Levi Greenacres feels anything but big and strong when he thinks about his rape, and the rapes of the people he loves.
When I was 21, I had a fight with my fiancee about our first Valentine’s Day. I wanted to celebrate it, and she didn’t. She went out with her coworkers, and I went to a party out of town with old friends. I drank until a mighty vomit began that I don’t remember the end of.
I woke up to the sound of a party ending, my face on a toilet seat. People were saying goodbye in the hallway, someone asked, “Is Levi still in the bathroom? I wonder if he’s dead. Ok, see you later.” I tried to yell, “No, I’m not dead! But I could use some help!” I couldn’t talk, something had gone wrong with my mouth. Some vomit that hadn’t yet left my mouth dribbled into the toilet bowl. I threw up again, long and hard enough to feel a muscle near my scrotum begin to tear. My long hair hung in the toilet water.
I was not able to move or speak, which was terrifying. When I pushed weakly against the toilet with my chin, the ground came up fast in free fall, my forehead banging hard. I could smell the poor urological aim of drunk boys on the floor and on the porcelain cooling my face. The bathroom door crashed open, and a lady I kind of knew came in.
She picked me up off that horrid floor. All my six foot one inches, two hundred and fifty pounds of dead weight, seemingly without effort. Over her shoulder, I watched her heels walk into the living room, where she deposited me on the floor. She straddled me, put her face close to mine. “You’re cute,” she said. She told me that she had liked me for a while, and was glad that I’d come to the party tonight. Her weight was incredible, and I couldn’t breathe. One of the house’s residents popped his head in the room. A little red plastic square appeared in his hand like the Queen Of Diamonds, and it sailed to the ground in slow motion. A condom. “Have fun,” he said, and shut the door behind him.
“No, don’t go!” I tried to shout. I couldn’t remember this girl’s name. Tried to roll over and couldn’t. She pulled down my pants and started doing something to me with her hands. I got hard. Incredible, I thought. I am beyond very drunk, how is this even possible? She put the condom on me. “Get down, man!” I mind-shouted to my crotch. The hem of her dress came up. The middle of her came down on me, her hands on either side of my head. I thought of Medusa. She whispered something in my awful slime crown of hair. Then, darkness.
I came to the next morning on the floor. My everything hurt. I tasted pukemouth. My legs felt trapped. I sat up enough to see my pants around my knees, and laid back down. To my left, a torn red wrapper and a used condom were precariously close to my head. To my right was the woman who’d pulled me from the bathroom floor, smiling, her face an inch from my face. “Good morning,” she said, leaning in to kiss me. I tried to get up too fast and fell down. I ended up legs on the couch, face on the carpet. I got my pants on that way, then crawled into the bathroom. Someone had kind of cleaned up my hideous mess, but poorly. There was enough left over in there to remind me of my previous night, and I barfed again. An ugly thing looked back at me from the mirror. I washed the dried crap out of my hair a little, and cut chunks of hair off with my pocketknife.
I don’t remember leaving the house, or getting back to the Greyhound station. I remember getting off the bus back home, confused, starving, filthy. In addition to a terrible guilt, I felt that I had been unfaithful to my fiance, and that I was now unworthy of her. I did the exact wrong thing and never called her again, or talked to anyone about what happened for a long time. I pretended that I’d been a very lucky young guy at a party, who got what guys are supposed to want. And until recently, that’s how I felt about it, an unusual experience that I brought upon myself, and did my best not to think about. Though it did make me reluctant to drink, particularly around people I don’t know too well, and extremely cautious about having sex with someone for the first time. Even if I was just making out with someone, and I occasionally opted to pass on a chance to do so, I never wanted alcohol to be a questionable factor in anyone’s recollection of being intimate with me. I preferred taking the label of “old-fashioned” or “prudish” or “weird,” instead of discussing why I’d rather wait.
