Content warning: sexual assault
A popular senior boy cornered me alone in the basement of the dining hall, where I had gone to use one of the school’s few payphones. This boy, 18 or 19 years old to my 14, began pressuring me to have sex with him. I refused, but he persisted, complimenting my looks, professing his desires, and masterfully laying on the charm. Eventually, feeling worn down and not knowing what else to do, I gave up and shlepped with him across campus to his dorm room. We had sex. I don’t recall hating it, or feeling much of anything—just numbness. In any case, I must have subconsciously reasoned, he was friendly enough, and good-looking, and it was better than being bullied.
This passage is from a 2019 HuffPost piece I wrote about my experience as a student in the mid-1980s, at The Putney School, a progressive New England boarding school. It was all I said about the incident which, by the time of writing, I had come to understand was sexual assault, and, elsewhere in the piece, used that term for it.
Many readers responded positively to the piece, but it angered others. The outraged readers — many of them Putney alumni — did not think that what I described was assault. Citing the line about my shlepping with the boy to his room as evidence of my having consented to sex, they viciously attacked me on social media for “lying,” for “belittling ‘legitimate’ assaults,” and for positioning myself as a victim for professional gain. I was simply seeking attention, my “fifteen minutes of fame.”
My sexual assault story was a mere seven sentences sandwiched amid a 2,000-word analysis of the connection between Putney’s class and gender dynamics, and exclusive boarding schools’ larger mission of producing an elite. Why had so many of my readers fixated on the sex story while ignoring the other 90 percent of what I’d said?
The recent drama around Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s revelation that she was sexually assaulted echoed my experience. Hers was a passing aside made during a 90-minute Instagram Live video that otherwise centered the Capitol insurrection. She mentioned her assault to draw a parallel between admonishments from GOP lawmakers to “move on” from the insurrection and the denial and dismissiveness that victims of trauma—including sexual assault—often face. But people fixated on AOC’s story of assault, criticizing her for saying too little and for saying anything at all. One commentator wrote, “this woman is trying to use her own assault as a hammer to come down on her political enemies.”
As I saw it, my story was dime-a-dozen, too familiar to warrant more than a bare-bones description. Numerous sexual assault stories were already out there, most of them more dramatic than mine. What interested me was the institutional underpinnings of the broader social trauma I experienced at the school, of which sexual assault was a part.
To that end, I explained how I didn’t fit in at Putney. While most students hailed from big coastal cities, I was from a conservative Southern community, which showed in the way I talked and dressed, and my friendly manner. This led to relentless bullying. During my first few days at the school, a group of boys dragged me out of my room, carried me to a lake on campus, and threw me in. I hit a rock, and they left me there, scraped and bleeding.
That was just the beginning. One popular senior’s mission seemed to be to destroy me, and the “coolies” who controlled the campus’s common spaces took their cue from her. There was no escape. Putney School in 1983-84, isolated on top of a hill, had around 200 students. Teachers, themselves often the center of personality cults, were no less intimidating than seniors. Pressure to succeed at an elite school made disclosing my problems, much less leaving, unthinkable.
This social reality wasn’t an accident but a consequence of the competition for elite status that boarding schools breed. I wanted to interpret my experiences — including the one with the boy in the basement — in that context.
As readers began to respond, I wondered whether I should have told my story differently. Should I have mentioned that I knew I wasn’t getting out of that basement without agreeing to the boy’s wishes? Or the powerful dissociative sensations that transported me outside my own body, and the anxiety I've struggled with ever since?
But I don’t owe anyone these details. Why did my readers demand them?
Author and activist Yasmin Nair writes about the requirement that women present as traumatized in order to elicit public sympathy. Trauma confers innocence and moral purity, a kind of “passport” into public discourse. Absent trauma, Nair says, women’s narratives about their sexual experiences are often simply illegible. One angry reader’s demand on Facebook that I “come all the way out as a survivor” is illustrative. In an age when we must “believe women,” a woman without a tragic story isn’t just inauthentic, she is, as Nair puts it, “no woman at all.”
The flip side of the pressure to divulge trauma is the pressure to erase one’s complicated past. In the HuffPost piece, I acknowledged my fraught relationship with sex. At Putney, I recognized my sexuality as a form of social power in a context where I had little. We should welcome this kind of honesty from survivors of sexual assault, but instead, we condemn it because it frustrates the need for a tidy #MeToo narrative.
“There’s a word for people who trade sex for status,” commented one reader, “and it isn’t 'victim'.” Such sentiments, says Nair, aren’t about promoting understanding of sexual assault, but about resurrecting strict moral codes around women’s sexuality, making it easier to separate “good” victims from “bad” ones.
That so many readers ignored the bulk of my argument in the HuffPost piece might not have been so bad had the discussion of sexual assault itself not been bogged down in so many problematic, and even dangerous, assumptions. If people want to talk about my assault, fine, but how can we improve the conversation?
This question weighed heavily on my mind in 2018, when Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings began. I had just started to write about my experiences at Putney when Christine Blasey Ford recounted her own assault to a global audience. In Ford, I saw myself. All I could think was MeToo, MeToo, MeToo.
