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No Means No

It was spring of 1976 and I was in my junior year at an all-girl's Methodist College in South Carolina. I was nineteen years old and in the middle of my student teaching experience in an inner city middle school. I was idealistic, naive, and believed everyone I met was good and pure and had the best intentions. In many ways, I am still that person. Being in an inner city school opened my eyes to many social and economic problems in our world and made me even more determined to 'make a difference' in the lives of my students through art education. It became a tradition for those of us who were student teaching to 'go out' to one of the college hangouts on Thursday nights to dance and have fun. My suitemate and I went out to this club to party. I remember this particular night very well, down to what I was wearing...jeans and a sleeveless red top. There were two little buttons at my neck that were made of bamboo. It had a slight casual oriental influence to it.

We were drinking Tequila Sunrises. The song (The Eagles) by the same name was a hit at the time. The music was loud and the dance floor was full. He must have sensed I needed someone to talk to. He pulled me off the dance floor and sat me at the bar beside him. We talked and laughed. We shared what we were doing with our lives. Me? I was student teaching in a middle school art classroom in an inner city school. Him? He was older than me and he said he was working. He was vague about where he worked. He asked me questions about my teaching and listened to me talk about my students. I told him how I wanted to save them all. I told him about the low income students. I told him about the latch key kids and the single parent homes where the mom was working three jobs to keep up. I told him about the young man who cut school more than he came to school. He saw the stars of idealism in my eyes. I told him how I thought I could reach the unreachable, at-risk students through the arts. The supportive non-verbal communication he gave me was exactly what I needed so I poured my heart out to him. As I did, he poured the tequila into me. I was very involved in our conversation so I lost count of the number of drinks. The later the night, the louder it got in the club. He asked me if I would go outside with him where it was quieter and we could hear each other. I agreed. Once outside he touched my arm and steered me towards his car. I thought it was to have a place to sit and talk. He said we were going for a ride. Being under the influence of alcohol plus being a very naïve and trusting person, I was in no condition to disagree. In my wildest dreams, I never expected what would happen next.

He placed me into his red VW. He became quiet and serious. I asked him where we were going and he wouldn't answer my question. He made turns and ended up at the end of a dark street where there were no streetlights or houses. I had no clue where we were or still no idea of what was about to happen. He got out of the car and came around to my door. He jerked it open and yanked me out of the car by grabbing and twisting my wrist. It was at that moment that I knew something was terribly wrong. He shoved me up against the car and was squeezing my wrist very hard. I tried to wrestle away but that only made his grip harder. It is funny how fear can sober one up quickly because I sobered up very fast. I told him to stop, let go of me, as I tried to pull away from him. It was then that I saw the knife in his other hand. He pushed me against his car. His legs were bracing me, his hand was on my wrist so tight that the circulation was cut off, and he had a knife at my throat. I couldn't move. I was a tiny girl…between 105 and 110 pounds. I kept begging him to let go of me. He dropped my wrist and told me if I ran he would catch me and hurt me. He kept the knife at my throat. He began to undo the button and zipper on my jeans. I cried and begged. He kept repeating in my ear that I wanted this and that I knew it. NO,NO,NO... I would cry and say that he was wrong. He pushed me halfway on my back on the car and unzipped his pants and began to rape me. During the act, he repeatly said that I wanted this as I cried. His words, "You know you want this" still ring in my ear. When he finished, he walked away and told me to get my panties and jeans back on and to pull myself together. He said I got what I wanted. I knew he was wrong. I had not wanted this. When I told him he was wrong he laughed and asked why did I leave with him if I hadn't wanted it. I had no answer. I felt shame and embarrassment. I got back in the car slowly. He drove as if nothing had happened. I was quietly crying the entire trip back; afraid to say anything. When we got back to the club, he told me to get out of the car. But as I was getting out, he grabbed my wrist, which was beginning to bruise and swell, and said that if I told anyone what happened it would get back my college and my family. My reputation would be ruined and I would never be allowed to finish my student teaching. I was as confused as ever. He had convinced me that what happened was my fault. He did not come back into the club. I wondered why. He practically threw me out of his car and drove off.

