Growing up in a liberal, college town, I frequented the art house theater where I stood in the ticket line alongside college students with labret piercings and grey-haired white couples and what I assumed to be serious environmentalists in thin-rimmed glasses and fleece outerwear. After coating my popcorn in a spongy layer of nutritional yeast, I watched films like The Sheltering Sky, Mind Walk, My Own Private Idaho, and Boxing Helena. “Gnarly” was my typical review, by which I meant heavy, strange, or fucking disturbing, man! The world felt infinite then and in the screen unfolded refraction after refraction.
Then, in my late-twenties, after I’d moved from the West Coast to a Midwestern city, I started watching American Idol, The O.C., and any number of procedural crime dramas. I paid to watch Dodgeball in the theater. Same with Love Actually. I may have even gone to a Nicolas Sparks movie, but then maybe I just watched it at home on TBS. I had TBS on all the time. Sweet Home Alabama. How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days. Miss Congeniality. I’d begun working fulltime at a rape crisis center, and after talking sexual assault for eight hours, shallow TV and some Two-Buck Chuck helped mute my day and ease me to sleep.
The center’s prevention educator, I stood in front of teens, college students, juvenile detainees, and community groups with GOT CONSENT? sprawled in white letters across my black t-shirt (it’s true, even rape crisis centers riffed on that milk ad). I presented on the spectrum of sexual assault, dating violence, and violence in the media, teaching how to recognize a perpetrator’s premeditation, grooming, and even their thinking, and illustrating how they displayed this behavior in the open in an attempt to groom their environment, not just their targets. I fielded comments like, “Why did she go to his hotel room if she didn’t want it?” and “She wasn’t even, like, crying so there’s no way that was rape,” and “If a guy rapes a guy, that’s gay.” On the regular I presented for seven classroom periods a day, three days a week, and though my throat burns even now as I think of it, I enjoyed outing perpetrators and spotlighting their culpability. I could eat well and sleep well and carry on with my personal life while doing so, at least at first. It was what happened around rape to perpetuate it—rape culture, as it’s often called—that took its toll.
One time in the ER, I held a woman’s hand as a nurse asked her hostile questions while swabbing evidence from her genitals. The nurse believed the woman was a sex worker, and implied as much, saying, “You sure you didn’t get any money from him?” Horrified, I did my best to deflect and comfort the woman as she lay there, legs spread open to the additional violation that is criminal justice. Another time, I visited a teen victim who was accompanied by her mother and stepfather. The parents declined my support and the girl deferred, and as I stepped back out to the other side of the hospital curtain, I heard the stepdad tell the girl, “Now don’t abuse me with this. I don’t want you thinking you can abuse me now.”
In helping people identify and name rape culture, I came to see it everywhere and keenly. I saw it when guys laughed only at other guys’ jokes, when they didn’t engage with me because they’d relegated me to one of my boyfriend’s belongings, when they re-centered a conversation on what they felt was their own more deserving point, when they hung beer posters of women in bikinis in their frat houses or indie rock practice spaces, when their girlfriends and wives defended them. Rape culture was essentially the patriarchy, and it undermined male, female, and non-binary survivors alike (and everyone else, too, for that matter).
Mundane interactions became increasingly difficult. When someone asked, I would say what I did for a living and then watch them shift foot-to-foot in awkward silence. I sometimes brought up sexual assault in casual settings to the discomfort of others; I never knew if I’d been inappropriate or hit up against the conspiracy of silence that perpetuated the crime. I drank too much, became hair-triggered, and nearly started several bar fights. (I was 5’2” and weighed 107 pounds.) My frustration and sadness grew unbearable under the daily, even hourly, reminders that the world was set up to assist men in taking what they wanted without consequence. Many times, driving down the freeway, I stifled the urge to ram the cement divider, pull a hard left, and let my car flip and flip.
