“Okay, Ms. Peters, we’re almost done here. Are you doing alright? We just have a couple more questions for you. Okay, so…what were you wearing that night?”
I had just finished telling my account to the two detectives from the Sex Crimes division, after having already recounted it at least two other times to different detectives. In the moment, I answered the question directly despite the chill that went through me when it was asked. I knew, as well as any reasonable person knows, that what I was wearing had nothing to do with my attacker’s decision to prey on me. I could have been stark naked, or wrapped in a burkini, zipped into a parka, and it wouldn’t have made a damn difference. I also knew that the detectives were just doing their job and it was probably a mandatory question. Perhaps they were acutely aware that asking that question in particular only perpetuated the rape culture that leads to these kinds of interviews in the first place, and they hated asking it as much as I was insulted and humiliated to have to answer it. I would like to think, anyway, that the two women sitting across the table from me, recording our interview, speaking in soft and reassuring tones, knew that asking me that question was bullshit. But, they did. And so I answered.
After my long day (I lost count of the hours I was actually at the police station), the two kind detectives offered to drive me home so I wouldn’t have to take the subway. As I hopped out of the backseat with their cards in my hand, I felt like I was floating. I was outside of myself. I was two Anges, one walking and talking and thinking about what comes next, and the other, a hanging, exposed nerve grappling with what had transpired over the last 48 hours.
I vacillated between knowing that I was doing the right thing by going to the police and feeling subsumed by shame because, of course, it was all my fault.
It was my fault for being drunk, for losing my purse with my house keys and phone in it. It was my fault for getting in the cab and not recognizing it as a red flag when the driver suggested he drive me to the hotel at the end of the street. After all, it seemed like a good solution. I was locked out of my apartment with no phone. It was 3 am. I had nowhere to go, and I couldn’t call anyone even if I wanted to (and I really, really wanted to) because I didn’t know anyone’s phone numbers, because they were all in my phone, which was in my missing purse and people don’t memorize phone numbers the way we used to. The cab driver was just being a nice, concerned citizen trying to help out a hysterical young woman in a shitty situation. Right?
And it was definitely my fault for thinking that the cab driver was just concerned about my well-being when he insisted on walking me into the hotel to make sure I got a room and would be safe for the night. And so it had to be my fault that after walking me to the room, when I thanked him for his kindness, he forced his way in, slamming me up against the wall, kissing and groping me, grabbing at my body and trying to take my clothes off. So, it must have been my fault that with every “No!” and “Stop!” and “GET OFF OF ME!” I shouted, with every push and shove I could muster to get this man to stop touching me, he was confused and took that to mean that I was totally into it. Because, after all, he’d been so nice to me, so I knew this was going to happen. Right? I was asking for it. Right? I owed him this much, didn’t I?
To say that I never thought I would be in this position, that I would never be this person (whatever that means) is sort of an absurd thing to say, really. I mean, if I counted up the instances in my life when a man had exerted his power over me, well, it felt sort of inevitable in a way.
But, I was a grown woman, in my early thirties, a strong independent feminist and I wasn’t going to be shamed into keeping this to myself, into not reporting it. I wasn’t going to be a statistic. I wasn’t going to be silenced.
So, (after some convincing from my best friend, I’ll admit), I went to the police and filed a report. I told my story and was therefore on the record. There was an investigation. I couldn’t be sure of the cab company though, because well, I was drunk, and very upset (finding yourself locked out of your apartment in the middle of the night, with no phone is upsetting). I did not take note of the driver’s ID badge or cab number from the back seat and I only had a fuzzy recollection of his face. Because he was being so “kind” to me, he didn’t turn on the meter when he drove me to the hotel, so there was no record of the cab ride. There was surveillance footage from outside of the hotel, which showed him parking and walking with me inside the hotel, but the cab itself wasn’t really visible, so it wasn’t clear which cab company it was and you couldn’t see the license plate. And the footage from inside the hotel didn’t show his face.
So, nothing happened. No charges, no trial, no consequences for the cab driver.
But, can I tell you something I’ve never told anyone? I was relieved. As much as I wanted this man to face the consequences of his actions, I was relieved that it was over for me. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to be interviewed anymore, or asked uncomfortable questions about what I was wearing and how much I’d had to drink. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to sit in a courtroom and answer questions about decisions I made that night, both before and after the attack. I was relieved that I wouldn’t be judged publicly by strangers and lawyers (because I was already being judged by some of my friends at the time and that was hard enough).
