We were lying in bed on a Tuesday night, after a marathon, multi-orgasmic session. Julie's head was on my chest and we were pondering what would come of "us." We'd met only a few nights before, at my going-away party. I was leaving Washington state and moving to Colorado. She was the friend of a friend, had swept me off my feet at the party and suddenly become a very real presence in my life. And, we thought, maybe for a long time to come.
We felt what you feel with someone you haven't known very long but whom you feel you've known for eternity, when you feel as though you're immune to any tragedy or malfeasance that may have crossed their path prior to your union, like there is nothing to stand in the way of your happiness, present or future.
As in many apartments of people in their 20s, the surfaces in Julie's -- bookshelves, dresser and coffee table -- were adorned with stars and moons, an ode to the fragile idealism and hopefulness that we all feel coming out of college. Lying on her big bed that night, cool crisp sheets barely covering our hypersexed bodies, I noticed a conspicuous absence in the celestial accoutrements department. "Why don't you have any of those glow-in-the-dark star things on your ceiling?"
"I was raped under stars like that."
Her response came like a bullet. My silence enveloped the room for what seemed an infinite period before I hugged her close and said to this woman I'd known all of four days, "I hope you'll tell me what happened at some point."
This was the only response I could offer, because there was nothing else I could say. I also said it because, to my dismay, I'd offered it before and knew that it was supportive but not overbearing. Julie was not the first woman I'd been with since my college years who had been raped or assaulted, or molested by a family member as a child. And she wasn't the last.
Learning that Julie had been raped came very early in our relationship, but for the most part, the women I've dated have not revealed the devastating experiences of their past until much later. Since 1989 I have had relationships with nine women. Some lasted a couple of months; others went much longer. Six of those women were victims of some form of sexual assault. For years I struggled with these relationships. By nature, I'm empathetic, and I'm drawn to women I can nurture. Perhaps it was that trait that drew these women to me.
As time passed, however, I came to realize it was a combination of who I am, and the tragic truth about our society. While my experiences seem statistically unusual, the anecdotal evidence of friends supports the horrible truths about assault and rape -- it is not a rarity, and that fact is supported by research. A 1999 study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that nearly 100,000 children were the victims of sexual abuse during 1997. And a survey of high school students last year by the Commonwealth Fund showed that 12 percent of girls and 5 percent of boys had been sexually abused. The numbers increase for adults: About 1.5 million women are raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States, according to a Justice Department report from 1998. A 1992 report from the National Center for Victims of Crime asserts that one out of every three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.
My relationship with Julie continued after I moved away. Our romance was heady and fun: Letters and care packages came a few times a week, phone calls every night and lots of phone sex -- a first for both of us. But one day when I picked up my mail and went to a local mountain diner for lunch and to savor her latest romantic prose, I had the wind knocked out of me. One evening, while she'd cooked a nice dinner and drank a bottle of wine by herself, she chose to write me, in detail, the horrible story of her rape in college. Her aggressor was another student who stopped by her room one night and proceeded to physically and mentally torture her for 12 hours, before leaving her for dead.
I read the letter four times, pushing away my lunch and feeling physically sick. How could this asshole exist? How could he have done such awful things to someone I cared so much about? How could she have turned out as wise, solid and together as I thought she was? And how could we have had the best sex I'd ever experienced in my life with this in her past? It confounded me and made me rethink every previous relationship where these issues had been present. And it left me feeling more helpless than I ever had before. There I was, 1,000 miles away from her, with no recourse, no way to even express with a bear hug how sorry I was that this had happened.
But not once, then, did I think her choice of reportage -- writing me a long letter that completely blindsided me -- was in any way a sign of instability, either in her or in the relationship. But the letter and its resultant issues set off a string of events, both in person and by e-mail (the worst form of emotional communication ever to exist), that ended our relationship a couple of months later. In retrospect I was able to see that instead of telling me this story in person (we had plans to see each other a few weeks later) or even telling me this story during one of our marathon phone sessions, her choice of communicating the story to me portended that she was still dealing with the assault. I admire her still for telling me at all, but for no fault of hers and no fault of mine, it opened a chasm between us that grew wider over time.
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These relationships have left me with wounds of my own, yet they're of a far different sort than that pain inflicted upon these women. Anytime I now find myself getting close to a woman, whether as a friend or lover, there's a nagging question in the back of my mind: "Has she been raped?"
