The night I met my high-school boyfriend, Justin, I was spectacularly drunk. It was the summer before my sophomore year, and I was sloppily draped over a patio chair at a friend’s house, talking to him and making shamefully bad sexual innuendos. Flirting quickly led to heavy petting, but Justin and I did not have sex. A state-champion golfer, he had a tournament the next day. As the sky turned an inky black, he climbed into his Mustang and headed home. Besides, he said later, “you seemed too drunk to sleep with.” He liked me. He was willing to wait.
I recall little of what happened after Justin left. I have no memory of downing shot after shot of vodka. I have no memory of stripping off my clothes and diving into the pool with the remaining partygoers, though I’m told I did. I have no memory of going back inside, though I must have. What I do remember is that the house was palatial, with a swooping, curved staircase and a maze of empty bedrooms upstairs. I do know I found myself in one of those bedrooms with Justin’s friend Mark. I do know that Mark and I had sex. I also know that I wanted it — or, rather, I wanted to get it over with, having stopped caring what someone else did to my body. I would have preferred to sleep with Justin, but, in his absence, I made do. Mark and I may have used a condom. I wouldn’t be surprised if I just lay there, arms and legs spread. I liked the feel of Mark on top of me; that, I do remember. His body was a solid warmth weighing me down, anchoring me to the spinning earth.
When Mark was finished, he announced that he was going with some others to get a hamburger. This was not an invitation, just a fact. I must have gone to look for him, because the next thing I remember, I was lying uncomfortably at the bottom of the curving stairs, having fallen asleep with the edges of the steps cutting into my back. I heard the boys’ voices floating over my limp body.
“She’s not my fucking problem,” Mark said.
“Actually, since you fucked her, I think she’s exactly your fucking problem,” another boy replied.
“Whatever, dude,” Mark said, his voice fading as he went into the living room.
I felt strong hands lift me up, felt my head against the thin chest of an unfamiliar boy, heard his heartbeat. I was placed into a bed, the covers tucked up around me. I thought of how, as a child riding back from my grandmother’s house, I would feign sleep in the backseat of the car, knowing that when we arrived home, my father would carry me to my room in his arms.
A few hours later I woke to Mark’s erection poking into my lower back. I pretended to be out cold as he pawed at me. Eventually he passed out, the smell of liquor rising off him like steam.
When Justin heard about my escapade the next afternoon, he punched Mark hard in the stomach, even though he and Mark had been best friends since they were kids. I was humiliated, but my spirits perked up at this minor act of violence. Here was someone who wanted to keep me safe, who wanted to make me his.
This happened more than twenty years ago. These days I teach English at an all-girls high school. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, even though teaching is a bit like standing in a lighthouse and looking out at ships bobbing on a stormy sea: I can easily see which kids are navigating toward shore and which are headed straight into the maelstrom.
A colleague once told me, “You can’t save all of them.”
“You’re absolutely right,” I said, secretly thinking, with profound arrogance, Sure I can.
I ’ve started a feminist club at the school. I’m the group’s faculty sponsor. The girls in the club want to talk about “rape culture.” They want to educate the rest of our student body about its dangers. Flush with newfound activism, they corner me in doorways, sidle up to me as I wash my hands in the bathroom, stop me as I carry my lunch back from the cafeteria. Rape culture! they demand. But it’s Taco Tuesday, I want to reply. Let me enjoy my salsa in peace! The truth is I’m proud of them, and when they tell me they want to launch a school-wide initiative to address the issue of consent, I encourage it. Of course, there are the usual concerns. Our administrators, though friendly to the idea, have to be careful in their approach.
“We should get a survivor to come in and tell her story,” my newly inspired young crusaders say. “Do you know anyone?”
You need your job, I think to myself. Tread lightly.
“I’ll ask around,” I tell them.
Before Mark and Justin, I was in ninth grade and tremendously unhappy. I was drinking all the time. I drank alone when my parents went out to dinner. I drank at my friend Claire’s house down the street. She and I would sneak into her parents’ den and pour a little of every kind of alcohol into a red plastic cup and take disgusting gulps from it. I drank so much that in the spring of my freshman year, my friends ratted me out to my parents, who took me to a counselor.
“Do you feel like there is a hole inside of you that nothing will fill?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I answered.
He recommended I be sent to rehab or a psychiatric hospital. My parents rejected the idea. Nothing changed.
There was a boy who was not the reason I was drinking, but who would become a reason I drank for years. I still cannot bear to write his name. I’ll call him Paul.
