The Rumpus Saturday Essay: Stain

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One summer afternoon when I was twelve, I walked my dog a bit further than usual and we ended up under the viaduct where I-75 crossed above our heads. It was so dark under the metal bridge that I didn’t see a man lurking against the wall. My beagle didn’t bark or lunge or bite. He didn’t do squat. The man pinned my shoulders and pointed a knife to my neck. He was lanky and scruffy, in his mid-twenties maybe. He laughed, and I was sure I was going to die after he did whatever he was going to do to me first. I froze. If I didn’t move, maybe I could pretend this wasn’t happening. And then it wasn’t. He pocketed the knife, slicked back his hair, laughed again, this time with fake intimacy. “I was just kidding,” he said. “Can’t you take a joke?” His arms wandered over my shoulders, uncle style. I still said nothing, careful not to break the spell of his new, light mood. I walked with him for a mile or so, even after he let go, past Taco Bell and Hardee’s, past Burger King and Arby’s. If I didn’t have my dog I probably would have rushed inside and asked someone to call the police. But all I could think was: Dogs aren’t allowed in restaurants. I walked beside this creep, his arm around my shoulders or my waist, his knife jingling in his pocket, wondering if he would change his mind and pin me down again, till he turned right and let me turn left. I ran the three blocks home from there, but I didn’t call the police. I told no one.

***

It’s hard to remember why I was silent. Maybe, like some of the women only now reporting they were raped by Bill Cosby decades ago, I was afraid I wouldn’t be believed. Maybe I didn’t want people to tell me the world was too dangerous for girls to navigate alone. How many steps is it from not being able to walk your dog by yourself in the middle of the day to not being able to drive or go to school? How many parents would respond to a daughter’s being attacked by keeping her home? How many already do this by preemptively not allowing their daughters the same independence they give their sons? When I lived in Brooklyn and my son went to middle school in Manhattan, parents let their boys take the subway by themselves but insisted on accompanying the girls. Or maybe I intuited that when women speak up, the accusing finger gets pointed at us, the finger that asks: Why were you walking under a viaduct where no one could see you? Why were your shorts so short? Why were you by yourself? Why were you asking for it?   In Paying for the Party, a sociological study of college campus culture, Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton say, “Rather than recognizing and challenging women’s victimization, women blamed others who were assaulted for being ‘immature,’ ‘naive,’ or ‘stupid.’” Sometimes girls blame themselves. So many books, films, and songs emphasize the need for girls to dress and act sexy. Consumer magazines are filled with articles and ads on how girls should make themselves desirable. With so much time and energy spent trying to get boys to like them, it’s not surprising that, after boys show any attention, even violent attention, girls might conclude that they have drawn that attention to themselves. Every time a parent on TV has a fit about what her daughter is wearing, there’s a hint that boys’ behavior is caused by the way girls dress. Every time there’s an eroticized rape on a show girls learn to internalize that rape is normal, so why try to fight it? On The Vampire Diaries, Damon repeatedly rapes but never apologizes for, or is held accountable, for his behavior. On Game of Thrones, according to Roxane Gay at Salon, “rape becomes a narrative device. Rape is used to punish. Rape is used to put women in their place.” Rape is a major story line on the popular shows Veronica Mars and Downton Abbey. The submissive female characters on the TV shows I watched when I was twelve (like All in the Family’s Edith, the Fonz’s harem on Happy Days, or a dozen others) were different than those on today’s sitcoms, but the message was the same: women are powerless. Jean Kilbourne, in her video series Killing Us Softly, shows ads portraying male violence, hostility, and dominance as erotic. A woman trapped in an elevator says “Push My Buttons. Floor Me.” An ad for Fetish perfume reads: “Apply generously to your neck so he can smell the scent as you shake your head no,” making clear that women don’t mean it when they say that. Kilbourne has been studying ads like this for forty years, ads that tell girls now and girls back when I was growing up: “Whatever happened to you, we know you actually wanted it.”

