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I never had considered myself a rape victim. A heavy drinker? Maybe. A risk-taker? Sure. A third-wave feminist whose bohemian aphorisms excused her fraught relationship with promiscuity? You’ve got me there.
I had mentally blocked what I simply considered a Very Bad Night for 10 years. It came back up last summer when I landed in Vanderbilt Hospital’s Psychiatric Center for a full 48-hour evaluation of “my traumas” (a story for the grandkids!). This entailed a survey of my substance abuse, failed relationships -- a check-listed inventory of each pet death, each pants-less humiliation, each numerical lie: how much I weighed, how many drinks I’d had, how many people I’d slept with.
“Have you ever had a traumatic sexual experience?” the bespectacled psychiatrist asked me.
“Hasn’t everyone?” I asked, waiting for him to crack a smile.
He was silent.
“Yes,” I said.
“Can you tell me about it?”
It was the last day of my freshman year at Tulane. My parents were picking me up the next morning. A girlfriend of mine who we’ll call Jane was crushing like sooo hard on a senior named Len. He was part of a clique that was equally infamous and revered: from their drug connections to their parents’ yachts. They wore suits to class; they had a house off campus with an infinity pool. And this was 2001.
Len had finally asked Jane out, and she needed a wing-woman, since he was bringing his friend Jorge. We started at a Pike party. The Pikes had been defunded and kicked off campus for several distasteful “episodes,” the most legendary (and legendarily denied) of which was spray painting a pledge with racial epithets and dropping him off without a cell phone or wallet in a 9th ward black neighborhood. Welcome to New Orleans!
So there we were at the party. Body shots were shooting, Woo girls were wooing, the Baha Men were demanding who let the dogs out, some douche named Brett was talking about his dad’s architectural firm. It was hot as hell. Jorge was trying to talk to me and I couldn’t really hear him, so he kept moving closer to me, which annoyed me. I went outside with Jane -- we had a smoke and checked in:
“How are things going with Len?”
“Amazing. How are things with Jorge?”
We returned to the guys; things got louder, sweatier, closer.
“You playing hard to get?”
I rolled my eyes. (“Playing hard to get” is the worst isn’t it? I hate it when a man is nice to me and asks me about myself but doesn’t IMMEDIATELY put his penis inside me. I just feel really manipulated.)
“Want another punch?” he asked.
If this were a Choose Your Own Adventure, that’s the first chance I had to pick an evening that landed me watching The Amazing Race (2001!) on my laptop and eating a box of Cheez-Its. But instead I said: “Sure.”
By the end of the third punch, I was wasted. But besides my compromised motor skills, I was having fun for the first time. Jorge seemed wittier. Everyone was better looking. College! What a laugh! What a journey of independence I’m on! The night is young and so are we! Who did let the dogs out?
When Jane asked me if we could take the party to the guys’ house, I barely protested.
“Pleeeease! They are going to teach us to salsa.”
“That sounds… dumb.”
“Come on, it will be fun. You can leave after we get there. I just don’t want to look like a slut going back by myself.”
Here lies another opportunity for me to not go to the second location Oprah always warned me about. But instead I said:
They poured shots when we got there. I took one. Or two. I don’t remember. They did put on salsa music, but I couldn’t get off the barstool where I sat to dance because I felt like I would fall over. And Jorge smelled weirdly like canned corn. And his shirt was unbuttoned to an unreasonable degree.
“You smell like… canned corn,” I said.
He laughed at me.
“Your shirt looks like… J. Lo.”
He laughed at me.
He pulled me off the stool, finally, and dragged me around the room awkwardly. I closed my eyes and willed the room to stop spinning.
“Put me back down.”
He ignored me.
Put me back down.”
He deposited me back in my stool. My head felt too heavy for my neck to support it.
I need to…” I kept saying, and I wasn’t sure if I meant to end the sentence with “go home” or “puke.”