The possibility that we might appoint a would-be rapist to the Supreme Court prompted scrutiny of Georgetown Prep, where Kavanaugh was a student when the alleged assault took place. My attempts to understand my high school experiences began to feel connected to a larger national conversation, but one that fell short. Emerging hints of discussion about the links between traumatic experiences like sexual assault and the formative culture of elite schooling were soon marginalized by a disheartening preoccupation with a crude “he said/she said” drama that compelled people to take sides, and accomplished little.
I wanted to tell a story in which those questions weren’t stripped away. In the HuffPost piece, I talked about how while money confers privilege, it doesn’t make you elite. My parents could afford Putney, but I quickly learned that the real barrier to social acceptance wasn't wealth. My father was the first in his family to get more than a high school degree. He made money as an orthodontist, but his cultural sensibilities remained tethered to his class roots. My mother’s background is similar, but she became accomplished in the arts. She passed this on to me, and I was a child prodigy at the piano. My musicianship proved one of the few assets I had for navigating the social scene at Putney. One of the rare times I felt socially accepted was after performing Debussy in an all-school recital.
I never understood why I was stuck at the bottom of Putney’s social hierarchy, but now it makes sense. Many of my peers were plugged into high-powered, big-city circles that I wasn’t. Boarding schools exist to reproduce that kind of eliteness, and students who don’t have the right cultural capital and execute the right social performance can find themselves in a precarious spot.
In their book Sexual Citizens, which looks at sex on college campuses, Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan describe how differences in power and status are central to understanding sexual assault. Focusing simply on “what happened,” as many of my readers did, misses a lot. Instead, the authors propose, we need to grasp how experiences are made meaningful. This means recognizing that, when it comes to sexual assault, a person’s “conceptual resources” matter: their understanding of their social position, their knowledge about sex, the strength of their community, and more. These things inform both how a person navigates a sexual encounter and how they interpret its aftermath.
It may be one power disparity, or several, intersecting with each other, that produce vulnerability to assault. The trauma of being bullied meant I felt emotionally unsafe at Putney, and my mental health suffered. This was compounded by many things, including my status as a first-year student in the presence of older, more experienced peers. Alcohol, drugs, and the requisite paraphernalia were rampant on campus, since students’ wealth and privilege allowed them to procure them with ease while rendering them immune to consequences. The ability to buy, share, and consume illicit substances was a prime form of social currency, and the pressure to participate was intense. Those like me who did not take part were deprived of a critical path to social belonging.
There was also my lack of sexual self-determination—what Hirsch and Khan call a person’s “sexual citizenship.” I’d never been taught how to manage sexual encounters, and, missing a sense of entitlement to my own body, felt an obligation to please. In the basement that night, I did not want to go along with the boy’s wishes, and told him so. But I was in no position to overcome his determination to turn a “no” into a score.
The design of physical spaces—what Hirsch and Khan call “sexual geography”—also shapes vulnerability to assault.
The senior deliberately targeted me in one of the campus’s most isolated spaces, where nobody could witness or disrupt him. Once in his single room, his advantages multiplied. There’s a dangerous tendency to spatialize consent—to assume that because a person is in a particular space, they want sex. Had I not had two roommates, I might have pushed him to go to my room, where things might have played out differently. Had scary bullies not controlled the common spaces, we might have gone there.
When significant power differentials interact along so many lines, what may appear to be consent often isn’t. On the surface, I may seem to have made a free choice. But look closer and it becomes possible to see that my actions were a complicated mix of voluntary and involuntary. For an adolescent to cave under pressure to sex she doesn’t want with a significantly older, socially powerful partner because she believes the consequences of not doing so will be worse, or because she is desperate to avoid the pain of more social abuse, is not a genuine choice; it is an act of desperate calculation in the confines of a system in which true agency is impossible.
This need for tidy narratives that serve up the right kinds of victims and perpetrators stems in part from anxieties about criminalization. Readers fretted over my purity, but also over the possibility that I might ruin the boy who assaulted me—now a man in his 50s. I agree that criminal allegations are serious and should not be made lightly, but my piece wasn’t about what should be done to adjudicate cases like mine. I was using “sexual assault” as a cultural term, not a legal one. These are distinct meanings that have never been the same, says Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen. “When someone is writing in a magazine,” Gersen told me, “most people get that they are not using ‘sexual assault’ as a legal term.”
But utter “sexual assault” and the criminal implications drown everything else out. The stakes end up feeling high because we lack an alternative framework for discussing the issue, one that doesn’t immediately invoke prison and sex offender lists.
We are, as University of Colorado Law professor Aya Gruber told me, “mired in the rubric of criminal law,” making it difficult to talk honestly about most sexual assault cases, which don’t neatly fit the victim/predator paradigm. The pressure to conform to that paradigm is why, Gruber says, it’s often in the most complex sexual assault cases that victims become the most ardent and pro-jail. “In order to get the system, the public, to believe that something happened,” she said, “it has to be everything, otherwise they’ll just be like ‘get over it.’”