I stumbled back into the club where I found my roommate. She was having a great time. I was crying and said that we needed to leave. She blew me off at first and kept dancing. I grabbed her and made her look at me. It was then that she actually SAW me and knew we DID need to leave. When we got in the car, I would not tell her what had happened. We rode in silence with the exception of my quiet sobs. Back at the dorm, my other roommate (our mother hen) was still awake. She looked shocked when she saw me and asked what was wrong. All I said was that I was "screwed up". I told her that I had sex with a guy I didn't know well and I was ashamed. I had already accepted that this was my fault. I was to blame. I asked for it. I was embarrassed. I was a bad girl. I knew no one would understand or believe me when I told them that I said NO and I meant it. I went back to that particular club one more time and panicked, afraid that I would see 'him.' I never saw him again but I will never forget his face, his voice, and his name. As the days passed after that horrific night, I began to dig a hole in my mind and bury the memory of the rape. Like many rape victims, I became more promiscuous, at least by my definition. After all I was a "bad girl" so I had to act the part. I had asked for "it" that night. I had wanted "it" that night. So days turned to weeks and weeks to months. The memory of the rape was deeply embedded in the recesses of my mind. Finally it came time to graduate. I left Columbia, SC with those same idealistic stars in my eyes to go out into the world save our children through the arts. Several years later, I was hanging out with my yoga teacher. He was much older and had become a good friend. He was earning a Masters in Counseling and at his age he had many life experiences. I am not sure how it happened but one day I told him about that night. I told him how ashamed and guilty I felt. He took me by my shoulders and made me look directly at him. He asked if I realized that I was raped. I started crying. He explained that when I said NO, that it became rape. He told me the force that was used, the knife and threats made it rape. It was at the very moment that I began to heal. My friend believed me. I never believed that anyone would believe me. My healing didn't happen overnight. Over the course of several years, I spoke with a few counselors. Twice was in the context of marriage counseling, which did not prevent a divorce. The rape would always rear its ugly head at some point in our counseling sessions. In my late 30s, I earned my Masters Degree in Counseling, which in a roundabout way helped me deal with my rape. Most recently, after the death of my father and previously the death of my mother, I saw a counselor to help me through my overwhelming grief. I found out that the loss of my parents triggered the anxiety that I still kept buried regarding the rape. I was diagnosed with mild PTSD. Writing about the rape, along with medication has helped me to process this horrible event once again. So I continue to heal. Whenever appropriate, I talk to young girls about my experience and how they can possibly prevent this from happening to them. That not only helps them but it helps me. Until we get society to accept that NO means NO, sadly these incidents will continue to happen.

It is very disheartening to hear an elected official, Republican Todd Akin claim that "legitimate rape" doesn't result in pregnancy, I stopped cold in my tracks when I heard that on the news..That is just plain stupidity. Sadly enough, the thing that troubles me the most isn't only his choice of words; it's the implication behind them. By referring to this crime as "legitimate rape," Akin is implying that there is such a thing as illegitimate rape, as though the female body has some kind of magical defense mechanism to ward off unwanted sex. Even if that were true, we are ignoring the most concrete thing that separates other forms of sexual activity from rape: consent. Resistance in any form should be enough to solve any question as to whether or not a woman actually wanted to have sex.

Words and actions don't seem to matter. This is why so many women do not report a rape. That is why I didn't. It's not enough for her to have refused. Anything from the way the she dressed to how many sexual partners she had previously can change the entire outcome of a rape case, placing the blame on the her instead of the rapist. This completely ignores any attempts that she may have made to prevent the encounter, including saying no outright. Society as a whole has a huge problem with accepting the fact that no means no. Just take a look at some of the shows on TV today; many feature a woman turning down a man's advances, but the man refuses to give up, as though she didn't really mean what she said. Verbal denial is one of the easiest ways to let someone know that you dislike their actions, and yet words are also the easiest things to ignore. If we can't even listen to verbal cues, how are we supposed to believe that people will pick up on the physical ones? How are we supposed to teach people that consent is not given if the victim is too drunk to make proper decisions? There is much work to be done in the area of educating our female and male children in this area of consent and sexual advances so that when she says NO, he will stop.


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Gwenette Westbrooks