This Story Is Not About Stephen Tully Dierks, This Is A Story About You And Me, He and She, This Is A Story About Community
I didn’t sleep at all Tuesday night. The wheels in my head had been spinning for two days trying to articulate the feelings and experiences I have regarding rape and sexual assault after learning that alt-lit writer Stephen Tully Dierks was publicly accused of sexual assault by two women — one on Medium, and, consequently, one on Tumblr.
With the typical kind of uneasy feelings that anyone feels when speaking openly about upsetting situations like these, but with the stalwart belief that it is vital to women’s safety to have candid conversations about rape, sexual assault, and what constitutes consent, I feel compelled to share my experiences with Stephen and the men like him. Ultimately, this story is not about Stephen Tully Dierks. This story is about you and me, he and she. This is a story about community.
Stephen and I were friends on Facebook but I didn’t know Stephen. We knew of each other by way of the writing community at large. He still lived in Chicago when he and I became acquainted via another writer and mutual Facebook friend. At the time, I lived in Atlanta, where I wrote a sex and dating column for alt-weeklie newspaper, Creative Loafing. When he found out via Facebook that I’d moved to Brooklyn earlier this year, he invited me out for drinks.
The first time we hung out, I met with him at a bar with no intention of anything other than a possible friendship. Some whiskies later, he kissed me and I kissed back. As the night grew late, the alcohol set in. Both drunk, he offered I crash at his apartment within walking distance of the bar. Call it drunk or dumb, I agreed under the condition that he understood that we were not having sex. He obliged and when we arrived at his place we promptly passed out. After I left his place in the morning I texted him and thanked him for being a gentleman and not being sexually aggressive with me (i.e., I literally thanked a dude because he didn’t coerce or try and force himself on top of me — an act I’ve come to find uncomfortably common.) A few days later, he asked me on a date.
The third time we hung out, however, I experienced a completely different side to the nice guy who’d originally struck me as sweet, considerate, and understanding. We’d been making out on my couch when he threw what can only be described as a tantrum after it became clear to him that I wasn’t going to have sex with him.
It wasn’t my refusal to take off my shirt that got the message across, nor was my saying no when he tried the ever-so-subtle “let’s move to the bedroom” move. The only way I was able to convey to him with 100% clarity that he and I weren’t going to have sex was in explicitly saying, “I’m not going to have sex with you.”
More than angry, he looked and sounded desperate, confused, like a spoiled teenager in disbelief. Scared and uncomfortable, I began to cry. He didn’t yell or hit me or throw anything. It wasn’t like that. He wasn’t scary in a traditional way, when a woman can suddenly become aware of a man’s testosterone and strength; he was scary in that way that a woman suddenly realizes that a man sincerely thinks he’s entitled to a part of your body simply because he wants it.
In hindsight, perhaps the most fucked up part of this whole scenario is this: my reaction. The mood having suddenly shifted, I scrambled to determine the best plan of action. Looking back later, once I became removed from the situation, the best plan of action was very clear to me: Kick him the fuck out. Except that’s not what I did.
Faced with three truths — that I am female, a feminist, and Puerto Rican — I chose to talk with him instead, despite feeling threatened and upset. In retrospect, I can only surmise that, at the time, my subconscious quickly assessed these three truths and used them in making the decision to have what I hoped would be a constructive, educational conversation. It certainly helped that I was keenly aware that Stephen was the size of a guppy, and if things really came down to it, I probably could’ve kicked his ass.
These three truths paired with his size are relevant as it illustrates that, ultimately, what I prioritized most, sadly, was my reputation over my body. That is to say: (1) I was foolish / arrogant enough to believe that I could take him if the situation escalated to physical force, and (2) I didn’t want to make any one of my people look bad; that is to say, I was concerned with coming across as a crazy and irrational feminist, Latina woman and I did not wish to perpetuate or be later labeled as any one of the negative stereotypes attached to those groups. Again, looking back, I’m saddened and frustrated that I even cared at all about any of that.
