*Enormous trigger warning.*
One of my favorite conspiracy theory sub-types is the idea that powerful figures – Hillary Clinton is a favorite in this genre – are actually strange, humanoid lizards wearing people skin suits. It’s just ludicrous enough to be hilarious, harmless, incontrovertibly false to any reasonable person.
A little over a year ago, though, I found myself engaging with the concept in a new way. I found myself wishing that somehow I had the capacity to unzip my face and pull it from the nape of my neck and over my scalp to reveal scales, teeth, flat nostrils. I added details from childhood nightmares, pictures on book jackets, horror films – row upon row of teeth serrated like steak knives; eyes with serpentine pupils; jaws dripping venom, the latter preferably some unpleasant shade of chartreuse.
Imagine, I considered, the possibility of unzipping that face to a man. Not harming him – not even touching him at all – but watching him step back in disgust, in terror, in fear. He would know on sight that he had no hope of escaping or overpowering the lizard woman. Perhaps he’d lose control over some or all of his person at the unexpected grotesquerie of it all. He might freeze, hoping that he wasn’t about to meet an untimely and entirely gruesome end. After a few eternal seconds for him, I’d zip my face together and depart untouched.
He, on the other hand, would be haunted forever. The face would appear in his nightmares. He’d imagine it following him in the dark. He would wonder if each and every one of the women he met hid the same lethal-looking maxillary teeth for as long as he lived. Every interaction alone would hold some measure of uncertainty.
He probably would take the secret to his grave too, never telling a soul.
Lizard Women aren’t real, you see, so no one would believe him.
Undoubtedly, most readers have at some point in the last few paragraphs asked themselves what the hell kind of sociopath thinks like this. A fair question.
I met the man who would ultimately spur these thoughts in my classes in grad school. He knew and was friends with people I knew, he worked in my department. He seemed a little ridiculous to me, but that wasn’t unusual. When he was pushy about my boundaries on our first two dates, both times meeting up at his apartment, this too did not seem unusual. I’d grown up Mormon, and the only Mormon man I kissed that I remember being truly respectful of boundaries – the one who didn’t so much as try things I wasn’t comfortable with, much less try them twice after being initially rebuffed – was the one I later discovered liked men.
This grad school man, the one in my department, knew I had been Mormon, and he knew I hadn’t had sex before.
I reminded him all the time. I reminded him at every interaction, clearly and unambiguously, that we were absolutely, under no circumstances, never at all, going to have sex. We had two dates where I played goalie for my own body quite a bit, but he seemed uninterested in pushing for the final score (sports metaphors are fun, aren’t they).
Our third date began with the same. I remember repeating again, early on, that I would not have sex with him, and even asking him to confirm verbally that he understood and could accept that. He did. Not half an hour later, he laid himself on me using the at least 60 pounds by which he outweighed me, and he physically initiated sex. I told him to stop. He tried again. I told him to stop. He tried again. I stopped telling him to stop.
I was entirely sober for each date and every moment.
The things I recall believing about this incident after – for months after – seem extraordinary to me now. I believed I had consented because I stopped telling him no. I believed it was normal that I bled (because virgins lol amiright). I believed that there was no point in refusing him again. I believed I would be an inexcusable liar for using the deep ugly sickness I felt regarding it to tell – well, to report to – someone what had happened to me. I believed that I would be one of those girls who ruins peoples lives out of regret.
One thing I believe then that I still believe now: this man did not at any point consider that what he was doing was wrong at all. This man, if accused of doing what I said he did, would not only deny it but be entirely baffled that I would accuse him of such a thing. This would partially because what he was doing was clearly unremarkable to him at the time, and no one remembers the unremarkable.
I told two friends who lived far away, a man and a woman. The man, with whom I would subsequently have a relationship and much later still would learn had multiple girlfriends during our relationship, asked me why I went to this apartment in the first place. I didn’t have an answer. I felt like a moron – a slut and a moron. I reminded myself again that reporting this man would harm him unfairly for what was ultimately my own breech of judgment.
