Sexual assault: A view from two sides

One side:

I was sexually assaulted when I was an undergraduate. This is nothing too shocking, if we take even the shortest glance around us, our lives are permeated with this sort of thing.  My grandmother was raped, my mother was raped, at least one of my sisters was raped, my wife was sexually assaulted. Those are just the crimes I know about, what others lie behind the veil of shame?

I now have children of my own, and I fear that they too might be added to the list of family member who have suffered at the hands of sexual predators. So, I must now speak up as so many others already have.  This must stop!

As I watched the dialog around the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. supreme court, I was reminded of the circus surrounding the Clarence Thomas nomination—Anita Hill eventually became a professor at my alma mater.  I was too young then to understand what was really going on.  But I am older now, and have had my own life experiences to draw upon. 

In truth, I don’t know what really happened in either case.  I was not there, and I am not trained in that field of criminal investigation, though I have my suspicions.  What concerns me most is not the past; if we have enough evidence to convict a sex offender in court, that person should pay for his or her crimes.  But if the trail of evidence has gone cold, I do not know what can be done except redouble our efforts at vigilance.  My greatest concern, however, is for our future, and I will use my experience as an example.

It was a late night on the dark streets of L.A. I had just spent some quality time with my fiancée, Sarah, who lived on the outskirts of Compton and was making my way back to my lovely Loyola Marymount University right by the ocean in Westchester.  I had made it all the way to Manchester and Sepulveda, and needed to walk the rest of the way back to campus, since that bus had stopped running.  It was late and had gotten cold, especially since I only had a tank top on (it had been very hot earlier in the day).  I still had about a mile of walking left when a car pulled up and the man driving offered me a ride.  Of course I took the offer; I was an invincible 19 year old (white) male, what could happen?

Well the older man who picked me up, couldn’t communicate too well in English, and I didn’t know any Spanish, but he seemed to understand where I needed to go.  As the drive went on he asked me some questions I did not understand and began touching my leg.  I became a bit confused, since it seemed somehow sexual, but why would one man take a sexual interest in another? Yes, I grew up rather sheltered.  But as the touching became more insistent and travelled up to my crotch, I decided enough was enough and I demanded to be let out. And what do you know, we were at the gates to the University.  What luck!

As I walked the rest of the way to my dorm I remember being so angry at myself.  I should have known better than to take a ride from a stranger.  All this happened because of some really poor decisions I made.  I shouldn’t have been walking home so late at night in such “skimpy” clothing. In my mind, the whole thing was my fault, and it took me years to finally realize that I had in fact experienced sexual assault.  Funny thing is, if I saw the guy today, I doubt I would even recognize him.

Another side:

As a teen, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  As I neared completion of high school, I got the idea that music composition was my thing, and I decided I wanted to go to the new England Conservatory of Music.  So, I called up my old piano teacher—I had studied piano pretty seriously as a kid.  He agreed to take me on again, I had been one of his best students after all.  He even allowed me to work around the house and yard in  payment for the lessons—a great deal since I had no money.  In any event, over a couple years of study, I was never able to get to the level I knew I needed (though I did work semi-professionally playing guitar at that time).  Eventually I went off to University to study crazy old dead languages and what-not.

Even though I never went forward with a career in music, I remember fondly my time studying piano.  My teacher had a profound impact on my life—I first learned textual criticism while working through various “versions” of Chopin’s preludes.  Indeed, by the time I went off to University, we had become quite close.  Though we grew apart when I was on the west coast (he lived in New Hampshire, where I grew up), I remember having a lovely evening with him and his wife shortly after Sarah and I got married.

Well, a few years later he was accused of sexually assaulting one of his students.  It is hard for me to believe it could be true.  He was always warm and personal.  I even remember when I would start a lesson cold, and was rather stressed, he could see that and would gently push my shoulders down, give my arms a little shake, and then the cares of the world melted away and we had the music…  Perhaps something like that happened with someone less receptive,  or maybe he was a sexual predator. All I know is that for me he was a sweet man, and I cared for him deeply.  I don’t know if it matters, but he went to trial, walked out during deliberations, shot himself in the chest with a handgun and died.  Again, I don’t know if it matters, but it turned out to be a deadlocked jury, and the judge declared a mistrial.  In the words of my favorite author, “so it goes.”

So what next:

When I think back on my own experiences, I wonder.  Why didn’t I notify campus police immediately?  Why didn’t my wife call the police on the guy that tried to rape her?  He did go on the sexually abuse a young boy on the bus.  Is she to blame for that too?  Victims often feel that way.  What did my guy go on to do?  Was my piano teacher guilty?  Or, did he kill himself because the accusation had ruined him, or even hit a little too close to home, like Shirley McClaine’s character in “The Childrens Hour”?  I simply do not know.

We might not be able to turn back time and get the evidence to convict every sex offender in the past.  If we can, we should, even if the trail grows cold on a lot of these cases.  But to make things better for our children, we need to change our culture now.  Why should we continue to be ashamed about being victims?  That is backwards.  

I don’t want to talk about our biblical culture or any odd ideas of the past. Our society is no longer one to offer a rapist the opportunity to marry his victim (Deut 22:28–29). But I wonder how far we have moved on from poor Leucothoë, buried alive for her unhappy role as the glorious sun’s rape victim. Or that jewel of a boy Hermaphroditus, violently raped by the “love-struck” nymph Salmacis, and who ceased to be a “real man” when the gods granted Salmacis her request that the two become one. Both are metaphors for how victims of sexual assault can be treated and can see themselves in our modern society. And that is a problem.

We can tell our children that they are not to blame if they should, God forbid, become victims of sexual assault. But that won’t matter when they see victims continue to be ostracized in the media and among their peers. How can they be confident in their innocence and their right to justice, when they see other victims do everything right and still fail to find justice? Or worse, see the powerful of our society bury such victims under threats to family members, blacklists, and any other form of coercion—heaping humiliation upon humiliation. These are problems we can solve, some quite easily if we just have the will.

What is more, we could be doing a much better job at demonstrating what is and is not acceptable behavior in our society. I can’t begin to count how many times I have seen or read inappropriate behavior in recent media that is still treated as cute or funny, or perhaps worse inevitably par for the course. The one sure fire way to confuse the issue is … to confuse the issue.

I wouldn’t be so naïve as to claim that I know the answers here or really understand everything that is going on, but for my part I am no longer confused. And that in and of itself is part of the path forward.

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