Paul was troubled. He lived with his aunt and uncle and repeated endlessly a convoluted story about how his parents had abandoned him and his sister. I have tried to summon the details of this story, but they remain distant. I know only that my heart bounded to him in great rabbit leaps. In the evenings I would lie to my parents about where I was going and convince friends to drive me to Paul’s house. There were never any adults there. I remember his dark bedroom, his brown blanket with the image of a wolf on it. We would lie there and talk until he would begin to cry — about what, I was never sure. I would hold his head to my breasts. Eventually he would raise his wet face to mine, kiss me, then finger me on the rough sheets of his bed. The next day he would flirt with my best friend and pretend I didn’t exist. This reversal knocked the breath out of me. Just as the feeling of abandonment became intolerable, he would corner me after school near the dumpsters and kiss me so hard it left my mouth red and sore.
I thought I was in love with him. I knew I was in love with him, and only I could save him. (What could I possibly have done? I couldn’t even identify the problem.) One drunken night, I convinced a friend to take me to Paul’s house on his bike. I rode on the back, so drunk I didn’t realize until the next morning that the tire had rubbed against my legs, and the friction had burned the skin. The scars are still there, faded white strips.
Another night, at a friend’s house, Paul allowed this friend of mine, a beautiful girl with enormous breasts, to crawl into his lap and fall asleep. I envied her with an almost murderous passion. Her sister was a stripper, and her mother was never home. Later, on her bed, I let Paul push my head to his crotch, let him push his salty dick into my mouth. I had never given a blow job before. Afterward I said something to anger him, and he stormed out of the room — so as not to hit me, he said. I sat, shirt half off, bewildered and heartbroken on another girl’s bed.
I feel a need to say that I was a virgin. I don’t know why this detail matters. It shouldn’t. Yet it does.
In June, a few weeks before I met Justin, I went to a party at Paul’s house. I wore a tight shirt, a black miniskirt, and bright-pink satin panties. This last part is critical, because for years it whispered to me, Your fault. A friend’s mother had dropped three other girls and me off at a shopping center for dinner and a movie. We watched her car disappear from sight, and in its place arrived the red sedan of someone’s older brother, who took us to Paul’s house, because Paul’s house had alcohol — and, more important, it had Paul. My friend Claire and I had been drinking strawberry-kiwi Mad Dog all night, a wine so sickly sweet I can still taste its syrup on my tongue. When we arrived at Paul’s, I had already blacked out. I came to three times.
I was on the couch, and a girl we all thought was the school slut came out of a bedroom stark naked and crying, saying she needed help. One of Paul’s nefarious friends came out after her, grabbed her by the arm, and yanked her back into the dark.
I was in Paul’s dusty, stifling garage. Someone passed me a joint rolled in rainbow-colored paper. I took several drags. It was the first time I had ever smoked pot. I fell onto my ass and started laughing. I heard someone say Claire had passed out on the trampoline. I imagined her rolling from side to side on the black expanse as friends tried to pull her off.
I was lying on the linoleum in the bathroom when I heard the door shut and lock. The cold floor felt wonderful on my skin, an anchor to the world, which pitched and lurched whenever I moved my head. Something hot and heavy settled on top of me. My legs were spread. At first I thought it was a finger inside me. I remember thinking, Just lie here. Just lie here, and he’ll stop. Paul’s hands were holding my wrists pinned above my head. I was dry as bone. I was ripping in two. I don’t know if I said no. I don’t know if I said anything. I know I wanted it to stop. I also know I wanted him to like me.
Someone banged on the door and screamed my name, screamed Paul’s name, screamed, “Open the fucking door!” I felt as if I wasn’t really there. I heard the useless turning of the knob. Paul released my wrists and dragged me up. He said, “Just a fucking minute.” Then he sat on the toilet and pulled me on top of him, using his knees to spread my thighs. He grabbed and fumbled between my legs until he was able to shove himself back in. His hands held my waist and tried to move me up and down. Again, I don’t know if I said no. I don’t know if I said anything.
Then it was over. I was standing behind him, surprised to be on my feet. He was washing his hands. I saw myself in the mirror, the edges of my body blurred. Something was wrong with my vision. I tried to touch his cheek. I saw my hand reach for his face. I saw his hand catch mine by the wrist and push it aside. I think I said, “Please.”
He shoved a frayed hand towel at me. “Clean the blood off the floor,” he told me, and he went into the hall.
I did what he said.
A friend appeared beside me, threw her arms around my back, shoulders hiccupping with sobs. Why was she crying? I watched the blood become a pink smear on the linoleum. It refused to go away.
Then I was in the living room, and someone spun me around, grabbing my forearms. “My mom is coming to pick us up. Stop fucking crying. Stop fucking crying, or you’ll get everyone in trouble.”
