Photo via Lotus Caroll/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Why I stopped telling jokes about my rape

Talking about college sexual assault matters. Here's my story.

Mar 1, 2020, 1:58 pm*

Internet Culture

In the spring of 2008, I went to a Passover seder with the family of my husband, Josh. The dinner was hosted by friends of Josh’s aunt and uncle, who live in a suburban Massachusetts town. There were about 25 guests sitting around a long table, including a youngish couple with their teenaged daughter.

There was a lot of wine flowing, and the mood was generally upbeat. Josh and I were about to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. The youngish father mentioned that his daughter was heading off to college the following year. Josh’s uncle, Jim, looked at her and remarked: “Watch out for the date rape drugs!”

It was an unusual thing to say at a festive holiday dinner, but Uncle Jim is a retired anesthesiologist, so his statement was received as something of an informed medical warning. I recall an awkward silence. The girl’s mother looked across the table at me, the second-youngest woman at the dinner. She smiled and said something like, “I bet you don’t miss those days.”

“What days?” I said.

College. Date rape drugs,” she said.

“Oh no, I do in fact miss those days of date rape drugs. Very much,” I deadpanned.

My joke, Uncle Jim told me, “went over like a fart in church.” (It sounded more like “a faaahhhht in chuuuhhhch” with his heavy New England accent.) After dinner, the father pulled me aside and said he thought it was inappropriate of me to make light of something as serious as date rape in front of his daughter. I looked at him, stone-faced, and asked, “Is that all?” I told my husband it was time to leave.

He had a point, though. It is inappropriate to joke about something as serious as date rape. But I suppose I always felt entitled to joke about it, because ten years earlier, I had been raped while on a date. There, I wrote it. Which is a big step, because until last week, I had never actually said it out loud.

It’s time to talk about rape

In the past few months, many courageous women have been going public, recounting their stories of sexual assault. For me, it started with Emma Sulkowicz, the student at Columbia University who has been carrying a dorm mattress strapped to her back. Then Lena Dunham revealed in her recent memoir that she was violently raped while she was heavily intoxicated in college. The backlash to that revelation, followed by Dunham’s thoughtful response to her critics, came amid a shocking series of allegations that comedian Bill Cosby—America’s quintessential dad, and the only celebrity to whom I ever wrote a fan letter as a little girl—was a serial rapist with a penchant for drugging women. Susan Dominus, writing in the New York Times Magazine earlier this month about being raped—also when she was in college—described herself as being “jolted” by these other women’s stories “into a moment of openness, an openness that reveals not just a secret, but the secrecy itself.”

So, yeah, what she said.

Yet, even as I write this, there’s a part of me thinking, who the hell am I to make a public revelation? I’m certainly not a wunderkind showrunner, or a former supermodel, or an actress. I’m a private person, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who has been professionally trained to keep myself out of the story. But I woke up on Dec. 13 at 4am and couldn’t stop thinking about this crazy, weird thing that happened 16 years ago and told my husband about it for the first time. I currently work for Twitter, where we are encouraged to “communicate fearlessly,” so that’s what I’m going to try to do.

I’m telling this story largely for myself, but also in the hopes that some teenager or college student reads this and has a playbook for what not to do in the event that she ever finds herself in the unfortunate situation I am about to describe.

It was the fall of 1998, and my senior year of college at Cornell University had just begun. After ending a three-year relationship with my first boyfriend that summer, I felt free and excited to be back at school, looking forward to all the adventures—social, academic, and hopefully romantic—that lay before me in Ithaca, New York.

One night, early on in the school year, I was out with a couple of my housemates at a Collegetown bar, where I met a guy whom I will call “Carlos.” He was Latino and athletic, with olive skin, green eyes, and a beautiful smile. He chain-smoked Marlboro Reds and was well traveled, having attended fancy European boarding schools. He had exquisite taste in clothes and tribal tattoos. He also—and this should have been a major red flag—was beginning his seventh year at Cornell as an undergraduate. Another red flag: My best friend’s then-boyfriend (now husband) whispered in my ear that he knew Carlos through a mutual friend and thought he was a “total sketchball.”

I, meanwhile, had grown up relatively sheltered in a small Long Island town and attended public school. I was a biology major studying for the MCATs. I had done so well the previous year in Introductory Biochemistry that I had raised my hand to be a TA, tutoring younger students and administering quizzes. I had a short-lived eyebrow ring, and, yes, I smoked the occasional joint. But despite the hippie-dippie exterior, I was a devoted student who practically lived at the library. As for my sexual history, it could have been described as limited, at best.

I liked the attention I was getting from this older guy with a devil-may-care smile and vaguely Spanish accent, which, in retrospect, may have been completely put on. At the end of the evening we exchanged numbers. He called the following day and invited me over for dinner. He would cook.

I don’t know what things are like on college campuses these days in the wake of the metrosexual revolution. But when I was at Cornell back in the 20th century, I knew very few guys who even had the culinary skills to cook pasta or eggs. So the idea of being wined and dined by this international man of mystery was compelling. I ignored the red flags and said yes.

This is not what consent looks like

Carlos lived in downtown Ithaca, at the base of the hill that leads all the way up to campus. His apartment was in on the bottom floor of an old Victorian house, which he shared with a roommate, a large, unfriendly Siberian husky. The floors of his apartment were stained dark brown, and he had Persian rugs and paintings by international artists on the walls. There was a gold Buddha statuette on the bookshelf alongside several self-help books. I remember one of them was called In the Meantime: Finding Yourself and the Love You Want. He saw me looking at it and told me about a recent breakup. I told him that I, too, had recently ended a relationship.

