Where I Am

Tuca and Bertie - A Nuanced and Delicate Look at the Psyche of a Rape Survivor

oh hello. it me.

oh hello. it me.

I will try my best to refrain from blanket statements like “such and such is important” and other trite manifestations of “being seen” in this little blog post, but I will say up top that these cliches are the main drive for my writing this. I recently watched the Netflix show, Tuca and Bertie. As many reviewers have stated in more eloquent ways than I, the show is a pure delight. I won’t get in to all of that, but I am going to talk about Bertie. 

I’m sure many women watching related to both characters for various reasons, but my life paralleled Bertie’s in ways I have not previously seen in a TV show. Bertie is a caregiver in many regards, often taking on more than she really needs to in order to take care of those around her. She has strong feminist convictions, but in the face of standing up for herself in situations where men make her feel uncomfortable she has difficulty speaking up. Our similarities were even as specific as her hobby of baking. She was me in so many ways. And then in the third episode of the season, “The Deli Guy,” I saw an even bigger parallel start to form. Something I had never witnessed in all my 30 years of TV watching. The episode begins with Bertie complaining to Tuca about the state of her relationship. Since moving in together, she and her boyfriend Speckle have a very boring and formulaic sex life. She knows their pattern down to the minute. She’s frustrated, of course. This is a typical sitcom storyline and the beats are practically written in stone, but a hint is dropped in this storyline that caused my senses to perk up and pay attention. I was about to witness something so close to my experience unfold in a show about anthropomorphized birds. When Speckle comes home from work and the routine starts, Bertie stops him and asks if they could try something a little different. 

“What if, I don’t know, you ordered me around?” Bertie asks. Speckle is into this idea of role play and offers up that they come up with a safe word (very responsible). Bertie wants to just jump into it. Part of my stomach turned when she said that. I had an inkling, but of course I wasn’t sure. Maybe this was just setting up a joke where they get way in over their heads in some ridiculous, humorous manner and we get to laugh at them dressed up in vibrators and not knowing what to do. That’s comedy (I guess). Instead Speckle launches into the role play quickly, instructing Bertie to bend over and get “punished” with some light spanking. Bertie is into the idea at first, even enjoying the spanking, and then Speckle calls her a “bad” and “filthy” bird. Bertie begins to break down. She’s bawling and apologizing. She says she doesn’t know why she’s reacting this way and offers that they go back to their usual way.

And with this moment I knew. Bertie is a rape survivor. The episode resolves with Bertie showing Speckle a romance on par with Pride and Prejudice and explaining the aspect of longing in female desire and sexuality. All very fun and interesting, but I knew that wasn’t the end of it. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to pick up on this narrative cue to the reveal in episode 9, “The Jelly Lakes,” that Bertie is a victim and survivor of sexual assault. But the depiction of a sexual trigger was all too close to home for me. I was curious to see what other cues we would get as an audience to Bertie’s past and I was even more surprised by what was delicately fleshed out through Bertie’s narrative of sexual desire. 

In episode 5, “Plumage,” Bertie takes a day of self-care leading up to her starting a baking apprenticeship with a chef she admires (and finds attractive). In the episode she takes a class on learning to speak up against catcalling and men’s demeaning behavior. She enters the door to the bakery for her shift and after a day of personal growth and finding her voice against men and the situations that make her feel small. We can see she is ready for this challenge. But almost immediately her voice is silenced by Chef Pete who crowds her personal space and speaks over her attempts to tell him to respect her bodily autonomy. He even goes as far as holding her face down near a pot fruit roux claiming she needs to witness the exact moment of the color and smell change of the roux to understand how to make it. We see her struggling. She is obviously uncomfortable. And then the moment breaks and she excuses herself to bathroom. And here is the moment that my heart caught. You might think as an audience member not cued into the potential of a sexual abuse storyline (and maybe even if you have the idea that she has a history involving rape or sexual abuse) that you are going to witness another break down—tears, confusion, apologies. But instead Bertie masturbates against the sink. 

I think my jaw dropped. 

Something that has been one of the hardest things for me to compartmentalize and address as a survivor of rape has been the crossing of wires in my sexual urges. It’s something that is common, but not any less confusing. I have dealt with triggers like the one Bertie experienced with Speckle with every sexual partner. Some partners are more involved and concerned than others. It’s something that I have worked very directly on with therapists and have (more or less) a grasp on how to work through, both by myself and with a willing partner. But this other aspect of my sexuality is harder to talk about, harder to grasp and look at directly. My personal fantasies often have an element of coercion or rape involved. It creates a spiral of shame when it comes to personal masturbation. And more confusingly, I haven’t found a way that is enjoyable to act them out with a partner. Similarly to Bertie—even with a safe word and a partner that is loving and safe—I am never turned on by these practices in a relationship. It’s only triggering. And I feel uncomfortable even talking about it. 