***

When I was attacked, I thought this was something that happened only to me. I wish that were true. In a survey of over 6,000 college students at 32 US institutions performed by Kent State University professor M.P. Koss and published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, over half the women reported having been sexually abused in some way, and more than a quarter had experienced a rape or attempted rape. We are in the midst of an epidemic of attacks on women. But it’s not new. Bonnie Gordon, a University of Virginia professor, wrote for Slate: “Yale made the national news in 2013 because only one in six students found responsible for non-consensual sex were suspended. The past few years have witnessed a steady stream of alleged rapes at schools with big revenue-generating sports cultures and Greek systems.” What’s new is the heightened media coverage. Why does this epidemic continue? Because the men who rape know they’ll get away with it. In another survey (conducted by Neil M. Malamuth and published in the Journal of Social Issues.) of male college students, over a third anonymously admitted that, under some circumstances, they would commit rape if they believed they would not be punished. The rapist mentality isn’t, as we might like to believe, confined to a tiny percentage of psychopaths.

***

Why am I telling the story of Knife Man now? Because my quiet little college town, Charlottesville, Virginia, has become the center of several media stories about attacks on young women. Let’s start with the rape and murder of Hannah Graham. On September 13, the 18-year-old student at the University of Virginia left her apartment to meet with friends but got lost and ended up at the Downtown Mall. A stranger, Jesse Matthew, put his arm around her shoulders, and she strolled with him down the outdoor pedestrian mall, where they entered a restaurant. Surveillance videos show her walking away from the restaurant with Matthew, toward his car. On September 23, Matthew was charged with abduction with intent to defile, and on October 18, Graham’s remains were found. Matthews was charged with her murder and is awaiting trial. Here’s where I see myself in Hannah: She is walking by herself when a stranger wraps an arm around her shoulder. She doesn’t yank his arm off, she doesn’t run. Restaurants and bars are open and the street swarms with people. She makes no signal to bystanders that she’s in trouble. Neither did I. She was not technically abducted. One man told police: “She didn’t react. He acted like her knew her. I thought maybe he was trying to help.” Witnesses say they saw her strolling casually with her attacker. These are the images that haunt me. Hannah’s disappearance ran on a constant media loop locally. TV news showed the clip of her walking the hallway of a friend’s apartment building in a crop top and tight pants. Over and over we were told: she was wearing a tight shirt that showed off her midriff. We were shown pictures of her bare belly again and again. Every time my daughter and I walked on the Downtown Mall, for weeks, it seemed, we ran into news anchors talking into microphones and staring at cameras. We lingered in the periphery to hear them say: “Hannah was tall and thin and pretty.” Why did they have to keep telling us that, unless they thought it was relevant, that her looks contributed to the crime? Would I have walked into a restaurant with Knife Man? Would I have climbed into his car? Maybe. All I could think about in my moments of shock was: Don’t break the rules. Don’t make a scene. As I try to understand my inexplicable behavior, the only explanation I find is this: As girls, we’re taught to be demure, to value keeping the peace more than keeping our lives. We’re socialized to believe that the best strategy is passivity. According to Killing Us Softly, “In ads, the body language of girls and young women is usually passive, vulnerable, and very different from the body language of boys and young men. Even young girls are often posed with hands over their mouths.” Ads tell us what to be like. They show us what’s normal. From all reports, Hannah was a “good girl.” Mourners at her funeral said that she was “so smart that when her high school teacher was grading tests and came across a wrong answer, she would check the answer key and make sure there wasn’t some kind of mistake.” She worked hard to please her teachers and parents. I did too. It may be true, as Flannery O’Connor famously said, that “a good man is hard to find,” but I suspect that “good girls” are plentiful. Girls for whom following the rules and not making a fuss is reflexive. Girls who want to please so much they’ll put their lives in danger to do so. Deborah Eisenberg is one of the best chroniclers of these women. In a story called “Flotsam,” a young woman puts everyone’s needs ahead of her own: her roommate’s, her boyfriend’s, her roommate’s boyfriend’s. She is buffeted about, afraid to express a need or opinion, afraid to say no to any request. She is like the wreckage of a ship and its cargo found floating on the water. In “Days,” another Eisenberg story, a thirteen-year-old girl is riding the train when a stranger puts his hand up her skirt. She “just sat there, afraid of hurting his feelings in case he hadn’t noticed where his hand was, or had a good reason for having put it there.” What the fuck? In case she might embarrass him? That’s what I was thinking, too, while I walked with Knife Man: I’m not going to scream, in case I might make him uncomfortable. Maybe Hannah was thinking that, too.