He then confessed that he didn’t have time to make dinner, just dessert, a cake that he said his mother was famous for making. He went into the kitchen and brought out a slice of cake, drizzled with some kind of raspberry coulis, for me. It was delicious, so I thought, who really cares that we’re not having dinner? I paired it with a Heineken.

The next thing I remember was being enveloped by a warm, woozy feeling. Then there are a series of blurry images, like a movie montage: us kissing on the couch, him carrying me to his bed, and then choking me while we had sex. I don’t remember saying “no,” but I also think the issue of consent, in this particular instance, is not really applicable.

I woke up the following afternoon, naked. I looked at my watch, and the first thought that went through my mind was that I had slept through my office hours for Introductory Biochemistry. I crawled to the bathroom because, I discovered, I couldn’t yet stand up. I remember pulling myself up on the toilet to pee and washing my face with cold water.

“What the fuck? I asked Carlos when I came back to his bedroom.

“That was pretty crazy, right?” he said.

“What was in that cake?” I said.

He laughed. “I told you it was a space cake”—a dessert made with marijuana—“and you said ‘whatever’ and just ate it,” he said.

Since I’m revealing this very personal sexual experience, I might as well also share that I was, at one time, quite the connoisseur of marijuana-laced baked goods. I had been to Amsterdam a few times and wandered the Vondelpark while looped out on pot brownies. I even baked them a few times. I followed the Grateful Dead one summer when I was still in high school and tried all manner of weed-infused comestibles. Let’s just say that this was no space cake.

But even though I knew that in my heart, my head couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance. I took what he said at face value. I was 21 years old, and I hadn’t ever encountered anybody who was this much of a liar. Sure, I had met people who lied about little things, but it didn’t occur to me that this guy could drug me with who knows what and then, convincingly, with a smile, say it was something else. I don’t know if I had ever even heard of date rape drugs—or if I had, that I had never considered the very real possibility that they might be covertly administered to me by someone I knew.

Oh, stupid me. I must have just not heard him tell me it was a space cake. I guess I said “whatever.” So whatever. I got dressed, and Carlos drove me home in his Jeep.

When I opened the door to my house, which I shared with four of my closest girlfriends, a couple of them were home. They were concerned about where I had been, this being before the era of cellphones and text messaging. I told them that I was with Carlos and what we had done and laughed about the fact that he had drugged me.

I vaguely remember my friends telling me that this was not cool. They knew, even if I didn’t, that it was highly unlikely that I would have chosen to spend the night at Carlos’s apartment that night. After all, it was a first date. And if I really think about it, no matter how attractive I thought someone was, I know that I would never have said “whatever” about eating a space cake for dinner when I had biochemistry office hours the following morning.

But Carlos’s story was so much more convenient than the alternative. Believing it, telling it to my friends, allowed me—a card-carrying feminist, a lover of Ani DiFranco and Liz Phair, a taker of many gender studies classes—to avoid having to deal with what really happened. I have been making jokes about date rape ever since.

Telling our stories matters

When I read Lena Dunham’s story, I saw myself. Back in college, her friend told her in no uncertain terms, “you were raped,” and she laughed. Although it may seem obvious now, it hadn’t occurred to me that laughing about date rape may have been a defense mechanism to keep myself from having to identify as a victim and wrangling with the implications of that identification. I mean, if I didn’t make a big deal about what happened, then it couldn’t have been a big deal, right?

Here’s what I would do if this happened to me today: Go to the police. What this man did was illegal and immoral, and I will now never know what the fuck was really in that cake, though I suspect it was rohypnol, the sedative commonly known as a “roofie.” Had I gone to the police, I could have gotten an examination and a urine test because roofies remain in one’s system for up to 60 hours after ingestion. GHB, another popular date rape drug, can be detected for 24 hours. Furthermore—and this is the worst part of the whole thing—there were probably other women that Carlos had drugged during his never-ending undergraduate years. Had I pressed charges, it’s possible that I could have spared them the horror of this experience.

But I didn’t. Because going to the police was the furthest thing from my mind. I was so completely unable to process, or even acknowledge, that I had been raped that I continued to speak to Carlos. Remaining in contact with him was a survival mechanism for me to keep telling my brain the story that I wanted to believe in my heart: that this was a real relationship. We went out a few more times and even exchanged a few AOL instant messages after graduation. He then receded into the back of my mind, until now. What would I have needed in order to see this situation for what it was? It probably would have been helpful if I had known the stories of other women who had been through this experience.

Had I understood the contours and complexity of these scenarios, at the time this happened, it wouldn’t have all felt so alien to me.

They were all right: Uncle Jim, the finger-wagging dad at that long-ago Passover seder, my friend’s husband, my housemates. This guy was a total sketchball. What happened was not cool. We must not make jokes about date rape, and if you’re going to college, you should watch out for the date rape drugs.

I’d like to thank Emma Sulkowicz, Lena Dunham, Susan Dominus, Beverly Johnson, and all the other women who are out there talking about sexual assault. Because of their bravery in sharing these stories, I have been inspired to share mine. And I can finally say it’s really not funny.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo via Lotus Caroll/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Dec 24, 2014, 1:00 pm