This isn't something I wanted to write about here. First of all, because I generally like to post things that are funny. Second, because it's freezing in my apartment and my hands are brittle icy fish sticks in ineffectual fingerless typing gloves. (My home office is located in Victorian England.)
But I kind of want to talk to you guys about something that is not funny and not easy for me to write about. It may not be fun or easy to read. I apologize in advance, because as will quickly become evident, apologizing is something I like to do. So here goes.
A few months ago I was traveling by myself, and having a drink by myself, when the man serving it began to flirt with me.
Initially, the banter was so artfully ridiculous that I was already composing the Facebook status I would write about this dorky guy later. I don't remember his exact words, but his opener was something along the lines of, "Does your daddy know you drink alone?" I think I get gold stars for not laughing. It was like Penthouse forum, by way of ABBA.
But there were no red flags. I didn't get a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. I travel alone all the time -- I have had drinks alone in airports and hotel bars and in myriad Chili's Toos. I like reading a book with a Rob Roy and a revolting salad. I also love when I don't get to read at all, on account of the chatty bartender or animated drunk business-bro who want to complain to me about their jobs, girlfriends, the president, or a plot arc on "Bunheads."
So for somebody who figuratively dines out on the wacky things that happen to her over cocktails, this was a welcome distraction at the start of a long trip with an ominously low iPhone battery.
Never one to miss the opportunity for a potential Good Story, or for that matter, free wine, I flirted back and let him buy me a glass. And then another. And then another.
Finally, when I was drunk (which was evident by my repeating, "Oh, my God, am I drunk," and through any number of visual cues like eyelid impotence, flushed cheeks, and speaking like a melting cassette tape), he led me back to a private area, where he kissed me and touched my breasts.
I wasn't interested in any kind of physical contact with this guy. In fact, I was patently not interested. Aside from his enchanting 70s-porn come-ons, I wasn't attracted to him at all. Each time he came by to talk to me, I caught the scent of coffee and lunchmeat on his breath. But at the time, telling him he could feel me up and kiss me seemed like the polite thing to do after letting him buy me drinks and compliment my "rack." Things had somehow gone from harmless to bizarrely out of control.
I told him I had to go back to my seat. He told me not to leave him alone, but I think eventually he saw that I was having trouble standing up.
Before I did, I gave him my email address. It felt like the way to "punctuate" things and leave, like telling somebody, "I'll call you," so you can get the hell off of their porch.
Immediately afterward, I began to feel sick. When I was able to leave, I shuffled right past him with my sunglasses on and didn't say goodbye. I returned to New York, went straight to my apartment and crawled into bed, exhausted and dimly aware of the fact that I had planned to get back on a plane to visit my mother the very next day. I didn't even unpack my suitcase.
I'm a staunch non-cryer. I'm also almost 30 years old. The minute I walked into my mom's house and saw her, I burst into tears. Man, was she was angry.
"He was an employee," she said. "You were drunk, and he wasn't."
She held me like I was a four-year-old and asked what I wanted to do. I said I didn't know.
Because I really, really didn't know. At the time, I just wanted to sit there and cry on my mom. I was mortified that I'd let myself get that drunk alone, mortified that I'd let a man feel me up out of politeness.
Mostly, I felt sick about the fact that I'd said he could. I didn't want him to touch me -- I should have said no. I didn't say no. I didn't even feel like I had the right to feel as completely and utterly messed up as I did.
It wasn't until a few weeks after it happened that, on an email thread with the other xoJane editors about reporting sexual assault, I mentioned that I'd recently been "grey-area'd." Several of them suggested that I should say something to his employers.
Here's why I didn't:
- It was my fault for drinking alone.
- It was my fault for accepting multiple drinks.
- It was my fault for initially flirting back.
- It was my fault for not saying no.
- It was my fault for saying okay.
- It could have been worse.
For all this guy knew, I was into it. I have lots of friends in the service industry who have hooked up with patrons and I've never thought that it was some kind of breach of protocol. On the surface, it felt like a plot point in one of those sexy young-people-in-the-city shows: a drunken hookup in a weirdly public place that later causes the heroine to cover her hands with her face and chalk it up to acting like a complete asshole in your twenties. Again.
