I'm a Victim-Blamer (But Only When the Victim Was Me)
Does anyone remember LiveJournal? I bet some of you do. I still have an LJ over there, shrouded in cobwebs and mist, a sad neglected ghost of Lesley past. No, I am not telling you my username; only those courageous and true of heart enough to undertake such a quest -- requiring a trip through the deadly Google Jungle -- will discover that information.
But I had one, and for several years it was a pretty significant part of my life, the site of origin for many in-the-flesh friendships I still treasure to this day.
Unfortunately, it was also where I met the woman who would be my groper.
At the time I was working in administration for a school where she was an adult student; from our first meeting, she struck me as a little odd and awkward, but in general I LIKE a little odd and awkward (or even a lot) so I didn’t give it much thought.
She started by trying to give me things -- forcibly -- like clothes, or candy or books. That was strange, but I put it down to general social ineptitude and didn’t think much about it.
However, after a series of overly intimate conversations in which she would ask for specific details about my sex life (and would make continued suggestions for threesomes with me and my husband), I started to feel a little uncomfortable.
Said conversations would be intrusive in any environment, but these were happening at work. Sometimes at my actual desk, where she would arrive with clock-setting regularity before a particular afternoon class she took two days a week.
What I had initially taken as friendly (albeit awkward) interest from a woman new to the area and looking for people to hang out with was really starting to make me dread her inevitable Tuesday and Thursday visits to my office. I began arranging that I would sneak out early and hide in a bathroom until I knew she would have to leave to get to her class. If I saw her in the hallway, I would dive into an empty classroom (or, once, a full one) to avoid even the most terse exchange.
I am the first to admit that I can be socially avoidant sometimes -- INTROVERT -- but this was different; I wasn’t sidestepping her interactions simply because I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, as is usually the case. I was doing it because she made me uncomfortable, and, to a small extent, even scared. HEY, I told myself, I’m no prude! I should be totally fine talking freely and openly about sex, without hangups, even at work, maybe! There’s no shame in it! Why are you being such a prude, Lesley?
Then it happened one day that I found myself on a protracted phone call when her usual visitation time arrived, and I was unable to vanish before she turned up at my desk. I hoped that my being obviously embroiled in the telephone situation would indicate that it was a bad time to chat. It did not. She perused my bulletin board, peered into my open bag on the chair, sighed loudly.
Finally I drew the phone call to a close and, hanging up the phone, I looked at her with barely-concealed irritation.
“Sorry,” I said, insincerely, “I actually needed to do my job for a minute there.”
She laughed and said she didn’t mind. “I was looking at your top. It’s a cute top.”
I thanked her and tried not to make further eye contact, instead aimlessly shuffling papers around in a manner that I hoped would convey my extreme busyness, no time to talk right now, I must now move this heap of papers from this point on the desk to another point on the desk, whew, and now there’s ANOTHER heap to deal with! DAMN, I SURE AM BUSY.
“It’s really low cut,” she said, still talking about my top. “I like it. I like the cleavage.”
The general discomfort she usually inspired in me welled up.
“I don’t have much to cleave, really,” I said, with a nervous chuckle, hoping that the secret message behind my words (“GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY”) was being transmitted directly to the motor control section of her brain.
“No, I like it when there’s a little bit of space between, it makes me want to --” I don’t know if she finished the sentence, because her hand was on my boob. I don’t even remember anything beyond the realization that HER HAND WAS ON MY BOOB, uninvited, unwelcome, in my fucking workplace.
I was horrified and instinctively smacked her hand away. She then laughed good-naturedly, as though I had done something playful. I felt like I had suddenly gone insane. She reached for me again, giggling, “No, really, c'mon, let me --”
She had me literally cornered, as she blocked my only exit route. I stood up, very nearly knocking over my chair in my haste, and announced that I had to get to a purely fictional meeting, offering to walk her down the hall.
Once we’d parted, and after spending several minutes talking myself down from the loftiest heights of embarrassment in the bathroom, I returned to my desk. Where I worked for the rest of the day, fighting off waves of humiliation and shame.
I should have stopped it before it even started, I kept telling myself. I knew she had boundary issues; I should have been firmer about making her leave. I should have told her sooner that these comments were utterly inappropriate, at work certainly, but also in any environment if I was not explicitly welcoming them. It was my fault. My fault. My fault my fault my fault, like a drumbeat in my every cell.
I was concocting various reasons for never going to work again (joining the military? sneaking over the border into Canada? faking my own death?) while grocery shopping with my husband later that evening. Eventually even he noticed something was up. I told him the story in the simplest terms, shrugging noncommittally.
“I need to just get her to stop coming by my desk, somehow. Like I need to just be brave and firm and do it.”
