continued for months. He was older; technically, it was illegal; practically, I channeled the dual forces of self-loathing and love, so potent in me then, into the process of making myself disappear for twenty minutes at a time, and letting my body remain on the bed.

I was too young even to be angry at him.

I displaced my anger at him, transferred it to anger at the strict religion I grew up within that quite literally prohibited women’s voices from being heard and from leading prayer; that partitioned us off in holy spaces, that told us our bodies were unclean. I ate on fast days and hid in the bathroom during morning prayers at school. I turned my anger at him into anger at myself. I burned myself with matches. I learned how much pressure one must apply to cut oneself with a safety razor: Breaking the skin is easy; making a thick scar is much harder. The physical piercing of my skin made the wave of pain I felt crest and break; physically anchored somewhere in the world, it could no longer flood my mind.

The official doctrine of Orthodox Judaism prohibits all contact between members of the opposite sex outside of the covenant of marriage, even a brush of the hand or a tap on the shoulder, because women exist in a perpetual state of menstrual impurity.

In practice, of course, animal urges dart through the thickets of desire; hands touch hands and more than hands. But throughout those early encounters I grew used to what would define so much of my contact with men in the subsequent fourteen years. My body was a vehicle for the fulfillment of male desires. The ghost of my will flickered in the machine, tapped out for whole incidents, returned. Each time there was a little less of me when I came back to my body. To those I wanted to love so much, my breasts and my thighs were more welcome than I would ever be.

I didn’t know to expect any better.

I still wanted to be touched and to be adored, wanted sexual fulfillment, even if I wouldn’t have phrased it that way back then. That thirst returned me again and again to the brackish, putrid pool of bad love.

But it’s one thing to yield to an advance in the name of peace — to go along out of appeasement or even curiosity, or the hope that what happens will give you pleasure, even if it doesn’t. It is another thing entirely to say “No,” and say it loudly, and have it ignored. It removes all plausible deniability, and exposes the bad bargain for what it is.

I don’t remember all the details of the night that first happened to me; it happened to me precisely because I was in a state not to remember all the details. All he wanted, said my classmate who was mostly a stranger, was a kiss. He pulled me onto his lap and I wriggled away, as I stumbled out of my dorm room and he followed, as I took the back stairs and he pinned me against the wall of the staircase, as I turned my head away so forcefully my neck hurt the next day, as I pursed my lips so hard they swelled. The world wheeled drunkenly around me but I knew I had felt the word “no” in my throat; my vocal cords had vibrated, my tongue made the appropriate motions, my mouth opened, the word arced toward him in the air, and it didn’t matter. It is one thing to be thrust against as you lie there so indifferently you try imagine yourself into bodilessness. It is another thing to have your voice taken from you — to have your dominion over your body challenged. I extricated myself from him like a splinter taken from an eye: painfully, painfully.

The man who raped me, years later, had been my lover for months. He was not a stranger. He had doled out pleasure in miserly fashion and I had taken what I could. But I was drunk — not catastrophically; I could walk; I felt safe enough to have gotten drunk, to be a little dazed, a little dreamy — and I realized too late that he had entered me without a condom, the condom I took from my purse and gave to him and asked him to wear; I had agreed to sex but not this sex, not unsafe sex, I had agreed to sex with a man who had made me feel safe and then had waited until I was weak enough to violate. He tried to placate me but I couldn’t be consoled, not by him, at any rate. I went to his roof and cried until the windows of Manhattan were too blurry to see on the horizon, and melded together into a wobbly blush of light. For a decade I had vacated my body when I chose to, letting men use my limbs for their pleasure; but I had allowed it, I had chosen it, I had known what I was in for. This act of theft rendered my body not my own.

Looking back over fourteen years of involvement with men feels like flipping through a catalogue of trysts and violations. A small Rolodex of assaults, each one still searing to remember — groped by strangers on a train and in a backroom and a city park; fingers appearing where they had no permission to be, or where they had been forbidden to be; kisses taken, not given; an array of wheedling and incessant demands reluctantly acceded to and later regretted. Good and bad love are each represented there, but when I am alone at night the bad love thrums up from my memory, reminding me I am less than I was.

When I hear women talk about the frustrating ways our voices seem to disappear into a void when we speak with men — when our areas of expertise are explained to us; when our work is undermined; when our contributions are dismissed in meetings, our credentials doubted, the very tones of our voices subject to criticism — I think of how much these complaints overlap with the ways our control of our own bodies is denied us. I wonder how many women have said “no” and had it deliberately go unheard, like so many other words we speak. When I talk about what I know — about the history of the Hebrew language, or Russian literature, or the strange depths of the Internet — sometimes I think of asserting control over my body and having it denied me, and wonder if I should speak at all.

The laws of this country so often dictate what happens to women’s bodies. The noose around our freedom to control our wombs is tightening, with the prospect of the nation’s highest court dictating from above that we are vessels for the growth of men’s seed, prevented by law from reversing the processes that happen just under our skins.

The notions that we are vessels for pleasure or for procreation are intertwined, and the overarching message is identical: Your body is not your body. Your body is a means to an end; the ghost inside that is your will doesn’t matter. You can say no; you can scream it; you can shatter your larynx like glass screaming no, and there will be those who out of sheer indifference or avarice for pleasure or unhearing zealotry treat it like silence.

I am twice the age I was when I first learned how to disappear inside my body. I wish I could say I have attained some combination of wisdom and clairvoyance that would allow me to foresee who may be a caring lover, and who will treat the word “no” as an inconvenience or as nothing at all. All I have gained is rage: rage that I can feel blazing in every limb, rage at a world that would rather I be a voiceless sac for fetal growth, a mindless conduit for the pleasure of others. I have taken the mourning I feel for the larger and less frightened self I could have been and forged it into a hot little dagger, one that I would like to plunge into the fat and self-satisfied flank of a world so willing to steal my voice. There are days and weeks when I feel like crumbling into ash. But I have chosen instead to fight, to raise a big and hideous and ungovernable howl for the girl I was and the girls who have yet to be. I don’t want them to ever have to pass through the ghastly syllabus of bad-love lessons etched on my skin; I want to erase it, rewrite it, dictate a will and testament that grants every woman absolute dominion over her own four limbs and every cell in between. I want to live with pen in hand, mouth open, reclaiming my voice at a volume that can shatter stone.

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