My brother didn’t understand what rape culture is. My brother is my favorite person I didn’t personally give birth to. We’re pretty close, and I know he loves me and he knows I love him. He’s smart, and kind, and very, very funny, and I am as certain as I am of my own name that he would never hurt another living creature. But once upon a time he said things on the internet that caused other smart, funny, kind people I love to be very concerned. In hopes of helping him, I told him a story about how casual cruelty affects me.
My son, who is 20, smarter than his mama in a lot of ways, and very big and strong as well as very sweet and gentle, felt wounded when his big sister ducked his hugs during a visit last winter. I explained it was not because she suddenly didn’t like him, but because he is now so much bigger and stronger than her that it is no longer cute that he always lifts her up off the ground. I told him that touching people without their permission is never okay, even if it’s hugging your sister at Christmas. This isn’t the first time I’ve explained this to him: I really did make an effort to raise my kids to have proper boundaries. But this was the first time he really understood what I meant – that I wasn’t just talking about stranger danger, and that even a greeting between siblings requires permission and empathy.
My point is, these things are hard, even when they’re easy. We navigate our lives, have fun, drink beers, work, ride bikes, text our sweethearts, pet our dogs and fart around on Facebook and then, blammo, something happens that reminds us that our souls are chemical reactions trapped inside hominid meatsuits and we aren’t actually telepathic or even that good at saying words out loud.
We try. But sometimes, we fail. Maybe someone didn’t have a conversation with an articulate young woman like my daughter that led to him realizing he needed to talk to his son. Now that man’s son, who looks just a little bit like my son, and whose family and friends thought was full of goodness and promise, is in jail for having a gruesome parody of sex with an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. And that son can’t even bring himself to understand that when you get into gruesome-parody-of-sex territory, you’re talking about rape, and rape is something that makes the person you do it to feel pretty goddamn shitty for a pretty goddamn long time. Maybe he thought he was making a cute drunken mistake, and nobody ever told him that consent is crucial. Maybe he heard the message about consent being crucial, but the message was delivered in tandem with the assertion that college campuses are overrun with soft whiners, and freedom is being crippled by political correctness, and they canceled each other out.
It’s easier to understand rape culture when someone who has been speaking your language for three decades explains it to you. It’s easier to understand boundaries apply to everybody when your mom gives you a specific example. And it’s really easy to spot transgressions in the rearview mirror. But it’s hard to be empathetic when you feel attacked and insecure and nobody has explained the rules to you. We don’t learn how our hearts and our bodies work in school; we pick that up along the way. What Brock Turner did to a young woman at Stanford is awful. What the judge who sentenced him to 6 months did is awful. Turner’s father’s attempt to defend him is awful. But maybe it’s worth examining the matrix in which these awful samples were grown; maybe we’ll learn how to prevent more terrible things.
In the fall of 1990, several months before I first heard the term “date rape,” I went away for the weekend with some friends. I was 18. K, a woman I’d gone to high school with, had a boyfriend, J, whose parents had a vacation house in the mountains of Virginia. She invited her friend D, and one of J’s friends, M, too. We played grown-ups: We drove out there on Friday night, finagled some wine, made dinner, chatted, stayed up late and had a great time. We went for a hike the next morning. In the evening, we poured more wine and made more food. I remember, very distinctly, that we watched Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie,” and that J insisted I try a cocktail. That’s it for Saturday.
This was taken that morning. Awww, wasn’t I cute?
Sunday afternoon, I was dragged from a bed I don’t remember climbing into, and into the van for the ride home. We stopped several times on the way home so that I could vomit on the side of the road. J pulled over so I could get out and buy myself a Gatorade. I threw up all through the next day, too. I was also sore, and realized with a great deal of shame the nature of my soreness meant I had had sex, which I did not remember at all. I felt guilty because I had a boyfriend away at college.
Later, D told me she had been drugged, and that she knew that I had been drugged, too. We learned from J, who K continued dating for at least another year, that he had given us Dolophine, which is a preparation of methadone. We were told that we had consented to this. We had not. I never found out whether M, the man who spent the night in the unremembered bed with me, knew I was drugged. I learned I was pregnant. I had an abortion.
I told my best friend, who was very kind but not alarmed – my narrative, at this point, was that I had gotten drunk and made a mistake.
We agreed that we did not like K’s boyfriend and avoided him. I had an uncomfortable breakup with my boyfriend, who was not a nice person and had accused me of cheating even before our trip to the mountains. I did not give him a reason, but word got back to him. By summer, my lease was up, my roommates were already in their new apartments and I was spending one more night there. I invited a few friends over, and a new boyfriend. Not K, J or D. And not the ex-boyfriend. But he heard about the party, and he showed up, already drunk and angry. I couldn’t face him, so I went into my bedroom with the new boyfriend, locked the door and got into bed. The ex kicked through the door, pulled a post off the four-poster bed I’d inherited from my grandmother and broke it over my leg before my friends finally stopped him.
Two months later, I pulled myself together enough to go away to school. Four years after that, I got a tattoo of a phoenix to cover the mark left by the bedpost.
I didn’t even think of these events as rape and assault until I was much older.
It’s been 26 years, and I still tell the story. I tell the story to new romantic partners because, whether or not you choose to accept it, there’s a stigma attached to people who have rape and violence in their past, and I want to weed out the ones who say things about “drama” and “issues.” I tell the story because it feels like disclosure is required; I tell the story and I feel like a registered sex offender, like I have to admit to mistakes. I tell the story because people ask happy, optimistic, chatty me what my tattoo means, and I explain and move on, because I can. I am telling the story now, alone into an empty room, because I don’t know how else to explain what it looks like when someone doesn’t understand what her rights are, and doesn’t understand what the rules are. I tell the story so that there’s one more narrative among the millions that illustrates how something that is obviously rape can still be poorly understood, even by the victim and the people who love the victim. I tell the story because I’m a chemical reaction inside a hominid meatsuit, and I empathize with the hurt people and the people who cause hurt and, most of all, with the people who are confused by their own narratives. I tell the story because when a kid does something wrong, he should have a punishment that fits the crime, and he should know that it’s a crime. But that may never happen, because we really are just souls trapped in bodies and safety really is just a story we tell ourselves and we all have to try very hard just to be okay.
Try very hard, okay?