I like advice columns but seldom like the advisors. Growing up I was a fan of Ann Landers. A decade or two later it was Miss Manners. Then there was a long gap until I found Dan savage and my current favorite - Dear Prudence whose real name is Emily Yoffe. I read her on Mondays and Thursdays in Slate and a couple of weeks back she had an extraordinary column titled “ My Molesters”. The article and the comments are worth reading and to summarize briefly, the three incidents happened when she was 9, 15 and 18 or 19. She never reported the assailants because in each case she felt that the trauma of exposing them and the effect it would have on her family and the perps, each of whom she knew, would be greater than the trauma done to her. She describes the experiences as “not shattering” and it may be worth noting that the molestations were more like unwanted, unexpected groping than penetrative rape.
She came forward because of the Jerry Sandusky trial where questions have been raised as to why the victims didn’t say something at the time. As Prudence, Emily always advises that molesters be reported and she is explaining why she didn’t adhere to the advice she now gives.
My purpose isn’t so much to recap Emily’s experiences or the Sandusky trial, but to reflect on how I came to understand a little more about the subject.
The first time it touched my own life was via my first girlfriend, Rachel. This was in the early 70s. I was in my late teens and three years older than Rachel. We’d been friends for a year before going out and it was another year later when she confessed that her uncle had touched her on a few occasions. The notion that she might consider telling her parents didn’t occur to me and it was out of the question for her too. Like one of Prudence’s examples, Rachel couldn’t imagine or, better said, imagined all too well the family uproar such an accusation would entail. No doubt this included the possibility that she wouldn’t be believed.
I’m trying to remember the state of mind we must have been in. It wasn’t as though telling her parents was seriously discussed or even considered. It was as though if you happened to turn your mind in that direction, it would be repelled as surely as you withdraw your hand on touching a hot stove. The uncle’s advances had ceased several years ago. Maybe Rachel had finally said something to him or as she got older, just avoided being alone with him. Whether he might have done the same to other young relatives didn’t occur to me, nor apparently to Rachel.
In the second case, I was going out with Jenny, a blind woman. She took the subway to work every day. It was always packed and one day in particular no one offered her a seat. During the rush hour jostling, she noticed that one hand was persistently working over her crotch. Now she had sharp, sturdy fingernails sufficiently long to do some real damage. This I know. So she dug them into the guy’s wrist as hard as she could and didn’t let up till the next stop when the hand and its owner exited. Her stop came up a few minutes later and when she entered her office, the receptionist asked why she had so much blood on her fingers. She didn’t report the incident to anyone as she reckoned she’d taken her revenge. I laughed it off with her.
But Jenny did tell me how one of her girlfriends, Carol, was raped by her boyfriend. They’d been going out for several months and one evening, she wasn’t in the mood. He was, and forced her. Afterwards he said “Well, I guess I just raped you”. Carol told Jenny and so far as I know, no one else. She put it down to a one-of and didn’t want to lose a boyfriend to the criminal justice system. Jenny thought it was pretty bad behavior but the notion of calling the cops was beyond the realm of imagination.
My next girlfriend was Hayley. This would have been the late 70s when I was well into my 20s. A few years earlier she’s been eating her lunch in a park when a dodgy looking guy approached her and began touching her breasts. There were others around and she made enough of a commotion that he eventually retreated. I asked if she’d reported him. She hadn’t, her reasons being that she’d seen him before, he was homeless and seemed to have mental issues, he was older (50s), black and it was in Washington where she thought that blacks were already given a hard time by the police. I pointed out that he might go on to do the same to others at which point she got upset and closed off the discussion. I’m afraid I wasn’t as sympathetic as I might have been and I wondered if the real reason might have been that she didn’t want the protracted confrontation that a police report would have engendered.
Tamara, my femme fatale, said she was raped. I expect she was but you could never be completely sure with her. It was on her one and only camping trip. The others had gone swimming, she barely knew the one guy who stuck around and he claimed to have been overcome by her bikini and said she’d been coming on to him. I asked if she’d reported it. “No” in that tone that suggested only a naïve fool would have posed the question. Then, “Most guys ask if I came”. Did she imagine I was wondering the same? I could seldom tell, but I had the rare good sense not to touch that one. I beat an exit by mumbling something about what an inappropriate question it was. Or something along those lines. Later she intimated that he’d been taken care of. Now that I could believe.
My ex too was groped on a packed bus in the Buenos Aires rush hour. Boy, did that creep pick the wrong woman. She was carrying some books and pounded him on the head while screaming what a miserable louse he was and how he should return home and practice on his mother. There were a couple of blocks to the next stop so this played out to a rapt audience for a minute or two before he could make his escape.
What struck me over the years is how almost every woman I got to know well had suffered some form of sexual molestation. For various reasons none of them were reported. Like Prudence, I’d advise anyone who was assaulted to report it. But I can understand why it’s easier said than done. And I’ve grown sympathetic to those reports that most women will be sexually molested sometime in their lives.