Public Comment

Sexual Assault is as American as Cherry Pie

Paula deJoie
Saturday December 16, 2017 - 05:42:00 PM

Kara Vaughn was the first person who ever told me she had been raped. It happened when she was about 14. She described being forcibly held down by one “friend” while another raped her. They took turns until they left her crumpled, inside and out.

I was a 17 year old freshman at UC Berkeley when I became friends with Kara.

She needed a place to stay. I was living with my grandmother and I talked her into letting Kara move in. We shared a room with twin beds, matching pink bedspreads covered with fuzzy little pink balls. 

I was still a virgin and was eagerly looking forward to changing that status. Not with just anyone. I wanted my “first time” to be with someone I loved who loved me back. Kara dated and had sex with a few different guys. The one she cared about cheated on her with someone else. She cut his tires. 

I met a guy on campus. He was tall, handsome, friendly. He had an accent, said he was from Trinidad. Lorenzo. One day Lorenzo asked me if I had been up to the park in the hills above campus. I hadn’t been to Tilden Park since I was a kid. He said he had a car and invited me for a ride. I went along. 

Tilden Park is beautiful. Acres of winding roads bordered by eucalyptus and redwoods. Fabulous, sparkling views of San Francisco Bay. We drove up a quiet road and he parked alongside a steep ravine. I got out of the car and sat on the ledge, looking down and around at all of the beautiful shades of green. 

I felt him come up behind me. He placed his hands around my neck. He then began to rub the back of my neck and my head. 

“Have you ever had a head massage?” he asked. 

What the hell? Is that what he was doing? Massaging me? 

“No,” I said. 

He continued his massage. I didn’t know what to do, how to get out of this. How to get his hands off of me. And then he said: 

“You know, I could rape you right now if I wanted to.” 

Something clicked inside my head. I instantly knew that I was in great danger. I started talking, as fast as I could. 

“Rape? Ew! Who would want to rape anyone? I mean there are so many girls around who would want to have sex with a guy so why should anyone force somebody I mean you I mean a guy could have anyone they wanted why would they force somebody I mean ew! That just sounds so-“ 

“Never mind!” He removed his hands and stood up. “Let’s go.” 

We got into his car and drove back to the campus in silence. He let me out and I never saw him again. I realized how close I had come to having my first and last “time” result in my abused body being rolled down a hill, hidden by thick foliage and eaten by wild animals. I supposed my valley girl sounding spiel had turned him off. Thank goodness for my years spent at a West LA high school and body surfing on Venice Beach. 

This was the early 70’s and Kara and I were getting involved with different movements on campus fighting for affirmative action, diversity among tenured faculty and a Third World College. We proudly sported our Afros. Mine was huge and thick and wild. Kara’s was more subdued though red, complimenting the copper tone of her skin. Kara wanted to join the Black Panthers, based right next door in Oakland. She began cutting classes to volunteer in their offices. After a few weeks she came home and threw her backpack onto her bed. 

“I’m not going back there!” she announced. 

“Why not? What happened?” I asked. 

“All those guys want you to do is to fuck them or go get them a hamburger. I’m through with that.” 

Stokely Carmichael had declared “the only position for women in the black power movement is prone.” Many men took him at his word and many women backed those men up. Not dissimilar to the ways many white women back up their men, right or wrong. 

When I look at the numbers of white women who voted for Trump and will probably vote for Roy Moore, I wonder how many think they are adhering to the Bible’s lessons on female subservience? I also wonder how many of these women are descendants of those women captured in civil rights era photos who spit on black children walking to school? How many are descendants of those “fine” white supremacist females who packed picnic boxes for their lynching husbands and brothers and sons and fathers so they wouldn’t go hungry during their fun event and for their children so they would have something to snack on while watching black bodies twist and burn. How many are descendants of white women who ordered slaves beaten and their children sold? How many are descendants of those women who cried rape rather than admit an attraction to a black man? It’s an ugly history we Americans have. But it must be taught and discussed and accepted before we can forge a path forward together. 

Black women are in a double bind. We join with all women who are victims of sexual abuse. We also join with all people of color who are still victims of racism in this country. The perpetrators of sexual abuse are usually men, of all colors. The perpetrators of American born-and-bred racism are usually white folks, male and female. This is why Anita Hill was not believed by most white men and women. Neither Joe Biden nor Ted Kennedy came to her aid. Every black woman I know knew she was telling the truth. 