Compounding my desperation was the reality that teaching about sexual assault did not, personally, free me from it. I provided backup on our crisis helpline and not infrequently a male caller would pose as a victim for a few minutes before the soft slapping of his masturbation would become audible. I lived in the campus area of the city where serial rapists were common, and at one point while two stranger rapists were active, a man sat on the stoop of an empty apartment across from my house for several days, watching me come and go. I slept always with a flathead screwdriver next to my bed. I mentally rehearsed self-defense moves whenever I walked alone.
Then, a couple of years into my mounting anger, the issue detonated at home, at the place I felt safest from the fight. My boyfriend and I had started getting lazy about using condoms, so one afternoon while we were both fully clothed, I sat him down at the kitchen table and said in very concrete terms that it was not okay for him to put his penis in me if he wasn’t wearing a condom. I told him I had to trust him to put one on first—that that was my expectation moving forward. He agreed, and though we fought often, the conversation had gone well—I believed. About a month later, in what I thought was foreplay, he went ahead and shoved inside of me without any protection. He didn’t hold me down when I pushed him off, but he had penetrated me without my consent—the definition of rape. It didn’t look much like what I talked about all day at work, but I felt its betrayal; within our contentious relationship, it was a sucker punch, one that told me the boundaries I set didn’t and wouldn’t matter. I broke up with him, and he moved across the country, and I felt bereft in his wake.
On weekends I’d get up late, often with a hangover, and watch TV until the afternoon. Trading Spaces—so much Trading Spaces—and one of those TBS movies. Between shows, I’d pet my cat, I’d scramble eggs, I’d loosen my shoulders beneath the blast of a shower head until evening came, and I’d meet up with friends again at one bar or another. On Monday, I’d drive to a new neighborhood or suburb and talk to teenagers for six or seven hours in a way I hoped made them question, even for a second, what they were entitled to and what they deserved.
It was after failing a group of medical support staff that I realized I had to quit. I’d been asked to present on sexual harassment, but as it turned out the only staff who attended the presentation were the ones being harassed. The surgeons—the harassers—had a different boss who had not required them to show up. One of the evaluations said something like, “We’re drowning here and you’re describing the water.” Can you imagine?
When I told friends about giving my notice, I said, “Ignorance is bliss and I need more of that.” It came off as a joke, but it was the truth: I needed to know less about the sexual assault that happens constantly to us and around us. I needed to forget a little, to set down the magnifying glass and let my eyes readjust before I was consumed by the anger I felt, and the alienation. I wanted to go back to thinking about rape from time to time—when I felt particularly vulnerable or when it was in the news.
Talking in jest about leaving helped me sidestep my guilt about it; I was walking away from a war that ruined, and even took, lives daily, but I didn’t know how to continue to function while seeing so clearly how even average people enabled rape. As conflicted as I was, I wanted to survive, which is also what ignorance is—a survival skill.
I moved back to Northern California where I still live, where people tend to slap their values on the bumpers of their cars. Along with Ignorance Is Bliss, its cousin sometimes motors past: If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention. I shake my head because I’ve been to that edge and dangled my toes over; I know outrage has its limits. It may mean you’re paying attention, but it also may mean you’re a danger to yourself. It may mean you’re less useful. Likely every person could be doing more to make the world better, and we who care have to live with that tension, with finding the balance of doing enough but not too much, of knowing and acting without drowning. Maybe that means heading home from a political rally to watch some really bad, and even problematic, TV. Maybe that means forgiving ourselves and each other for the moments when we’re out of integrity. Maybe that means allowing ourselves to take up post somewhere other than the frontline.
After going back to school I began working again in a helping, and even related, profession—but at a much more sustainable distance. Out to drinks with a colleague one night, we talked about something seemingly unrelated, making long-term relationships work, and he offered the best advice he’d heard: “It helps if you can try to be a little bit deaf and a little bit blind.” It made me think not of my new boyfriend but of leaving the rape crisis center, and though I could feel the vestiges of young me wanting to argue with him, I did not.
Kara Vernor’s fiction and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review, Smokelong Quarterly, All of Me: Love, Anger and the Female Body, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation scholarship, and her fiction chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, is available from Split Lip Press.
Photo by Kara Vernor