Stories from the substratum

~a guest column by Roxanne Hanney

In light of our recent national dialog about sexual harassment and assault, I read with interest an article in last Sunday’s New York Times by actress Salma Hayek. She, like many others in Hollywood, added her story to the growing list of Harvey Weinstein’s victims. In the conclusion of her piece, she said that she hoped to shed light on why it is so difficult, and why so many have waited so long to speak out. This withholding of a soul-crushing event is something I’ve always identified with. Dana, a teaching colleague of mine, after years of close friendship, revealed to me the heartbreaking story of what I think of as Dana’s dinner rape.

During her college years Dana worked with a group of male friends from her honors English classes. With them she shared the easy camaraderie of good buddies, drinking beer and engaging in the kind of intellectual sparring that they all relished. One night she invited two of them over to her student housing apartment, taking care to plan a sophisticated menu, setting her small table with tall candles and cloth napkins that she’d bought for the occasion. Along with her guests she shared several glasses of wine. After dinner they took turns raping her.

For me there has always been something doubly cruel in their act, a particularly craven and opportunistic betrayal coming on the heels of Dana’s carefully prepared meal.
How lucky I’ve been, I have mused in recent days, that nothing like that ever happened to me. All the late nights I rode the metro home to my Paris apartment despite the dire warnings of my French friends, the many times when I’ve walked alone on dark streets here in my own midwestern city, rides home from relative strangers—through all of this I’ve remained unscathed.

Or have I?

There was that one incident that never really counted because it was so minor it only stayed with me for a couple of hours. Or maybe a few days. No harm done, I told myself, especially because I never told anyone about it. Least of all my husband or anyone close to me. In fact, I succeeded in denying to myself that it happened. It simply wasn’t worth mentioning, and it certainly didn’t belong in the same category with Dana’s dinner rape.

In short, I was groped from behind on the lower level of the language arts building where I was teaching a night class of first-year French students. During the break I’d gone down a flight of stairs near my classroom to the bathroom. On my way back, I was startled to hear someone approaching at a rapid pace. As I hurried along, I felt two hands grab my butt, holding on firmly. My first reaction was fury. I whirled around, took a charging step toward a young, dark-haired fellow, and glared at him without a word. He jumped away and fled up the steps.

Returning to my classroom with a hammering heart, I felt grateful for the unsuspecting presence of my students, most of them freshmen and sophomores getting their language requirement out of the way. They were a friendly bunch, if not especially hard-working, and I considered pouring out my story to them. I knew they’d be sympathetic, even horrified on my behalf, and at least one of them would lobby for calling campus security or the city police. Several would agree to walk me to my car at the end of class. Yet I said nothing. I carried on with the lesson, acting normal, though my hands were visibly shaking.

What I felt was humiliation. How could I call attention to my body in front of my students? What word would I use: “buttocks?” “rear end?” Would they ever think about me other than shrouded in the dim murk of sexuality? How could I carry on with French verb endings tonight or on any other night for the rest of the term without our mutual awareness of what had taken place?

I was no less a feminist in those early days of my teaching career. After all, I’d participated in a sit-in at a popular downtown restaurant with a special room bearing a sign that read: “Businessmen’s Lunch Section,” which meant no women or children allowed. I’d picketed the house of an outspoken anti-abortionist doctor and at one time held office in our city’s local chapter of NOW. I was raising two boys with diligent attention to calling out the pervasive sexism around us. “Mom, this ad is sexist,” they’d call from the tv room. I considered myself militant and even selectively forthright.

Yet I kept silent about what I suppose could have been an instructive anecdote. One reason, I told myself, was the imagined horror of finding myself at the center of yet another shameful scandal involving sex, having dropped out of high school as a pregnant 16-year-old. And what about today, I ask myself, what if something like this were to happen again? Now with all my self-confidence and my years of life experience, my response would certainly be very different.

Or would it?

Roxanne Hanney, from Wisconsin, is a periodic reader of GreeneCountyNewsOnline.

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