I’ve never told this story publicly, because in truth, it isn’t a big part of my life and I don’t ever want to diminish stories from people who’ve endured traumatic sexual assault. But now, with other people around the world chiming in on #metoo, I’m sharing for solidarity because we need to show how common these experiences are. We also need to show they can be real even when they don’t fit whatever qualifiers we have to define sexual harassment or assault.
While in my 20s, I had a one-night stand with someone I met at a concert. He was traveling with a group of his friends and on the prowl. I was single and feeling it. We went to his room in a luxurious but funky-looking hotel with neon lights and lots of velvet.
The sex was fine, and he was as sweet and courteous as a one-night-stand should be. Back then, I didn’t like to linger after casual sex, so I got dressed and left. Heading down the dark hallway to the elevator, I was in a good mood, enjoying the after-glow. I was ready to go home, shower the night off, and climb into bed.
It wasn’t yet daylight, and the rest of the hotel was silent. So I was a little surprised when the elevator door opened, and one of the guy’s friends was inside. I hadn’t spoken to him that night, but recognized him. I stepped inside, flashed him a polite smile, and said wsup.
In the few seconds we rode the elevator together, his eyes were trained on me. He asked me to go to his room, and I tensed, insulted. He knew I’d just been with his friend. I said something along the lines of, “What?! Not happening.” I wasn’t there for that.
The doors opened to his floor, and he grabbed my arm. I was in disbelief. I asked him what he was doing. He told me to just go with him. I planted my feet and threw my bodyweight backward, trying to pull my arm away. He was a big, muscular guy, so it took him little effort to drag me off the elevator.
I said more loudly, I MEAN IT. LET ME GO. I’M NOT GOING WITH YOU. WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? LET ME GO. He didn’t. He also didn’t say much. He dragged me about halfway down the dark hall to where his room was, held onto me with one hand, and opened his door with the other, while I struggled.
Once we got in the door, he muttered some half-hearted encouragement and finally had to take his hands off of me to remove his pants. By the time he pulled his dick out, I was running out the door and down the hall back toward the elevator. He didn’t chase me.
Reality is complicated
I got away. I wasn’t raped. Whatever trauma I felt from being dragged down the hall, and fearing that I WOULD be raped, is long forgotten. But while I’m not embarrassed to tell the story of what happened that night, I do feel something I wish I didn’t: self-doubt.
Did I fight hard enough? What if I’d screamed louder? Would he have taken me more seriously? Was my behavior that night suggesting I was open to it? Was I somehow wet? I might have been. Fuck. Could that be why I didn’t kick him in the head, bite a piece of his arm off, or any of the other things I wish I’d done?
That’s why Asia Argento’s interview in Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker piece about Harvey Weinstein resonated with me, and likely with many others:
“At first, Weinstein was solicitous, praising her work. Then he left the room. When he returned, he was wearing a bathrobe and holding a bottle of lotion. “He asks me to give a massage. I was, like, ‘Look, man, I am no fucking fool,’ ” Argento told me. “But, looking back, I am a fucking fool. And I am still trying to come to grips with what happened.”
Argento said that, after she reluctantly agreed to give Weinstein a massage, he pulled her skirt up, forced her legs apart, and performed oral sex on her as she repeatedly told him to stop. Weinstein “terrified me, and he was so big,” she said. “It wouldn’t stop. It was a nightmare.”
At some point, she stopped saying no and feigned enjoyment, because she thought it was the only way the assault would end…Argento, who insisted that she wanted to tell her story in all its complexity, said that she didn’t physically fight him off, something that has prompted years of guilt.”
It was crucially important for Argento to tell her WHOLE story, including the parts that typically throw rape into question. Those extra details—her giving in, her continuing to have a consensual sexual relationship with Weinstein—made her story muddier, and less believable, in a traditional sense.
But it lays the path for other stories to count, in a culture where we habitually associate sexual assault with dark alley rape, or with being drugged, or some other obvious example of force. When harassment or assault happens, whether to ourselves or to other people, and it DOSEN’t neatly fit into these narratives, we question them. We question ourselves, and our rights.
In my case, in the hotel, it bothers me that the incident didn’t feel like a clean case I could label and compartmentalize. I wasn’t hit over the head and dragged into a dark alley. I wasn’t gagged or drugged or penetrated against my will. I’ve replayed the scene in my mind countless times. I always hope I’ll remember something that will convince me I shouldn’t doubt my attempts at resistance. It never works. But at least I got away.
Then I think about the women who actually are victims of rape. I think about how, even the most empathetic people in the world will still wonder WHY those women don’t just SAY something when it happens. The many people who honestly don’t understand why it can take decades for rape accusations to surface.
I’m not angry at those people for wondering. Yes, they are usually men who haven’t experienced sexual harassment or assault, but I don’t think they’re all trying to perpetuate rape culture. Many even know better than to ask these things out loud. Meanwhile, the disconnect between accepted narratives and reality exists not only in their minds, but in all of us.
We need open discussion. We need to hear the stories—ALL the stories, even boring, inconclusive ones like mine. We need to hear about sexual harassment and assault that doesn’t fit the mold.
We also need to hear from victims who don’t fit the mold—that includes men who are sexual assault victims, because there aren’t nearly as many #metoo hashtag campaigns to give them the space to talk about it.
Shamed into silence
The incident at the hotel wasn’t my first encounter with harassment. The first was when I was about 4 years old.
Some guy called my house, and when I picked up, he struck up a conversation with me. I complied, and even told him my name, thinking it was a grown man so it must have been a friend of my father’s. He asked me if I had a “hot pussy.” I didn’t know what a pussy was, but I knew I was creeped out. I froze. He hung up. My dad thought he missed a call from an important work contact, and yelled at me for it. I felt ashamed for getting led into a conversational trap, and never told my parents what really happened.
Since then, as with most women in New York City, there have been many incidents throughout my adolescence and young adulthood where I was groped and flashed, usually in subways or on trains. The ones that remain seared in my memory are always the ones where I ran scared, or hesitated to fight back with full physical force.
Once, a friend of a boyfriend—someone I thought I could trust—grabbed me and kissed me against my will. I felt violated, disgusted and insulted. Mostly, I was furious at his disloyalty to the man I loved, and to his wife, whom I also considered a friend. When I told my boyfriend, he immediately jumped to my defense. But privately, he asked me if I’d done anything to give his friend the wrong idea. That hurt a lot.
I don’t often discuss my hotel incident because, as I mentioned, I’ve always felt it irrelevant in a world full of people who are suffering from far worse. Also, as a journalist who is expected to be a professional story teller, I know what passes the bar as worthy and interesting. I’ve been trained to recognize certain details that make a story clean; details that paint picture of clear villains and clear victims. Nuance, complexity and inconclusiveness don’t often make a memorable piece.
Not to mention—when I HAVE talked about it with a handful of people, they’ve asked me what I was doing in that hotel in the first place, also a clear suggestion that maybe I “deserved” it.
We need to resist streamlining the rhetoric around sexual assault, especially rhetoric that makes it seem like it should be a clear cut issue. Reality is messy as hell.
There are so many levels to sexual harassment and assault, which I say not to excuse some forms of assault as being “lesser” than others. I say it to let those who find themselves in the gray area know that they’re not alone, and they have rights, too. We need to talk about these violations in a way that people can feel more comfortable speaking up, and the rest of us can be more open-minded when they do.