I foolishly believed that I could lower the thermostat on the situation, and humanize this person, by having a conversation with him about what constituted reasonable and respectful sexual expectations on a date (or in any context, really.) I foolishly didn’t want him to interpret the situation as rejection. I wanted him to understand the necessity of patience.
“I don’t know you,” I told him.
“This is only the third time we’ve hung out,” I said.
I continued, “I haven’t had sex in a really long time.”
“I like to know the person I’m sleeping with.”
“Sex is always better when you wait.”
“I just moved here.”
“I don’t want to complicate things.”
“Do you understand?”
What started as an attempt to hopefully teach him that I have feelings somehow turned into me justifying myself to him when, in fact, I didn’t need to offer any explanations as to why I did not want to have sex with him.
I don’t recall for how long we spoke, but after a while, he calmed down. Then his demeanor transformed. He apologized but he didn’t seem apologetic; there was no sense of true recognition. Instead, he looked awash with shame, the kind of embarrassment that takes over when you realize you were caught doing something wrong.
Two women came forward this week with sexual assault accusations against Stephen Tully Dierks. One act was said to have taken place in April, the other in May. The experience I described above took place in March. I point this out to hopefully illustrate a trend – not one of assault, but of Stephen’s failure to listen to women.
There are victim-blamers who will try to leverage unfounded reasons, such as the presence of alcohol or — gasp — a bed, as grounds for miscommunication or unfortunate accidents surrounding consent. Except, intentionally and unlike the night we met, we weren’t wasted at the bar the night he threw the tantrum. It was not late at night. We were not on a bed. We were in the living room watching Clueless on Netflix in the early evening hours.
Then again, even if we were drunk late at night, when it comes to consent it’s really quite simple: one is to stop the very second one’s advances are met with resistance. To continue to push someone who has repeatedly said no — even if they’re not yelling, even if it’s but a whisper — to wear down a person’s defenses until they cave, is coercion. To ignore the resistance and to continue is called rape — period. Rape isn’t limited to the violent depictions we have come to associate from movies.
I shouldn’t have had to explicitly tell Stephen that I wasn’t going to have sex with him. My body language told him everything he needed to know before that. My resistance to take off my shirt and undress, my resistance to move to a more intimate setting, my repeatedly saying “no” before I had to make a presentation of it.
Stephen and I had a conversation while sober regarding sexual expectations and patience and consent and yet it seems he neither learned nor retained anything from the conversation we had that night as there exist two women who have stepped forward and accused him of coercion and extortion.
I don’t Stephen well enough to say whether or not his actions were filled with malice, but at the very least his actions were filled with an ignorance and self-entitlement that I’ve seen plague even the most progressive-minded of men. To not be content with just talking and hanging out, to expect sex, is reducing a person to a mere sex object; to not allow or accept a woman’s rebuttal is telling her you don’t respect her. Sex — even the quick and dirty — is beautiful. Sex should be about two people giving themselves to each other, not taking something of the other.
It’s easy for outsiders to read the stories by women like Sophia or mine and wonder why one doesn’t just scream or hit and run away. I can’t speak for Sophia, but for some women, sometimes to surrender sounds less traumatic in our heads than kicking and screaming and be subjected to scrutiny by cops or critics. Instead of victim-blaming, however, I propose these unknowing outsiders strongly consider panning out on the situation and realizing that if the men with this mentality didn’t reduce women to sexual objects, but instead respected them and listened to them and backed off when they are told to back off, that then the confrontation would cease to exist.
I’ve seen several male writers within the alt-lit community leave comments on Facebook wherein they try to make reason of the situation. They optimistically think speaking directly to Stephen would allow him to see the error of his ways. Some say that he isn’t broken, just misguided. What I’m sure most of these men haven’t fully considered or accepted is that he was told several times by several different women and yet he never listened. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to speak with him, and evidently, I wasn’t the last. Perhaps even more worrisome is wondering how many of the men in the alt-lit (or any) community don’t see Stephen’s acts as coercive and mirror his mentality and behavior.
