Looking back, I realize that it’s a miracle that I didn’t get raped when I was in high school or college.
The news that Brock Turner, convicted rapist (whose name I can barely stomach typing but whose name needs to be out there so the RIGHT person can be shamed), has gotten away with a 6 month sentence for assaulting and raping an unconscious woman, has had me fuming for days now. I wasn’t aware of this case until just a few days ago, but once I read the victim’s harrowing statement, which brought tears to my eyes, I have not been able to get it out of my head.
I think what sickens me most, though, is that invariably there continues to be a chorus in the background of people who will claim that the entire incident is “unfortunate” but that “if she just had thought things through and not gotten so drunk this kind of thing might never have happened.”
Victim-blaming. Sexual assault is the ONLY crime where the victim is routinely blamed, where the victim, taken to court even with undeniable physical proof of the assault, must relive the horror of what happened while the justice system so frequently seems to work in favor of her attacker.
(It occurs to me now, that if this woman were to have, say, had an extreme reaction to a medication, legally prescribed, that caused her to become unconscious, or had she, I don’t know, had some kind of seizure or something that incapacitated her, after she left a party, and this sick scumbag found her passed out and raped her, would we tell her she shouldn’t have taken that med for whatever it was prescribed for, that she should not have gone to a party knowing that she suffered from epilepsy? I bet someone would cast blame at her for those things. Because someone is always ready to blame the victim in sexual assault cases rather than blame her attacker).
Well in an effort to feel that I have not remained silent about how I feel, because among other things, silence is one thing killing us in terms of rape culture, I thought it might be time to write about the handful of situations that happened to me as I dated in high school and college, because I don’t remember ever talking about this kind of thing back then, and I think since no one talked about it, it just persisted. How can you change a sick aspect of our culture if you pretend it doesn’t exist? So I’ll do my part now to reveal the kinds of things that haunt me to this day.
Understand that the handful of situations I found myself in PALE SO MUCH in comparison to the kinds of things I read about happening to others, or the kinds of things that have happened to women I know personally. I know I am one of the lucky ones because in the end, I wasn’t raped. But I have no doubt that tons of women in our midst have been “not raped but scared they might be” or “not raped but forced to do what they didn’t want to do to avoid it” or “not raped but made to feel ostracized by a guy because they wouldn’t sleep with him” or “not raped but made to feel like they owed something to a guy because he paid for mini golf.”
And none of these situations are fair or warranted for any woman, and in no way does a woman going out with a guy mean that she “asked for it”.
I also understand that men get assaulted, too. But I know only one male victim of assault personally compared to countless women, and I can only speak here from the female perspective.
So here were my situations in order of appearance:
- In sophomore year of high school, a guy in at least one or two grades ahead of me asked me out on a date. He was very popular and very good looking, from a prominent family, and an athlete. We went on a double date with his best male friend and that guy’s long-term girlfriend. We went to a very popular place for hs students to go on dates to play mini-golf. I remember leaving the mini-golf place and my date, the driver, driving us past a bunch of farms (we went to a more remote area than the golf place) and he and the other guy joked about stopping the car and “cow-tipping” which thankfully they did not get out and actually do. Then he pulled into the empty lot of a small church, out in the middle of nowhere. No homes or anything nearby. One light on a light pole. This was obviously the time before cell phones.
Immediately the couple in the back seat started to take off their clothes. I was freaked out. I had thought maybe we “might” kiss. We did, but he started trying to take off my clothes. I had to push him away more than once. The other couple was heavily involved with one another and I felt if anything that I was “expected” to do what she was doing. But they were also long-term together. This was our first date. This didn’t seem right nor normal to me. THANKFULLY the guy eventually stopped trying to get further than heavy kissing and pawing at me. After the date, he ignored me in school and I remember feeling ashamed every time I passed him and his friends because I felt as if they were looking down on me for being a prude.
So ultimately no, I wasn’t raped. But I was anywhere from uncomfortable to scared once we got to that remote parking lot, and I was ashamed when he then ostracized me later and never asked me out again. I learned from that situation that I probably would not get asked out a second time if I didn’t “put out” (as the parlance was at the time). I also learned that this guy’s reputation was not diminished as a result of what happened, but mine might have been, because I could think of girls who might have called me a prude and told me I should have done more with him, considering who he was.