In 14 years, I’ve talked about that night to three women, who all used the same word to describe it. They said, “This is the kind of thing that we worry about all the time. It’s called rape.” The last person I shared this with told me that she had been recently sexually assaulted at the hands of a medical professional, whom she had been referred to by her insurance company. I asked her if she had ever reported her attacker. She told me that she hadn’t, because reporting sexual assault is pointless, cops don’t believe you, and if they do, the guy still doesn’t get punished. She explained that her fear of the man retaliating against her was something that I wouldn’t understand, because I’ve never had to exist as a small-framed, soft-spoken female. She made a good point, that I won’t ever live with the ever-present threat of being violated. Or fear the culture that has made what often seems like zero progress in creating a world where a woman might feel comfortable walking alone at night, or drinking at a bar without constant vigilance over her glass. And I would certainly never understand the horrible process of talking about a sexual assault.
Thinking now about that Valentine’s Day years ago, I realized that as soon as I got on the bus home, I was back to being a big guy people often don’t want to sit next to or make eye contact with. Unable to understand years later how unsafe my friend mentioned feeling all day, every day, even having been so recently been violated myself. I was unable for years to use the word rape. It isn’t supposed to be something that happens to a man, and certainly not by a woman. People don’t whistle at me from cars, try to block doorways to hit on me, or assume I am weak. I am someone who has successfully ended or avoided fights just by standing suddenly up straight and looking someone in the eye. And yet, when I consider my inability to prevent harm from finding people, or to offer help when someone I care about gets hurt, I don’t feel like the large, confident meat-machine I usually am, who is capable of maintaining a large personal bubble of space with my demeanor. Whatever the opposite of that is, that’s what I feel like.
For a number of years, I wondered at how many of my female friends, lovers, and coworkers had a story about being raped, molested, or otherwise abused. I wondered ignorantly if there was something weird about me that brought women with horror in their pasts to my life. I wasn’t able to understand until my friend pointed it out to me bluntly, I’m a man. I don’t get it. This is how the world is for many women. I want to understand, though I don’t know that it is possible for me to fully comprehend.
My current partner was raped just before we got together. It was her beautiful, shameless writing about it that made me want to know her. Many people never talk about their assaults for fear of another attack, or the real fear of not getting helped by police and being shamed. My partner, however, talked about it with the intelligence and strength I quickly grew to love in her. She allowed me to talk about my experience without feeling like the thing that happened to me was something no one would understand.
Among many other things, she writes online about her attack and survival, speaks patiently to those who ask in person, and as a result of her writing was interviewed by a television film crew. She reported her rape to the police, as did another brave woman who had been assaulted by the same man. Nearly two years later, we have almost gotten her rapist’s name spelled correctly on her police report, and the details of her assault described accurately. I consider this a huge triumph, in what is likely to be a very long and painful road to a justice that she may never get served. It may at least help someone else who chooses to come forward and report an assault by the same person, and have an easier time pressing charges. Progress is painful and difficult, but we keep trying.
Just as there isn’t an easy description of either rapist or rape victim, there isn’t an easy answer for what to do about rape or how to repair a culture sick with it. We can’t seem to address assaults yet without blaming the victim or dehumanizing the attacker. Shaming someone who has been raped by suggesting they invited their attack is a cruelty that makes their healing impossible. Thinking of a rapist as a monstrous aberration takes away from the truth that a rapist is a person who committed a crime—a crime perpetuated by the inaction and ignorance of other people. People who look like all of us.
I did the wrong thing by not talking about my experience when it happened, for the same reasons many people never come forward. It’s hard. It makes a victim feel worse. And many times, the law doesn’t help us in the way we expect it to. By sharing my experience now, I hope to encourage others to do what I should have done over a decade ago: talk about it. Though reporting a sexual assault may not bring immediate results, keeping quiet definitely won’t ever change anything. The silence of rape survivors, and particularly silence on the part of those with the power to recognize and prevent it, is what guarantees rape’s continued presence in our culture.
We are all part of this, and need to talk about it. Loudly, directly, right now.
Photo: Flickr/ legends2k