Mantis Shrimp have 16 types of colour receptive cones. With that they beat mankind by 13 points. The prevailing thought is that this gives the crustacean the ability to recognize colours that are unimaginable by other species.
In much the same way as humans are oblivious to most of the colours that Mantis Shrimp can see, likewise are men largely oblivious to the phenomenon of sexual assault which women are subjected to. They may be told about it, just like the Shrimp can tell us about all the pretty colours, but since it is other men doing it to women, most men are really never much confronted with this. This, in sharp contrast to many of the women they know personally. Men just don’t get to see what the real world is like. Statistics on the other hand, which are actually underestimating reality due to obvious psychological reasons, tell us rape is actually ubiquitous, with 33% of women experiencing severe to very severe sexual assault and rape within their lifetime. Apart from a handful of perpetrators (assuming less than 1/3 of men) that are actually responsible, men go about their days, being at best indirectly aware of what is going on.
Let me tell you about the time I allegedly sexually assaulted a woman.
I’ve had a large indirect awareness about sexual assault since long ago, knowing both about certain predators as well as some victims personally. Yet when you don’t know about it first-hand this knowledge always remains academic in a sense. You don’t go about your day wondering about people you know if they were once a victim or would ever become an assailant. You assume they’re not, you can’t even imagine they would be; Until these thoughts are a luxury you just can’t afford anymore.
Once upon a time
A little less than a decade ago,.. these were the high times of the aging XP operating system, Avril Lavigne was telling us to “Keep Holding On” and Nelly Furtado was still around. The Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. had a short while to go still and many of us were pretty happy, if just cautiously optimistic.
I was a young buck, a History mayor, recently from university, and lucky enough to having landed a job where many of my peers had failed. Within the company I was in, I was going through the mandatory job-trainings that the up and coming managers needed to complete.
To be clear I didn’t mind the ‘presentation skills’; I also ‘aced’ the technical software trainings but I really struggled with the ‘soft-skills’ courses. It should be mentioned that, if no-one else, I had secretly already concluded that I was not ‘Manager-Material’. Yet, mostly to hide this, I was also very arrogant. A technical-minded bastard, looking down on his peers, thinking myself quite the programmer because I could loop through a couple of thousands of lines of excel-data (reinventing table-indexing and ‘The Wheel’ along the way).
Mind you, these ‘soft-skill’ courses deserved all the scepticism a fully automated mud-slinger could throw at it. The scientific basis for MBTI for instance is zilch and the real-world value probably negative. It cost me real effort to sit quiet and pay lip service to the mental-waste I was being fed. At another course I was forced to watch, deeply embarrassed, while two actors enacted (and misrepresented) a ‘real-world’ conflict someone proposed. Such was the course in ‘conflict management’ that mistakenly departed from the assumption that all human conflict flows from miscommunication. Yet if that were true, I would have nothing to tell you today. In case you were then still not convinced, another MBTI poll would underline how different you were from your neighbour.
No-one seemed to care or hear your objections as every personality-poll you took came back significantly different.
Nearing the end of a three-years period during which courses would be organised and taught by small external partners, (whom you would never ever see again since none attained the 85% approval rating required for a re-hiring) I was ‘invited’ for a course on ‘Leadership and impact’, a course on how to be The Boss to your ‘peeps’.
Luckily I wasn’t the only historian from my university’s Alma-mater in these courses. Mr. B was a few years younger, recently with the company and, as most ‘youngstarters’, present at most managerial trainings. He had graduated a few years after I did, skipping the customary additional degree for a budding soccer career and a surprisingly swift injecting into our company. As anyone who survived college will tell you: Having had the same quirky professors really is a bonding experience. I even think that, several personal conversations in, Mr. B and I were likely on the way of becoming friends rather than colleagues. On the other hand, as historians come, we were very different. I extracted my identity from bits and bytes and being a self-taught worldly IT-nerd. He was a soccer jock, surpassing me considerably in physical fitness, strength and height.
Me and Ms. M, in contrast, the consultant who would come to teach the two-days course on ‘Leadership’, were definitely not on way to becoming friends. She and I quickly understood that the battle for ‘smartest person in the room’ would be between us, leaving the others behind us, which was a problem since only one of us could be the teacher. For her part and to her credit, she quickly picked-up on my contempt for the course she was coming to teach. We also didn’t need an MBTI test to tell us that the only thing we had in common were our Ego-sizes. She had a decade of experience over me, which made her slightly older, wiser and better prepared to cross swords.
Management training courses are always a bit strange anyway. They contrast with normal school as everyone is paid for being there but they last only a relatively short time. This does not aid in making the subject matter more interesting or scientifically supported. It also results in a greater distance both among the ‘students’ as well as with the teacher. This invariably culminated in name tags, with first-names on, either being placed before the ‘student’ or literally stickered onto him/her. The first-name basis does not help to reduce the distance between the participants at all, it actually even accentuates it. Because in business, among colleagues, everyone uses first-names these days, except if there is a specific need for a respectful distance. On training courses you rarely are with people you spend any time with and it feels weird to have people you know nothing of, to call you by the same name that your mother calls you.
