The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Trouble in Mind

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I.

Like many white girls in days of yore, I was taken with Bonnie Raitt’s covers of traditional blues songs about male sexual conquest with the inverted gender references that meant she was singing about female sexual conquest. She also covered Sippie Wallace’s unapologetic songs about female desire. This music made me think I could act; I could avoid being acted upon. The era was optimistic too. Euphoria about new possibilities for women was rife. In 1977, if my date hadn’t become my rapist, I might have wanted sex that night. Technique ain’t tough if you care enough, Sippie Wallace. This proviso unique to date rape—that I might have had sex if I’d been consulted but was instead overpowered—is one reason the concept of consent stays muddled.

 

II.

Months ago, in the velvety green days of early summer, I stood in my yard, looking at birds, bees, blooms, and I was talking to one of the mothers I’ve talked to for eighteen years now, whenever my daughter and her current friend want to go somewhere and I have qualms. Our beautiful, intelligent, about-to-fledge daughters had asked for permission to camp in a spot neither pure woods nor an official campsite. “Alone?” I said. “I wish boys from high school maybe were invited. But what if one brings alcohol? There’s still potential for trouble, like date rape.”

The mother had nodded along until I said “date rape.” Then she gave me the same raised eyebrows my best friend gave me in 1977. I should have exited the conversation. In hindsight, I see I lacked foresight. In the moment, then, I was annoyed that stranger rape was discussible but date rape wasn’t. “Look,” I said, “I teach at a university. One in four women is assaulted, most by someone they know, most before they turn twenty-five.” That spring our Title IX Coordinator had addressed the faculty, asking those of us in whom a victim might confide to report the rape to her, promising she’d insure the victim’s privacy even if the victim chose not to report her rape to the police.

“Date rape is common,” I told my daughter’s friend’s mother. “It was common,” No response. “Even before they called it that.” Still no response. “I was date raped,” I said finally. I wasn’t seeking attention. I thought that by telling her date rape can happen to someone she knew as cheerful, gainfully employed, cautious in life if not in conversation, I’d make the inconceivable real.

 

III.

I was date raped the year the term first appeared in Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, a book I never heard about at my small college, and eleven years before Robin Warshaw coined the phrase “acquaintance rape,” in her book I Never Called It Rape. I heard “date rape” first, but “acquaintance rape” covers all rapes in a social context, whether romantic interest between assailant and victim ever existed.

Had I been romantically interested?

I can’t tell. A long after erodes the short-lived before.

In 1977, my best friend told me she would have fought him off. “Until he’d have been screwing a corpse.” I didn’t feel the same, that I’d be better off dead. She said no one would have tried it on her because her boyfriend was well-known, and her way of carrying herself inspired respect. I felt depressed, debased. I hadn’t been unassailable. But her logic was. I hadn’t inspired respect.

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IV.

On that long-ago Saturday night in northern Wisconsin, I wasn’t drunk, though, according to Robin Hattersley Gray, editor of Campus Safety magazine, 43 percent of campus rape victims are. I was raped by force, not by incapacitation. My rapist wasn’t drunk, though, according to Robin Hattersley Gray, 69 percent of campus rapists are. I’d worked the dinner shift at a restaurant. Then I went to a bar known for concerts by legendary blues musicians stopping off between gigs in Chicago and Minneapolis. I got that thang that make a bulldog break his chain. I believed that thang was a power so great it could attract yet also repel. It could tell a bulldog to scram.

There was no concert that night, and the bar was nearly empty.

It had been a warm April day, a glimmer of spring drawing people away from usual haunts. I’d gone that morning to look at a river, the melting, rushing chunks of ice. Then I drove back to town and changed into a dress with mauve roses I’d sewn myself. I wore it with tights and boots that later hobbled me. The dress turned out to be less armor-like than I later would have wished too. It wasn’t revealing, just flattering, fancy for work. When I arrived, a chef had shouted: “You’re spring personified.” I’d ditched my coat for a shawl. I’d regret the shawl later as well.

I was acquainted with a customer in the bar. My roommate was popular, and this guy and his twin brother had visited our apartment. We started to chat, and maybe I told him I’d gotten off work too late to catch up with friends, explaining why I was solo. I felt a happy surge of reinvention. I’d broken up with a possessive, flunking-out boyfriend, so I wandered, not lonely, but flushed and calm from having walked for hours beside a fast, cold river earlier that day. My rapist conversed well enough that when the bartender said he was closing early, no customers, and my rapist suggested we instead drink a beer at his house he shared with roommates, I said yes.

