[Warning: This post contains description of sexual assault and may be disturbing to some readers.]
I was walking to my car at a grocery store, carrying a bag of just-purchased groceries. My car was parked next to a van. It wasn’t late at night. I wasn’t drunk or high, I was wearing clothes so typical I can’t remember them. I wasn’t distracted by staring at my phone or wearing headphones. But as it happened, I thought, How will I be blamed for this?
I was lifted off the ground by hands I didn’t see coming, hands that ran all over my body, under my clothes. I froze for a crucial moment, stunned into silence.
I thought, I should scream. They will ask me why didn’t you scream, why didn’t you struggle?
Every book about sexual assault I’ve ever read and I couldn’t remember: does struggling make it worse? Will it aggravate him into hurting me more?
A second man slid open the door to the van from the inside.
Every Cosmopolitan magazine article I’ve ever read: “Do everything you can to prevent getting into the car”, followed by experts warning about the vastly decreased chance of survival upon entering a car with an assailant.
I’ve kept my nails long, because I know they can wound. I wear sneakers almost everywhere I go. In case I have to run, I am not hindered by heels. I walk at night with my heart in my throat and keys between my fingers. I have done literally everything right, except for own a weapon of some kind, a weapon I would not have carried in the same hands as my milk carton and fresh fruit at three in the afternoon.
In that moment, I don’t know exactly what is coming, but does it matter? I will be brutalized in any number of potential ways. I will live, or die, or be left for dead.
This dream shifted away from this narrative, as dreams do, but the themes remained: escape, fear, doomed desperation, hot blood, and ice cold terror.
They say you can’t die in your dreams. That when death is imminent, you’ll wake up. And it’s always either of two ways: resigned to your fate, the slow freeze of your insidious experience blurring realities, or clawing to tangibles, gasping and startled into consciousness. But violence isn’t death, not by definition.
For the thousands of women who are sexual assault survivors, my nightmares of last night are their everyday realities. My dream is constructed of drama, of “stranger danger” and sleeping with one eye open. Many women’s stories feature assailants they knew – a coworker, a friend, a relative. Their darkest moments are dismissed in the 21st century media – just as they were by 19th century doctors – as “hysteria” or over exaggeration. No one wants to admit that rapists can be charming, handsome, intelligent, or mind-numbingly average.
In my dream, I did not face the aftermath – the rationalizations of assault, the culture that excuses male behavior with phrases like “locker room talk”, “boys being boys”, and (always said with a sigh and a shrug), “what did she think would happen?” I did not face the attacks on my character, my upbringing, my past relationships, my behaviors and mannerisms, my medical history, my habits while drinking alcohol, my friends and family.
We normalize the destruction. We believe bystanders will intervene, rather than offer excuses. I figured I shouldn’t get involved. Everyone makes comments like those. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean they’ll act on them. He’s a good kid. You know, he has his whole future ahead of him, it’s not fair to punish him for this one mistake. Two wrongs don’t make a right. She was drunk and she’s on medication, come on, it’s clear she’s unstable. Sad. It’s not my business.
It’s the belief in a “just world” – a world where good deeds are met with rewards and evil is punished, a world of knights and valor standing in contrast to vicious despots. A world where thousands of years later, we dismiss insidious remarks, begging off with excuses.
In a just world, victims are blamed and actions are justified. There must be reasons for terrible behavior: a bad childhood, past abuse or neglect, misinterpretation, intoxication. We do not exist in a vacuum; we are products of our environment. Nature versus nurture and a thousand psychological theories.
We want to believe in innocence, as long as it’s the innocence of the accused. We say “those were just words, not actions”, as if we are schoolchildren living by the old adage of sticks and stones and broken bones. As though words have not led to the hardening of hearts and the fighting of wars.
I have been in dangerous situations with men who would never consider themselves dangerous. The proverbial “good guys”, the ones I could not avoid in the daylight, in front of me on line at a professor’s office hours or playing the gatekeeper at a fraternity party’s entrance.
These situations that leave me shaken a decade later, wondering why I made it out mostly intact. “Shame on you,” I should scold them, but I know I am the only one whose face could ever burn with shame for their behavior. These men are married now, some with children. Facebook is full of images of their professional family photo shoots, autumn leaves and scarves, birthday cakes and wedding rings, clichés and trappings of an ideal life. They won at a game I didn’t know I was playing.
Yet I consider myself privileged. I have to. I am not a rape survivor. And it’s not because I was ‘better’ or ‘smarter’ or abided by more of the college’s Public Safety bulletins on how to prevent being assaulted.
It was dumb luck. By minutes, inches, the skin of my teeth, I avoided it firsthand. But I did not escape unscathed.