Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Red Dress

I was a few weeks into my freshman year when I got the call from a senior I didn’t know, inviting me to a semi-formal party. I told him I wanted to meet him first, so we met on campus and chatted a while, before agreeing he would pick me up the next Friday for the event.
I asked how he found my name and number, and he explained that he and his friends had picked dates out of the book of incoming freshman students. Not FACEBOOK, but a face book, a slim booklet that included each freshman’s head shot, hometown, and campus phone number. I had sent my high school senior portrait in over the summer to be included. Apparently, when a bunch of upperclassmen were combing through the pictures, my face caught a young man named Brian’s eye. On Friday I put on a red silk dress, another holdover from high school days, and went to the party.

Those first few weeks of college had been exhilarating, with the heady intensity of summer camp. There were so many people to meet in my co-ed dorm, classes, campus Christian groups, friends of friends from back home, and during sorority rush. I was seventeen years old, and in those early weeks I had kissed more boys (3) than I had in all of my years of high school combined (1). Going to a party with someone I had just met did not feel strange in any way. I felt flattered, and it seemed like just one more way of saying yes to the college experience.

Things would eventually slow down as some of the early friendships flamed out, and we settled into lasting relationships, some of which are still strong 27 years later. My kissing stats would diminish considerably, too, as I began dating a friend from another college.

But what happened on that date?

Well, I met Brian’s friends. We danced for a while, with me slipping around in my black suede pumps on the beer-covered linoleum floor. It was loud and hot in the party room. If he had asked if I wanted to go upstairs to his room, I would have said yes, welcoming a quiet place to hang out and talk. Yes, talk. Not that I didn’t find him attractive. He was at least 6’2”, blond, and strong—a college athlete. But he never asked, so when the party ended, he walked me home, and we kissed a bit under the buzz of a fluorescent light outside my dorm.

You may have read the Rolling Stone article last week about another freshman girl, in another red dress, at another Virginia college. Her date with an upperclassman ended much differently than mine did. It is a long, difficult read, but it is well worth your time.

It will likely disgust you, and make you think. The story has gained a lot of traction in the past few days and has resulted in UVA suspending all sorority and fraternity activity while the allegations of sex abuse on campus are investigated.

The article made me reflect on my college years and how grateful I am that with all of the parties I went to, no one treated me with anything other than respect. Some of my friends would have vastly different experiences to share. You could say that I made good decisions when it came to alcohol, hung out with the right crowd, and somehow let it be known what my standards were. Maybe those things came into play, maybe not, but they shouldn’t matter in whether someone is sexually assaulted or not.

Sexual assault is wrong.


The article reminded me of that long-forgotten date, my red dress, and an upperclassman who had picked my face out of a book.  The key difference between the two stories is that my date was not a rapist. He and his friends did not plan and collude how to brutalize me and then go about their college years with impunity.

As a mother, I wouldn’t be thrilled if my daughter went out with someone who picked her from a book  (website) because of her looks, and quite possibly because of her youth and vulnerability. I was only 16 years old when that picture Brian saw was taken. But my daughter and your daughter would have every right to do so and not be harmed! Of course I will try to instill in her the self-confidence I had, the idea spending time with me was worth it because of who I was, not what I could provide physically.  I will tell her to keep her phone on her, to never leave a drink unattended, to use the buddy system.

But I realize it was not my self-confidence or safety rituals that kept me safe. It was the young men I spent time with. And that seems to come down to luck more than anything. I barely knew these guys. They, too, were in fraternities. They, too, were often immature and sometimes ruled by mob mentality—abusing alcohol and at one point taking searing hot coat hangers and branding their skin with fraternity letters.

I don’t know how those young men were raised differently than the ones who rape.

Than the ones who look at women as worthless, but then go home to spend Thanksgiving break with their mothers and sisters.

Who are never held accountable for their brutality, but then go on to get married and have their own little boys and girls to raise. It feels hopeless.

There is so much darkness in these situations, and it can play out for generations.

So I am grateful for the Rolling Stone article, because it will shed light on sexual assault, get us talking, and hopefully send a message to rapists that what they are doing is not okay.

