Years ago, when I was researching my book, Teen Rape, I came across a wonderful quote: “Poor judgment is not a rapeable offense.”
I can certainly attest to having used poor judgement, particularly when I was young and painfully naïve. But no one, regardless of age or lack of experience, deserves to be sexually assaulted. And all too often, the reactions of other people to a victim after an assault can worsen the effects.
I experienced my own mini-trauma during my senior year of high school when I was editing the yearbook. The advisor, in his last year of teaching after a decades-long career, was a short, portly guy who was utterly charming. He loved telling funny stories about his wife and home life. I adored him and arranged to have yearbook editors from previous years attend a special retirement celebration in his honor.
But as the end of the year drew near and I was often working in his classroom after school, his behavior changed dramatically. He inched closer and closer to me, taking every opportunity to rest his arm on my shoulder. Then he wanted me to sit on his lap.
Confused and afraid to offend him, I obliged. But soon, he wanted to kiss me. I kept averting my face. But on the last day of school, he flat out tried to attack me. I pulled away, and he ended up chasing me around the classroom before I fled out the door and ran all the way home.
When I got to our apartment, I was shaking all over. I felt confused, angry, and ashamed. I was so mortified and embarrassed that initially, I didn’t even want to tell my stepmom what had happened. But finally, I told her.
So, guess what her reaction was? She laughed. Apparently, the image of this diminutive pudgy fellow chasing me around the yearbook classroom struck her as hysterically funny.
And maybe it was, but it didn’t seem funny to me. It felt awful.
Her second reaction was to question me on how I’d let things go as far as they had. What in the world was I doing sitting on his lap?
Truth be told, I didn’t want to sit on his lap. No one had ever talked to me about sexually inappropriate behavior on the part of adults, and I adored this guy and didn’t want to offend him.
Still, the messages I got that day from my stepmom were, “What are you so upset about? This is no big deal,” and “You brought this on yourself by your own behavior.”
Neither was helpful. Whenever I think about that day, the guilt, shame, terror, and disillusionment come roaring back.
But I’ve also been left with a much greater awareness of how important it is not to discount one another’s feelings after a traumatic event, and above all, not to blame the victim.
The last thing we want to do is make things worse. After all, we’re in this struggle together.