Last month, when Dresses front woman Timothy Heller tweeted her story of alleged sexual assault, she was treated to a cacophony of disbelievers. While this wasn’t unlike the negative attention any #MeToo participant might experience, hers was given a specific kind of pointedness, an insistence that what she said she’d went through didn’t constitute as rape because her perpetrator was another woman.
“I was in denial about this for a long time, and that’s one of the things I would tell myself to invalidate my own experiences,” Heller tells INTO. “But after going to therapy for a while and not really realizing why I was so bothered by this situation, it just became really clear to me that it was equally as serious as any other rape cases that I have been hearing about.”
Heller’s story made headlines because she named her assaulter as Melanie Martinez, a former The Voice contestant who has maintained a mildly successful career since appearing on the show. Martinez has never openly discussed her sexuality, nor hinted at being queer in any capacity, making Heller’s revelation confusing for many fans who have always appreciated Martinez’s eccentric and carefully curated “be your weird self” milieu.
In part, Heller’s tweet about the assault alleged that Martinez repeatedly pressed Heller about her sexual preferences and asked if they could have sex, bartering even.
“It went on for hours. Asking me WHY I didn’t want to, that it would be fun,” Heller wrote in her tweet. “I repeatedly said no.”
Eventually, Heller details, she became “so exhausted and confused and high and belittled” that Martinez began touching her.
“I never said yes,” Heller wrote. “I said no, repeatedly. But she used her power over me and broke me down. Just so there is no confusion, I was molested by my best friend.”
Specifically, she says, Martinez performed oral sex on her and violated her with a sex toy.
“She is a narcissistic person and has a very large savior complex, and I think in her head she thinks ‘How couldn’t someone want to sleep with me?’” Heller tells INTO. “And she knew that she had this control over me, and I think in the control she thought that meant, you know.. .I mean, I did love her. I loved her a lot, and she knew that, and she knew I had a hard time saying no to anything she said.”
Unfortunately, this kind of sexual coercion (or the pressure to engage in unwanted sexual behavior, occurring whenever someone submits to unwanted sexual behavior as a result of direct pressure, manipulation, or force) not only exists between same-sex friends, strangers, and partners, but is all too often ignored. Not only does it disrupt the mostly true ideas the public holds about the dynamic between a man being a powerful perpetrator and a woman as a powerless victim, but the pervasive heteronormativity that exists in what constitutes as rape.
“That’s another thing that just added to me questioning it so much because no one talks about it and it’s like, does that mean I am not important? Does that mean I’m making a big deal about nothing, you know?” Heller says. “I mean obviously, the #metoo movement helps, but I feel like stupid because ‘I can’t mention mine because it’s different.’”
Same-sex coercion has long been denied by the larger LGBTQ community who believe the topic (and subsequent proof of its existence) can and will be used against them by detractors of homosexuality.
Dr. Lisa K. Waldner,Associate Dean and Professor of Sociological Analysisat the University of St. Thomas, is one of few researchers who have attempted to gather evidence on same-sex sexual coercion. Her papers “Sexual Coercion in Gay/Lesbian Relationships: Descriptives and Gender Differences” and “Sexual Coercion in Lesbian and Gay Relationships: A Review And Critique” were published in the late ’90s based on surveys she’d taken a few years prior. At the time, finding out gay and lesbians could be more difficult, and she looked to LGBTQ organizations for help in in distribution.
“Some of the organizations were a bit resistant, even if they ultimately agreed to be helpful,” Waldner tells INTO. “One of the reasons that they were is they were afraid, and I understandthey were afraid that this research was going to be used to make it appear that lesbian relationships are harmful and unhealthy.”
