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The Finger Banger and the Heart Fucker
Men are capable of inflicting incredible harm—and incredible healing
A weekend night in Berkeley, in the very early 2000s: Groups of students roamed the south side of campus, wandering in and out of parties in the frat houses lining Piedmont, Bancroft, and Channing, those giant, multistory homes with their front porches and leather couches and white, oversized Greek columns. Vodka, beer, boxed wine, gin, rum, tequila — the smell of alcohol was everywhere; sometimes, later in the night, so was the smell of vomit. Men stood on balconies drinking from red cups and heckling passersby. Women walked and laughed together in small groups, aware of being watched; we wandered in casual short dresses or wore outfits catered to theme parties: animal print for jungle, all white for a black-light party, sexy Jazzercise wear for ’80s, and so on. We were often teetering in heels.
I was wearing a skirt that night, a few months into the 2008–2009 school year, the year when a mysterious assailant informally dubbed the Finger Banger had assaulted multiple women in the area where I lived, forcibly lifting their skirts and sticking his fingers inside them. I’d read the warnings sent out to all the sororities, telling us to wear pants and not walk alone until this man was caught. But one of the parties we were going to that night had a theme, I guess, and the skirt worked better than pants. Besides, I knew I’d be traveling in a group, as instructed. And also, I didn’t want to have to live like that, not wearing what I wanted.
“Constant vigilance!” my friends and I would yell as we walked between parties, like it was keeping us safer, or at least less scared.
“Constant vigilance!” my friends and I would yell as we walked between parties. This made us laugh. I may have been the originator of the joke — a Harry Potter reference, of course, defense against the dark arts. Yelling it, I felt like I was doing something useful, keeping us safer, or at least less scared. We liked yelling it in a British accent.
The night I left my apartment, I wasn’t thinking about those warning emails or the Finger Banger. As I walked with friends from one party to the next, a man came up behind me; I never saw his face. In all, it probably took less than 10 seconds, and then he was sprinting away, down Durant. I didn’t report it; I had let my guard down, after all, and frankly, it didn’t strike me as important enough to merit any follow-up. Constant vigilance.
The previous summer, just after my junior year, I visited a good friend. Let’s call him Roger. We’d known each other for years and hooked up at least once before. The night I got to town, Roger and I sat in his room, discussing his problems with his girlfriend, as we often did. He asked about my love life, the guy I was newly dating. I said I wanted to give exclusivity a shot with this new guy; I wouldn’t be hooking up with anyone else.
“That’s great,” Roger said. “I’m really happy for you.”
Later, we went out. It was shot, shot, shot and beer pong and jungle juice, a too-loud party in some stranger’s house nearby.
Black in: Lying on Roger’s bed, him on top of me, his tongue in my mouth, then his fingers inside me, and me saying no no no but only in my head, me trying to find breath, finally finding it, “No no no,” out loud, but he didn’t stop, until finally I found a way to move my arms and pushed him, saying, “Stop it!” His body landed against the wall, hard. In my memory, it makes a sound. I remember worrying I hurt him.
He stopped, mumbling, “Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry,” then got up and walked over to the couch. I remember thinking it would’ve been nice to just cuddle with him in the bed. Then I passed out again.
For years, I called it a mistake, a misunderstanding. I said, “My friend hooked up with me,” if I talked about it.
In the morning, we didn’t talk about it. I brushed my teeth in the bathroom. I almost threw up. I wanted to but didn’t force it. I drove to a nursing home to visit my dying grandpa. Then I met up with my almost-boyfriend and confirmed: We’d be exclusive moving forward.
For years, I called it a mistake, a misunderstanding. I said, “My friend hooked up with me,” if I talked about it, which I did to a few friends, trying to figure out if I’d cheated and if I needed to tell my then-boyfriend. (I didn’t.) I imagined how the night would have gone if I hadn’t blacked in, if I hadn’t found my words, if he’d been able to get hard.
I don’t know how Roger understood, understands, what happened between us. He called me a few months after that night, angry that I hadn’t made time to see him on a recent visit to his school. I let him yell at me; I may have even apologized. I knew I didn’t want to see him anytime soon but couldn’t pinpoint why. We didn’t speak again, and for years I felt bad about the way our friendship ended.
Much later, Roger messaged me on LinkedIn, wanting to know about a job at the company where I worked. “Long time no talk!” he wrote, before asking if he could send me his résumé. I didn’t respond.