And I don’t think my daughter should have to be counted as LUCKY if she somehow manages to avoid this kind of evil.  It’s what she and every girl deserves.

UPDATE: If you have followed this story in the news, you now know that the article was completely discredited and that the victim in the story made up the assault. I am leaving this post up because the topic of college sexual assault is very real and so important, but I am disappointed that a sham of a story that should have been fact-checked could set victim's rights back on campuses. 


Unknown said...

Thank you for saying that while you were smart, the boys were the ones who ensured your safety by not thinking you were their due. And you're right; our daughters shouldn't have to consider not being raped lucky. It's about teaching our girls to protect themselves and make good choices, but it's also about teaching our boys not to rape or perpetuate the culture of acceptance surrounding it.

Anonymous said...

After volunteering for sexual assault awareness and education group (and being educated about it), I was really depressed about how many women were assaulted. (e.g. 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape.) - from rain.org) I can say that I've seen SOME changes in attitudes from 20 years ago when I was in college. At least headline news and articles like Rolling Stone's one are getting national discussions going, while it was still a taboo subject even a few years ago. Obviously we still have a long way to go. Thanks for touching on this tough subject.

Anonymous said...

I was never assaulted in college but was drugged at a party where I was with people I knew and was not drinking. A friend noticed me being carried out unconscious by a few guys (who we all knew) and demanded they put me down. I awoke the next morning on the couch and totally disoriented. Later, found out I threw up all over their bathroom. I had zero memory of the night and had never heard of the date rape drug. I think it was a year or two until I did hear of it and realized that was what happened to me. My sister was drugged at a bar in NY and woke in strange hotel room. I think it is bizarre that this would happen to two people in the same family, 15 years apart (she is 12 years younger) in different cities. It really makes me wonder how many men are out there across the USA willing to drug and assault women?? The article on the UVA assault was disgusting and troubling. To me the worst part was the reaction of her "FRIENDS." Sigh.

annmarie said...

What a great post…My daughter is almost 14 and this fear is a strong one for me!!

Sherri said...

This raises such an important point, Anna. That not only do we as women and our daughters have to be aware of our surroundings and cautious and on guard, but the men have to be the type of men who would never even consider treating a woman like that. How do we get there? It's scary to think how well someone can hide their true colors. I am so glad that your story turned out differently.

Kate Coveny Hood said...

I often think about how I unwittingly protected myself from SO MUCH of what "could have" happened simply by being a little shy. This really makes me think about what I should be talking about with my own daughter...and sons for that matter.

Anonymous said...

Horrible. I remember all of my father's advice before leaving for another VA university in '88---no walking alone at night (buddy system), stick with girlfriends at parties, NEVER accept an a mixed drink from a guy (roofie most likely), watch open containers, if guy already has drink at bar don't accept unless you see bar tender make it, etc. I consider myself very lucky to come out relatively unscathed. Of course I partied heavily like most college girls at my school. I consider myself lucky. That article was repulsive. As a mom to all boys--I damn well sure teach them their own set of rules about how to treat women and not going with the herd when something is criminal/wrong, etc. Empathy is a big part of my child rearing. Respect for women, etc. I am more and more disillusioned with UVA. I was glad I was at a large University where greek life did not rule the whole social scene.

Grandma Susan said...

I totally agree with everything you said. Hopefully the culture will change. Thanks!

Alison said...

Thank you for this, Anna. Wise perspective - that it's not just about the girls needing to be careful, but that boys need to respect them.

IrishRN07 said...

Just forced myself to read that Rolling Stone article. Disgusted. How do we use our disgust to act to end this epidemic?

angela said...

I have so many thoughts and fears about this whole situation. I made some ridiculously dumb decisions that had consequences I never want my daughter to face.

Unknown said...

Perfect timing, Anna. The Rolling Stones article has been the source of a lot of conversation in our house these past few days, with my college freshman son and his friends home for Thanksgiving. Parents of boys have a particular responsibility. We need to shift the focus of the conversation from telling girls how to avoid getting raped to raising boys who respect women. I'm encouraged by what I'm hearing from these young men, actually. The RS article will do a lot of good, as difficult as it was to read.