Kara and I finished out the year and we both moved out. I had found a job and an apartment nearer to campus. Kara said she was going to hang out in Los Angeles for awhile and then maybe go back home to Louisiana. As time moved on so did our friendship. We lost touch. 

A few years and relationships later, I landed a plum job with a prominent civil rights attorney. As a kid growing up in Los Angeles I had imagined myself a female Perry Mason and now here was my chance to go out and fight against racism, sexism and injustice! I was thrilled. 

And I was forewarned. When I first inquired as to whether or not this particular attorney had any summer internships available, he immediately responded: 

“You’re so fine you can work anywhere you want!” 

I was startled but I wanted the job. I applied for it and I got it. The sexual harassment began almost immediately. 

He repeatedly complimented my appearance and asked me to “go out” with him. He told me that I needed an older man, that he could help advance my career. Nevermind that he was married and his kids sometimes worked in the office. 

I repeatedly said no. I wanted to learn how to become a successful civil rights attorney. I wanted to change the world! I wanted him to teach me and that was all I wanted from him. 

During the two years that I worked in his office I dated and eventually became engaged. That didn’t stop him from harassing me. He and his law partner hired mostly young women like myself and the atmosphere in the office consisted of working hard and playing just as hard. Several women in the office had affairs with these two married men. At one time, it seemed as though I was the only woman in that office who had not slept with either of them. 

After working late one evening he offered to give me a ride home and invited me to have dinner with him first. During the meal he reached over and grabbed my hand. He reiterated how much he liked me, how beautiful I was and how much he could do for me if I agreed to have an intimate relationship with him. I again told him no. He knew I was engaged and frequently made fun of my fiancé. When we pulled up in front of my house he leaned toward me, grabbed my arms and tried to kiss me. I pushed him away, jumped out of the car and ran up my front steps. 

I told those closest to me what happened. I didn’t know what else to do. A prominent female civil rights attorney sometimes worked in our office. Because she considered herself to be a “feminist” I was hopeful that she would come to my aid. I went to her office and confided in her. With a wave of her hand she dismissed me. She did not want to hear any disparaging words about her hero. 

Eventually, the attorney gave up on me. He began treating me with contempt and criticizing my work. He brought in another young woman and flaunted her in front of me as though he was trying to make me jealous. I ignored him and focused on my assignments. He then told me he wasn’t going to work with me anymore and that I had to work with his partner, a man for whom I had even less respect. After a few months, my new boss called me into the conference room and told me they were letting me go. When I asked why, he clearly said that the two partners felt “very uncomfortable” around me because I knew all about their “personal business”. Although I inquired about it many times over the ensuing years, I never received my last paycheck. 

Shortly after I left their employ I arranged an interview with the competition, two other prominent male attorneys who also worked in the areas I was interested in, race, sex and employment discrimination. They invited me to lunch. They seemed happy to meet me and talk with me. I felt very hopeful that they would hire me. All went well until they asked me why I left their colleague’s firm. I told them. Silly me. Stupid me. 

“You guys would never do that, would you?” I asked. 

I must have sounded like a complete fool. I was so naïve. The atmosphere immediately changed. 

“Oh, no. We would never do that,” one of them said and began making small talk. The other one said nothing else to me. He kept his eyes focused on every skirt that walked by our booth. The interview was over. 

Crushed, I decided that the law was not for me. I went back to school and studied television production. I landed a job writing promos for a nationally televised show. Different field, same environment. You’d walk by one glass walled office and the executive producer would have his secretary sitting on his lap or giving him a massage. The director I worked for had numerous posters of women in bikinis hanging on his walls. Through his glass wall I saw him slap his secretary’s behind as she turned to leave. I was struck by the sad, embarrassed look on her face in sharp contrast to the grinning, nearly naked bodies surrounding her. 

The secretary and I were friendly. She was often nervous and upset. Frazzled. She confided in me that she didn’t know what to do. She worried because her fiancé worked for the same man and he needed the job. Like many women, she initially laughed it off on the outside while she cried on the inside. Eventually, she suffered a miscarriage that she blamed on our boss’s behavior. She quit while her then husband continued to work for the company. We lost touch. 

