Content note: this post describes assault.
I thought I knew the score.
He had taught me since I was a teenager in my first week at university. Now I was a postgraduate and the single mother of a young daughter. So I knew him. He had a reputation. He was a dirty old man who behaved unethically towards his female students and in a just world he would have lost his job years ago. He was an old-school white Orientalist whose relationship with his field was explicitly erotic.
But I still wasn’t alarmed when he greeted me as I walked across campus with my daughter. His second marriage had recently broken up and he had lost custody of his own two young children. Why did I say yes to his offer to take my daughter and I to see an exhibition at the museum that afternoon?
Because the exhibition was meant to be good, because I didn’t own a car and was always glad of a lift, because the costs were minimal enough not to incur a sense of obligation, and because a trip to the museum with my daughter (perhaps three or four years old at the time) seemed like as safe and wholesome an outing as you could imagine.
And because I thought I knew the score. I knew what he was like and I’d be on my guard. He’d probably make a pass at me at some point, and I’d say no – because I knew the score.
And I also assumed that sex was not his only driving force. He was lonely, I thought, after the breakup of his marriage, and he was missing his own children. He probably wanted to take them to the museum but invited us instead. The possibility of having sex with me was not his only motivation.
So we went to the museum and then back into the car to go home. Except we were taking the wrong road.
“This isn’t the way to my home. It’s the way to your home.”
He said that he was still moving in (sad face at the breakup of his marriage and the loss of his old home), that he’d like me to see the place. I was polite. I didn’t want to confront him. I assumed that of course he’d make a pass and I’d say no and it would be awkward, but it wouldn’t get too out of hand. After all, my daughter was with me and he would not cross a certain line while she was there.
We stopped for pizza and we went to his house, which was still only partially furnished. He poured himself a glass of wine (I didn’t drink) and he talked. I don’t remember the topic. My daughter and I sat on the sofa. She was curled up on my lap – well-behaved, patient, and sleepy. As she drifted off, he joined us on the sofa and began to fondle me.
I was horrified at the thought of waking my daughter, of exposing her to ugliness and confusion. I had thought of her as my chaperone, my guarantee of safety, but now her presence was his weapon. I wanted to get his hands and his slobbering away from her. I got up, sliding her carefully from my lap onto the sofa. Of course, he got up too. I told him “I don’t want to fuck.”
I keep coming back to that. I may have said it quietly (mindful still of my sleeping daughter), but I said it. I said no, and he heard me. He said “ok”. I let him sit me down on the mattress on the floor, but not to fuck. He agreed to my refusal, so far as his unzipped and hard cock was concerned. Instead, he pushed me back and used his finger. That was his “no”. I said no unambiguously and firmly, but other than restraining himself from penetrating me with his cock, for what seemed like hours he helped himself to my stiff and unyielding body in every way as I tried to twist myself away from him.
Afterwards, when I carried my still sleeping daughter out to the car, I felt dirty and contaminated and as though my touch would pollute her, too. She was my everything, my treasured girl, and I had let this ugly event take place in her presence.
I told my supervisor the next day. A few years earlier, she had encouraged another student to report a different staff member for a serious sexual assault. The staff member remained at the university, while both my supervisor and the student were left battered. This time, rather than report to the sexual harassment committee, she phoned the offender (with my permission). He told her that she “didn’t know the full story”, but he undertook to stay away from me.
This was not enough for me, so I went to the acting Dean. I told him the basic story without providing the name of the offender. The Dean said “I think I know who you mean. Are his initials -”
He had the right person. Of course, it had happened before. He believed me and he was sympathetic, but he told me that there was nothing I could do. Of course I was entitled to make a formal complaint, but it would go nowhere.
Over the next decade or so, this experience shaped my relationship with the university at a level that became so automatic and subconscious that I stopped noticing that it was happening. I would stay away from certain zones and events to avoid crossing his path. I told anecdotes about his sleaziness, his transgressive behaviour, without telling the story of his assault on me. In my heart of hearts, I carried the hope that sooner or later his sins would catch up with him and he would be driven out of the university. Only after he retired did I realise how much I depended on that hope.