|Photo courtesy of Project Unbreakable|
When I was in 9th grade I had a best friend who had an older boyfriend. It was pretty wild. She was a year older than me, and had developed early, so she caught the attention of older men quite easily. I remember her skipping school to see him all the time, climbing over the back gate and getting into shit with our maths teacher. She was smart, pretty and had lovely parents so she never really got into serious trouble. Well, except for that one time when he raped her.
He was 19, and she was only 14. This fact had been breezed by in a conversation over cheeseburgers next to the local Time Zone. 'Yeah, but I'm almost 15,' is something she probably said while slurping down a thickshake. I say 'probably' because this time in my life has always been hazy to me. The one thing that sticks with me like a bad smell on a wet dog is the image I got in my head when she described how it happened during a late night phone call with a shattered voice. My reaction was what you'd expect from a 13 year old girl, 'that's horrible' was probably uttered a few times, and 'I'm so sorry'.
I didn't know how to react to the situation because I was a child, and so was she. I'd always skirted around her heels, being chubby and not well endowed in the areas that count to the salivating neanderthal-esque male who hunts for pubescent girls. I'd always looked up to her as someone who knew what they were about. It was tough picturing her in a vulnerable state, and my only reaction was really to look at her and ask her what she was going to do. As you can imagine, she really didn't know.
When I was in 10th grade I went to a party where a classmate was allegedly raped in the bushes by another classmate. I say allegedly because all we had to go by as a collective was a statement she made under the influence after the 'fact'. The boy who supposedly did the raping was quite popular, fairly good looking and not at all known for taking girls against their will. As the night wore thin, and the cold farm air grew thick with post-party fire pit ashes, everyone seemed to have forgotten the incident ever occurred. No one died, right? C'est la vie.
When I was 21 a friend showed up at my door in tears. My mum took her inside and made her a cup of tea. She said she'd had an argument with her boyfriend. That he'd been hurting her, physically. That he'd been pressuring her for sex. She felt trapped with him. I was blindsided - the guy was a friend too - but I didn't doubt what she had said for a single moment. Both my mother and I advised her to go to her parents' place, straight away. We told her to give us a call when she got there, to let us know that everything was OK and that she was safe. And then we'd all, collectively, take it from there.
The only call we received was a few days later saying that 'everything is sorted' and 'I'm OK'. She apparently over-reacted, and she was very happy with him after all. Of course I thought this was bullshit. I struggled across many months trying to contact her, to talk about the incident, to no avail. I grew disheartened, and eventually spiteful. Either she lied to me, or she didn't trust me. Both outcomes bruised my weary ego. I was done.
When I was in Rome I had advances from more men than I can possibly recall. I chalk it up to culture and hair colour - I was a blonde tourist wandering the cobbled streets ripe for a cat call or two. One guy in particular stood out. It was late and I was coming back from an attempt to find a particular church hosting a show in a very bad neighbourhood across the other side of the city. I managed to walk through this neighbourhood unscathed for hours, until I gave up and meandered back into the heart of Rome, the Metro having shut and the bus timetable utterly indecipherable to me at the time. Besides, I liked to walk around Rome at night. For me, it was charming.
I'd made it to Piazza del Popolo having had only a few encounters with unruly swarms of men. A group of footballers threw me a 'ciao bella!' and it made me feel a bit better, walk a bit straighter, and enjoy the sites a little more. Walking down Via Del Corso, it was lit up and still packed with tourists, even after midnight. In my mind, maybe the safest route to get home.
He stopped me in my tracks, bearing a very impressively lensed camera. 'Ciao bella, come va?' Whenever I'd encounter men I didn't like the look of I pretended to not speak the language, 'Non parlo italiano, mi scusi', and walk by. Unfortunately, unlike most people in Rome, this guy spoke english. Broken, to be sure, but still a variant that I could understand. After a few back and forth's he asked if he could take a photo of me. He was a photographer, you see, and I was assuredly a 'great beauty'. I indulged him in the hopes that he would move on. He didn't. He grabbed my arm and pulled me to the side, out of the busy street and into a stairwell next to a basilica. That's when things got weird.
He was a large man, and very strong. He kept calling me beautiful and I felt remarkably confused. There was a good while, when he was touching my waist and pushing me against the wall that I pictured myself outside my own body yelling 'scream! Run! Get OUT OF THERE!' as though I was watching a horror movie and some stupid bimbo was running up the goddamn stairs. Sometimes our instincts work against us.
In stead of doing any of these things I said 'no, thank you'. I was polite. I was courteous. I wasn't worried about a weapon. I wasn't thinking 'this guy is going to rape me'. I had no idea what the hell was going on. I was out of my element, my context, my universe. I thought only of keeping the situation mild and silly, in stead of being over dramatic. I watched people walk past on the street as he grabbed my other arm, squeezed much tighter than I expected and tried to shove a tongue down my throat. I did not respond the way he liked.
'Come on, come on, you want this,' is all he kept saying in perfect english. These words were well practiced. 'No, grazie. No, thank you.' Is all that could come out of my mouth. He tightened his grip and it hurt. This gave me focus. And then, quite suddenly, panic. I squirmed. He pushed harder. I yelled 'no' louder, but it was still only a squeal. He tried to muffle my mouth. I stopped resisting for a moment, he loosened his grip and in an instant I ducked out from under him and ran to the side of two carabinieri (military police) who had been around the corner the entire time. I saw him come out to follow me then immediately turn to walk away, fast. 'Phew' is all I could think, and then I kept walking, my head down, at a brisk pace, the entire hour and a half home.
Later I made a joke of it. 'Italian men, they're all such sleazes! One tried to molest me! OMG, it was the worst.' I didn't mention that I was terrified every time I left the house in Rome again. I didn't mention that I couldn't look Italian men in the eye anymore. I didn't tell anyone how truly disempowered I felt. I simply couldn't face how much it had affected me.
This encounter, however brief, shifted my world in a way I couldn't have predicted. People asked me why I didn't report him and the honest answer is I didn't think it was that big a deal at the time.
It baffles me that I know at least 15 women and 2 men who have been molested or raped in their lifetimes. I have had, at one time or another a close enough relationship with them for them to feel comfortable confiding this information to me, and I have not had altogether that many close relationships. I struggle to understand why this is so prolific, and then I remember that none of these people - none - felt compelled to report the incident. They confided in friends, in family, in their relationships or even in a drunken stupor at a party to a stranger, but never sought outside help. Why?
I can't help but feel our society, our culture, our government, our law enforcement & our peers dilute the problem. Hardly anyone talks about molestation & rape outside a private bubble. And rarely do we ever talk about the fact that we don't talk about it. It's not just a failure of communication, it's a failure of listening - really listening - to the pain and trauma these situations can cause. To how goddamn huge this problem really is.
As a society we collectively stick our fingers in our ears, shut our eyes and wish the problem will just go away. Well it won't. These are serious issues with serious consequences. We should be brave. We should speak the fuck up. We should really listen to our friends & family and at least try to do more than just pat them on the back and tell them it'll be OK. The only way to get rid of a problem is to first shine a bright light on it. Here's my bright light, where's yours?
*Article inspired by Project Unbreakable, shining a light on sexual abuse the world over.