“Get over it” is exactly what readers told me to do. In the 1980s, preying on drunk girls and racking up as many sexual conquests as possible was widely portrayed as the adolescent male’s mission. I had no conceptual framework or language with which to process harmful sex, and knew nothing of assault or consent.
My encounter in the dining hall basement was just the cultural norm. In recasting it as sexual assault, I implicitly asked readers who grew up with that norm to reinterpret past behavior they may have thought benign. But nobody wants to think they sexually assaulted someone, especially if it makes them a predator who deserves to be imprisoned.
It doesn’t help that the law has recently evolved to regard much of the sex my male contemporaries were having in high school as assault. “Even just in the past five years,” Gersen told me, “it’s a totally different landscape in terms of how we are understanding the terms ‘sexual assault’ and ‘rape.’” We no longer narrowly define rape as violent stranger assaults met by victims’ all-out resistance.
Force has become archaic.
“Contemporary lawmakers, scholars, and university administrators, applying the consent framework, view as rape behaviors ranging from brutal to boorish to quite normal,” Gruber writes. “Today, the criminal law has an interest whenever un-consensual sex occurred, regardless of why it occurred.”
That doesn’t mean that the law is clear, except in the most extreme cases, about what constitutes sexual assault. “The law is filled with grays, hard choices, and requires drawing lines in ways that aren’t easy or simple,” Gersen told me. It wasn’t until the ’80s, she writes, that rape law was even taught, because it was considered unsuited to the sort of rational pedagogy legal studies require. That has changed, but only with recognition that the subject is deeply fraught. “When I teach rape law,” Gersen wrote in The New Yorker, “I don’t dwell on cases in which everyone will agree that the defendant is guilty. Instead, I focus on cases that test the limits of the rules, and that fall near the rapidly shifting line separating criminal conduct from legal sex.”
At the center of such cases, she says, are thorny questions. How, for example, should consent or non-consent be communicated, and how do we even define those terms? Does it matter whether a person accused of sexual assault realized that the complainant felt coerced? How should social inequality inform how we evaluate criminality?
These questions underscore the complexities just of talking about sexual assault, let alone deciding what deserves the label. Assault is complicated, and we are in the midst of a tumultuous language struggle over it.
But if the goal is to prevent assault before it happens, then a willingness to engage that struggle is the only remedy, because no bright line separates criminal from legal sex. “We weren’t interested in that,” Khan flatly told me. And indeed, reading Sexual Citizens, one starts to see how an obsession with policing people’s notions of assault actively blinds us to the complex social mechanisms behind the problem. As Nair told me, how we define sexual assault is “always bound by time, space, and institutions—it’s contingent on 101 different factors.”
The circumstances of an assault involving blackout drunkenness on a college campus, for example, will be different from those in, say, a workplace where alcohol had no role. And while assaulting someone should have consequences, it need not be, as one student Hirsch and Khan interviewed believed, “the worst thing ever,” leading to prison, social ruin, or both. Several students didn’t realize they had committed assault until they had the opportunity to talk about and reflect on what happened in the absence of swift moral judgment. In their stories, we begin to see the possibility of conversation, learning, healing, and redemption.
That’s good news, because if we are redefining rape, Gersen says, “the bigger issue is that the criminal justice system is probably the wrong vehicle for dealing with all but the most black-and-white cases.” Sexual Citizens offers us a real alternative, at least when it comes to campus sexual assault. Its stories show how often assault starts with consensual interaction. Hirsch and Khan say a “sexual project” encompasses “the reasons why anyone might seek a particular sexual experience.” It’s when students lack clarity about their sexual projects or lack respect for others’ that assaults can happen.
That’s something we can change. Carceral and anti-prison feminists are united, Gruber told me, in the conviction that we need more sex education. The problem, she said, is that we keep fighting about discipline because that’s what creates action. Teaching kids about sex, she says, “is a way harder political fight than getting some discipline or criminal law. But everything that I have learned as a criminal-oriented person has led me to believe the solution is definitely like in 8-year-old children’s books.”
Many Putney alumni who read my piece responded by trying, in the words of one, to “defend the school.” But what was there to defend if, as they insisted, my experience wasn’t assault, but simply a bad decision on my part? I realize now that they were defending not so much the school as their enchanted relationship to it.
As Lacy Crawford points out in her brilliant memoir about St. Paul’s School, one of privilege’s highest forms is an uncomplicated relationship to institutions. Alumni responded the way they did because of their investment, however unwitting, in the structures that make elite boarding schools a wondrous place for some and a dark one for others.
Or maybe it’s more like shades of darkness. While I wish he’d faced some accountability, I’m not particularly angry at the boy who assaulted me. He was playing his role in the rotten social system that elite boarding schools sustain. The school failed him too.
At one point in Sexual Citizens, Hirsch and Khan reference the many stories they heard in which the perpetrator did not intend to commit assault. In such instances, they urge, we must find ways to provide feedback. Their suggestion is so simple and straightforward that it’s hard to believe we need it spelled out in a book. I wish I could beam it back to the adults in charge during my adolescence so that they might have said to the boy in the basement words that might have made all the difference:
“The sex you’re having with others is a problem. Your partners are finding it less than consensual. You need to think through and work on this. Here’s how.”