I was both an observer and a participant in a teenage rape. I was 17, and it was 1969, about a year before I would be drafted into the Army.
I don’t remember the month it occurred or the exact town it was in, but I remember that the party was in an upper-class suburb south of Pittsburgh. I don’t remember how I got home. These details don’t matter to me. What I remember clearly was the rape. Recalling it, for me, is like remembering where I was when I found out that President John Kennedy had been assassinated. There is a before and an after.
At one point, a boy told several of us to go outside and look through a window into the basement because another boy, a football player, had taken a girl there. (There were far more boys than girls at this party.) When we peered through, we saw the girl passed out on a sofa, her feet facing us. As the boy approached her, he waved to us, smiling. He proceeded to remove her jeans and then her underwear. It was the first time I had seen a girl naked. He climbed on top of her and penetrated her. She immediately woke up and tried to fight him off. At this point, we all scattered in the yard. No one said anything. There was just nervous laughter.
Eventually, we all went back into the house. I don’t remember anyone drinking, other than the girls. I did not drink anything. We must have gone into a bedroom, because the next thing I recall is standing with about 10 other boys around a bed on which a different girl had passed out. Everyone was touching her through her clothing. I placed my hand on her leg and quickly removed it.
One boy kept turning the lights on and off. When they came on, everyone removed their hands from the girl’s body. In the dark, everyone put their hands back on her. Everyone would laugh. It was some kind of game, and we all seemed to understand the rules. This happened four times, and then we all left the room. I’m glad it didn’t go further.
I recall the jocks ignoring me for most of the party, and eventually, I went home. I never saw those boys again, and the friend who’d invited me has since died. I hadn’t known either of the girls, and I never saw them again, either. A few months ago, I attempted to find the boy who had committed the rape, searching for old yearbooks and documents at the public library. But I wasn’t successful.
I knew then, and I really know now, that I had committed a crime. I have felt guilty about it my whole life. I get angry when I think about my teenage self and those boys I wanted to impress. In recent days, listening to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford brought back these memories. I feel a lot of compassion for her. What she says she went through was so similar, and I know she’s telling the truth.
There were years when I didn’t think about that night. Serving in the Army made me forget about it, as did my college life and career. I was too busy to dwell on a teenage rape I witnessed.
But the guilt always remained, and the memory was still there. Even though I worked as a newspaper reporter and wrote a column for 12 years, I never wanted to write about the incident. Guilt had turned to shame. I began to dwell on it again only when all those women came forward about Bill Cosby, whom I had admired as a comedian. That’s why I told my wife and three boys around the dinner table one night that I had once witnessed a rape. We talked about it and concluded that it could still happen today. We discussed the Steubenville, Ohio, football players who abused a 16-year-old girl.
I wonder what happened to all the other boys who saw what I saw through the basement window. Do they think about it? Do they remember like I do? This could have been a normal weekend for them.
I wonder about the girls, how they survived that night. In 1969, there was nobody to turn to. They certainly wouldn’t have gone to the police — at the time, a subtle notion persisted that an assault was always the girl’s fault, that she shouldn’t have gotten herself into that position in the first place. They wouldn’t have told their parents, who would probably have scolded them. They are about my age now, 67, and I wonder if they had families. If they remember this night. If they told their daughters.
I wanted to tell this story because I believe it’s time for men to tell the truth about the ways they’ve abused women and what our role has been in creating a culture that tolerates this. We all have seen things; we’ve all heard other men talk. I remember sitting in a bar with some acquaintances about 30 years ago when one of the men, a local magistrate in a poor area of West Virginia, bragged about a system he had when pretty girls were charged with a DUI. He said that sometimes he would take them back to his office and offer them a deal. He would drop the DUI charges if they gave him oral sex. I squirmed in my seat. Was he just talking, locker-room style? Did it really happen? It didn’t even occur to me to report him to anyone.
My boys are 19, 17 and 11 years old. What I teach them about the treatment of girls is simple: respect, respect, respect. If they witness something like I did, go to the authorities. This is no time to worry about being a snitch. My two older boys are more aware about consent issues than I was at their ages. I reminded them that I was the same age when I witnessed the rape; my very first vision of sexual contact was a rape. My sons agree I was a foolish, immature teenager. They know I would never do anything like that again. They see how I treat their mother, which might be the best lesson I can give them.
Still, I wish I could apologize to the two girls at that party. I shouldn’t have watched. I should have helped. I hope they read this and take some small comfort from it.
I wanted to be one of the boys, those nice kids from a good Catholic school. And I let that overtake my conscience. What I got instead was five decades of guilt.
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