It was around 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning and I was sitting on a bench in my college’s police department waiting outside a closed door. My eyes were heavy and sore. I stared down at my boots, the leather toes milky and stained from sloshing through snow and salt on the February city streets. I leaned my elbows on my knees and pressed my hands together, folding into myself, making myself small. I counted my breaths—four counts to inhale, hold my breath for four, four counts to exhale, hold for four. This is called square breathing. I learned it from a silver-haired shrink who I saw for a few months in high school. Square breathing is supposed to make you feel like you have control. I sat on the bench in the police department outside the closed door fighting to hold together my square.
On the other side of the door was a girl I had met only hours earlier. Her name was Ellen. She was from New Hampshire, and she was 19 years old—10 months older than me. Ellen was small, shorter than my 5’5 frame; her straight dark brown hair was cut to her shoulders and she wore it parted on the side. Her brown eyes were framed in black eyeliner, and she’d brushed glitter across her olive cheekbones. I pictured her on the other side of the door with her eyeliner smudged and the glitter sticky and wet on her chin from tears dragging the flecks down her face. I sat on the bench and listened to her cry through the door.
I met Ellen at a fraternity house party in Boston earlier that Saturday night. I was a freshman in college, and on that night, like most of my Saturday nights that year, I set out across the city with my two girlfriends, Alex and Emily, to drink cheap beer and sweat through my clothes. The fraternity house was a big brownstone with a white spiral staircase and a balcony and creaky wood floors. The ceilings were tall and photographs of the fraternity classes dating back to the ’50s hung on the walls in golden frames. On the second floor, there was a study with a fireplace and shelves from floor to ceiling packed with books, their spines snug and stiff. In the basement there was a bar and a pool table the brothers used for drinking games. Most of the people at the party collected in the basement, pooling like stale beer at the bottom of an empty keg. That’s where I met Ellen, in the basement.
I sat on a barstool leaning my elbows on the counter and drank warm beer out of a red plastic cup while I watched my friends dance. The music was loud, and I could feel the bass in my chest, the beat reverberating against my rib cage. A girl wearing a black dress with glitter on her cheeks came and sat next to me.
“Hi, I’m Ellen,” she said, and plopped down on a stool.
Ellen was visiting one of the fraternity’s brothers. He was her friend from high school and she drove up for the night to party with him. She was on a gap year. She’d graduated the same year as me, and had deferred her acceptance to a college on the East Coast. She was living at home, working to make money for school, and taking some time to slow down, she said. She was burned out after high school, she told me. We talked for a while, shouting over the music and laughing, and then Ellen finished her beer and hopped off the stool to go dance.
Girls dance and boys watch. This is what I’ve learned. This is what we’ve learned. Under the low lights, in our short, tight clothes, we pulse and dip. Our eyes look out from under blackened eyelashes, trying to catch a glimpse from across the room, or maybe watching for what’s coming. Our backs arch, unfurling each vertebrae and spines curling like the stems on flowers. Our knees are strong. We bend like hinges. Our hips press into the beat, and our bodies throb as the bass enters our bones, wraps around our muscles, and moves us to the rhythm of the song. Our chests are open, princess collarbones framing our breasts. We showcase ourselves; we hang ourselves up because we are beautiful and brilliant and crafted like art. We perform like we’ve learned to since we were young girls, and when a stranger walks up from behind us and grabs our hips we’re not shocked by this entitlement. We continue to dance.
We’ve been conditioned through television, movies, magazines, music and advertisements to see ourselves through another’s gaze—this male gaze. We construct ourselves through this lens. We live in our skin, but look at it through another’s eyes. We dance with a trained and internalized misogyny, tailoring our looks, bodies, actions and words to please. On that Saturday night, like most Saturday nights, there we were dancing, many of us fully aware of this gaze, but under its spell still, twisting our bodies in ways we’ve perfected over years of watching, learning and thinking that this is how we’re meant to behave—ass out, chin down, voices high and soft. Across the room, a boy is watching. He stands with his legs spread apart, hands on his hips, chest puffed out practicing this tango we’re both trapped in. It doesn’t always look like it, but he’s dancing too.
