Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
Some Thoughts on Brock Turner, Drinking, and Rape
I was 18, waking up on the dorm hallway floor. Mary Beth, the upperclassman who woke me to get dressed for work, said, “What’s the matter with you? Why are you trying so hard to get deflowered?” It was a precious, literary thing for someone to say in 1980, and seemed even more so coming from a woman who actually lived with her boyfriend, a concept that unsettled me, a virgin at a Catholic girls’ college working there in a summer remedial program. But she was, after all, a literature major.
The sun shone brilliantly that morning. The night before, there’d been a party at the men’s Catholic college about 30 minutes away in a rural county outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Having been very straight-laced in high school, I had begun to drink in college. At the party I drank a lot of beer and grain alcohol. In the light of day, I could barely piece together what had happened, but there was an older male student I’d had a crush on, and this led to something outside on the grass. I remember climbing out the ground-floor window to the grass, but nothing after. This male student didn’t rape me.
The next year, a fall party at the same men’s college led to a night walk near a park with swings with a sweet man I’d met the summer before, in that remedial program. We staggered and made out. Maybe I cried about some deep-seated angst.
But he didn’t rape me, either.
I had a work-study job in the college public relations office. T., an upperclassman who also worked there developing press materials and nursing ambitions to make a career as a writer, had a 30ish boyfriend who had a real job, real home, real money. T. saw me as mature and bright, so invited me to have dinner at her boyfriend’s house, where they were going to introduce me to one of his friends. I remember the apartment was nice. I remember the two men speaking proudly of their college alma mater, a private school to the north of Pittsburgh, up around Lake Erie. The dinner involved hors d’oeuvres made of water chestnuts, chicken livers, and bacon; steak and broccoli was in the main course. The conversation was mostly sophisticated. The man I was being fixed up with wore a cream-colored, thin-fabric turtleneck. It was winter, and I vaguely remember making out with him in the apartment and later in the car under the portico in front of my dorm. He didn’t rape me.
By junior year, I had completely moved out of the straight-laced persona and into a bohemian writer persona who also drank a lot. In fact, I had a boyfriend who was as old as my parents; he’d pick me up under that portico and take me out to his cabin for the weekend. Or I’d walk downtown to a bar and meet him there. He was an alcoholic. But he also had aspirations to be a painter. And he was my first. I had finally been, two years after Mary Beth bent over to scold my hungover ass awake, deflowered. But he hadn’t raped me.
Now I was “wild.” Drinking had opened up a vein in me that ran deep and wide. Where my childhood and adolescence had been caught up in a hypervigilance over my father’s binge drinking and all-night ordeals, I now was away from that and free to become the one to fear, the one to watch out for. My friends tended to be smart but also wild. Not so wild as to jeopardize grades, but wild enough to live on the edges of sanctioned campus activities. One of those acquaintances, Kathie, was particularly smooth in her wildness; a brilliant and beautiful French major, she had been in a very demanding Medieval French Lit course with me in our freshman year. We’d been the only freshmen in the class. While we were never close, we had something of a mutual rivalry and respect. She invited me to a house party in town being held by one of her older guy friends. I remember there was a papasan chair. I remember being impressed that I was with this cool crowd. I chain-smoked and drank my usual bottomless amount. I woke up in the morning on the living room carpet, which was still wet from the host’s efforts to clean up my vomit. I remember him being kind but not pleased with what had happened. I don’t believe anyone raped me.
I graduated from college and lived for a few months with my parents. The city public relations office where I’d worked the summer before hired me again. We organized and promoted special events for the parks department. We often sought corporate sponsorship for these events. A major petroleum company sponsored a huge city-wide track and field competition that called for hours and hours of on-site work. The event was so consuming and demanding that the corporate sponsor feted us with a big staff and volunteer party at the end. It was on the surface of one of the city skating rinks; as it was June, there was no ice. Instead, there was a band, dancing, and free-flowing alcohol. I remember gin and tonics, that odd flavor of invisible Scotch tape. I remember getting into a stand-up swagger dance with a coworker who was not too much older than I but was married. I remember us kissing, but his catching himself and not going any further, not raping me.
If you’d have asked me back then, in the 1980s, about all of those experiences, I’d never have said “rape.” I’d have said that these men didn’t take advantage of me when they could have. If one of them had taken advantage of me, I’d have blamed myself and my drinking. I’d have spoken to myself in the same stern voice Mary Beth used to address me when I was 18 and peeling myself off the dormitory floor. Had I told my mother, she would not have said “rape.” I don’t think anyone would have said that, except radical feminists, and I didn’t know too many of those back then.
Events like these continued. I periodically drank to the point of blacking out until I was 30 years old. Back in Pittsburgh, I began to be involved in the local literary community, and drinking was a big part of that. There was a reading in an old church building by a young male poet who was very talented. I thought of myself as pretty talented, too. So after the reading and during the reception, I ridiculously followed him into the men’s room to say something to him about his fine work. As I recall, though it’s awfully fuzzy, he was amused. But he didn’t rape me. An older guy I knew from a community workshop, who used a seventeeth-century pseudonym for his apocalyptic poems, drove me home on his motorcycle. I don’t remember him helping me into my basement apartment, but I woke up in the morning on the floor. (So many floors!) He called me the next day to see how I was. He said he had been worried about me because I had no idea where I was or what I was doing.
Even after college, I’d sometimes go back up to Westmoreland County, where my college had been, to hang out with friends who still lived there. One of my friends took me to a dance party at a big barn out in the sticks. I remember a biker grabbing me and trying to take me somewhere; I remember tossing my beer into his face. I remember my friend and her sister pulling me away from this. My friend and I woke up the next day in her car, parked off the side of a dirt road.
