This week, Emily Yoffe of Slate published a 10,000 word “examination” of a false rape report. All of her information about the story she centered her piece on was sourced from the lawsuit the accused has filed against the University. Relatedly, Rolling Stone published a retraction/non-apology/who-knows-what-they’re-calling-it-now, stating that they had “misplaced their trust” in the rape survivor around whom their popular article on rape on the campus of UVA was based.
Within our rape culture, “discrepancies” and “misunderstandings” are understood to be the result of either malfeasance on the part of the “victim” – who absolutely should not be trusted! – or mere ignorance of what rape is on the part of the accused – who should be trusted at all costs! The primacy of the rapist’s version of events creates a world in which the tiniest discrepancies, the least bit of misstep on the part of the victim means that justice will never be achieved. More often than not, the rape victim will be on trial – just as “Jackie” from the Rolling Stone story and “CB” from Yoffe’s piece have been - in the court of public opinion. Throughout the discussion, people have proclaimed that we can't know anything if people don't report. But when those who do report are dragged through the mud, it's not hard to see why so many others do not.
It is in this vein that I feel it necessary to tell the following story – one I’ve not told before except to a select group of confidantes and friends. That said, be warned that this story does contain graphic description of a sexual assault and survivors should take care in reading it.
I was out of town on a trip. I had a free afternoon on a Saturday and went out for coffee. I was feeling really good about myself and the new skinny jeans I was sporting. I looked good, I felt good, and I felt like giving my number to the guy who was eyeing me from across the coffee shop. So I did.
The man and I had instant chemistry. He was cute and he seemed interested in me. He invited me out for drinks that night with a few of his friends in town. I got water at every bar we went to because I wanted to stay sober – I had a 20-minute drive back to my hotel in a strange city and I didn’t want to put myself at risk of an accident. He got more and more sloshed through the night, but he wasn’t slurring his words, was walking fine, and still holding conversations about literature, feminism, and church with me. It felt like we were alone in the midst of the crowd of his friends. I had a genuinely good time.
We went to one last club, where he tried to pull me out on the dance floor, and, embarrassed by my complete inability to dance, I refused. Off the dance floor, he offered me a sip of this gigantic neon blue drink, which I accepted. He then kissed me. It was the first time someone had actually shown interest in what felt like forever. The loneliness I’d been feeling was, for a moment, assuaged.
Giddy, I sat down in the booth across from one of his female friends and he crowded in next to me, one arm around my shoulder and the other in my lap. It was nearly 1AM by this point, and I yawned, “I should probably get going,” I looked at him with a frown.
He replied, “Nooo, don’t go. Or at least take me with.”
I mulled this idea over in my head. I liked him and I was having fun. But I didn’t want to have sex that night. I didn’t want to move that quickly with someone I’d met that afternoon. But I also wanted to make out because it had been awhile. So I told him, in the middle of a crowded club, amongst of his friends, that I would be okay with that as long as he slept in the other bed.
“Nah, I’m not gonna go all the way back to your hotel with you just to sleep in a separate bed,” he whined.
I looked up from the tabletop to see his female friend’s eyes flicking back and forth between the two of us, lingering for a bit longer on him. It was as though she was trying to send him a message: “Leave it alone.” I didn’t understand the flash in her eyes until later, though I clearly could tell she was worried. I had other designs, though. “Okay, I guess that will work, but we’re not having sex.” I said definitively, grabbing my jacket and keys.
On the way back to the hotel, in the privacy of my car, I explained to him that I didn’t want to have sex because I was a virgin and I grew up in a church culture that made it hard for me to take that step. “Whaaaat?” he blurted. “OH MAN! I feel bad for you. Sex is AWESOME.” I felt my face redden and defended myself, “Well, I’ve done STUFF. I just haven’t done THAT. I know it’s awesome.”
I chalked up his impropriety to his tipsiness and happily embraced his kisses when we got on the hotel elevator. When we got into the room, he was in his boxers quicker than I could even set down my keys. I went to the bathroom and changed into my pajamas as he crawled under the covers.
What happened next is hard to talk about without going into great detail, so survivors of sexual assault should be warned to take a break here as this may be triggering. The chronology of events is a little fuzzy for me, but I will do my best.
The man and I began to make out and I felt his hand slip down to my pajama shorts. I grabbed it and pulled it back up, not quite comfortable enough to go there just yet. He asked me if I was okay with hair pulling, and I empathetically objected. His hand slipped up under my shirt and onto my chest. I demonstrated enthusiasm in response to this – this action I was okay with. As soon as he got my consent for one thing, he began trying for another, until I relented.
The “until I relented” is the important part here. He did not accept or respect my desire to stay above the waist. I even took off my shirt in a misguided effort to encourage him to stay up there, but it just encouraged him to try harder. And after awhile, each time he tried to get his hand in my underwear, I froze up. I remember him stopping and asking me if I was okay, and I’d snap back to reality, mumbling something about my church culture and how “I’ve never done this before.”