Anonymous said...

I can hardly read the articles about UVA without becoming incensed...I am horrified by the culture that seems to permeate on that campus. From the fraternities to the administration to the so called "friends" who didn't want their own reputation tarnished. It isn't just the rapists...although they certainly share most of the blame...it is the people watching it happen and keeping their mouths shut that is also troubling. Only after the media explosion has UVA begun an investigation. I find that repugnant. Again, it seems they are only protecting their reputation, but seeking justice. For such a "smart" school, they do some really dumb things. I have two children in college and a third heading off in Sept...so I know the fear of the unknown. It is so important to feel as though the school will do everything in their power to keep your child safe...I wouldn't leave my child at UVA.
Here is another article on the same subject



Anonymous said...

I'm a UVA alum and I really appreciate your post about this. Thank you for sharing your story and keeping the focus on the men in these situations. It's not enough to try to "protect" women. We must teach our boys about consent, respect and acceptable behavior - starting very young. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

There are so many things in the Rolling Stones article that are deeply disturbing but the thing that I cannot stop thinking about is the idea that a room full of human beings knowingly planned a scenario which culminated in each of them standing around watching and participating in a brutal and horrific attack on another more vulnerable human being. What is it that allows a person to be so desensitized and detached to permit themselves to be involved in such an act. It sounds simplistic but I really think it goes back to how our children are being raised and whether as parents we are spending as much time and effort on our children's hearts as we are their sports performances and social status, etc. I have spent much of this week praying that my sons will be equipped to make better choices in life.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Anna, yes, that article has been haunting me every since I read it. Those disgusting men need to pay for their crime. I, too, keep thinking of them being with their families and going on to have families of their own. So terrifying. Another part of the article that haunts me is the part about the girl's friends, who decided not to take her immediately to the hospital because of what it would do to them all socially. How do we raise our children so that they know, immediately, that they take their friend to the hospital! Something must change. Anyone who is aware that a crime has been committed (whether they are a friend or they work for the college) they need to report that crime. As a teacher for many years, if we suspected a child was being abused, it was reported, immediately or our jobs were on the line. Why should that change because someone has turned 18?

Unknown said...

One of my classmates in high school had a sister who was brutally assaulted and murdered coming home from a party in her freshman year. And I don't know why I'm saying that except to say that our girls deserve to be protected.

Jessica said...

This is terrifying. I made a bad choice in college (going to a guy's room after both of us drank at a party) that could have gotten me raped, but didn't. He asked if I wanted to have sex and I said no. He asked if I wanted to do anything other than kiss and I said no. We slept in the same bed and he did nothing to me.

I have two daughters and that night still haunts me. I was "lucky". What if my daughters make the same bad choice and aren't? How do I stop that?

Stimey said...

This is such an excellent post, Anna. The burden of preventing rape should be on the rapists, not the victims. I am so tired of hearing story after story of violence against women by men who think that they can do whatever they want to us.

Dina Ochs said...

Excellent post, this put me back to the late 19070's when it was safer and men were more respectful. I put myself in so many situations at 17 and 18 years old I shutter to think what would of happened to me. I went on to have a son and daughter and it was scary, but we followed the same rules you posted. Now they are married with children of there own, and the world in some points is worse! God Bless you for all your insight!

Anonymous said...

That article made me also reflect back on some of my experiences, especially in the first weeks of my freshman year. I got separated from my "buddies" and they left without me...the drinks were too strong and I got sick and inadvertently ended up spending the night. A fraternity brother gave me his bed to rest (alone) and got me water and took me home when I felt better. That is what should happen, and to think otherwise for my daughter strikes fear in my heart. I also bear responsibility to raise my two sons to do the right thing. Discussing this article and raising awareness is important. Thanks for the forum.

julie gardner said...

Until today, I have avoided the Rolling Stone article; but my son is 17 and my daughter is 15 and I think now that I must take it on.

For both of them.
For me.

I trust you when you say it's worth the read...and deeply sad that it had to be written in the first place.

Anonymous said...

And then it came to light...the entire UVA thing was made up and never happened. Kudos Rolling Stone for your excellent fact checking.