There has been much talk about rape, and with good reason: It happens, sadly, with dizzying frequency, in all kinds of circumstances and to all kinds of people. It's difficult to talk about, and it's certainly difficult to live through, but there's more to the conversation of rape than simply the four-letter word itself.
I'm not sure whether I'm one of the lucky ones (i.e. the ones who got away) or one of the unluckiest ones—the ones so burdened by the shame and fear of their experience that they spend years convincing themselves it's no big deal because, "It's not like I was raped or anything." Because I wasn't.
And why didn't I get raped? Is it because I'm not a pretty or feminine or flirtatious girl? No, I'm not one of the ones who are so clearly "asking for it," who are supposedly living dangerously on the edge of that invitation at all times with their long hair and their short skirts. What kind of man would ever rape a woman who looks like me?
So no, I didn't get raped. But I was violated, and the mark it left on me is still raw and honest and worth talking about. I didn't feel that way at the time, but it's time we all start talking about this. It's time I let you know.
That I didn't get raped is a blessing; that what happened to me isn't considered just as much of a violation is a tragedy. That I am made, either by my own feelings or by the raised eyebrows of others, to feel like what happened to me isn't "bad enough" to count as a sexual trauma—now that's just a disgrace.
The incident itself came so sharply out of nowhere that it was like a twist ending to a cheesy, boring play. We had always been friendly, Jose and I, with a "Hey" and a "What's up?" in the foyer or on the sidewalk. I knew his face, and he was something of a quiet constant in my daily life. He was the super in my building, living in a studio apartment on the first floor, and was always close at hand with a fix when you needed him. He had a bag full of wrenches at the ready when the pipes sprung a leak, or extra ceiling tiles when the upstairs neighbors' did; he received packages for me all when I wasn't at home, and had a ring of spare keys when I locked myself out. All of which made him very helpful and convenient to have around—until, very suddenly, he was not.
"I have a package for you," he said one morning, walking by my side along the corridor to the laundry room. "I signed for it. Come back here, I'll give it to you." It was like any morning, and we were just neighbors in a corridor, like we had been a million times before. He was just my super; I was just a tenant in his building. We were friendly, we were familiar, he'd held UPS deliveries for me before—it was no big deal. I started to follow him to his workroom, and before I could squeak out the appreciation that was on the tip of my tongue, he fell back a pace, reached around me from behind, and cupped my left breast in his hand. "One day, mami," he whispered, pulling my head back closer to his mouth. "You and me."
Why this particular morning? Why me? Why why why?
Every moment from then on is shrouded in regret. Everything I did (or didn't do) and said (or didn't say) came out all wrong, and undid me. Instead of turning around and socking him in the jaw, I let a nervous laugh squirt out of my mouth, and I made like it was all a joke despite my roiling stomach and shaking hands. Oh, cut it out, I said through a forced smile. I took the package, I said a polite thank you, and I ran upstairs to cry, locked alone in my apartment. He followed me, knocking on the door. "Mami, mami, come out," he said. He rattled his keys—He has copies of my keys, I thought in horror—and when I didn't come to the door, he slunk away without another word.
I'm not the type of woman whose breasts inspire this kind of uncontrollable urges, typically. As a matter of fact, it had only been about three months since I'd had any breasts to speak of: I had only recently stopped binding them, finally shedding the remnants of a gender-neutral presentation I'd cultivated over the three years I shared in one way or another with Jose.
I'm not a pretty girl: I don't wear makeup, I don't "do my hair," and I typically wear clothes only marginally more revealing than those worn by my Orthodox Jewish then-neighbors in Ditmas Park. Nothing about me is "asking for it," and nothing about me ever as. Men don't hit on me at bars or cat-call me on the street. (I do occasionally get a snarl of "Dyke" as I walk by a group of teenagers, though.) What I am, if not pretty, is an easy target: Polite. Shy. Deferential. And an impossible victim. After all, who would believe any man would be so gripped by insatiable desire to look at me that he would lunge at my body? This body? Yeah, right.
But I was a perfectly possible victim. I felt like a victim, and I went through the victim's paces: Loneliness, fear, self-doubt, self-hatred, isolation, feeling like a huge bulls-eye was painted on me for all the world to see. But I didn't have the strength or the support to face what I thought to be the inevitable disbelief of the police, of my community—even of my friends. I never thought anyone would look at me and think, "Sure, she's a believable assault victim." Since I was a child I was told not to give men the wrong idea, not to entice them in any way, not to make myself vulnerable. I cut my hair short, I walked with a swagger, I hid my breasts—and yet I was still attacked. So what is the wrong idea? Do women need to be dressed in chain mail in order to successfully discourage these attacks? Do women need to be held responsible for what they look like or who they talk to? Do women need to be pretty to be assaulted?
I never reported Jose. I didn't fight. Instead, in short order I packed my things and moved out. I ran away from his rattling keys and the lingering smell of his aftershave in the hallway. I let myself be chased out of my own house, taking on the responsibility to leave the scene of the crime—a place that I loved, a place I had felt safe in until that moment—in addition to the implied responsibility for having caused this mess in the first place, which many women feel.
It was my decision not to press charges, and I deeply, deeply regret it. Reading the stories that have come out in the wake of Steubenville, reading the words of other women who have lived with the fear and anger that comes from being a victim, I regret it even more. All women feel this pain—not just the pretty ones—and all women deserve better.
It is not a woman's responsibility to prevent her own rape or assault.
It is not a woman's responsibility not to look like herself or act like herself, and it is not a woman's responsibility to be pretty or not pretty, and it is no one's business what a woman's appearance does to other people's hearts and brains and loins—whether it invites attention or derision. No woman can be held accountable for her attacker's behavior any more than the attacker can be held accountable for the fact that his victim is pretty or not. It doesn't matter.
It's not just rape, and it's not just pretty girls. What it needs, however, is to stop.