Before I start, I should probably note that I’m about to write on a topic, rape, that many people find difficult to discuss. It’s only my opinion, obviously, about one aspect of a complex debate. Now enough saying what shouldn’t even need to be said, and on to the topic at hand.
It was the last day in my dorm before the beginning of summer break, in June of 1990. My freshman year was over, and I was looking forward to three months of working a crappy job, hanging out with my friends, and not thinking about homework. All of my close friends and my roommate had already gone home. I was lonely and bored in a pre-internet world. So when an acquaintance asked if I wanted to go to the last party on campus that year, I agreed.
I should note that I’m not much of a party girl. I don’t drink. That said, I do like boys, and I like sex. I like sex wholeheartedly, with no shame or reservations. I’m not big on shame in general, and even less fond of it when it applies to my sexuality. At nineteen, without a serious boyfriend and with a summer of manual drudgery ahead, I wanted what nowadays would be termed a “hook-up,” but which we called a one-night stand. I wanted to get laid, and I saw nothing wrong with that. I should note that I still don’t. I eventually decided that this sort of sex wasn’t for me, but that had nothing to do with shame and everything to do with the distinct lack of skill that most guys displayed when fumbling around with my body for the first time.
The party turned out to be on Greek Row, and it was filled with the sort of boys I didn’t normally date. I had a type I liked in college: smart, a bit awkward, conflicted, funny… but mostly artsy and weird and prone to too much angsty self-examination. Sometimes those boys looked like rockers, sometimes like poets, sometimes like athletes, but their interiors were pretty much the same. The boys at this party were primarily wealthy frat boys, cocky and loud and not so much into poetry. I figured that didn’t matter much, given what I was after.
The boy I ended up with (whose name I’d protect, if I could actually remember it) was deliciously handsome, reasonably charming, and radiated douchebag. He had that arrogance-mixed-with-disdain-mixed-with-lack-of-critical-thinking thing going for him that some women love, but that makes my skin crawly. Under any other circumstances, I wouldn’t have touched him with a proverbial pole, but hormones are a powerful motivator for ignoring one’s own judgement. Though he had been drinking, I’d caught him early in the night, with just a beer or two under his belt. He was able to hold a somewhat-interesting conversation, to flirt with me, to insinuate that we would have a very meaningless good time. I took him back to my room.
I don’t have a clear memory of most of that evening, because it wasn’t really worth remembering, to be honest. He wasn’t a great kisser or a bad one. But at some point, we got down to more serious business, and I let him put his mouth between my legs. This was where things got more memorable.
He was terrible at it. Like: really, really bad. Aggressive when he shouldn’t be, pokey and weird. It started out uncomfortable and quickly moved into mildly painful.
I said: “I think I’m done with that.”
What I meant was: let’s move on. Other than that moment, things hadn’t been objectionable. I knew even then that most guys weren’t all that skilled in the cunnilingus department. I wasn’t implying we needed to stop altogether, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t sound like that was what I meant. I was perfectly prepared to continue with other… you know… stuff.
Until he replied. Lifting his head briefly, he said to me: “Well, I’m not done.”
And then he went back at it, tightening his grip on my thighs.
I was gobsmacked. There’s no other word for it. That emotion is one of the few things I remember clearly about the whole thing. I wasn’t scared. I was totally surprised, and then I was pissed as hell. What idiot refuses to stop performing oral sex?
“Oh yes, you are,” I said, clear and cold and livid. “Either you stop, or I scream.”
He stopped instantly. The whole exchange lasted maybe ten seconds.
I don’t really remember much about throwing him out, but I know I did. He put his clothes on and left, and I’m pretty sure he called me some choice names in the process, but I didn’t care. It was over, and I was fine. If I have to admit it, I was pretty proud of myself. I had done exactly what I needed to do in a bad situation.
The next morning, I left for home, and spent my summer dating boys I’d known in high school, working at a chain record store, and having a good time. I didn’t waste even thirty seconds thinking about he who is now nameless, or what had happened between us. When I returned to campus the next fall, I saw him around. He didn’t acknowledge me, nor I him. He had a girlfriend. They seemed happy enough. I just assumed she wasn’t into oral sex.
Six, or maybe seven months later, I was sitting with a group of friends in the basement lounge of one of the dorms. It was the sort of night where most people were slowly nursing beers and telling stories that we’d normally have kept to ourselves. Someone told a story about being raped. Other women in the room responded with stories of sexual assaults, or situations that had made them feel violated or afraid. There was a general feeling of camaraderie, because as women, we’d all been around men who were threatening, even if we hadn’t ever been directly in their paths. At some point, it was my turn to talk.
I don’t know why I told that story then. I guess because it followed the general theme of “men being assholes to us,” and to be honest, I didn’t really have story where I was actually violated or afraid, so this was as juicy as it got for me. I said exactly what I just related about it, except I left out the part of being proud of my own response, because that seemed to suggest that other women should have, or could have, done something to prevent being hurt themselves, and I’ve never been one to use my own experiences to pass judgement on others.
I just like telling stories, I suppose, and will find one to tell no matter what the topic.
“Jess,” one of my friends said when I had finished. “You were raped!”
The funny thing is, looking back on that statement, I felt much the same emotion that I had when my bad date told me he wasn’t “done.” I was surprised. I couldn’t figure out how anyone could hold my story up to the other stories being told in that room and walk away with the impression that what had happened to me was really a violation. My story seemed so mild.
