It’s All Something
It was late last summer and I was at dinner with my friend Damon. We tend to get into these really big and intense (see: “amazing”) discussions whenever we’re together, and this particular evening was no different as we found ourselves discussing what we felt was at risk for each of us with a potential Trump presidency, what with Damon being an African American man and myself being a woman.
Eventually, we found ourselves on the topic of sexual misconduct: harassment, assault, rape. We spoke candidly, we spoke passionately, and we spoke fearlessly. We spoke that way until it suddenly felt like every light in the goddamn place craned their necks around to blaze and scream in my face, and I stopped mid-conversation. And it was there in that restaurant in Los Feliz sitting across from my friend Damon that I suddenly heard myself saying: “Oh my god. I somehow just realized that I’ve been sexually assaulted. More than once.”
And then: “And I think that I was raped.”
I’ve had some time to sit with this now. Here’s all that led up to my epiphany.
When I was 6, my family and I lived next door to Mark. Mark had a 2 year-old son whom he regularly invited me over to play with. I remember asking myself “What the heck do you do with someone who can barely walk or talk (but who can still, apparently, school you at Duck Hunt)? (Also: how on earth is this kid schooling me at Duck Hunt?)” But, Mark was so nice and so was his 2 year old hunter-in-training, so I accepted each invitation that was extended.
It didn’t take long for things to get weird. Mark started doing things that even I, at 6, felt were uncomfortable and sneaky, and I remember this one afternoon in particular where my mom escorted me outside while Mark waited on his front stoop, smirking. She called out, “Don’t stay long, and no snacks. Dinner’s in an hour.” But, the second that she closed our front door, Mark took his hands from behind his back and revealed that he’d been hiding a Happy Meal.
“Don’t tell your mom,” he said, with a wink.
That was the first time that I felt a little scared. I couldn’t even tell you why.
It was also around that time that Mark got this penchant for pulling me onto his lap. I was 6, it had been a while since I’d found myself regularly perching on anyone’s lap, and it felt odd to be pulled up into the lap of someone who wasn’t a family member. It felt particularly odd whenever he bounced me in his lap. It felt odder still when he chose to bounce me while I was straddling his knee, or his waist. It felt alarming when he put his hands around my chest and squeezed in far too adult of a place while bouncing me on his knee, and there were so many things that I didn’t understand but so many things that I knew in my guts didn’t feel right.
After a handful of these episodes, I decided to tell my parents about some of the weird stuff happening at Mark’s house. My mom asked me to try to explain what I felt like, what was actually happening, and I did the very best that I could but I didn’t know how to articulate myself.
I was 6.
“Angela, listen,” she said, her heart full of what I’ve no doubt was the very best of intentions, “I’m sure that it’s probably not anything.”
“But, if ever anything happens that makes you feel uncomfortable, anything, say ‘No’ .”
Sounded good. So, I did just that:
I, too, decided that it wasn’t anything.
My parents, however, must have decided that it was something as I quickly became too busy to go next door to play. And they certainly decided that it was something when, weeks later on their way up to the Falls, they were pulled over by a cop. The police were on the lookout for a guy, a potential sexual predator, and this cop happened to have a picture on hand just to see if the face rang a bell with my folks.
His name was Mark.
My parents chased him out of our neighborhood.
I spent a good long while trying to suss everything out and I asked a lot of questions, because I was great at asking questions (damn, I need to ask more questions). After a litany of them, I gathered the following:
Takeaway #1: So, I can’t put the gun on the tv screen when I play Duck Hunt.
Takeaway #2: ‘Pedophile’ is a tricky word because it sounds nice, but it isn’t.
Takeaway #3: I feel weird about my boobs now.
Takeaway #2B: Sorry, I was thinking about ‘pedophile’ again.
Takeaway #3B: Thank goodness nothing actually happened to me.
Because it wasn’t anything.
I was a teenager when my parents started talking to me about sex and inappropriate sexual behavior. As college life crept closer and closer, however, the more absolutely everyone I knew started talking specifically about rape. I should clarify that we did not speak about sexual assault, not really, anyway, but rape was a thing that was discussed to death. We were terrified of it.
Fortunately, I had a leg up because I had an exceptionally clear picture of exactly what rape looked like so I knew exactly what to do to avoid ever being raped and took all of the necessary precautions:
A) Do not ever dress provocatively. Like. Don’t wear anything short.
B) Always put a hand over your drink because roofies.
