Sunday, November 23, 2014

lucky? or, in the presence of decent humans

This morning I stood next to my 14-year old daughter in the kitchen. She blithely dismantled a pomegranate while I read the Rolling Stone article about campus rape. Every few paragraphs I reached out to stroke her back and hair, grounding her here in her footie pajamas and innocent teen girl bedhead. I wondered if my own mother ever worried like this about what might happen to me at college; we never talked about boys, really, much less what kinds of situations I could find myself in with them. I considered what kind of conversations I should have with my daughter now.

Of course there is the "Avoid ____________________" [fill in the blank with sketchy scenarios like Frat Parties, Secluded Areas, or Anyplace After Dark] mantra repeated to girls whenever they are sent out into the world. This seems like common sense for an intelligent person, which my daughter has shown herself to be. But I was (am) an intelligent person, and I found myself in these scenarios during my years at Washington State University. Often. Even (especially) when drunk and sometimes (frequently) alone. And I was never sexually assaulted. According to the statistics, 1 in 5 women will be at some point in their lives and according to some points of view, it is more likely to happen when a woman places herself in those sketchy scenarios that most with so-called common sense avoid.

So what kind of an example can I provide? Was I just a lucky idiot?

Maybe yes - because I should take responsibility for my actions, and if I were to fall off of a cliff because I stepped too close to the edge, no one would blame the rocks for slipping out from under me.

But more emphatically no - because rocks are not sentient beings deciding to slide under my foolishly placed feet to teach me a lesson. People who deliberately take advantage of others - whether or not they walked into ill-advised situations - are jerks at best. At worst, they are never ending nightmares.

I specifically remember two encounters from my freshman year at WSU that I have shared with my daughter - and my son too because, according to those damned statistics again, he will likely find himself positioned to either participate in or stop an assault during his lifetime. During the telling I fully admit that I made poor choices - underage drinking, getting separated from friends, walking alone in the dark. But I also point out the people I remember who chose to help me instead of harming me.

At a fraternity party, I innocently followed a polite young man into the basement to see their house dog. There really was a dog in the basement, and I petted his sweet head for at least 10 minutes of meandering small talk before realizing Polite Young Man had slowly moved his face to within an inch of mine. When I turned toward him, this boy I'd known for about 20 minutes, I immediately felt sick and told him so. Polite Young Man backed off and escorted me to the bathroom.

At another party, I could not find my friends after a couple hours of drinking and was being followed around by a mammoth guy, who was undeterred when I explained my type was a more wiry, funny nerd. I finally ditched him and wandered through a surprisingly dark number of blocks before stumbling into the parking lot by my dorm. I realized then that I had no key and no way to contact my roommate. As I considered my very bleak options, I realized someone I knew was listening to Paul Simon in his car nearby. I knocked on his window and waved; he was an upperclassman from the men's dorm next to mine. He waved, turned down the radio, reached across to open the passenger door for me. I told him my situation and he said he would let me stay in his room for the night. We listened to the rest of the songs on the tape before Nice Guy led me to his room, put out a blanket and pillow on his bed, then woke up his neighbor so he could sleep there and give me privacy. "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" always reminds me of Nice Guy and that safe feeling I had after making a series of stupid decisions one night.

We can shake our heads now, almost 30 years later, at my naïveté or what my kids perceive as my inherent "confident/scary" demeanor but the simple fact of the matter is this : in those scenarios, the men around me decided to behave like decent people. Of course they had hormonal desires, most certainly they considered at least for a moment what they could do to me for their own gratification. But they also overrode those desires and chose to see me as a fellow human who needed help, and they understood that meant more than satisfying urges.

I don't like thinking of myself as "lucky" to have avoided sexual assaults in college. Saying I was "lucky" promotes the idea that most men simply cannot control themselves in the presence of a vulnerable woman. Or it might tempt people to believe the men in my situations were gay, excusing them from the overwhelming impulses of heterosexual males. This is all nonsense - just like discussing what a person is wearing when attacked. Luck should have nothing to do with it.

I hope I am teaching my children to be smart in the world, to make safe choices. But we all make foolish decisions, for a variety of reasons, and nothing should excuse us from decent behavior toward each other. Otherwise we are all just as dumb as rocks.