I thought being sexually bold was a game I was allowed to play. I had no idea of the punishment that awaited me — or the surprising healing to come.
I have been pinned under the body of a man more than once.
The second time I was 23, in a hostel bed in Poland, where I had stoked a man’s rage by declining to join him for a drink. In the middle of the night, he sought me out in the hostel’s mixed dorm room, put himself over me and hissed, “I waited for you.”
I was prepared to gouge his eyes out with my keys if it came to that. Call it the loss of innocence. It’s the reason I took up Krav Maga, then Muay Thai, why I relish self-defense and martial arts classes. I recount this story proudly: “A man pinned me to my bed. He might have raped me. I took up martial arts.”
The first time I was 19, with a fractured hip from rollerblading. The summer of my unchosen initiation into sexual knowing. He was four years older than I; we had met over Thanksgiving break.
I knew he was taken with me — my sharp tongue and brazen sass, the kind of fire that is a challenge to certain men who view it as a threat to be doused. There are men who cannot stand to see a carefree woman — who are both enthralled and enraged by her. But I did not know this then. I was so young, virginal but precocious, the kind of sexually inexperienced woman who constantly cracked dirty jokes and talked about sex. I thought it was a game I was allowed to play. I did not know the punishment that awaited me.
He would visit me in the hospital after hours, his hands finding their way under my hospital gown. I stiffened in fear and nausea, even though this way of being touched was nonetheless intriguing in its novelty, making my body lurch in ways he probably took for desire. He took many things from me that summer, so many firsts.
I was flattered and frazzled by his oppressive attention and too inexperienced to recognize it for the manipulation that it was. I was young and curious, and he was insistent, so I continued to see him.
Another time, at his place, I remember staring at my crutches — forlorn witnesses — propped in the corner of the room when he pinned me to his bed, how I whispered for him to stop, shifting to protect my hip. In the end, he didn’t rape me. I had been no fun, a killjoy. He smiled at my parents when they picked me up.
My hip healed, but this brush with sexual aggression sent me into a tailspin that I could not acknowledge as such for years. I became alien to myself, unwilling and unable to touch myself. A recuperative experience with “The Vagina Monologues” and FemSex classes as a college student set me on the path to healing. But I was anxious I wasn’t healing fast enough (which is exactly the wrong way to think about healing).
I sought out sexual experiences, trying to regain some control. At a bondage club, I let myself be tied up and whipped. I was enticed by the radical trust and consent these spaces promised. Some of it was liberating, but in hindsight, I was also recklessly deluded.
When, in a dark corner of a club, with no warning, a stranger quickly wrenched my shoulder out of its socket and reset it (or so he claimed), I was finally slowed by not shock but sadness. How casually, how calmly violence comes to the most unremarkable of men.
Over the years, I would fall to pieces at different moments: When Donald Trump became president even after he bragged about grabbing women whenever he wanted; when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony; when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed.
Each time, I wept and raged as my partner of 10 years held me, his embrace allowing the storm of my emotions. I felt so apologetic that he had to deal with me, this broken person whom someone else had broken. He would love my hurt away, he promised, in that naïve, desperate way that we promise the impossible to those we love.
In martial arts, I found some vindication and control. I was turning myself into my own protector, my own weapon. And it served another function that was gratifying: It allowed me to nurse the fantasy of retaliation. Now I was the arbiter of justice should evil follow me home. Though I never hope for this to be a reality, the fantasy wards away the haunting spirits of trauma.
My husband and I had been friends for years before we became romantically involved. He knew everything about my past, every fling, every ghost. After three years of long-distance dating, he left his finance job in Singapore to be with me in Rhode Island and to pursue his passion, competitive cycling, until a terrible accident ended his cycling career. When we moved to Hong Kong during the pandemic for my current job, he found a new passion: Brazilian jiu-jitsu. As for me, I started Muay Thai training again.
During a year of punishing Covid restrictions in Hong Kong, our physical training commitments kept us sane, though we practiced them separately. This year, we decided to take a vacation, booking ourselves into a retreat that offered both Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes. He thought it would be fun for us to dabble in the other’s sport. He wanted to teach me what he had grown to love.
When he easily put me in a lock during our first class, I had a stupid revelation. In all our years together, I had failed to comprehend him as he was — extremely fit and strong. I knew this at some level, of course. A lifelong endurance athlete, he had been a Singapore national cyclist, competing at the World Cycling Championships, and his jiu-jitsu friends frequently comment on his stamina and toughness.
None of this registered because I had never encountered his body that way. Here was the sweet man who shares my bed and adjusts my glasses when they slip down my nose, whose physical prowess I best observed in his dexterous use of chopsticks, lifting the delicate cheek off steamed fish — that prized part, which he always saved for me.
In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the first objective is usually to “pass the guard,” getting past your opponent’s knees to establish a more dominant position, often mounting them. The instant I felt the weight of him on me, felt my body pushed against my will, I was returned to those awful moments of helplessness, felt the involuntary acid taste of fear pool in my cheeks.
It had never occurred to me that my husband could be capable of violence in the same way that we forget that animals, however cute or domesticated, are animals. When he swept my body under, pinned me down, I felt the fright I knew all too well and did not care to know again.
Then that memory crackled, like a glitch in the matrix, a program being overwritten by another.
On me was a body, scarily strong, but one I knew intimately, belonging to a man who loves me. His body, capable of such force, had only ever done nice things to mine. My body, thrumming with stress and adrenaline, began to hum instead with desire. Here was my place of refuge and solace. Here, this nook, where I place my head like a question, and he answers with the steady constant of his heartbeat. His overpowering jiu-jitsu lock was something I had only ever experienced as an embrace.
Here was the man who told me he would love away my fear. Wedged under him, as the old dread rose and then subsided in my chest, I realized he had really done it. Like an oyster, he had taken the painful grit of my past into the sanctuary of his embrace and smoothed it over into a pearl he was presenting to me.
Anyone who has shivered in the cold shadow of assault knows that the enduring paranoia lies in the knowledge of how easily violence can erupt, how passion describes love but also anger, how those closest to us can harm us. Yet by reverse engineering this encounter of violence in our jiu-jitsu session, we had transformed that suspicious border into the site of my healing.
I always wrote off my husband’s promises to protect me in my moments of despair because I assumed he meant he was prepared to do so physically, an engagement with masculinity that I dislike. But I had not understood his meaning.
His promise of protection never entailed revenge or violence, only his conviction that loving someone unwaveringly could be transformative. Only that impossible promise, to be with me through my worst days and memories — not to erase the dark spot of my past, but to go there with me and bring it into the light.
Jerrine Tan is a writer and English professor in Hong Kong.
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