Why did you wait a day to go to police? Why didn’t you alert the hotel staff immediately? Why did you wash your clothes and take a shower at your friend’s place the next day? Why didn’t you get the driver to take you to a friend’s house instead of the hotel in the first place? Why did you trust the cab driver to be a decent human being?
WHY DIDN’T YOU BEHAVE THE WAY WE EXPECT VICTIMS TO BEHAVE?
That’s the real crux of the issue, isn’t it? And it’s an argument that is well-worn and futile; since forever, the burden of accountability has been framed around the way victims react during and after harassment and assault, a bar set so high that few victims can meet it. There is no one way for a victim to behave after being assaulted. The problem is that people, whether they know it or not, have a really rigid idea of what they deem as acceptable behaviour after an assault, and even more damning, they apply their own logic to a situation that a) doesn’t involve them and b) is completely illogical.
The truth is, I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. I knew that this was another insidious instance of a man exerting his power over someone. The truth is that this man, like so many others, preyed upon me because I was vulnerable, I was the wounded gazelle in the herd, an easy target. He, like so many others, learned or somehow internalized that women’s bodies are his for the taking, his for the touching, his for the groping, his for the violating.
And the thing is this kind of thing isn’t just limited to encounters with strange cab drivers in the dark of night. This happens, actually, more commonly with men who are already in our lives. They’re our boyfriends, our friends, our dates, our bosses, our colleagues. I’ve talked a lot about the notion of the “implicit contract” in dating that I’ve experienced over and over; this idea that some men feel they are owed something in their interactions with the women they date. It’s a subtle but pervasive mind-f-ck that I have experienced more times than I care to admit. I have found myself having to say “no, stop it, get off of me,” physically pushing and shoving a giant man off of my body at least a few times in my dating life.
There was even one time after I narrowly escaped unwanted sex, that the guy, who was at my place, told me that he had to stay over because I let him drink too much wine with dinner, and I wouldn’t want to make him drive drunk, now would I? I was scared. The man had forced himself on me, he was a little drunk, he was big and strong and I felt like if I kicked him out and told him that I didn’t care how he got home, something worse might have happened to me. I told you, it’s a pervasive mind-f-ck.
Is that the price I must pay to date?
Listen, I don’t have a lot of pride in telling you this. Looking back, I feel a great deal of shame that I let that guy manipulate me like that. I did let him sleep at my place that night. Don’t get me wrong, I felt shame in the moment too. But, I also felt trapped. Here was this man, a man who earlier that night, I was totally into. We had a great date, I was enjoying his company, he was interesting and gentlemanly, we were very attracted to each other and he was definitely piquing my interest. So much so that I invited him into my home to continue hanging out. And when kissing turned into groping, and groping led to undressing, and then with his hands and fingers and penis being shoved forcefully into places I didn’t want them, and him on top of me, pinning me to the couch, penetrating me, I said no. Over and over, I said no, and I pushed and squirmed and wriggled and I managed to stop what was happening.
I said no.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Hollywood’s matrix of power is finally being exposed. And while Hollywood as a system stands as a sort of allegoric example of other workplaces and environments, don’t think for one second that it’s not emblematic of a greater social construct.
What we’re learning about Hollywood now is exactly the kind of thing that happens everywhere else. This isn’t just a Hollywood problem; this is a problem that underpins everything. This scandal being exposed is (hopefully) providing the impetus for the cultural shift we need to reveal the kind of sexual predation that happens every day in the lives of women and men everywhere.
The trolls are trying to wail above all the noise, crying the usual victim-blaming nonsense that has kept us all silent all this time. But maybe the Weinstein scandal and the ensuing crumbling of the Hollywood power matrix is just the crack in the shell we needed.
We’re in a moment where the topic has risen sharply, and change seems possible. But I worry it will die away again in the endless ebb of our news cycle. Remember Jerry Sandusky? Nate Parker? Woody Allen? Roman Polanski? Casey Affleck? Bill Cosby? Brock Turner? Donald f-cking Trump!?!?
We need to talk about sexual predation, about sexual assault and rape. Period. We need to believe victims, stop blaming them, and hold predators accountable. But most of all, we need to dismantle the systems and the ideologies that created and continue to uphold this environment in the first place. We need to eliminate the internalized sense of entitlement some men feel towards other people’s bodies, and more importantly, the permission given, implicitly or otherwise, to act upon it.
We have a lot of work to do. Let’s get to it.