I was sexually assaulted by my landlord when I was 22 years old.
He leaned in and kissed me. He touched me without my consent.
He was in his 70s.
It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t excusable. It wasn’t funny material for an Internet meme. It wasn’t gentlemanly. It wasn’t kind. It wasn’t leaderly. It wasn’t something easily forgotten.
It wasn’t something “men just do.” I know plenty of good men who don’t.
It was disgusting. It was wrong. And it was a crime.
In fact, 18 years later, I still think of it sometimes. I have thought of it a lot in the past year, starting with the tape of a Presidential candidate surfacing and now Harvey Weinstein.
The victims are millionaire celebrities and need to shut up and quit crying, they say. They are rich and famous, so who cares, they say. Apparently the harassment and assault of others is not “enough” to be considered worthy of pain.
Words matter. Actions matter. Tone matters. Empathy matters. Compassion matters.
The only response to those things should be a thoughtful “what can I do to help victims or make an impact?” If your response to another’s plight is anything but, you are not doing life right.
Perhaps putting a face to something will insert pause in how you deal with others and how you dismiss the troubles of victims — sexual or physical assault, racism, persecution, and the list goes on.
Perhaps a face, not one of an untouchable celebrity, but the face of a friend, the face of a person who can give you 1 degree of separation from vile acts.
How about my face?
I am someone you likely know. I am a victim of sexual assault. And nearly 18 years later, it still hurts. It comes flooding back when people joke about assault. I have shed tears today because people I know think being dismissive about sexual assault is OK.
Rape culture is real. It furthers the embarrassing and shameful feeling those who have been assaulted carry for life. I am a fairly confident, outgoing person, but this is not something I want to talk about. It is not something that is easy to talk about. I am an extremely private person, and I only have told this story to my mother and two boyfriends in the last 18 years. They are the only people I ever have felt safe telling.
But I figure that if, as a writer, I expect others to share their lives and thoughts with me, I should do it, too. Everything lives forever on the Internet, the voice on my shoulder keeps saying. But the memories live forever in my head, and I’d rather let them out, to buzz around like the flies on amoebas on rats that they are.
The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as this: “Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy… fondling and attempted rape.”
The man who assaulted me — Mr. X — was old enough to be my grandfather. He is dead now. I looked up his obituary a few years ago. There was a lengthy description of his lifetime of accolades and heroism and how well-known he was. It also referred to him as a “gentleman,” and a person who “left a lasting impression.”
He was no gentleman, I can assure you of that. But he did leave a lasting impression on me, one I wish I could scrub from my mind.
I am electing to use “Mr. X” instead of my predator’s real name. Not to protect his memory, but to allow his surviving family the dignity he did not allow me.
I always referred to him as “Mr. [last name],” even though he begged me to call him by his first name. He told me I was too formal and we should be more casual around each other. I still felt as though it was proper to call him Mr., after all, he was older and clearly in a position of power over me. His decisions and mercies held weight on whether or not I could afford to live on his property.
He was a businessman and university donor, and I rented from him while I was a student at Oklahoma State University. He stopped by a lot because he stored things in the garage under my apartment. He often told me I was pretty, but I thought nothing of it. Nice old man, I thought.
I was having trouble making ends meet –I made $15 a day as an editor of the campus newspaper and worked three days a week as a seating hostess at Eskimo Joe’s. Mr. X told me I could clean vacant apartments for him in exchange for a discount on rent. I jumped at the chance. I scrubbed linoleum, refrigerators, bathtubs and toilets after college students were evicted or moved elsewhere. My back hurt, my feet hurt, the smells were horrible and it was disgusting work. But I needed to do it because I was the epitome of a struggling college student.
Mr. X came to pick me up and take me to the jobs, which were scattered around town. The first apartment I cleaned, he stopped in and checked on me around 11 a.m. He said he came to take me to lunch. I assumed we were going to run to Sonic or McDonalds for a quick bite. Instead, we went to his office across town. He had a couch and a bathroom and a little kitchenette area. He let me pick from a few frozen dinners he had. Then he warmed them up one by one and brought them to the couch. I even remember how he folded the napkin underneath and set it on the little TV tray.
We watched TV and ate and talked. Then he’d either take me back to a job site or take me home if I was finished for the day. This cycle continued a couple of days a week for the next few, with him chauffeuring me, microwaving my lunch and watching Matlock in his office.
Then things changed. One day, I was cleaning baseboards in an apartment next to mine. He sneaked in and was standing in the doorway watching me work on my hands and knees. I gasped. He laughed and said he didn’t mean to startle me. I said something about how difficult it was being on my knees and it scared me because they were so sore from the hard floor that I couldn’t jump up like I wanted when he surprised me.
And I’ll never forget his reply, sneer and all: “Young college girls like you are supposed to be good at being on your knees.”
Then he walked back outside.
