Just after turning 22, I went to a fancy party — or at least what I considered fancy at the time. It was my first year in grad school. There were lots of people there I wanted to impress.
Back then I didn’t know I was on the autism spectrum. Everyone just thought I was weird and stiff before a glass of wine.
I was one of those kids who’d waited until 21 to start drinking, and I didn’t do it often. So I was still figuring out alcohol.
I can’t remember how I met him. I don’t remember his name. I just remember he was round, soft, and harmless looking. He wore glasses. His voice wasn’t very deep. He had red hair.
Everyone seemed to like him.
We were in the middle of a conversation with two or three other people. And then we were in a conversation by ourselves.
I was working hard at overcoming my autism and trying to bloom socially. I was learning how to tell little jokes, how to chime in, and when to complement someone’s anecdote with my own. I’d learned not everything that was funny on TV was funny in real life.
I don’t remember what we were talking about. I don’t remember what calendar date it was. I just remember the soft, harmless looking guy reaching over and putting his hand between my legs.
That’s when I froze.
My first thought was I’d done something wrong. Maybe I’d been flirting by accident. There had to be a logical explanation for this. This was just a miscommunication. If I could just…what?
Heads swiveled in our direction.
I didn’t want to embarrass him, so I laughed it off as a joke. But his hand didn’t move. He started massaging me.
Five minutes must’ve gone by. Maybe ten? Other people came over to chat. Maybe they were trying to get a read on the situation. Maybe they were trying to give me a chance to politely ask for help.
Nobody knew what to do.
I held entire conversations about James Joyce and Henry James, with a stranger stroking me between my legs without my permission — wondering what the hell everyone must think about me.
I wanted him to stop, but I also didn’t want to make a scene. Into my second glass of wine, I was feeling tipsy.
I didn’t want to be the girl who ruined the party. I didn’t want word to get out to everyone in the program, including my professors, that I’d started flirting with someone and then flipped. What if I stood up to get away from him, and then tripped? What if I spilled wine on his shirt? I’d be the drunk slut who cried rape. I didn’t want any of that to happen. I’d come here to meet people and make connections. So that’s what I tried to focus on.
So there I was, trying to network with some dude’s hand in my crotch. Doing my best to ignore it. Wondering what the social norm was. I don’t remember how much time passed. But eventually the party started breaking up. Someone suggested the harmless looking guy give me a ride home.
I don’t remember how much I drank that night. I don’t remember what I was wearing, other than jeans.
I just remember being too weak-willed to protest.
So I got in the car with the harmless looking guy, and told him exactly how to get to my apartment.
We pulled up in front of my building. It was late, maybe 2 am. There wasn’t any traffic. Part of me wants to say the streets were slick and shiny — like it had been raining.
But I have no idea if it was raining or not, or whether I’m just mixing up that night with another one.
That’s when the harmless looking guy started talking about how much it would mean to him if I would kiss him.
He told me he was almost 40 and hadn’t dated anyone in years.
This was a little shocking, to find out you’re a 22-year-old alone in a car at 2 am with someone almost twice your age, who’s been stroking you between your legs all night — and now wants to kiss you.
While I sat there steeping in the mess I’d made, the harmless looking guy kept talking about how he was probably going to die alone. He said the least I could do was kiss a pudgy, pathetic, middle-aged old man. At some point, I figured this was my fault.
I’d led him on.
And also: It would be heartless not to kiss him now.
I felt bad, even guilty.
So I leaned over and kissed him once, on the cheek, and then quickly slid out of the car. I even waved as he drove off. I remember hoping he didn’t think I was a tease, or a whore. I remember hoping he would forget where I lived, and he wouldn’t get a hold of my phone number.
There’s a lot of reasons I don’t tell anyone about this. For starters, it makes me look pretty stupid. I’m not sure I can blame it on my autism, or even on the years of child abuse that programmed me to always assume I was wrong, that I existed to make other people happy, and that if I couldn’t make other people happy, I deserved to be punished.
- I convinced myself it never happened.
- I made myself forget about it.
- Part of me still wonders if it “really counts,” since it was through clothes and didn’t leave me emotionally scarred.
- Part of me still thinks it was 50 percent my fault, for not knowing how to tactfully diffuse uninvited sexual advances.
- It feels trivial compared to other people’s experiences.
- It’s not how I want people to see me.
- I don’t want to look like an attention seeker.
- I don’t remember much about that night, not nearly enough to make it sound like a credible story.
As far as sexual assaults go, this one feels mundane compared to the thousands of other stories out there.
But I’m writing this to make a point: Assault happens far more often than most men know. If it’s this hard for me to recount a comparatively minor incident, imagine what it’s like going up against a supreme court nominee, a senator, a Hollywood producer, or a presidential candidate.
So yeah, I’m apt to believe women. I’m apt to forgive them for having a fuzzy memory, and for slowly leaking out details of their assault instead of revealing all of it at once. Coming forward is hard. Women wait a long time because it takes that long to convince yourself what happened to you was real. It takes a long time to convince yourself it wasn’t your fault. It takes a long time to convince yourself anyone will listen.
Only recently has it occurred to me that a middle-aged man should’ve known better than to try and finger an awkward 22-year-old at a party. That maybe a middle-aged man shouldn’t exploit the vulnerabilities of a tipsy girl before driving her home, where he then performs a ritual of self-pity in order to guilt her into pleasing him sexually.
Mainly, I’ve spent the last decade or so feeling embarrassed and mulling over my own actions — not his.
So if you really want to know why women wait 20 and 30 years to come forward, this might help. When something like this happens, you spend years doubting and blaming yourself, worrying what it’ll do to your reputation. You spend years wondering who you can trust.
Then you spend years trying not to think about it. Those years distort your memory to the point where you really don’t recall enough details to convince any skeptics. And so you’re branded a liar.
Motives are attributed to you.
I have lots of friends keeping quiet about their own assaults. I have friends who’ve been drugged in bars by their exes. I have friends who’ve been solicited for sex by their own students. I have friends who’ve been assaulted by strangers in bathrooms, and friends who’ve been pushed down on the ground and had their clothes torn off. I have friends who were abused by stepdads, and their own moms wouldn’t believe them.
I have friends who’ve filed and then retracted reports about their encounters, because the investigations only deepened their pain and made it harder to move on. It made them feel vulnerable to all forms of reprisal by their attacker — legal and physical.
Police and HR made them feel like troublemakers.
So am I surprised when I hear there’s no official record of a complaint by someone who says they reported their assault?
Not at all.
Even now, I feel little emotion toward the harmless looking guy in glasses with red hair who put his hand between my legs barely five minutes after meeting me. What I feel is shame at myself for letting someone touch me like that, and acting like it was okay. I feel embarrassed about not knowing how to put a stop to it. So, this is why I believe women. Because for a long time, I didn’t even have the guts to believe myself.