I decided I wanted to work for a woman. I thought that was the only way to avoid sexual harassment. Over the next several years I worked for three female bosses. There was no sexual harassment but with two of the three women there was abuse of a different kind. The kind that allows power to go to your head. The kind that makes you think you are superior to others and can therefore mistreat others because they need their paychecks so badly they will not complain. But that’s another story. (Or is it?) 

More time passed. I married, had a family, divorced, dated, re-partnered and most importantly spent time with myself taking stock of my life, weighing the pros and cons. Trying not to have any regrets. Trying to figure out who I used to be and who I had become. During this introspective period I thought of Kara Vaughn. I wondered what became of her. Finding the answer was easier and harder than I had imagined. 

I googled “Kara Vaughn, Louisiana” and there it was. Kara Enid Vaughn was a missing person. She’d been missing since November 3, 1993. I clicked on every link, quietly hoping that she had been found and been found alive. I wanted to call her, to hear her stories and share mine. We had shared a bedroom, college life, stories about men and the revolution. Stories of disappointment, close calls and- 

And then I read the line that stilled all hope. 

“On multiple occasions prior to her disappearance, Vaughn threatened to drive her car into the Cain River so her body would never be found.” 

I froze. Eyes wide, my breath caught in my chest. My stomach caved in and sunk to the floor. She was 40 years old. I hadn’t spoken to her in 20 years and I never would again. I don’t know if there were other rapes but I do know that she must have suffered other heartbreaks. To want her very body to not be found, to not be wept over or mourned signified to me that perhaps she thought that nobody would, that nobody cared for or loved her enough to even miss her. 

The image of my old friend plunging into a dark river, perhaps screaming her heart out – terrified, then finished - haunts me. My heart breaks for Kara Enid Vaughn. And for all the other young women who have been brutalized and never healed. 

I was lucky. Or was I? Should I even think of it that way? I was sexually harassed and sexually assaulted. I had unwelcomed, unasked for hands placed upon my neck and my head. Another man put his hands on my arms and tried to pull me towards him for a kiss. I began to list all the times during my life that the message was conveyed that I was somehow inferior to men and that I should do whatever they wanted. From the time I was about 11 on, I had men - grown-ass men - oogling me, calling out to me, complimenting me when they wanted something, cursing me when I turned them down. I remember the look on the face of one of my father’s drunk friends (an architect!) leering at me. My young eyes saw a mixture of hunger and anger that I’d never experienced before. I’ll never forget being driven home after a babysitting job only to have the father (a surgeon!) reach across me to unlock my door and lightly fondle my newly budding breasts in the process. 

I can list many more instances of sexual harassment and assault – yes, unwanted, uninvited fondling is sexual assault – but I’d rather write about why so many women are so quiet about it for so long and why it’s not just our problem. 

In many cultures within the United States and around the world girls are raised to become shadows. They are not afforded the opportunities or the rewards men routinely receive. Women make 79 cents per every dollar made by men. For black women it’s 60 cents, for Hispanic women it’s even less. Most decisions made in almost every major field are made by men. Men like Donald Trump, Jr. who said “Women who can’t handle sexual harassment don’t belong in the work force.” 

The entertainment industry certainly doesn’t help. I’ve worked in both television and advertising (some say the there isn’t much difference between the two) and no matter the outlet, women receive the not so subtle message that their value is measured by how many men find them attractive. Their “fuckability” rating, as it were. As women age, they may become wiser but their value in society is often diminished as their looks… fade? Mature? Change? Many older women begin to think that they are not quite as smart or funny or talented as they once were. Self-esteem goes down. Turn on virtually any television program and whether it’s a drama or a comedy or a commercial or network news, odds are that the females you see have dyed their hair blonde and submitted to botox injections and liposuctions in an effort to appear younger and therefore more attractive. Meanwhile the guys can be old and gray or balding, they can be fat with sagging necks and thick glasses and they have no worries. They will get and keep their jobs, and the money and power that go with it. 

Jobs, money and power. This is what women are afraid of losing if they tell. Young, single women are afraid of having doors closed in their faces. That’s what happened to me. Women with children are afraid of not being able to properly care for them. The fear of poverty and homelessness is real, especially if you are a single mother. Like me, many women feel isolated and fear the absence of support. 

