Spring, 1988

Time does nothing to lessen the pain of sexual assault


School is out for the day. The dogwoods and cherry blossoms are glistening. I’m in seventh grade, age 13, and have the ankle-zipper jeans, self-cut wispy bangs, and heavy, blue eyeliner to prove it. As I begin the three-and-a-half block walk home, I cue up my Walkman. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., Whitney Houston’s Whitney, and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill have been in heavy rotation. Today, it’s the Beasties, and I’m kicking it live past the Unitarian church and all the high schoolers smoking and making out on the dark, low stairs.

The music occupies only the very center of my hearing. All around the periphery is Brooklyn, Brooklyn-ing. People, pigeons, delivery trucks, truth. And a pack of seventh-grade boys coming up from behind. I hear them laugh, so I turn to see who and my stomach goes up on my head like a hat. Five of them, maybe six. Two, I consider friends. The rest are the ones who scare me, the ones who act older, talk older, who call me prude and flat and lesbian when I won’t play spin-the-bottle at parties. They’re getting closer and I feel panicked, sick. I could say hi. Or just ignore them, get lost in the music somewhere. That could be cool, to be so cool. But they might mistake cool for mean, and I’m not mean, I’m nice. I’m a person who says hi. Just say hi. It’s easier to say hi. Be nice.

But before I can be anything, a hand is on my ass. The first hand that’s ever been there, aside from my mother’s and father’s back when they were changing my diapers. I was a baby then. I’m not a baby anymore. I’ve kissed a couple of boys quickly on the cheek or lips, held a few hands, and that’s it. I’ve had crushes, “gone out” with a few boys, meaning we belonged to each other but never talked. I’d square-danced with Pando at camp under the barn roof being pelted with pouring rain in a panda sweater vest my grandmother knit. But I’d yet to have a real boyfriend.

So I go dead inside like a dead baby, as the hand—attached to the biggest boy, the one I fear the most—squeezes and shoves and pushes my body around. The hand feels like it must be under my jeans, because it’s touching more than just my buttock. And now he’s using both hands. It’s hard to know or feel or do anything, except the one time I turn my head to see what my two friends are doing: laughing with the rest. They don’t look at me, but at each other, nostrils fanning like bunnies in over-drive to prove they’re game. I never stop walking, even with the boy’s hands clinging to me like an angry Architeuthis as the others make a kind of horseshoe formation around me. What happens next? I remember thinking. Is this rape? Whatever rape is. What do they want to do to me? Why? I know enough to know that whatever this is, whatever this is going to be, I don’t want to be here for it, so I float up and out of myself, leaving the boys and the Beastie Boys all strung up inside a cloud of spring and slang and grope and laughter. I don’t know where I go, but I’m gone, and I’m not coming back until it’s over. I go gray, scraping the soft, hazy steepness of my body without me.

The big boy makes a hungry munch-munch sound with one last deep squeeze between my legs, then he lets me go. He howls into the sky and they all walk ahead, sticking close like a pack of wolves after a kill. I can still hear the sound of their laughter, half a block away, though it’s not the big boy laughing, it’s the others as they gather around him, proving their loyalty. No one, not even my friends, ever turns around to look at me. If they had, they would have seen that although I couldn’t feel my legs, they were still walking—they’d never stopped walking. I do my best after to look exactly as I did before, getting a hold of my frantic heart as if strangling a hummingbird in my hands. That way nobody will know anything—not my parents (who are, in fact, only learning of this incident upon the publication of this piece), not my friends, not my dog. When my dog sees me coming, I’ll be the girl—her girl—kicking it live to the music, the girl who’s never been touched on her ass by another human hand, aside from her mother’s and father’s back when they were changing her diapers. To the dog, at least, I’ll always be that girl.

And I was. I didn’t tell anyone for years. Even then, I only told my best friend, and even to her, I told it sheepish and straight, like Oh, yeah, this happened. What a jerk. Weird. We didn’t have the vocabulary for assault then, or the mindset, so, of course, I didn’t think of this as that. I wasn’t physically injured or dead. I wasn’t on the news. It wasn’t a big deal. Like Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual aggressions toward Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, what happened to me was frisky horseplay, boys being boys, boys doing something every boy has surely done at some point in his life. I mean, come on, there wasn’t penetration. If it was so traumatic, we would have told someone. It could have been worse. Over the clothes doesn’t count. If boys will be boys, girls will be fine.