Ms. M. took this to another level still. Perhaps she felt that a course in interpersonal skills could not benefit from an academic distance and perhaps she was right. In any case she did not make the mistake to become our friend either. While she seemed intent on breaching our shields, by laying bare personality and feelings through social-experiments and role-play, her shields were kept firmly in place. Her ‘bedside manner’ varied from a loving but often condescending kindergarten-teacher to a disappointed and critical ‘Mom’.
The height of her and mine subtle personality-sparring match came on the second and last day of the training. After several of these ‘social experiments’ had passed already, she picked me to do the role-play in which I was the manager who had to tell her, as my ‘pretend employee’, that her personal hygiene was so lacking that the stench was beginning to bother fellow-colleagues. This is not a totally surreal scenario, but it is one that most managers never ever have to deal with. Furthermore they never ever have to do it under scrutiny, because it is the managerial version of the Kobayashi Maru. It is a scenario designed for failure, because face it: no-one is coming out of that meeting with a good feeling, are they? The fact that, this time, she wouldn’t let anyone else play ‘victim’ at first seemed compassionate, as no-one else would have to ‘pretend stink’. It became apparent however she so set it up so she could sabotage control the role-play even better and make me squirm a little more.
She broke me half-way through the second attempt. I was really trying to get it right, but I’m no Captain Kirk and the game was rigged. Her laughing me all the way back to my place after the third attempt, abundantly supported by my distant colleagues, was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I wasn’t angry with her though, I felt inadequate and disappointed with myself. She had won!
As she broke for lunch well into over-time, the others left both of us alone in search for food. In hind sight this would have been a situation best avoided. It would have been best avoided by her, because she risked being raped being alone in a deserted building with a man [whom she humiliated shortly before]. It was avoidable for me because I had no witnesses to say that I hadn’t raped her. However, despite the ubiquity of rape, only rape-victims and rapists really think about these things. So we just sat there eating our sandwiches. She read a magazine while I took out my laptop and licked my wounds working on a program I had been writing. This restored my self-worth somewhat. It reminded me none of this mattered much as long as the correct numbers came out of my automation.
Ms. M. was attractive. It also doesn’t speak well for me that I can’t remember what her name was but do remember the shape of her hand-sized breasts. These, by the way, she had nicely tucked away inside a sweater which’ tightness left nothing to the imagination. All in all Ms. M. was the kind of woman you’d like to take to bed, if you could work your way around her personality. A friend who you’d enjoy being with, twice a year. In any case we didn’t speak until she had to go to the bathroom and asked if I would watch her stuff. I said I would and she didn’t return until the others came back as well.
The final act of the play, the final afternoon, was rather uneventful and the class was increasingly becoming tedious and uninteresting. We were all paid to be there and that was about the only thing that kept us there. As the course descended into ‘post-script’-mode full of obscure nuance and partial repetition minds clearly started wandering towards going home.
She then made the mistake of breaking the unwritten rule that business-trainings should not run late on a hot Friday-afternoon. Because most people tend to have, in fact, an extended commute to get home and prepare for the weekend. This by itself, I knew, would earn her a satisfaction-score that would make this her first and last appearance as a training-consultant at the company. I however found no satisfaction in knowing she had overplayed her hand.
Undoubtedly the staff of the training centre would have left already. Probably all other classes on this training-floor of the building would have closed as well. On the other floors, where other companies were housed, many would have started earlier then we had, in order to be able to start the weekend a 3pm. By the time we were given the satisfaction-form and allowed to leave I was not disappointed in my expectation that fellow trainees, feinting interest only seconds before, where challenging Olympic records running towards the door.
I, as always, was packing more stuff than the other course-participants were on training-days. The idea of not having a computer during the commute and to establish my technical prowess during the day was simply unthinkable to me. However it was not only the act of packing that slowed my departure. Even when a course has been as miserable as this one had been, such a sudden ending of days of intense contact with someone you will never see again is unnerving to me. I am not the only one who I’ve seen, over the course of many years seeking a slightly more gradual closure to the event. Sometimes a conversation is struck up often relating to a personal take on something that was said before. This often starts in the form of questions. Often some more civil and formal departing-words are uttered. I was therefore not surprised that Mr. B. started a conversation with Ms. M. As I was rolling up the two sections of power-cable that had recharged my 4-pound laptop and putting away the laptop itself, a bottle of water, my box for sandwiches and the note block containing the notes I would never ever revisit. I unconsciously followed the uninteresting conversation in the room.
The question Mr. B. put to her was, in my opinion, not an interesting one. In fact I found that it had been covered during the course and it struck me as repetitious. Ms. M., who was also in the act of gathering her training material together, kind of replied with much of what she had said earlier. However, failing a more interesting question, I understood the point of the question was less to do with the content and more to do with finding a way to wind down the day and saying goodbye. Another question followed as I packed my lunch box. Then a tangent as I was gathering my garbage together. When the third question came I knew something was horribly wrong! Mr. B. wasn’t winding down at all, . . . he was stalling!
