When I was seventeen, just starting university, I was sexually assaulted. Nothing serious — fondling it could be called. But it was uninvited and unwanted.
It was the first weekend of school — lots of parties and lots of drinking. I was new to the game and overindulged. I went out for some fresh air and wound up walking quite a long ways. I was lost a little and wondering how to get home when a car pulled up. I was easily identified as a student by my new university jacket so, not surprisingly, the man offered to give me a lift back to campus. I was grateful and completely naive.
He stopped along the way for a smoke and while we were parked he reached over and deftly unzipped my trousers. His hand was fondling my genitals while he continued to smoke and chat to me. I was a bit shocked. It wasn’t that I was unaware of these things — I’d had a few gay friends in high school. Not openly so, of course, but everyone kind of knew and, luckily for them, many people didn’t care or pretended not to know. There were enough that did so none of them stuck around town after high school. That was the way it was. Homosexuality wasn’t a crime anymore — that had ended in 1969 in Canada but it was still not accepted.
I didn’t struggle or push his hand away. I certainly didn’t fight back or scream. After a moment I said: I’ve had a lot to drink and I’m afraid I’ll throw up in your car. He laughed and said I might as well get out and walk it off then.
I never mentioned it — didn’t for years — and certainly didn’t complain. Who would I complain to? Besides I didn’t know the guy. Then, a couple of weeks later I went to a party with friends and there he was, the party’s host and a tenured Professor in the Fine Arts department. He didn’t seem to recognize me but I left early.
After, I heard his nickname – one that indicated that my experience wasn’t at all unusual. There were rumours that some people had complained and he had been spoken to. But he remained a professor long after I left school.
Why didn’t I complain? Well, partly because I didn’t feel much harmed by the experience. There was no violence, no forcing. In retrospect it seemed a little sad. It hadn’t changed me: made me either ‘gay’ or homophobic. Or a victim.
But, then, there was something else — why hadn’t I even told anyone? Because I knew about guilt by association. When I was younger I was called nasty names just for having black friends. I had heard ‘no smoke without fire’ and didn’t want to be blamed for what happened. I had been drunk; I got into a stranger’s car, for god’s sake. I hadn’t fought back. I resisted in an unmanly way; vomiting is not exactly courageous. Sound familiar?
So it was embarrassment but it was also powerlessness. He was a professor and I was a student. It was his word against mine. And there were not mechanisms in place to deal with it. So I shut up and mostly forgot about it. Except I didn’t. I can still see his face in the dark, looking over at me. Still smell the mixture of smoke and aftershave.
Sexual relations between students and faculty were common those days. Quite often they were consensual in a way (one student even married her professor while I was there) but often they were from an abuse of power or a promise of reward. Somewhat seedy and not talked about.
Some things never change.
And that’s slightly more than ten minutes.