When I shared these thoughts with my therapist last week, she asked how the incident had made me feel at the time. “Unsafe,” was the first word I said. Then: afraid; intimidated; powerless; demeaned; abused; violated; sad; alone; worthless; silent; assaulted. All so true, yet it seems to me now that I could have stopped at “unsafe” and that should have been enough to make someone understand how horrible it was—how shattering not to know when it would be over or what was coming next. How many people have you made feel physically unsafe?

That boy not only took my safety away, but my choice—the choice to not let anyone else touch my body, which is a choice a woman of any age should be in full control over, and certainly at 13. I’d never used a tampon before and had yet to feel a single pang of sexual desire. I’d made this choice clear to the boy who assaulted me countless times by doing what we all learn we’re supposed to do when we don’t want something: I said no, but lived in fear of him. My choice made him furious. And sure enough, one day he took it away from me. Out on the street, one block from my school, three blocks from my home, in the beautiful collapsing golden light of day. I’ve always wondered if anyone else on the street saw what happened—saw a swarm of boys pass too roughly through a girl; a girl, violated. I’ve wondered if anyone watching was thinking the same as me: How far will they take this? And if they decided it didn’t get far enough to warrant intervening. Did it look fun from a distance? Did I look happy as I darkly left my body to fend for itself? It seems impossible that nobody saw—a law student headed to the courthouse around the corner? Another schoolmate? It’s a busy street, especially when school lets out around three. But, no one. No one broke it up. No one asked if I was all right.

If you think these experiences can’t have ramifications 30 years later, I am, like so many others, here to tell you that I’ve never felt the same. I’ve fallen in love, had sex that was pleasurable, and am now married with two kids of my own. But that violation all those years ago engrained in me a dangerous disconnect that has followed me all the way into middle age. What boys want matters more than what girls want, and boys want sex, so girls, whether they want it or not, should give it to them. So said the world I grew up in. The boy who grabbed me grew up in that world, too. He didn’t like my choice so he took my choice away because he had learned that as a boy he could. (Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, I have since learned that I was not the only classmate he assaulted, and that he went on to treat at least one high-school girlfriend “monstrously.”)

While I eventually developed some comfort with my own sexual desire, I can no longer deny that I’ve more often taken sex on as an opportunity to perform rather than to enjoy. Give him this, and he’ll love you more. When I lost my virginity to my high-school sweetheart, I remember thinking it wouldn’t be all that bad if word got out—Chloe had sex!—because finally I wouldn’t be known as the prude, the girl whom a close eighth-grade boy friend once told, “You’re the kind of girl boys want to marry, not the kind of girl they want to have sex with.” If I was lucky, maybe I’d even be thought of as a little slutty now. I’d show that boy who grabbed me. I get to choose what, who, where. At 15, did I want sex? I don’t know. I just knew that I was in love, and that that was what boys wanted, and so I should want that, too, if I wanted to be loved back. Even throughout my life of serial monogamy, whether or not I want sex myself has often been an afterthought. That I’m still trying to locate the free will of my desire is a stark realization to have 43 years into a body, 28 years into a sex life, 10 years into a marriage. And the reaction to Ford’s account is a troubling reminder of how little has changed: more men using more power to take more girls’ and women’s choices and safety away.

Over the rise of the #MeToo movement this past year, I’ve found myself listening to the horrible stories of other women, feeling lucky I’ve never been raped. Lucky. What so many women have endured is unimaginable, unbearable. Yet, I still feel wrecked by what happened to me that day. I felt unsafe. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez felt unsafe. They didn’t know what was coming next either. Unsafe should be enough to ensure that the next girl or woman who risks everything to bring her story forward is not met with intimidation and doubt, but instead with words like my husband used with me this difficult week: What do you need? What can I do differently? When you’re ready to talk, I will listen. Can I pick up dinner? I’m sorry you’re hurting. I believe you.

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Chloe Shaw lives in Connecticut with her husband, two kids, and two dogs. Her book What Is a Dog?—based on an essay that appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the Scholar—was published last year.


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