On dating apps, I often see people I know in real life. Mostly it’s former co-workers or friends of friends; I might hover over their photos for a moment or two to get a glimpse into a side of them I haven’t seen. Then I swipe left and move on. It’s kind of fun. Once I saw a boy I had a crush on in elementary school, and swiped right just to see what would happen. We didn’t match. But every time I see the face of the man who assaulted me, my stomach tightens and I put my phone away.
In those moments, I revert to a scared college freshman, waking up in my extra-long twin bed covered in my own vomit, realizing my underwear is missing. I remember my roommate and my suite-mate forcing me to eat Strawberry Pop Tarts and drink water.
I still don’t know exactly what happened that night before the Pop Tarts and I didn’t have his number to call and ask. I’d met him a few times before that, but we were not close. I had to ask my friend who’d gotten me the invite to the party to ask her friend for the guy’s phone number so I could ask him what had happened. I called and left a voice mail because he was still asleep. Actually I left two voice mails because my phone died in the middle of the first.
Later that afternoon he called back and assured me “nothing big happened.” I thought that meant we hadn’t had sex, but I didn’t feel like lingering on the phone with him or asking follow-ups. I just wanted to move on, forget it had happened. I was embarrassed I’d gotten so drunk. A few days later, I went to the student health center because my vagina still felt weird. The nurse told me that something, either fingers or a penis, had been up there but she didn’t have a definitive answer. She told me to take Plan B and got me tested for STDs just in case. The friend who got me the invite to the party told me: “Well at least your hymen is gone now, so it won’t be a big deal when you lose your virginity.” That’s a real thing a woman, and someone I considered a friend, said to me.
In the days and weeks following my assault, I did things that victims often do. I flirted with him, trying to make it seem like it was my choice because I was scared the boys in his fraternity would call me a slut. I thought it was my fault because I’d violated the cardinal rule: “Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear.” I went back and studied photos from that night and noted how the top of my black bra was showing a little. I wondered if maybe it was my fault for showing so much cleavage. Maybe he interpreted that cleavage as interest. Maybe I had flirted with him, even though I wasn’t remotely attracted to him. I knew in my gut that something was wrong, because I called my mom. If this had just been a regrettable hookup, I would not have told my mother about it. We don’t have that Lorelai-Rory Gilmore “let’s dish” kind of relationship.
Another member of the fraternity followed up to see if I was okay. I sort of brushed it off, wanting to move on, and again because I was worried about what they’d say about me. I felt the best course of action was to be funny and self-deprecating: “Hah, sorry I threw up all over your trophy room apparently.” In retrospect, I think he was trying to see what I’d do in case he needed to cover for his friend.
Mostly, I try not to think about it. I’m basically fine. I don’t have post-traumatic stress disorder; I am able to have sex without thinking about what happened five years ago. And I don’t like to talk about it because it’s really nobody’s business, because my story is not particularly unusual or horrific. The few times I have told friends or boyfriends, they say: “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” And I say “Yeah, but it’s really not that big of a deal,” which is of course not true, but it’s not not true. Going about my day-to-day life, I don’t think about it. I don’t want to think about it. It doesn’t define me.
And then I see him on Tinder, because 2017 is superfun in that way. And then I’m reminded of how I felt as a frightened 18-year-old, realizing my underwear was removed without my consent and that “something was definitely up there” without my consent. I’m reminded of how ashamed and guilty and scared I was.
But really, what I’m reminded of most when I swipe left on the man who sexually assaulted me, is that I have mutual friends with him. And they’re nice people. They’re kind, lovely, nerdy people who may or may not know that one of their friends did this.
All this is to say, if you know a woman who has been assaulted — and you do — you probably also know an assailant. We want to believe that if we kick Harvey Weinstein out of the Academy, or if Roger Ailes dies, we’ve solved the problem. We want to believe that we can have an Agatha Christie-like resolution in which the evil is identified and punished. The status quo can resume. But these people are your friends, your fraternity brothers, your actual brothers. That’s the real status quo. So men, if this is something you care about stopping, you better step up.
I didn’t post a #MeToo story on Facebook or Twitter, partially because I don’t like talking about it, and I really would love to go back to not thinking about it. And partially because I knew that if I had, some of those people who are the mutual friends linking me and my assailant would be the ones “liking” it. The idea of that happening makes me want to scream.
For all my female friends who were brave and wonderful and shared #MeToo stories, I saw only two men in my timeline respond and accept their complicity for being silent in cases where they should have spoken up. I can only hope that the rest of the good men use their actions instead — to tell their friends that joke isn’t funny, or that they shouldn’t talk about a woman that way, or to make sure a woman gets home safely.