No part of me wants to be raped or enjoyed it when I was. I mean I was unconscious, anyway. But often times the synapses in our brains have a weird way of crossing pathways with the interactions occurring in our bodies. At least that’s how my therapists have described it. It’s not something I’m an expert on. It’s just something that I couldn’t help but relate to in Bertie and something I had never seen portrayed with such precision and nuance. 

Sexuality and desire are complex enough, but when you are subjected to trauma these complexities compound on themselves. New triggers can pop up when you don’t expect them. You can find your mind and body wandering into territories of desire that feel completely at odds with what you really want. Indeed, any action in the direction of fulfilling these fantasies come with a high risk or re-traumatiziation when not handled correctly.  

At the end of the season Bertie relates to Tuca her experience with sexual assault and rape in a truly moving and beautifully animated sequence. I am curious where the storylines will go from here with her. Will she tell Speckle in more detail about her past trauma? Will they go through the work of helping her cope with her triggers? Will she find a therapist that helps her contextualize and work through her desires in a healthy way? I am deeply moved and invested in this portrait of a sexual abuse survivor. So many of the stories surrounding rape in media are used as an instigation for a hero’s (i.e. a man’s) motivation for revenge or only address the direct aftermath of rape for a woman. There have been fewer stories that tell the tale of living with trauma and the ways it resurfaces for the rest of your life. Jessica Jones was an important portrayal that comes to mind. But she dealt a lot more with revenge and the early emotions attached to being a survivor, i.e. anger and and a numbing depression. Bertie is well-adjusted in many ways. She has a loving boyfriend and a good life. But occasionally this other thing rears its head. It doesn’t define her, obviously, but it is a part of her and it informs so much more than you might think it would. So much more than you want it to. Thank you to Lisa Hanawalt and her team of writers for this significant storyline. I look forward to seeing her story unfold in more seasons. 

Masha Gessen Needs to Stop Worrying About How Much Sex Everyone is Having

A few weeks ago a Facebook friend (friend in heavy quotation marks) posted an article in The New Yorker by Masha Gessen, “When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic?” This was in the wake of several new accusations levied against various powerful men in entertainment and government, the most recent at the time being Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, and George Takei. This acquaintance on Facebook is someone I would qualify as “safely liberal,” i.e. anti-Trump but undeniably non-revolutionary. Against my better judgment I clicked on the article. I knew it would upset me and it definitely did. I took to Twitter with a mini-rant and promised to write a longer piece about it, but being the busy person that I am I let it go and decided that the moment had passed. It wasn’t worth it.

Then, a week ago now, this acquaintance (who I really should delete lest he be the cause of my death due to over-boiling blood from mind-numbingly ill-conceived liberal-lite bullshit) posted Gessen’s follow up article, “Sex, Consent and the Dangers of ‘Misplaced Scale’” with the coy prompting, “Thoughts?”


So, ok. Here we go, here are my thoughts (a little late, but what can I say, I don’t get paid for this and my writing practices aren’t at all geared towards the fast paced world of journalism).


Masha Gessen’s logical paths and conclusions are riddled with false equivalencies that attempt to appeal to women and LGBTQIA in order to protect men. It is simply the same stance as the men who are afraid of a “witch hunt” in very, very thinly veiled sheep’s clothing. She wants to appear as a “reasonable feminist,” and “logical dudebro lady friend who has concerns.” She understands “both sides” even. But she offers the ridiculous notion that these outcries against unsolicited and undesired sexual advances, harassments and attacks could somehow lead to a criminalization of “bad sex. I am here to call bull shit on this line of thinking and to pick this absolute ridiculous pair of articles apart bit by bit.


