The True Meaning of Consent

Note: This piece contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault that may be triggering for some readers.

I can still recall how she screamed. For what seemed an eternity, she cried out for help. Help that never came. It's funny how the memory works, or perhaps tragic is a better description. I can't remember many details about that night or the day after but her screams and the fear contained within them will haunt me until the end of my days. I did nothing. The people around me did nothing. We simply stared off into the distance and waited for the inevitable end.


I think I was 13, though my age doesn't really matter, at least not to me. I was young and naive, a relatively sheltered adolescent in the pre-internet age. Some friends and I were camping at the Wyoming County Fairgrounds outside Meshoppen, Pennsylvania. We had a pretty big horse show the next day and given the early start it was easier to spend the night than to attempt an early morning trip.

I can remember the pleasant dampness in the air and the dew on the grass.

We couldn't have asked for better weather that night. It wasn't raining or oppressively hot, and I elected to sleep outside, next to my horse. I lay in an sleeping bag on the ground, a few feet from Music. Most people called him a tank. He was 16 hands of muscle, well-built and beautiful as only a buckskin horse can be. I'm not sure how he felt about me, but I loved him like he was my best friend. Some part of me still does.

When the screams started Music had been quietly munching away at his hay bag. I can remember the pleasant dampness in the air and the dew on the grass. I remember laying in a restful haze, not quite asleep and yet not awake. I could hear him stomp his foot to shoo a flys and the occasional soft whinny from one of the horses nearby. The dew had settled in around us and though I have no concept of the time, it seemed to me that the entire world around us was asleep, peaceful and quiet. In an instant the illusion was shattered.

The first screams sent me running for the woods. The distance seemed longer then, but in retrospect we were likely only a few hundred feet away. I remember a snow fence marking the end of the mowed grass and the beginning of the unkempt field. Beyond the field was the woods and I took no time to think. I sprang to my feet and started running. My mom caught me at the fence and held me back. I don't know how she did it, but she caught me from behind and kept me from charging off half cocked. I don't remember where we gathered, but several of us stood and listened as her screams echoed through the night. We had a couple of the moms in our group and no men to my recollection.

Keep in mind this was before cell phones and we had no pay phone on the premises. She continued screaming and we listened. Nobody came to her rescue. There were none to answer her calls for help, no one to make it stop. Time for us seemed to slow and stretch, I can only imagine what it must have been for her. Finally it stopped and there was only silence, the night returned to its peaceful state and our little group returned to our respective animals. We did nothing to help her. Nothing to save her.

The next day as more people arrived, we told our story and a few of the men, my father included, went into the woods to look around. Of course the police were called and I assume they too checked out the woods. The rape was never reported and nobody else came forward with additional details. There was little that could be done. Aside from the blood curdling screams, the second thing about that night that I will carry with me to my grave is the police response. "It was probably just a date rape." As our lives simply carried on, hers had been shattered. It wasn't "just a date rape." There is no such thing as "just a date rape." Rape is rape. Period. End of story.

Except that it isn't. The story didn't end. I'm sure it didn't end for her and it certainly didn't end for me. Sometimes at night I still hear those screams. I still hear her begging for help, for someone to make it stop. I still feel guilty. If I'd been only a little faster, maybe I could have reached her. If we'd called out louder, perhaps he or they may have stopped. So many what if's.

It was twenty four years ago this year, and still I carry it with me. Why? In part because listening helplessly as someone screams and begs like that marks you indelibly. Mostly I remember it because that night I learned the true meaning of consent. I heard what it is to take that right away from someone and if I live the rest of my days without hearing something like that again it will still not be long enough. No rape is "just rape" and no human being deserves that kind of treatment.

This post first appeared at "The Good Men Project"


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.