I told a therapist I had in Baltimore, downplaying the man’s clear refusal to pay attention to what I asked (because I must have been egging him on for him to act this way, and I didn’t want to privilege my side of the story), and playing up the fact that I stopped saying no (because again, who could blame him for interpreting that the way he did). She told me that we should delve into the fact that my Mormon shame about sex had clearly colored the encounter, making me think of it unfairly negatively. I disagreed with her analysis, but I doubted my credibility and my self-knowledge, so I said nothing. She had the degree, and I did not.
Because he and I were in the same department, word got around quickly that we’d been involved, despite my telling no one. Most people seemed to think it was funny, with friends joking with me about how absurd he was, and how we all spend time with regrettable people. Someone asked me whether he was good in bed. I began to learn about his generally ghastly behavior, which included childish brags about picking up women more than a decade his junior and claiming that girls hit a peak of attractiveness at 18 or 19 and become less appealing every year after. I told none of my friends who lived in Baltimore.
Despite the fact that I went home for my first grad school Christmas just days after it happened, I didn’t tell my family, and I especially didn’t tell my parents. I expected that at least some of them would think that if I had not decided to stop being Mormon – if he had only been a Mormon boy, perhaps if I had had a religious instead of a personal reason to get him to stop – it never would have happened. I certainly didn’t want to answer more questions about why I’d been there, why I’d been so stupid as to believe that someone wouldn’t have sex with me when I told him not to. There are some family members that I still wouldn’t be surprised to learn would not believe me at all, perhaps believing what my therapist did from the opposite direction: I regretted my whorishness and had convinced myself it could be cast as someone else’s criminality. It wouldn’t be the first time my family members accused me of failing to take responsibility for my own choices. It wouldn’t be the first time my family members believed that my own pain was both overstated and more my fault than anyone else’s.
It was months before I even thought about the fact that he had penetrated me after I said no, and had done so more than once. I had focused so much on my lack of no’s exonerating him that I didn’t even consider that that part should be wrong under any circumstances. It began to weigh on me.
Betsy DeVos’s proposed changes to the Title IX system started filling the news. I read them all. I wrote a lengthy email in response to one such piece in the Atlantic, detailing my story in defense of the preponderance of the evidence standard in such proceedings. I cited the fact that I had no proof except my word and his. I received no response. I later edited it and sent it in response to a similar piece in Politico. I believe the response was something along the lines of “Yeah, we’re gonna pass on this one.”
I began to think about my lizard face on my walks home.
I thought of reporting it to police. I read Maryland’s sexual assault laws and found them gravely disappointing. Rape, according to Maryland state law, can only occur if a weapon is present, if the victim is too young to consent, if the victim is physically and/or mentally incapacitated, or (peculiarly) if some other crime like burglary is committed simultaneously. What happened to me was a sexual offense in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor with a year long statute of limitations and punishable by a fine of no more than $1000 and up to a year’s jail time. Maryland does not have strong rape shield laws, which protect victims from questioning regarding their sexual histories and time spent with the perpetrator after, which I had done. I didn’t see any reason to spend money I didn’t have in order to retain a lawyer and present the meager evidence I had in order to be publicly shamed and discredited.
I began to imagine the profile of my lizard teeth as I tried to fall asleep.
I wrote state legislators – more than five or ten of them – about the rape laws and in some cases, about my experience. One of them wrote back excitedly about changes from their most recent session to the state’s sexual assault laws. In 2017 they had managed to remove a requirement that victims establish that they “resisted” in order to convict a rape, and removing the statute of limitations for felony sexual assault. The requirements for rape were otherwise unchanged. My experience was a fourth degree sexual offense under the law, a misdemeanor, and its statute of limitations remained at one year.
I began to think of the way that no one would ever, ever believe a man like this man claiming to be terrorized by a woman with fangs and scales.
The Weinstein story broke, and I felt like I was being stalked by my own memories. It was everywhere and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. To be fair, I read every piece I could hover a mouse over. I learned that corroborating the evidence in allegations with only two people present is most often done by producing witnesses who were told when the story happened. I read about people proposing the use of escrows at an institutional level, where more than one victim is required to report in order to take action against an individual.