I've hooked up with guys after a couple of drinks before. This was not that.
For one thing, I was hammered, and he was not. He was an employee of a major corporation paid to serve alcohol to patrons, and he gave me wine and touched me when he knew I was impaired. He knew I was impaired because he was the one who impaired me.
Of course, the guy has since emailed me and friend requested me, going so far as to tell me that we should get together again when he's off the clock, so he can be as drunk as I was. The only thing that gave me solace here was the fact that he knew that I was completely and utterly fucked up.
But I worried that, until we possess the technology, it doesn't count as saying "no" if you're only saying it in your head.
Is the answer not to drink alone? Not to travel alone? Not to accept drinks from strangers? Not to drink at all?
I wish I had answers for you, but I'm afraid I don't. All I can do is talk to you about a time when I wish I would have said no, when I'm not even sure when the right time to have said it was.
We recently brought up the idea here of reporting your assault on behalf of other people who might be potentially victimized after you. But here, I'd convinced myself that that couldn't apply. Could it be possible that this guy -- who seemed very nice otherwise -- made a habit of getting women drunk and feeling them up by a coffee machine? I told myself that it had to be me, ol' goodtime gal Smolinski.
I also found myself in the old trap of obsessing over how complicit I was, and not relishing the idea of being a (extremely marginally) public person bringing legal action against an individual or the very very large company that employed him.
Here's what I did do.
I cried to my mom. I went out to dinner with my sister, and let her tell me that I wasn't a drunken whore. I told my sweet, wonderful guy friend, who assured me that this guy was an asshole and offered to karate kick him in the balls. I told my best friends, who were equally horrified by this guy and by the fact that I'd stupidly gotten drunk alone in a strange place.
Then, finally, I told the other xoEditors on that email. They were marvelously supportive and thoughtful, and encouraged me to write about it. Before you cry "page views" or xoRape.com (as some of my friends at rival lady-sites are fond of calling us), please know that I have been writing out my feelings since I was old enough to operate my mother's electric typewriter. Additionally, please know that I know that sounds douchey and that I have just admitted that I am very, very old.
Reading the recent essays about assault on the site, I've felt compelled to chime in and say something.
I wish I would have found a cop when a dude at the mall showed me and my 10-year-old friends his dick while we were just trying to eat our hot pretzels outside of the bead store. I wish that, not long after that, I would have shouted and stomped on the foot of the old man who put his hand in my underwear on a crowded commuter train.
And why didn't I? From an early age, we're "prepared" by teachers and parents to deal with these kinds of situations. Bite, kick, scratch, claw, eat grass, pee yourself, and most importantly, scream. "NO" is preferable, but any kind of sustained wailing or firm instruction will do.
But I didn't. I was too terrified and too polite. I'm now grown up and much harder for monstrous old pervs to faze, but it's the polite part that makes me feel so sick. These, I know, were clear-cut instances of assault, and worse, ones that happened to a little kid. I am not young anymore, and there are some things I feel that I have to shoulder the blame for, like not paying the electric bill, or taking care of my teeth, or drinking so much that I let some asshole touch my tits because I'm up to my eyeballs in free plonk.
The fact is, I didn't think, Hey, I'm going to tear it up in here. I have time to kill -- why not drink to the point of impaired judgment and wonky motor skills? But that's what happened, and I suppose by not saying, "No thanks, I'm good," and putting a hand over my glass, I put myself in danger. True, turning down wine gets more difficult with each successive round, but this isn't anything I didn't know when I said yes to a second one. The problem is I'm sure this guy knew that, too.
I don't think this guy is on par with those nightmare pederasts, and maybe he genuinely thought we were having a great time. But I cannot fathom feeling someone up on the job, least of all after over-serving them. Although, that would sort of be impossible for me to do, given that it's hard to over-serve anybody on brilliant journalism. (Just a little comic relief for you there. Sometimes I joke when I am uncomfortable! And yes, that's a leitmotif for those counting.)
