By Brianne DeRosa for Motherwell
“If someone says stop, you stop.”
I’m raising two boys. And I am conscious of raising them to be people who hear and respond to the word “no.”
It’s not easy to enforce with young kids. In a split second, things can go from lighthearted wrestling to fists and fury. Somebody yelling “Stop it!” from the bottom of the dogpile can easily be muffled by the laughter of the other kids.
Or by another person’s body.
And those cries of “Stop it!” can be ignored by classmates who will argue, as my own child has done, crimson-cheeked: “But we were just having a good time!”
I’m in the ER, in one of those private rooms with a door that you see on TV but not in real life. People who go to the ER for stitches don’t get doors that close. People who go to the ER for sexual assault do.
A lot goes on behind those closed doors that most people don’t know anything about. I’m part of the secret society of people who do know. We’re the ones who get the phone calls in the middle of the night when there’s been a rape.
Tonight I’m holding the hand of the 14-year-old on the gurney. I asked if it was okay before I held her hand. I asked her if she wanted me to.
I hold it while I explain to her what the rape kit is for. I don’t look at her bright green manicure while I’m telling her about the combing and the fiber search and the vaginal and anal swabs. I hold steady on her eyes with the reassuring gaze I’ve perfected. Her hand and arm are blotchy with sterile cold, but I have to tell her that she can’t drink the hot cocoa her mom has brought. Not until they’ve completed the swab of her mouth for his DNA.
I’m 15 or 16 years old. I went to the movies with a good friend to celebrate his birthday. Now we’re hanging out at my house, alone in the finished basement.
I’ve let him kiss me before, allowed a little of what 1950s sex-ed parodies would call “petting.” Maybe that was my mistake.
Tonight I am determined not to make that mistake again. I tell him “no.” He keeps trying.
It isn’t fear, exactly, but something wells up inside me as I recognize that I am pinned on a couch underneath a person who is over a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than I am. He isn’t violent. But he is coercive.
I’m pinned to a couch by a friend who is trying to persuade me that my “no” is not a real “no,” and when I finally shove him hard enough to make him see reason, he is angry. Angry that I am not beneath him.
He demands to know why. I’m still trying to be the Nice Girl. I tell him the truth as gently as I can: That I like our friendship, I like hanging out. But I’m not really attracted to him and I don’t want more.
He no longer likes our friendship, or hanging out. He goes away angry and I feel awful. I’ve hurt his feelings.
It’s my fault.
The sexual assault nurse gets the story while she collects the samples. The 14-year-old is flushed now, her freckles ringed in white, her calm belied by the tiny tremor in her hand as she raises the cup to her lips. She’s sipping hot cocoa on a hospital gurney while a strange woman combs her pubic hair.
Her mother sits silently, a witness.
The details of the story aren’t mine to give away. But it’s a familiar setup. A slumber party. Somebody’s friend, brother, neighbor. A trusted boy.
Inside my head, a sickened voice cries, “That boy probably has no idea what he has done.” How is it possible to do something so horrible, yet not understand that it was wrong?
Part of my job is to teach high school students about consent. I’m supposed to teach them not to rape. But every time I go to the ER I’m confronted with the reality that for many of them, I am the very definition of too little, too late.
A few days after the disastrous encounter in the basement, another friend confronts me. He has heard one side of the story, so of course he feels he knows the truth.
I have hurt a friend; I have done something to be ashamed of.
It is my fault.
My transgressions, I am told, are many:
I said I was not attracted to The Boy.
The Boy didn’t mean any harm.
I accepted a movie date with him, knowing that I had allowed him to kiss me before.
I didn’t allow him to kiss or touch me this time.
But worst of all, it seems, is this. I said no on his birthday.
The words crowd out of my tight throat on a wave of heat: “So what if he had raped me? He could have. What then?”
That friend, and many others, will never speak to me again. I am now the Girl Who Said The R Word. And I realize, in the miserable months that follow, when I am full of both regret and fury, that if The Boy hadn’t stopped they would never have called it rape. If I had stopped saying “no,” whether I wanted to or not, it all would have been somehow okay.
Because he was a nice boy. And it was his birthday.
It’s after 7 a.m. and the 14-year-old is going home in the pink flowered underwear the sexual assault nurse offered. I’ve christened the stoic child with the nickname “Supertrooper,” which is the only thing that has made her smile all night.
I send her and her mother off with the usual reminders. She may sleep a lot for a few days while her brain processes the fresh trauma. She should follow the med protocol that we recommend to prevent unwanted pregnancy, STDs, AIDS. There are upsides and downsides to knowing her rapist; on the plus side, she can make a more informed decision about taking the meds which could destroy her liver. On the downside...well, it’s all pretty much downsides, isn’t it, when your rapist lives in your friend’s house and goes to your school?
After enduring a six-hour rape kit, Supertrooper walks out of my care stiffly. If you didn’t know better, you’d think perhaps she fell off the gymnastics apparatus at a meet. Only the nurse and I know where the marks are. They’ve been catalogued, measured, and photographed. At least, the external ones have.
I think of her walking back into her school. I bet they’ll say he was a nice boy. Aren’t they all nice boys? Until they’re not.
“But we were just having a good time!” my son wails. I am being unfair. I have stopped his fun.
I point to his brother, blotchy with embarrassed tears. “HE’S not having a good time,” I say.
Another parent in the schoolyard chuckles. “Just boys being boys,” she says airily. There is assent from the crowd. “They’re just playing.” “Things just got a little out of control.” “Everyone’s fine—no harm done.”
I turn my back to the apologists, and I bend to my boys. I swallow the familiar rush of heat. If I don’t, what comes out of my mouth will spew like lava. I am calm and purposefully loud when I declare:
“That is not okay. I don’t care if you’re having fun. When someone says ‘stop,’ or ‘no’, or ‘ow’―”
“You stop. I KNOW, Mom. I get it.” My younger son is embarrassed now. He squirms away from my grasp.
Apologies are exchanged. Everyone goes back to playing. And the other parents stand awkwardly away from me.
I am again the outcast with my perceived imaginary rape whistle, but this time I don’t care. The refrain running through my head as I watch my sons run and laugh is: I hope you do get it.
Because you are, right now, a nice boy. And if the day comes when you are, tragically, not, then I won’t be able to escape the notion that it is my fault.
Brianne K. DeRosa, MFA, has been many things to many people. In addition to the roles of wife and mother, one of the jobs that most changed her life was working as a sexual assault crisis counselor. These days she’s a writer and consultant, but she hopes this essay will in some small way honor all the people still working behind those closed hospital doors at night.