What you don’t know

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Hi, it’s me, a big huge TRIGGER WARNING because this post describes sexual assault and discusses it. Viewer discretion is advised.

Additionally, if you’re going to read this and comment about how any of this was my own fault or any sort of awful defenses, just do yourself a favor and go stare in the mirror until you manage to grow anything resembling a conscience.

*

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher was a substitute the entire year, as the teacher I should have had was out on maternity leave. Mrs. C. was my teacher, and she was really nice, skinny and willowy, kind of looked like Monica from Touched by an Angel. She did a really good job, but a lot of times, she felt somewhat out of her depth, and I was frequently one of those times: one of the brightest kids in the class, who finished all of her work twenty minutes before everyone else and was so bored she resorted to drawing on her desk to keep entertained while everyone else finished their work.

But Mrs. C.’s heart was in the right place, at least. She tried really hard to find ways to keep me engaged, even when everyone else had finished their work, even when I was losing my mind because of how bored I was. I remember making a cardboard robot once with some of the other smart kids (it was supposed to be a boy robot, but I guess I was woke or something because I was adamant that it be a girl). I remember going and recording a chapter from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in a cold corridor with my best friend. I remember pulling together a miniature model of the Niña for our Columbus Day parade.

I also remember how control of the class was often evasive for poor Mrs. C. One of the kids in the class would’ve been diagnosed with ADHD in a heartbeat today, and have been much better off for it, but back then, nobody got diagnosed with anything unless things were stereotypical and severe. I remember one day, he just sat in the front of the class with his pants off, not making a scene, not drawing attention, just pantsless. Mrs. C., when she discovered it, sent him straight to the principal’s office, and correctly so.

I like to think she did that with R, but I don’t remember.

R was a troublemaker, but not of the severe sort like the boy with ADHD. A lot of his behavior could be chalked up to that loathsome phrase, “boys will be boys” more than anything else (a phrase that I use to mean, “boys will do really ridiculously stupid things because they can” and not “boys are exempt from consequences for being awful because that’s just how boys are”). I hated him from the get-go; something about him rubbed me wrong, like a cat setting off sparks on a dry winter day.

I only had to endure him for a short time that year, though, and here’s why.

Mrs. C. always arranged our desks in groups of four, all facing each other. R was in my group the first part of the year, diagonal from me. We couldn’t do anything without arguing, bickering, whatever you want to call it. He annoyed me so much, and not in the “ooh, someone’s got a crush!” sort of way, but in the “there is a hornet buzzing around my head, make it stop” sort of way.

One day, we were arguing as usual, but we were doing it via notecard because Mrs. C. was trying to teach a lesson. Back and forth we passed the notecard, writing the worst insults we knew at each other (but it was fourth grade, so I don’t think we knew anything very good). Eventually, R stopped passing the notecard to me, and I felt a gleam of triumph, like I’d won. That triumph was short-lived, though: he handed it back, and it was half soaked in yellow liquid. He looked so smug, even as I put the pieces together and shrieked, without raising my hand, “Ew! Mrs. C., R gave me pee!”

I don’t remember the specifics of what happened after that. R was never in my group again in that class; I don’t think I interacted with him again that year. I like to imagine that Mrs. C. reported the whole incident to the principal and found it disturbing enough that she did what she could, but ultimately, R was in my class again in both fifth and sixth grade, still annoying me, but now somewhat under my skin. I remember kicking him in the shins really hard once, and I remember not getting in a lick of trouble for it.

*

Back in the day, I called the first semester of my freshman year of college my “slutty year.” I’d lived a pretty sheltered life to that point, and I’d had a boyfriend all through high school, so the idea of multiple people being interested in me was really new, and rather than stopping to think or be rational about things, I flitted from guy to guy for the entire back half of 2001.

…no, flitted isn’t dramatic enough. It was very dramatic, my flitting. Breakups were loud and sobbing and angry, with slammed phones and huge boxes of tissues wasted and the like.

I was kind of an idiot, truth be told.

Anyway, one of these guys was actively the worst, the worst possible guy you could date. His AIM handle, to give an idea of how much the worst he was, was something along the lines of “Darkest Angel.”

Oh yeah. One of those.

He’d dated one of my friends earlier in the year and, as the worst guys usually do, seemed amazing from a distance. He’d perform these grand romantic gestures that all the girls in our dorm would swoon over, and we’d all wish we had a boyfriend like him, not really knowing what he was like.

You know. The worst.

And so it happened that his attention turned to me after he saw me wearing my prettiest, gothiest outfit on my birthday. He spent a good couple of weeks on me, telling me about how girls were evil and he’d always be alone because his heart always got broken because girls were evil and telling me about all these grand romantic gestures he performed that didn’t pan out (because girls were evil), and for some reason, I missed every last red flag that should have given me.

Like I said, I was kind of an idiot.

I believed, as many women do when confronted with a guy who is the actual worst, that I could fix him or prove to him that NOT ALL WOMEN ARE EVIL! LOOK AT ME, I WILL SAVE YOU FROM YOUR BROKEN HEART! or something similarly idiotic. Which was, of course, exactly what he wanted me to think.