Later in the evening, I wandered upstairs to the study with the tall shelves. The upstairs was mostly empty; a few people paired off and leaned against walls, their drunken eyes talking about desire. Red plastic cups sat emptied and used on the staircase. The music playing in the basement was faint and muffled, a pillow pressed over a talking face. I walked into the study and found Ellen lying on a couch. She was falling asleep.
“Hey, Ellen,” I said and sat down on the couch opposite her. She waved and yawned. Emily and Alex also came upstairs, and they were talking and drinking some cups of water. We’ll go home soon, we agreed. We would catch the last train back to our campus downtown. We sat in a pile with our legs crossed, dangling tired feet, and leaning heads on each other’s shoulders.
While we sat, delaying putting on our coats and stepping into Boston’s winter temperatures, a boy had stumbled down the stairs from his room and walked over to Ellen, who was nearly asleep on the couch. He stood over her for a moment, and then leaned down and grabbed her ankle. He started to pull. He pulled on her leg, dragging her slack body across the couch. Alex stood up.
“Hey, stop it, man,” Alex said. He didn’t even look over. Ellen’s skirt was riding up, and her hair was plastered across her face covering her eyes. He held her by the leg and tugged. He was drunk and shirtless and he ignored Alex, a young woman who did not like to be ignored. He held Ellen by her ankle.
“Come upstairs,” he demanded. Ellen shook her head and said no. “C’mon, come upstairs,” he pulled harder. Her skirt was scrunched up around her waist and you could see her underwear. Emily walked over and sat beside Ellen, putting her arm around her protectively.
“Seriously, stop it,” Alex repeated. “She doesn’t want to go upstairs.”
I walked over to the couch and stood in front of him, “Hey, she doesn’t want to go upstairs, OK? Go back to your room and go to sleep,” I said. He got angry and raised his voice.
“You don’t live here,” he said, raising his voice. “This is my house and I can do whatever I want to do.”
He was loud and tall, and flung his arms out to the side, making his body appear larger like animals do when they feel threatened. I backed up a little, startled. I looked around the room. Where was everyone else who lived here? I wondered.
Across the room, I saw another brother sitting slumped in a sofa chair, barely visible in the dimly lit corner.
“Do you know him?” I asked, pointing to the drunken aggressor.
“Yeah,” he said, not moving. “Yo man, you have a girlfriend, remember?” he called across the room, a little slurred.
The aggressor gave no reply, and the brother did not move from his chair. He just watched from the corner, motionless and indifferent.
The drunken boy tried to move around me to get to Ellen again, but I put my arm out in his way.
“Get out of my fucking house,” he said and put his two hands on my shoulders and shoved me backwards. I stumbled and hit the coffee table. Emily gasped and stood and Alex moved in front of me, throwing her arms up.
“Don’t you fucking touch her,” Alex shouted, her curls shaking.
Emily rose and crossed the room. “We need to go now,” she said. She grabbed Ellen’s hand and helped her to her feet, talking in my ear, “We can’t leave her here, in a house full of drunk boys. I think we should take her back with us.”
“Ellen, do you want to come home with us?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
The drunken brother was standing over the couch, swaying and cursing.
“Ellen, we’re taking you with us. Where’s your coat?” Ellen pointed to the bookshelves. We grabbed our jackets and purses and we left the house.
We took a cab across Boston and back to our campus. We wanted to take Ellen to a safe place. We planned to have her sleep in our dormitory so she could sober up and go back to the fraternity house in the morning to gather her things and retrieve her car. For now, though, she’d stay with us. In the cab on the way back, she kept apologizing for being drunk. She worried she was being a burden and she was sorry, she said. We told her to not worry—there’s no way we’d leave her in that house. We’ll sign her into our dorm as a guest for the night and she could sleep on our couch.
