People How the Bobbit Worm Helps Me Name My Sexual Assault
He attempted to have sex with me, and I managed to stop him by saying I had a tampon in, my period blood a greater deterrence than my protest.
My Life in Sea Creatures is back! This is the fourth essay in a column by Sabrina Imbler which considers lives on land, including immigrant and queer lives, and lives in the ocean.
The bobbit worm can grow as long as a man, or longer. Some specimens of the marine worm on record have topped ten feet, so long that scientists draped the worm’s body across the full length of a crosswalk to capture the enormity. But you can only see all of the bobbit’s snaking body after it’s been caught. The bobbit spends its life in hiding, burying its armored body in the sludge at the bottom of the ocean. It surrounds itself with broken things, shards of coral and quartz that have long ago eroded into sand.
When a bobbit worm emerges from its burrow , it looks like a blooming. The silt rustles. The worm corkscrews upward and its five striped antennae pierce the sand, bending toward whatever it suspects could be prey nearby. And then, the jaws: huge, serrated antlers that flip open in seconds, like a bear trap. Its jaws are powerful enough to slice prey cleanly in half, and often do.
Like snakes and other unjustly powerful animals, bobbits hunt prey far larger than themselves. Fish never survive the ambush, pulled underground by the ferocious jaws of a worm without a face or a complex brain. The bobbit swallows prey like quicksand. Its jaws yank meals underground in brutally punctuated plunges, allowing the sand enough time to settle around the darting eye of a fish that doesn’t quite know what just happened.
After it strikes, the bobbit worm disappears so fast that no one can tell it was ever there, except for you. The sand seems as still as it ever was, the worm’s clean killing leaving no trace of flesh or scale. You wonder how you could ever point a finger at something that vanished as quickly as it came, something you can barely remember.
Once when I was twelve and walking home from Jamba Juice with a friend, I realized we were being followed. My friend saw it too, and we decided in whispers to take a circuitous route home. Our words grew louder and our laughter faker in an unconvincing feint of ignorance. The man trailed us for nearly six blocks, turning left, then right, then right again.
I can’t remember what he looked like, perhaps middle-aged with a blue windbreaker and a mustache, or perhaps that is what twelve-year-old me assumed. After we turned the corner on a street prowling with redwoods, we ducked into a yard and pressed our bodies to the earth, fresh-watered dirt seeping into our jeans. After a long, uneasy silence, we emerged, scanning the empty street for a man, a windbreaker, or his silhouette. Seeing nothing, we walked the next block home, jumping at the fractal shadow of trees on the asphalt.
There are many forms of predation. Some animals poison, others chase. Ambush predators like the bobbit worm take a trickier tack. They hide and wait for their target to come just close enough to strike. Predators like this hunt prey they could never catch on fair terms, as lurking will always be easier than chasing. It is hard to pursue animals that are bright and agile, nervous and light on their feet because they know they are wanted. Some predators put on elaborate shows of trust, disguising themselves as rocks and mottling the color of their skin. But the bobbit worm prefers to hunt at night, darkness cloaking its five swiveling antennae. It’s easiest to hunt unseen.
Despite having a clump of nerve cells in the place of a brain, bobbit worms and their relatives feed on the most intelligent predators. Groups of fireworms easily ensnare octopuses, their bodies snaking around each tentacle and plunging into the octopus’ siphon, an opening in the body that normally allows the octopus to breathe. I am reminded that anything, no matter their intelligence or muscle or power, can be felled by an invertebrate without the capacity to feel.
Over the last few months, I’ve begun to recognize that some of my past hookups are perhaps better defined as assaults. I remember my first boyfriend in ninth grade, who, after our first kiss, took off my shirt and shoved his hand down my underwear. It all happened so fast and when I asked him to please stop, he told me I had nothing to worry about. “Your stomach is flat like a model’s,” he said, and bit my lip.
I remember the guy with the graphing calculator in his pocket who gave me another drink and led me behind a barn, where he shoved my head down and I, drunk and grateful to have been invited to the party in the woods, didn’t protest. Later that night, a thirty-two-year-old man offered to share his sleeping bag with me in exchange for the same thing, and I, locked out of my friend’s car, believed I had no other choice. Later he attempted to have sex with me, and I only managed to stop him by saying I had a tampon in, my period blood a greater deterrence than my protest. I stayed awake for hours in trunk of his car, watching him sleep and looking out into the dark spaces between the trees.
In college, I began blacking out and hooking up. One time, I learned I’d slept with someone—I’d suspected, but couldn’t remember—because his friend pointed me out at a party, locking eyes with me, and shouted what had happened to all the guys around him. One time, I emerged from a blackout to realize there was a man sitting on my stomach, slapping me. I became skilled at feigning consent as I faded into some kind of consciousness.
