After reading Monday’s post, a dear and anonymous friend of mine (someone who I think of as a mentor), asked if she could share her thoughts with my readers on Steubenville and the rape culture that is so pervasive in our society. Here, she tells her story. Please be aware that this may be triggering for rape and abuse survivors. Please also be aware that this is a mature topic, so please approach it accordingly.
When I read accounts of the Steubenville rapes, my stomach turned, not only because rape is a horrible thing to happen to a young girl, but also because the whole account hit way too close to home. Over fifteen years ago, my best friend was almost a Jane Doe. The only reason she wasn’t was because I was there. I’ve had many terrible things happen to me in my life. I sat and held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath. I rushed my daughter to the hospital with what I thought was a brain injury. I have endured every kind of abuse, most at the hands of my (now ex) spouse. And I still define that night as the worst in my life.
My friend, who I shall refer to as Mary, became very intoxicated at a party. That night, a young man neither of us had seen before showed up, and seeing me try to haul around my puking, semi-conscious friend, offered to help me “sober her up.” He laid down next to her, and I placed myself on the floor close by, also laying down, and then watched as he mounted her and began kissing her. She was too drunk to refuse him, too drunk to know who he was, too drunk to consent. She was not, however, too drunk to return his affections. A former flame of hers was there that night; for all I know, she thought it was him she was making out with.
I remember watching this, and finally from some deep inner reserve I’m still awed I had at sixteen, I said to him, “Why don’t you mess with someone who’s NOT too drunk to function?” This was the late 90’s, and I was wearing my “uniform” of baggy sweater over an ankle length broomskirt. When the guy heard me say those words, he grinned, said, “Okay,” and then rolled towards me and began sliding his hand up my skirt along one thigh, higher and higher, very slowly, watching my reaction. It took all of my strength not to react. I did not move. I did not make any noise. I lay stock still and waited to see what he’d do next. He was about four inches from seriously molesting me when he spat out some comment about me not reacting to him, and I said, as coldly as I could and with a supreme effort not to let my voice shake, “I want you to be fully aware that what you’re doing is to someone who doesn’t want it.”
His reaction was two-fold. He leaned over, licked my face, and then punched something nearby in anger. Then he stormed off.
I wish I could say the night ended there, but it didn’t. The rest of it is a blur, but he made no more overtures towards Mary or me. In the morning, he tried to hug me and praised how strong I was for staying with her all night and taking care of her. I do not think he meant when I told him, more or less, to leave her alone. I remember him comparing me to his grandmother, even. I remember friends joking about how hot and heavy things got, and lots of lewd jokes about threesomes.
The next afternoon, after we’d all returned home and I’d finally slept and had washed Mary’s puke out of my hair and clothes, she called me. And she said, shakily, “I don’t remember much from last night, but… thank you. I think that guy would have raped me.”
Here’s the thing, though. Despite my own bravery (because looking back now as the mother of two daughters, damn, that sixteen year old me had some nerve I hope my girls inherit!), despite the sacrifice I almost made for her – I did not think she would have been raped. Don’t get me wrong – I thought she would have had sex with that guy. But my sixteen-year-old, raised-in-today’s-rape-culture brain did not realize that what almost happened to Mary – what almost happened to me, even – would have been rape.
That’s the importance of Steubenville, and despite the terrible, terrible things that happened to Jane Doe, and continue happen to her, this should be her legacy. People are talking now about what rape really is. People are realizing that rape is not ignoring the word no, but rather, absence of the word yes.
I learned a lesson that day, and the seed was planted in my mind as I dealt with the aftermath and humiliation of my friends thinking that I’d put myself in a position to have sex with my best friend and a complete stranger, despite nothing happening that night. It was a slow lesson for me to fully absorb, though – a few years later my then-husband told me that he was absolutely disgusted that I’d “wanted” the sexual abuse I’d suffered as a child because I had not told my molester no. Those words cut me more deeply than the original abuse did, and I know that Jane Doe faces that same intense shame and second-guessing and self-hatred, and just as strongly as I know that, I also know she is wrong. Society is wrong, and it’s time to change that.
On her behalf, and on Mary’s behalf, and on behalf of all girls and women out there that have been raped or almost raped or have thought they might be raped, please spread the word that consent means saying yes and being able to do so without reservation or pressure or alcohol. And without that consent, the answer is always, always no, and no woman ever deserves to be shamed or humiliated when that message is misinterpreted, just like any man who chooses to ignore it does deserve to be labeled appropriately: as a rapist. Jane Doe deserves at least that much. Mary deserves at least that much. Your daughters and sisters and cousins and friends deserve that much. But most of all, society deserves that. Be part of the change.