According to scholars Carol Bohmer and Andrea Parrot, men in all-male settings are likelier to commit acquaintance rape. According to researchers Patricia D. Rozee and Mary P. Koss, all-male settings foster hyper-masculine, adversarial sexual mores. As for my emphasis on what I wore, that I was alone, that in my heart I believed I could get my wang dang doodle off, or not, my decision, note that the promiscuity defense by which the accused could argue the victim has had sex in the past and is predisposed to again—in short, that all a victim can lose is virginity—wasn’t made inadmissible until the Federal Rule of Evidence 412, Relevance of Alleged Victim’s Past Sexual Behavior or Alleged Sexual Predisposition, was codified in 1978. A year too late for me.

I had to first stop at my apartment to let my dog out, I said. And I couldn’t stay out late because my parents were dropping by in the morning, passing through on a trip to somewhere. My rapist told me I’d have trouble parking at his house, and I didn’t know where it was, so he’d follow to my place, then drive me to his house and home again later. At my apartment, I split a bundle of pussy willows (Salix discolor, “catkins”) I’d picked that morning. In the North, pussy willows matter like redbud trees do in the South. Their blooms appear before leaves on any vegetation. If you’re thinking I shouldn’t have offered any man a bouquet with the word “pussy” in it, some churches display pussy willows on Easter. And symbolism was outside my rapist’s ken. When I handed them to him in his car, he acted so dumb, so puzzled, I told him they were a sign of spring in a climate of winter, and I thought: he is not my type. Polite, I didn’t tell him.

Not one of his roommates was home. He cracked two beers, then lunged as if he’d studied farm animals: stay on no matter how she tries to kick you off. I smiled and shoved, good-natured rejection. I may have said something ironic, empowered. Whoa, baby, you got to know how.

Later, my best friend asked me if I’d screamed for help. The house was empty, so no.

I pummeled, pushed, dug fingernails into skin. The next day my head was bruised and swelling in two places. My shoulder was sprained, mottled. I could have let him pull my hair out, my best friend reasoned, since hair will grow back. But he pulled it fast and hard, so I shifted wherever he pulled. I was still standing when he pinned me against a wall, one elbow in my chest, one knee in my gut. I remember this part every time I sew because I still don’t reinforce seams that aren’t usually subject to stress: he yanked up my dress, which tore. He pulled down my tights and jammed them around my boots with his foot. I did bite him, but this was after he was raping me, maybe under the illusion he wasn’t because he paused, that same dumb, puzzled look, then continued.

If I’d later had to prove I hadn’t wanted sex at all—not just rougher sex than I’d anticipated, a skeptic could argue—I might have had trouble explaining I wasn’t afraid of him afterward, just anxious to get home. Three miles up and down hills, over a bridge, the balmy daylight gone, and I was wearing a dress ripped hem-to-waist, that shawl, no winter coat. He wasn’t afraid of me either. He slept, sated, snoring.

I used the rotary phone to dial numbers I could remember, lots of no answer, no answer, pre-voice mail days, and I woke one friend, and I’m certain I didn’t say “rape,” just “emergency,” that I needed a ride, and she said she had to work in the morning, and I set the receiver down to open the door to get the house number, and when I came back she’d hung up. I looked up and down the street to see if any house looked as if its inhabitants might be kind to a disheveled woman knocking, asking for a ride.

Instead, I banked on that moment when, after I bit him, he’d looked quizzical—as if my resistance was supposed to be that faux kind in pornography, in which a feisty woman secretly wants force, and I’d taken the porn-pretense too far. I woke him and asked to go home. He dressed and got his keys. As he drove, he made small talk. I was silent. He looked confused and asked if it was the torn dress I minded. In front of my apartment, he smiled and said, “Thanks. I had a great time.”

I slept little, rose early, bathed, dressed. My parents arrived. This would be their only visit to me at college. They’d never been, and my new life confused them. My dad looked ill at ease. My mom, worried: “Are you working too hard?” Maybe, I said. I couldn’t explain. I went to some guy’s house and he forced me to have sex. It would have ruined her day, week, year, epoch.

When my roommate got up around noon, I said, “Your friend.” Because I don’t want a libel suit now, a he says/I say duel made weirder by thirty-nine years’ passage of time, I’ll pretend his name is Jack. He has that twin. Their real last name is Hoehl or Hohl or Hole. I said to my roommate, “Jack Hole raped me last night.” I thought I’d have to defend my word choice. She said, “Where?” I said I’d run into him at a bar. What bar? “That isn’t his usual bar,” she said. His roommates and brother went camping, she added, and he’d stayed home to study for an Econ exam.

I said the bar had closed early, so we’d gone to his house for a beer. She said, “You should have known better.” I’d barely met him, she pointed out, and he’d never expressed interest in me before. I countered that she’d brought him to our apartment and introduced him to me. She shook her head. “You’re twisting everything now.” She went to cook breakfast, then came back. “You know what, though?” She named another of her friends, a sophomore with vulnerable eyes, and let’s call her Valerie Johnson. “He did the same to Valerie Johnson. They were driving to a party at someone’s camp house, and he parked in the middle of nowhere in woods and snow. He jumped her and kept on. She definitely didn’t want it and cried, telling him no.”