When we arrived at our building, however, we couldn’t bring Ellen in because she had no identification on her. We left the fraternity in a hurry, and we forgot to check and make sure she had her ID. She had forgotten her wallet. We were stopped at the elevators by two male security officers. I held Ellen’s hand tightly and she leaned on me. She was only wearing a fleece jacket and her bare legs were prickled with goose bumps. It was nearing 4 a.m., it was snowing outside and we only wanted to take Ellen to a safe, warm place. We explained what happened and asked once more if we could take her up to our room.
“This young lady looks intoxicated,” the man at the security desk said. “How old is she?” He said he had to call the campus police and the building’s resident director.
We were taken to the campus police department, a maze of narrow hallways and small rooms and blank walls. We described what happened earlier that evening to the campus officer and our resident director. We explained that we feared what would have happened if we left Ellen alone in the fraternity house. We said our most immediate concern was to get Ellen to a safe place. Their most immediate concern, however, was that Ellen was underage and had been drinking. The college police called the Boston Police; this was protocol, they told us.
Three Boston police officers arrived. Two were male and one was female. They asked us, “Who is this girl? How old is she? Where is she from? What were you doing? Were you drinking? Why did you bring her here? Is she drunk? Why did you think you could take her? What ownership do you have over her? Why didn’t you just leave her there? She said she knew one of the brothers, right? Couldn’t you have left her? Do you know what time it is?”
I didn’t speak. I couldn’t at first. I swallowed. I inhaled, counting to four, trying to gain back control. My mind was foggy from exhaustion and confusion. I felt bombarded and small, and while the officers poked us with their pointed questions and Ellen squeezed my hand and leaned her body against mine, I drifted out of the narrow hallway into my head, imagining what would have happened if we left Ellen at the house with a drunk boy holding her by her ankle.
My imagination was rooted in very real statistics—a fear that festers in women’s minds and bodies every day of our lives. Just two months earlier, my best friend was in her room with a boy, and when she said no, he locked her door and ignored her words. I had just met Ellen, but when that boy clutched her ankle and she shook her head no and he didn’t stop, I knew I couldn’t just leave her.
The two male officers said they needed to take Ellen to question her. Question her about what? I wondered. We asked if we could stay with her, and we followed Ellen as she was lead into a small room with two chairs and a desk. The male officers ignored our request. I asked again and they said no. Ellen began sobbing, her crying ripping through her body and causing her spine to bend. I watched her shrink in front of me.
“Please,” she cried. “Can they stay with me? Please?”
One of the male officers, who wore an orange vest, told me to let go of Ellen’s hand. He stepped in front of me. He put his body between Ellen and me, and because the room was tight, I was pressed against the wall with his back and boxed out of the room. The door closed in my face. She has done nothing wrong, I wanted to shout. We have done nothing wrong, I wanted to scream. But I was quiet and just stood breathing heavy with my nose a few inches from the door.
One in five women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. One fifth of our entire female population will be robbed of authority over her body and made to feel powerless. One in every five. I have memorized this statistic. I wanted to shout this number back in the faces of the officers telling us we should have left her there in the fraternity house. I wanted to yell in their faces that we did the right thing. We made Ellen one less woman to be sexually assaulted. We stopped a bad thing from happening. I wanted to throw this number in their faces, wave it in front of their eyes, and not stop until these officers understood the gravity of these statistics and felt the weight women everywhere shoulder every day.
I sat down on the bench on the other side of the closed door and looked down at my boots. My breathing was heavy. Alex and Emily were crying and sat on either side of me. I held Emily’s head and Alex clutched my hand. We had removed a young woman from a house full of men only to see her put into a room full of men. I could hear Ellen’s crying through the door and I could hear the officers tell her that if she hadn’t been drinking this wouldn’t have happened.
Just as women are taught to perform, we are taught to be on the defensive and to swallow the blame. We don’t teach men not to sexually assault, we teach women how not to be sexually assaulted. It’s been the same dance for ages, and I can’t take it.
The female officer, who had been quiet during this, walked over to the bench where we were sitting and said they were going to take Ellen down to the station and hold her for the night. There was nowhere else for her to go right now. The officer said we should leave and go back to our dormitory. We asked if we could go with Ellen. She said no. We asked if we could say goodbye and were allowed.