First, I have to note that Gessen does a great job of reeling in the unsuspecting feminist by claiming solidarity and understanding. She is, after all, a woman too. She’s even queer! And she’s chimed in with her #metoo stories over the last few weeks which she recounts in the article: “I have been raped by a man (a stranger), coerced into sex by a man (a friend), and held hostage by a man’s (my boss’s) compulsion to talk about sex and take—and exhibit—pictures of sex.”  We are lured into a false sense of security that Gessen will understand how each of these various experiences with sexual misconduct, while varying in degrees of violence and perhaps psychological scaring, are interconnected, part of the ornate and complicated tapestry that is rape culture. But instead she wants us to focus ourselves on the differences between these three violations of her body and mind and treat one as more significant than the other – creating a scale of pain that legitimizes one as more deserving of backlash and attention than the others. To add salt to the wound of turning on women who have not experienced “legitimate rape,” she then uses her queerness to call on the fear of “sex panic.” As if there is an equivalency between a group of marginalized peoples (women, as well as queer men) rising up against their abusers (men, especially white men in seats of power) and a government sanctioned panic regarding the lives and sexuality of the LGBTQIA community. There’s not. These are not the same.


Gessen does little to even talk about the particularities of the sex panic surrounding queer lives however. We as the fairly educated liberal masses consuming The New Yorker may think of the 80s AIDs panic or various instances of criminalization of sodomy, etc. She brings no particulars of these types of sex panics but instead pleads that: “…it is particularly troubling that the frenzied sequence of accusations and punishments is focused on sex” and focuses her attention on the potential unfairness of the sex offender registry and colleges adjudicating cases regarding sexual assaults under the provisions of Title IX. She belittles these accusations as “frenzied,” as if women are haphazardly throwing around accusations with their vaginas full of period blood and emotions and this is not a series of accusations each building on the last as women and victims of assault and harassment for the first time ever are given unprecedented support, admissions of guilt by their harassers, and even some minor repercussions for their violators. Furthermore, she misses the point on which her entire marginalization as a woman (and a queer woman, no less) rests – which is sex. We are marginalized due to our biological sex, choice of gender expression, and choice of sexual partner and sex itself as power historically has been the main driving forces of the subjugation of women and queer peoples. Of course, then, our stories and our accusations and the (few) punishments surrounding these accusations would be focused on sex. Stop being naïve and stop not understanding where your own marginalization comes from. It’s tiring to have to explain.


She follows her break down of the issues with colleges’ instituting rules of “affirmative consent” with this monumentally stupid set of sentences:

The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence. If the presumption of innocence is rooted in the idea that it is better to let ten guilty people go free than risk jailing one innocent person, then the policing of sex seems to assume that it’s better to have ten times less sex than to risk having a nonconsensual sexual experience. The problem is not just that this reduces the amount of sex people are likely to be having; it also serves to blur the boundaries between rape, nonviolent sexual coercion, and bad, fumbling, drunken sex. The effect is both to criminalize bad sex and trivialize rape.

While everyone on the right side of history right now is calling on people to “believe women” I have yet to see anyone’s take to actually be “should those accused of sexual misconduct come before a court of law we will take no steps to give them a fair trial because we are assholes who do not follow the rule of law.” While our court system is by no means perfect, it is not the public’s job to make sure the courts are running properly. We are calling for public support of women and the various types of assaults upon their bodies and minds they have endured over the past centuries of existence. It is not a plea to the courts to change everything about their operations in regards to cases of rape or sexual harassment – but it is a plea to take women and queer peoples more seriously and to bolster their voices and their pain above the fear that men may have to dial back their fucking libidos and their gross need to flaunt their power over the marginalized masses through sexual assault, coercion and harassment. In no way does this mean anyone is required to have less sex and the math here, to me, makes absolutely zero sense. If someone wants to explain this logic of accusations of rape, possibility of locking up an innocent man, and the need to have less sex, then by all means do, but from what I can see it is absolute trash designed to instill a fear that through women claiming power in their sexual engagements they are making it impossible to have a lot of sex. This then, logically concludes that men have always had the power in their favor when it came to sex. Which is exactly the fucking point of these accusations of assault and the desire to finally believe women. We are looking for a change in the activity of sex. Not that there be less of it, but that there be some sort of leveling of the playing field – that women feel some amount of power that they will be at the very least heard and believed when they are put into the position of nonconsensual sexual misconduct. This only empowers them more to have the type of sex that Masha Gessen seems so concerned that we may not have any more (like seriously, why does she care so much if people aren’t having as much sex?). Think about all the great sex we might have and our future generations of women might have if they are o longer terrorized mentally, emotionally, physically by the trauma of previous disgusting male depravity.


