During the course of my current project, The Parting Glass, my protagonist has the occasion to look up another character in the phone book. The character in question is a single, college-age woman. So her phone book listing shows only her first initial and last name. And no address. This seemed obvious to me, so obvious that I didn’t have to think about it. But after reading that day’s installment, as he does every night, my husband said, “So Spruce is only listed by her initial?”
“Of course,” I told him. “She’s a young woman.”
He stared at me, not getting it.
“I thought everyone knew that. That’s what they teach you,” I said. “If you’re a woman, especially a woman living alone or even with only other women, you never list your name and address in the phone book. Because then some random person will know you’re a female. And they’ll know how to find you.”
His jaw dropped. “I had no idea.”
At this point, I’d like to point out that my husband is what I consider an enlightened man. He took a lot of Women’s Studies classes in college, and spent most of his twenties being educated in gender realities by Lesbian Witches—which has turned out to have its own problems, but that’s another essay. Before we met, on one occasion he took a walk down the Boulder Creek Path with a woman friend. Along the way, she showed him how differently men and women see the place. To him, a rather large and imposing man, it was a trail leading from one part of Boulder to another. To her, it was a series of danger zones. “See there? That street light is burnt out. I’d really pay attention and hurry up to get past it.” And “Here the trees grow way too close to the path, and they’re too thick. I’d know to get as far away from that as possible and watch out.” My husband has referred to this experience many times. For him, it was an eye-opener. He had never before understood just how differently men and women view the world, simply because of a difference in anatomy. He had never before understood how that difference in anatomy, in the eyes of some men, turns women into prey. Or how women have been inculcated with the habits of prey. Being watchful. Being hyper aware. Understanding where the danger lies. Never approaching the water hole without sniffing the air. Without being sure where the lion is hiding.
He says, “Every man should take a walk down the creek path at night with a woman.”
I was raped in college. It happened like this: I lived in a dorm, in a single room. I was sick with a bad cold. And I trusted the safety of the dorm. I went to bed without locking my door. I woke up with a towel—one of my own towels—over my head and a man’s voice telling me that if I screamed, or fought, or did anything at all to get in his way, he’d kill me. He told me he had a knife. I was so terrified I thought my heart had already stopped. I didn’t know if he really had a knife, and I didn’t care. I cried. I kept begging, “Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me,” over and over again.
He said—and this stands out in my mind, because even at the time it struck me as so surreal—he said, “Don’t worry, I won’t get you pregnant. I’ve got a condom.” Like that would be uppermost in my mind at such a time. Like coming to rape a sleeping woman prepared with a condom somehow made what he was doing less atrocious.
Well, as it turned out, the condom wasn’t exactly necessary. He was clumsy. I suppose he’d never done that kind of thing before. I was on my stomach. He raped me anally. Brutally. Then he left, not before warning me again that if I told anyone what had happened, he’d come back and kill me.
I lay there a long time. I knew I couldn’t keep quiet, but I didn’t want to die.
I called my mother long-distance. She asked me why I was bothering her and told me to go find someone who could help me. I got off the phone and stumbled down the hall to find the Resident Advisor. It was earlier than I had thought, probably not yet midnight. People were still up. Someone had probably seen the rapist in the hall. Someone might even have seen him enter my room.
I pounded on the R.A.’s door. When he opened it, I started whimpering. “Marty, I’ve just been raped.”
He stared at me. “You’re kidding.” First words out of his mouth.
The police came. They took my statement. They took my sheets. They took the bathrobe I had been wearing as a nightgown. They found the used condom in the trash. They found out I had neglected to lock my door that night. They said, “If you had locked your door, this wouldn’t have happened. Probably this was some random guy going around trying doors to see if he could find one unlocked.” As if this were perfectly normal and acceptable behavior for a young man.
I got the message. Men are predators. Women are prey. If prey is stupid, it gets eaten. Darwinism in action. Don’t be stupid, and bad things won’t happen to you. It didn’t matter that I lived in a dorm with a main door guarded by a veritable ogre at the front desk, a door that you couldn’t open without a key. It didn’t matter that I was asleep in my private space, a space that I believed should have been inviolable, just as my body should have been inviolable, without my express invitation. That one thoughtless inaction, going to bed without taking care to turn the lock, was taken as invitation. As permission. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
They never did find the guy. He simply disappeared. No one on the hall had seen anything, even though lots of people were up, even though lots of people had the habit of working with their doors standing open. It wasn’t until much, much later that I began to wonder if one of my neighbors had actually been responsible. Maybe the shy guy next door with the statue of Darth Vader, whom I suspected had a mild crush on me. “Or not so mild,” my mind began to whisper. Maybe even Marty, the R.A., whose job was to look out for my safety.
