Do You Know What You're Really Asking?

TRIGGER WARNING: this story is not about sexual assault, but it centers around a sexual assault.  No graphic depictions or trauma porn. I promise.


When I was in college I was sexually assaulted by a professor I considered a mentor.  I was at function at his house, he got everyone drunk, volunteered to be my designated driver because I lived down the street.  The rest of the narrative is pretty standard.  But this isn't about what happened, it's about what happens.

My friends all agreed that something awful had happened to me, but not one of them, male or female, suggested I go to the police.  They worried that the fact that I had been drinking or that I had a girlfriend in the past would color judgment of me, I'd be seen as drunk and sexually deviant.  The fact that he'd been my mentor professor, that I'd spent time in his office alone, that we'd hung out socially a few times because we lived in the same neighborhood, well, that might look like a relationship, like we were dating.  They were worried I'd get hurt again. 

My female friends told me their stories of being hurt by men they trusted.  We commiserated.  They suggested I find a way to drop out of his classes and just never deal with him again.  That was a little complicated, I was on the verge of graduating with a double major in his field and he was teaching the last two classes I needed to get that second bachelors degree.  But the idea of being the same building with him, seeing him everyday, how was I going to do that?  I guess I didn't need a second degree anyway, I'd decided to get it on a lark the year before and had found a way to fit all the classes in, but I could let it go.  I was planning on going to graduate school for writing anyway.  (Phew! That was easy.  Just give up on something you worked really hard for!)

I wanted to call the police.  But he was my friend.  He was my mentor.  I didn't want to get my friend in trouble.  I mean I did, but I didn't want to send him to jail.  But I did.  But I didn't. There's nothing more terrifying than the thought of interacting with the police. I knew what would be coming, that I would be scrutinized, dissected (as all my friends had been quick to point out when I told them).  And I blamed myself, how could I have been careless enough to drink, to put myself in a situation where I was alone with a person of the opposite sex and alcohol.  Everyone knows that once a girl has alcohol in her system you're allowed to do anything you want to her. 

I knew I'd done nothing wrong, but I knew that it would be easy to imply that I had. 

When two weeks went by and I didn't go to class, he starting calling, leaving messages about not want to have to fail me, asking if everything was alright (because he knew it wasn't).  Then he started showing up at the stop where I caught the bus to school.  He would talk to me about how what had happened was a mistake, but something we did together, we had cheated on his girlfriend.  Besides, the school wouldn't like it if anyone found out, he was a teacher and I was his student.  "What if someone found out about what happened?" I asked wanting an answer, some reason why he had done this to me.  "I would say look at her.  Can you blame me?"  My heart sank, because I understood that such a defense could very well work.  "My girlfriend is older and fatter, I'm used to dating younger women.  I just needed something different."  

I went to a professor at school and told her what had happened and that I now found myself in an untenable situation.  Everywhere I went there he was.  She took me to the woman that ran the women's center on campus.  She said I should report what happened to the campus police.  I can't begin to articulate how terrifying it is to file a police report against someone.  It may seem easy but you keep thinking to yourself, "This is going to be really, really hard, and he's going to say I'm lying and a lot of people are probably going to believe him and I'm already an open wound." 

But these women said what had happened to me was assault, was a crime and that I had an the right to get justice for myself.  And I was bolstered.  That's all I'd wanted.  People to say, I believe you, you should do the right thing.   And I fucking did it.  I sat down and I did it.  I filed the report.  I got a call later from the police, wanting to go over some details.  They wanted to know if he was my boyfriend, if we had a relationship, if we had been dating, if we had a previous sexual relationship.  I was horrified.  He was in his forties, which was ancient to me.  I'd never done anything more than makeout with someone.

Based on my report the DA's Sexual Assault team or whatever they called themselves on the phone, told me that they didn't think I had a "good case" (think about that, it wasn't whether I'd been harmed, it was whether they could win) because I had been drinking and he was a professor and there was no physical evidence and it would be his word against mine and I'd probably lose and it would just be humiliating and traumatizing all over again.  They reassured me that I had the right to press charges, but they just wanted to council me on the likelihood that he wouldn't be found guilty and what a toll it was going to take on my life before we got to court.  I was gutted.  They were telling me I was going to lose, but they were really nice about it.

An hour later, someone else from the same office called me.  She said I might want to file sexual harassment charges with the school.  The burden of proof would be less, and she'd looked up the university's policy about professor student relations and it would weigh in my favor.   He could lose his tenure and that would make it hard for him to get work at another school.  So I did.  I didn't like characterizing what happened to me as harassment, but I was someone working with the only weapon I was told I had access too. 

My natural father called me when I was about to file the complaint.  He told me "Are you sure you want to do that baby, they're a huge institution and you're just a kid.  They're gonna be on his side."

The investigator told me I was a good witness because I wasn't sexually active and I had good grades and was well-liked.  "You don't fit the profile of someone who would make this up to get attention."  Someone actually said this to my face.  This is the person you're supposed to report abuse to.  The investigation starts at skepticism.  (When I filed a fourteen page complaint against the school for how they handled my complaint later, he told me he'd pay for me to take the LSAT.  He was a decent guy, but the mistrust of women, the assumption of men's innocence is so institutionalized, it becomes invisible.)

He stalked me, broke a window in my apartment in front of a neighbor while I was home asleep on the couch.  I had to tell everyone in my apartment complex to not hesitate to call the cops if they saw him.  Which was a moot point because the cops told me repeatedly they couldn't really do anything until he actually physically hurt me.  Even a restraining order is toothless unless someone violates it.  And that's what was most traumatic, finding out just how helpless a woman really is if she relies on the authorities to help her. 

When he was finally put on leave I was sitting in a study group with a bunch of students from class.  They were all talking about why the professor was gone.  They had heard that he'd sexually harassed someone.  They opined about how he was such an easygoing nice guy and that political correctness was ruining everything.  They had a lot to say about what women should and shouldn't be ok with.  After an hour of it, I confessed that I was the girl that had filed the complaint.  I told them what happened.  They all came around, because, you know, they knew me, they knew the kind of person I was.  

After the investigation, he was found guilty.  All of his colleagues thought he did it.  All my classmates thought I was telling the truth.  Hell, he'd even confessed to a student that we had "messed around" and now I seemed "upset about it."  He was caught in a web of his own lies by the end.  Phone records and witness accounts supported that he had engaged in a pattern of stalking and harassment to intimidate me from going through with proceedings.

When he saw the evidence against him he resigned.  On a side note, he was sent everyone's statements and several of us sat in fear for weeks that he would show up at the school and shoot everyone or something.  I can understand why people wouldn't even come forward to an HR department now.  I was told he was the most arrogant person the investigator had ever interviewed, and my investigator came from a background in the military investigating sexual assault and harassment complaints. 

Nothing happened to him.  He went on to teach at another University.  Still does.  His rate-a-professor score is quite high and all his reviews are raves.  He's is a very charismatic and charming guy.  And very arrogant.  I'm sure he thought my resistance was just inexperience he was going to fix. 

Whenever I told people what I was doing, that I'd complained, they would say "Whoa, that's really serious!"  Not that I'd been harmed, but that I was telling on him, that he might get in "real" trouble.  The women would also ask "Are you scared?" and I would tell the truth.  "I'm fucking terrified.  I wish I'd never said a word."

It may be that women can "say whatever they want about a guy," but men can get away with doing whatever they want to a woman.  So when you ask why a woman didn't report a sexual assault, understand what you're really asking of her.