In my late 20s, on a scholarship in Paris, I lived in the Maison des Etats-Unis at the Cité Universitaire, a community of nationality-based dormitory buildings in the fourteenth arrondissement. A group of friends and I went over to the Belgian house where there was a dance party. I vaguely remember dancing. I was wearing dark blue redtag Levis and topsiders. I patchily remember being carried outside in the night. When I went to put on my brown topsiders the next day, I could only find one. I asked my neighbor across the hall, a physics student from Montana that I’d been at the dance party with, what had happened. John told me some guy was grinding against my ass on the dance floor and I was clueless about it, so he and Martin, another physics friend from Germany, picked me up and carried me out of there. My shoe must have fallen off during the haul. They made sure I got into my room, where I entered the sleep of the dead.
“I was the wounded antelope of the herd, completely alone and vulnerable, physically unable to fend for myself, and he chose me.” These are powerful words addressed directly to Stanford rapist Brock Turner by a woman who was not as lucky as I had been—multiple times—in the years leading up to my decision to stop drinking. In many of those instances, it was a good thing I hadn’t been completely alone and vulnerable. When I was, I was fortunate that the men I was with did not take advantage, did not rape me.
That euphemism, “taking advantage,” puts it all into the context of power relations, which so easily gets diluted to something that sounds more like the context of a game. We’re enjoying the Pittsburgh Penguins’ run for the Stanley Cup final right now, and though I’m not an expert on hockey, a couple of analogies come to mind: the power play and the open net. As I understand it, a power play is when the opposing team has fewer players on the ice, usually due to penalties; thus, a team that is advantaged by the power play is more likely to score. Last night, in game five of the Stanley Cup final, the Penguins failed to do so during a third-period power play. As the minutes ran down and the Penguins still trailed by one point, I wondered out loud why they didn’t send the goalie off the ice and risk having an open net for the sake of getting an extra offensive player. Now, again, I can’t vouch for any of this being credible in the eyes of my hard-core hockey fan brothers. But a very drunk person, even when she may be walking and talking—maybe even talking dirty—is outnumbered, so to speak; she’s an open net, but in this case she’s not necessarily wanting to, um, “score,” even if her blackout behaviors suggest otherwise.
With the exception of the Pagan biker and the Belgian house grinder, the men I encountered during my drinking years did not see this as a game, hockey or otherwise. They saw my state for what it was: wounded. This is not to say that I wasn’t to blame for my uncontrolled drinking, a behavior I would only be able to eliminate from my repertoire once I saw it as the symptom of illness. And sought help.
The brave young woman from California, whose words have taken the national conversation about rape and rape culture to another level, is right to remind her rapist that, while drinking may be a factor in a rape, it is never a cause. “Having too much to drink was an amateur mistake that I admit to, but it is not criminal. Everyone in this room has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much, or knows someone close to them who has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much,” she said in the courtroom where Turner received a very light sentence. The light sentence, combined with the fact that most of these sorts of rapes don’t even get to court, shows how much “taking advantage,” that milder phrasing, still blunts the edges of sexual assault.
“When she was … just a girl, a well-to-do commercial traveller, … a beast of a man, had taken advantage of her,” A.J. Cronin wrote in The Stars Look Down, his 1935 novel about the lives of English coal miners. While a statement like this, taken alone (as it is found in the OED), does carry moral disapproval (the italicized beast), “to take advantage” does not name a crime; the word “rape,” on the other hand, does. “
Amateur mistakes” happen all the time. In my case, my blackout drinking evolved from “amateur mistake” to a full-blown pattern. So much advantage handed over, so many risks taken. It would not have occurred to me, had I been sexually assaulted, to report it as a crime. This is in part because “taking advantage” carries with it the expectation that one should do so. We’re encouraged to take advantage of opportunities. We’re taught that men’s sex drive is as ineluctable as sunrise. We’re taught to keep the goalie at the net. In the courtroom, the Victorian mandate for women to be the default guardians of morality is alive and well.
But many women do drink. Drinking, as disastrously as it went for me, was part of the assertion of my independence. Sure, for those of us with addictive tendencies, it turns out to be anything but freeing. But think about the Stanford setting. College. Social life. Networking. College, as well as workplace, drinking was once the sole province of men, who thereby bonded and proceeded to help one another in future public-sphere endeavors. Discouraging women from participating in those scenarios may have kept them safe, but it also limited their entry into important networks where futures can be determined. Encouraging women to be wary of what can happen when they drink excessively is one thing. Not recognizing sexual violence as a crime, whatever the circumstances, is quite another. If I rob a man when he is drunk, I have not merely taken advantage of him; I have robbed him, and if I am caught doing so, I can expect to receive no mercy from a judge due to the fact that he was drunk.
It’s been nearly 30 years since I last blacked out while drinking. All of those times when I could have been raped but wasn’t. I thought of each one this week, after reading the now-viral Stanford Address. I hadn’t thought about those blurry nights for a long time, and I am grateful to this woman for reminding me. I won’t forget the image of the pine needles biting into her naked skin. I won’t forget her honesty in detailing the aftermath of her experience. And I will do what I can to use the right word for what happens to too many people—the majority of them female—when they are vulnerable. The word is “rape.” Any other phrasing is an attempt to locate the action outside of the law, in some mythical frat house denial of real-world consequences.
Copyright 2016 Ellen McGrath Smith
Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. Her writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron, and other journals, and in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3 magazine, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her second chapbook, Scatter, Feed, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in the fall of 2014, and her book, Nobody’s Jackknife, was published in 2015 by the West End Press.