The door opened and Ellen walked out with the two male officers. Glitter ran down her face. We stood and all four of us wrapped ourselves around each other. Ellen apologized, saying she was so sorry this happened. This is not your fault, we told her. You’ve done nothing wrong, we told her. She was shaking. I held her and stroked her hair, tucking a few strands behind her ears. It didn’t matter that we had only met her hours earlier. We knew the same dance steps, and we feared the same thing. I held onto her, my forehead pressed against her wet cheek. But a loud voice startled me out of this and I broke out of their arms.
“Don’t make a reunion out of it,” a voice called. “Stop acting hysterical.”
I turned around to face the male officer in the orange vest. He stood with his hands on his hips, his legs spread wide.
“What?” I asked.
My tone was sharp, cutting his gaze with an edge I was raised to keep soft. I was tired of feeling small and still. I knew this word, hysterical. I knew why and how it was being used against me. I knew that it was being used to silence me. Hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystera. In the 19th century, hysteria was a common medical diagnosis for mental illness in women. And today hysteria is used to call women emotional. It’s sexist, and whether or not this male police officer knew its history and connotation, he recognized that this word was an insult and so he used it to make me quiet. Something in me disobeyed, something in me stopped my dancing and I started to unravel this thing that was wrapped around me—restricting me—my body, my voice, my power. All of these subconscious feelings drifted towards the surface and I decided I was done being on my best behavior.
“Don’t talk to me like that,” I said. “That’s sexist.”
The officer in the orange vest shrugged and walked away.
We held Ellen for a long moment, and then watched her leave with the officers.
Alex, Emily and I returned to our dorm rooms in the early morning, and our friends came over to sit with us on our beds, hug our shoulders and listen to us talk about what happened. We stayed up for hours, our bodies unable to sleep and our minds running, deliberating feverishly what we could have done differently to make Ellen safe. But there wasn’t anything more or different we could have done. We had no options. We couldn’t bend the rules, we were told, even if a young woman’s safety was at risk. We were frustrated and exhausted, and we’d never felt like our voices had mattered so little. We felt as if we had been punished for doing the right thing and now Ellen was across the city sitting on a hard cold bench in the Boston Police station only hours after a drunken boy attempted to sexually assault her.
Back at my dorm room, I went into the bathroom and cried. I leaned against the counter, holding my face in my hands. I remember my hands feeling wet and hot and I looked down and saw blood on my palms. I got a bloody nose. I grabbed some paper towels, turned on the faucet and began cleaning myself up, watching the red run in the sink through my blurry eyes. I stood in the bathroom pressing paper towels over my face and stared at myself in the mirror—wet eyes, bleeding nose and shaking hands. I recognized this feeling. I had felt it before, although it had never been this concentrated or violent.
Before this night, I’d learned my feminist vocabulary and read feminist texts and experienced 18 years of life as a female, but I had never been pushed, literally boxed out of a room, or told to pull myself together because I was being hysterical. I hate that I make myself small and talk in a quiet voice. I hate that I can’t dance for me, because I’ve been taught to dance for another. I hate that I’m always on my best behavior, but men aren’t taught not to sexually assault women. This violence is my reality. This event was not an isolated case. This happens all the time. One in every five is burned into our memory and our identity, but it shouldn’t be.
Emily slept in my bed that night, and Alex called her mom. Before going to bed, we opened our computers and found Ellen on Facebook and sent her a message asking if she was safe. We didn’t sleep much that night. The following morning we all got breakfast and talked about what we would do, what actions we would take, and how we would turn our anger into power.
A day later, we got a Facebook message from Ellen.
She was taken to the Boston Police station where she was put on a bench and told to stay until she sobered up. After an hour or so, Ellen said she didn’t feel safe and was cold and so she snuck out of the station. In the early hours of a Sunday morning in February, Ellen walked in just a fleece and ballet flats to the nearest subway station, jumped over the turnstiles because she didn’t have her pass or wallet with her and waited until the trains started running. She took the train back to the frat house, found her purse and keys, got in her car and drove home. The one job the officers had was to make sure Ellen felt safe, and they failed.
