Sexual abuse (harassment/assault) is not just for powerful men. And it’s not about sex or sex addiction. It is a power play coupled with a sense of entitlement. While cases involving the famous and powerful make the news, women know that a man need not be powerful or famous to commit sexual harassment or assault. It could be a co-worker, a neighbor, a random stranger, or even a classmate.
The following is an excerpt from the chapter entitled Don’t Speak from my upcoming memoir, Power Within (working title).
I was a sophomore in high school. My best friend invited me to go with her, her boyfriend, and his best friend to her boyfriend’s family retreat in a small town about an hour north of Houston. I happily accepted.
I didn’t know the boyfriend, Earl*, very well but I didn’t really like him much. Something about him seemed creepy. But Dee* liked him and she was my best friend. I thought that if I spent some time around him, I’d come to like him more. I didn’t know his best friend, Dan*, well either. He was a popular guy. Blonde, good looking, with an athletic build. He was one of the surfer dudes at our school and on one of our sports teams.
It was a pretty standard night for that time in my life: Lots of alcohol and weed was consumed. We had a great time at the house and I don’t remember anything untoward happening while we were there. A fun, uneventful evening.
On the way home, however, things changed. I don’t remember the entire sequence of events. What I do remember is making out with Dan in the back seat as we drove down the highway. I also remember saying no several times and fighting him off. I remember fighting to keep his hands out of my pants. I remember forcefully pushing his hands away multiple times as he tried unbuttoning or unzipping my jeans. I remember his pants being down. I remember ending up on the back seat floorboard while trying to keep him away from me. All the while my best friend and her boyfriend sat silently in the front seat.
When we got back to Dee’s apartment she asked if I’d had fun and if I liked Dan.
“Like him? NO! Didn’t you hear me fighting him off in the back seat?”
“Oh, I thought you two were having fun,” she replied.
“No, we weren’t having fun! He kept trying to get into my pants and I was fighting him off.”
“That’s just what boys do. Come on. No big deal.”
That’s. Just. What. Boys. Do.
Her words made me feel like I was crazy for believing that I’d been violated. Or that I was silly for believing I shouldn’t have to fight off some dude in the back seat of a car. And in that moment, I knew. If my best friend dismissed what happened, everyone else would, too. I never spoke to Dee again and tried to avoid her and Earl as much as possible at school. It wasn’t difficult to avoid them, but Dan and I had (and still have) many mutual friends and attended the same parties. So when I saw him, I had to pretend like nothing ever happened and that I wasn’t seething inside. I never told anyone else about what happened that night or any of the other times similar – or worse – things happened with other guys. And there were plenty of other times.
At some point, I accepted the narrative that this was just “what boys do” even though every instance left me feeling disgusted, shameful, angry, objectified, and dirty. Did other girls find themselves in these situations, too? Was I singled out for some reason? Did I give the impression that I was game for these overtures? I never asked any of my girlfriends because I came to assume that it was just me that this was happening to. I came to believe that there was something about me that made these boys believe that it was okay to disrespect me. Of course, I now know that it wasn’t just me. Now I know that there are (lots of) boys and men who believe they’re entitled to do whatever they want with a woman’s body. They’re taught that ‘no’ means ‘maybe’ and if they just keep trying, the girl will eventually relent. Even if she doesn’t verbally relent, it’s okay because she really does want it, she’s just playing coy. If a girl’s skirt is too short or she shows a lot of cleavage, she’s asking for sex. If she’s inebriated, rather than taking care of her, she’s to be taken advantage of.
I’d managed to put these occurrences out of my memory for quite a long time, as so many other women do. But the memories and emotions surrounding them were always there, just under the surface. I worked hard to not be too flirtatious, not dress too provocatively, not be alone with guys unless I was certain they could be trusted. Even so, I found that some guys only seemed trustworthy, until an opportunity arose.
Fast forward to 2009. I’d recently moved back to Houston and was excited to reconnect with old friends, especially high school friends I hadn’t seen in decades.
I was at an informal high school reunion. The night was wonderful! Catching up with old friends, reminiscing about the good old days at Bellaire High School. Lots of laughs all night. At one point, I was talking to two old friends, Bobby* and Rick* about some people who hadn’t been able to make it to the reunion. Bobby suggested we should have another get together soon. He mentioned a few people that he’d like to see including Dan and his wife, Beth* (who’d also gone to school with us).
I hadn’t thought of Dan – or that long car ride home – in 30+ years, but the second Bobby mentioned his name, without thinking, I blurted out, “I don’t want to see Dan. He tried to rape me in high school.”
