Trigger warning: This article contains personal anecdotes of sexual violence and abuse that may prove triggering for some.
Lisa Hickey wants to have a conversation about rape. But until today, she didn’t know where to start.
The spot of blood on the sheet was a perfect circle, an “oh”, an exclamation. Bob and I stood at the foot of the bed, groggy, half-morning light, we leaned in together as we realized what it was. A split second of awkwardness, then he quickly threw the top sheet on top of it. We muttered some sort of “see ya around” and I dashed off, down the stairs from his third-floor attic room overlooking the fraternity quad.
I was 16.
I had been drinking, the night before, as always, as I had since I was fourteen years of age. Did I say, “yes” to Bob? I’m sure, at some point that night, I did. I’m also sure I said “no” or at least “I’m not sure.” I clearly remember saying, “wait,” over and over. But I wasn’t specific in my timeframe. I meant “wait” as – days, weeks, months. Not “wait a minute.”
Was that rape? How much does that matter? In some states it would have been statutory rape, regardless of what I said. It was certainly not good judgment on either of our parts.
But good judgment wasn’t something I had much of back in those days. I was 16 and a freshman in college, and trying my best simply to block out a past I couldn’t handle. Both my parents were abusive alcoholics. Back then, what they did to me was called “spankings,” but spankings don’t usually carry with them the out-of-nowhere rage that I rarely saw coming, an ongoing feeling of confusion and terror, and a perpetual sinking feeling that this time it might never end. No matter how much I tried to justify their behavior, a father usually doesn’t say to his daughter, “I am taking off my belt now” before he hits her with it.
My father died the summer before I started college. I found out while was at freshmen orientation, sitting in an auditorium filled with 500 equally bright-eyed students. I heard the words from the man at the podium, “Is there a Lisa P. in the audience?” I stood up and said in a tiny voice “I’m Lisa P.” “Well, then, your mother wants to see you.” The crowd twittered. I had to climb over two people to get out. One of them said, “Your mother wants to see you. Boy, is that embarrassing.” I left a small navy pocketbook behind.
My sister has vivid memories of sexual abuse, by my father, of me. I don’t have the memories she has. I do have clear memories of sexual inappropriateness by my father, but prefer to keep it at that. My childhood was not all bad. There were swing sets and stargazing and Monopoly games. But what I do remember is that while other kids dreamed of being movie actresses or doctors or joining the Peace Corps, I dreamt of being kidnapped. It was a very specific dream. I couldn’t wait to be kidnapped by two men in a dark blue Ford Station wagon. That would be my way out. I used to wander the streets of Queens, NY, looking for that car. As a child, it was my only hope. “Please let me be a different kind of victim than the one I am now.”
So by the time I met Bob, and was asked by him to go to a Fraternity Dance at the last minute, I thought I had arrived in a new type of civilization in all its glory. I was petite, I had a blue-flowered halter dress, my hair was spun gold. That night I thought I had finally made it––somewhere, somehow, despite myself. But by that time, I was already a blackout drunk. At midnight, Cinderella is supposed to lose her shoe, not her virginity. And not to a guy who was as stumbling drunk as she was. But I didn’t even have enough self-awareness to know that the story I was living wasn’t the one I thought it was. I wanted that Cinderella story, badly, with whatever bargain I had to strike for it. Bob and I barely talked again afterwards. I didn’t even tell my friends.
I was gorgeous back then—almost every sixteen, seventeen-year-old is gorgeous, though, have you noticed? It’s hard to go wrong if you’re seventeen and perfectly in shape, have an easy laugh and don’t talk much. Beauty, sexual attraction—it was the only power I had. I think my resultant promiscuity all four years of college was simply a way to somehow, desperately attempt to take charge of my sexuality. And as odd as it sounds, being promiscuous was my guard against being raped. If I was the aggressor, if I was in charge, then things were not happening to me against my will. I was in control of my sexual destiny.
That was the megalomaniac in me talking, of course. The side of me with the inferiority complex realized I had already completely screwed up my sexual history to date, and felt awkward and guilty over it. But surely that didn’t matter. All could be forgiven. I would find someone to have sex with me; damn it, and one of those sexual encounters would turn out the way it was supposed to. The guy would have sex with me and fall madly in love with me. Of course that never happened. I had a series of one-night stands; sometimes while I was so drunk I was completely passed out. Clear, conscious consent? Not likely.
