Right before I turned 21, I got raped at gun point (well, it was a little, couldn’t have been more than 22-caliber pistol, but it was still a gun, and it was against my head). I was walking home on a July night in Pittsburgh, and I heard boot heels following me, and I speeded up, but the guy caught up, put the gun to my head, and dragged me behind a bush. I was wearing a dress I made, one of those dresses we all made back then, from Indian cotton bedspreads. It was mostly red and green and gold. I used the green border for the yoke of the dress, and it had green ties over my shoulders, while the body of the dress was gold and red flowers. It wasn’t very structured, just two pieces of material tied over the shoulders, but somehow, the shape came out flattering, I thought, anyways.
I wasn’t wearing anything underneath it – I said July in Pittsburgh, right? Hot and humid. And I was 20 years old, and small breasted, and I actually never wore bras until 10 years later when I was pregnant and fuller. And after my kids were born I needed bras for the nursing pads that were necessary if I didn’t want to go around with a soaked shirt all day – though I did get good at categorizing my shirts into ones that wouldn’t show if I leaked, and I got used to that slightly sour end-of-the-day-at-the-ice-cream-parlor smell hanging around me.
In Pittsburgh at that time, it was possible to cheaply rent a big fancy old house, either the whole thing, or a student apartment. I had a basement apartment in a big old house, and I was walking home from visiting some musician friends who lived in another big old house a few blocks away. One of those musician friends was a guy named Matt, who I think wanted to sleep with me, but I thought he was kind of a folkie dork – so we smoked a joint and had a glass of wine, and then I (politely, I thought) said goodnight and went home.
But why should I have to make excuses? Because I think as women it’s hammered into us that if we do things we’re not supposed to do, put ourselves in the places we’re not supposed to be, like walking home alone at night, not wearing any underwear, smoking dope and drinking, entertaining men, we’re supposed to deserve what happens to us. And I think I still feel guilty.
The thing is, ironically, that summer I was taking a women’s studies class at Pitt (University of Pittsburgh) called women and the law, where we were learning about laws governing women dating from 18th century English Common Law, that I would have said we as a society were getting over, in the second half of the 20th century. Only to find that I was directly affected by some of those laws. For instance, in Pennsylvania at that time, a woman’s charge of rape was not taken seriously without “corroborating evidence” – bruises, eye witnesses, or the presence of a gun. This is based on the notion that women lie about being raped – we say no when we don’t mean it, we really agreed to the sex but then later decide it was unwelcome and cry rape.
And the other thing is, dramatic and awful as being raped was, that rape happens to women worries me but it’s not what worries me the most. It took me some time; I was terrified to walk around the block after dark even in a “safe” neighborhood, but I got over it. I know that sounds callous – I don’t mean to say “get over it” to anyone else who’s been raped. It’s just that with the passages time, I feel like I’ve healed.
What worries me the most is the casual everyday sexism that we’re all steeped in all the time. Things like how I was treated after the rape, when I lied about not wearing panties, because it was better to have the cops think my rapist was the type of pervert who kept the panties than I was the type of young woman who’d run around without them. Things like the woman at the insurance company who I called to see how much of the raccoon damage in my attic could get covered, who was surprised when I knew how recently the roof of my house had been replaced. When I immediately said, “2008”, she replied, “that’s good for a woman.” Things like the fiasco of the 2016 presidential election, the attitudes toward women that were revealed; the sheer stupidity of the Democratic Party, who thought the country was ready for our first woman president right after our first Black president. Hillary Clinton wasn’t a good candidate but I’m pretty sure that a male with similar deficits could’ve gotten elected. See Bill Clinton.
I’m not saying women are all good and men are all bad. I know that some of the screaming at and yelling at and berating of that I’ve done to my partners and children, who are all male, is verbal abuse, domestic violence. I absolutely don’t mean to say that we women are complicit in our abuse. We absolutely don’t deserve it, and nobody else does either. When I drove cab, post-rape but in small town Madison WI, I used to argue that we woman drivers shouldn’t have a victim mentality. Anyone can be a victim, but it sure seems to happen to women more.
Here are a couple of pics of me earlier that summer, at a crafts fair in State College PA, selling cloth bags that I made. About a year later, I moved to Madison WI where a judge had just ruled that a young woman’s revealing clothing had invited her rape. She might’ve even had more on than I do here, because it was at a high school.