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V.

A 2005 study by clinical psychologist David Lisak found that 6 percent of college men commit acquaintance rape, and 63 percent of these are serial rapists, averaging six rapes each. A 2015 study by Kevin Swartout reports that 10.8 percent of college men commit rape, and 25 percent of these are serial rapists. Numbers of rapists and repeat rapists vary as much as methodologies, including how researchers phrase their questions, because a rapist isn’t quick to admit that he’s raped, as mine did not to me, and his after-the-fact patter suggested he didn’t to himself. The 2005 study, reporting many victims and fewer rapists, accounts for most campus programs that educate women to protect themselves from a few men. A friend went to college years after I did. She said: “We talked about it, but the message was always how women avoid rape.”

Rape prevention is still women’s work. A sad, furious meme says it all: “Don’t teach women not to get raped. Teach men not to rape.” This has been cruelly parodied via an analogy that equates the rapist with an engine firing too fast to brake for a sloppy, jaywalking victim: “Don’t teach pedestrians where to walk. Teach drivers not to run them over.” Yet, whether campus rapes are committed by a wider variety of men (75 percent of 10.8 percent of college men are one-time rapists, Swartout 2015) or by fewer men (37 percent of 6 percent are one-time rapists, Lisak 2005), serial acquaintance rape is common enough. Serial acquaintance rapists so lack what the rest of us call a conscience that they might be beyond education. So we protect ourselves from them as we protect ourselves from any danger, hoping for a warning. Still, we get ambushed.

Some new campus programs aim to educate potential one-time rapists who might otherwise see acquaintance rape as youthful hijinks, a drunken mistake, a failure to communicate. It’s too soon to know if any campus program at all prevents rape because, according to NPR, between 2008 and 2012, campus rape in the United States increased 49 percent, a statistic that suggests campus rape is common but maybe—is this the flicker of good news?—that more rapes are reported now. Yet a 2014 study commissioned by the Association of American Universities, using a different methodology, found that 72 to 95 percent of campus rapes are not reported.

 

VI.

When I confided in my best friend in 1977, her script came from TV or movies: an innocent schoolmarm gets raped by a known outlaw. I told other friends, hoping for solidarity. One confided she’d been “fucked while passed out” and when she came to it wasn’t the guy she’d gone out with, though she guessed he’d had at her first, and I thought my rape had been (this word, so inadequate) better. Another woke up having sex she wouldn’t have had, and we discussed whether to call this rape. But most friends talked about my naiveté (I should have seen it coming), or my lack of naiveté. One said: “You know you like those records by horny black singers.”

Bonnie Raitt had led me to the harder stuff. Sippie Wallace, Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thornton, Laverne Baker, Big Maybelle, Ruth Brown. They covered men’s songs, angry or sad that a woman was mean, spent too much, didn’t make love often or with enough skill. When women sang them, they became women’s songs, angry or blue that a man was mean, spent too much, didn’t make love often or with enough skill. Songs about a no-bullshit line a woman was drawing in the sand (“Walking Shoes,” “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Sugar Mama,” “Don’t Mess with the Messer”), songs about desire that better be met with finesse (“I Need A Little Sugar in my Bowl,” “Hoochie Coochie Gal,” “Too Many Men,” “You Can Have My Husband But Please Don’t Mess With My Man”), were a mirage: a gender-neutral economy in which women gave and got.

A misinterpretation of a song lyric is an auditory Freudian slip, wishful thinking. Bonnie Raitt covered “Love You Like a Man” as “Love Me Like a Man,” converting the singer from a man promising technique and respect into a woman who wants technique and respect. After I heard the verse about lovers who’d put themselves above her, their souls up on a shelf, and now she wanted a man to rock her like her backbone was his own, I thought the simile in the title meant, not that the man should love her like he was a man, but she was. Love Me Like a Man Is Loved.

 

VII.

Campus was small. Jack and his twin were identical. They had matching late-model cars, the same haircut, the same laugh. Once, I changed directions so I wouldn’t pass him or his brother holding court on steps in front of a building I needed to enter. I slipped and fell. I kneeled, trying to stand, my backpack slipping, and I glanced up. He glanced down, then away. Or not. To this day I don’t know if it was Jack or his brother, the other Hole. I’ve googled him. One social media profile has the right geographical details, yet the photo isn’t of a human face but a dark blue mechanical pencil with a pink nub, an eraser, on top. Most people won’t see this pencil as blue-veined, scorekeeping, revisionist, simplistically and aggressively phallic. I do. Symbolism, my forte. Yet that might not even be his social media profile. There are many Jack Holes.

 

VIII.

