It started out innocently enough. I didn’t drink a lick of alcohol in high school, or even during my first attempt at college. Every night my suitemates chided me for not joining them at The Mill, an historic landmark where everyone in our small college town partied. I had no good reason, aside from my sporadic social anxiety. That, and I just didn’t want to drink.
Later that winter, there were circumstances that led to my dropping out of college. Dealing with emotional baggage, I ended up sleeping at my parents’ house and needing to make some major life decisions. I worked part-time hours so I could continue my passion of performing in theatre, and I quickly latched on to a new group of friends. I also did some maturing, found a comfortable level of independence, and I also quickly developed a taste for Vodka.
It was a chilly, early December evening of 1993 when I was attending a party at my friend’s apartment with the rest of the work gang. There were maybe about ten of us there. It started getting really hot, so I stepped outside for fresh, cold air and a cigarette. Across the hall lived another one of my male friends – originally a friend of a friend – who I’d gotten to know better myself. He was a college guy, just a couple years older than me, with a great sense of humor and a love of local college football. I enjoyed several Friday nights with him, just hanging out watching TV or listening to music. Nothing flirty ever happened. He knew I was recently out of a relationship and not wanting to date yet.
I guess I’d had way too much to drink that night, because though I remember walking across the hallway to his apartment to say hello, and then feeling suddenly unwell and dizzy, the next part is unclear. I know I intended to lie down because my headache was intensifying. I don’t remember passing out, whether it was on his couch or on his bed, but I can only assume that is what logically happened. I do remember half-waking up at some point, lying on his bed, face-down, on top of the covers, my coat still on. And then I must’ve fallen right back asleep.
Some time later, I woke up with the force you might feel after taking that first agonizing breath, right after the neighborhood bully had just ‘playfully’ held you under the pool water for a little too long. I was shivering, half-naked. His face was in my face, his lips breathing hot, heaving air against my face. I was lying, I think, in his bed, but it was dim. The last I remembered I was face down with all my clothes and my coat on. Now I was undressed and under the covers, and he was on top of me, inside of me. He hadn’t asked. I knew that for sure.
It was like being in the midst of a nightmare, when you actually realize you’re having a nightmare and in your sleep, you do everything within your power to wake yourself up. I remember thinking, “No, no no! I don’t want this! Stop!” And in reality, I don’t know how long it took me to say that out loud, but I know I said it because I clearly heard him respond, as if I’d just turned down my grandmother’s home-cooked sour dough rolls, “are you sure?”
And then, I apologized. I said, “Yes. I’m sure. I’m sorry.” I actually apologized. I apologized to the guy who was raping me for making him stop raping me. That is how ingrained rape culture is in our society.
If I had a nickel for every time I was cat-called, ogled, whistled at, or made the brunt of sexual innuendos, which all started from the time I was age twelve, I’d be rich by now. I didn’t even have to leave my own neighborhood. I’d experience all of that just for playing outside with my dog, walking to a friend’s house, or checking the mail. Even earlier than that, as a sort of “early bloomer,” in fifth grade I was subjected to boys snapping my bra strap and laughing about it, or asking me what my bra size was, or if I “stuffed.”
In sixth grade I began riding the bus to and from middle school. That quickly came to an end when one day, an 8th grade boy kept calling my name from the back of the bus, over and over, until I felt forced to turn around and shut him up. I can still see him, clear as day. He was standing in front of the back emergency exit door. He was tan, with thin, golden-brown feathered back wings and shoulder length hair, pastel pink Izod shirt, and yellow, blue & pink plaid shorts – only, his zipper was undone and his penis was completely exposed. He was holding it, erect, pointing it at me. I quickly turned around in my seat, terribly red in the face and embarrassed, as shrieks of male laughter erupted from behind me. It was the first time I’d ever seen a penis.
By seventh grade, boys had taken to yanking down girls pants and underwear between classes, in the middle of crowded hallways. They’d wait until you were helpless, carrying a stack of heavy books and unable to fend for yourself, and then they’d expose you in one fell swoop. When I diverted myself away from one boy trying to do it to me outside after lunch, he began yelling, “Slut! You’re nothing but a street slut!” loud enough to where everyone could hear. I was confused. I knew what “slut” meant. I hadn’t even kissed a boy, let alone had a boyfriend, or even a first date yet. I remember thinking what I must’ve done wrong, or whether I was dressed inappropriately. I was trying to right whatever it was I was projecting that communicated “slut,” even though I was the furthest thing away from that label at the time.
