Monday, October 17, 2016

Common, Not Normal

TRIGGER WARNING: Graphic description of sexual assault.

We can clutch our pearls all we want over the grotesque misogynous circle jerk of Howard Stern and Donald Trump, but our quivering with moral outrage seems a tad disingenuous when one of those men is this year's Republican Presidential candidate and the other served as a judge on "America's Got Talent," where he somehow managed to serve four years without referring to a single competitor as a "piece of ass." Perhaps we simply feel no need to state out loud what we already know: There is, by and large, very little consequence for misogyny.  Brock Turner's judicial abortion of a sentence was outrageous not because it was an outlier, some monstrous anomaly, but precisely the opposite: because it was so utterly predictable, just the most recent in a long line of egregious examples of how utterly consequence-free rape is.

For the rapist, anyway.

To describe the consequences on the other side of that inequality, I don't think I can touch the statement penned by Turner's victim in terms of its eloquence or power.  But maybe I can shed light on what precedes sexual assault for so many women in America--not the immediate precedents dissected by juries, the media, and legions of armchair psychologists, things like clothing choices and intoxication and dating history and race and socioeconomic status and and and.  But the cultural morass that normalizes sexual objectification, degradation, and ultimately assault from virtually the moment the doctor says "It's a girl!"

What follows is one person's experience only--mine--and I offer it up, like the Brock Turner sentence, not because it is anomalous, but rather precisely because it is so utterly, devastatingly commonplace.
  • I'm eight, walking on the beach in Delaware with my mother.  In front of us, a man stands up from his beach blanket, and walks slowly across our path into the ocean.  He is naked. 
  • I start developing breasts when I'm 10.  Seconds later, people start commenting--my father's friends, my mother's friends, aunts and uncles.  My mother, horrified to realize one day at the mall that I'm not wearing a bra under my Bill the Cat T-shirt, drags me into a storefront, hisses at me under her breath, and orders me to swelter a winter coat for the rest of our shopping trip.  An older female relative begins passing her hand casually over my breast each time we hug at the end of a visit.  I tell my father.  He tells me how much it will "hurt her feelings" if I start dodging her hugs.
  • In our Catholic middle school, boys flip up our uniform skirts and snap our bra straps so casually, teachers merely roll their eyes when I mention it.  One day a boy notices me carrying my purse to the bathroom and starts taunting me about having my period, asking me what it feels like to have blood running down my legs all day.
  • Walking from that middle school to the public library one day, a man in a white van honks at me as he drives by.  I jump and look up, and a guy is hanging out of the window, waggling his tongue at me obscenely.  I don't quite know what he's implying, but it scares me to death and also makes me feel dirty.  
  • I'm eleven or so when a friend tells me that the older boy across the street makes her show him her genitals, and makes her touch them in front of him.  I ask her if she's told anyone.  She hasn't.  A year or so later, her parents are in the middle of a nasty divorce.  Her mom confides to me that her ex-husband comes into the house at night sometimes and forces himself on her.  I tell her that's called rape.  She tells me it can't be rape because he was her husband.
  • When I'm twelve, I'm volunteering in the nursery at church when a fellow parishioner shows up after a long absence.  When I ask her where she had been, she informed me that the maintenance worker at her apartment complex used his key to gain access to her apartment and raped and beat her while her baby slept in the next room. When she presses charges, the landlord (a wealthy business man in the area) evicts her.  She tells me that the police asked her why she'd been wearing a nightgown at the time of the attack. 
  • I'm walking home from the bus stop, still in middle school, I believe, and a man pulls over and offers me a ride.  He seems friendly, but I decline.  The next day, he does the same thing.  And the next.  Eventually a neighbor tells my parents, and my parents are furious with me for not telling them.  
  • Around the same relative timeframe (maybe I was 13?), we're debating abortion around the dinner table.  My parents casually inform me that a family friend's daughter had an abortion when she was twelve after "claiming" a neighbor raped her.  It doesn't occur to me to argue that a twelve year old can't consent to sex.
  • Within a year or so, one of my best friends attempts suicide.  My parents inform me that she, too, had "claimed" to be raped.
  • My father explained to me often that there is no such thing as date rape, there's just regret.  
  • My Freshman math teacher refers to all the girls as "chickie."  So, too, does my Latin teacher, a man I worship as a surrogate father figure.  
  • When I'm fourteen, a male friend offers me a ride home from school.  Instead, he drives me to an empty field and forces me to fellate him.  Afterward, he drops me off at home.  I am late.  My parents are furious; I'm grounded.  I hide in my room, gingerly inspecting the blood blister that formed on the inside of my mouth.
  • In tenth grade, our honors English teacher (a priest) routinely chooses a girl from the class to give him a back rub during class while he sits at his desk and grunts and groans appreciatively.
  • When I'm fifteen, my mom takes me to the gynecologist because I have horrible, debilitating periods. Once I'm alone with him in his office, he tells me he knows the truth--that I'm only there to get the Pill.  He then tells me he's going to use the adult-sized speculum when he examines me because I obviously don't need the virginal one.
  • When I'm 14 or 15, a boy at church develops a crush on me.  He is two years older than I am and has been in the juvenile justice system.  He is clingy and needy and I feel both sorry for and scared of him.  I turn down all of his date requests with excuses.  One day he shows up unannounced at my house (I have not told him my address) with a necklace for me.  I demure, but he insists I take it.  Later, my parents scold me for leading him on.
  • In eleventh grade, I am summoned to the Dean of Girls' office for a stern dressing down because I was seen kissing my boyfriend in the hallway.  He is not similarly disciplined.
  • In twelfth grade, my Latin teacher explains to me that married women should never work outside the home because then they compete with men for jobs, and men need to support their families.