But Waldner says she and colleagues reassured them by promising the call to attention would highlight that the kinds of relationship issues gays and lesbians have are not so dissimilar from heterosexuals; that it would ultimately help the community and their fight for being treated less abnormally. Her results, collected from surveys filled out by gays and lesbians based on their experiences with same-sex sexual coercion, found that among the 111 lesbians surveyed, there had been 133 incidents of sexual coercion. This included a range, as coercion can include persistent touching, telling lies, using guilt, drinking, being held down, using restraint, making threats to terminate the relationship, making threats to use physical force, blackmail, and rape.
Waldner’s study was not the first of its kind, but it remains the only one to specifically ask lesbians to report coercion from female partners. Previous studies asked lesbians about times they were coerced in general, leaving out the fact that many lesbians have had heterosexual pasts, Waldner says, or that they may have experienced assaults from men in general.
As a feminist, Waldner says she understands the trepidations to qualify the existence of women who coerce other women, as well as men (gay or otherwise) who are victims of coercion.
“I would go to conferences and present research by these they would basically say well ‘You are going to make it harderit has taken us a really long time to get people to take violence against women seriously. We have had a hard time getting shelters funded, etc., and now you are saying you are a male victim? We are going to have a hard time getting funding,’” Waldner says. “I guess that narrative of ‘females are always victims and males are always perpetrators; you can’t have a woman victimizing another woman’ is then one more reason why a lot of this work hasn’t been done.”
This narrative can be damaging for women who experience sexual coercion on any level, whether it’s another woman incessantly calling or pressuring another into spending time with her, to forceful or threatening scenarios that lead to physical situations.
“Because the lesbian community is limited in membership and visibility, lesbians may be at risk for victimization because perpetrators may realize that victims have fewer options and as a consequence, may tolerate sexual coercion,” Waldner writes in her study.
And if women who experience this believe that it’s somehow less concerning than when the aggressor is a man, it can be incredibly harmful to their psyche.
“I just repressed it,” Heller says of her experience. “I was in shock when it happened and I disassociated a bit because even the next day I felt like it seemed like a dream like I don’t even remember that happening very well. And months and months later, I would remember and be like ‘Oh yeah, that really did happen.’”
“There is a tendency to assume that all women are less coercive than all men and to ignore the possibility of sexual coercion in lesbian relationships,” Waldner writes in her study. “Regardless of whether sexual coercion is ignored by social scientists or the gay/lesbian community, the refusal to acknowledge and investigate is motivated by homophobia and gender bias.”
For Heller, it was conversations with another woman who said she’d felt coerced by Martinez helped Heller that helped her to feel more validated. Before going public, she said she shared her story in a private Facebook group for survivors, who encouraged her to share her experiences in order to help others of similar circumstances.
“I have also been preparing to do this in therapy for a long time, and I wasn’t going to do it until I didn’t have any doubt in my mind that it was the right thing to do,” she says. “I would go into therapy and my therapist would say ‘So do you think you should say something?’ and I would be like, ‘I don’t knowdoes it make me a bad person? Do I do it because I want to help people? Am I doing it for the wrong reason?’ Those were all questions I had to sort out before doing anything.”
Because Heller and Martinez are both public figures who frequently shared mementos of their friendship on social media, many of Martinez’s fans are quick to assert that Heller has selfish motives for coming forward. This is not so different from the experiences of heterosexual women who come forward about their alleged abusers or rapists. Victims are often attacked for their motivations, which, especially when it comes to naming public figures such as athletes or actors or politicians as the perpetrators, can portray them as fame-hungry whores who were willing participants at the time but have since been regretful or seek more from the incident as a whole.
For Heller, the insistence that she came out to find more followers don’t bother her as much as those who argue rape can’t happen between two women.
“There are people who are like ‘You do know that legally, rape has to have a penis and a vagina,’ and it’s like, literally, no,” Heller says. “Look that up and it just has to have penetration. I guess it just solidifies my action even more, that this needed to happen because people need to learn what needs to be taken seriously.”
