Source: Flickr/Ricardo Liberato cc License
In the era of #MeToo, many of us recall times when we were intimidated or bullied, or when our boundaries were violated, when our safety, integrity, and dignity were threatened. Along with personal experiences, there are as many recollections of letting each other down, of looking the other way, of downplaying situations they witnessed or heard about that happened to other women, whether a friend, an acquaintance, or a woman subjected to shame and ridicule that we heard about, but did not know.
I am one of those women who not only endured my share of boundary violations but failed to come through for a friend who had been violated. It is that incident that I am sharing with you today.
Even though it happened more than 30 years ago, the shame, confusion, denial, disbelief, and subsequent “blocking out” evoked by the event haunts me to this day. I am mad at myself for my inaction when my friend was violated. I am so mad, that I will make sure it does not happen again on my watch. It will not happen on yours either.
Before publicly posting this piece, I emailed it to my friend. I am posting it with her blessing, and will quote some of her written response, as her’s is a perspective with which many of us identify.
Deep breath. Here goes.
A couple of girlfriends from college came to stay with me at my family’s home in New York City during Christmas break of our freshman, sophomore or junior year, I don’t recall which year it was. Regardless, it was a long time ago. While the details remain vague, each time I try to recall it, my nausea grows.
Having spent my life in NYC, I had lots of sets of friends, and friends of friends. On the island of Manhattan, we are all connected. When I was growing up, no one I knew was relying on their parents to get places, because in NYC you can walk or grab a cab, a train or a bus just about anywhere. Our freedom was not only overwhelming to us, but quite often to our parents as well.
One night while they were staying with me, I sent my two friends out with some guys I knew. I must have known at least one of them directly, and likely I knew others peripherally. I must not have been in the mood to go out that night, but I felt pretty damn cool to be able to offer my college girlfriends the opportunity to be escorted around town by these guys who also knew which clubs and bars were lax about letting in underage kids.
A few hours later, my girlfriends came back, visibly shaken. The details as they were relayed to me are fuzzy, but I do recall them recounting a story of how they got separated when one was pressured to stop at the apartment of one of the guys, to “pick something up,” before heading back out. At his insistence, she went to the apartment. Once he got her alone, he raped her.
Was it by one of the guys I knew? Or thought I knew? Or the friend of a guy I knew? I don’t remember who it was! But I do remember thinking or saying out loud, “What a creep, really?” I tried to picture that happening to her, but there were so many other feelings getting in the way.
My other girlfriend was visibly shaken too, doing the best she could to comfort our friend. Amazingly, despite the pain and dismay they expressed, I brushed it off!
What?! Somehow, some way, I couldn’t let myself fully believe her! It’s as if I said to myself, “We are all boy-crazy girls. She must have wanted it or SEEMED like she wanted it.” Even worse: My young, idiotic, pea-brain wondered if maybe they were mad at me for not going out with them that night and made up the story to get back at me. In retrospect I think, “what was wrong with me to doubt her?”
Now, I am horrified by my denial. Especially after watching the criticism and disbelief heaped on Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. OF COURSE my girlfriend didn’t make it up. OF COURSE Dr. Blasey Ford didn’t make it up. The only explanation I can even vaguely live with for my inability to grasp the magnitude of the event is that at 19, the frontal lobe—the home of our appreciation of consequences for actions—was not yet fully formed in me. I could not grasp it, because I wasn’t yet wired to grasp it.
Another possibility: At that time in history, for so many reasons (too many to list), many parents and other adult role models did not forewarn the teens and young adults in their charge, that these situations can and do happen. Parents and other role models did not necessarily know to teach their kids respect and value the their own physical and emotional boundaries and dignity, and that of others. One of the reasons is that having a teen is overwhelming enough. It was all too difficult to fathom how many kids were running around in altered states with too much freedom, delusions of entitlement, damaged self-esteem, mixed messages, and not enough accountability.
In countless cases, teens did not discern the difference between the impulse to gratify sexual feelings vs. the conscious choice to engage mutually and reciprocally. Often times, these lines become crossed, especially when girls gave signals that seemed to be, or actually were, mixed. At least these must be some of the reasons my late teen/early adult self failed my friend. They have to be.
