[above: Graduation 2005 – celebrating those of us who knew how to follow the rules]
Choosing to lead a rather isolated life, where I not only work from home but also have a spouse who travels extensively, leaves me with a lot that goes unsaid. Add to that the fact that I haven’t written much (with the intention of being read, and as best I can as though everyone involved had died long ago…) in 10+ years, and most days it feels like it’s piling up. One of the reasons I’ve started writing again is to find out what honest, true thoughts I may or may not have in my power to articulate, without having to wait around for someone to be there to hear.
Last week, Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus,” about the on-campus culture surrounding rape at UVA. The article is pretty long, but worth a read if you are interested in this topic, which I unfailingly find that I am. (ETA 12/15/14 – There is currently some controversy surrounding the details of that girl’s story. I’m not 100% sure how I feel about that yet, but I’m definitely following the developments with interest)
There is a distance of nearly 10 years between me and my four years at a similar “revered southern institution”. 10 years between me and the night I was sexually assaulted. Reading yet another one of these stories, I found myself (still) unsurprised. It never surprised me when I heard stories of friends or acquaintances experiencing sexual assault – and it didn’t surprise me when it happened to me. But here, years later, two things stood out for me that bear exploration.
one: July 4, 2005
Both girls named in the story remember the exact date when it happened. Even years later, they have that delightful little anniversary indelibly inked into their mental calendars. This was the first time I’d read that this sort of detail sticks for others, too. And it was then that I revisited the night of July 4, 2005 for myself.
I graduated college in May, and that summer was not an easy one. All of my friends had moved on to jobs or grad school, but I was loathe to leave the city, so I stayed here, jobless, in a too-expensive apartment, casting about for purpose. Happening upon classmates in town for the holiday wasn’t a surprise, but it was a welcome and comforting delight. A frat boy I knew from a senior year Spanish class – one of three brothers in the class that, as a group, had twitterpated me and left me aching for them to think I was cool – happened to be at the bar where my roommate and I were celebrating. Perhaps I was longing for the simpler days of 3rd grade, back when I was a person first and not a gender, when I hung out with the boys because that’s where the fun was. Perhaps my inability to lose my virginity during my time as an undergrad was tugging at me particularly hard. Perhaps that night was was simply well-placed on the timeline of my descent into deliberate self-destruction.
However it started, it ended with the boy, drunk, surprising a relatively sober me by shutting my bedroom door and locking it… turning to me and pushing me against the closet wall, pressing me flat and sloppily kissing near my mouth as he reached his hand under my shirt… simultaneously groping me as he pushed me towards my bed, falling on top of me and rolling over while unzipping his pants… pushing my head down and holding it there with both hands until he was half-hard… then dragging me up while pushing down my jeans…
discovering (to my surprise, since I was in the middle of my cycle… in retrospect, I suppose “the body has ways of shutting that down”…) that I was bleeding, wiping his hand on my pillow and slurring, exhaustedly, “s’fine, just blow me,”… then – much to my relief – passing out. I took this for the luck it was and, trailing drops of blood on my carpet, I retreated to my bathroom to clean up. When I reemerged, bundled in an old chenille robe handed down from my mother, he was putting on his shoes, mumbling that his ride was downstairs.
I am inclined to downplay what happened that night, to excuse it. After all, I can see my naiveté glaring down the hallway of the years from here. And I can see his almost-innocent entitlement, too. I’m inclined to be more kind than perhaps I ought, more forgiving to the both of us for being products of the culture we inhabited, the culture that taught us what to expect from each other and what roles we would play. How could we be expected to escape?
two: Following the Rules
What I see, now – what I’ve been ruminating on from thousands of angles – is how good we all were at following the rules. From birth, I was a rule-follower. I was exceptionally skilled at it, naturally talented. Even when the rules weren’t explicit, I could sense them, and I followed them to a tee (well – behaviorally, at least. The fact my body betrayed me, breaking the rules with its fatness, was a struggle in and of itself).
My peers were also adept at these rules – be they social, academic, familial. Anecdotal as it is, the story of a rugby teammate telling me, as we walked home from the practice pitch one night, that her mother was insisting on her quitting the team so that she had enough time to devote to finding a steady boyfriend (that old MRS degree, there in the flesh), is the perfect example for the line we all walked. “I went straight from my father’s house to the sorority house to my husband’s house,” as Rachel’s mom puts it in FRIENDS episode 211. The freedoms we had were stolen from around the edges of what was expected of us, and for that girl, rugby was interrupting those expectations.
We were, nearly all of us, trained since birth to follow the rules to our full advantage. By the time we reached the bubble of college, I suspect that we’d come to see any rule that was established as a valid parameter. It didn’t matter how stupid or horrifying the rule was… we played the game according to the rules, and we did it well.
The rules I knew: that nothing about that night had been prosecutable… that saying anything would ruin what little reputation I had with that boy and his extensive network of (rich, connected) friends… that while maybe I hadn’t wanted that to happen, I’d certainly wanted something, and if only I hadn’t wanted that to begin with, none of it would ever have happened.
And so the night passed, and another July 4th, and another, and it faded into a distasteful memory of that boy, a memory that with each year seems to make more sense to me.
as an adult
When I was in the middle of that culture, naive and woefully uneducated about my body and my power or lack thereof, it didn’t engender the outrage in me than it does now; back then it just seemed like it that was the way it was supposed to be. Those were the rules. Of course I would not say anything. The most cold, calculating evaluation of the situation shows that I did the thing that would preserve what little power I had left: I stayed quiet.
But now… from my seat here outside most of the rules of the prevailing culture, I am immensely sad. Sad that I didn’t see the construct sooner, that I didn’t see the rules for what they were – a way to control who I was and what I could become, a way to perpetuate a broken, unjust system. I’d had no power long before that boy pushed my head down so that I could give him the blow job that he was, according to the rules, rightfully owed.
A year or so ago, that boy’s name appeared in my email inbox. Shocked and a little unnerved, I opened it, only to find that I’d been bcc’d as a part of a mass marketing request to our entire graduating class to contribute to a kickstarter funding the start-up he’d created along with the two other boys from that Spanish class. I laughed. Out of the memory of that night surging back, out of the resentfulness I’ve carried over my ingenuous participation in a rigged game came… a laugh. Here, at last, was my rape joke, years in the making. A sweeter punchline could not have been written for me, the email marketer, the entrepreneur, the lover of start-ups and crowd-funding. Here, the joke was at an end.
so, what do I want?
More than anything, although I did not know it until it revealed itself, I wanted that punchline. I wanted a sarcastic bite, something to strengthen me enough to find my way out of the regret and look upon myself and upon that boy with kindness. I hope that others are as lucky as I have been, that they find their own punchlines, their own way to escape the power that such experiences can exert for years, for lifetimes.
Forgiving violence and letting go of resentment may not be entirely possible for me. My brain loves to chew the cud of wrongs until it aches. But I am my brain, just as I am my body, and my desire to be less wrong today than I was yesterday is strong. I hope that the university system, especially those “revered southern institutions” (which seem now, from where I sit, to be just another cog in a system perpetuating slavery) will try to be less wrong than they have been. I hope that the better we get at communicating, the less afraid we are of speaking up, the fewer people will be unwittingly implicated in their own oppression.
I hope. And I laugh.