I nodded and bit my lip, gasping for breath as if I were drowning.
When we got to my friend’s house (for an ostensible slumber party), I caught sight of myself in the mirror. I’d bitten my lip so hard, blood had trickled down my chin. I saw Claire passed out facedown on the floor. I couldn’t stop crying, no matter what the girls did or said. Unsure how to handle me, they decided to call my childhood friend Luke. They would pass me to him like a joint, like a shared bottle.
I had known Luke since fifth grade. I probably would have called him my best friend. Brilliant, with a huge nose and long, pale limbs, he knew everything about everything. I’d been to his house many times. He had pushed me for hours on a wooden swing in his backyard. He was the first boy I’d ever made out with. The summer after eighth grade, we had kissed on his bedroom floor beneath his “Stairway to Heaven” poster, and I had allowed him to touch my breasts over my shirt. When my mother had picked me up that day, she had given me a wary look, like she knew what we’d been up to. That evening she and my dad had sat me down in the living room to discuss my “behavior.” My dad had said, “I don’t want my daughter to be the town slut.”
Someone’s brother came and got me from the sleepover. I sat in the front seat, no seatbelt, hugging my knees to my chest. A boy in the back said, “So, I guess you’re not a virgin anymore,” and everyone laughed. I laughed, too, through tears. It was so funny: To lose one’s virginity. To be cruising along as if nothing had happened. Had something happened?
The next thing I remember, I was at Luke’s kitchen table. His face was contorted with anger. He would not talk. Was he angry with me? Eventually he touched my hand.
“It should have been me,” he said.
I didn’t understand. And then I did: he thought he should have been the one to take my virginity.
Luke and I did not see each other again after that, though we spoke on the phone a few times. He promised to kick Paul’s ass with the help of his friends. This may or may not have happened. I never found out.
Just this year a message from Luke popped up in my Facebook in-box. We had not kept in touch, but I recognized his face immediately. His message read: “I was a real dick to you the last time we hung out. I apologize with all my heart.” I didn’t know what he meant. How had he been a dick to me? I tried to raise the memory but couldn’t. It took a few days of imagining Luke’s face, thinking of the swing in his backyard, his kitchen. Then I remembered.
One sunny afternoon a few years back, during my free period, a favorite student of mine appeared beside my desk. I was so focused on grading essays, I hadn’t heard her come in. She was tall, thin, and clad in the hideous uniform the girls have to wear. She pulled up a comfy chair I had borrowed from the school library, plopped down, and began chatting with me about boys. Preternaturally gifted and bound for success, she’d had only a few boyfriends, and this bothered her.
“Boys your age are scared of you,” I said.
She eyed me as if I were her mother reassuring her she was pretty.
She began telling me about the one real date she had been on: The boy had picked her up in his truck, and after dinner he had driven her to the levee — a gravel parking lot above a man-made lake. The front seat of the truck offered no barrier between them, and he was quickly on her. She pushed him off with an emphatic no, and he stopped, but not before telling her she was frigid. As she recounted all of this, her eyes began to water.
How should I respond? I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, to make her think she was somehow to blame. I straightened in my chair and said, “No one has the right to touch you without your permission. No one. You can always say no. Always. Saying no doesn’t make you frigid.”
She nodded compliantly, but I could sense uncertainty in her.
“This isn’t your fault,” I said.
She nodded again but looked as if she didn’t believe me.
We experience two kinds of violence: the violence done to us by others, and the violence we do to ourselves. The latter hurts more, because it’s of our own making. I didn’t have the words to explain to that student what had happened to me when I was fifteen. I worried that unwarranted feelings of guilt might infect her as they had me. For years I’d referred to my experience as rape, because friends had told me I had been raped, but secretly I thought this was a convenient lie. My memory was no help. I only half recalled the details. Had I fought him? Had I said no? Was it rape if I had remained silent? Had I been complicit in my own assault? I had liked Paul. I’d thought I was in love with him. I would have had sex with him willingly, if he had just asked.
I was never chaste or a stranger to the delights of the body. A showerhead masturbator and ardent kisser, I knew pleasure was my right, my inheritance to spend as I saw fit. I had even fantasized about sex with Paul: The candlelight. The well-appointed bed. The question “Are you ready?” The affirmative answer. And then a slow merging into one being.
That was not what had happened.
Perhaps I had asked for it with those pink panties. Or, if I had not asked for it, perhaps I had put myself in the position where it was inevitable, like someone walking right up to an open well, standing with her toes at the edge, and leaning over to look in. And when I fell, I was stupidly surprised by the blackness, surprised to find myself trapped.
And thus the more insidious violence began to take root.