In eighth grade there was a stylish pencil skirt by Forenza that all the preppy girls wore, with snaps all the way down the front – waist to foot. The boys quickly learned that if a girl was seated sideways, or standing and not really paying attention, all he had to do was use a little force and yank open just the bottom snap of the skirt, and magically, the whole thing would come undone, like a domino effect, leaving a girl standing there fully exposed with nothing but underwear – and if she was lucky, a long shirt. It happened to me by the same boy several times in one day. I ended up throwing away the skirt.
But that was just boys being boys, as I kept hearing. Poor things, they just couldn’t control their raging testosterone and libido. It wasn’t their fault. Besides, other people said it was just how they flirted, or it was a compliment when they bothered you like that. I also heard that I should be flattered to get that kind of attention in the first place.
In high school there were times when boys stalked me. Boys who were, I thought, my friends. Two guys, in particular. Both knew I was home alone after school until my parents got off work. One came over one day to hang out. I let him in and instantly knew it was a mistake. He came in, closed the door behind him, and aggressively pushed me against the back of my front door and held me there, pinned. He had played roughhouse style with me before, during lunch at school or out with friends, but never alone. This didn’t feel fun or safe. He had an odd, serious look in his eyes that I’d never seen before and he was becoming more sexual. I ended up pushing him out by saying my dad was getting off work early and coming home. He left.
A few weeks later his buddy (and a guy I’d gone on one date with and decided I didn’t like) showed up in my driveway with a car full of friends. I was alone. He knocked on my door. I didn’t answer. His knocking became more aggressive. Three of his friends got out of the car and started peeping in and around the windows. I stationed myself in a well-hidden downstairs bathroom, watching them through the slats of closed shutters. They couldn’t see me but I could see them, and I was terrified. Something ultimately spooked them and they all left. It never occurred to me to call 9-1-1, in fact, I remember making a plan in my head for how I’d respond if they got in and started anything sexual with me.
By my late teens/early twenties, things had not gotten any better. There were many, many more examples of these behaviors. At a concert, a guy I didn’t even know walked straight up to me and planted a wet, sloppy, giant kiss – and his tongue – on my lips. Before walking away, he gave me the peace sign and said, “I believe in free love.” Another guy I met through a mutual friend invited me over to his apartment to hang out with some friends. His roommate would be there, and my friend was friends with him. I thought it would be fine. After I’d arrived and made small talk, I realized there was no roommate. There were no friends. He had candles lit. The lights were low. It was creepy. He started to lean in like he was going to grab me. I stopped him and said, “I’m sorry, I thought we were just hanging out with friends. I’m not here to mess around.” He straightened up and without missing a beat responded, “then you’d better not let the door hit you on the way out.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg. From about age ten until about age twenty-something, I was cat-called, ogled, stared at, even sketched once by a guy sitting across the aisle from me on a flight to New York – a guy I’d never met and who didn’t ask my permission. Their age never mattered. It was as often young hot guys as it was older, cringe-worthy gross middle-age-crisis men. Married or not. Dating or single. Religious or atheist. Popular or timid.
One man who was thirty years older than me stalked me at my apartment pool and sent me sprays of flowers – funeral worthy sprays – to my dressing room on opening nights of my plays. Another one was married and I actually dated him for a while. In fact, I watched the O.J. Simpson White Bronco car chase of ’94 in his living room with him. We were watching it in real time when suddenly, a woman I’d never seen before walked in with grocery bags. She seemed to know who I was. Thoroughly confused, I got up to leave. He walked me out, leaned forward to kiss me, and said, “slap me if this is wrong…”
Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’ve got a minute, I’ve got another short story for you. Sadly, this is the case of every single woman I know.
If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, you’ve undoubtedly seen some version of this trending for a couple of days:
Hashtag #MeToo with no other text, or with the full explanation of why women (and even men) everywhere are posting this, is met with both solidarity and condemnation.