***

My mother-in-law, who considers herself a feminist, took me aside once and told me my husband’s tie was dirty. “Just get it cleaned and don’t even tell him you did it,” she said. “I wouldn’t want him to know he’d been walking around with a stain.” We’re not only supposed to avoid embarrassing men, we’re supposed to make our actions seem invisible. I’m sure my mother-in-law didn’t realize how these kinds of ideas make women feel unimportant and how people who feel insignificant won’t think anyone will care if bad things happen to them. How many steps is it from not pointing out the tie stain to not calling the police? Reality television tells us that humiliating women is a good form of entertainment. According to Jennifer Pozner, author of Reality Bites: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV:

Men are praised when they’re degrading to their female pursuers. Joe Millionaire made his dates shovel horse shit in their fancy clothing, while one of NBC’s Average Joes called the woman he was wooing a beaver behind her back. Most egregious was For Love or Money’s Rob Campos, who got drunk and made a woman bend over and remove his boots while he kicked her in the ass.

I don’t blame Hannah. The choruses of reprimand that followed her disappearance (“Why was she wearing a crop top? Why had she been drinking?”) aren’t protecting women or making any of us any safer. TV and newspaper reporters didn’t outright blame her, either, but the hundreds of comments on those stories from viewers and readers did. The knee-jerk response, even in my circle, was to say: “We’ve got to tell our girls to be more careful.” My progressive brother-in-law, father to three teenage girls, asked, “Why the hell was she dressed like that?” I have to admit that my first response was tell my daughter to never leave the house with her belly showing, to drill into her the dangers of alcohol. Inadvertently, I was giving her the message that whatever happened was her fault.

***

On November 19, Rolling Stone magazine published a graphic and horrifying story on a gang rape that allegedly occurred at a University of Virginia fraternity house in the fall of 2012. The student, named Jackie, called her friends after the assault, and they told her not report her rape to the police or to go to the hospital. They claimed that doing so would jeopardize her social status on campus, as well as theirs. Jackie told a dean but never pressed charges. We can’t be sure that Jackie’s story is true. In fact, Rolling Stone has published a statement expressing doubts about the accuracy of Jackie’s story. Even before that, at a protest along frat row, young men heckled and insulted the marchers, claiming Jackie is a liar. Still, so many women have responded to the article, telling Rolling Stone their own eerily similar stories of rape at UVA frats. All those girls can’t be lying. At a party a few days after the article came out, a thirty-something friend who attended a different college, told me, “I don’t see how this is news to anybody. We all know people who’ve been raped on campuses all over the country. If it didn’t happen to us, it happened to our friends.” Bonnie Gordon, a UVA professor, wrote in Slate, “If anyone at the University of Virginia was shocked by this article, then they have not been paying attention.”