Mary Gaitskill wrote an essay for Harper’s titled “The Trouble with Following the Rules.” In it, she recounts having been raped twice: once by a stranger and once by a friend. The second rape is the one that haunted her. She hadn’t said no to the man, and she characterized the experience to herself only nominally as rape. She couldn’t figure out why the so-called date rape bothered her more than the more violent rape at the hands of a stranger. Gaitskill told all of this to a friend, who replied, “You were raped. It’s just that you raped yourself.”
This seemed true enough for me, too. It seemed to be the explanation I had been searching for. It allowed me to neatly file away what had happened. In not saying no (I will never know what I actually said), I had raped myself.
But I no longer think that. I have certainly raped myself over the course of my life. I’ve had sex with men I didn’t even like because I thought I owed them something. I’ve done things I had no interest in doing. I’ve failed to stand up for myself with professors and colleagues. I’ve talked myself out of opportunities that clearly should have been mine. But what Paul did to me was plain-old, garden-variety rape. It just took me twenty-two years to figure that out.
I ’m not sure why Justin and I became a couple after the Mark debacle. I suspect he wanted to stake his claim. Perhaps I was a revenge girlfriend, though I’m not sure which of us he wanted revenge on: Mark or me.
For one of our first dates, I asked Justin to take me to my school’s homecoming dance. My mother bought me a fringed red minidress, and Justin picked me up in his ailing Mustang, so rusty his friends had dubbed it the “flying tampon.” He wore a suit and looked incongruously handsome beside me in my outfit, which made me resemble a loose flapper from the Roaring Twenties. As he pulled into my school’s parking lot, I panicked and began repeating, “I can’t.”
Usually acerbic, Justin just whispered, “Are you sure?”
I nodded, and we drove instead to the outskirts of town, where we made out in the car until it was time to return home. He seemed to understand the anxiety running through me.
Justin and I were together almost every day: driving around in his car, sitting on his porch surrounded by his buddies, drinking at some older guy’s apartment. As easy as Justin and I were with each other, there were still times when he hurt my feelings. One night my parents were gone, and a bunch of us sat by my pool, drinking Coors Light and smoking Marlboros. Mark was there, a constant reminder of my own terrible behavior. He looked at Justin and me holding hands and said, “She gives a mean blow job, doesn’t she?”
I didn’t remember giving him a blow job.
Justin looked startled, then met Mark’s raised hand for a high five.
I was a slut. Everyone knew it. I knew it.
I often wonder at the casual misogyny that marks the typical American teenager’s formative years. The girls are castigated for giving blow jobs (even when they haven’t). The recipients of the blow jobs are heralded as heroes. I started the feminist club to combat this, wondering occasionally if the kids think I’ve lost it, the way I ramble on about agency, consent, and gender norms. Although I am not given to prayer, I pray that some of it sticks.
Justin and I did not have sex immediately after we started dating. I remember this because, when we did, I was wearing a French maid’s costume for Halloween. My mother had sewn it for me. Claire and I had both donned the little black dresses with their white petticoats, unaware of the underlying message: I am here to serve you. I’d had sex twice by then: Once unwillingly with Paul. Once willingly, albeit numbly, with Mark. But it wasn’t until I had sex with Justin that I felt I had really lost my virginity.
Claire and her boyfriend wandered upstairs at his house, while Justin and I remained downstairs in a wood-paneled den with a large fireplace. Burning logs crackled and sparked. We laid a blanket over the rug, the heat from the fire almost unbearable. I wanted my body to hurt, to somehow reflect the emotional pain I felt. Justin was gentle, stripping me naked at my request. When he was finally inside me, I turned my head to the side and began to cry quietly. He didn’t see, because I didn’t want him to see. He stopped to ask if I was OK. I nodded, pulled him closer, moved my hands through his soft hair. I think I was crying out of both sadness and relief. It was the first time I’d had sex sober.
At the persistent request of the feminist club, the administration has added consent to the curriculum of next year’s sex-ed class. Will a rape survivor come and speak? I’m not sure yet.
Meanwhile I continue to teach. Sometimes, when my students are quiet, their heads bent over a quiz, I’ll study them. They seem so young. I look for myself at sixteen. And sometimes I see myself there, acting like I know everything, knowing I know everything. I wonder if my teachers looked at me with the same awe and concern. I wonder what they knew and didn’t know, what I don’t know about my students now. If my students and I were friends, I would tell them what I’m thinking. But we are not friends. I am their teacher. So I grade their papers, plan our next unit, reassure them that they will pass AP Calculus, that we will discuss rape culture at our Friday meeting, all the while knowing that some lessons can’t be taught.