At some point in the night, he grabbed my hand and guided it under his own underwear so I could feel his erection. He asked me if I wanted to know what sex feels like. I told him I didn’t have a condom and I wasn’t on birth control. He wanted to, of all things, call down to the front desk and ask if they had one. It was 2AM by that time. I told him no, that wasn’t going to happen and he’d have to be okay with what little he was getting then. He pouted and asked for oral sex. Again, I refused.
He got up and went into the bathroom to “take care of himself.” I rolled over to the other side of the bed, pulling the covers up to my shoulders. When he finished in the bathroom, he came back to bed entirely naked and climbed in next to me. I slept fitfully, uncomfortable with the thought of a naked man I didn’t know next to me, and unable to process what had happened. I finally fell asleep at around 5AM.
The next week, I told friends about the encounter, emphasizing the romantic stuff I’d consented to prior, de-emphasizing the parts where I felt coerced into sexual activity. I never once called him bad, and was enthusiastic about the possibility of seeing him again. But I never heard from him again.
A couple of months later, a picture of him popped up in my FB feed thanks to a weird glitch in their system. I found myself unable to breathe – I had a panic attack and immediately blocked him. I didn’t realize at the time that what I was experiencing was a classic response to assault. Somehow my body had realized what my brain hadn’t yet – that the coercion I had experienced that night wasn’t normal, that I had been assaulted, not treated well.
It took me a year to mentally review the events of that night and finally place them into a proper category. I refused to admit to myself that what had happened was a form of assault because I knew it would never hold up in a court of law. My actions in the week following would immediately nix any court case – even my comments about how I weirdly “froze up” in the middle of the night would be dismissed as a holdover from my uptight church culture instead of a classic victim response to assault.
I also thought it couldn’t be assault because I was a confident woman who spoke about consent, who knew all the words, and who had chosen to go out with this man because he expressed an interest in feminism. Surely, a male feminist wouldn’t have engaged in coercive tactics in a sexual situation.
Looking back on the situation, years hence, I cannot help but conclude that what happened to me was an assault. The consent I finally gave was coerced and pressured from me by continued attempts to cross my boundaries. My “this is okay” came from a place of knowing he wasn’t going to stop trying until I gave him some kind of benefit. My freezing up, my lack of movement, my desire to just go to sleep were not because of purity culture. Instead, my body was telling me what my brain didn’t want to hear – that I was not actually consenting, that I didn’t want what was going on to happen.
Naturally, you can’t prosecute someone based on an unconscious reaction. Everything that happened, that was spoken out loud, legally exonerates the man who assaulted me. I have no case because I did say it was okay, even though that “okay” came after an hour of whining and pressuring and traveling hands. I was stone-cold sober and he was tipsy. Witnesses – his friends – saw me agreeing to take him home. The front desk clerk saw us leave together in the morning, with me helping him to find some orange juice from the continental breakfast.
I cannot report because, legally speaking, I have nothing to report.
I see so many people – writers, pundits, politicians – spilling so much ink in consternation over the fate of those accused of rape. I see statistics trotted out, analyzed, dismissed, deconstructed, defended, denied. I see stories of survivors picked apart, analyzed bit by bit in the court of public opinion, knowing that the person who came forward did so knowing this would happen. I see men – always men – complaining that women should report these crimes so we can get these rapists off the streets. I see feminists proposing that women should be jailed if they refuse to cooperate with police once a report has been filed – for the good of the rest of the community, you see. I see women who have publicly spoken about their own experience of assault write 5,000 word pieces about why we need to be more careful about who we accuse and what we women drink.
I’ve received 4,000 word screeds from friends in response to another rape victim’s story about why that person wasn’t really raped and why it’s unjust for her to say so.
I am terrified of receiving the same treatment for speaking openly about my own assault.
I cannot name the man in my story because I might get sued for libel. I have changed details to hide identities. Few friends know who this guy is, and even fewer know the real story of what happened. I know I have no hope of justice here – I gave up on that when I realized how everything looked from an outside perspective. For many, this will still not be enough. The fact that I have told this story at all means I am condemning a man who, to his mind, did nothing wrong. I am the worst kind of feminist of all – the one who talks about her assault without giving the man equal space to respond. Misandry all the way, baby.
But this is precisely why talking about this assault is so important. No one wants the status of “victim.” No one wants that spotlight shone on them, even if anonymously, even if only in their little social circle. It can be hard to speak, especially to a chorus of voices who will publicly excoriate you, who will spend and expend thousands of words to beg sympathy for your attacker, who will beg you not to “ruin” these promising young lives. Your story becomes a statistic, another data blip. If the pressure gets hard enough, you may decide to withdraw your initial report – leading to further cries that you were a lying bitch just out for money or revenge over sex you “regretted.”
There is no easy way for survivors to speak. Which is why we must believe survivors, however hesitantly they talk.
[Photo via Kayla Kandzorra, Flickr Creative Commons]