The scar on my back that I got the beautiful fall afternoon I involuntarily lost my virginity has faded over the past 44 years, but not the memory.
We met at the diner where I had my first after-school job; he was smitten by the short white uniform the owner insisted all of his "girls" wear. I was a sophomore; he was a senior at another high school. In a couple months of dating, we had progressed from making out to what was quaintly referred to as "heavy petting." This often took place in the woods between my neighborhood and his. He and his buddies had furnished a spot with old chairs, milk crates and a circle of stones to contain the bonfires they built, around which they drank beer, smoked dope and draped possessive arms around their girlfriends' shoulders.
That afternoon he grabbed my hand and led me deeper into the woods. It didn't alarm me; we had gone before to the large rock that gave a place to sit as we made out. I could hear the others laughing and talking as we kissed under the rustling canopy of orange, red and gold leaves. In what seemed like a split second, he pulled one hand behind my back as he unzipped his jeans, pushed my bright green mini-dress up to my neck and pulled my panties aside. As I pleaded, "No, no, no," and tried to push him away, he covered my mouth with his. I didn't know what hurt more — the penetration or the place on my back being rubbed raw by the rock I was pushed against.
When he was done, he pulled my dress down, kissed me, told me he loved me and took my hand to lead me back to the group, but I was too stunned and ashamed to face them. At home, I sobbed in the shower, my fist in my mouth so my mother wouldn't hear, heartbroken that my "first time" had been stolen and that it happened in a dress she had made me. I never wore it again, and I didn't tell anyone.
But because I felt like it was my fault, I did see him again. I had "led him on." And as a man, wasn't he entitled to take what was dangled there before him? There was no date rape then, though "cock tease" was common vernacular. But I couldn't bear to kiss him — much less have sex with him — so I broke up with him over the telephone. He swore he would hurt himself if I didn't see him one more time. I said I was sorry, but no. I hung up, put on my waitress uniform and walked the mile to the diner.
Right before closing time, I went into the ladies' restroom. When I came out of the stall, he was there, his arms bloodied to the elbow from the cuts he received when he punched his fists through the glass of the diner's front door. I stood paralyzed with fear. The outer door opened and the restaurant's owner threw him to the ground, slamming his head into the tiled floor. Not until much later did I consider the irony of being saved by the man who groped me every time I went into the kitchen to pick up an order. I learned to move quickly, but I didn't leave the job.
Nor did I leave the first job I had in New York, despite my boss harassing me on a nearly daily basis to go out with him. I was only 19, with few skills and no friends, and I desperately needed that paycheck. I did take pleasure in testifying against him in court some months later when he was charged with swindling the parent company.
I didn't leave the next position at the same company either, though one of my duties was to read the new issue of Screw magazine aloud every week to the octogenarian treasurer (and father of the founder and publisher). I did finally screw up my courage to tell the publisher's sister (and head of personnel) that I'd like the editorial assistant job I knew was opening up — and why. She replaced me with a 60-year-old woman who I don't imagine had to read Screw aloud. For six years in the editorial department of a national men's magazine known for its proclivity to show more "pink" than its biggest rival, I was the safest I had ever been in a job, though safety from assault of various forms on the subway and the streets remained elusive.
It was elusive at the next workplace as well, one considered quite conservative and known for its "family values." When I met one of the artists on the record label that brought me to Nashville, "I'm going to fuck you" was his seductive introduction. I didn't tell my new boss; I knew how that would play out. Rising superstar making the label millions, or one of a pool of young women eager to work in the glamorous music business? I made sure I was never alone with him.
My experiences, traumatic or just tawdry, pale in comparison to raped and hanged teenage girls in India, women in the military, the six victims of Elliott Rodger's madness fueled by men's misogynistic entitlement websites. I am lucky to have escaped relatively unscathed, unbroken and eventually empowered.
But not unscarred. Ten years ago, the mark on my back compelled me to tell my story for the first time — 34 years after it happened — to my daughter, who was approaching the age I had been. I didn't go into details, only that my first time was not by my choice and she deserved different. I wanted her to know to her core what I didn't: that she could say no, clearly and emphatically.
And just as importantly, two years later, I told my son the same. No means no. Anyone steering a child through the treacherous waters of adolescence and young adulthood knows it's not one "talk"; it's an ongoing and honest conversation. Parenting, one experienced friend advised me long ago, is a contact sport.
It seems so simple. Your entitlement — to sex or using a weapon — ends where your fellow humans' entitlement to self and safety begins. #YesAllWomen, and all men too.
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