Here is the crowded street outside the mall in downtown San Francisco. I am 22. Steam rises from a nearby vent; it smells of smog and urine. A man twice my age follows me into the crowded crosswalk telling me, quiet enough for just me to hear, how exactly he’d like to fuck me in the ass.
Here is a woman gang-raped on a bus in a country I’d like to visit one day but have been told not to visit alone. I read about her rape in the paper. I still want to go there but haven’t found a man to go with me.
Here is the obituary for a man who was beaten unconscious on the street near his Castro home, an apparent hate crime. My friends who knew and loved him flood Facebook with tributes to his kindness. Here is his partner taking him off life support when it’s clear: He will never wake up.
Here are all the men who pushed my head down in their beds and never cared to touch me back but still like my selfies on Instagram; here is a man breaking my hymen on a park bench when I’m blacked-out drunk at 17 in college — I black in from the pain in time to tell him to stop, please stop, I’m a virgin. Later, he tells me not to talk to him at parties at his house; I have to understand, he says, his girlfriend can’t know about me. We’re still friends on Facebook. He’s an uncle now; he seems happy.
Here is the sorority sister I first met when she was 18: She’s bright light and dancing energy, the depths and intensity of her friendships enviable. At 27, she is raped and smothered to death in a hotel room. I find out at work. Next door, in the parking lot of REI, I almost vomit from crying in shock while reading the article on my phone.
Here is one of my best friends telling me her boyfriend choked her against a wall during a disagreement. She wants to know if she should break up with him. She wants to know if I think it’s the kind of problem that will get better. Choking her is not all he did, but she doesn’t disclose the rest until much later, because she wants me to say that she should stay. I hate that I tell her I don’t know what she should do.
Here is a flat piece of desert and a giant statue of a woman dancing, a sign under her asks: What would the world be like if it were safe for women? We surround it and stare up at its beauty and the sun; we are crying underneath it. I don’t know the answer to the question.
A boy is being beaten in the woods by a group of other boys. They beat the shit out of him, unsure if he’s gay or not. He’s thin, sensitive, and likes drawing. He doesn’t care about sports. He will one day grow into a man I will love.
When he tells me the story, we haven’t known each other long, haven’t even kissed yet. He tells me about the boys a second time, not remembering the first. Both times, I don’t know what to say, just like he doesn’t know what to say when I tell him of violences done to my body.
One night, we’re driving on the freeway when he tells me he’s scared there’s something secretly terrible about him, something someone will one day figure out. I know he is good. I wonder what those boys kicked and punched deep into him and where inside him it lives.
I’m telling stories here, but not all of them. Women are telling stories, but not all of them. There are the stories that no one has told yet and the stories that have been told but never heard.
Small groups of women quietly discuss what we will not or cannot say publicly yet: the stories about the men who still have the power to get us fired and hired; about the ones who are “such great guys”; about the men we still see at parties. We trade warnings; we tell each other of rage held quiet for years.
Men are concerned. These things are complicated, they want us to know. Some women will surely use the moment to get attention, they say. Most women aren’t taking responsibility for their actions, they say. On social media, men we are friends with ask, “Where does it stop?” They want us to listen to them talk for 35 minutes about what a difficult time this is to be a man, they want to tell us about “lives ruined,” those lives being men’s lives. They wonder: “Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?” Their bodies apparently have never been penetrated against their will in a way that is undeniably wrong but would be difficult to convince a jury of.
Of course there are also men who would never say these things but are still frozen, unsure what to do to be useful, not wanting to harm, and so remain silent, awaiting instruction. There are men who ask if we want them to kill the man who violated us, and we, unsure if they’re joking or not, talk them through their rage, trembling until they’re soothed. Men who tell us of course it wasn’t our fault, who will apologize on behalf of their entire gender, but who, on hearing we’re still struggling with the experience, respond with a text: “I’m sorry :(”
Earlier this year, I wrote a prayer for sexual healing, a prayer for all the men who have violated my body. I prayed for them to do their work; I prayed to stop doing their work for them. I prayed for pleasure.
By the time I was about to hit my mid-twenties, I was sick of men. And then, within one year, three men surprised me with a strange and yet beautiful, blessed act I had never heard of before and one I would never have thought of on my own.