I remember the friend of a friend who would watch me at parties when I drank too much, his blurry face hovering in my peripheral vision, asking to walk me home. Later, I would gently shake him awake, and then tell him I was having trouble sleeping next to another body, if he could please leave, smiling a tight smile and apologizing for the cold walk home. I would go back to my twin-extra-long and writhe, soundless, in shame.
I was so skilled at self-deception that I would go out of my way to share these stories, texting my friends to meet me outside of this library or that, because if I bragged about it, too, then I’d probably feel better about the whole thing and there would be nothing more to think about. When I saw these men at parties, I’d drink to feel less anxious, to feel comfortable enough carrying a conversation should they have solicited one, and in turn, I’d wake up the next morning with another unfamiliar regret.
When I first came out to my mother, she asked me if I thought I was a lesbian because so many men had been cruel to me. I knew she was asking about the men whose only transgressions were breaking my heart, but instead I thought of these other men, and for a moment I wondered if she was right.
A certain kind of dramatic irony underlines every nature documentary, wherein the moment you see something small, soft, or dumb, you know that it will soon be devoured. As the camera tracks this doomed creature, you can’t help but feel its path is too lackadaisical, ignorant, or rash. You can’t look away even though you know what will happen.
This feeling surges within me when I watch footage of the bobbit worm hunt. I see a careless, drifting fish gliding over a stray antennae belonging to a bobbit, which will lunge into an attack, its mandibles slicing through empty brine. Even if the fish manages to escape, it inevitably strays back toward the bobbit—there are only so many places to go on the seafloor—even though I want to scream at it to move away. It is invariably eaten, and though I know it is not to blame, I berate the fish for not knowing better. Why swim there in the first place, so plump and soft and desirable? Why did it not know to leave?
People never talk about the bobbit worm’s terrible beauty. Thrust deep in the muck, the ten feet of its body glisten in rainbow. Each awful, segmented rung is painted with colors that refuse to stay still. Its iridescent exoskeleton contains the same properties as the inside of an abalone, full of microscopic colors that interfere with the natural wavelength of light. This is why they refract and transform, shifting from blue to fuschia at seemingly the same moment, never looking the same as when you last saw them.
The bobbit worm earned its common name from the infamous incident between John and Lorena Bobbitt, when on June 23, 1993, Lorena cut off her husband’s penis with a Ginsu knife. In the subsequent trial, after the penis had been reattached—somewhat miraculously, as she had thrown it out the window of her car—she said John had been emotionally and sexually abusing her for the entirety of their marriage.
Several years later, Dr. Terry Gosliner, the nation’s foremost expert on sea slugs, saw a giant worm emerge from the seafloor and devour a fish whole. He named the species after Lorena, perhaps because of its snare-trap jaws, or its grossly phallic shape. Marine biologists later ascertained that the bobbit has no penis, instead releasing its sperm into the water like coins in a fountain, but the name stuck.
Writing this, I am scared that it is selfish to talk about my own experiences, as so many other people have suffered much worse. I’m scared of men from my past reaching out to apologize, or to argue. I’m afraid that the men I am writing about won’t recognize themselves in this article and will think instead they’re one of the ‘good ones.’ I now realize these encounters were still unwanted in ways that should not have been entirely my responsibility to communicate. I am scared of men like I am of bobbits—not because they are strange to me, but because I know them very well.
Earlier this year, a friend emailed me screenshots of “ Shitty Media Men ,” Moira Donegan’s crowd-sourced Rolodex of men who had allegedly harassed or assaulted people while working in media. I scrolled through the list and saw men I followed on Twitter, men I thought were funny, and men I already knew were bad. I saw the name of one man I had worked with. I rolled the hard consonants of his name around in my head during my commute, thinking about him and his enviable job. But there was not much to do, and not much more to think about, and so I carried on as usual. Mostly, I felt grateful for my friend for watching out for me.
Recently, scientists have observed strange behavior in certain fish often targeted by the bobbit worm. Known as Peter’s monocle breams, the small fish are the color of money, silver bodies with one copper stripe. Considering the generally flamboyant menagerie of tropical fish, the breams aren’t much to look at. But unlike fancier fish, the breams have learned to bite back.
Upon discovering that a suspicious dimple in the sand contains a bobbit worm, the monocle breams hover directly above the entrance in the line of attack and spit jets of water toward the sand. The bobbit is exposed in a matter of seconds, pincers bared toward the sun. It must find a new hiding spot. The fish are incapable of harming the bobbit worm, as delicate fins and even the most forceful water jet can’t pierce an exoskeleton. But what they can do is warn. Their frenzied spurting alerts others nearby to the bobbit’s stealthy presence in a kind of effervescent whisper network.
Whenever scientists notice intelligent behavior in fish, creatures they long ago spurned as universally dim-witted, they always call it strange, unusual, exceptional. How little they have always thought of fish, and how wrong they were not to know how powerful we have become. How powerful we have always been.