***

I don’t want to talk about what happened when I was fourteen. But we need to break the silence, a silence that implies blame and shame. Two years after I met Knife Man, I was attacked a second time, walking home from a high school play. Three blocks from my house, someone jumped out of the alley and followed me. I race-walked because the self-defense books I’d read since my first attack said, “If you run, he’ll chase you.” Only one block from my house, he pushed me down on the cement and ripped off my clothes. Then I remembered another piece of self-defense advice: “Pretend you know him.” “George!” I said. “Don’t you remember me?” I made up a slew of details, as if the more specific I was, the more believable I sounded. Maybe his name really was George. Or maybe the way I looked him in the eye made him fear I could (and would) identify him to the police. Abruptly (and miraculously, it seemed at the time), he fled. I had performed my own miracle, but I didn’t know that then, or not as much as I know it now. I fought back, not with my muscle but with my wits. Jackie claims she knew the men who raped her; one was the date who brought her to the party, and another was a classmate. Unlike “George,” they had no fear of consequences. And that is the problem. Lacy M. Johnson says, in her achingly beautiful memoir, The Other Side, “If people ask what my book is about I do not say it is about the time I was kidnapped and raped by a man I used to live with. That level of honesty borders on rude. It is against the rules of polite society to admit having been raped to a near stranger. I change the subject.” I don’t want to change the subject. I’ve spent years doing that, afraid of making people uncomfortable. That kind of silence only gets women more of the same, more humiliation because some creep under a bridge thinks it’s funny to terrorize a twelve year old; more rape, more murder, more rage and shame that the city I live in, the city where I am raising my own adolescent girl and boy, has become Rape Central. Why tell my story now? I have no reason to think that violence against women is worse now than it was decades ago. What’s different is that people are starting to talk about it. I’m “coming out” because I’m embarrassed. Not embarrassed that I’ve been attacked (though I used to be), but embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to stop pretending nothing happened. Even if the Rolling Stone story turns out to be unfounded, it’s done its job by starting the conversation. Where I live, at least, everyone is talking about rape, and that in itself is big news. We’re talking about rape at parties, at the dinner table with our children (and they’re talking about it at school), on Facebook posts, and on the phone with our parents. Jackie’s story, and those of the other young women in a follow-up article in Rolling Stone, made me revisit my fear, but these stories also encouraged me to tell my own. When a few people speak up, others are empowered to speak up too. I’m heartened that these horrific stories are already starting to have a positive impact. UVA has made a small dent in the problem by shutting down all social events for frats for the rest of the semester and introducing a new student sexual misconduct policy and training program, as well as a bystander intervention program and a campus climate survey. I hope other universities will follow, because this problem is much bigger than one campus or one city.

***

When my eleven-year-old daughter begged my husband and me to adopt a dog and we finally gave in, we told her she would have to help take care of it. Like the beagle I had growing up, our little cockapoo would lick the hand of the devil before he’d even bark at a stranger on the street.

The other day my daughter was about to take the dog for a walk, as she does most afternoons. It was already dark. I clamped down the impulse to tell her not to go, to try to protect her by limiting her activities. That kind of thinking could lead us back to the time when women were banned from the military and other male-dominated jobs for their “protection.” “Be careful,” I said. Next time I’ll add: “Be brave.” Like in Divergent. In that movie, based on the popular dystopic young adult book, sixteen-year-old Tris is training to become part of the “Dauntless” faction, people charged to keep others safe. Several boys in training with her are jealous and try to gang-rape her. Friends come to her rescue, but she is haunted by the experience. To rid her of her fear of assault, her trainers simulate an attempted rape. This time, Tris fights off her attacker. After the simulation is over, her fellow trainees cheer her success. At dinner, after my daughter returned from walking the dog, I asked her how she felt about that rape scene. “It made me feel strong,” she said. Next time I send her out to walk the dog, I’ll give her a flashlight and a phone. I can’t protect her from what might happen, but I can make sure she can see it and talk about it. Then I’ll say: “Be dauntless.” She’ll know what I mean: Don’t buy into the stereotypes of ads that show girls being so passive they turn into objects. Be active. Fight back. Like a girl. *** Photos provided by author.


Sharon Harrigan's work has appeared in many publications, including Virginia Quarterly Review, Narrative, and Pleiades. She teaches at WriterHouse in Charlotttesville, Virginia, and is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Playing with Dynamite: A Daughter's Story. More from this author →