My brain didn’t want to compute that someone I knew could ever do something like that.
Last year, a Stanford University swimmer was sentenced to just six months in prison for sexually assaulting an unconscious women, serving just three months of jail time before being released. The outrage over the light sentencing of Brock Turner has become yet another sad case in a lineup of privileged university men who wreak havoc on young women’s lives.
Brutal stories like these have floated in and out of the news since I finished college over 20 years ago, but because of the sustained attention on Brock Turner, a memory I’d long put away is surfacing again. I’ve moved numerous times since then — criss-crossed the U.S. and lived abroad two different times — but this particular memory seems to stow away in my luggage and unpack itself once in a while. The memory doesn’t scare me anymore, but it causes unease and self-doubt every time it peers out of the drawer or walks quietly by, like a cat, rubbing past my calf.
On one of the first days of my freshman orientation, my small liberal arts college co-hosted its usual evening mixer with freshmen from the neighboring university — a long-standing tradition in the century-and-a-half these schools have existed. I went with a few girlfriends I’d just met. The world was all shiny and I was excited to make new friends after leaving the tightly-knit community I’d grown up in. One of the first people I met that night was Joe.* He was good-looking and I was flattered by his attention. He wanted to know all about me and when he found out my hometown was just a few miles away, he said he wanted to meet my parents. I laughed it off. Who would want to meet my parents so quickly?
In the days that followed, he called several times and dropped by for a few visits. He also kept mentioning that he wanted to meet my family, and have Sunday dinner at my house. It got weird and my instinct battled with my Midwestern politeness. I had already decided early on I didn’t have a romantic interest in him, but thought maybe we could still be friends.
But, after another one of Joe’s drop-ins, I decided not to come downstairs when he called from my dorm lobby. He didn’t take it very well when I explained to him over the phone that I’d rather he didn’t stop by anymore. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember trying to be “nice” about it. It was awkward.
A couple days later, he called me to let me know he was interested in one of my friends. Right, I’ll pass the message along, Joe, I said. After hanging up the phone, I got to thinking … Maybe this whole chase had been a charade, a device to get closer to my pretty friend? Whatever the case, I shrugged it off; I wasn’t going to miss him.
A few months later, my phone rang. It was the late 80s and there was no caller-ID; I answered the phone and it was Joe. His dorm was having a semi-formal dance. Assuming he was about to invite me, I felt my stomach clench. No, he already had a date, but would I go with his friend? He’s really nice, no pressure, it will be fun.
It was common then for people, especially freshmen, to set each other up on blind dates, but I said no. C’moooon, he cajoled. He gave me the name of his friend and, while we were still on the phone, I looked up his photo in a kind of yearbook — those were pre-Facebook days — that my college and the university produced every year. It had formal portrait photos of all the freshmen, where they were from, and what high school they went to. The friend did look nice, innocent even. In fact, he didn’t look like the sort of guy Joe would hang out with. With lingering doubts about how I handled the situation a few months earlier, and against the tiny red flags that were waving, I decided to go. It was a huge dorm and I’d get to meet a lot of new people. I wouldn’t even have to shop for a dress — one of my older sisters had just married and I liked the bridesmaid dress I had worn to the ceremony.
Before the event, my date and I spoke on the phone a couple times. He was as nice as his photo looked and also a little shy. The conversations were a bit halting and slow. I wasn’t enamored, but I wasn’t going to back out on him. Maybe he felt the same way.
The night arrived and I got ready and posed for goofy photos with my roommate. Then off I went with my date. The party was crowded and encompassed several floors of the dorm—each one serving a signature drink. The floor we landed on was serving Seabreezes, full of cheap vodka and grapefruit juice. High school days had provided me plenty of opportunity to have beer, but hard alcohol was a whole new world. After about one-and-a-half, I wasn’t feeling great. I told my date I was heading to the bathroom and took a moment there to decide if I could continue or bail out. I decided to rally and came out the bathroom door ready for the rest of the evening. Instead, I was met by Joe. I hadn’t seen him all evening and felt uncomfortable suddenly seeing him in this deserted spot.
