I Am Very Lucky. I Have Never Been Raped.

Check out the Washington Post Article: This Is Rape Culture.

I am very lucky. I have never been raped.

The first time I can remember being sexually assaulted, I was 13, a friendly kid who smiled a lot. Not yet sexual in any way. We were moving out of our apartment. One of the moving guys reached out and grabbed my breasts. I was shocked and horrified and scared. I ran into the apartment, curled up in my now-empty bedroom closet and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t tell anyone. I barely understood what had happened to me, but I knew it was wrong and awful and I would be blamed for it. Even then, I knew that I would be blamed. Many years later, my godfather (who did not know about the assault) would recall that day to me as the day I was flirting with the moving guy.

I am very lucky. I have never been raped.

When I was fifteen, I had an internship at a wood-carver’s shop. One of the guys I apprenticed for was in a wheelchair. He was probably in his mid-30s. He and I were close. He had a great sense of humor and taught me how to carve faces into sticks of wood. His hands were strong as rocks. He took me out for lunch one day and groped me in the front seat of his van. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. I had to get safely home. I had to keep my apprenticeship. I had to get out of there. I had to keep from embarrassing him. I felt bad for him. I knew his life was hard. I felt, somehow, like I should have been willing, but I wasn’t. I was scared and fifteen and he was an adult I respected and felt close to. I felt like I had to protect him as much as I had to protect me. I didn’t know how to handle the situation. I never said no with my words. It seemed safer not to. I was wearing a burgundy cap. I ducked my chin down and away, so that the hat would block his view of my face. My body was twisting and turning and cringing away as he put his rock-strong hands all over me. I kept thinking, “How can he keep touching me when every part of my body is screaming ‘No’ except my mouth?” I didn’t tell anybody, but I did stop working at the shop after that.

I am very lucky. I have never been raped.

Shortly after my sixteenth birthday (I imagine this was intentional – if I consented, it would no longer be considered statutory rape), the 50 year old step-dad of one of my closest friends called me up and asked if he could come over and take me on a drive. I was afraid that he was going to tell me that his step-son, my dear friend, was dead. That was the only reason I could imagine him calling me like that. He and I had a very positive relationship at that point. He was someone that I trusted. I got in his car. He confessed that he was in love with me, that he and my friend’s mom were having a hard time in their marriage, that he was terribly lonely, that I was so mature, that I was so special, that I was so beautiful, that he knew I was lonely, too, that he knew I must love him because of the warm way I always interacted with him. I was not willing to have an affair with him, because that was totally wrong. I didn’t want to break trust with my friend’s mom and with my friend, but I worried about this man. I cared about him and he seemed to be so depressed. He seemed to be having a hard time in his life. He seemed to be. I tried to be a good friend to him, to get him out of his depression. He pursued me aggressively, lied to me, manipulated me, and at various points, kissed, touched, and caressed me, when I didn’t want to be having any physically intimate relationship with him. I think he was sort of into consent. In that fuzzy way that men in rape culture can sometimes be. He would try to convince me that sex with him was a good idea and he would lie and manipulate me in order to try to convince me. I was never willing to have sex with him, but I endured a variety of physical and sexual contacts that I did not want while I tried to navigate my way through the situation. I felt so responsible for everything. I knew if my friend found out, he would hate me forever. I knew his mom would feel heartbroken and betrayed by me. I felt like the things that had already happened were all my fault. Yet, I also felt like if I hurt this man’s feelings by saying no, I would be the one doing grievous harm to him.

I am very lucky. I have never been raped.

When I was 18 and new at college, I went on a first date with an upper classman I didn’t really know. We were supposed to go out to dinner and then go to a movie. He was running later and later. Eventually, he suggested that he pick me up and that we go over to his place and he would make me dinner and we could watch a movie on his TV. Reluctantly, I agreed, thinking I should meet this person in public for a first date, since I didn’t really know him at all. But, I went to his place for dinner, anyway. I had been flattered that he asked me on a date. I didn’t get a lot of date requests back then. He poured me a glass of wine. I wasn’t really a drinker, at that point. He tried to get me to drink more and more wine. We cuddled on the couch after the meal and he put on a pornographic video as the “movie.” I felt very uncomfortable. He grabbed my wrists and held me down underneath his body. He was incredibly strong. I can still feel the strength of his grip on my wrists as he pressed his body into me and forced contact with me that I was desperate to get away from. I panicked. I knew he was going to try to rape me. “How could I have been so stupid?’ I asked myself, “How could I have gotten myself into this position?” My mind raced, trying to figure out how to get out of the situation. Somehow, I managed to convince him that if I didn’t use the bathroom, I was going to have diarrhea all over his couch. I escaped to the bathroom and locked the door and sat on the floor and tried to figure out what I could say or do to get him to take me home. I didn’t know where I was. I was new to the area. It’s not the kind of town where you can just expect a cab to come by. Cell phones weren’t a thing, yet. I couldn’t call for help. It didn’t occur to me to just run out of the building and trust that strangers would help me find my way. Or believe me. It never occurred to me to just run. I thought I had to convince him to take me back home. Somehow, I did. Can’t remember how. Probably pleaded sickness or stomach flu. During the drive home, he talked to me about how he was a nice guy, how the world has it out for nice guys, how nice guys (like him) never win. Girls are just awful to nice guys. He dropped me off at my gate. I entered, closed the gate and ran and ran and ran. I called up my best friend and she answered, though it was the middle of the night in her time zone, and she supported me as I cried and cried and cried and cried and cried.