Gessen continues to argue that the differences between rape, nonviolent sexual coercion, and harassment are important, but she does not say why other than in legal terms (i.e. the differences between murder, battery, etc). And again, no one that I know of has been arguing that we change the terms and conditions of the court or legal system with regards to the differences in these types of crimes. But if we are going to think of these differences on the individual level, on the cultural and social level, of the well-beingness of women and queer communitites, I would argue that these differences only serve divide the cause and create a hierarchy of pain that is not necessary if we are seeking to change things on a large scale. That we treat each of these abuses of power as equally disturbing and disgusting, in my eyes is important. Job loss or suspension on all of these accounts is not ridiculous to ask for when women have been forced out of jobs due to a variety of sexual harassments for time immemorial. What the path to redemption for such men looks like, I have no idea. I don’t think we have a road map for that wherein any man such accused has sought to apologize or make legitimate change for his mental health. I don’t even know if it’s possible, but if it is then we will cross that road when get to it. I’d love to think that there is a way to heal the toxic masculinity that is so ingrained in the likes of these various men and that they would someday be worth trusting again, but I have no idea. As someone who was raped it definitely took more than two weeks of outpatient therapy to feel more or less comfortable in my own skin and to not suffer daily PTSD after being catcalled on the street.


This is why I don’t sweat the differences between the various types of sexual harassments that women face. I’ve had friends and family act like they couldn’t fathom what happened to me, but I know that it all ends up living in the same place in our body. While it might cause more severe a reaction in those who have suffered violent rape, in the end they are all vestiges of the same evil and over time they build up and cause that same cringe down our spines and shortening of our breath as a man follows us down the street late at night. When we emphasize the differences outside of legal terms we create walls that separate us from those who share in a similar experience. We find women who feel they “got off easy” because they were only groped on the train a few times and you marginalize rape survivors as a fringe group of women with their own set of needs. You don’t trivialize rape, as Gessen says, you marginalize it and make it a smaller issue than it is. You make it a special interest group, not part of the 50%+ part of the population that it actually affects.  


In the second article, that I haven’t addressed as directly yet, Gessen says that it is standard in the course of history for society to focus on renegotiating sex when the rest of the world is out of control. Which, I wouldn’t say is wrong. Certainly, people like to have something that they can actually find control over. Case in point, Gessen says “we are living with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, but we seem to be spending significantly more time discussing the sexual misbehavior of a growing number of prominent men than talking about North Korea or climate change.” But this trivializes rape (something she warned against in her previous article) as something not as deserving of public outcry or attention, and also limits humans as only capable of caring about one thing at a time. Of course, she’s right, that there’s not much I can do as an indvidual to stop nuclear war or climate change. I do what I ccan to vote for people that I feel will help with those issues. I protest when I can. I recycle, I bring my own bags to the grocery store, I’m vegan (which I know is a controversial thing with regards to environmental impact, but don’t at me). I will continue to do these things and also call for people to believe women and support those who are bravely facing their accusers and the backlash of public opinion.  It’s a lot, but I know people are trying to care about all of it despite how much there is to care about.


She then uses two cases to show how consent has been used as a way to victimize women who don’t actually feel victimized. The particulars of which you can read in her article and I don’t know much about, I’ll admit. From this she concludes, however that this sexual renegotiation leads to sexual restrictivness that denies women agency in their own consent – instead it casts women as victims in all cases that involve messy power dynamics. While this article as a whole is argued slightly better and she certainly picks cases that would seem to prove her point she then again leaps to the conclusions that women are being infantilized by all of this.


In the past, sexual laws and regulations have most often been strengthened in the name of protecting children. “For over a century, no tactic for stirring up erotic hysteria has been as reliable as the appeal to protect children,” Rubin wrote in 1984. Sometimes the children are symbolic: anti-gay crusades are almost invariably framed in terms of “saving the children”— not specific children, but just the children who have to share a country with queers. In the current American conversation, women are increasingly treated as children: defenseless, incapable of consent, always on the verge of being victimized. This should give us pause. Being infantilized has never worked out well for women.

 But she forgets again who is leading the charge in the sexual renegotiation. This is not a top down scare from the government or other public officials in an attempt to focus our attention on “protecting poor, defenseless women.” This is a movement that has centered women’s pain and been mobilized by the marginalized masses as a means to change the patriarchy. This is not an insignificant detail, but Gessen insists on forgetting it because she’s scared that people won’t be having enough sex. Of course if this were to all lead to changes that we want all it would change is the amount of nonconsensual sex. And if a man is so scared that a succubus is going to lure him into a false sense of security only to turn and report a rape, then I don’t know, maybe he really shouldn’t be having sex anyway. I do not feel infantilized by this movement, on the contrary I feel empowered and more capable than ever before. This has been a moment of uniting women and I don’t feel sorry for a second for the various types of men who have had to face repercussions for their actions.