Bobby and Rick looked stunned, naturally. There was a long silence. In that instant, I knew that they suddenly saw me differently. They weren’t feeling sorry for my having gone through that. No, I could see in their eyes that they didn’t believe me. Granted, my accusation was completely out of left field, but there was no doubt that they’d rather believe that I just made up this wild claim than to even, for one second, consider that I was telling the truth. I could almost understand Rick’s reaction. He and I were friends in school, but not close friends. Bobby, on the other hand, was a very close friend of mine in high school. In fact, I’d considered him one of my best friends.
And there’s the rub. Why would I make this up some 30 years after the fact? What could possibly be gained by doing so? Yet, they’d prefer to believe that I’d lost my mind and become a liar for no other reason than to disparage their friend? They couldn’t bring themselves to question whether it was possible that he had done something so egregious. They didn’t call me a liar, but the looks on their faces told me that’s what they believed. They asked for no details and simply changed the topic.
Later, I wondered why I’d even told them. I’d never told anyone before. This happened decades ago and I hadn’t thought of it in years, yet upon hearing his name…it just came out before I was able to censor myself.
As I recalled the events of that long-ago night, I began to question myself. Maybe I was making too much of it. Maybe it was just innocent “fun” and I’d twisted it into something else. After all, as Dee had said, that just what boys do. I mean, we didn’t have sex (as far as I remember), so could it be considered attempted rape? There is no doubt in my mind that that’s what would’ve happened – he would’ve had sex with me in spite of my objections – if I hadn’t been able to fight him off. And if the ride had been longer, who knows if I’d have been able to continue to fight him off? But is that really “attempted rape”? Such a harsh phrase. A phrase that we wouldn’t have used in 1974. So I spent months questioning myself and wondering if Bobby or Rick had asked Dan about my accusation – and what his reaction was, if they had.
Around this time I’d reconnected with another old friend from high school, Tricia* who was also friends with Dan (though I didn’t realize that they were good friends until it was too late). I mentioned to her that I’d blurted this out to Bobby and Rick. She didn’t seem to question the validity of my claim, but was surprised to hear it. This woman was one of my best friends at the time. We went out together almost weekly and talked almost daily. I didn’t tell her any details of what happened, I simply told her that Dan had tried to rape me when we were in high school (this detail will be important in just a moment).
In 2010, I started dating another guy I’d gone to high school with, Kelly. At some point I told him about what happened with Dan. His response?
“You’re not the first girl who’s told me this about him. I’ve heard the same from three other girls we went to school with.”
My jaw literally dropped. Oh my God.
I guess all girls/women tend to believe that we’re the only ones. And that belief is intensified when the guy in question is popular and known to be a fine, upstanding member of society. Interesting that so many boys/men who abuse women are so likeable in every other area of their lives, isn’t it? So much so that their friends and associates can’t fathom that allegations would be true.
Remember when I mentioned that Tricia was good friends with Dan? And that she was supposedly one of my BFFs?
Kelly and I had plans to meet Tricia at a club one evening. The day of, she casually mentioned that she’d invited Dan to meet us there. I couldn’t believe it! This is a woman who was upset because I was Facebook friends with one of her exes who’d treated her badly. Yet here she was not only talking to a guy who her best friend accused of attempted rape, she was inviting him to an evening out with that friend? What kind of person does that? Honestly, I wouldn’t have told her not to be friends with him. Although I have to wonder why a woman would want to be friends with someone who is capable of that.
I was so angry that I almost cancelled, but Kelly told me not to let Dan’s presence change our plans.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be there to protect you. I won’t let Dan say or do anything to you.”
Kelly was right. Whether he was there to protect me or not, I wasn’t going to cower and run away because of Dan. I had nothing to be ashamed of. If anyone should be afraid to show their face, it was him, not me. I would go, I would be cordial, and I would ignore him as I’d done in high school.
Kelly, Tricia, and I were at the club when I sensed someone walking up behind me. I turned to see an older, geeky-looking guy with glasses. He smiled at me and said hi. I realized it was Dan. He certainly didn’t look the same or even carry himself the same way. I could’ve passed him on the street and would’ve never recognized him.
“Hey, Dan,” I said, shaking his hand. As soon as our hands touched, a knot formed in my stomach.
His first words to me?
“Earl said to tell you hello,” with a smirk on his face.
It struck me as strange that he brought up Earl; I hadn’t been friends with him and had only hung out with him…on that ONE long-ago night.