  • At the end of twelfth grade, I'm attending a friend's graduation party when a classmate whom I've known since sixth grade barges into the bathroom I'm using.  He grabs me and pushes me against the sink, pinning my hands behind my back.  He kisses me aggressively, saying "you know you want it." It occurs to me that maybe if he thinks I do want it, he'll let go of my hands.  I kiss him back.  He lets go of my hands.  I punch him in the throat hard enough to knock him down and leave.
In college--feel fee to go take a break for some water, energy drink, whatevs--things get much worse.
  • Early in my first semester, a friend sets me up with a friend of his, someone who he says has had a crush on me from afar for months.  I've never seen him before, but I agree to go to pizza with him.  When we get back to the dorm, he grabs me and kisses me aggressively. I push him away and go into my dorm, and decline to see him again.  Within a few days, our mutual friend is advocating on his behalf again, saying that this guy felt so bad and was just sooo nervous because he liked me so much.  I agree to watch a movie in his dorm room with a group of other guys I know.  Things are going relatively well and I don't notice as the guys drift out, one by one, until it's just him and me.  He rapes me, my clothes still on, just shoved out of the way, and when he's done he leaves a condom lodged in my vagina for good measure.  There is blood on the sheets and I feel profoundly guilty about this.
  • The trauma, shame, and guilt are so great that I keep dating him.  Over the next few months he gets more and more violent until finally I decide I have to break up with him.  That night, he locks his dormroom door and throws me around like a rag doll.  When I finally get the door open, I have rolls of his skin under my fingernails and his face is bleeding where I scratched him. His RA and mine are standing out side the door; apparently someone on the floor had reported the noise.  Both RAs are clearly out of their depth.  The male jokes, nervously, "Geez, what did you do to him?" The female follows me down the hall, insisting that she needs to get me "help," though she is unable to say what that might be, and asking me repetitively if I'm "OK".  I do not trust her, or him, or anyone else at this point.  I tell her I'm fine and flee to the local underage bar, where I know there will be people I know.  I hide amongst them until it's last call, and a friend walks me back to my dormroom.
  • We attend a small school.  When people ask me why I broke up with him, I tell them an abbreviated version that hints at the abuse.  There are two responses:  One camp tells me that I must be mistaken, surely, because he is so charming or, alternately, so devastated that I broke up with him. One mutual friend tells me I "owe him another chance."  The second camp tells me, in hushed voices, of other similar anecdotes they've heard about this same person. One of my best friends tearfully tells me that he had assaulted her, too.  But she hadn't told me because she assumed it was her own fault, and that he wouldn't do the same to me.
It's late in the afternoon, now, as I write this.  And although I had sworn I was going to simply itemize every incident I could think of that has shaped me in terms of sexuality and consent and speaking out and credibility, I honestly don't know that I can continue.  I am exhausted by this fetid laundry list, and the guilt-mongering voices are clamoring with a litany of people I am undoubtedly hurting or offending with this post.  And yet...there is so much more.
  • The RA my freshman year who followed me home from the bar and threatened to "write me up" unless I went back to his room--who, I later learned, had a reputation for raping drunk freshman girls
  • The stranger in a bar who--since apparently now everyone can say it--"grabbed my pussy," hard.  I swung around reflexively and landed a hard stinging slap across his face.  He lunged for me, his face contorted in rage, screaming "bitch!", but two of his buddies held him back.  
  • My boyfriend's drunk best friend, who did the same thing, to much the same effect.  My boyfriend was mad at me for slapping his friend.  Such is the damaging effect of sexual assault that I later married him anyway.
  • The gynecologist who treated me for an abnormal pap test by lecturing me, alone in his office, crucifix hanging behind his desk, about the immoralities of promiscuity.  Then performed a biopsy so violently that I nearly lost consciousness and it took two tampons to absorb the blood.  He tossed the blood- and tissue-covered instrument on a metal tray near my face for punctuation.  When my diagnosis came back as positive for HPV, he called my mother and told her personally.  My parents didn't speak to me for weeks.
Out of college--still with me?  Because the workforce is a great and harassment-free place for women! Amiright?
  • In my first "real" job interview, my boss-to-be asked me if I planned on having kids soon, because he didn't want to "waste time training someone who was just going to quit."
  • My supervisor in that job sent me to go work on a project with a colleague of his.  I thought this was an indicator of my stellar work, until the (married) colleague said "no, I asked for you because you're hot!"
  • A year or so later, the (married with four kids) supervisor later pinned me against a wall and groped and kissed me.
  • Around the same time, on a business trip, a coworker followed me back to my hotel room, pushed me against the door, and groped and kissed me aggressively.  I pushed him away, and went inside.  I later told our manager, who said, "Do you want me to talk to him about it?" as if this was just, you know, a thought; an option.  But only if I insisted.
  • In a later job, my boss told me I should hook up with a (married with two kids) vendor as a "reward" for closing a deal.
OK, so that last one was nearly twenty years ago.  Which means this entire list spans roughly 18 years--from the time I was eight until I was 26.  I wish I could say that the past 18 years has been harassment-free, but it hasn't, of course.  There's been countless catcalls, ass-grabs, and inappropriate comments since then.  My older daughter was 11 the first time a man catcalled her (we were jogging), fourteen when I saw a man my age leering at her in the gym.  And so the indefatigable, priapic worm turns.  I'm just too tired to keep counting its revolutions.

I offer this up to those of you who've experienced it, as affirmation that your experiences are far more common than they should be, and to those of you who haven't experienced it, so that you can have an insight into someone else's reality.  Because the only thing that benefits from silence is the worm itself.

1 comment: