Only Yes Means Yes

This week’s post is not going to be about knitting and how much of it I’ve gotten done, about physics and how they found the Higgs Boson, about calculus and how I need to be studying it, about Doctor Who and how the new episode is on tomorrow night, or about baseball and how it starts April 1  after we’ve endured the Winter To End All Freaking Winters.

This post is about Steubenville, Ohio. It is about rape. It is about rape culture, a term I started hearing only in the last couple of weeks, which causes me to look at the world in a different way than I have before.

I am not going to tell Steubenville’s story, or even provide a link to any web sites that discuss what has happened there. You are adults, and if you do not already know what happened there (and what happened afterwards) you have the tools to educate yourself on the basics in a matter of seconds. (And you really should. Go ahead if you need to. I’ll wait.)

I am going to tell my story — the story I have as a victim of rape culture.

Between the years of 1985 and 1989, when I was an undergraduate at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I had exactly two personal encounters with Campus Security.

The first encounter was a bizarre incident in my freshman year in which I was given a verbal warning for somehow simultaneously speeding and impeding traffic during an evening bike ride. The Campus Security officer also suggested that I put a light on my bike if I planned to be out riding after dark. I was incensed that night at the illogical nature of it all, but I had a generator and front and rear lights installed on my bike the next day and never got into trouble with “the law” again.

The second encounter took place a couple of years later, when I was a happy resident of Bishop Hall, the co-ed honors dorm.

In those days (and maybe in these days too) each dorm room had a wall-mounted phone that the roommates shared. There was no Caller ID on this phone, no special ring to tell who the call was for. Oh, and there was no answering machine attached or voicemail function included. It could ring and ring all day if nobody was home; it could ring once and you’d miss it. Every student had a printed campus directory so they could look up your number.

One night we got a call, and I answered.


“I am going to stab you,” said an unfamiliar male voice, “and then I’m going to kill you.”

I froze up.

There was a small commotion on the other end of the line, then a different voice, muted as if someone had covered the phone receiver with their hand, said, “Wait to see if there’s a reaction.”

I hung up the phone. The sense of shock and fear was so strong that I can recall it in this moment, 26 years later, but I cannot recall who was in the room with me (roommate? boyfriend? anybody else?) or exactly what happened next. My blood was like ice. I couldn’t think except for random panicked thoughts like, “Who was that?” “Do they know where I live?” “Are they watching me?” “Is someone going to hurt me?” “Am I in danger?” and “Why do they want to hurt me?”

The only thing I knew was that I had to report the incident to Campus Security. My freshman-year bicycling encounter had given me a bad impression of them, but now they were to be my confessors, my protectors. I called them, gave a quick description of the incident, and within an hour two officers had walked the one block from Campus Security headquarters to my dorm, and I had to give my statement. I felt afraid for myself, as if the perpetrators were on their way to attack me in person. I felt embarrassed at having to describe how scared I was.

I was already introverted, shy, self-conscious, and nervous. Now I panicked every time the phone rang. My boyfriend’s reaction scared me at least as much; I told him while he was at the indoor archery range, and he shot one bullseye after the next, imagining he was killing the man who had scared me. A person I had only known as a peaceful person, a joker, was ready to commit murder. I didn’t know he was capable of it, and suddenly I felt surrounded by violent men. Meanwhile, I sat on the floor, hugging myself into a ball, not wanting to talk to anyone.

Next week, the incident was summarized in the police logs in the campus newspaper, and I got to read those chilling words all over again.

Why did this happen? Was it a random prank call? Was it really a call from someone I knew who really wanted to murder me? Was it retaliation for a letter I had published in the campus newspaper, calling for men and women to treat each other with respect, signed with my full name and campus address?

I will never know, because that is where my story ends. Campus Security never followed up to see if I’d received any other threatening calls. Nobody suggested that I visit the Health Center or local counseling services to handle my fear and anxiety after receiving such a violent threat. That was it. Life proceeded, other things happened, and gradually the memory of the incident faded. Beyond telling my roommate and my boyfriend, I’m not sure anyone else even knew about it, including my parents.

Twenty-five years later I can apply my deductive skills and guess at the truth: It was someone’s idea of a joke, a prank, a fun way to pass the time. Let’s dial a bunch of numbers and tell people we’re going to kill them, and listen to what they say. I do understand that for a lot of people college is about running around with your friends and doing silly things. Breaking free from your high school social patterns and having fun before you need to apply yourself, graduate, and enter the corporate world. But having fun by calling random strangers and threatening to stab and kill them? That’s practicing to be a terrorist, a bully, a public menace. And for the people who did this to me (and possibly to others) there was no consequence.

Why am I calling this a “rape culture” incident if I was not raped?

I’m calling it a rape culture incident because rape culture is what allows people to see making death threats as a fun way to pass the time when studying is boring. Rape culture says “boys will be boys” and “you know how men are” when these boys and mean have committed criminal acts. Rape culture pressures and intimidates rape victims and calls them liars when they report criminal acts. Rape culture suggests that women change what they wear and how they behave and what they say in order to avoid being assaulted — rather than educate and counsel men to behave ethically and lawfully. Rape culture says hypothetically that a woman should accept sexual assault rather than be killed. When a real sexual assault takes place, rape culture asks why she didn’t fight back. Rape culture is what turns a blind eye when sex is used as a weapon, and always punishes the victim.

Yes, I personally was fortunate in this instance that a threatening phone call, most likely a joke, was all that happened to me. An unbelievably large number of women have not been so lucky.

After decades of teaching us that “no means no,” the criminals in Steubenville have exploited the terrifying loophole that if you drug your victim until they can’t say “no,” you didn’t hear them say “no.” They can’t claim in court that they told you to stop.

Rather than having a double negative as the legal standard, how about enforcing the concept of affirmative consent? Simply, let “yes” mean “yes,” and let only “yes” mean “yes.” This isn’t my idea — this is already a concept that needs more support.

Meanwhile, let’s educate ourselves and our children to understand and truly believe that physical assault is wrong. Let’s teach that coercion, stalking, harassment, threatening, and hurting are wrong — regardless of the gender of the perpetrator. Regardless of the gender of the victim.

Stand against a dangerous culture to stand up for safety. Be brave enough to say, “No, don’t do it. That’s wrong.” “John, that’s not cool.” “Jane, leave them alone.” And when it’s appropriate, please say, “Dude, that’s scary weird. Let’s talk through this and get you some help. Because what you’re wanting to do is not right.”

You can stand up for it in person. You can stand up for it organizationally by supporting groups that educate and counsel. You can stand up for it politically by supporting Senators and Representatives who work towards the safety of all their constituents. And you can make sure that social media organizations understand how you feel about their policies. But we all need to start standing up for safety. For all of us.


POSTSCRIPT: On 4/6/2013 I saw a news item about Miami University graduate Laura L. Smith, who has just written a young adult novel dealing with date rape. It is a Christian-themed book available electronically for the Kindle.  Here is the link to the story in the Oxford Press, and here is a link to its listing on

Published in: on March 30, 2013 at 8:43 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well said!!

  2. Amen and amen!

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