I first heard of the accusation Monday afternoon by way of the Alt Lit Gossip Spread Facebook group after his former roommate, writer Sarah Jean Alexander, outed Stephen as a rapist and the unnamed assailant in writer Sophia Katz’s essay, “We Don’t Have To Do Anything.”
Shortly after, a female writer friend of mine, who knew I’d gone out with Stephen, texted me to see if I’d read Katz’s essay. I hadn’t yet read the essay, but already felt overwhelmed. I tried articulating my feelings to my friend, but all that came out was gibberish. I was overcome with a strong sense of guilt.
I thought about how, in perspective, I’d made a dumb Facebook post about him having whined about his “slumlord” making him change his own light bulbs (true story) when instead I could’ve — what, exactly? — warned people? About what? Our society is one of innocent until proven guilty. The aforementioned three truths — that I am female, a feminist, and Puerto Rican — are social reputations largely associated with irrationality. For a woman to accuse is to unleash Pandora’s Box onto oneself.
A part of my guilt is rooted in the fact that I’m supposed to be the exception. This is what women are taught: not that it is the assailant’s fault, but that if something happens to us, it’s probably because we allowed it to. Except I’m not the kind of girl that allows things to happen. I’m the kind of girl who will go Puerto Rican on your ass if you fuck with her. That’s who I think I am, anyway. I’ve seen that girl come out from inside of me. She’s the one that yells “fuck you!” to the catcallers, the one that chased the random dude who reached up her dress and grabbed her ass while shopping at H&M. That’s the kind of person my family taught me to be. That’s the kind of person my friends think I am. Strong.
After the tantrum incident, I took a small poll among both my male and female friends to see how many dates people expected to go on before they got laid. The reason I sampled my friends was due to the reaction several guy friends — all liberal, left-leaning, progressive-thinking, feminist-identifying males — gave me when I shared with them the oversimplified version of the tantrum story, which is to say I downplayed the situation in what I can best describe as an attempt to not come off sounding like a “cock tease.” Most of my guy friends agreed: three dates and a dude will think he’s gonna get laid. When I posted on a private, all-female Facebook group, many women replied that it’s never too early to have sex. I think they thought I was slut-shaming, but really, I was just curious as to what people thought.
It is true Stephen Tully Dierks tried to coerce me into having sex with him that night. It is true he threw a tantrum when I rebuffed him. But it is also true that he did not rape me. Perhaps what made me feel guiltiest of all was the initial reaction I had when I heard the other girls’ stories: “Honestly, it’s so common place to see a guy throw a tantrum for not getting laid.” This was the new lens I had unknowingly come to associate as reality.
As disgusting as it is to admit, that wasn’t the last time I saw Stephen. Because that’s what happens when women are made to internalize the male entitlement to their bodies – it becomes our normal. So much so, that we don’t even immediately recognize certain behavior as intolerable, even if we immediately feel that it’s unacceptable. I knew Stephen’s behavior toward me wasn’t okay, but by way of a lifetime of social conditioning, I somehow believed that it was okay that it wasn’t okay.
And yet I hung out with Stephen again, despite my better judgment. We were at his house, sober and talking in the living room before moving to the bedroom. By the time I hung out with Stephen again, my brain had made a switch. Ultimately, I don’t know if it was my hormones, his nagging, or giving into societal insecurities about prudishness, but I gave consent to have intercourse with Stephen.
We didn’t actually have sex, however, as my consent came with one small caveat: I made him put on a condom, something he didn’t do with the other women.
“I’m not on birth control,” I told him, thinking the idea of an unwanted pregnancy would fear him into practicing safe sex.
“I’ll pull out,” he said.
“Also,” I replied, “condoms protect against STD’s.”
What was already a tragic situation deflated immediately, much like his ego. He whined for permission to not use a condom. He was not the first male I’d witnessed in this state.