I can't blame younger me for not saying anything about those early incidents, and of course it's too late to do anything about them now. Time and the brain's beautifully efficient trauma mechanisms have erased faces and details, and the emotional statute of limitations has long run out. Although oddly enough, I remember that on that train, I was wearing purple and red rubber bands on my braces, after having read that that particular color combination was "edgy" in "Seventeen." I was 12.
If you don't think I'm occasionally paralyzed with fear that those guys have done worse to other young girls because I didn't scream, of course I am. I have a 16-year-old sister, and the idea of anybody even glancing at her the wrong way fills me with leaden terror. The hard fact that she and her friends will likely face some form of assault in their lifetimes -- if they haven't already -- infuriates and nauseates me.
Worse, I worry that if I'd said anything -- even something as little as writing the guy back and telling him not to feel up other drunk patrons -- I would have contributed to this imagined culture of cry-wolf-ers who ameliorate their guilt over their own degrading behavior by calling it assault. I worry that taking action on a nebulous incident would make it more difficult for other women to report their genuine assaults because of how complicit I was. I know, somewhere, in some rational part of me, that this is incredibly screwed up.
But the fact is that I did not say no. Nobody forced wine into my mouth. When I hear myself say this, I know I'm echoing a vile substrata of Internet commenters who want women to admit that we wore the short skirt into the frat house. And yes, I realize how screwed up and in want of therapy so much of this sounds.
But, this, as some of the other editors pointed out, is how a lot of us feel after something like this happens.
I was afraid of saying nothing, but I was afraid saying anything would risk marginalizing someone else's assault, because I wasn't taking ownership of my own behavior.
Please, please don't think that I'm saying this is how you should feel if something like this has happened or happens to you. I'm talking to you about how it's made me feel, because that's what I feel like I have to do.
I think that a lot of us have been in these same kinds of situations. The best thing I've found so far is just to realize that it is OK to talk about them. In fact, it's imperative.
In the email to the other editors, I said I felt like I didn't have the right to feel violated. I had been nice, even giggly with the guy. I told them that I wasn't sure it was fair to write about it as an assault, since I'd clearly been complicit. After all, if I hadn't ordered that initial glass of wine by myself, I would never have been in that situation in the first place. And besides, aren't I old enough to say "no" when somebody I don't want to touching me touches me?
I wondered if maybe that was the post, and I've been puzzling it out ever since.
Here's what the wonderful Marianne had to say to me in an email. I hope she won't mind me repeating it here:
This is why I always harp on enthusiastic consent so much in comments. Because we are ALL socialized to downplay these kinds of situations and blame ourselves. And a LOT of women get giggly when they are nervous or scared. It's a tension relief, that uncomfortable laugh. So while he might have thought you were into it, he was still groping a drunk woman while he was on the job -- until we are super clear about what consent is and why it's important, dudes are going to feel like that sort of thing is okay and we're going to blame ourselves.
This is going to be my takeaway. This, and the feeling that I probably will no longer have a drink when traveling alone. Although, until this happened, a buyback has never filled me with anything but gratitude.
Chances are that if you've been in a similar situation, it's been attended by shame, guilt, fear of fallout, and colossal self-hatred. If you are like me, you don't have a clue what to do about it, if anything at all.
Sometimes, the best way to figure out what you have to do is to talk to your mom, your friends, your brother, your rabbi, your incredible editor who says she would be thrilled if you would write about this but, like, no pressure. The best thing I have done after this is to talk to people about it who care about me, to listen to what they have to say, and to have them listen to me. So much of getting a sense of distance and clarity about the whole thing has just been talking about it. Admittedly, I'm not great at this when it comes to situations of any gravity whatsoever.
I hope that we all remember the importance of just talking about these things, whether they happened 10 minutes or 10 years ago. Tell your friend, your girlfriend, your therapist, email me, whatever. The only thing that I know for sure I could have done wrong is not to talk to anybody. I'm heartsick for people who feel that they can't.
I hope that we remind our friends, your little brothers and sisters, your co-editors, and, if we have them, our kids (ESPECIALLY our kids) that it's okay that they didn't karate kick the guy in the balls or scream or shout say something to an adult. It may be too late for the balls, but it never is for the rest.