- In my first year of college, age 17, I lived at home. I remember a guy in my music class who asked me to borrow my notes because he missed class. So I let him, and then we got to talking, and then he invited me to his dorm because there was some kind of dance party (my college typically had dance parties in the lobby areas, run by RA’s, on weekend nights). So I borrowed my parents’ car and I drove out to the college. When I got there, he said he didn’t want to dance, so let’s just hang out in his room. (YES. Today this would be a red flag for me and NO I’d never have gone to his room. But you have to understand that NOW, women are so USED to rape culture, that we routinely trade stories about red flags and warnings to as to make us all so hyper-vigilant that we attempt to thwart any rape attempt by not getting into a particular situation in the first place, but understand, it has never been, nor should it ever be, our JOB, our RESPONSIBILITY, to avoid being assaulted. THE TYPE OF MEN WHO ASSAULT WOMEN SHOULD SIMPLY NOT DO IT IN THE FIRST PLACE. Back then I don’t remember any of us trading stories to “help” each other “not get stuck in bad situations.”)
I went up to his room. There were tons of students everywhere. He lived on a wing of all men, but there was an all girls’ wing just doors away, with RA’s about. My assumption was that we’d sit and talk—get to know one another–and maybe he’d ask me on a future date if we liked each other.
We went in the room and immediately, he shut the door, then he opened it again to put a tie on the outside of it. That was code—perhaps it (or something else) still is. Guys would put a tie on the outside door handle if they were planning to have sex with a girl. I knew that because when I had visited women friends in the dorm, they told me that “guys do that.” I was naïve enough to think that the guys those women were speaking of were “always” guys with long-term committed monogamous girlfriends, and that this was code for “I’m with my girlfriend; don’t enter.” So when this guy who was not my boyfriend did it, I immediately felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
So I sat on a chair and he then made a great show of LOCKING the door. I sat there numb. I immediately felt scared. What was I going to do if he forced himself on me? How was I going to get out in time if he did? And worst of all, I immediately started to blame myself for being there. “You are so stupid, Susan,” I thought. So I just sort of sat there, my mind going a million miles a minute, waiting to see what would happen, and he started to rip off his t shirt, then his shorts. He was in underwear alone, and he started to sort of bounce around the room doing faux karate moves. It would be funny if it were not also terrifying. He said that he was learning karate and “check out my moves.” Ok well why do you have to be nearly naked to do them, well, we know why, and further, this had me beyond frightened because he was an athlete, he was very fit, very muscular, and yes, he could certainly kick my ass, pin me down, whatever.
I did the only thing I could think of doing. I claimed that I had to go to the bathroom. He sort of ignored me and continued to do his karate, and said “yeah it’s down the hall”, and I got my purse, and I tried not to look panicked, walked normally because I was afraid if I looked scared he might lunge at me, and I left, and then I left the building. In school on Monday, he acted as if I was the one who had something wrong with me. I was glad at that point that he left me alone, and I sat in a different part of the auditorium. But for the rest of the semester, I went to music class thinking about what had happened and felt ashamed that I’d “put myself in that situation in the first place.”
So no, in the end, I wasn’t raped. But I was anywhere from uncomfortable to scared; I was made to feel like the price of my getting to know a guy was that I was “supposed” to have sex with him; I was made to feel frightened by his very strange behavior; I was forced to see a guy in his underwear with a locked door when all I had expected was to sit in a room and get to know him. I never went to that dorm that night thinking I’d see any “action”, as that horrible excuse for a person, Brock Turner’s dad, calls physical contact. But it was made clear to me from the tie on the door, the lock being clicked, and his clothes coming off that “getting some” was the only reason he had any desire to talk to me in the first place.
- The worst example I can remember was later that year. I had a student worker job at the college in the top administrative offices at the college. This was a fantastic job, in a beautiful building that had once been an old library, with stained glass everywhere and stunning architecture. I had a lot of responsibility. I routinely worked with professor evaluations which were confidential. I did a lot of typing of “important letters”. I loved my part-time job and it helped me earn much-needed tuition money as I paid for college myself.
