My boyfriend and I were strolling around the red-clay horse track at the Neshoba County Fair late last Thursday night. It was the first time since my 10-year high school reunion that I'd visited Mississippi's Giant Houseparty &endash; an annual sticky politics and drunk-fest where well-enough-to-do white Mississippians have literally moved in for a week every summer since Reconstruction. The mud and sawdust was squishy under my Tevas as I scanned fair-cabin porches for old friends and breathed in that oddly soothing aromatic mixture of corn dogs, horse shit and cotton candy.
Suddenly I walked away from Todd, deserting him mid-sentence. I stood about 20 feet to the side of a cabin with a nameplate that seemed to puncture my eyeball. I stared at four or five men and women sitting in porch swings and lawn chairs. I frantically searched the male faces with dread. Fortunately, I could not find the man who had stolen my peace of mind 23 years before. I shook my head, gulped a bit of humidity and walked back over and grabbed Todd's hand. We headed back toward the midway. He didn't ask why I had stopped.
The guy was a proverbial Big Man on campus, Mr. this and Mr. that, a year or two older, a football player. I was smaller: tall, but skinny and loud and obnoxious for Dixie, opinionated as hell, not exactly Southern Belle attractive. I was OK popular, at least in my grade, where my classmates were relatively un-cliquey. I hung with jocks and band geeks and even African Americans, and was elected to Student Council once. But Mr. Bigs didn't normally pay me much mind.
That changed on a Friday night when I was 16. A girlfriend and I were looping through the A&J parking lot and saw him and a buddy parked there. She had me pull over so she could talk to the other guy. Mr. Big zoomed in on me. I still remember the pre-glow: Suddenly I was among the Popular folk.
It's a painfully short long story from there: They wanted us to ride around, his parents were out of town, they invited us in to watch TV, he led me into his room to "listen to music." I let him kiss me, he started groping and unzipped his pants, I said no, and no, and no, I started to panic. One offensive play later, I was pinned to the bed, one forearm holding me down and covering my mouth, the other pulling down my jeans. I cried into the curly hair atop his bent head. Done. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" I stared at him. I pulled up my pants, found my friend, they drove us back, no one said much.
I carried this memory like a backpack stuffed with shame for years. I told a few close friends in confidence that I was raped in high school, but no one in my family and certainly no one in authority. I didn't want to hurt my mother with a controversy I knew I couldn't win. I nursed the wound of being violated by someone I thought, however naively, that I could trust; I constantly wished it had been a stranger who appeared and then disappeared into the night. I hatched revenge schemes from time to time, but actually just took it out on myself. It wasn't until more than a decade later that I felt free to talk openly to friends about that experience, before I began to see that it wasn't my fault. "Why didn't you report him?" several, usually male, friends have asked since then.
Report him? Anyone who would ask that question sure doesn't understand small-town (and I suspect big-city and suburban) power structure and social etiquette. See, it would have been rude for me to turn in a boy who was only heeding his urges. It was I, after all, who made the mistake. I led him on. I went into his room. I let him kiss me. Therefore -&endash; as rape logic goes -&endash; my 16-year-old self deserved what it got. Besides, no one was going to believe my story, anyhow. I lived in a trailer park.
I'd like to say that times have changed. Certainly, they have for me. I hadn't given Mr. Big an iota of thought in years until last week. Once I shed the shame, I realized that the bastard doesn't deserve the legacy of my pain. Besides, I've moved on; wonder if he has. However, I also know that the boys-will-be-boys mindset is alive and thriving. Our culture still supports the idea that men can't control their urges past, well, a point. Throughout the years, I've argued with intelligent men and women alike who believe that poor witta men can't help themselves &endash; the ultimate insult to all the good men who are lumped into that stereotype, I and my boyfriend believe. No matter: Society teaches that if a woman crosses "the line" with a man, she just issued the uncontrollable beast a de facto consent decree. I even had a heated exchange once with a close family member who said that Jodie Foster was clearly at fault in The Accused. He couldn't even fathom my further argument that, even in initially consenting liaisons, a woman should be able to, well, pull back if she doesn't hanker for what she's presented. The guy, or his parts, damned sure would.
Before this ditty gets dirty as dishwater, suffice it to say that I don't believe that our species has evolved much on this sexual equality front. In fact, I suspect a devolution, if anything. If you hadn't noticed, it's way out of vogue to talk about topics like rape, especially the extremely popular acquaintance type. All Rush's femi-nazi-phizing kind of wore out the topic for us; it was just a bunch of John Stossel's unshaved liberal co-eds causing all the ruckus, anyway, you know. We chicks got nothing better to do than try to fry innocent frat boys, it seems.
Then I unfolded the paper today: "Study Says 20% of Girls Reported Abuse by a Date." Mr. Big's smirk spinning in my head, I read that the Journal of the American Medical Association is reporting that one in five adolescent girls have been sexually or physically abused, or both, in a dating relationship. They've been slapped, punched, shoved or raped by someone they trusted. No surprise, really: As adults, 25% of their mothers and aunts suffer the same fate.
Trust me: These girls may respond to an anonymous surveyor, but most of them aren't going to tell someone they know, or ask for help. They're ashamed; they fear being blamed; they don't want to hurt their parents; they still want to be popular. Many of them live in environments where their elders run around screaming abstinence, oblivious to what's really going on in the backseat. They grow up in a culture where they're at fault by default, and he can't help himself. Most of them, I promise, will swallow their shame, hide their tears, learn to take it, be strong. Girls, too, will be girls. But at what cost.
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