I’ve gone on about this incident longer, and in more detail, than I intended at the start. I think I’ve never related it in such detail before, and it happened a long time ago. March 23rd, 1983. I will never forget the date. The date my world view changed. And I will never forget the first words out of Marty’s mouth. “You’re kidding.”
I think about that now, in this climate where old men still debate the “legitimacy” of claims of rape. And I wonder, as I know other women wonder, How could anyone, ANYONE, imagine that we would make this shit up? I hear the old men justify their point of view with spurious rationalization. Like, “Maybe things went too far, and now she’s having second thoughts and so she cries rape.” I want to tell them, “No, I’m sorry, but this isn’t possible. Believe me. I’ve been on both sides. I’ve had sex I regretted and I’ve been raped. There is no comparison. None at all.” You cannot imagine it. You cannot imagine how it changes you. Before, you thought you were safe. You thought these things didn’t happen to women like you. Good women, who paid attention to all the little unspoken rules. Who didn’t go out alone at night. Who didn’t get drunk and pass out at frat parties. Who didn’t meet strange men’s eyes. Who didn’t do any number of things that men do ALL THE TIME.
Women who know the dangerous places on the creek path, and avoid them.
And then you find that it is you. Because, as a woman, you are prey. And because one, stupid mistake attracted the attention of the lion. And you deserved it.
Because I try to keep an open mind, I allow myself to consider that maybe there is, out there somewhere, a woman, a woman who has not experienced that devastating shift of consciousness, who might, for some inexplicable reason, claim to have been raped when she wasn’t. The idea chills me. Because that woman, all unknowing, is damaging the veracity of all women, everywhere. She is giving the old men the justification they need to continue to claim that not all claims of rape are true. To insist that we show bruises on our flesh, instead of simply bearing them in our souls. To accept the burden of proving that what we say, and what we experience, is real.
There’s an internet meme going around right now. To paraphrase, it says that men should be offended at the idea that what a woman does or wears has anything to do with whether or not she becomes a victim of rape, because putting a woman in the position of needing to control and take steps to prevent her own rape implies that men have no control over themselves. That, in fact, a man’s natural state is that of a rapist. Of a predator.
A couple of my male friends have expressed a real problem with this meme. “I have a hard time,” one of them says, “comprehending the mindset that takes a woman’s choice of clothing as an invitation to sex. The justification of ‘she asked for it’ doesn’t make any sense to me.” He honestly doesn’t see it. He honestly does not get that the attitude in question not only exists, but is common. At least, from a woman’s point of view.
I told him that it was obvious to me that he hadn’t spent a great deal of time hanging out around drunken frat boys. He said that he had a bit, but his intuition kept him out of most scary situations and his wit got him out of the rest. I think about that. I think that my intuition has served me, when I’ve been awake and could listen to it. Yes, we can all, men and women both, learn to recognize potentially dangerous situations and steer clear. As for wit, well. That’s another thing that does not serve women the same way it does men. A man can make a witty comment and defuse a potentially difficult situation. If a woman tries to do the same thing, it’s far more likely that the situation will escalate. Because being witty is a challenge to the kind of mentality that makes the situation dangerous in the first place. Because a challenging woman is stepping out of her assigned place and needs to be put back in it.
Because, in the end, predators recognize other predators. The same way they recognize prey.
I’m not saying all men are predatory by nature. I’m just saying that men who are will give other men the benefit of the doubt. So when my male friend uses his wit, it’s seen as a component of the predatory arsenal. In a way, he’s acting within the boundaries of his assigned role. Not challenging them, as a woman would be if she did the same thing.
I like men. I love men, actually. I enjoy the various men in my life. I bless them from my heart. I’m thankful to them. I appreciate the efforts they go to, to understand my point of view. I am glad that the subject of rape, and men’s attitudes towards rape, makes them angry.
And yet, I am frightened. I am frightened because of all the stuff that I take for granted that even enlightened men still can’t see. Because when we can’t see a thing, we have no way to challenge it. It slips by, under the radar. It leaves no trace and makes no impact. And what women need is for men to step up and challenge the dominant paradigm. Men need to be able to address the culture that makes rape possible. To do that, they need to believe in it. They need to comprehend it. They need to see it. See the thing that makes them angry and uncomfortable, instead of turning aside and walking away. See it, and speak.
Every man needs to take a walk down the Boulder Creek Path. With a woman. At night.