It’s Not Harmless Talk: On Sexual Assault
I usually write about academic topics; history, politics, folklore — that sort of thing. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about people’s implicit acceptance of friends and associates’ sexual assault, or even other forms of potentially rape-y behavior.
When I was in college I met a guy.
He shot pool with friends in the student lounge and I liked pool, so I started to hang out with them. It was a relatively slow process. We chatted, played games, watched horror movies with the group. Eventually, we started going on walks around campus at after classes.
To be clear, because apparently I have to be, I promised my mother I wouldn’t drink on campus, and I didn’t. No one pressured ever even me to, something that has been largely true throughout my life.
Anyway, one night I was walking around with this guy, and we kissed a little by one of the academic buildings. Clothes fully on, standing, nothing most people don’t do in high school — or even earlier. It wasn’t the raciest thing I’d ever done with a guy, but I wasn’t too enthusiastic about his kissing style. I wasn’t ready for it to go any further with him.
We stopped kissing and started walking. Somewhere in there I must have indicated that I was going to go back to my room. In retrospect, this must have been where the miscommunication happened. I suspect he thought that meant we were going to go have sex. It’s certainly not what I intended.
But we got to my dorm, and we kissed goodbye, and I went into my room. I don’t remember if he asked to come in and I said no, but I know that we kissed goodbye in front of my door. It wasn’t a giggly make-out session, or anything like that. I’d intended a goodnight kiss.
Here’s where it got scary.
When I went into my room, he tried to follow me in. When I tried to close the door, he pushed back and tried for force his way in. I am 5’9 and not particularly dainty with my weight. I managed to get the door closed, and thankfully, dorm room doors lock automatically. If I had been smaller? If I had been forced to fumble with the lock?
I don’t like to think about what might have happened. I know what sorts of things happened to other women less privileged than me, and I can only be glad that I was “lucky.”
But lucky or not, I wasn’t alone.
I deferred invitations to hang out with that group of friends whenever he was going to be around. It was awkward and I was scared and at that age. I didn’t know what else to do. Thankfully, I had other friends; I was still close to friends from back home. But eventually, they invited me to an event he wasn’t going to be at, and I went.
It was an off-campus event, and there was a little bit of booze. I wasn’t driving, and I didn’t get drunk, but I got a little brave and I talked to one of the men there — older, who lived in the off-campus apartment with his girlfriend.
He asked where I’d been, why I had been avoiding the group. So I explained what their friend had done, and how frightened it made me.
I still remember the response, vividly.
“Oh, you’re not the first girl who’s said that. I’m sorry for X.”
! ! !
Let me repeat that:
! ! !
I stopped hanging out with them after that, for good, because all I could think was: why would you stay friends with someone who multiple women have said he acts aggressively toward? How would you include them in your group, watch them flirt and get closer to him, without warning them? Why would you let that happen? What seems okay about lending your social capital, your coolness, to the purpose of helping him find women for him to do this sort of thing to?
There is no “I didn’t know he was like that.” There is a bunch of people — men and women — allowing the somewhat terrifyingly large number of men who are inclined toward rape to think that it’s acceptable behavior. They apparently don’t know that forcing a woman to have sex with you is rape. Their friends, after all, don’t do anything to indicate the behavior is inappropriate.
You can dismiss “rape culture” as a feminist fantasy (although I don’t understand, genuinely don’t understand, why you would). If you think I was “asking for it” because I kissed him and “led him on,” that’s your (shameful) prerogative.
You cannot tell me that ignoring sexual assault doesn’t hurt our society.
I’ve known a lot of people over the years who were friends with people who demonstrate sketchy attitudes toward women and sex. I have known people to talk about sexual assault like it’s no big deal — because they don’t think it is! I’ve dated men who were friends with guys who put their faces in the crotches of people they just met — me. I slapped him on the face, but if I hadn’t felt brave enough to? Would my boyfriend have said something to his high school buddy?
I can tell you right now that no one ever stopped inviting him to parties. I learned that to “be cool” I should let him do things like grab my breasts and grope me. It was very important to my boyfriend at that time that his friends think I was “cool.” It took me years to learn that being cool was less important than my own feelings of safety.
You can’t tell me that encouraging these behaviors, implicitly or explicitly, doesn’t damage our society by encouraging sexual assault, because I lived it.