It was late at night and I was new to Brooklyn; it was winter outside and there were no cabs to call or hail, and so I fell asleep in his bed. When I woke up in the morning, it hit me that I almost had sex with him. I looked around his matchbox of a room: his dirty boat shoes, his clogged bathtub that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in months, and I felt disgusted that I was there, and relieved that nothing happened. I’d just arrived back at my place, and was going over the events of the night in my head when he texted me that we would be better off as friends. I replied back with “Hahahahahahaha.” I later apologized for this, although I’m still unsure as to why.
While I came out unscathed, so many women are not so lucky. If their stories are true, at least two women were robbed by Stephen Tully Dierks. I had told two writer friends that he and I had gone out, but neither of them told me that they didn’t like him. The stench of his spoiled milk could be smelled as far away as the depths of the Internet, and yet no one actually warned me about him beforehand. I’m not exactly sure why they didn’t. Then again, I didn’t warn anyone either. But what exactly is the proper way to warn others before there’s proof of what your experience and gut tell you?
In an effort to safeguard myself and avoid such confrontations again, it was months before I went on any other dates, dates which sadly continued the trend of the man expecting sex far sooner than I think any stranger should expect it. To be clear, this decision wasn’t the direct result of my experience with Stephen, but an amalgamation of experiences, including a history of rape and sexual assault. He was merely a catalyst, a reminder.
I’m as guilty of harboring my misfortunes as those of my girlfriends. Like that uncle who kissed me when I was 8 years old, or that time I was raped at age 22, or that time I woke up to that one guy trying to undress me, or that time this guy slapped my face during sex and called me a spic, or that nightlife writer that my friend caught masturbating to her as she slept. Uncle aside, these men aren’t strangers — they are members of a community that my friends and I belong to. These men are supposed to be like family, like brothers. No one found out. We never told. Sometimes it’s easier to pretend it didn’t happen than to confront the situation. Your brain does things to soften the blow. You find loopholes in your mind to keep your sanity, ways of coping with the truth you do not have the inner strength to confront.
Sexual assault is scarring, hardening. I recently met someone I care for and want to date and I waver whether or not to tell him about my experiences in light of all that’s transpired this week. I’m afraid it’s too much for him to deal with. That is one of the scars that sexual assault victims are left with after the event: even if there isn’t any official violation to charge someone with, there’s a feeling that lingers, a memory that needs unwanted addressing. Trust erodes and defenses go up. These are the reasons women sometimes hold off on sex with a new partner; these are among the secrets we harbor within.
The thing about a situation like this, one with a person like Stephen, that is to say, a public figure within a certain community, is that the figure’s victims often have no place to take cover from the gatekeeper. Often, his peers will likely never know, or will take his side based on blind allegiance. If word gets out, it can quickly transform into hearsay and gossip. Having to go through the gatekeeper could mean loss of work, connections. It is never a safe or comfortable thing to be a victim of sexual abuse, least of all when you speak about it.
I’m proud of the women who came forward. Sometimes to speak is to liberate one’s self of the shame. These situations aren’t uncommon and can happen to the smartest, most confident of women. There was a time I was strong and tough and didn’t take shit from anyone. Then one day, all the violations add up and you are left questioning whether or not the goodness you once believed innate is an illusion housed in relativity and perspective. I’m not exactly sure what I hoped to accomplish in writing this. Maybe I was afraid I’d lost my voice, afraid that I’d allow this kind of behavior to happen to me again unless I faced facts. As much chaos as those women’s confessions riled up in me and others, their confessions were also liberating, for they made their voices known, unlike me and countless other women silenced by fear in the past.
I want to replace my feelings of guilt with feelings of inspiration to women to always keep fighting and to never let anyone steal you of your voice. To the bad guys: sex isn’t mandatory, whether on date three or 33. And to the good guys: we love you and we cherish you and thank you for believing in our truths and protecting and respecting us. If nothing else comes out of this, please understand that there are two Stephens in this story: Stephen, the person, and Stephen, the symbol. At the end of the day, this isn’t about Stephen. It is about what he represents. He is but a variable. Not all men, certainly. But yes, all women.