I peripherally realized that we were alone, that Jane and Len had disappeared to the recesses of the house, and for the first time, I was scared. I got up to go to the bathroom and fell into the side of the bar. Len was in front of me.
“You should probably crash.”
I feel like this was my last possible shot at an alternate ending: I might have been able to make it outside, sit on the curb, wait for a cab. But instead I said: “Sure.”
I was holding onto the bed to keep the room from spinning when he got into bed and started touching me. I said “no” over and over again. I even began counting it, like sheep:
“No no no no no no…”
Was that a dozen? Will it stop at 20?
But he just kept doing what he was doing: putting his mouth on my face (No), taking my panties off (No). I pushed him, but it was like pushing against a padded wall.
But I didn’t claw, I didn’t gouge, I didn’t scream. I didn’t do all of the things I had envisioned myself doing if this happened to me.
And at some point I just… gave up. It was almost like it wasn’t happening to me. I was scared, but not panicked. I felt a stoic, removed disgust: Ugh, gross.
The next morning, I woke up in bed alone to the sound of music in the kitchen. I walked in, and Len and Jorge were making omelets, like this was a couples’ weekend at the beach. Jane was smiling. Jorge offered me a glass of orange juice. I didn’t look at him, didn’t respond, but I took it and gulped it down. He offered me an omelet.
“Fuck off.” I mumbled.
“Sarah!” Jane said.
“It’s fine; she’s just hungover,” Jorge offered.
I didn’t argue. I was hungover, after all. I sat in silence until Jane was ready to leave. I was picked up by my parents, and they took me to lunch, and they told me how proud they were of me, and I had to go to the bathroom to puke twice. I didn’t tell anyone about it.
Junior year, I lived with five other girls. One of them was getting ready for a date. When the doorbell rang, I answered it, and it was him. I couldn’t speak; I just walked back to my room and left him standing at the open door.
When another roommate asked why “I hated Lindsay’s boyfriend,” I just said “He was a dick to me freshman year.”
The French expression “l’esprit de l’escalier” roughly translates as “staircase wit,” i.e., thinking of the perfect comeback after the opportunity passes. For years I had envisioned seeing him again: making some eviscerating remark at a house party about his body or penis size, exposing him for his misdeeds in front of a huge group of freshman at orientation. But upon seeing him, I forgot the script to the revenge fantasy.
Over the years, I analyzed the details of the evening to the point of neurosis: What was I wearing? It must have been a skirt, because he had sex with me while I was still clothed. Was it a skirt or dress? Was it short? Did I have one or two shots?
Can you call it “rape” if he makes you an omelet in the morning?
It surprised me when the doctors at Vandy called it “rape.” As in:
“Was the Wellbutrin before or after you were raped?”
“What do you mean when I -- oh yeah, that. After.”
I would have called it “rape” had it happened to someone else. If I were listening to a friend over the phone. But I couldn’t because of my own culpability. Maybe even an inflated sense of self: I am badass; I could have done something.
When I was 14, alone on the beach in the Cayman Islands, I thwarted a sexual assault. Was alcohol the only variable that made me such an easy target? Was it that at 14, I was feisty and independent and on the track team, and at 19, I was a homogenized sorority girl trying to fit in?
My sister is an assistant D.A., and every time says she can’t get a rape victim to testify, I get angry at the victim. I think she’s weak, and making it harder for the rest of us, and then I tell my brain to shut the fuck up.
I’s a problem we have to get at before there’s a victim and an aggressor, starting with the language we use: “I’m afraid I’ll look like a slut,” “You playing hard to get?”
Unfortunately, we as woman are asked to maintain a dangerous balance: be sexy but not slutty, be independent but don’t rock the boat. And the same can be said for men: Be in control but not dangerously so, “get” the girl but not forcefully, be a Casanova but not a creep.
The thing that bothers me most about my story is how very common it is: aggression toward women is normalized. So much so that it wasn’t that remarkable in my mind. I hope that each little confession and question can lead to some dialogue, some conversation, instead of a quiet acquiescence: “Sure.”