I began to enjoy the idea of frightening a man like this man in a way that would prevent his story from being shared – to cut him off from the rest of the world – forever.
I gained weight. I expect my mother would be very pleased to learn that I have an excuse for this, one that wasn’t due to a failure to remember her teachings, that men will never be attracted to me if I’m fat. I dragged myself to class and to work, and performed noticeably, inexcusably poorly in both – eventually leaving the lab I worked in when it happened because my work was so sub par. I wore only hoodies and leggings for months. I read feverishly about Title IX procedures, including every person claiming that rules outlined in the Dear Colleague letter were a disgrace to due process and obviously, incredibly harmful to those who were accused. I read about those saying that Title IX shouldn’t have a right to adjudicate such allegations at all. I read about those saying that Title IX ruined the entire lives of young men.
I mentally designed my ghoulish reptilian appearance even as I weighed the question of whether my experience and my pain was worth more than this man’s education and his life thereafter.
I called the Title IX office from some semi-secluded woods in a nearby park, my heart hammering, feeling like an enormous liar, like an opportunist, like the ugliest incarnation of a deceitful Eve, but simultaneously reminding myself that inserting your penis into someone who clearly told you not to is unequivocally wrong, and that I was hoping to save someone else from the same fate. I declined to give my name or his, but I told my story. I asked what they would choose to do next, despite having read every link on their website about process. I told them I had compiled screenshots of every message between my friends and I from the day and months after the incident – just as I had read about reporters doing in the recent allegations. They told me I could set up a time to talk to them in person, but that they wouldn’t demand it, and that even if I came in, I wouldn’t be required to give my name or his, and that my privacy would be protected. Feeling great doubt, I made the appointment.
After this phone call – less than an hour after – I reached out to this man on messenger. I asked him if he remembered my telling him not to have sex with me. He said no. I asked him if he remembered my telling him to stop. He said no. I asked him if he remembered much about that night. He said no, because it was almost a year ago. Funny how time flies, he said. It was the last word either of us exchanged in the conversation.
I ended up deciding that my suffering did not deserve institutional address, but that I wanted to attempt to protect others from him. My best solution for this was the escrow from my reading – to give them my name, his name, and the story, and to request that no action be taken unless someone else came forward to their office and reported him. After some deliberation, the Title IX office agreed. I tried to avoid thinking about the fact that my solution required that someone else be violated in order for him to see consequences.
I transferred to another campus. He’s there too. I’ve seen him four times since the incident almost two years ago, when I’ve believed I don’t deserve better. My friends still joke about how incredibly awful he is. I laugh because I don’t want to upset anyone with the ugliness of my story.
My mother wrote on Facebook this week, referring to the Kavanaugh nomination debacle, that she is “literally praying that truth and justice will prevail.” I’m fairly confident I know what she believes to be the truth about Brett Kavanaugh. Sometimes I disgust myself with the idea that I can easily imagine her posting and thinking the same thing of me in twenty years, if this man were to be considered for a position of enormous power and I attempted to tell gatekeepers what I know about his character now.
I don’t know what happened to Dr. Ford, but I know what happened to me.
The most interesting thing about the lizard analogy, and the reason it’s ultimately unsatisfying, is the manner in which it is incomplete. Of course, no one would believe a man who told of a lady who spat acerbic-smelling venom. But that man still wouldn’t have gone his entire life being told that being confronted by a squamate tongue in the head of a perfectly ordinary-looking woman was so obviously what happens to men that he would have to spend his whole life avoiding it. He wouldn’t go around thinking that he was stupid for letting himself be exposed to fangs in a human head.
We tell women that rape is so built into men as a whole that we’re willing to call women foolish if they fail to avoid it. We then tell women that if they declare that it happened, they are more likely to be lying about it than the man they accused.
Unfortunately for me, Lizard Women aren’t real. Lizard Men, on the other hand, are inescapable, but you’ll never find a soul who knows one.