Around the same time Christine Ford (now Dr. Christine Blasey Ford) recalls being in a room with two drunken teenage boys, one of whom pinned her to a bed and put his hand over her mouth to silence her while he tried to remove some of her clothes, I was sitting in a church pew next to a gentleman who grabbed my hand and placed it on his penis.
I was a college student, 18 and very naïve. I had been sitting in a busy city square reading my Bible and enjoying the sunshine when this man, apparently homeless, struck up a conversation with me. As the crowds of office workers and commuters churned around us, he asked me what I was reading. An ardent student for Jesus, I saw it as an opportunity to share my faith. Although he was a little pungent, the man was polite, and he seemed receptive to my thoughts.
“I feel like I need to pray,” he said quietly. “It’s been a long time.” The man gestured at the elegant sandstone cathedral facing us across the square. “Will you come in to the church with me?”
We walked across the square and went inside. There were maybe a dozen other people there, quietly sitting in the pews. We took a seat at the right, near the back. Not a minute after we had sat down, the man reached his hand across and grabbed my wrist, forcing my hand on to his crotch.
“That feels good, doesn’t it?” he said, pushing my hand around on his stained trousers.
For a second I was stunned, but I tried to pull away. His grip was strong. I looked around at a couple of women sitting in the pew to my left.
“Help me!” it was far from a shout, but certainly audible. The women glanced across at me, then looked away.
The man was still holding my wrist. I twisted and pulled and managed to break free. I scooted along the pew to the center aisle, and ran down to the front of the church. A women with a badge on her jacket approached me.
“What’s wrong, dear?”
I told her what had happened, and she rested her hand on my shoulder and led me to the church office behind the altar. She ushered me in and said a few quiet words to the minister, sitting at his desk. Then the woman left, closing the door behind her.
The minister asked me my name, and then invited me to tell him what had happened. I was sobbing, but I was able to stay just calm enough to get the words out. I ended on a note of indignation and bafflement.
“I called out for help and I know they heard me, but they just kept sitting there.”
He gently explained to me that people don’t always like to get involved in the business of strangers. The minister advised me not to try to go evangelizing the homeless population: “It’s not always safe; you never know what their mental state is.”
Then he prayed with me and showed me out the door.
I didn’t report the assault on that day or any day after. I didn’t even know it was a crime. It was gross and distressing, sure, but I really didn’t think it was what you could call “sexual assault.” The minister certainly didn’t say anything of the sort, nor did he mention calling the police.
I never told my parents. We never talked about sex, but more importantly I didn’t want them to worry about me traveling to and from my inner-city campus, and I really did think I had been foolish. Lesson learned: I would never again try to be a one-woman Crusade for Christ. I did tell my boyfriend (who later served several years as a police officer); he was furious and frustrated that there was so little he could do about it, but did his best to comfort me and to understand when I told him I didn’t want to be touched for a little while.
Having studied judo in my teens, I could quite easily throw a large man over my shoulder. I was a college hockey player, and took fencing classes for a while. I used to joke that I chose those sports because I like hitting and stabbing things. In my mid-thirties, I was in a public toilet in north London when a man stuck his head under the cubicle door and looked up at me. I kicked him in the face. Despite the fact that my scarf fell down the toilet in the scuffle, it’s one of my proudest moments. (After searching around for a police station where I could report it, I gave up and went home.) So I believe that I am no shrinking violet. And yet this one incident agitated me more than I could have imagined.
Over the months and years after, I can’t say I forgot about it, but I tucked it away in my mind. It was not a memory that I wanted or needed to revisit. Until yesterday, when someone commented to me on Facebook, talking about the Kavanaugh-Ford case: “a woman who does not report her assailant is responsible for all of the trouble caused after her assault.”
Even though she wasn’t talking about me, all those memories came skulking back. I felt dirty and ashamed, doubly so because perhaps that man in the city square went on to do the same thing to other young women, and I could have prevented it.
Could I, though? The likelihood of ever finding one homeless man in a big city was low. Would the police even have bothered to pursue it? Or would they have told me the same as the minister, that I had brought it upon myself? What I did in not reporting my assault was the opposite of unique. Fear of not being believed, self-blame and concerns about how the justice system will handle the incident are among the reasons that sexual violence is generally underreported.
I can tell you one thing. If, thirty years later, I saw that man again and learned that he had been nominated to serve on the highest court in the country, I would speak up. I would consider it my civic duty to point out that this man, when I encountered him, did not demonstrate the personal ethics and standard of conduct that are required of a judicial candidate. It would be on him to demonstrate that he was worthy to be appointed.
Back in 1982 I didn’t think what that homeless man did to me was a crime, but I do now.