Trigger warning, obviously.
When I was 16, on a late-night, three-hour-long car ride home from an extracurricular activity, I woke from dozing off to find that my classmate, a boy I had dated briefly a couple of years earlier, had his hand in my pants. The very easiest thing to do was nothing, and that’s what I did. I pretended to still be asleep.
The following year, a girl I liked came to my house when my parents weren’t home. We watched TV on the couch, snuggled, and kissed a bit. But when I put my hand in her pants, she started murmuring protests. “No, no, I can’t.” She had a boyfriend, and so she couldn’t. She was still kissing me, whispering “no,” and I didn’t stop what I was doing with my hand. Eventually she either came or pretended to.
I’m 46 now – these things happened a long time ago, in a world in which what we now call the “rape scene” in Revenge of the Nerds—the scene where the nerd wears a mask and has sex with his rival’s girlfriend—was funny. It didn’t take me long to be horrified at what I had done to the girl; by 1989 or 1990, I was learning new ideas about sexual consent that brought me to understand that no-while-kissing-is-still-no. I spent years feeling guilty and eventually was able to let go of some of that guilt by confessing to my therapist—but it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I came to believe that what the boy had done to me in the car was objectively wrong.
It didn’t seem wrong to me at the time because when I became aware of what was happening, I did not choose to stop it. It didn’t seem wrong to me because the princes kiss the unconscious Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and because all children try to stay awake as long as they can at a slumber party—everyone knows that when you’re asleep, people might mess with you. The 2012 Steubenville rape case, with the texts about how you could tell the girl was “dead . . . because someone pissed on her,” highlighted for me how much that mindset still exists, and made me think back to that night in the car.
It also didn’t seem that wrong to me at the time because it didn’t traumatize me. Katie Roiphe initiated a firestorm of rage in 1993 with the blithe comment that “There is a gray area in which one person’s rape may be another’s bad night.” I spent the late 80s and early 90s trying to figure out the gray area—how much weight to give to my own subjective experience versus trying to think and read my way to some kinds of objective standards. Generally, I was more likely to code as “bad night” instead of “assault” things that happened with people I knew—I was 100% more grossed out by the total stranger, maybe 50 years old, who pressed his erection against my ass in a crowd at Montmartre when I was a 15-year-old exchange student in France than I was by what happened the following year in the car, but objectively speaking, putting your hand in the pants of a sleeping girl for several minutes is way more assaulty than that fleeting hard-on was.
I don’t like to think of myself as a victim, but also, having wallowed in lots of self-loathing guilt between the ages of 17 and 21 about how I was a monstrous rapist, I don’t like to think of myself as an evil-doer, either. I think all people have at some point in their lives treated other human beings as objects . . . maybe not for sexual gratification, sure, but there are so, so, so many ways to objectify other humans. We are all guilty of it. Part of my growth over the past decade has been learning to think about myself as a whole person who gets things both right and wrong, instead of wanting to believe that all the bad or stupid or creepy things I have ever done were done in the past, would never happen again, and were somehow the work of an earlier version of me who was now dead and gone forever. I make fewer mistakes now than I did when I was young, and there are some mistakes I will not make again, but I will find new ones to make. Having compassion for myself as a person is the difference between self-loathing and self-acceptance for what happened that night in 1988 on my parents’ couch. I did that. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.