The Words We Use

I guess I could start this blog with just an introduction or a premise for what I will be writing about, but the truth is I don’t know any of that. I don’t know how to introduce myself in any way that is satisfying to who I am or what I actually think you should know about me. I don’t know what this blog will be about other than to write out some of the thoughts I have while trying to do other things during my weeks. I have no agenda. I am not looking for hits or shares. The most I would like is to have a discussion with people who can offer unique perspectives, different, thoughtful opinions, or answers to questions I might pose. Because I’m sure I’ll pose more questions than I will ever answer. I’ve rarely found answers. So with that being the most I can muster in terms of an introduction, I’ll dive into what’s on my mind recently. 


Since Martin Luther King Day was yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the current political climate and discussions regarding racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Obviously with the looming of Trumps inauguration on the horizon this week, things are looking bleak on the capital “p” Politics landscape. I don’t have anything new or different to offer up in terms of these historic happenings. Much has been said and much will continue to be said, and I hope it is said loudly and without shame or backing down. We need that. I have mostly been considering the backlash that occurs against so-called “Social Justice Warriors” and their shorthand phrases for vast personally politicized topics, such as “mansplaining,” “check your privilege,” “woke,” etc.


I find these words and phrases fascinating for many reasons, one being that they have faced pushback from both conservatives and more moderate liberals and often from those that would consider themselves to be on the “right side” of fighting for social justice—those “non-racists” who would happily post to Facebook about the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., but would maybe shy away from doing the same about the contemporary movement of protests against police brutality. The thing is these words and phrases that we use so readily in our discussions regarding the politics of identity are designed to be antagonistic and in a lot of ways don’t properly relate the full extent of the complicated meanings behind them. This can be both a shortcoming of using them so frequently and readily, but it is also important for someone who benefits from various forms of privilege (in my case all except gender) and who wants equality across all these barriers to be able to understand that all language has shortcomings and that we shouldn’t loose sight of the history and intent of our words just because they have the ability to make us uncomfortable.


As the example I often use, a friend of mine who happens to be a black woman was telling me that she doesn’t have a lot of white friends because they find her too intense and she makes them uncomfortable. In some way she was questioning how she was able to stay friends with me and vice versa. Truthfully, she is very intense. She is not someone who backs away from a fight when it involves discussing racial, economic, or gender privilege. She is not someone who backs down from her identity or lets you forget who she is as a black woman from a low-income family. I told her that the truth is when I first met her she also made me very uncomfortable (and sometimes that discomfort will still occur even), but when I realized that she made me feel uncomfortable and even defensive, I always asked myself what made me uncomfortable rather than question her. The answer I found was that none of my other friends of color had ever been so open and direct about their experiences with me and I didn’t know how to respond to it. Rather than blame her for this, I looked to myself and decided that I didn’t have to react defensively, but rather would listen and learn from her.


In instances where I see someone react strongly in person or on the internet to phrases like “check your privilege,” I see their discomfort and I recognize the urge to react defensively. It is easy enough to say that these phrases are trite or aggressive, but I believe their aggression is deserved. If we are not made to feel uncomfortable then there is never a need for us to look deeper, to find where that discomfort lies, and learn to change. Those who react so strongly against simple words are people who are not able to dig deeper. Or they have and don’t like what they see so instead of recognizing the darker truths within themselves and within our world they react against those who caused them to look inward in the first place. The simplified version of these truths is that everyone has different life experiences and that sometimes we benefit from simple luck of the draw. While it isn’t necessarily any individual’s fault, it is all of our responsibility to fight against the oppression that would allow those of us with privilege to live blissfully in the comfort of never being forced to recognize the experience of those who live without those privileges.  


Language can never fully encompass who we are as human beings and what our meanings and intentions are. We do our best, but who we are is more feeling than analytics. The way a word makes you feel is important, but our initial feelings are hardly ever the truth, hardly ever the root.  We are all liars. We lie to ourselves on a daily basis, but if we look past our initial reactions and dig towards truth there is a way to finding a path towards justice and understanding. The truth is, sometimes I hate these words too. I don’t think they are ever enough for what I want to say and that’s because they aren’t. But if you are on the receiving end of them or of a story of someone else’s life as a politicized “Other” and you can feel yourself starting to get angry or dismissive or defensive, I would implore you to ask yourself why you are feeling that way. That is the point of these words in the first place. The answer may surprise you and you may find that you are able to listen, learn, grow, and help in the fight for political and social justice.