Those of you who have read my very sporadic blog for a while probably know that I only write when highly motivated by an experience. This week it was the many hours I spent, eyeball to screen, watching the testimony and questioning of Dr.Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
SPOILER ALERT: this is not going to be a political diatribe, although I could certainly spew one. While watching, my text messaging was pinging like a pinball machine with comments from close friends who were similarly glued to the proceedings.
No, it is about my own moment of sexual assault, buried for years, and those experiences and harrassments that came later. Fortunately, my trauma did not affect me as Dr. Ford’s harrowing nightmare did her. But it did greatly influence my feelings about men, my body, sex, and raising two boys… forever.
I entered my freshman year of college at University of Illinois with a close friend. She had a cute cousin from Shaker Heights who we had hung out with when he visited her in Iowa. Shortly into the year, he wanted to visit us on campus and take me out for a date. I liked him and was looking forward to it. This was 52 years ago so please, forgive me for not remembering all the details. What is crystal clear is that beer was involved and at the end of the evening he attacked me. I was shocked and terrified, having had a fun evening and always considered him easy going and worthy of trust. Being a petite 5’2”, I was in no position to actually fend off a six footer. But I yelled that this was NOT what I wanted and was ignored. I fought him verbally and physically, my clothing shredded in the process. Somehow, maybe because he was inebriated, I was able to extricate myself from his grasp, open the car door and flee. Fortunately, we were parked right in front of my dorm and safety was only a sprint away. I don’t even want to contemplate what might have happened if we had been parked elsewhere.
I remember being shaken to my core. Yet I didn’t reveal this incident to anyone but my friend to the degree that her cousin had been too aggressive and I never wanted to see him again. I did not tell my parents because I was afraid they would pull me out of school, nor did I seek help from a counselor.
It was many years later that at the end of seeing “The Vagina Monologues” when members of the audience are asked to stand if they have been a victim of sexual assault, that the memory of that night sprang up like a geyser and I stood. Yes, I too have been a victim. The mere admission brought me to tears and trembling.
There was also an attractive professor in my senior year who tried to entrap me in an uncomfortable situation. I was able to shut it down quickly and feared my grade would suffer for the rejection, but managed to get the A anyway! Lesson learned: don’t be intimidated for a grade, a raise or any other carrot dangled.
After college I was fortunate enough to win a spot as a Guest Editor for Mademoiselle Magazine in a national contest. The 20 girls who won were housed at the legendary Barbizon Hotel for Women, where we were thought to be safe. Only within those walls. We were exposed to many phenomenal people and experiences, one of which was a large party. Drinks and men were plentiful. I was hanging out with a semi famous photographer and then, blur… pause… how did I get here?… I was at his apartment. Everything became like a slow motion movie and I had no voice or will to stop the film. At some point, my head became clear enough to act. I collected myself, heart pounding, and left. There I was, 21 years old, in New York for the first time, and not knowing where I was. I cannot tell you how I made it back to the Barbizon on foot in the middle of the night but several of the other girls shared experiences after that party too similar to be a coincidence. Clearly, our drinks had been spiked with date rape drugs. The photographer continued to call and I continued to refuse his calls and tried to forget his existence. But every once in a while, I would see a photo credited to him and feel my stomach turn.
I can’t imagine how many women have had hellish incidents such as mine. Many will never speak of them but for me, it is cathartic to do so. The shame and guilt are not ours but the predators who take advantage of women.
Sexual harassment is even more common place than assault and I experienced plenty of that in and out of the workplace. I can’t imagine there are many women who have not, in some form.
Inappropriate remarks, emails, phone messages, touches, head to toe appraisals. And I have been blindsided by friend’s husbands as well, when they thought they could get away with it, like the peck on the cheek at the end of an evening that became a tongue down the throat. These are repugnant and inexcusable no matter how much alcohol was involved.
After my divorce, to my surprise, I became an object of suspicion to married women. Couples dropped me like a hot iron. Men gave me looks that telegraphed “Fair game.” I have never felt so objectified and it happened almost overnight, at work and otherwise. Divorced women are branded and regarded unfairly as available and even easy. Not every women can’t live without a male in her life. When do boys stop being and thinking like “boys” and act like men?
One of the things that attracted me to the father of my two boys was his respectfulness. I knew he viewed me as an equal, someone to be taken seriously, not a “piece of ass”. I felt comfortable with him because I could trust him. Everything went at my pace. Whenever I encountered anyone in my dating experience who came on too strong, he was “outta here”. I alone had control of my body and how I chose to use it.
I raised my sons to regard women as their equals and worthy of respect and now observe them walking the walk and talking the talk. I could not be more proud. After what I have seen of men’s behavior in my life and on TV last week, if I have accomplished nothing more in my life than helping to mold men for the present and future, not mired in the past, I will be happy.
I do not have daughters to whom I can share my experiences and give my advice. But I do have a beautiful college age granddaughter, a beloved niece and great niece. Fortunately, they have been raised by parents who assured them of their worth and to have confidence in their decisions. To them I say, if the situation doesn’t feel right for you, avoid it. If it constitutes harassment or worse, report it. Share these experiences with your friends, parents and if necessary, therapists. It will help you and them as we progress in a world still dominated by men.
This is a time of empowerment for women. Men aren’t yet getting it but we can’t stop this conversation until they do.