So one day, the son of one of the top ranking administrators came in to see his dad and I met him. I was floored by this guy. He was charming and great looking and very friendly. Eventually, he asked me out. I was beyond excited. He was the kind of guy any girl would love to go out with. I remember friends being so impressed with who he was, who his parents were, but also, he was a very accomplished student-athlete with a stellar reputation. So we went out to the movies and for ice cream—though I can’t remember what movie we saw, because the main part of the evening I remember was the end, in his car. We were in a well-lit, safe area, not that late (during all this time I had a midnight curfew which I kept). I didn’t have class with this guy, so this date was the first we’d really gotten to know one another (granted, today, I’d never get in a car with a guy for a first date—but again that’s rape culture’s effect. I’ve learned to be hyper-vigilant because of situations like this one). So anyway, my expectation was that after the date, he might kiss me when we got home. But no, he had other plans.
He pulled over and parked the car and started to heavily kiss me. Ok, well, not my expectation, things seemed to be escalating rapidly, but I can’t say I wasn’t happy about being kissed. I liked him. But in no time flat, the guy unzipped his jeans and shoved my face onto his erection. I was shocked and panicked. I could not move my head or neck up. I just could not. I remember straining against his hands and the way it hurt my neck. But there was no budging him. I remember thinking that if I didn’t do this, if I didn’t “finish him off”, that he might rape me. I really remember that. I remember thinking again that I never should have gotten myself into this car with him in the first place. But how else was I supposed to go on a date? At the time, women just did this. I didn’t have my own car. Even if I did, my parents wouldn’t have allowed me to drive somewhere alone and then drive myself home alone at night. They would have ASSUMED that the guy I was with, the son of a top administrator, famed student-athlete and all around American “nice boy” was going to be responsible for my welfare. This is just how you dated. You met someone at school, you talked a little, you went out for movies and ice cream. And sometimes, well, I guess you ended up with said guy shoving your face onto his crotch, forcing you, even though you were having trouble catching your breath, to finish him off, because he paid for the movies and ice cream, and because you wore a cute mini dress (the style at the time) and because somehow you owed this to him.
Did I say no? Out loud? No, I didn’t. It’s a little hard to say no when an object is shoved in your mouth. But there was a bigger reason I didn’t. I feared what would happen if I did; if I physically tried to push him more than I already was, what would he do? Would he hit me? Would he rape me? I feared things GETTING WORSE. So yes. I went through with it. I hated every minute of it. I had only ever done this act before with a long-term boyfriend after months of dating. We loved each other and we discussed it ahead of time. That was special. This act, this time, made me feel cheap and degraded and sick inside. I felt like a whore. But after, when he started the car and drove me home, I felt nothing but relief that I had escaped something “worse.” After that, the next week, at work, when he came in to see his dad, he ignored me. I was never asked out again. So that left me to think that again, had I had sex with him, I’d maybe have gotten a second date. Or maybe the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing, really, meant that I was terrible at something that I didn’t want to do in the first place. I remember thinking that I was glad this wasn’t high school and I wouldn’t have to face his friends who probably were talking trash behind my back. But I also remember thinking that I should not dare repeat what had happened, because who were they going to believe? Son of the high-ranking official, or me? Did I want to lose my job?
There is a common thread here, and it’s that all 3 of these guys were athletes. Now does that mean all male athletes are entitled assholes who take what they want? NO. I dated other athletes who never forced anything on me. One was the long-term boyfriend I spoke of above. So I’d say that in my anecdotal experience, 50% of male athletes I saw outside of school were entitled assholes. But even 1% is too many. I never “deserved” to have any of these experiences.
What matters about the fact that they were athletes to me was that each one was physically much stronger than I was, so I knew once things turned in a direction that scared me that I was physically outmatched—again, in the days before women were taught to carry pepper spray, before they had cell phones at the ready, before they learned how best to carry their keys to poke someone’s eyes out—all things rape culture has taught them they have to do to “avoid being assaulted”, to “be smart and hyper-vigilant lest they become victims.” This is not to say that a non-athlete can’t outmatch you physically. But there is another level of pressure with a male athlete: his team, his coaches, his teachers.