At first I thought maybe I was the one with the dirty mind because he was an old man. I told myself he just meant I was young, so it was easier for me to crawl around than it would be for someone older.
When it was time for lunch, we got in his little truck and went to his office. After we ate our TV dinners, we sat and watched Matlock like usual. He left for a few minutes to do something, and I sat there looking around. I noticed he left out a stack of dirty magazines. I was embarrassed for him, thinking he’d never want me to know he had them.
He came back to the little couch, but this time, he sat so close to me there was no space between us. I thought that was weird, but my guard was down because he was an old man and he was essentially my boss.
He started patting my leg. I squirmed, but still naive in thinking he didn’t realize I was uncomfortable.
Then he began to run his hand up and down my leg and my arm. You know, like when the man you love does it with affection because he wants you to feel safe. Except it wasn’t like that at all. It wasn’t the same. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand out from my skin. It’s like I could feel each hair as it stood at attention.
The next few minutes passed in slow motion.
Mr. X ran his hand up and down my arm and back to my left leg. He slid his hand between my upper thighs, which I was clenching together. Then he went higher.
I sat there in shock, terrified. I had made many mistakes by that age, but I was a 22-year-old virgin who was holding my purity as my crown.
And I thought I was going to be raped right there on that couch, with no one knowing where I was or how to save me.
Mr. X tightened his grip on my thigh. It wasn’t soft, feathery rubbing anymore. It was a grip and he was asserting power over me.
And that is when the old man leaned in to kiss me.
I shifted my face to the side to avoid it, but he kept coming toward me, darting his head with mine in an effort to catch my lips anyway. He got the side of them. I never will forget the way those nasty, slimy, wet lips felt on my face.
I would love to tell you I yelled at him or punched him or did something to stand up for myself. But I didn’t. I was in such a state of terror I barely could breathe.
He had an evil look on his face, and at that moment, I had no doubt that I was going to be raped.
My heart was beating fast. I couldn’t form words. My mind was screaming them, but my panic wouldn’t allow them to come out of my mouth.
He started to rub my thigh again, so in a weak and shaky voice, I whispered, “Please stop.”
I remember I had my eyes closed when I said it, which now I know that was a symptom of the shame and disgust I felt.
As I whispered those words, “please stop,” he gripped my thigh again like before, assertively and with dominance. I opened my eyes, thinking if I could plead with him and if he would see how scared I was he would let me go.
He had an angry, demented look on his face.
As I tried to stand up, he attempted to hold me down, but I got loose. I grabbed my purse and walked out the door. He followed and told me to get in the truck and he’d drive me home.
We didn’t speak again.
I got out of his truck and quickly walked up the long staircase to my apartment and locked the door behind me. I sat in the floor right next to the front door, until I began heaving so much that I threw up right on the carpet.
I continued to cry in the floor next to my own vomit for hours until it got dark outside.
I called my mama. Then I had what was probably a panic attack. I was hyperventilating and crying so hard I couldn’t even sit upright.
I lived there a little while longer, but I wasn’t at peace. I couldn’t sleep and had a phobia that Mr. X had cameras in my apartment somewhere and I became obsessed with thinking he would use his key and let himself in whenever he wanted.
One night, I had a nightmare about him watching me sleep, and that’s when I decided I had to move.
I often have thought of that day, the day when an older man decided he could kiss me whenever he wanted and abuse his power over the down-and-out college coed who needed a job.
I think of it with disgust every time. It still haunts me.
And thanks to recent revelations and people who can’t wait to proclaim it as no big deal, I have had to think of it more than usual. I have tried to tune out the fact that a large percentage of people I love and respect don’t feel as though it is a reflection of a man’s character if he says he uses his powerful position to kiss or grope or flash women without consent.
Look at me the next time you see me. Use eye-roll emojis on Facebook because you think celebrity victims don’t matter, then look me in the eye tomorrow. Can you? I’m just a regular person. Does knowing the story of a friend matter?
It shouldn’t matter. You shouldn’t have to know someone who has had an experience like mine, or heaven forbid, much worse, in order to outright condemn the behavior or those who joke about it.
But as humans, we tend to be detached;
we often don’t understand things unless they happen to us or to someone we know. I hope those of you who know me respect me. I hope you respect me enough to want to understand what someone feels when their body, their sacred being, is jeopardized by a predator.
In fact, one in five women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. ONE IN FIVE.
Remember the family members at your own table could be secret victims. Your best friend could have a chapter she never has told you. Your mother may have been attacked when she was young. Words matter. Words hurt. But actions heal. Decide that today you are going to change the trajectory of how you respond when someone reveals they are a victim, no matter if the alleged perpetrator is a landlord in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a powerful Hollywood executive or a politician. Imagine the victim is your wife, your daughter, your granddaughter.
Does it matter now?
One in five.