“Are you having fun? Come over here and let’s have a seat,” he said. I told him I wanted to get back to the party, but his over 6-foot frame easily directed me to where he had suggested. That’s a nice way of saying that he pushed me onto a bed in the closest room.
The struggle from there consisted of him bearing down on me and me realizing for the first time how much physically stronger men are than women. My thoughts jumped from fear to disbelief. Was this a joke? But Joe wasn’t kidding and expertly pinned me down, his movements were all anger, lips pressed down hard on mine, arms and legs vice-like.
Kick, scream, gouge his eyes. Advice from my older brother popped into my mind. He had recently told me that if any man were to attack me and those options didn’t work, do anything possible to disgust him: urinate, defecate, vomit. I listened to him, wide-eyed, believing this sort of advice was good, but nothing I’d ever need.
As I pushed back and tried to order Joe off me, nausea swelled up. Mmmthrwup. I told him through clenched lips. He didn’t believe me, smirked, relentless. MMMMMTHROWUUP! His hands, arms, and legs finally paused and he looked me in the eye. I launched myself off the bed and ran, bridesmaid dress miraculously still on. I really did get sick. Other girls I didn’t know came and went from the bathroom. I didn’t want to talk to anyone; I just needed to get out of there. I came out and was met by my date. Years later, I still wonder: was he just a pawn or was he part of the plan? I told him I needed to go home.
I didn’t cry about it that night, the next day, or ever. It felt other-worldly to me. My brain didn’t want to compute that someone I knew could ever do something like that. Sure, I’d been raised to fear the stranger in the dark alley, never walk alone at night—all the typical warnings. And was I raped? No. But was I held violently against my will and given every reason to believe I was about to be raped? Yes.
Because I hadn’t been raped, I downgraded my experience as something not worthy to cause a ruckus about. I don’t remember what I said the next day, but I gave a disappointing reply to my friends who were interested in the full report of the evening. I may have mentioned I saw Joe and he was a bit of a jerk and that I didn’t ever want to see him or my date again—anything to throw them off the scent that things had gone terribly wrong. I never breathed another word about it, but the insistent press and public outcry about Brock Turner has changed all that for me.
Since that night with Joe, I’ve gone on to live a full life, yet my “almost” attack has managed to creep into my life in minuscule but important ways. I’ve learned that the more shame-ridden an experience feels, the more I need to fight the protective instinct to put it away. I tried that theory out recently and did an internet search for Joe. I quickly found a social media profile of him and clicked on it. When his photo popped up on my screen, my face overheated. My hair felt like it was standing on end. Just as quickly, I closed the screen, hands shaking. That was enough confrontation for one day, maybe for a lifetime.
I don’t know what kind of person Joe is now. Maybe he doesn’t even remember me. Maybe he does, and feels badly about his actions … or maybe not. Whatever the case, I’m thankful for being here and, when the time is right, I’ve got wisdom to share with my children.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
I have a daughter that will be in college in a few years. God forbid, if anything like that happened to her or a friend, would I want her to respond in the same way I did? Of course not. Sure, I’d say “good for you” if she told Joe, as I did, to stop calling and showing up. But from there, I would diverge, and here’s what I’d tell her:
1. Don’t worry about being nice. Women often waste too much time and energy on kid-glove handling negative people who try to worm their way into our lives. Double-down on your commitment to yourself and inform everyone in your life that this person is not allowed in it.
2. Listen to your instincts. When I listen to mine, it’s really all I need to know. If you’re not sure, talk to your parents. Your friends are great, but they don’t know as much as we do.
3. Stick together. Don’t go to a party with people who haven’t earned your trust yet. While you’re there with friends, keep track of each other. Not to be a downer, but your lives really could depend on it.
4. By the way, do you really want to go to this party? If not, don’t go just because your friends are and they’re all begging you to do it. There’s plenty of other things to do.
5. Call the police, and tell your family. Chances are the worst will not happen, but if anything does, make sure the Joes of this world don’t get away with it and possibly move on to violate someone else.
6. Don’t let the bad guys distort reality. Yes, there are bad guys out there, but like the Swedish cyclists who stopped Brock Turner from assaulting his victim any further, there are so many more men who are good, brave, and kind.