The guy from high school had a whole team behind him as well as a group of faculty who were also coaches. I remember sitting in history class and he and other various male athletes coming over lunch to “visit” with the teacher who ignored teaching us (I have a weak grasp on world history to this day because an entire semester was spent playing Risk while our teacher, the head football coach, visited with his players during class time). The only time that teacher ever paid attention to me was when I went on a date with a football player, and after we didn’t hit it off, the teacher went back to ignoring me. So you sort of knew going in that if you dated an athlete, they already had a posse behind them, while you did not. What girl would ever accuse a guy of doing anything wrong with those kinds of odds?
Again—my situations are so small compared to other women’s situations—but there have to be countless other stories the same or worse than mine that happened to other women who felt that anything that went wrong was probably their fault, or even if they were so enlightened as to understand that it wasn’t, that they had to know few would support them if they spoke out. If anything, a bad situation would become worse if they opened their mouths. So they were silent.
Another common thread that runs through all these situations is the way I had been taught—not by any specific person—but by rape culture itself, which at the time, I don’t think had a name—to blame myself for the actions of these men. I was blaming myself before I even got home those nights. In the car—in the dorm—in the moment—I was already hard at work blaming myself. When I ended up with the administrator’s son, the worst of all 3 incidents, I remember blaming myself for having broken up with the boyfriend I had had in 11th grade–TWO YEARS EARLIER–who had only ever kissed me despite us going out for several months. I had gotten to a point where I didn’t think our relationship was working and I stopped going out with him, and all I could do when that asshole had his hand on my neck was to think that I never should have broken up with “the nice boy” because he “never would have forced himself on me in any way.”
And to this day, at age 47, decades after these incidents, they remain fresh in my mind, because of that shame I felt as I blamed myself. Imagine if I’d talked about this stuff, the extra levels of shame I’d have felt as people around me told me it was my fault.
But none of it was ever my fault. These were people who were taught that their actions have no consequences. That it is their right to take what they want from girls and women. That their status as white men of some bit of privilege, looks, brains, and abilities, gives them the right to take what they want when they want it. Somewhere along the line a parent, a coach, a teammate, a friend, taught them that women are to be used, and if you’re horny, just take one out for a game of mini golf, borrow her notes and ask her to a dorm dance you have no intention of going to, buy her an ice cream cone, and then, she owes you. These were all guys who felt I owed them something, and not a single drop of alcohol was involved. I wasn’t drunk, or high, or promiscuous (and even if I was, that still doesn’t imply consent). I was simply a teenage girl on a first date. Nothing more. But I guarantee you that there are some people, both men and women, who would tell me that I fucked up, not that these guys did.
These are the kind of men who have been taught that if a woman even DARES to look pretty, to have put a little bit of extra time into her hair that night, to have done her nails, all in anticipation that a “nice” guy from a good family might like her, then by golly she was asking for it, don’t let her, or anyone else, tell you any different.
To this day I have been affected by these very minor incidents, in that I finally had to give up online dating a year or so ago—which I did with all sorts of precautions (arriving alone in my own car, to a public place, telling the bartender to watch out for me, having a girlfriend on standby via text message with a code word in case I needed to be “rescued”, never giving out my address or even, in some cases, my last name or phone number), because I simply became too paranoid to meet anyone under those “blind date” circumstances. The good men out there should be outraged beyond belief that women all over who have been burned even just once may now view them through such a paranoid lens. But what other choice do we have, when we know that anything that goes wrong for us will be deemed as our fault, that we will have to spend time defending the twisted actions of others?
This sickening shit is rape culture, through and through. And until enough of the GOOD men out there—because there are some—my two long-term boyfriends and my ex-husband were the three men I knew back then who never forced anything physical on me or made me fear for my safety, and I know of good men now who would NEVER even THINK about forcing a woman to do anything she didn’t want to do or make her uncomfortable in any way—until they become more vocal in standing up for us—and until the women who support men like this by saying “oh well she should have or should have done thus and so” stop supporting sick criminal-minded behavior—it is going to perpetuate. And no amount of precautions are ever going to stop the assaults, from minor to major, and every victim will have to spend the rest of her life living with the consequences, from minor to major, of this insidious blight on our very humanity.