In early September 1999 I volunteered at the local domestic violence shelter as a rape crisis counselor.
For 7-10 days each month I carried a “rape beeper” and responded to sexual assault victims hospitalized after business hours and on weekends.
During the five years I carried the rape beeper I saw many things I’d like to forget.
There was the woman who was hiding from her abusive husband. He dragged her out of a grocery store by her hair in the middle of the day. He beat her senseless and she slipped away after dark.
I remember a single mother who rented her own trailer, and the landlord regularly jimmied her lock and went through the family’s belongings.
One night, he woke her and raped her while her daughter slept in the next room.
I remember a 40-year-old woman with the intellect of a child who was walking back to her halfway house. She accepted a ride home from friendly strangers, and was driven for hours while dosing her with alcohol and abusing her.
She could not cooperate with the ER staff; instead we watched her pull handfuls of her own hair out, alternating between wailing and weeping until she was committed to the psych ward.
While I counseled many different kinds of assault victims, the victims of date rape were the most difficult to come to terms with.
One morning, the rape beeper went off and I rose, dressed and drove through dark, silent streets bracing myself.
When I got to the ER, I found an 18-year-old student from the local university. She was disoriented and incoherent. She’d gone to her first college party on the first Friday night of her freshman year.
By the time I saw her, she was still too intoxicated to give consent for the rape kit examination, and we had to wait until she was lucid.
People who have not been through a rape kit do not understand how dehumanizing the experience is.
Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (aka SANE nurses) are well trained and compassionate.
However, it may take as much as two hours and during that time, the victim’s clothes are taken and bagged. Hair is pulled from her head and pubis, finger nails are scraped and then cut, and samples are taken from her mouth, vagina and rectum.
She will be given a round of antibiotics and tested for STDs. She will be counseled on follow-up care.
There is no privacy for the victim, and throughout, she is questioned by nurses, police officers, and people like me because any one of us can be called as witnesses. She cannot be released before a doctor examines her.
Depending on the politics of the hospital she might or might not be offered a “morning after” drug to induce menstruation and thereby prevent pregnancy.
If she has family or friends she’s willing to call, they wait outside.
There was no one this young woman would call. Her family was 150 miles away, her new roommate did not have a car and she did not want the school to know.
When she was finally released midmorning, I drove her back to the dorm in oversized, donated sweats and dropped her off.
I never heard from her again and nothing ever came of her case. That’s not unusual.
The woman from the grocery store returned to North Dakota with her husband.
The single mother could not afford to move, and was afraid to cause trouble for her landlord.
The disabled woman could not even tell her own story.
Rape, whether date-rape or the less common stranger rape, is not a “women’s issue.”
It is too easy for both men and women to tune out “women’s issues” as special interests that are not relevant to our collective social well-being.
This is short-sighted, dangerous, and simply not true.
Sexual violence threatens our society because it reduces our humanity.
Over the years I have thought about that young woman. She is in her early 30s now and is likely married or partnered. She may have children.
I wonder what she shared with her family about what happened to her that night?
Regardless, her life was profoundly and irrevocably altered that night.
And what of the young man or men who participated in the assault? He is also likely to be in a relationship, likely to have children.
It is not likely that he shared what happened with family members. He would not include it when sharing his history to future love interests.
I wonder how he remembers that night, or did he block the whole experience from his conscious mind? His life, too, was deeply and permanently changed.
The question that has plagued me the most is this: how did he explain to himself why it was okay to remove the clothes of an unconscious or nearly unconscious woman and penetrate her?
Some of the men who perpetrate sexual assaults have been involved in other deviant or criminal behaviors; however, in many cases—and date rape in particular—the men involved are not delinquents or predators.
They are ordinary men, members of families, neighborhoods, communities. They go to school, they work in business, they function as citizens.
Date rape occurs often without a “sympathetic” victim and without an egregious offender.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel, one of the most important voices on men and masculinity in the world today, explains in “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men” that dominant cultural messages about masculinity promotes a lack of empathy (“boys don’t cry”), encourages the subordination of social and moral conscience in favor of the enforcement of a code of masculinity (“bros before hos”), and is built upon the systematic denigration of women (“don’t be a pussy”).
Date rape is a social problem that will not be solved without both men and woman—all of us.
During my nine years at Mercyhurst, I have been approached three times by students interested in beginning a White Ribbon Campaign, or Men against Rape group. One has yet to coalesce.
Whether an RSCO is the best means for students to respond to the prevalence of date rape across the nation’s campuses or not, is up to you; however, please consider openly, directly, with courage and compassion your own response.
Talk to your friends and family, honestly and without judgment about behaviors you’ve witnessed and about pressures you’ve felt.
In closing, ponder this: Is it better for society to foster strong, moral young people, or bear the burden of healing broken adults?