“You’re not seeing anyone?” my work-study supervisor asked. “You should go out with my son. He’s a nice guy. The two of you would like each other.” A blind date was a new experience, and I was hesitant. But a big college fraternity party was coming up, and I thought it might be fun to have a date. “Okay,” I said. She called her son, and we chatted for a bit. He seemed nice, polite. He agreed to be my date.
I was excited about meeting someone new. Maybe he would turn out to be special. On the night of the party, I wore a new dress—a halter style print with red hibiscus blossoms, consistent with the frat party’s tropical theme. It wasn’t low cut or revealing, and I felt pretty in it. When my date arrived, I opened the door, and let him come inside my dorm room while I fetched my purse. My room’s self-closing door clicked shut.
Within seconds, he was all over me. Forcibly kissing me, hands going everywhere, telling me how nice I looked. I was caught off guard—I had just met this man! I didn’t know what to do, or how to make him stop. I tried to make a joke that it might be good to go to the party first, but he laughed. “The party’s good right here,” he said. He pushed me onto my bed and held me down as he raped me for the first time. It was quick. He zipped himself up, and said, “Let’s go.” I was in shock. Did that really happen?
I made myself presentable, and we walked to the party. I had a beer, hoping it would make me feel better. I was glad to be around other people. But he didn’t go to my college and didn’t know anyone. He soon got restless. “Let’s get something to eat and talk,” he said. “I’d like to get to know you better.” I agreed to go with him. I rationalized perhaps the pre-party incident was just a fluke.
I don’t remember what we ate or what we talked about, just that I wanted the evening to be over. As we finished dinner, I asked him to take me home. We got in his car, but he didn’t drive back to campus. Instead, he drove me to a house in an unfamiliar neighborhood, unlocked the door, and took me inside. The house was completely empty. No furniture. No pictures on the wall. Nothing but bare carpet on the floor. No light except what the streetlight provided through the window. He pushed me down on the carpet, and raped me a second time.
While it was happening, I suppressed my emotions and tried to think logically about what to do. I didn’t know where I was. I had no phone. I needed a way to get back to the dorm. I feared what he might do if I fought back. I didn’t resist. Afterwards he drove me back to campus. There was no goodnight kiss.
At work his mother asked me how the date went. “Fine,” I lied. How could I tell her the truth—that her son was a rapist? I needed the job to help pay for college. My friends asked where we went after leaving the party and I told them we had gone to get food. I didn’t tell them about the house or what had happened in my room before the party. I was embarrassed I had let some stupid blind date have his way with me. I hadn’t tried hard enough to stop him. I hadn’t firmly resisted. I hadn’t screamed or fought back. What would people think of me? And who would believe me? My limited resistance could easily be interpreted as consent. It would be my word against his.
So, I told no one. I stayed silent.
I stayed silent for almost 40 years, hiding the truth from my husband, family and friends. I stayed silent until long-buried memories, stirred by a chorus of social media hashtags, forced me to acknowledge my experience for what it truly was. I don’t remember the name of my rapist or his mother. I am perceived to be a strong woman, but until recently, I didn’t understand why I felt my only option was to submit; to comply with the sexual assault, as if rape was an acceptable price to pay for a date. (Note: Healing therapy has helped teach me that such compliant “freezing” is one of the human body’s natural ways of protecting itself, in addition to fighting or fleeing.)
My silence saved my rapist’s reputation and protected my own. But silence comes with a cost. For example, it cost me years of negative self-image, despite my personal and professional success. It cost me the ability to be vulnerable with other people, something that was well rewarded in my male-dominated career but has left me with mostly shallow relationships. I rarely experience feelings fully—good or bad—because I am so adept at suppressing them. And then there’s the unthinkable, what my silence may have cost the other women this “nice guy” probably assaulted after me.
The complex factors causing women to stay silent about their harassers and attackers are the same today as they were 40 years ago. The common theme is powerlessness. From an early age we are socialized to believe “boys will be boys,” and we should accept their bad behavior as something normal. We learn from media reports and courtroom trials that speaking our truth is more likely to result in re-victimization than justice. We endure judgement based solely on what we wear. (Let’s be real. The mere mention of a halter-style dress is enough for some to conclude my rape was entirely my fault.) For decades we have watched powerful men in business, entertainment, government, churches and other institutions receive mostly impunity for their trespasses. We experience relatively few men willing to take up our cause, either because they are oblivious to the power their gender automatically provides, don’t view the behavior as being inappropriate, or fear the potential cost such advocacy might extract.
Today, as it was then, the initial reaction when women like me end their silence is most likely to be (a) she’s lying, (b) she must secretly have wanted it, or (c) she deserved it. Or this one: “It must not have been so bad, otherwise she would have said something sooner.” Perhaps the greatest gift of the #MeToo reckoning is its creation of a safer environment for us to end our silence. The great tragedy is how normalized violence against women has become, and that society continues to expect women like me to “suck it up” or “chalk it up to experience” and get over it. It is still too easy to place the burden of accountability on victimized women, instead of placing it where it belongs—on our perpetrators.
We want to believe increased public awareness about pervasive sexual harassment and violence against women will shift attitudes and ultimately lead to respect, healing and true gender equality. That is my hope. But I’m old enough to know disappointment is the more likely outcome. Although powerful men have started to be held accountable for their bad behavior, they represent the tip of a societal iceberg that is painfully slow to change. The backlash has already begun, as it typically does when women collectively take a step forward. Concerns that a man’s career “should not be shattered by allegations,” or that “#MeToo allows conniving women to manipulate things” are thinly disguised ways of saying the woman is not to be believed. We cannot reconcile what is not being reckoned with. Attitudes will shift only after the power does. A clarion cry has replaced my silence: #ElectWomen.
Cathy and her husband visiting New Zealand
Cathy Standiford is a former city manager and local government consultant. Now retired, she spends most of her time volunteering for Soroptimist, the international nonprofit that powers LiveYourDream.org; and WriteGirl, a Los-Angeles based creative writing and mentoring organization that promotes creativity, critical thinking and leadership skills to empower teen girls. Cathy has been happily married for almost 29 years and lives in Orange County, California.