Ellen thanked us in her message and told us she was home. We messaged back and forth for a while, talking about what happened that night and swapping stories. She told us that while she was in the small room being questioned by the officers, they told her she should “get better friends.”
We continued to talk over Facebook for about a month afterward, but since then I haven’t spoken with Ellen. When I log onto Facebook, I see her posts. She shares articles about current events, Hillary Clinton and feminism. She looks happy from her photos.
A few weeks after that night, Alex, Emily and I met with the chief of police at our college. We told him about the event and how it was handled with a lack of respect and compassion, no matter how by-the-book the officers behaved. Nothing came of this. We drafted a letter to send to the Boston Globe about police conduct in the city, but never sent it. We talked about what happened a lot, and then got burned out and we haven’t talked about it since. I understand now why sexual assault is often unreported. Any justice or legal action involving the college police or city police is arduous, painful, exhausting and stressful.
Two years have passed and we haven’t done any of the things we talked about. We carried on with our lives, passing over this disruption, ignoring it like the calls that are shouted at us while we walk to work. But we can’t ignore it.
Remembering this night is like cracking open a book from my childhood that scared me. I do it with hesitance, but also with an obsession to understand what made me so afraid. About two years ago, I wanted to write this. The events were recent and my feelings of frustration and urgency and anger lit my words like fire. And I did write it, but I wrote it only for me. I wrote all the facts down, drawing a timeline, recording things that were said, hands that were laid and people involved because I didn’t want to forget. But I never sent my writing into the world because I knew it needed time.
I’m aware of the many accounts similar to mine, and to Ellen’s—a woman’s retelling of a catcall, a sexual assault, a rape. There are entire college courses devoted to this genre of literature. It is, in fact, a genre—a body of nonfiction authored by women sharing their stories, giving voice to this ugly truth, this pervasive, rampant and horrifying violence. It seems every time I open my web browser to a news site or pick up a paper or magazine, I read another story like ours.
Just in the past year, I read the story of Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University senior who carried a mattress around campus (and later created a similar performance art video for her senior thesis project titled “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol”) to protest the administration’s refusal to expel her alleged rapist. I read about Erica Kinsman, a Florida State University student who was allegedly raped by top NFL draft pick Jameis Winston, who so far has gotten off without charges and become a star player in the league. I read about the 35 women who spoke up about being sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby. I read that at Yale, 34.6 percent of undergraduate women experienced sexual assault, at the University of Michigan, 34.3 percent and at Harvard, 29.2 percent. And I fear reading the thousands more narratives folded into these statistics. I read and I read, story after story.
These have become our story, a collective story. But despite the gravity of this literature, I find myself skipping over the articles, not reading until the end, closing tabs and falling quiet during conversations on the subject because I’m exhausted.
The summer after my freshman year of college, the same year I met Ellen, I also met Gloria Steinem. My mother worked for Planned Parenthood and I volunteered at a fundraising event at which Steinem was speaking. After she spoke, I waited with my mother’s coworker, Katy, to talk to her. I was star struck upon meeting her, and while I clumsily gushed, Katy asked a question that I still think about nearly every day. She asked: “Gloria, how do you keep going? How do you keep fighting for women’s equality after all these years?”
Steinem replied, “I’m 80 years old. I’ve been fighting this fight since I was 20. That’s nearly 60 years. We do it because someone has to.”
Someone has to. I keep hearing this and repeating it in my mind. I’m now 20 years old and I’ve written this because I have to. I wrote it for us. I’m joining the collective narrative—expanding this body of literature because we have to keep telling this story until the world can’t stand to hear it anymore, until the world realizes everyone is hurting from this violence.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Raul Lieberwirth licensed under Creative Commons 2.0
Christina Bartson lives in Boston where she is a communication studies, philosophy and journalism student at Emerson College. She works in a creperie, and enjoys biking around the city and dogspotting. Find her on Twitter and on her blog.