C) Don’t get drunk around people you don’t know.
D) Avoid all back alleys.
E) Avoid all men leering at you from a back alley.
F) When you finally do lose your virginity, you can only have sex with someone who is your boyfriend or, like, best friend. That’s it. …Don’t wait til marriage to lose it, though, because then you’ll be terrible at sex.
THE END! Easy! Take that, rape!
I went to college.
One night during my Freshman year, I went out drinking at our local super classy underage drinking establishment, and I’m pretty sure that it was Ladies’ Night (!!!!). I was a few Midori Sours in when I ran into a friend/acquaintance/guy that I knew and thought was cute and seemed sweet and harmless and before I knew it, we were making-out next to the dart board. It was gross, but nice enough, and I must have said something along the lines of “Come over later,” but then, I left to go to the bar down the street that you could never wear sandals in (because of the floor slime) where I proceeded to slam shots of Goldschlager and forget all about having said anything.
I passed out the second that I got back to my room, but not before remembering to leave my door unlocked for a friend of mine to sneak in and borrow something-or-other before she headed out of town at the crack of dawn.
I woke up, however, to my pants around my ankles and this sweet harmless guy laying on top of me, pounding the hell out of me with his finger.
I was instantly sober, but I felt like I didn’t know where I was. I was so confused and so stunned that I physically could not speak, at first. Then I found a “No”. Then I found another “No.” Then, I saw him grab a condom or maybe he already had one on, I honestly don’t remember, but, all I do know is that I knew what was about to happen and I panicked and started screaming and punching his chest because I was a virgin and this was not at all what I had signed up for and I had just been asleep and here we were so I screamed until he looked at me like I had suddenly sprouted seven heads and bolted out of my room.
He was gone.
And I’d done it! I had successfully gotten out of rape! Look how deftly I dodged that bullet! I’d won. And yet, I couldn’t shake the fact that I felt so unbelievably ill, on-edge, and violated. Which didn’t make a lick of sense; he hadn’t had sex with me. …No matter. I shook it off, reminded myself to be thankful that nothing had happened (because nothing had happened), and fell asleep.
And then I proceeded to make jokes about being basically punched in the vagina for years because jokes are hilarious and that wasn’t anything.
Takeaway #1: Hand-deliver borrowed items to your friends and lock your damn door.
Takeaway #2: I think that I hate getting finger-banged awake.
Takeaway #2B: Tell all future gentleman callers to be more gentle and less jackhammer-like with their fingers.
Takeaway #3: That probably wasn’t anything.
Takeaway #3B: That wasn’t anything.
A couple of years later, I was hosting at a nearby Friday’s where, with it being midwinter treacherous outside, we were packed to the gills and on a two hour-wait. (I will address the absurdity of anyone wasting two hours of a precious Saturday evening waiting to be seated at a Friday’s at a later date.) My host post was in the middle of a vestibule, and I was surrounded on all sides by freezing hungry Buffalonians four to five people-deep, and there was this bench directly behind me that had at least seven people piled on top of it.
I was minding my own business, checking pagers, reassigning pagers, organizing names when, all of a sudden, I felt something rubbing up and down my inner thigh. It was a pager that, when I snapped around, I noticed belonged to some frightening looking guy in his late 40s and his ladyfriend. They were both giggling. I was mortified.
“Please don’t,” I requested, firm yet politely. And then, I turned back around to go about the business of shuffling people through our doors in an orderly fashion for an evening of fish bowl drinks and loaded potato skins.
I am confident that less than a minute passed by before that pager was in my vagina. In it.
My rage was instantaneous and overwhelming.
“JESUS CHRIST, COULD YOU NOT?!” I screamed. The vestibule fell silent, I grew hot, and this frightening looking guy and his ladyfriend were noticeably appalled.
“I would like to see your manager,” said he.
“GLADLY,” and I stalked off to find my General Manager to tell him the whole thing. I knew all eyes were on us, and that felt just humiliating. But, I put that humiliation to the side knowing that my G.M was about to get fired up and see this P.O.S. correspondingly tossed into the nearest snow bank.
We marched back to the vestibule together, stone-faced, silently, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t already feel triumphant. I stood back and watched my G.M. get in this man’s face, I watched him take this guy’s pager out of his hands.
And then I watched, horror-stricken, as my G.M. had this frightening looking guy and his ladyfriend skip the two hour wait and sat. I was confounded.
“But,” I stuttured, “Did you hear what I said?”
“He put it in my — “
“You have to talk to him again?”
“Then, there you go. Problem solved. You’re fine.” And with that, I was left alone at my post in the vestibule.
Takeaway #1: The customer is always right.
Takeaway #2: This kinda thing is just part and parcel of working in a restaurant.
Takeaway #3: I feel cheap.
Takeaway #3B: Don’t be dramatic.
Takeaway: #3C: You’re fine. Nothing happened. That wasn’t anything.
I had become friends with this guy during my last years of undergrad by virtue of us doing 5 shows and, therefore, spending no less than 82.5million hours together. He was an odd duck. He was older than the rest of us, having come to college after leaving the military, and was supremely haughty & self-righteous and, on top of that, just felt creepy. But, every opening night of every show, he bought a stuffed animal for every girl in the cast (…yo, that’s a LOT of stuffed animals), and he just found a way to balance his dickishness with these nice gestures.
And he was always nice to me.
One of our shows had gone to an international theatre festival overseas and, on our last two days of the trip, I came down with a nasty nasty case of the flu. Rather than leave me by myself to stew in my own gross juices for the 7.5 hour-flight back, he volunteered to sit next to me. Which I thought was nice. I thought that it was totally unnecessary, but totally nice.
I moved home to live with my parents the summer after I graduated to stockpile as much money as possible before heading to grad school. I spent three months exclusively waiting tables for 12 hours, driving 90 miles to Buffalo to see my boyfriend for 12 hours, running at the crack of dawn and (occasionally) sleeping. That was legitimately all that there was time for. …I’ve had more exciting Julys.
Midway through that summer, I started receiving angry texts from this friend. He was also in Buffalo and said that I should be making time for him, that I was being careless and thoughtless and a terrible friend for not doing so. I threw him a bone by explaining myself, saying that I simply needed to focus on saving money and spending time with my now long-distance boyfriend, neither of which made me a bad friend, but highlighted a different set of (important) priorities. He shared that his feelings were bruised, but backed-off.
I should have known better.
Midway through my first year of grad school (thousands of miles away), he began messaging me on MySpace. He’d heard that my relationship had hit a snag and felt the need to capitalize on the opportunity.
He told me that he was in love with me. He said that I owed it to him to consider a relationship. I owed him a shot because he’d sat next to me on that plane. I owed him.
And then, he graphically spelled out all of the things that he planned to do to me. His “sexual prowess” (verbatim) was unmatched and I should be psyched to find that out for myself.
I felt sick. I turned him down.
He didn’t like that.
He began relentlessly messaging me, every message epic, every message graphic, every message a blatant attempt to bully me into conceding to do what he felt he was owed . Once I blocked him, he created alter egos to keep it up. Every time that I blocked one, he created someone new. He started blogging about me, he started messaging my friends about me, he laughed off friends who called him and threatened him on my behalf. He did this for over a year.
A year. And sporadically, still, after that.
I was honestly terrified. I legitimately felt preyed upon and, correspondingly, looked into acquiring a restraining order. However, I was told that because nothing physical had happened, because it was “just words” that that was a near impossibility. It was just words.
But, this felt so dire. …But, then again, maybe I was just overreacting. Either way, there was nothing that I could do but just sit back, and let it play itself out.
At this point, it’s been five years since I last told him to fuck off. I’m still not convinced that he’s not going to just show up at my front door tomorrow.
Takeaway #1: Nice gestures from guys are probably not empty ones.
Takeaway #1B: I owe.
Takeaway #2: If you see an older mint green Subaru, run.
Takeaway #3: Nah. Why run over just words? Nothing really happened.
Takeaway #3B: A restraining order? Man, you’re dramatic.
Takeaway #3C: This wasn’t anything.
That same year, when my relationship suddenly went very south very quickly, I found myself feeling the lowest I’d ever felt. I was sad, I was exceptionally self-conscious, and I just felt like dogshit.
I had, however, heard that there was a guy in my program who’d somehow found me cute. It shocked me. But, it was a fun thing to entertain, and especially because he had a girlfriend. I, therefore, knew that any flirting between us would, while boosting my self-confidence, be empty and harmless. I knew that it was a safe distraction, and I desperately needed a distraction.
One night, a number of us decided to go out drinking, an activity that I thought that I was starting to become a professional at (see: “Nope”). Naturally, this guy was there. Naturally. We spent the evening flirting and I spent the evening drinking and things progressively became hazier and hazier. Naturally.
I remember being out on my friend’s balcony and this guy kissing me. I remember him continuing to kiss me. I remember thinking “This is just a kiss. It’s fine. But, he has a girlfriend, and I’m sure that this will stop here.”
And then, I remember his hands down my pants. And I remember feeling like I couldn’t move. And I remember wanting it to stop and believing that it would stop and believing that it couldn’t possibly go further from there. This was harmless. This was hands. I knew this guy. He had a girlfriend. He was safe. This couldn’t be anything.
And then, I remember drinking some more, and then walking down to a truck where we would kiss a couple more times. Because, why would we do anything else? I knew this guy. He had a girlfriend.
And I remember suddenly being in the back of the truck. And I remember suddenly being on my back and getting nervous. And I remember saying “No,” but thinking “Why can’t I say this louder?” And I remember repeating “No. No. No,” and thinking “I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be here.”
And I remember locking eyes with him and saying “No,” the moment that he decided to do it anyway. I remember that.
I remember saying “No,” while it was happening.
And I remember eventually deciding that it would be easier if I just laid there. So I did.
And, I walked away from that event stunned. I felt different. I didn’t know what I was. But, for the first time in my life, I realized that what had happened was, in fact, something.
And that something was that a boy chose to like me. He liked me enough to cheat on his girlfriend, therefore, proving how much he liked me.
…I had no idea. None. The thought never crossed my mind.
So, I kept going back. For months. Because he liked me. Because he’d text me that he “needed” me. He needed me! I was needed!
I’d found such a good distraction.
Eventually, however, I didn’t need distracting anymore. I’d suddenly lost the sadness that I’d been feeling and found this anger instead, which afforded me a substantial amount more clarity (sorta). I began to (sorta) see my situation with this guy for what it was: I wasn’t needed at all. I, too, was just a distraction.
So, I called things off.
From that point on, it was hard to know what I was going to get from him: the invisibility treatment, public praise, public slut-shaming, or a text asking for a racy pic. Every day, it was something new.
And I saw him every day.
And the sadness came back, right along with a guilt and a shame that I’ve fought with for ten years. Because I’d invited it, I’d asked for it. I’d asked for all of it.
Whatever had happened, and something certainly did, it was my fault.
Takeaway #1–10: This is all my fault.
In the ten years since, I’ve become a grown-up. Praise be. A lot of that growing-up has certainly included getting really real with myself about shit that I’d rather not think about. Ever.
I spent my youth and pseudo-adulthood perfecting the art of de-escalating (there’s a GREAT article about this here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/gretchen-kelly/the-thing-all-women-do-you-dont-know-about_b_8630416.html?ncid=engmodushpmg00000003) and, correspondingly, diminishing the seriousness of so many of my most serious life events. It was easier that way. Fancy little defense mechanism, this de-escalation-thing. Eventually, though, it was as if I’d found myself turning so many blind eyes to the world swirling around me that it became unclear as to what I was actually seeing anymore.
But, here I am, a grown-ass woman, and as a grown-ass woman, I like to think of myself as someone that I’d keep my eyes wide open for, and stand up for, someone whose best interests I’d continually bear in mind. Someone I, finally, like.
Incidentally, I can’t begin to count the number of times that I’ve had to remind myself that doing what’s in my best interest often means doing what’s hard.
So, that’s how I found myself sitting at dinner with my friend Damon realizing, ten years after the fact, that I’d been raped.
And here I was finally seeing these other disgusting and unacceptable events for what they were: harassment and assault. Each of these episodes, in some way, helped pave the way for this rape and, essentially, make it possible. Hadn’t I excused each incident? Diminshed it? Decided I’d “asked for it”? Why would I do anything else while living out my worst nightmare?
How stupid I’d been to shoulder the blame instead of standing up.
I can’t bear the thought of anyone else doing the same.
However. I know now that this is not my fault. None of this is my fault.
And I know that none of this is my parents’ fault.
And I know that the very last thing that I’m interested in is dancing around some stupid Blame Game, because let’s get serious here.
I also know that not a single one of these stories are exceptional, and I know that they’re not rare, and that is what makes this worse. And this is why we need to keep talking. This is why we need to get uncomfortable, we need to have a greater understanding of how we’re miseducating ourselves, sabotaging ourselves, and not dealing with this epidemic because, make no mistake, that’s what this is. We need to, all of us, be held accountable.
We need to start listening. Truly.
We need to actually grasp that it’s all something.