“Why now?” my beau of two decades wanted to know about the current spate of sexual abuse allegations. “This stuff happened twenty or thirty years ago. There’s a statute of limitations.”
“And it’s ‘he said, she said,’” my twenty-year-old son chimed in.
I walked out of the room, angry, at first. Why now?, indeed.
Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly. The list of people these and other men have been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting has avalanched onto our collective consciousness. The first 24 hours of the Facebook “Me Too” hashtag – where women were asked to share their stories about sexual abuse and harassment – saw roughly 12 million posts. The topic trended in 85 countries. Women and, yes, some men, crying out “We’re not going to take it anymore!”
I was a victim of sexual assault when I was a student in college. According to statistics gathered by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, over 23% of female college students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. All women between the ages of 18 and 24 are the most likely to be targeted by sexual predators. While it’s true that males are also sexual assault victims, the numbers clearly indicate that the vast majority – 90% – of adult rape victims are female.
I am a high school journalism teacher, so my students and I examine important and often difficult-to-discuss issues on a daily basis. Nothing is out of bounds. My students are encouraged to ask me anything. My promise is that I will always tell them the truth. Periodically, I’m asked whether there is anything in my life I regret. And the answer is always the same.
I look back on that night in 1975, when I went on a dinner date with a sweet-faced farm boy. He was on crutches, convalescing from a football injury. If memory serves, he was about six-foot-three and probably around 250 pounds, still I never for a moment had a bad feeling, nor the least concern when, after dinner, he invited me up to his dorm room. The stare from his roommate still registers. Another member of the football team, who would go on to play in the NFL, simply picked up his typewriter, walked out, and closed the door.
My date, in what seemed like an instant, stripped the clothes from my body. I fought, which made him smile. “You know I can do anything I want to you,” he said. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
In that instant, I came to understand I couldn’t fight my way out of a situation. I’d always considered myself strong and athletic, so I resisted. But, as he pinned me to the bed, I realized he enjoyed the battle. The more I struggled, the more aroused he became.
Strangely, at that moment, I recalled something my father said before sending me off to college. He’d given me just one piece of advice. He looked me in the eye and said, “Nothing is worth your life.” When I didn’t respond, he repeated the message. “Nothing is worth your life.”
I stopped fighting my attacker, believing my father’s words. To my astonishment, he backed off and yelled, “What’s the matter with you?” It was then that I understood he wanted me to fight, to scream, to cry, to plead. Instead, I laid on the bed, unmoving, my eyes fixed on the ceiling. Nothing was worth my life.
He pushed himself off me, grabbed my clothes, and tossed them on the bed. I dressed and ran.
The next morning, a tiny girl approached me in my dorm hallway. “Can I ask you a personal question?” she said.
She wanted to know if I’d gone out with the football player. I said I had.
“Did he strip you?”
“He stripped me, too.” She turned and walked away. I don’t know if he raped her. I didn’t ask.
Later that day, a dear friend who played on the football team marched angrily toward me at lunch and pulled me aside. “What were you thinking? Everyone knows about him!”
Clearly, he was wrong. I didn’t know there was a rapist living in the quad. Neither did the girl who approached me. But, apparently, others were aware. How many of them were victims? And if his behavior was common knowledge, why was he still living on a college campus?
So, what do I regret? Like the vast majority of victims, I said nothing. According to the National Research Council, 80% of sexual assaults go unreported to law enforcement. I rationalized that he was a football player and I was no one important. I’d willingly walked into his room after having a few beers. All I wanted was to forget it ever happened, so I filed the attack away and never made a formal complaint.
Sometimes, I wonder how many women he’s brutalized over the years? Could I have prevented some of those assaults, had I found the courage to speak up? My logical mind tells me nothing would have been done, had I gone to the police. Sadly, forty years later, this attitude still prevails and we now face an epidemic, a plague with life-long effects.
So, why now? Rape and sexual-assault victims world wide now see they are part of a movement, one that removes the stigma and encourages individuals to speak up and shout out “Me too!” There is relief in making that public statement, a catharsis that lifts the mantle of victimhood, replacing that sad and lonely label with survivor.
You can help combat sexual assault and rape. RAINN can tell you how: “You can make a difference: There are as many ways to get involved as there are willing volunteers. Whether you have five minutes, five days, or five months, there’s a path for you to make a difference in the lives of survivors of sexual violence. No matter how you choose to get involved, know that every bit counts.” Contact RAINN at https://www.rainn.org/get-involved. To reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline call 800-656-HOPE or 800-656-4637.
Anne Montgomery’s novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.