Anne, my first serious girlfriend after college, was an angry, bitter woman who most of my friends called a bitch. I was always telling myself that the person she was in public wasn't the same warm, romantic person she was when we were alone. But I was in denial and tended to exclude the horrible ways she treated me in between bouts of goodness.
When Anne was a preteen, the older son of her mother's boyfriend molested her. She never dealt with it, instead choosing to date only "good Christian boys" and remaining a virgin until a few months into our relationship. Her experience sent her straight into a psychology program in college, and she worked professionally with sexually aggressive children. Our relationship lasted nine months, and our sex life became good over time. Yet, during those nine months Anne told me that she wasn't attracted to me physically -- only mentally.
At age 24, I wasn't prepared to deal with how that statement made me feel, though over time I realized she wasn't being honest with herself, or with me. My relationship with Anne ended with both of us feeling like we should be in therapy, although in the back of my mind I was thinking more of her need for professional help than my own.
"I don't know how to help you," I said in one of our teary breakup conversations. "I don't know what kind of help I need," she replied. Thankfully, over the ensuing years, she did seek help. A few years later, in a somewhat bizarre letter, she confessed a still-constant, deep love for me that I couldn't have conceived possible during our relationship, and she apologized for the horrible ways she'd treated me. That was too much for me to handle, and she and I lost touch.
But through my experience with Anne, where her victimization was discussed only a few times, I learned a lot from silence. The perspective of a few years, and that letter she wrote, also allowed me to interpret the silence and find some closure to a relationship I felt I'd left hanging. It helped me understand that her bitterness and anger had nothing to do with me, and while she wasn't looking for my help at the time, that love and support I'd offered rather unconditionally had helped her move forward in the ensuing years.
As a partner, I've always derived the most pleasure from pleasing my lover. Guys can pretty much have an orgasm at the drop of a dime, while women often experience pleasure in waves that can build and build and, hopefully, climax in an amazing, lengthy orgasm. So, as the guy, I've always wanted to help build and build. Unfortunately, the next woman I dated, Sue, enjoyed intercourse, but had never masturbated and had never experienced an orgasm.
Sue, a very tall, gorgeous, model type, was by far the most conventionally striking woman I'd dated. Yet, I sensed something might be wrong one of the first times we slept together. Our passion for each other first manifested itself one night with a six-hour, clothes-on, make-out session on my bed. Another night soon after, the clothes came off and my hands instinctively traveled down her thighs. She locked me out, literally, keeping her knees slammed together, even with gentle, repeated encouragement from me. I thought it was strange, and even thought it more bizarre when she then reached for a condom and asked if we could make love.
Sue, I discovered a month later, had recently started pulling things out of her repressed memory, fueled in part by conversations she'd had with her sister. Sue's sister had never forgotten that their grandfather often touched them sexually as children, but never discussed the matter with Sue. I offered an ear, a warm heart and plenty of support, but Sue wasn't close to being ready to face the issue herself, let alone with her partner. And, still being a somewhat horny 25-year-old, I learned the hard way that a woman can't have an orgasm unless she wants to, no matter how hard her partner tries. Sue's issues eventually became mine, and she also became the only woman I ever lost my attraction to and love for, regardless of her beauty and warmth. I damned her grandfather for hurting her so terribly, and taking away her ability to truly feel pleasure.
It's been 10 years since I first learned that a girlfriend had had a tragic incident like this in her past. I've often tried to define its effect on women close to me, our intimacies and my own development, and I've often looked for some commonality in the collection of stories that now exist. There is none.
When I discover an issue like this in a woman's past, it makes we wonder: How does that contribute to her depth that so attracts me now? Every time, the answer is different. Yet an even more immediate, yet ridiculous, question I ask myself, "Is she normal?" has never once been answered "no."
Whatever tragedy and horror befell each woman in the past, it likely contributed to, and helped define, the vibrancy and intellect I find so appealing. Each woman has enriched my life and brought me happiness. Each relationship was different, and even with the common thread of devastation running through them, no two experiences were the same.
I now find myself lucky to be involved with someone who hasn't experienced this type of tragedy in her past. But, as I've learned, there are no perfect upbringings and everyone has stories to tell -- experiences that have shaped who they are. I hope that sexual assault never comes into my life again, but if there's one thing I've learned throughout these experiences, it's that my wish is likely idealistic. Still, I'd rather be a dreamer than a cynic.