“No, I wasn’t,” I insisted. “I said ‘no,’ he said ‘yes,’ I told him to get the hell out, and he did.”
“Right, he didn’t stop when you said to stop. That’s the definition of rape.”
I stared at her. Because what she said was true, if you considered the few seconds before I told him to stop a second time and he did. But a few seconds didn’t feel to me like rape. It felt like a conversation, so to speak: an argument that up until that moment, I believed I had won.
“That’s right,” another girl joined in. “You were violated. You were raped.”
The other women in the room were nodding. It felt to me like they were sending me a message: you may not feel like a victim, but you are.
Social pressure is an interesting thing. At nineteen, I wasn’t very good at challenging it. These were my friends, girls I respected and hung-out with and trusted. I wanted them to like me and to accept me. Being a victim of an assault gave me something in common with them, and to be honest, I can be someone who finds it difficult to connect with other women. This was an “in.” All I had to do was admit that what had happened to me was a scarring, horrific experience, and it would bond me in this circle of femininity.
It would have been easy to say what they wanted to hear. They all knew the boy. Everyone agreed that he was not a very nice guy: boorish and rude and obnoxiously into himself. He liked to flash his money around campus. He was a mouthy smartass in class. He bragged about his frat and his body and his prowess. He fit the “type,” you know?
But I couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t raped. That boy, however bad in bed he might have been, wasn’t a rapist, and I wasn’t a victim.
I took a deep breath, braced myself, and then said again: “No, I wasn’t.”
Like most moments in our lives when we feel pressured to do something socially and then finally refuse… nothing happened.
I wasn’t rejected. In fact, no one really cared. They had enough moments of genuine pain and terror between them to make up for me. The night moved on to other stories, and no one ever mentioned what happened to me again. None of my friends disowned me, or tried to change my mind later. I wasn’t kicked out of some mythical girls’ club.
Mostly, I have chosen to keep this entire experience to myself. I have, over the years, known plenty of women who were actually raped. Their experiences were horrific and difficult to relate, and I would never want to diminish their stories. I have also known at least one woman who was a pathological liar and whom I’m pretty darn sure made up her own rape story, just as she made up stories about me and all my friends. Women are complex and capable of many actions: kindness, passivity, aggression, beauty, and cruelty — much like our male counterparts. We pressure each other to conform in ways that are subtle and difficult to avoid, because they are based in insinuations. Being in a room full of women is sometimes like being in a high school locker room, but with way more metaphorical nakedness, and the internet sometimes feels like a very, very big room. The truth is that it’s not easy to be female, so we talk to each other in order to unpack each other, to place each other in a recognizable light.
Both the night in question, plus the reaction of my friends afterward, made me uncomfortable. That moment in my dorm room showed me that I was strong enough to stand up for myself, almost without thinking about it, when my body was being treated in a way I didn’t like. That was a good thing, but it also showed me that I was willing to let my desires get in the way of my judgment, a truth about myself that hasn’t much changed. The moment in the basement with my friends reminded me that it was harder to stand up for my own words than it was to protect my body. I learned how easily our narratives are turned around in the minds of others, how hard it is to keep a narrative from rearranging itself to fit the social norm.
Talking about this topic is difficult, because people hear what they want to hear. Maybe they want to hear me say that all women can simply stand up to men and walk safely away, even though this is clearly not true. Or maybe they want to hear me say that I suffered a sexual assault, which is not what I believe. Maybe they want me to say that women pressure other women to tell lies, but in the end, I don’t think anyone really wanted me to do that. Mostly, people want to apply a single experience out to everyone so they can add it to their understanding, even though that experience is unique.
This is why stories like the recent piece in Rolling Stone, and the recanting of that story later, make people so nervous. We want a rape narrative that fits our preconceived notions of how men and women behave, and we will ignore the truth in order to get that narrative. It doesn’t matter if that narrative comes from a brutal rape story about colluding frat boys, or if it comes from George Will insisting that crying rape is the new fashion on campus. My story could be twisted to fit either of those narratives, while I believe it fits neither.
As an English teacher, I also understand that once a story becomes public, what its author did or didn’t intend really isn’t important anymore. We can’t know for certain what Shakespeare wanted us to think about Shylock’s trial scene, or whether Milton genuinely sympathized with the devil: all we know is what the words say, and then we apply the layers of our own social understanding on top of those words, whether we want to or not.
So here are my words: I was not raped, or even sexually assaulted. Neither was I heroic, just because I told the guy in question to sod off. I was never required to tell a lie in order to maintain my social status; I was not forced to be a victim. I am a human being, navigating complex situations with other human beings. Things got weird when I was nineteen, as they sometimes do.
I was lucky, on many levels. The boy I was with was not a rapist, even if he was an idiot. I was not drunk, or naturally very passive. He was not drunk, or naturally very aggressive. The girls I spoke to later did not reject me, even if they did want me to see things from their perspective. I believe that the boy did not mean to harm me. I believe that the girls meant to include and validate me. Whatever their intentions, I was strong enough to stand up to him and to stand up to them. I’m still proud of myself for both of those moments.
I can understand how stories get twisted and retold and reshaped, both by the tellers and by the listeners. I get how a person can end up recounting and even believing their own false narrative out of pressure or shame or mental illness, and I see how the public would buy into it, because it was what they wanted to hear. Narratives are tricky things.
That’s why we view them (even when they are told at great cost) as mutable things that must be approached delicately. Narratives are not a single truth, no matter how much we wish that they were.