THE MISTAKE: When No Means No By: Marlon leTerrance
It's an issue that burrows itself into the darkest corner of our community's closet. People just do not want to talk about it. They swerve around the issue, attempting to avoid the problem the way observant motorists avoid potholes. Some folks would rather pretend like it's not even an issue at all. Ask them to point out their opinion and they cook up distasteful one-liners that emphasize their discomfort with the question. Other folks prefer to wish the problem away - somehow convincing themselves that if they just ignore it long enough, it will disappear.
The issue is rape.
And it hasn't disappeared.
I was eight years old when I first witnessed an incident of sexual assault. My buddies and I were the neighborhood's Peeping Toms; we saw almost everything that we weren't supposed to see. And rape - along with drug dealing and violence - was one of the things we witnessed the most often.
At the time, we thought it was normal. Two teenagers wrestling in the back seat of a Monte Carlo; the female groaning "Stop" and "Hold Up," while the male cajoled her with a soothing "I'll Be Easy" and "Just Let Me Go Half Way." The ending culminated with whispery whimpers of the female crying, and the raspy sounds of the guy apologizing to her and prophesizing that everything will be all right.
Two days later we saw the two teenagers holding hands and kissing in the park, beside the basketball court. The lesson this taught my buddies and me was crystal clear - she had said no, but didn't mean it. Our understanding of sex and sexual assault was still immature and underdeveloped. For us, sex education lied between the tattered pages of an out-dated Hustler's magazine. Every now and again, a hip teenager would boast about his countless conquests, and we would all stare up at him in awe - hardly able to wait for the day when we could wrestle in the back of a Monte Carlo too.
For about three years, I carried this ignorance along with me like a picture tucked inside a worn-out wallet. Sex, not love, was the ultimate field goal attempt. On the third year, the realities of rape came banging on my front door at three o'clock in the morning.
I remember my mother scrambling out of bed, cursing. Sounds of things falling to the floor when the door opened sent panic messages to my brain. At first, I thought it was an intruder. I bolted out of bed and stormed into the living room, prepared to defend my mother and our home. Instead, I was greeted with the frightening sight of my aunt Tam - on her knees, crying, and squeezing my mother around the waist. I stood there, paralyzed for a moment, not quite comprehending the situation.
The images of that night would haunt a tender part of my youth. I will never forget the torn brown blouse, the bloodied lip, nor the desperate, almost mad way in which my aunt clung onto my mother. I remember hearing my aunt ramble on and on about a bastard who wouldn't stop when she told him to. Confusion overwhelmed me. Had someone hurt her? I was able to overhear a few other perplexing remarks before my mother yelled out at me and demanded that I go back to bed.
The next day, at school, I asked my homies to help me find a guy named Bastard. Armed with baseball bats and misplaced courage, I was certain that we could exact revenge. My great aunt Roz laughed at me when she found out about our quest. She sat me down one morning and gave me my second lesson on sex. "Ain't no sense in you getting all mad bout it. It's her fault. I told her over and over again bout walking around dressed like some heifer. She always hanging around in them clubs at all times of the night, flirting with them hoodlums. She brought it all on herself. What was she doing at the fool's house that late at night, anyway? I ain't stupid, boy. And you shouldn't be either."
Aunt Roz's words represented the sentiments of many folks in the neighborhood. At church, the whispers of several old ladies gossiping highlighted aunt Tam's guilt. She had been put on trial by the community and had been sentenced to a life of shame. Instead of trying to discover the identity of the man who had raped her, the old ladies in church wanted to know what she was wearing. Consequently, my buddies and I stopped looking for Bastard. Obviously, he had done nothing wrong. Still, the image of my aunt Tam on the floor, clinging onto my mother by the waist, never quite faded.
Today, my family refers to aunt Tam's rape as "The Mistake." Over a dozen years later, the pillars of my family and my community are still unable to tackle the issue of rape head on. They hide behind the illusion of religion and self-worth in order to point guilty fingers at the flaws of others. They are fake, wannabe-important lapdogs who hide from any issue that threatens to disrupt the harmony inside their fancy little doghouses.
According to Dr. David G. Curtis, a clinical Psychologist, only about five percent of acquaintance rapes (date rapes) are reported. It is not hard for me to imagine why many females opt out of seeking legal action. In a community that lets criminals off the hook by persecuting the victim, most women would rather attempt to heal themselves than have their pain and suffering turned into a public spectacle. Yet, the self-healing solution never really works. Dr. Claire Siliotti, director of a volunteer Rape Response Team in New York, argues that rape "isn't something a female can just 'get over' like a sprained ankle or broken arm. When a woman is raped, she is violated completely - physically, mentally, and spiritually." And, in my eyes, the violation continues when the response of the community is to blame the victim.
In an article on sisterspace.com, Charollette Pierce-Baker, author of Surviving The Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape, explained her dilemma. "The one thing I didn't want was pity. I bought into the whole mythology of rape. I felt this had sullied me or dirtied me in some way. I thought it made me less touchable."
I charge the community with "accessory to the crime of rape after the fact" when it sits on a high horse and attempts to degrade women for seeking justice. Those nice old ladies in my church who were so quick to shower my aunt with shameful accusations and demeaning glances, only served to make a horrible situation even worse. It may have given those bored hypocrites something to gossip about during Monday Night Bingo, but their response shattered a life that was already broken.
About five years ago, before she died of breast cancer, I asked my aunt Tam to tell me what happened that night. I listened as she recounted, for the first time, the night that would change her life.
"The guy was a Deacon in the church. That's why I kept quiet about it. I knew no one would believe me. So I just told people it was a stranger I'd met at a club." Her voice was solemn and coarse. The irony of her words angered me. No one believed her even when she claimed the guy was a stranger.
Over the past twelve years, I've had the opportunity to talk with several convicted rapists. All too often, they argued that the female wanted it to happen. "She was a whore..." "Everybody else had had her..." "How can she expect me to just stop in the middle of the act?" These guys seemed to believe they were innocent. To them, a rapist was a lunatic who attacked female joggers in a park with switchblades. The idea of date rape and sexual assault being a serious crime was dismissed as an inner-city reality. Even amidst my disgust, a part of me couldn't help but to wonder if they too had learned about the laws of intimacy through the steamed up windows of a Monte Carlo.
Rape is too serious of an issue to be stuffed in the closet. Parents have to explain to their children, be they male or female, that "No" means "No." Otherwise, those little old ladies will have something else to gossip about come Monday night.
Marlon leTerrance is a regular contributer to BlackElectorate.com and can be reached via e-mail at: MarlonLeTerrance@aol.com
Tuesday, June 11, 2002