On one hand, people who may have never before spoken out about their own sexual assault experiences somehow felt empowered to come forth this time (present company included). And in response to our confessions, women and men alike, trans and cis, are “liking,” “loving,” “cry-facing,” and tossing around virtual love & support on social media like confetti. It feels like another powerful movement, another serendipitous side effect of today’s toxic political climate where we find ourselves clinging to something – anything – that unifies us. For many, it has been a rallying cry, another reminder that we’re more alike than we are different, and we all carry baggage.
On the other hand, it’s not a unifying love fest for everyone. Many people are upset that their news feeds are filled with grief and trauma – not because it inconveniences them, but because they’re instantly triggered, upset that women have to relive this nightmare over and over again just to be even a little bit heard. Why? Because we’ve been fighting this battle forever. There are others who are arguing the “me too” movement is a hollow gesture, and does nothing to fix a systemic problem. I suppose they’re right.
Some folks are feeling angry that women, as the majority of sexual harassment and sexual assault victims, are yet again having to bear the burden of educating others about sexual trauma. And still others are upset that men aren’t welcome into the discussion, since men are also victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Those men – if they dare speak up in the first place – seem to get silenced immediately and berated for using their voices to talk over women and distract from the issue at hand: rape culture, which is overwhelmingly male dominated and perpetrated.
I hear everyone’s point. Each is valid. And I agree it should not have to take monumental occasions like Bill Cosby’s mistrial for us to finally show our rage over our society’s normalization of rampant sexual harassment and assault. Nor should it have to take abusive behavior by powerful men to wake us up, men like Fox News’ former founding CEO, Roger Ailes, or the unfathomably popular former political commentator and show host, Bill O’Reilly. These two media moguls only lost their positions because of enormously growing sexual harassment claims which were found to be of at least enough merit to oust these guys after lengthy investigations. And of course, O’Reilly and Ailes, before his death, denied all allegations. Smear campaigns were started to silence the women who told their truths, and the national dialogue seemed to come to a halt once more. Lest we forget, the man who holds the absolute highest position of authority in our country, the commander-in-chief, is undeniably misogynistic and has bragged of committing sexual assault.
If accomplished, powerful, famous, wealthy women like Julie Roginsky, Megyn Kelly, Wendy Walsh, and Gretchen Carlson (to name a few) are terrified to come forward, what does that say about women who aren’t already in the spotlight – women who don’t have instant recognition and credibility? What more would it take to bring more people forward? The more recent news of the ongoing and oldest horror story in Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein, seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. More allegations of his sexual misconduct appears to be what it took to get hordes of even more people coming forth and making noise.
The woman who created the “Me too” campaign, even before it was a trending Twitter hashtag experiment, is finally being recognized for her efforts. Y’all, it wasn’t Alyssa Milano who started it. Regardless, it has maybe given society a sense of the magnitude of this problem.
I spent a lot of quiet time reading other people’s stories last week. I came across some pretty frightening ones. I also came across several women who wrote how they hesitated to tell their own stories or post their own “me too” status, because they thought their stories weren’t that big of a deal, or perhaps paled in comparison to “how much worse” they figured other women had experienced sexual assault. And then I was deep in thought, remembering my own personal encounters with sexual harassment and assault, memories I’d carefully tucked away because I also thought they weren’t that big of a deal, or perhaps paled in comparison to other women’s stories. Even worse, I thought I’d somehow deserved or asked for everything that happened to me.
After that guy raped me, I confided in someone a little older than me, another woman. This was roughly 25 years ago, but I can still hear her words as clear as day. Through tears I told her what happened and I felt embarrassed as I confessed to her, “I think I was just raped.” “Honey,” she said, “you really need to be careful about making an accusation like that, or even using that word. I mean, especially since he stopped. You should respect that. You know, you could really ruin a guy’s life.” And that is the social mindset I grew up with. I never spoke of that incident again.
The #metoo social media experiment may have been a hollow attempt, too shallow to achieve any real change. But what it did do is that it got people thinking and it got people talking. I get that it feels like not enough. But we can’t begin to change something until we first address it out loud, and we confront it head on. We can’t fix issues by not talking, reading, writing, or even screaming about them. Yes, I know women have been screaming about this for decades. But maybe – just maybe – it will be my kids’ generation who decide to change it. Sometimes it takes just one brave person to stand up and open the floodgates. By seeing so many others come forward, at least I now, without a doubt, know that guy raped me. And now, I’ll tell anyone.