This isn’t a rape story. But it’s something eerily similar. It’s about that sinking feeling when you realize that no one believes you.
I wasn’t the only woman in the room. But I guess you could say that I was the only woman with any power.
I was wearing army fatigues, not that it matters what I was wearing. Combat boots, camo-patterned blouse and trousers, my hair pulled back in a regulation bun at the back of my head. My promotion to MAJ had been approved three days prior, but no one had told me. So I still wore a captain’s rank in the middle of my chest.
The other women in the room were my paralegals. Smart, dedicated soldiers relegated to the gallery, because they didn’t have law degrees.
I was arguing my first rape case and the victim didn’t show. My best guess is that she didn’t show because she had sent a string of text messages to her rapist telling him that everything was okay. Agreeing to see him again. Telling him that she had a nice time. She was 15 years old.
I didn’t see the text messages until the night before the hearing. And now I stood before a panel of male officers, trying to explain to them why a girl would ever say such encouraging things to a man who had assaulted her.
Maybe it was for the best that she didn’t show. She wouldn’t have done well under cross-examination. None of us would have. Including myself.
I made the same arguments that any attorney might have made. That the victim was a 15-year-old girl who was too young and immature to legally consent to sex. I reminded them that text messages were introduced without context. Many of them without dates, phone numbers, or even names. That it was impossible to tell if the text messages had come from the victim, or if specific texts had been deleted from the string of conversation.
I told them that even if the text messages hadn’t been altered, even if she had told this man she met on the internet that she was really 16 years old, that didn’t necessarily contradict what she told the police. It didn’t mean that she didn’t tell him the truth when she climbed into his truck for the first time.
But all of that was just facts and logic and how to analyze evidence. I wasn’t going to sway any of them if I couldn’t get them to put themselves in the mind of a 15-year-old girl. Something that none of them had ever been or ever dreamed of being.
Somewhere tucked away in my subconscious were a thousand painful memories waiting to overwhelm and confuse me.
So I went off script. As if I could convey the complete, complicated psychology of gender programming in my seven-minute closing argument.
“Girls aren’t taught to be strong. They’re taught to be accommodating.”
It wasn’t planned or even expected, but my voice cracked. Because in some strange way that sentence was as much about me as it was about her. Because somewhere tucked away in my subconscious were a thousand painful memories waiting to overwhelm and confuse me. Memories of being told to wait my turn and walk away from fights and ignore the bullies.
There were also memories of the medical student that I’d met online – on whatever the hip dating site was at the time. How we’d taken a walk around the lake just down the road from his apartment, and he invited me up for sandwiches because it was lunchtime. How I didn’t really think anything of it, because it was such a beautiful summer day and no one gets raped by a medical student after an afternoon walk through the park. We ate sandwiches and drank orange juice.
I don’t remember the exact moment it hit me, but somewhere between the peanut butter and jelly and the closed bedroom door, a cold, dread set in, and I realized that I wasn’t leaving his apartment the same. He didn’t have to be violent, just more forceful than I was ― which wasn’t difficult to do since I’d been raised to be submissive for just these moments. So I would give in without forcing him to force me.
I cried both times. But when he called the next week, I answered the phone. I even told him I’d see him again ― for reasons I barely understand. And could never explain to a panel of middle-aged white men in Army fatigues. There was no string of text messages to incriminate me. Just my own tortured remembrances of a girl who was still fighting to be the sort of person who could stand up for other people, even if she never really learned to stand up for herself.
“Girls are taught to be pleasant and agreeable. And some of them become so good at it, that when someone hurts them, they don’t have the tools to stand up and say ‘No, you can’t do that to me.’ They’ve never developed that skill. Those kinds of sharp words feel foreign and awful in their mouths. So they fall back on familiar habits. They continue to be agreeable and accommodating.”
I asked the panel to go back and re-read the text messages, but to look beyond the surface of her words. I asked them to view this conversation through a more critical lens, looking for clues that something isn’t right.
“When I read through this conversation, I see a girl desperately pretending that everything is okay. I see a girl who doesn’t want to believe that she’s been raped.”
It’s an uncomfortable exercise, reading through the intimate exchanges of a 15-year-old girl who is giddy at the idea of falling in love for the first time. Absorbing all those sugary expressions that seem so natural, up until the moment that she starts feeling sick, and then the messages drop off completely.
“She told him private things. She opened her heart up to him. She wanted him to meet her family and become her boyfriend. Then something changed.”
The courtroom isn’t the only place that women are punished for being strong. But it is certainly one of the most unforgiving.
The defense attorney made his own arguments. He talked about the burden of proof and said over and over again that the government has presented no evidence. Nothing to show that this was anything other than consensual sex. Nothing.
“The defense admits that we don’t know why she filed a police report claiming she had been raped. We don’t know if she was in trouble with her parents or embarrassed at school or having regrets about losing her virginity. The government doesn’t even know why she claimed she was raped.”
I suppose it’s an advantage any time you don’t have to manufacture anger in your rebuttal. When the emotion swells and burns on its own, almost forming the words for you.
“I counted six times that the defense said we’ve presented no evidence. You’ve all seen the police report. You’re all aware of what’s in there. Of how she told the police that he took her to a field with no one around. How she couldn’t open the passenger-side door because the handle was broken. How he held her down with his body weight and removed her pants. The defense calls this ‘no evidence.’ What this tells me is that he is basing his entire view of this case on what was said in those text messages, and completely dismissing everything that the victim told the police. I suppose that’s his job. But it’s your job to be fair and impartial. Don’t let him convince you that you can side with his client without dismissing the victim. She didn’t testify today, but she still has a voice in this process.”
There was so much more to say. But nothing in their relaxed faces told me that they understood. Nothing suggested that there was even a struggle.
“The defense argues that no one knows why she stopped texting him and then went to the police. No one knows why she said that she had been raped.” At the very least I would have the last word. I could suggest the one absurd theory that no one seemed to have considered. “Maybe it’s because it’s the truth.”
They didn’t believe me. I could see it in their faces and their hands and the way they shifted in their seats. And it stung enough that I could’ve cried.
But this wasn’t the place for that. I could get away with a cracked voice. In fact, it was the perfect amount of emotional investment. A convincing display of passion that didn’t sacrifice reputation. Anything more and anything less would’ve damaged credibility, and a woman’s credibility isn’t something to be squandered. The courtroom isn’t the only place that women are punished for being strong. But it is certainly one of the most unforgiving.
Deliberations were insultingly brief. Just long enough for a friendly jab from a colleague that he loved watching me suffer like this.
I can only assume that he thinks I broke down because I hate losing. And as embarrassing as that is, maybe it’s better that he hadn’t picked up the murkier things that I was hiding. That I didn’t have to worry about whether he would believe me.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.