The thing is—when I think about how important a clear, conscious “yes” is—I also know how difficult I made it for guys. I was handing them a “yes” on a silver platter the moment I walked in a room. I want to make this perfectly clear: I was not the only victim here. Sending confusing signals, saying “yes”, and then “no”, using sex not just as a release but as a form of therapy, convincing myself I was falling in love with guys—guys I didn’t even know—so that I could justify wanting sex with them. None of that was good. Not for me. Nor for men.
I was misguided in my intentions, misguided in my actions. In the screwed up mind of an addict, being wildly drunk each time gave me the perfect excuse for my behavior. I was the one who would stand in the dark hallway and say, “kiss me.” I sought out guys who were just as drunk as I was. I made it perfectly clear—at the start of the night—that I was ready, willing and able to have sex, because I thought that was what I wanted. But what I really wanted was just for the story to turn out differently.
And that’s why this has to be talked about.
There’s no use in making generalizations about guy’s behavior, or women’s behavior, or whether I got what I asked for or who was at “fault.” There’s no reason to feel sorry for me—I’m many years sober, have an amazing life, I live in the present, in a life that is filled with such daily awe and wonder and breathless anticipation for the future that—now—what happened to me then was simply what happened to me then. I have guys who are dear friends, guys I can talk about this stuff with. And all the guys who work with me now—you know who you are—we have great, professional relationships, filled with warmth and intelligence. I still have an easy laugh.
The reason I’m writing all this is because I wanted to have a conversation about rape. Because I, for one, don’t know how to talk about it. And because my personal confusion around the subject is so deep, I can only guess about the confusion men might also have. And I wanted nothing more than to end my story with a blithe “oh well, all’s well that ends well.”
Which doesn’t really get at the fact that rape, and childhood sexual abuse, and sexual violence is still a problem—if no longer for me, then for countless men and women. And, so, when I asked for comments, to try to get clearer in my thinking, Lili had a very passionate point of view:
“We are socially educated and conditioned to think of rape as a violent act, a knife to the throat, a hand clamped over a woman’s mouth–not something that happens between two kids who picked each other up at a keg party, now laying together in the quiet afterhours of a frat dorm room. Yet, what is this if it isn’t rape? “Just” non-consensual sex? Do we like the sound of that term better because it relieves us of feeling bad as men that we’ve allowed some predatory instinct to take over? Are we hiding behind a patent refusal to even look at these issues, because dammit, we didn’t rape her; at best we had non-consensual sex with her? But if we aren’t getting a clear YES from a girl, should we maybe interpret that as a clear NO and then take ourselves right out of there? How do we navigate those uncertainties when our hormones are firing, goaded on by alcohol running through our veins. And, as women, the shame, self-loathing, we’ll carry all our lives, as young women engaging in thoughtless, or drunken sex, all that…young men need to know that young women experience it like that before we can ask them to grow a conscience around that.
And I read those words, and thought “yes,” “YES.” All of that is important.
But that’s not what I came here to say.
What I really want to say is: “We can’t solve the problem if we can’t talk about it.”
So for me, personally, what I’d really like to do is call a truce—to stop placing blame just for a minute and figure this out together, ok? Let me repeat that. Just for a moment, not talk about who’s to blame, but let us as men, let us as women, actually get together and figure it out. This is not a call for inexcusable behavior. This is not to say we shouldn’t hold people accountable for their actions. You can hold me up and judge me if you think for a moment that might actually help. But just for once I would like to sit down and talk about this topic without the fiery inferno of shame and guilt that seems to burn through every conversation about rape. Guilt and shame that’s felt by men—and women—as equals in a sexual partnership. Guilt and shame that prevents the honest, deep, back-and-forth dialogue that could actually lead to understanding and change. I’d like to figure out together how to stop our sons or daughters from being in a position where they don’t know what a clear, conscious “yes” is. How to get teenagers to talk about sex—with us, with each other, honestly, intelligently, before it happens. To understand at what age it makes sense and when it doesn’t and why. To stop underage drinking, not just for it’s own sake, but so it doesn’t lead to they types of horrific consequences it can have. Because the truth is, although my life is amazing now, I almost didn’t make it.
The most important thing is that I want this to be to be a platform to have a dialogue – a public, meaningful dialogue, of what the consequences are if we screw this up. To think of ourselves as a partnership, a social force, a team of men and women and women and men who are just trying to figure it out together, so that sex is as it should be—a safe way for a pair of people to experience mutual affection and enjoyment with each other.