Dating in New York City can be fun, and I took full advantage of it as a single girl. I remember one date in particular. I met a guy at a party with friends, and in usual fashion exchange numbers and we set up a date the following weekend. I was staying in Harlem, he was in Brooklyn, a train ride that seems like a lifetime on any given weekend. We decide to meet for dinner and drinks and I agreed to meet him in Brooklyn, and that he would drive me back home at the end of the night. Simple, right?
We meet, have dinner, and proceed to a lounge to have a few a drinks. A few too many drinks, but we are having fun. I wouldn’t say it was a home run date but it was a good one, and at this point I have all intentions on going on a second date. As our evening winds down, it’s clear that he is too drunk to drive me home. But it’s late and the trip back to Harlem is a long train ride and an expensive cab ride. He offers to put me up for the night, and to take me home in the morning. Knowing that he is a friend of a friend, and trusting myself, I accept the offer.
We get to his place and lay down to go to bed. He makes a move and I make it clear that I’m not into it. He keeps pushing the issue and trying harder and harder to have intercourse. I have a dress on so it isn’t that hard for him to quickly position himself where he wants to be. And I remember pushing back, but also not wanting to make too much of a scene. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure why I didn’t just yell or be more aggressive or just get up and leave. He tries to penetrate me and I think “he’s going to do this anyways.” But by some brush of luck I get him to stop by telling him “I’m not wet enough.” Not sure why that stops him rather than the countless times I uttered “stop” or “no” but it did. Thank God. I end up in a cab home.
What I remember the most vividly is the next day, and telling my best friend what happened. Telling her how aggressive he was being and in the midst of describing it, I say “he just kept pushing for it but not like he was going to rape me” and she replies “well that’s exactly what it sounds like.” Out of the whole experience, that is what has stuck with me the most over the years. Yes, I’ve questioned myself and why was I there in the first place. Yes, I remember the fear of thinking he’s going to do it anyway. And like a lot of women, I’ve placed the blame on myself. And yes, I’ve been thankful because I know my story is nothing like some of the violent attacks some women are the victims of.
But what is most troubling, both to and for me, is that when it came time to describe the night, not only could I not describe it as rape or sexual assault, I went out of my way to put a disclaimer on it that it wasn’t rape. I think I was too ashamed to admit that I “let” this happen to me. I was guilt tripping myself for what I believed was my role in a series of bad decisions, and by calling it something else maybe it removed my perceived responsibility from the outcome. I’m still not sure why I couldn’t bring myself to call it what it was: sexual assault and attempted rape. This guy is friends with my friends, a very popular guy actually. I still see him and he speaks as if it never even happened, and I feel certain he doesn’t believe he even did anything wrong.
So what’s my point of reliving this? I recently saw the wide variety of reactions to the Nate Parker controversy, which I’m not discussing here. But I saw the colossal gap between how women felt about it as compared to men, and I saw a number of troubling comments on consent, on the woman bearing the responsibility, and on rape culture generally. I tell this story now to highlight that these situations evoke such a vehement reaction from women because many of us can relate. The number of victims of sexual assault and/or rape each year is unimaginable alone, but combine that with the number of incidents that go unreported and it’s too much to digest. Add on to those, the ones of us who fall somewhere in that blurry space of consent. Those of us who are not labeled victims because either we narrowly escaped or our story isn’t one widely recognized as rape by the men who we consider to be friends and loved ones.
Some of us don’t tell our stories because we are unsure if it was our fault. Some of us aren’t sure if it meets the definition of rape or sexual assault so we resort to calling it something else, and processing it as something else. We relate to these stories because many of us have been that girl before and while we are sure that what was done to us wasn’t right, or just, or humane, we are also unsure where it falls in both the scales of justice and judgement.
What I want to bring attention to, for men and women, is that your vision of what a victim of sexual assault looks like should be any woman, including the women in your life who you think it could never be. Or that it’s never been. Victims are not some underclass of women who make bad decisions, or who are uneducated about sexual assault, or who are desperate for love and find themselves in tough situations. I’m a well-educated woman. I’m a barred attorney who used to work in the domestic and sexual assault unit of the district attorney’s office in a large urban area. I’m well-versed in human and women’s rights. I advocate often and with vigor for women to tell their stories. But any of us can be a victim, even me.