Creating a Culture of Consent

My #metoo story isn’t a shocking one. It’s your ordinary, run-of-the-mill pervy stuff — the kind of thing myriad women experience in myriad incarnations every day.

I was a teenager, walking down the street in a pleasant, residential neighborhood on a beautiful day. A man pulled up in a van, rolled down the passenger-side window, beckoned me over to ask directions. I obliged (this was pre-Kimmy Schmidt, ok?), and didn’t initially realize he’d undone his pants and was masturbating while I spoke.

It took a minute to sink in because, as I clearly recall, I wasn’t wearing my glasses and things were a touch blurry. I’d taken them off and had them tucked into the collar of my shirt, which I remember doing out of pure vanity because I thought it looked cool.

Actually, I remember everything about the event, every mundane detail, though it was twenty years ago. I remember his face, and that he had an evident skin disease. I remember the color of the car and the skirt I was wearing, that the sun was shining, what I’d been thinking about a moment before the van appeared. Memory does that, when we’re emotionally undone — it sticks.

The thing I remember most, though, and have been thinking about for the past couple of weeks is how I reacted. I wish I could say I screamed, or said something effectively shaming, or even nothing at all. But I didn’t.

I apologized.

To him. The unapologetic creep.

I politely apologized for excusing myself, and then I ran.

Part of it, unquestionably, was shock. We all say and do strange things when we’re totally taken aback. But to tell him I was so sorry I needed to leave, that I was expected elsewhere? Essentially acknowledging the inconvenience I was causing by not complying with the fun little exercise he’d planned for us? Where the hell did that come from?

I think I finally know.

As recent events have made increasingly apparent, few too many men are adequately and accurately educated about women. But most women are trained, jedi-style, from a young age, about what to expect from men when it comes to us — namely, that they don’t have a lot of control. That we need to actively protect ourselves from them, we need street smarts and strategies for dates, the workforce, even walking alone, because they can’t all be trusted. That they’re more vulnerable to the whims of their base desires than we are. That some are a lot better than others, but hey, it’s just hard-wired.

After a while, years of hearing it and inevitably experiencing it to at least some degree, we start to feel a little sorry for men. They can’t always help themselves! It’s a little pathetic; embarrassing for all of us, really.

So when we’re faced with the worst of this thing we’ve been taught to expect, and youth mixes with shock mixes with discomfort mixes with instinct, for many of us that instinct is what we’ve been trained to feel: empathy. Poor you, you’re basically an animal. And only next: Now I better protect me.

It’s a weird mixed bag that can lead to, yes, even an embarrassed and backwards gut-reaction apology by a victim to a perpetrator, and there are a million different iterations of that apology.

And it makes me wonder: How often is off-the-cuff embarrassment interpreted as consent?

When I got home, my mom took me to the police station to file a report and flip through pages of mug shots. It felt melodramatic; no one had touched me. There was no follow up.

The next time it happened, in another country, another car, another man, I was a year and a half wiser. I rolled my eyes and walked on.