In video games and feature films it’s no secret that women are treated primarily as decoration and sport. Some video games even allow the players to beat and rape women for fun and points. Yay! Look at the bulk of movies produced every year. Plenty of action and violence for the men. Few stories that feature women doing anything other than chasing or being saved by men. It’s said that most movies are written and directed and produced by white men for white male teenagers. If they’re so-called comedies, they all seem to have jokes about large breasts and penises; weepy injured penises or happy penises on the prowl. The men behind this “entertainment” do not appear to be thinking about anything but their juvenile selves. And profit, of course. 

I recently heard a man’s voice on public radio stating that it’s time we use new language when speaking of sexual harassment and rape. He said that there’s complicity among men. They protect each other and the male culture of violence by not speaking up. Who wants to be a snitch? Whether the alleged perpetrator is a politician or a Hollywood executive, a teacher or a soldier, an athlete, a cop, a restaurant manager or a civil rights lawyer, they protect each other at the expense of others. At the expense of women and even children, male and female. This has got to stop. The man I was listening to is named Jackson Katz. I had never heard of him. I bet chances are that you haven’t either. 

Have you heard of Tim Wise? In the same way that Katz explains that the focus should be on the perpetrators of sexual crimes, not the victims, Tim Wise argues that when it comes to racism, similar focus should be placed upon the racists, not the victims of racism. Both of these systems of oppression are endemic and can be linked to the misuse of money and power. Women shouldn’t be forced to live with sexism any more than people of color should be forced to live with racism. We need, not only a clear and open discussion about the history of racism – which inflicts upon its victims mental, emotional and physical violence - but about the history of sexual violence as well. Let’s ask why men rape. Yes, I know that some women rape and some victims are male. However, the overwhelming majority of rapists are men. Let’s start there. 

Hollywood and Congress are considering instituting mandatory sexual harassment training. This may help in if you’re working in these particular professions, however the real training must begin at home. Just as racism is taught to innocent young children beginning in the home, so is sexism. How about we simply adhere to new a version of the golden rule: “If you don’t want someone saying or doing (fill in the sexual abuse blank) to your sister, mother, wife or daughter, then don’t you do or say it. Period.” 

Thinking about Kara Vaughn in this time of steadily increasing numbers of revelations, accusations and limited confessions in the media, I can’t help but wonder how her being raped impacted the rest of her life. Kara was definitely feisty and she had a wry sense of humor. Her jokes were self-deprecating to a point. 

Many of the stories she would tell me and my grandmother were often about how someone had done her some wrong. They would end with her looking up to the heavens and pleading “Lord, build a fence around me!” She’d laugh and we would join in, shaking our heads in wonder – in wonder of this girl Kara Vaughn, a short ball of fire mixed with humor and sadness. She seemed to know already at 18 that life was hard and not to expect much. 

When you are abused and you tell people who could help and they do nothing, your self-esteem is negatively impacted. You feel like you must not be very important, that you must not be worth very much. The feeling that you are not good enough can spill over into other areas of your life. You may accept abuse in subsequent relationships– verbal and physical – because you think you deserve it. You may make choices in many areas of your life that don’t serve you well because, well, who are you? If you believe that you don’t have much or any value, what’s to protect? What’s to nurture? What’s to celebrate? 

Who celebrated Kara’s life? Who found her valuable? 

H. Rap Brown once said that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” Well, that includes sexual violence, whether it’s in the form of harassment, assault or rape. The fact that America was built on slavery means that it was built on a system that in addition to depending upon kidnapping and torture, it also regularly employed rape and child abuse. Sexual violence, both threatened and acted upon steals something precious away from its victims. These violent acts can destroy a young woman’s trust, her innocent belief in the innate goodness of humanity. They can and do leave deep, searing scars upon women and men that can last a lifetime. And those lifetimes can consequently be cut short, like Kara Enid Vaughn’s. 

I look again at the flier with Kara’s photo on it. She’s been classified as “Missing Endangered”. Under distinguishing statistics it reads: “African American female. Black hair, brown eyes.” Wrong. Her hair is red. Even in the small color photo of her at the top of the page she reeks of red. Her copper skin glows. You can make out the now darker red of her curls. A true “redbone” her South would call her. Kara looks straight into the camera. Her chin lifted though not defiant. There is a softness to my old friend that I recognize. Beneath the hurt and the pain and the anger, there was a softness.