Two days ago, Martinez, who has denied coercing Heller and says their relationship was always consensual, released a new song called “Piggyback” in what seems like a pointed attack on Heller:
“You’re lying your way to try and gain a piece of me/When you could never come close cause I know my destiny/I worked hard for my shit/Put my love in this shit/Now you’re trying to kill my name for some fame/What is this?/Tried to help you do your shit/Encouraged you to work on it/Was a good friend and you used that to your advantage.”
Waldner says that in her study, lesbians reported higher instances of women encouraging them to drink more, being handsy, and the use of guilt than rape, but these acts are accompanying predecessors that can lead to being pressured into something more than what the individual may want. Coercion of any kind is abuse, and should not be tolerated even if it’s verbal.
“’If you really loved me you would do X,’” Waldner gives as an example. “Telling lies that weren’t necessarily true, like ‘You are the only person important to me,’ or just saying things that weren’t true in order for the person to consent.”
Waldner’s study does not account for heterosexual women coerced into same-sex acts (which is surely among what conservative detractors are truly searching for), but it does show that lesbians are more likely to stop at unwanted kissing than heterosexual men. Still, that doesn’t mean forced penetration doesn’t happenHeller’s case is just one example of many others that are likely underreported. Waldner says this can be the case not only because some queer people aren’t sure that same-sex sexual coercion is as serious as an offense as that of the opposite sex, but also because some of them do not want to out themselves, especially to the police or medical professionals.
“When I go to my clinic, the nurse always asks me in the room, ‘Do you feel safe in your relationship?’ and she asks that no matter what,” Waldner says. “My doctor doesn’t ask me if I need birth control. But I go to a special women’s clinic and I live in an urban area so I actually have really good access to health care and really good access to service providers and I don’t worry about being treated badly because I’m a lesbian. That is a luxury that a lot of women don’t have because the health care providers or the social services providers that say they are going to, haven’t been so well trained in dealing with the needs of people in same-sex relationships.”
For Heller, she’s hoping to help others recognize that sexual coercion can happen between any two people, and that for others who have gone through similar situations, they aren’t alone.
“I am getting so many DMs from people that are like ‘Wow, thank you so much. My best friend did something similar to me, and I was never able to say anything about it and thank you for validating my experience,’” Heller says. “And that’s really great to hear because that’s what I did this for, basically.”
Heller hopes to continue using her platform to discuss sexual abuse and assault, including a video she’s working on with friend and actress Abigail Breslin in collaboration with Project Consent.
“She has her own stories of abuse, so we are going to be doing a video together, talking about it,” Heller says. “I really do want to try and spin this in the most positive way for myself and be there for people in a way that I didn’t really have any resources or have anyone that was talking to me about my situation.”
As women, we are more likely to believe other women who share their experiences with assault and rape. But when it’s two women, it’s more difficult for some to discern where alliances should lie. Heller hopes Martinez fans will understand that she’s not looking to destroy Martinez or her career, but instead, heal from her own pain and help others do the same.
“I’m really sorry for them, and I try to make it clear that I loved her just as much,” Heller says. “I knew her in real life, and I never thought she would do this to me either. I was in denial for months and months and months. I know that feeling and I know their anger, tooI did not want to believe what happened to me really did. I feel sorry for them and I hope that they can get a little better understanding and maybe some compassion from the whole situation.”
As the topic becomes more frequently touched upon, Waldner hopes more research will finally come of its unfortunately silenced prevalence.
“I understand where the reluctance is coming fromsocial sciences are going to start publishing articles that gay marriages are much more likely to end in divorce than heterosexual marriages, which that is probably true by the way, I probably would expect that to be the case,”Waldner says. “But I don’t think it means men and women can’t marry each other, or that same-sex marriages shouldn’t happen just because they happen to have a higher failure rate. If we based the ability to marry on failed marriages we wouldn’t let straight people get married either.”
“If we don’t have people doing research,”she continues, “if we don’t have people being honest and truthful about the issues that the gay community has or the trans community has, then we are not going to be able to train the services providers of the services we need and we aren’t going to have the resources that we need.”
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