What I do recognize, is that back then I could not grasp the magnitude of the events; I could not grasp that of course she was telling the truth. My immature brain would not and could not compute what happened. At that time, in those circumstances, in my personal world of friends, and friends of friends, a guy forcing himself on a girl was inconceivable. Why? Because around those guys, it hadn’t happened to me, so I couldn’t picture it happening to her. Therefore, I downplayed it. I dismissed it. I did not consider for one second going to the police, which is what should have happened. It didn’t even cross my mind to alert the authorities or to tell my parents.
Instead I blocked it out, which was a much more convenient thing to do.
If I had told, I feared I would be shunned by those guys, and maybe others. I could not tolerate that idea. My insecure, compulsive need to fit in with these friend groups in my hometown would not allow it. Me, me, me! It was all about me. Just horrible—HORRIBLE!—as I look back and think about how naive I was, how willing I seemed to be to collude with the perpetrators, how I betrayed her in favor of my own convenience, I am blown away by my callousness.
The bullying, assault, rape, and victimization of women happens all the time. Even those who do not perpetrate may still collude so that they can be “on the inside.” Downplaying the crime, turning their backs, or pretending it didn’t happen may help them feel like they belong. This way they are deepening a bond and creating an “understanding” with the perpetrator(s), maybe to be part of the cool crowd, or maybe to increase the odds that it won’t happen to them. Or if it does happen to them, they convince themselves they were willing, just like I had convinced myself my friend must have been willing.
When these assaults of physical and emotional boundaries occur within groups of teens and young adults, they occur with impulsivity, intent, collusion and entitlement. When these violations are perpetrated, the circumstances can be so confusing that authorities are not alerted and secrets are kept. Fear of being disbelieved, of standing up to a perpetrator, shame, shock, necessity, denial, inability to recognize the magnitude of the event, the absence of self-esteem, the desperation to fit in at all costs, and the threat of being shunned by the cool crowd are some of the many reasons why.
In response to this piece, my friend wrote:
“My husband and I were glued to the tv during the Kavanaugh hearings, and yes, since the onslaught of the MeToo movement, it’s been very close to the surface. My husband knows, but he’s the only one I’ve shared it with 19 years ago when we became involved. Please post it. I felt at the time that I brought it on myself by making stupid decisions and going to his house. But alas, it was date rape because I had said no multiple times. Love you and thank you for validating what happened to me in NY so many years ago. It does stay with you forever.”
In addition to doing everything possible to make sense of an experience like this, the situation becomes even more complex when friends collude with the perpetrator, or with each other, because developmentally, they can’t yet grasp what it must have felt like from her perspective. Or, what is happening is just… incomprehensible. In my case: “those guys wouldn’t do that to her, because they didn’t do that to me.”
My inability to do the right thing in that instance will never happen again. My son knows and will know that a woman, a fellow person’s boundaries must be honored and respected, even if or when messages seem mixed.
I am so sorry to my friend for betraying her. I am so sorry to all girls, all women who have endured what she has endured, who were betrayed by people like me who could have helped. As an adult, I can fully grasp that in certain circumstances, at certain times, in certain places, alcohol induced bravado, encouragement from friends, a lineage of delusion of entitlement, and a history of dominance can result in certain people getting their way at all costs.
As girls, how easy it has always been to be too terrified, too traumatized, too naive, too self-doubting, too certain that we will be seen as having “asked for it” to fight for justice, whether it be hours, days, weeks, months, or years later.
As much as I wish I could, I can’t go back in time and do a better job of helping my friend through her trauma. But, what I can do, what we all can do to make things better now, is to recognize and validate how real these experiences are, whether they happened yesterday, or years ago. Most importantly, we can look out for each other. We can tell as many girls and women out there who have no advocate or are too intimidated or ashamed to ask for one that they have advocates now. We can tell them that we believe them and we will fight for them in ways that we didn’t have the skills to do when we were young.