(Trigger warning for sexual assault.)
My father once told a less than suitably deferential Homecoming date, “Bring her home safe, early, and happy, and you’ll stay in one piece.”
I was mortified. I was also home safe and right on time.
I went to college thousands of miles from home. The freedom was intoxicating. I wasn’t a drinker, but I stayed out late, hung out in guys’ dorm rooms, and went to bars and parties. I went on plenty of dates. I didn’t feel threatened, probably because in addition to being naive as fuck, I was a strapping, weight-lifting young woman. I also knew how to fight dirty (a legacy of having many siblings and not enough food).
As often happens, I wasn’t into some of the dudes I dated. I let them know we’d never be a thing. No big deal, one said. We can be friends.
Mr. Just Friends called on a Friday night, right after I’d gotten some very upsetting news from my younger sister, a high school senior back home. There was a court case involving the death of my mother, which had happened years before. We thought a deal had been reached, and the case would never go to court. That night, my younger sister called me, sobbing that the deal had fallen through. Because my older sister and I were away at college on scholarships, with no money for extras like plane tickets back to DC, she would have to be the one to testify.
All the awful memories, the tragic loss — all that pain was back. I was helpless to do anything for my little sister other than listen to her cry and rage.
My roommate was away at a Baptist retreat. M, my new BFF, was away dealing with her father’s terminal illness. It was me and the tissue box when Mr. Just Friends called to say there was a party in the suite next to his.
I sniffled that I wasn’t up for a party.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” he asked. “You sound terrible.”
“Bad news from home,” I said.
“Well, come one over and tell me about it. We don’t have to go to the party.”
Since it was clear we were just friends, I went. I sobbed all over Mr. Just Friends, told him how much I wished I could testify for my younger sister, because that was my job as the older sister, especially since our mom was gone.
He listened. Hugged me. Told me it wasn’t my fault, even. He was a good friend.
Up until the point where I dozed off in his arms and woke up to Mr. Just Friends trying to take off my bra.
I struggled. “Hey! Let go!”
Behind me, he tightened his grip, pinning my arms at my sides. “No.”
“Let go, now!”
I will never forget the tone of his response. It was that of a spoiled toddler — and I babysat A LOT of toddlers — refusing to give up a toy. “No,” he said, again. All that was missing was the petulant toddler refrain, “Mine!”
But this guy wasn’t a toddler. He was an upperclassman in ROTC, fresh out of a summer filled with PT. I couldn’t break his grip, and his arms were too low for me to bite.
I was trapped. Panicky, like a wild animal.
I threw my weight forward, catching him by surprise. Our combined weight smashed my own orbital socket into the bed post.
(Author’s aside: Yes, we were sitting on the bed, where everyone sits in small dorm rooms and if you’re rape-apologist thinking, “well, sitting on a guy’s bed is an invitation, what did you expect?” then get the fuck off my blog and go hang with your people and for God’s sake, question your life choices.)
Rapist Man was so shocked that I’d rather bash myself to pieces than endure his embrace that his grip loosened. I fought free and fled over to the window.
Rapist Man was still between me and the door. Between me and my key card. Between me and the college ID I needed in order to eat.
I wish I could tell you I picked up his desk chair and beat Rapist Man with it, then grabbed my stuff and walked out.
Instead, I said, all wobbly-voiced, “I came over because I needed a friend.”
He said, “I’m sorry, hey, just come over, and get some sleep, I won’t do anything, I promise.”
I stayed where I was for a few minutes. He stayed between me and freedom. It never occurred to me to scream bloody murder. Maybe because no one would hear me over the music next door. Maybe because I’ve always had a hard time asking for help. Maybe because I didn’t think his ROTC suite-mates WOULD help, even if they did hear me.
Instead, I warily crept back to the bed. I stiffly endured an apologetic hug and counted the seconds until he fell asleep. Then I slid out of the bed. He woke up briefly.
I gave him a quick smile, like everything was fine. Because that’s what we’re trained to do. To pretend everything is fine, so we don’t make the beast madder.
And then I grabbed my stuff and ran.
I told my roommate. For two years, her hulking boyfriend stayed between me and Rapist Man at any event we both attended.
I told my friend M. The next time she saw Rapist Man, she dressed him down in front of all his friends.
Rapist Man put on his best confused face and said, “I’m sorry, who are you talking about?”
For over a week, I wore my hair down over the bruised half of my face.
It never occurred to me to report him. Maybe because he never technically hit me. Maybe because I was so grateful to get away and counted myself lucky that it wasn’t worse.
Maybe because I figured the cops would be like the his fellow ROTC friend who went out of his way to tell me, “you were asking for it, you went to his room.”
Or maybe I figured they’d be like my Ex-Stepfather’s wife, the one parental unit I confided in. She said, “Oh, you should never go to a guy for comfort. Of course they’ll think you want sex,” like I deserved to be raped for my shocking ignorance of this standard tenet from The Patriarchal Canon.
I heard rumors of women attacked — and not so lucky as to escape — after me. In fact, the entire ROTC unit developed such a rapey reputation that one furious father, an officer himself, wrote a letter demanding an investigation.
The investigation never happened. The only consequences were women like me, telling our stories to our friends, and those friends repeating our stories, hoping that word would get out and other women would at least avoid the rapist ROTC.
Decades later, nothing has changed.