So, Sexual Assault Isn’t a Big Deal?

Here is my response to the headline of The New Yorker column: After the Kavanaugh Allegations, Republicans Offer a Shocking Defense: Sexual Assault Isn’t a Big Deal

Let me tell you a little story that I find “shocking”—how experiencing sexual assault on a regular, systemic basis while growing into womanhood can cause a young woman to play into the hands of misogynists and predators.

I stopped dating halfway through my junior year of high school because perfectly nice male friends and classmates who were clearly overrun by testosterone demonstrated far more interest in sex than I did. I was not interested at all. Even at that age, with no experience whatsoever, I knew I wanted to be in charge of my body and my sexual destiny. I had a right for it to be my choice. So, when I was ready, I chose the time, the place, and the person. After honest and open discussion with the somewhat-older man I had begun dating at the age of 19, I welcomed the act. It was lovely, memorable, just right.

We broke up when he confessed he was falling in love with me. Evidence of my lack of knowledge and experience, I was caught unawares. I thought I was ready for sex. I never anticipated being prepared for love. Humbled and ashamed, I ended the relationship.

Several months later, I was raped in the basement of my home while my parents watched TV upstairs in the den. I protested and whimpered, but could not admit to myself that it was rape at the time because the new male friend on whom I thought I had a crush kept saying, “I know you aren’t a virgin; I know you want it.” But I didn’t. A month later he called me on the phone, and in a voice full of what I believed was remorse and contrition, he invited me to a Grateful Dead concert, promising me it was not a date, but an apology. We would go with a mixed group of friends.  Someone I had known since middle school was driving. I agreed to go. He raped me in the back seat of the station wagon on the way to the concert. I tried to push him off and vocally protested repeatedly. There was only silence in the car.

As a result, at the age of 19 and for many years to follow I began to think of men as the opposition, learning to gauge safety and comfort levels when dealing with the opposite sex. First and foremost: who is a friend and who is a foe? Only my gay male friends were safe. For most others: If I am out with a man and they lean in and I say no will I be branded a tease? If I tell myself I am in charge, and I say yes, but I don’t enjoy it, am I a whore? If I fall for them, but they don’t fall for me am I an easy lay and someone who puts out? If they fall for me, and I have to stop the relationship and honestly let them know I don’t feel the same way about them, am I a ball-buster and a bitch?

But systemic sexual assault did not just apply to the social interaction/dating experience. Assault occurred in unexpected places in the 1970s and 80s. When shopping in the produce aisle of Safeway (I was wearing a simple T-shirt and jeans, nothing provocative, I assure you) a man approached me from behind, reaching around and grabbing my breasts. He whispered huskily, “I prefer my melons a little larger, but they are ripe enough.” I whipped around as he ran into the next aisle. I approached the produce manager for help. His response as I stood outraged and trembling before him?  A derisive chuckle and the comment, “Maybe you should stay away from the melon bins.” (Are you laughing? Should you be laughing?)

While waiting for the “WALK” sign at a traffic light during rush hour on a busy Washington DC street corner, a man in a bespoke suit wrapped his hands across my backside and asked, “Young lady, has anyone told you that you have a most delicious ass?” I froze, trying to stammer an appropriate protest as he swung his umbrella in arcs and crossed the street. A few of the customers who observed this from the nearby sidewalk café did laugh. I ducked my head.

The dishwashers at the restaurant where I worked regularly cursed women in English and Spanish, calling us whores and cunts, pantomiming masturbation on the outside of their greasy aprons when we entered the kitchen to pick up our orders. Our manager? A big laugh in response and advice to get tough and ignore it.

I am certain that if I had told my father or brother-in-law about these experiences, they would have expressed outrage and made promises to protect me that would have been impossible to keep. These were everyday occurrences taking place in public places. If anyone noticed and disapproved, they looked the other way. No one ever came to my aid with the exception of my friend Art, the gay bar manager who came to my rescue after I explained the daily specials to a customer and asked him if he had any questions, “Yes,” he responded.  “I bet my friend here five bucks that you have never had an orgasm. Am I right?” Art banned the men from the restaurant.

In the years that followed, I stopped hoping to be saved or protected. I learned to live defensively, to face the daily beast when it rose up.

I began to think of myself as an optimistic realist. I never thought my prince would come. When I met my first husband, finding we had common goals about opening our own restaurant, basking in the glow of being treated professionally, knowing my opinions mattered, my intelligence was respected, and I experienced being both wooed and ASKED, I fell in love. Or should I say, I came to love him? He was deserving of love. But I did him a huge disservice. The truth came out when on the eve of my bachelorette dinner my best friend tried to talk me out of marriage. “Why are you marrying him? Are you in love with him?” My answer: “I do love him. We have common goals. And I believe this is as good as I will do. I will be safe in marriage.” This was my answer after living with the man for over a year, experiencing excruciating arguments set off by his volatile temper and frequent episodes of unjustified jealousy. I knew that marriage and relationships were hard. I expected to be challenged. I thought I was strong and brave. I no longer backed down. I defended myself verbally. I thought marital strife and forgiveness was a normal pattern.

Seven years later, after the jealousy and temper evolved into both physical and emotional abuse, I realized that my husband never trusted me not just because he had witnessed a similar pattern of behavior between his parents as he grew up. I came to understand that men could also be victims of the systemic acceptance of sexual assault and misogyny once they entered into a relationship with a woman. The Madonna complex is not a myth; it is real. He could only have trusted me if he knew I was a virgin when we met. But did his mistrust justify his actions? No, they did not.

My response to all the controversy over the allegations against Kavanaugh is this: put the shoe on the other foot. Although my story is one of female vs. male, let’s not discount that anyone, no matter their sexual identity, might have similar experiences.  Imagine a society where everyone is victimized, demeaned in some way, or sexually assaulted. Would you report it? Would you be too ashamed or confused to tell? Would you easily trust others? Would you trust yourselves? Would you confess to your lover that you were not a virgin, because that meant you were easy, or soiled?

Or, as The New Yorker interprets the Republican defense: is sexual assault not a big deal?

I still have nightmares over making bad decisions, am plagued with guilt over the kind men who loved me whom I could not love back, anger at myself for not fighting harder, not protesting louder, not demanding accountability of the men who abused me, not calling it “rape.”

Does judge Kavanaugh have any remorse or regrets? Or do we just give him a blank check on accountability? If you are a person who ever had your freedom or value dis-regarded or compromised, do you really want him defending the constitution that guarantees you that freedom, that equality?

I do not.

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