And then it hit me.
This was Dan’s way of acknowledging what happened. I hadn’t told anyone but Kelly the details. I’d never mentioned Earl or Dee to Bobby, Rick, or Tricia. If my allegation was false, why would he mention Earl straight away?
If you found out some chick you hadn’t seen in decades had accused you of attempted rape after all these years, wouldn’t your first words be something along the lines of ‘WTF’? If it were a lie and you had the opportunity to confront her, wouldn’t you ask her why she’s telling people you tried to rape her? If you knew you’d done nothing inappropriate wouldn’t you want to find out why she’s slandering you all of a sudden? Wouldn’t you ask when this allegedly happened?
But Dan didn’t have to ask. He and I knew which night I was referring to. This was his way of letting me know that he remembered. And in yet another power play, he tried to throw me off balance. He wanted control of the situation. He wanted a reaction.
Instead of losing it after he mentioned Earl, I calmly replied, “Oh, how’s he doing?”
“Does he still live in Houston?” I don’t know why I asked that because I couldn’t give a damn where Earl lives. I guess my mind was making small talk so that I wouldn’t go postal on this asshole. And I wasn’t going to give him the reaction he was looking for.
“No, he’s living in Willis. At the house.”
I wanted to say, “Oh, the house we went to the night you tried to rape me?”
But I didn’t. I regret that.
I excused myself and went to play pool with Kelly. He asked if I was okay. I told him I was, but that Dan was already trying to get under my skin. Kelly kept me occupied with pool for a while as Tricia, Dan, and Dan’s friend, Joe* (who also went to school with us, but I wasn’t friends with him) sat and talked. Kelly eventually suggested we go somewhere else. I agreed.
I told Tricia that we were leaving. She asked where we were going, then turned to Dan and Joe and said, “Do y’all want to go, too?”
I hadn’t asked them to go with us, but okay.
Once at the other bar, Kelly went outside for a few minutes. I was sitting at a table with Dan, Tricia, and Joe. I don’t remember what the conversation was, but Dan kept throwing his smirks my way any time I looked at him. Then he made a “joke” about sexual consent. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I knew his underlying reason for saying it.
That’s When I Lost It
I slammed my drink onto the table and shouted, “That’s it! I’ve tried to be civil with you, Dan! I’ve tried to ignore you and pretend nothing happened, yet you sit here smirking at me. And now this?? No more! I’m done.”
I went outside to tell Kelly we needed to leave. He could see I was upset and asked what happened. When I told him, he was (rightfully) livid. He sprang from his chair and headed back inside. I grabbed his arm and told him it was okay, that Dan didn’t matter. He pulled away from me and made a beeline for the table. He walked up behind Dan and started yelling at him, right in his ear. I kept saying that he didn’t matter and let’s go, but to Kelly’s credit, he didn’t listen.
I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he told me later that his tirade included, “You know you did it. We all know you did it. And I know she’s not the only one. Just man up and admit it. Apologize to her. Make it right.”
Dan just sat there staring straight ahead, not saying a word. I don’t think he even blinked. But the smirk was no longer on his face.
When he’d said all he wanted, Kelly turned to me and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
And we did.
I felt a sense of vindication. I only wish that I’d been the one to say those things. Instead of trying to be cordial, I should’ve immediately confronted him as soon as I saw him. But girls are taught not to make a stir. And even though I’d grown stronger and better able to speak my mind, I tried to be nice…to someone who’d disrespected me and was completely unrepentant all these years later.
I’m thankful to Kelly for saying what I should’ve said. But I should warn the others…if I see you, I will NOT play nice.
No More Reunions
I was the Reunion Queen a few years ago. You couldn’t keep me away from a high school get-together! Not anymore; I choose not to attend. Thanks to Facebook, I know that Dan attends many of them (we have quite a few mutual friends and are both invited to these functions).
I’m not cowering or hiding, but I have no desire to be in the same room with him. I certainly don’t have a desire to be with others who would routinely dismiss my story as false because Dan’s such a nice guy.
(Note: I believe that most of those whom I count as friends from high school are unaware of this story. I’m not talking about them. It’s the ones who do know that I have no time for. As long as they, or he, are there, I won’t be.)
That’s typically the default response, though, isn’t it?
He’s so nice! Such a good guy! He’s done this, that, or the other for the community! This couldn’t be true?!
And, if it can’t be true then the person making the allegation must be lying. Right?
Just remember that until the those words crossed my lips you thought as highly of me as you still think of him.
*The names of the perpetrator and his friends have been changed.