My housemates and I hosted a party one night in the spring of 1992: I only remember the year because I moved each year in college, and I can picture my small room on the main floor. I have vague memories of Purple Passion, a grain-alcohol-fueled beverage that was served in a can and tasted like grape soda. I was an athlete on a club team for all four years of college, so it would have been a rare occasion for me to drink heavily. I was smart enough to avoid getting hammered when I had to wake up before dawn for practice.
One guy at the party was on the track team; I am not 100 percent sure of his name, but I can picture him, a lanky, dark-haired runner. I knew he had a crush on me, and the more I drank, the more I played it up, flirting with him. By the end of the night when I was slurring my words and ready to stumble to bed, my friend Jen stopped us and told me to quit playing with his heart. She told him to do the right thing and make sure I got into bed without aspirating if I became violently sick.
The scene is fuzzy, but I vaguely recall leaning in to kiss him. He returned a kiss quickly but softly, and then held me out at arm’s length. Gently tucking me under a sheet, he stretched out on the floor next to my bed and held my hand from there while I watched the ceiling spin. When I woke up in the morning, he was gone. And I was safe.
Two years before that, I had been sexually assaulted by a guy who I thought was a friend. The effects did not manifest immediately, as I buried them in my mind so I would not have to face what had happened and the guilt and shame I had felt. That year that Michael led me to my room so kindly and carefully, I had developed an eating disorder fueled by a hatred of my shameful body. My preferred clothing was baggy and camouflaging while I ate my feelings away. No one knew what I had experienced, and I did not know anyone else who had been through anything similar. No one talked about it. I am pretty sure I thought rape was something that was typically a random act of violence between strangers. It did not occur to me that someone I trusted would treat me this way. The word “rape” did not enter my mind for two decades, when Rep. Todd Akin infamously stated women’s bodies shut down in the case of rape, preventing pregnancy. It sparked my memory like the flick of a match.
I have met a lot of men in my life. Great men, flawed men, brilliant men, broken men. I do not know a single one who was falsely accused of rape. I do, however, now know dozens of women who have experienced sexual assault. In the past few years, friends, acquaintances and famous people have spoken up about the horrors they experienced against their bodies. I would go so far as to say the majority of the women in my life have experienced some sort of untoward action against them, including my mother, whose uncle tried to put his hands up her skirt when she was a teenager.
When I became a mother, I started teaching my son about the birds and the bees when he was pretty small, educating him on the scientific process of the sperm meeting the egg and the proper names for genitalia. We Googled videos of the fertilization process and one morning, I burst out laughing when he claimed he was pretending to be a sperm, wriggling around under the covers on his bed.
He is 9 now, and we often speak of consent, both for him and from him. We talk about red flags and respecting others’ bodies and how his body belongs to him and him alone, and he gets to say what he does with it. And that goes for others, too.
Someday when he is ready, I will tell my son about guys like the guy on the track team. And about his own father, who was exceedingly courteous and kind to me when we met, respecting my boundaries both emotionally and physically. His father will teach him about protecting himself with both condoms and situational awareness. And I will continue building on the foundation of what he already knows: Women and men deserve equal respect. We stand up for friends and protect them from harm. And we always tell the truth.
We will need to talk about alcohol, too, because that is a major factor when making sound choices. One, that when a woman is inebriated, she is not in a position to give consent in a way that does not brook regret. And two, if a man has too much to drink, the combination of testosterone and alcohol can create a perfect storm of aggression and poor choices.
If I have done my job as a mother, I will not have any reason to doubt him if he were accused of sexual assault. I would listen to his side and get him the best lawyer I could afford.
But I will not disparage his accuser. I will not discount her story. And the odds are that even if he is accused of a crime, he is highly unlikely to be punished. On the other hand, a survivor of sexual assault must live with the violation of his or her body forever. I know exactly what it is like to make the choice to keep a rape to myself and the reasons I did. Research shows the majority of people reported for rape, even with ironclad physical evidence, do very little time, if any.
I am not afraid for my son. I am afraid he will have to deal with the repercussions of a girlfriend or a wife who is trying to get over a past assault. Scratch that. Statistics show it is highly likely he will fall in love with a survivor. I am afraid he will have a daughter or son who will experience rape. I am afraid people in our country will continue to mock, laugh at and degrade sexual assault survivors. But I am not going to be afraid he will be falsely accused. Odds are much higher I and any of my female friends and relatives will be assaulted again and again before our culture changes.
In the meantime, I am going to parent him the best I can. And hope that is enough to protect both him and the women all around him.