The first time it happened, I was at a party in the Oakland hills, sitting in a hot tub overlooking the Bay. I’d recently healed almost all symptoms of a reproductive illness that I’d had for a decade—endometriosis. Finally without pelvic pain for the first time in my life, I was trying out this thing called casual sex, or I was trying to try it out. What I was learning was that there were plenty of men who were kind, funny, and attractive out in the world with our friends, but that once we were alone, my pleasure almost never mattered. I was tired of being a collection of holes and hesitant to sleep with anyone new. But I still longed to find the kind of sexual freedom and connection that I imagined might be possible.
The man told me about a healing practice he was well versed in. He described it in great detail, called it “heart fucking,” and asked if I wanted to experience it.
In the hot tub with me in Oakland was an older man, perhaps in his fifties, whom I’d just met. Maybe I’d told him when we got in the tub that I found the party overwhelming. Maybe I’d told him about the endo. I was sober, and he seemed to be too. I remember him telling me about a healing practice he was well versed in, although now I’m not sure if healing women was a profession or simply a side interest. He described it in great detail, called it “heart fucking,” and asked if I wanted to experience it.
There was nothing physically penetrative about it, he said. We’d be fully clothed, and we could stop at any moment if I felt uncomfortable or didn’t like it. We’d be inside the house, with friends of mine nearby. It sounded a little New Agey and potentially cheesy, but I was no stranger to that: I’d grown up in the Bay Area, lived in Berkeley for years, and more recently had been seeing a handful of healers — from traditional chiropractors to radical energy workers — for chronic pain. I felt myself becoming more open-minded by the week. I knew I needed healing, if such a thing existed, and I certainly didn’t have any better ideas.
I said yes.
Inside, with my clothes back on, I lay on the floor on my back. He lay on top of me with his chest on my pelvis. Then he let his heart beat into me, into what could be called my sacral chakra. I closed my eyes. I could tell that was all he wanted to do. It felt like he was hugging my entire pelvis with his heart. I could physically feel his heartbeat against me, and I could tell that, as he’d promised, he wanted and expected absolutely nothing from me except that I receive.
Some minutes later, I stood up feeling bright, chirpy, like a coffee drinker after their second cup. Maybe it’s significant that only a few hours later that night, I met a sweet, attractive man who only wanted to spoon me while we slept. That thing I’d wanted for years — physical contact, soothing, without entitlement to me sexually.
I figured the heart-fucking experience was a strange fluke and told few people about it, certainly not the guy I began casually dating a few months later. We were on his backyard trampoline, making out, when he stopped, silently lowered his chest against my pelvis, and let his heart beat into me. It wasn’t foreplay, or even a precursor. Just a gesture of care, although he barely knew me. Then, a few months after that, with a new man, a soon-to-be-serious partner, it happened again. Did they know, or guess, that this was exactly what I needed, or did I just get lucky?
This August at Burning Man, my dear friend and I decided midway through that the year’s unofficial theme was Friendburn. Everywhere we went, we reveled in friendship, and in particular we began to notice the friendship and nurturance of men — love and help and attention from men who seemed, mysteriously, to have no other motives. Their lack of sexual advances, or even availability — their simple, loving generosity — was disorienting. They wanted to care for us, but they didn’t seem to want to date us or fuck us, and yet they also weren’t gay. This didn’t compute. They were everywhere that week, it seemed, men who scratched our backs for us in places we couldn’t reach, draped coats over our bodies when we were cold, brought us soup when we were too tired to get it ourselves, let us sleep in their swamp-cooled tents during afternoon heat, silently held our hands when we were crying at the temple, and happily listened for hours while we debriefed our night.
None of them tried to do anything other than be our friend. I have a little more of this in my life than I did in college, but I’m still a thirsty plant for it. It’s rare; it feels radical. To be given friendship, to have someone go out of their way to care for me, outside of the context or future expectation of a romantic or sexual relationship. Their words and their acts of care made me think: Some men are listening. They are hearing the stories and doing more than trying say the right thing. They are actually changing how they behave. And it matters. It is needed.
Saturday night, when they burned the man, I stayed at camp, walking out to the street for only a couple minutes to see the giant flames engulfing the wooden figure. When a campmate asked why, I joked that I’d already seen enough men burn this year. He and I laughed for a moment, and then our faces became serious. There are so many stories we haven’t heard yet.