“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”
After spending a long day alone in a small room staring into a glowing computer screen while intensely concentrating on the backend components of an ecommerce website—I had two urges.
Commit suicide. Or get outdoors.
I went for a walk in the park.
The sun was warm and the early evening air was cool. My body relaxed and my mind did what it does best; it wandered.
I walked briskly along one of a network of trails inside a few acres of precious wetlands. The wetlands were encircled by the sprawl of a gated community of 4,000 square foot houses. The wetlands had survived because citizens united in a lawsuit against the same developers who had built the huge homes they lived in. The court had agreed with the citizens’ argument: Preserving the wetlands, and, in addition, forcing the developers to build a network of trails within the chaparral of the wetlands, would improve everyone’s quality of life. In the years since the lawsuit victory, very few residents ever improved the quality of their lives by walking or riding bicycles on the trails. But their property values had increased.
To block the noise of nearby traffic, I had inserted ear buds and was listening to a random shuffling of dozens of popular songs, all of which had been carefully curated for me and downloaded to my phone free of charge by the American-based global corporation, SBUX.
While striding along the dirt trail, my wandering mind allowed me to also be sitting in a living room in Chico, California, reliving a recent visit with a nephew and his wife. I had met the 16-month-old boy they were now fostering and hoping to adopt, after the State of California had determined the boy was “failing to thrive” and had taken him from his drug addicted homeless 20-year-old parents. Sometime after a good meal and three bottles of wine and two hours of rambling conversation, my nephew’s wife had told me that when growing up, she had been raped.
As I walked, my mind continued wandering, but now, like my body, it was following a trail.
That trail led through memories of women I knew casually or had known well and loved deeply, each of them telling me a story of being attacked by men. One woman had been a freshman at a large midwest college and while walking to her dormitory in the early evening she was tackled by a man and dragged into the hedges. She fought him off and ran. A mother had told me that her young daughter had been drugged and raped—three—different—times. A 40-year-old woman had described to me, during a rare moment when she could push apart the decades long veil of alcohol, drugs and denial, how her grandfather had repeatedly raped her, starting when she was three-years-old.
This was not the first time I had thought of these women, and still others I know, and the violence done to them. Their stories would be in my thoughts whenever I read the local news of raped girls and women, the international headlines of rape as a weapon of ideology and war, and the reports from societies where rape is condoned as a centuries-old judgment and punishment. Punishment not of the trespasses of men, but of women. Almost every day I see the headlines, even if I choose not to read the stories, of women raped by soldiers, politicians, coaches, athletes, entertainers, bus drivers and yoga instructors.
Because this planet is powered by coincidence and non sequitur, it was of course at this moment that I came around a sharp corner in the trail and saw in the low grass beside the dirt trail, a pair of women’s elastic running pants. And a sleeveless yellow t-shirt. And a single purple running shoe. The running pants and shirt had been folded neatly and the one shoe placed on top, as if to keep the clothing from blowing away.
I took the plugs out of my ears and listened to the real world around me; a few crows cawing nearby, the whoosh of cars pushing through the air at 45 miles per hour, a television playing in one of the three-level houses behind an eight-foot tall iron fence only a few feet from the trail. I looked around dumbly, as if I might hear or see a woman, naked but for one purple running shoe, fighting off a rapist in the high grass and scrub brush of the wetlands.
But the neatly folded clothes made no sense, and even as I looked and listened to everything around me, my mind again wandered, and I thought how, on another dirt trail in my neighborhood not too far from where I stood, a high school student had gone for an afternoon jog a few years ago. A man had overpowered her, dragged her into the chaparral, beat her and raped her and strangled her.
And I imagined calling 911 on my phone. What would I say? “I’m walking on a trail. There are some women’s clothes neatly folded and stacked alongside the trail.”
I imagined the emergency operator saying, “And?”
I heard myself stupidly answering, “Um. It’s odd. Don’t you think?”
“Is there anyone in trouble? Are you reporting a crime?”
I hung up.
Already, my mind had gone off again, now thinking of all the odd debris I had seen alongside trails and sidewalks. The soda, wine and beer bottles; the condoms and underwear, male and female; the pizza boxes with whole, uneaten pizzas inside; the books and magazines, often pornography, both homo and hetero; unopened packages of cigarettes; cheap or prescription sunglasses; and so many shoes. And, always, just one shoe, never a pair; whether a dress shoe, a high-top sneaker, a flip-flop or sandal, a boot; from battered to brand new.
I resumed my walk, moving just as fast, but feeling heavy now, and frowning. I did not reinsert the ear buds to listen to more three-minute bursts of petulantly narcissistic pop songs.
In another half mile the winding trail led up some stairs made of railroad ties and across a small grassy lawn. In the center of the religiously irrigated and manicured lawn, there were two men. One man held a black leather pad in each hand, with his arms extended and slowly moving. The other man, wearing jeans but shirtless, sweating, his hands inside red boxing gloves, jabbed punches into the moving targets. His eyes were narrowed and his face hardened. He grunted with the effort of each punch and rapid combination of punches.
Because I am a person powered by coincidence and non sequitur, the sight of these two men triggered questions I had somehow never before asked myself: Who are the men that rape? Where are they? Do I know any?
When I got home I went back into the small room I had been so desperate to get out of. I went back to staring into the glowing computer screen.
I typed, “How many American women have been raped?”
For half-an-hour I browsed articles with many estimates, guesses, including a piece in the New York Times on a 2011 survey by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimated, guessed, that 1-in-5, 20 percent, of American women have been raped. *
I read that even two percent of American men have been raped.
Which made me think again of several years before, when I was standing in a graveyard on a hill outside a small town in Massachusetts. My estranged father had insisted on taking me there to show me the plot in which he would one day be buried. I was surprised to see so many graves with our family named carved into the tombstones. The dates of living and dying began in the mid-1800s when our Irish ancestors had fled the famine and come to the New World, and continued through the Civil War and the Spanish Flu, and the eras of World Wars and anti-Communism wars. And in that graveyard my father told that when he was 6-years-old a cousin had raped him.
The idea of rape stuns me. I cannot comprehend, nor can I stop myself from trying to comprehend, the tens of thousands of years of violent human history, a history of so much spontaneous and systemic rape; rape done to humiliate, to conquer, to enslave, and to kill.
If 1-in-5 of American women have been raped, how many American men are rapists?
The answer is unknown. But, as with everything in human behavior, we have experience and information to contemplate.
There are some studies where men were asked questions not using the word rape, but which in fact constitute rape: had they ever used force to have sex with an unwilling person, had they ever had sex with a person too drunk to resist their advances. In one study 6% of men admitted to doing these things. Just don’t call rape, rape.
I went for a walk in the park and followed my wandering thoughts and discovered a new math. Over my long life I now understand that I have been in classrooms, in business meetings, in writers groups, at concerts and baseball games and in churches; I have been friends with, on teams with, in bands with, men who have raped.
Some of them, a lot more than once.
Mary Koss’ much-discussed 1987 study of rape prevalence is famous mostly for its finding that 1 in 8 college women have been victims of rape at some point in their lives. What’s not as well known is that the same study also surveyed thousands of college men, asking them about if they had ever forced a woman to have sex against her will. About 4.5% reported that they had.