the things we carry: rape + late-life feminism

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But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

When I was college, I knew two women who had been raped. One Sunday morning we woke to news cameras on campus and tears. A girl I’d known only slightly had been followed home, brutally beaten and assaulted in the basement of the building in which she lived, while her passed out roommates and neighbors lie sleeping. She was coming from a night out with a friend, and her friend watched her walk home for as long as she could, for as long as she could see, and as soon as the woman disappeared a man approached her. He made small talk, and I remembered hearing this woman had been kind. Later, after the woman woke from her coma not realizing what had happened, couldn’t remember the rape, she did recall the man, being scared, and talking in the hope that he might walk away.

But he didn’t.

I remember hearing this story during the second semester of our senior year, and the first thing my roommates and I said — safe in the on-campus apartment complex, guarded by a lone man who often read the paper and waved by drunken college kids flashing their IDs — was thank god we didn’t go through with off-campus housing. The severity with which this woman had been attacked was unimaginable, so much so that we couldn’t say her name without lowering our voices to a whisper. Shuttering our eyes. Maybe thinking, Thank god it wasn’t me. But it could have been me. How many times have I… When the woman returned triumphantly to campus {my god, how did I not tell her then just how fucking brave she was}, the only thing I could say was that I was so sorry. Why is that I waited until this kind woman was raped to talk to her? And even then — a pithy I’m so sorry? Seriously, Felicia? The woman wanted to go with her life, drink with the rest of us during Spring Weekend and be sized for her cap and gown, and I remember a lot of us feeling horrible for what had happened but for some reason we couldn’t separate the woman from the rape. We held her at a remove, and sometimes I think about this — seventeen years later — and wish we weren’t cowards.

We’re told, for as long as we can remember, Don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t make a scene. Don’t make it a thing. Don’t attract attention. We’re told to travel in groups, to look out for one another, to call one another when we made it home to ensure we arrived in-tact, in one piece. We’re given rape whistles, emergency numbers to call, and in the 90s we purchased mace and pepper spray in record numbers. We’re told to hold our keys, look around, don’t walk down dark streets, take alternate routes, calculate the time from the subway to our home and also time the alternate routes. I thought of Tim O’Brien today because, in a way, it feels as if we are constantly strategizing; we are the victims of an endless, unseen and unspoken war, a war in which we know we’ll never be the victor. Instead, we cast our armor, we plot, we devise, we take self-defense classes and vary our routine — we live our lives in perpetual fear and constant defense.

You may shake your head as you’re reading this, you might even say that this is dramatic, that this is an extreme, but I ask you: How many times have you said, without thinking, Get home safe. It only occured to me last night that I say this all the time. It’s an accepted phrase, commonplace, and there’s nothing alarmist about the behavior until we pause for a moment and consider: Safe from what? From whom?

The second rape was tricky. During our freshman year my good friend told me about a rough night she’d had with her boyfriend. They’d be drinking and he forced himself on her. She told me she had said, stop. She told me she had said, No. And I remember shaking. I remember telling her that this was rape. There was no grey area {is there even a grey area? No.}. No confusion. No misunderstanding. She was raped by her boyfriend, and all our other friends told me to shut up.

Because this man was her boyfriend and boyfriends don’t rape their girlfriends.

I ignored them and became vigilant. I confronted him, drunk {not my finest hour}, in public, and called him a date rapist. He played the role of the victim beautifully, so much so that my friends {WOMEN} snapped at me, told me that I was making a fucking scene, and if my friend didn’t think it was an issue who was I, boyfriend-less, virgin Felicia, to “stir up the pot?”

How dare I?

Women shamed me into silence and I was a coward for caving. A semester later, my friend returned to the country from which she’d come, and the man found a girlfriend. It was as if nothing had happened. Looking back, I wish I would have been braver, said something, reported it, shouted louder.

Feminism came late for me. For three years I was one of the very few women working in an investment bank, and amidst the sea of boys and commonplace sexual harassment, women were relegated to two roles: whore and one of the boys. I was slated in the latter, subjected to their just kidding, wink, wink jokes and late nights at strip clubs and bosses who asked me whether I was a virgin, and if I was currently sleeping with anyone. I tacitly accepted this because I was the only woman. Why should I make a scene? How could I raise my voice? For years I worked for, and was mentored by, men {many of whom were great and brilliant and kind}, and I played into the misogyny, rolled my eyes and talked about crazy, dramatic women, and wouldn’t it be easier if I had worked with only men. So much less drama, you know.

I’m not going to talk about the confluence of events that attributed to my awakening, or subject matter with which I’ve found closure in my memoir, but here I am, 38, a loud and unapologetic feminist. A woman who has to endure an endless tirade of concerns after I booked a trip to India {You can’t go to India, they joked. You’ll get raped!}, to which I respond, quite plainly, Do you honestly believe I’m any safer here? A woman who knows a lot of insanely brilliant and beautiful women who DM me on Twitter because they’re afraid of being outspoken, they’re frightened {sadly, and rightly, so} of the consequences they’d face, personally and professionally, if they speak out against everyday sexism. If they talk about their everyday assaults. If they report their rapes. A woman who knows other women who won’t even touch these issues with a ten-foot pole because they have a fancy job in New York, they’re surrounded by great guys, and might even have an amazing, loving boyfriend, so how do these issues affect me again?

Make no mistake, we are not equal.

There’s that distance, that remove, that illusion of equality. I am a woman who actually told a bunch of appalled friends that a former boss who sometimes unbuttoned his shirt in front of me to tuck in his pants, didn’t mean anything by it. I am a woman amongst a sea of senior men who was forced to get a career coach because I had to “harden up,” and not be so emotional {read: compassionate and empathetic} in business. I am a woman who has to mentor other women because they need strong, feminist role models to believe in their self-worth, to speak out against injustice, to know that I’ve got their back. I am a woman who has to constantly think of escape routes, alternate routes, etc, when I walk home alone at night. That’s a lot, A LOT, to carry.

I don’t know what the end of the story is, or how I even arrived at this place, but I do know, and wish for for, this: a day when I can walk through this thicket, alone, without fear. It would be nice to go through it instead of photographing it.

Some recent, incredible reads: A Drop in the Ocean: #YesAllWomen Have Stories Like Mine, You Are Not Defined By Your Tragedy, and To Men Who Ask “What Can *I* Do to Fight Sexism and Misogyny?

the gathering kind