I am very lucky. I have never been raped.

This is not, by any means, an exhaustive list. These are just the episodes that stand out. The commonplace episodes – receiving aggressive come-ons from strangers on the street, having my ass grabbed by men at a club or in a crowd, having men I barely know or don’t know at all hug me and force kisses on me, having my sexual boundaries pushed, being in sexual situations with people I feel ambivalent about sexually but to whom I deduce it would be safer to say yes than to say no – are all part of the ordinary regular experience of being a woman in the United States.

As I review these experiences, working hard to remember what each one felt like, it is the theme of self-blame that catches my attention. In each case, I had a sense that I was to blame for the situation that I was in. That I shouldn’t have smiled or been friendly or warm or kind or caring or that I shouldn’t have been unwise enough to be alone with a man I didn’t know well or a man I knew very well. That if I were honest with people about what had happened, there would be no support for me. I would be in the wrong or no one would believe me.

Where did I get these ideas? I’m sure I did not make them up all by myself. By the time I was 13, I had already internalized this aspect of rape culture.

Now I know that it was not my fault. That none of it was my fault. That I don’t have to protect the reputation or the tender feelings of someone who would assault me. Now, I use the word “No,” more liberally and have more power to enforce my own sexual boundaries. Now, the worst violations are off in the distant past and my sexual life is characterized by enthusiastic consent with respectful and skillful partners. Hallelujah!

Yet, in the moment something untoward is happening, I still have to calculate the safest response. The safest response I can come up with often involves not shaming someone who is capable of assault or of a boundary-crossing violation by bringing to their attention the fact that they have done something wrong. “No,” or “Get your hands off of me,” are often enough to trigger an aggressive shame response. Men who are feeling shame can be dangerous. #NotAllMen, obviously. But, #YesAllWomen have experienced this danger. I wouldn’t play Russian roulette with it. I have endured and watched women endure sexually aggressive or sexually entitled words and behaviors from men without saying “No,” not because there was anything whatsoever wrong with the woman in question or her powers of assertiveness, but because to say “No” was not the safest way to get out of the situation. “No” is, unfortunately, not a magic wand that makes the danger go away. There is no magic wand that makes the danger go away.

No magic wand. No nail polish. No skirt length. No protocol.

Rape culture has to be dismantled, brick by brick by brick. Mostly by men. In locker rooms. In frat houses. At military bases. In cars and basements and bars. In the writing rooms for TV shows. In boardrooms. In the offices of politicians. In places where men spend time talking to other men about women as objects when women are not around. Mysogynistic code switching (here’s how I talk about the woman when the woman isn’t around versus here’s how I talk about the woman when the woman is around) is a problem.

While not assaulting women (or anyone, for that matter) is a really good start, it is not enough. The behaviors and norms that lead to assaultive behavior are legion. Those have to be acknowledged and checked and questioned and changed. Everywhere.

Because women are assaulted everywhere, men need to stop assaultive behavior everywhere.

A prominent man who was recently revealed as a sexual abuser said, during his abusive faux-apology: “Let’s be honest. We’re living in the real world. This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”

I am living in the real world. My real world involves repeated sexual assault and sexual boundary crossing. Half the population has stories like mine. Many, perhaps most, of those people have stories far worse than mine. This is an important issue that we face every day. On days when we are not being assaulted, we are often giving significant thought to how to not be assaulted. It becomes second nature.

If men gave as much thought to the problem of how to prevent men from assaulting women as women give thought to the problem of how to prevent men from assaulting us, there would be no problem.

I am quite clear that I am very lucky. I have offered you my very mild case of being female in America.

Kelly Oxford asked women to share the first time they have been sexually assaulted. I started reading some of the stories that women have shared using the hashtag #notokay. It is an on-going horror story. “Not okay” doesn’t even begin to cover it. The ongoing systematic abuse of half the population is phenomenally #notokay.

If you don’t believe in rape culture, check out that hashtag. Read the stories that go on for days. More than a million of them and counting. Then wonder about the next woman you see and the repository of stories that she carries inside of her. Repeat with the next woman and the next woman and the next woman.

Consider: What’s your brick to dismantle?

Jiggle it every day.

Chip at it and keep on chipping.

Start now, please.

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