August of 2014, I had the privilege of traveling to Nice, France. The circumstances had me sightseeing alone during the day, and I plunged in immediately.
The first day, I relied on GPS and my Rick Steves guidebook, but my phone battery died, and I stayed out an hour too long. After a negotiation at a crosswalk, a gentleman in a Mercedes exchanged pleasantries and asked where I was heading. After I told him, he offered a ride, and as I was hot and tired and unsure of my bearings, I accepted.
My hotel was straight down the main street, but I knew I was in trouble when he pulled on to the freeway. He molested me as he drove, but became frustrated when I was not more cooperative. Eventually, he pulled over, and after a struggle, I slipped out of my cardigan and escaped, miles from anywhere familiar.
I held it together in public, the rage and humiliation and terror simmering just below the surface, as I made it back to the hotel. I went to my room. I screamed into my pillow, and in the shower, and felt ashamed and responsible and relieved. If he had truly been able to wound me in addition to touching me, or worse, no one would have ever known what happened to me. It was my fault. I accepted his offer.
A twisted, dark and funny aside in the middle of this: I told him I couldn’t engage with him sexually because I was married (how ridiculous is that,) and as a consequence, he kept referring to me as “Mary.”
Accepting a ride is not informed consent. Being 48 is not a reprieve. NO woman is safe, ever. There are no levers to pull, no assurances that ticking off certain boxes prevent you from being in that position. I trusted this man because he was older and reminded me of my father, and it was convenient to accept a ride in that environment. It never occurred to me that 48-year-old women were at risk for sexual assault.
My friends demanded I call the police. But I couldn’t, I told them. I took the ride. I was responsible for putting myself in that position.
This type of thinking is completely fucked up. I was adhering to societal conditioning and institutionalized norms that the onus is on women to decline, deflect and avoid. I knew better. I was a sociology minor with an emphasis on sexuality and gender studies. My lawyer-turned-sociology professor wanted me to get my Master’s degree under her tutelage, because of my level of investment in understanding and breaking down the why and how 21st century women culturally function.
Yet here I was, hiding in my room because I was mortified. I knew my husband would be furious with me, and he was. But more importantly, he wanted me to pretend it never happened, so we could go out to dinner with his clients. I needed to play my part, and that is exactly what I did.
Men I told would ask me, “what were you wearing,” and “were you attracted to him?” I was wearing capri pants, a t-shirt and a cardigan (which, as I mentioned, I left behind – and it makes me sick,) but none of that matters. My accepting a ride was not a tacit understanding he could use my body as his playground. I had zero culpability for the violations of my person. I shouldn’t have trusted him, yes. No alarm bells went off, I never felt threatened or a twinge, but that is no matter. I wouldn’t do it again.
The more time passed, the angrier I became. At myself, for possibly (and most likely) allowing this predator to do this to someone else. He was polished and calm. I doubt my encounter with him was his “first rodeo.” At him. At the requirement that I had done something indiscrete that needed to be kept secret and hidden. At a society that makes the “victim” feel ashamed and dirty. As a result, I decided I would tell my truths.
Women were sympathetic, men were understanding, but I also heard, “You’re pretty, what do you expect?” I deserve respect and safety. I expect accountability. Men don’t rape because of physical appearance, although I know some have “types.” (The man in my story said I was his type.) It is about power and control.
Statistically, most rapes/attempted rapes occur with acquaintances, not strangers. Objectification grants some men the ability to decouple a woman from being a person, and to justify any resulting abuse and subjugation. In 2016, as evidenced by the Brock trial, there is the lingering subtext that “boys will be boys,” and should be granted absolution without consequence.
Women can become targets for ridicule and misplaced blame if they choose to prosecute. Trial results with limited repercussions for men can also inhibit the reporting of rape/attempted rape, and contribute to the societal implication that sometimes, it is justified to use a woman if she is drunk/high/available.
I still struggle with feeling at fault for what happened to me. I cannot imagine how women who had to endure a much longer and more intense encounter must feel. Until we have laws that are written and enforced to truly protect women from predators, and telling someone a rape/attempted rape story elicits sympathy and support instead of ridicule, we are going to see more horrendous, unacceptable narratives.
I originally stated “Change needs to happen. Soon. Now.”
Traditional social constructs are rooted in centuries of reinforced behavior, and it is impractical to believe the trajectory is easily diverted. Family dynamics, school systems, social networks both online and in person, the media and the justice system would have to evolve, and that takes time, awareness and desire for change.
I’m not convinced we’re there, yet.