My husband had stopped dead in his tracks, the horror on his face indescribable. Seeing his reaction, independently of my own, I felt sick. Actually sick, sick like I was at serious risk of throwing up right there in the cereal aisle. What the fuck was going on? What was this awful cold black sinking pit in my gut? Why was he making such a big deal of this, and why did I seem to responding physically -- if not emotionally -- in the exact same way?
We had a mutual friend with a background in dealing with sexual assault. I called her, right then, from the grocery store. She was deadly serious.
“You need to report this to campus security,” she instructed, “immediately. First thing tomorrow.”
“I don’t want to get her in trouble,” I whispered, transfixed by the terrible visage of Cap’n Crunch, who seemed to be giving me a most smarmy and salacious grin.
“You need to think about yourself,” she said firmly. “If she senses that you’re likely to say something, she could make up a story and report it first. If she does -- well, you’re an employee and she’s a student. It’d probably go badly for you.”
In that moment, I realized I was making excuses for my attacker -- if I could even call her that, which I couldn’t -- and making it a matter of my own personal responsibility, because it was the only way I could feel as though I had any control of the situation. If it was my fault, then I just made some mistakes, and I was never in a vulnerable or weak position.
It wasn’t like I was assaulted, right? Assaults leave bruises, vivid red marks, assaults bleed, they are violent, they are malicious, they are planned. This? I just didn’t stop it in time, just didn’t get my hand up to block hers in time. My bad. Oh well.
The fact that the groping came from another woman made it even more difficult for me to process: I'm not supposed to feel threatened by women, right? Men are the dangerous ones. Who'd even believe that this wasn't consensual? Maybe it WAS consensual, maybe you're making a big deal out of nothing, maybe you've misread the whole situation, Lesley. Lesley?
I realized that I had been blaming only myself: I shouldn’t have set a precedent in which her stopping by my desk to talk was acceptable; I shouldn’t have let things go so far. I shouldn’t have worn that top; if only I’d worn a turtleneck this never would have happened.
I started crying, there, in public, amongst the towering boxes of cereal lining the aisle of my local grocery store, while nearby shoppers turned to stare.
“It’s not your fault,” my friend on the phone kept asserting, with a firmness and certainty I envied. That made me cry harder.
Even now I am stunned by the ease with which I fell into a pattern of victim-blaming when the victim was myself. I was an academic; a supporter of feminism; a well-read firm-voiced hard-assed battleaxe of self-determination and bodily autonomy. I knew all the pitfalls and traps; I’d counseled friends following numerous varieties of sexual assaults, representing a wide range of degrees of violence, malice and intrusiveness.
In those cases I had laid the guilt squarely on the shoulders of their attackers, had repeated ad nauseum that the individuals being attacked were not responsible, no, not even if they knew the guy had a serious crush on them; no, not even if they were wearing a dress with a full-length zipper down the front; no, not even if they spent the evening telling loud dirty jokes and getting drunk and dancing with their friends and then walking home alone, late, in the dark.
I should have known better. I didn’t. Not when it happened to me.
And still that voice inside my head kept insisting: Damn, Lesley, what is your PROBLEM? It's not like you were RAPED. Fucking prude.
I reported the incident. My groper was near to graduation, and so we all decided, at my behest, and in collaboration with my boss and co-workers, that she would be allowed to finish her degree and we would all work to keep her away from my desk, even if it meant telling her point-blank she was not allowed to visit me anymore. I was still trying to protect her-- and myself -- to pretend as though she had simply made an honest mistake; like taking the wrong umbrella home after a party, she had unthinkingly grabbed a boob that was not hers. Like this happens. By accident. All the time.
At the time, I couldn’t believe she had done anything intentionally hurtful. I blamed her social ineptitude, her candid need for attention and closeness. With roughly a decade between the incident and me now, I’m no longer quite so sure. Part of me hates her for it, and part of me hates myself for not stopping her.
This is what a culture that interrogates the activities of rape victims both pre- and post-attack has wrought: a cultural/social kneejerking of inquiry and assignation. If you don’t want to get leered at, don’t wear that top. If you don’t want to get threatened, keep your mouth shut. If you don’t want to get raped, don’t do what rape victims do -- which usually translates literally to “go outside and live a normal fucking life.”
This particular experience was incredibly minor, a mere footnote amongst the litany of sexual horrors perpetrated against women every day. It stuck with me primarily because it happened in public, and it could have threatened my job.
Nevertheless, my immediate self-perservation response was to pretend it never happened. My solution was to hold myself responsible and try to “learn from the experience” and “do better in the future.” If that’s how I handled a minor transgression, what must the cultural shame for a major one feel like? It must be crushing, debilitating, immobilizing.
The truth is, she never should have groped me. No matter what I was wearing. No matter how many times she’d come by to chat, no matter how many other boundaries I’d let slide. She never should have groped me.
And do you know, I still have trouble believing that. Still. Even now.