The Men in the Gray Area

For this second weekend of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight some of the behaviors that women are exposed to that can create a slippery slope down to assault and rape. They’re the things people do to us that make us feel unsafe, even though there’s very little we can do about them (if we even realize what’s happening at the time). Societal standards have told us that it’s important to give people what they want, sometimes at the expense of our own wellbeing. I considered writing more clinically about this, like last week’s piece about mandated reporting, but in the end, I decided it might make more sense just to show you.

So, below are four examples of things that happened to me that made me more wary of the people walking through my world. (If I were going to rewrite He Probably Just Likes You, I might consider drawing from some of these stories. However, that piece is perfect the way it is.) I’ve done my best to highlight why they made me deeply uncomfortable or afraid or slightly traumatized or whatever the case may be, but talking about grooming and other insidious behaviors can be very difficult for me, especially with these memories I don’t spend as much time rooting around in normally. If you have questions, please drop me a line and I’ll be happy to clarify anything.

“Give me a hug,” you insist. And I don’t want to. You’re kind enough, and you care about me beyond what I look like, but in the brief time we’ve spent together—just a quick walk back to my dorm—I’ve figured out you want more from me than you’re willing to say. And, by itself, there’s nothing wrong with that; lord knows I’ve been in that situation more times than I care to admit. But I am eighteen years old, and you’re bigger and stronger than me, and my back is to a metal gate and you’re demanding a hug. In fact, you’re already halfway there.

I let your arms close over me for just a moment too long, but the next time I see you, I pull away. I don’t mean from hugging; no, I pull myself away. My defenses go back up, and while I’m still polite and nice and everything my peers and acquaintances expect, I keep the full extent of my compassion and enthusiasm to myself. And I remember this for the next time a guy backs me into a corner.

I don’t even know how to tell you how deeply you devalued me except to say that eighteen is a very tender age for a young woman who had never believed her peers found her beautiful. You took that and spun it on its head. You told me I was strong and smart and pretty and ambitious. You captured my time and tricked me into sharing my deepest vulnerabilities. And once you had the knife in all the way, you twisted.

You spat all my insecurities—the ones you’d so lovingly extracted—back in my face, telling me they just made me weak and I should know better. You used every hard-earned trait I loved about myself to diminish me to almost nothing. You’d told me I wasn’t like other girls, but in the end, that was because I trusted you with my joy and my hope and my enthusiasm when they were smart enough not to. The compliments you gave out were currency, to be used and redeemed at the time of your choosing in the form of services I wasn’t interested in giving you. And now I do know better than to trust those words, but I still remember.

You were someone I was told to trust. I had no reason to believe your intentions were anything but kind, because I was close with the people you loved, and as far as I could tell, they were happy. You and I shared a passion for music, and I remember feeling special because I was good enough that you noticed. And since a part of girlhood is constantly vying for attention, that meant something to me. There’s probably more I don’t remember, but I can’t speak to that—all I remember was being singled out every once in awhile, because somehow, my aptitude set me apart.

Fast-forward oh, a decade and a half or so, to a party my family threw. Adults from all different eras of our lives joined us that evening, and I spent most of my time with those I knew best. It had been years since I’d seen you last, but when you came over, I greeted you and your spouse—politely, but warmly. Your partner responded in kind, but you, a man more than twice my age, looked me up and down and said to me, a twenty-year-old, “Well, you’ve improved.” And I can’t remember what I said next, but I’ll never forget wanting to peel myself out of this skin and seek out a body that was just a body, not a sexual object for your consumption.

You started out as a friend. A good one, even. You knew when things got uncomfortable, and more than once, you helped mitigate the fallout. You earned my candor, my battlefield humor—the things I only show to people who can see at least a little ways into the dark.

And, for awhile there, it was good . . . but it also wasn’t. I’d be invited out, but not included when I got there. I’d hang out with you one-on-one, but it always felt like there was something I wasn’t seeing, some layer of subtext to our time together that I couldn’t grasp. I’d commit to helping you with something important, then you’d lash out and remove me from plans like I should’ve known better. Even just in writing this down, the memories pour over me like a shower of flames, and my heart’s pounding a mile a minute as I remember words and feelings and actions I can’t bring myself to put in writing. The suave exterior you displayed to my teenage self fizzles out, and I see what I should’ve long ago. I feel the sliminess, the undercurrent of what you might not have seen as sinister but that certainly marks you as dangerous to women like me.

So I give you a wide berth, but you’re part of the reason I’ve sharpened my teeth. ♦

Thanks so much for reading! I write a lot of music and words about sexual assault and rape culture. You can find all these creations here. If you like what you read (or, put a better way, if you got something useful and/or meaningful out of this post), consider subscribing (in the sidebar on your right) or just coming back next week—I’m doing a series of posts that touch on assault throughout the month of April. If you have any questions, drop me a line!