The relationship turned physical pretty quickly for reasons mostly related to us being two twenty-somethings with hormones. The trouble with those hormones lay in that we attended a very conservative Christian college that wasn’t too keen on the whole “horny young folks” bit. Men and women were forbidden from entering each other’s rooms except during move-in and the designated weekly visiting hours, and even then, the door had to be open, so anything beyond some sitting and chatting was completely off the menu.

So we did as other couples did back then and improvised, and here’s where things start to get sticky.

Improvisation with this guy, the worst guy, mostly involved long walks to a nature preserve park type place about a mile away from the campus. It was a warmish fall, so the walks were pleasant and through nice neighborhoods. The park itself was all fields of tall grass and old trees with little peeks of marshland here and there; pleasant during the day and delightful at night. The worst guy led me to the park twice, and twice, the same thing happened.

We sat down, and we started making out, and the worst guy started to undress me, as horny young people do. He never got the least bit undressed, at least not in a way that would cause any shame if we were to be caught. And honestly, I knew there was a chance of being caught, but who goes to a nature preserve park type place at night in late fall? Or at least that was my way of thinking.

The first time, he must have seen them coming, though they didn’t see us until they were right on top of us, and I didn’t see them until that moment either. He didn’t forcibly hold me in place, but the way he had me, I couldn’t have covered myself as I desperately wanted to, and I was somewhat on display for a pair of hunters that walked by. They said nothing to us, and I stared at the ground, trying to process what was happening. He murmured gross things at me, how they probably thought he was so lucky to have such a hot girl with him, and I eventually dressed again and let him escort me back to campus.

And idiotic me, I went there with him again, this time at the base of an old, gnarled tree, and this time, far nakeder than I was the first time. Once again, he must have seen them coming, but once again, I didn’t realize anyone was approaching until they were right on top of us, and I couldn’t cover up. I stared at the ground, displayed, as the interlopers passed, and once they were out of earshot, he told me with breathless excitement, “You didn’t realize it, but we both know them.”

I don’t know who they were. I didn’t look. Whoever they were, they never said anything, for which I’m grateful. When I told Kyle the story last night, he pointed out that they probably didn’t even look or realize or even recognize me. I hope he was right, even though it probably doesn’t matter much overall.

Eventually, the worst guy cheated on me, and that was that. I dodged a bullet; things could’ve been much worse. Still, things bring it back: the weird smell of his hair product, the memory of that breathy excited whisper…

*

Sexual assault is such a weird, wriggly thing. Even when it’s as clear-cut as someone shoving things where things ought not be shoved, it turns into victim-blaming bullshit far too often. People caught in the act are given slaps on the wrist because “we don’t want to ruin his future for one bad decision.” Never mind that she has to live with that bad decision the rest of her life. Never mind that she’ll not speak about it at all until one day, she can’t keep it in, and she tells her half asleep husband what happened, and then he spends the rest of the night lying awake and thinking of ways to flay a person alive.

(I love you, honey)

I was never raped, let’s get that out of the way. Nobody put their penis or anything resembling a penis anywhere in me when I didn’t want them to. Looking back, I’m fortunate that was the case.

But sexually assaulted? Yeah.

In one case, it was a troubled kid doing what troubled kids do. I don’t know what happened to R. He wasn’t in the same school I was after sixth grade. I hope someone got to him and helped him by doing more than kicking him in the shins. I hope nobody else got an index card covered in pee.

In the other case, it was a manipulative and controlling creep who took delight in my shame. I consented to everything he did to me until the second he held me on display for passers-by, both familiar and unfamiliar. I have nothing good to hope for him, but I hope that every other woman he ever encounters is safe and well.

Recent political events made me think more of the second event than the first, though I wanted to tell the first story to illustrate how pervasive sexual assault actually is, how if you know a woman, odds are you know someone who’s been sexually assaulted in some way. I was maybe eight or nine when I got that notecard; I didn’t understand any of the implications of what happened, but I understood that it made me feel icky and wrong.

And it happened.

The second event is such a hard story to tell simply because so much of it was consensual. I agreed to the walk. I agreed to making out. I agreed to my clothes being removed, even though it was technically a public place. I did not agree to be displayed like a centerfold. If I’d been in charge, I’d have found something to cover myself, jerked away from the embrace, hidden better, anything. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t, and I couldn’t.

It’s not a prosecutable thing, what happened, and I had nobody really to tell about it. Most of the authority figures in my life–family, campus officials–would’ve raked me across the coals for being in that compromising position in the first place, a sort of “well, what did you expect?” scolding. My campus had a history of expelling unmarried women who got pregnant while letting the men continue to study; how could I go to them, admit that I was doing this, and then expect them to back me up on anything?

What could I have said? The worst guy never would’ve served jail time for what he did to me, never would’ve suffered any measurable consequences, and I’d been stuck telling this story, reliving that shame again and again, having people pick me apart again and again, and for no reason.

So I didn’t tell anybody until I told Kyle last night.

But I think about it now, and I think that I would bring it up if, by some weird twist of stupidity, the worst guy were in a position where people were publicly judging his character and integrity. And maybe he’s changed. Maybe he’s reached adulthood, real adulthood, and realized how awful he was (and maybe I’ll win the lottery next week!). But regardless, his actions were evidence of his poor character; I wouldn’t publicly name him before that point, wanting to avoid all the bullshit that comes with that, but.

But.

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