If my best friend’s response in 1977 came from a mid-twentieth century script featuring villains and virgins, my daughter’s friend’s mother’s response in 2016 came from psychotherapy. After a pause, she said, “That must have been hard.” But my point isn’t decades-old hardship. I want my hindsight to become someone else’s foresight. I want acquaintance rape to stop being the victim’s fault, her shame, for women to speak up, to warn and help each other. Statistics suggest that if an acquaintance rapist succeeds once, he’s likely to rape again, perhaps developing a better strategy for finding opportunities and victims. Law professor Jed Rubenfeld recently wrote in the New York Times that campus rape prevention has failed, too much talk about sex and alcohol, that prevention will occur only when victims put their faith in jurisprudence: arrest and conviction.

Yet Department of Justice statistics are dismal: 34 percent of all rapes—on and off campus, stranger and acquaintance rape—get reported; 6 percent lead to arrest; 1 percent to prosecution; less than 1 percent to conviction. Most rapes occur without witnesses, so if an arrest leads to trial, which isn’t a given, a trial devolves into a credibility contest in which the scripted imitation of truth matters more than truth. And we discredit acquaintance rape victims for having known their assailants, though the thieved sometimes knows his or her thief and no one objects to that. As these figures make clear, the chances of a rapist’s arrest, prosecution, and conviction are slim, slimmer, and slimmest. I’d been promised autonomy, I felt. But, even now, if someone forcibly takes this, steals it, recourse succeeds not even 1 percent of the time. We have a name for this crime, but we don’t yet have a legal strategy. Our outrage is predicated on recent definitions of consent, but the laws amended to prosecute acquaintance rape evolved out of legislation never designed to cover acquaintance rape in the first place. So Rosenthal’s advice to put our faith in due process is well-intentioned but useless. Filed charges will likely punish the victim, not her rapist.

My daughter’s friend’s mother I’d freaked out had perhaps worried I’d cross the yard and tell our daughters—laughing and talking on the front porch, hoping we’d say yes to this camping excursion—that I’d once been raped by my date, my acquaintance. No. Because we don’t want to scare our daughters with their beautiful lives ahead of them, for which they’ll need hope and trust. Also suspicion and fear. They’ll need to predict the future in order to walk into it or away from it as needed, so they won’t be raped, or, if they are, so they won’t be criticized for having failed to spot the rapist. I would never have told my daughter and her friend about my rape because I’d be the worst messenger: dismissible, stuck in my past, clueless about how nice people really are. Most are. Most college men never rape: 88 percent (Swartout) or 94 percent (Lisak). Yet, according to the CDC, 29 percent of women get raped. What is my advice? It’s new-fashioned: men must stop. Theory. It’s old-fashioned: women, be wise as you can be. Practice.

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IX.

I wasn’t blue always; my campus rape didn’t ruin my life. But at times I’ve found being a woman exhausting. Once, living in a duplex with cheap doors and locks, I woke to guys who lived down the street, standing on my sidewalk, shouting: “Girl in the brown house, come out and play.” Maybe this was adorable, and I should have opened the door and made new friends. I sat in the dark until they left, then tried to sleep. For years I dreamed about doors being blown open by wind, lightning. Studying for my PhD exams one year, hours each day, I started to study on my front steps after the weather turned sunny—until a man parked his car, came up the sidewalk, said he’d seen me alone every day, that we should be acquainted. I didn’t study outside again.

A few years later, young, professional, a homeowner on my brand new porch, listening to cicada—in the dark, because I felt safer in the dark, not spotlighted—I froze when a man materialized. He said his mother, my neighbor, knew me; we were acquainted. When I sat on the porch after that, I’d listen for the crackle in the dark, the broken twig, the warning that might or might not save me.

I went to a professional conference known for famous, hard-drinking attendees. (Don’t tell me about the life you’ve led. Don’t try to drink me into bed.) My cabin door had a flimsy hook-and-eye latch, and I listened one night as a man shouted I was a stuck-up bitch holding out. This sounds Third World, I realize, but I spent the rest of the conference next to a male colleague I trusted, signaling my status as “taken.” When I got married, I noted the same handy side-effect: taken.

Fear is my old companion now. Besides, as victims go, at my age I’m statistically improbable. Thirty-nine years later I want every young woman to know—but secondhand—what I know firsthand. My sense of safety wasn’t compromised that night, just reconfigured to match reality. This isn’t the ending we want, and new statistics won’t serve up an Everything’s Gonna be Alright resolution either, but I have been as precisely afraid as the world still requires a woman to be.

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Image credits: 1. Dejan Hudoletnjak; 2. L.; 3. Saxcubano. All photos licensed under Creative Commons.


Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction and two memoirs. Her books have won many awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Award. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, The American Scholar, Guernica, and they have been cited for Best American Essays often. She lives in Austin, Texas. More from this author →