[TRIGGER WARNING: rape, sexual assault]
When I was 22 years old, I went to a party at a coworker’s house. Between the alcohol and the intervening years, the night is mostly a blur of photos I saw the next day, but a few parts of the evening remain clear to me—particularly toward the end.
It was a party of the “we’re young enough to still be super excited about legally buying booze” variety, and I’m not even sure exactly who was there anymore. Toward the end of the night, though, I found myself in the garage with a few people—it was set up like an extra living room, with a rug, a lamp, and a couple couches. People slowly filtered out until it was me and two guys.
I’m sure they were both perfectly fine looking (I don’t remember), but I was particularly attracted to one of them. No idea what his name was or how old he was now—I knew him for maybe an hour out of my entire life—but I remember that I really wanted to make out with him. Not have sex with him. Just make out with him.
So three of us are in the garage. I forget the specifics of the conversation that led to this, but we were joking around and Other Guy asks some question like, “Why are you in still in the garage?” I said, “I’m waiting for you to leave.” It sounds mean, but I remember it not feeling mean in context, and we all laughed. I just don’t remember the context.
They exchanged a knowing look and Other Guy left. I got off my couch and went to sit at the edge of the couch where the guy I fancied was lying down. We started making out. Yay me, right? Then suddenly, I remembered—my obligation.
I’ve never had sex, see. To this day. I have reasons, but they’re irrelevant to this conversation. The point is that I knew I wasn’t “allowed” to kiss someone for too long without telling him we weren’t going to have sex, because otherwise he would get super pissed off (whoever he was). I prided myself on not being naïve, see. I prided myself on “not being stupid enough” to expect someone to respect my not wanting to have sex right that moment.
Let’s rephrase for just a second: I had already accepted that my role as “sexual partner of any kind” universally meant that I was expected to do whatever my “partner” wanted. I understood that I was a minority and a freak, so I felt it was my obligation to get it out of the way early.
I need to put this as plainly as possible: I was wrong on every count.
I sat up quickly and spat out, “We’re not going to have sex.”
The words hung in the air for a second, and he looked at me as though I’d said, “I like pie!”—not upset, not pleased, just…thrown. “Okay,” he said and, satisfied, we went back to making out.
Under a minute later, he was unbuttoning my pants.
I sat up again and pushed his hands away—we struggled gently for control of the button, and finally I refastened it and covered it with my hands. I looked up, and he was irritated.
“Just because we’re not having sex means you can’t take your pants off?”
My brain said, “Well…yeah,” but my mouth only stuttered. I finally managed to get out something like, “I don’t want to,” and he didn’t force it as such, but he was pissy as hell. And I believed that I deserved it, because I was the freak. I was the outlier. I remembered the look he and Other Guy had exchanged. They had both thought he’d be out in the garage getting laid. I had made them both believe that, and I had implied sex by wanting to be alone with a boy I thought was cute.
In case you’re just tuning in, let me be clear: I was wrong on every count.
But because he was now pissy as hell, I felt like I had to make it up to him. So I tried to make him not angry with me by going further than I actually felt comfortable—not very far, but definitely further than I’d wanted. And I felt ashamed.
I was ashamed that it made me uncomfortable.
Not that I was doing something that made me uncomfortable. The actual feeling of being uncomfortable shamed me.
I froze. The combination of discomfort and shame and the shame of being ashamed all spiraled together until I melted down and had a panic attack right there in the garage. I cried and apologized ten or twenty times before I ran out. He made no effort to pretend like he gave a shit about anything except the fact that I was no longer touching his body. I locked myself in the bathroom to collect myself—the house was dark with people sleeping on the floor scattered across two rooms. When the guy finally came out of the garage, Other Guy made a rude comment about how long I’d been in the bathroom (har har, asshole) and I just felt even more humiliated. I finally went to lie down on the floor in the other room. I wanted nothing more than to go home, but I was in no shape to drive.
After lying there for at least an hour, though, I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep. I didn’t want to see him in the morning, and what if he came over to me during the night?
I say night, but it was 4 a.m. when I finally walked out the door and crawled into my Jeep. I should not have been on the road. My last drink had been hours ago and I lived nearby, but neither of those are the point. I was too drunk to drive.
But that’s the choice. Stay in a house where I was deeply uncomfortable on a number of levels (some part of me was aware how aggressive he’d been, but I was too busy blaming myself to properly acknowledge it), or don’t stay in the house and risk driving home. (And yes, now I understand the concept of getting a cab, but I was 22 and lived in Southern California—hell, what’s a cab?)
I wonder sometimes—if I’d been more sexually active at 22, would things have turned out differently? To be clear, I am in no way making comment on anyone else’s life choices—those are your own, just as mine are my own. But for me, personally, I wonder if he would have pushed harder if I hadn’t blurted out that sex wasn’t an option. I wonder if I would have been too afraid to stop him from unbuttoning my pants. If I had already had sex, I think I was just insecure enough that I would have wanted him to think I was cool…by not protesting.
This knowledge scares me. Because I shouldn’t have had to stop someone from trying to remove my clothing. Forcefully stop, actually. I should never have had to answer a question like, “Just because we aren’t having sex means you can’t take your pants off?” Because honestly, what the fuck kind of question is that? If that’s not blatant manipulation, then I need to re-up my Merriam-Webster subscription.
The night I didn’t get raped came down to luck. It was nothing I did or didn’t do—I was so insecure at 22, I barely did what I did. It shouldn’t have had to come down to luck. I shouldn’t have had to push someone’s hands away from my pants once, let alone multiple times. I shouldn’t have had to struggle for control of my clothing.
I was lucky. So many women are not. And this, folks? This is rape culture.
This is our culture.
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
I have been aware of predators since childhood. Since I was four or five years old and first had a man’s penis in my mouth. Contrary to some knee-jerks here and elsewhere, the fact that I’m aware of predators in my environment does not mean that I think all men are predators. It’s one of those double-edged swords women so often find themselves at the wrong end of: If we get raped, we should have been more careful. If we’re careful, we’re alarmists (worse, we’re FEMINISTS) who believe all men are out to rape us. There’s no winning with some people.
But those are not the ones we seek to reach this month. Over the next few weeks, while the Steubenville wound is still open and oozing, it’s our job to appeal to those people who are not yet aware (or not yet aware that they’re aware) but are ready for awareness. We’re not preaching to the choir or trying to make the blind see–we just need to be vocal enough and authentic enough to reach those who are out there listening, absorbing, and becoming warriors in their own time, at their own pace.
I’ve seen it happen. I know how powerful our stories can be. Share yours. The world needs your voice.
Note: Lest anyone think that the point of #AlwaysAware is to put the onus of rape prevention on potential victims, it is not. The point is that (most) women are always aware of potential of violence. We are taught to be afraid and trained to be vigilant. Sexual Assault Awareness Month is not for us–it’s for people who don’t spend every day of their lives alert and aware and looking for ways to keep something like this from happening to them. It’s for people who don’t understand how often women experience assault. It’s for those who believe that women, not men, should be responsible for preventing male-on-female rape. Until we’re all #AlwaysAware of the problem of rape culture, women will continue to bear the weight of that awareness all 365 days of the year.
I’m adding new posters as often as I have time to make them. I’ll replace the one at the top now and then, and add alternate ones here.
The idea for “Always Aware” started with a Twitter chat with the Sin City Siren and was further inspired by the above illustration by Laura Boyea (used with permission).
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.