Clearly Ms. M. hadn’t yet concluded, with me, that these questions were disingenuous. From her viewpoint perhaps her course was interesting and perhaps tedious questions regarding it were in line with her expectations. I on the other hand, knew she was totally overestimating herself they were not and wondered why Mr. B. could possibly try to stretch his presence here so late on a Friday-afternoon. Based on previous experience I started thinking two steps ahead while I was putting away my lunchbox. I could see myself, in a few moments, leaving the classroom. I would be walking down the narrow, deserted and carpet-padded corridor. All the other classrooms would be empty as well. The admittance desk at the entrance would be deserted, as would be the adjacent offices. I knew, from before, I would need to push a button to open a door towards the elevators, which would prevent me, or anyone else remaining in the building, from coming back to the classrooms. The only other person I would encounter would be the security-guard at the ground-level, just before leaving through the self-closing door, exiting towards the street. Despite the abnormal September heat I went totally cold inside as I heard the sound of the voices drown away from my ears. I realised: The moment I left the classroom, seemingly by mr. B’s intentional design, Mr. B. and Ms. M. would be alone on a deserted island. If cries for help would be yelled, they likely would not be heard. In case they were still picked-up, it would be hard to find where they came from or what they meant. Worse still, anyone that did want to come to aid, would not be able to reach the classrooms. Late on a Friday afternoon they would be utterly alone here and, out of the two of them, only Mr. B. was aware of this! And so he continued talking.
I tried to convince myself otherwise. I had no reason to think that Mr. B., a fellow historian mind you, wasn’t a moral person. And if Ms. M. had eviscerated or emasculated anyone during the class it had been me! Why would he be motivated to attack her womanhood over that? Still, my gut told me that as soon as I left Ms. M. would first fight-off an aggressive sexual approach to subsequently and inevitably lose a terribly violent one. Perhaps my suspicions were unconsciously increased by his manner of speaking; sensing in his tone of voice a further reduction of the emotional-distance that basic-strangers usually maintain. Perhaps I also sensed some arousal and hostility in there? With an inkling of doubt still lingering inside me I found no other explanation and decided I wasn’t going to take the risk. To be honest, I might not have been a stranger to the occasional rape-fantasy myself, but this was real life and real people! And though I had no love-loss for Ms. M. every inch of my being screamed that this sickening thing simply wasn’t going to happen, period!
I finished packing as slow as I could. With every passing moment the stalling became ever more apparent, the breach with normal post-training-ritual well beyond expectations. In fact I was beginning to fear that Ms. M. would suddenly realise she was alone with two strange men in an isolated situation and that this would somehow escalate and end up implicating me as well. I ran out of things to pack and ways to stall myself. By now there was little doubt in me that I couldn’t afford to leave. Judging by his attitude in the very least Mr. B. would make a sexual pass at her, which would be instantly rebuffed, allowing for things to escalate further. Then I realised I didn’t need an excuse to stall: ‘Mr. B. and I were “friends”‘. Even more, we needed to go the same direction by train anyway. I could just wait for him to finish his ‘conversation‘ and walk out together. So I took a waiting posture, feinting interest in the conversation I wasn’t even hearing and watched him grow increasingly tense. Time was on my side!
Minutes in we had all well overstayed our customary leave-by time and the vail of this all being in interest of academic curiosity had evaporated. Mr. B., well aware I wasn’t going to leave and, to the attentive observer, not too happy with it was finishing a sentence. A slight hesitation in finding another credible tangent gave me an opening. “B., let’s go.” The calmness of my own voice surprised myself. I instantly knew it was check-mate. Though he could have easily taken me out physically (and I kind of expected him to), he couldn’t do that fast enough to also assure catching her. At the same time he could not physically force her into doing anything while I was still there. He also found no excuses for why, so late on a Friday-afternoon, a long way still from home he still needed to remain behind. He surrendered.
We briefly said our goodbye’s to Ms. M. and walked out together.
I expected some kind of negativity on our way to the elevator. He didn’t speak a word. I half expected to be physically attacked inside the elevator. But nothing happened. Never before was I so happy to see the fat, out-of-shape security guard down in the lobby. The doubt in my mind grew back a little. ‘So what if he had been a tad infatuated by the teacher, she looked fine didn’t she?’ ‘What indication did I have to come to my conclusions, after all?’ But then again, no harm no foul right? I hadn’t accused him of anything so apart from being a little bit impatient (but hardly so really) my ‘friend’ could hardly accuse me of anything either. And yet, all through the lobby, not a word was said and much like with our tardy departure, there was no real innocent explanation for this tense silence.
Outside we unexpectedly ran into two more trainees. Apart from it being a gigantic relief not to be alone with Mr. B. anymore it kind of made me doubt myself even more, given others were now also tardy, whether I hadn’t misjudged the whole thing. The two immediately said goodbye to each other and I had the distinct feeling the second person had actually been waiting for Mr. B. and myself. Given that all three of us were going the same way by train this was both logical and a huge relief on my part. I decided to forget about the situation. Nothing had happened. Mr. B. hadn’t done anything wrong, nor was it, in hind sight, likely that he would have had. And I, for my part hadn’t committed any real faux-pas either. The three of us walked of, still wrapped in silence. Then . . . Mr. B. broke it.
“I had my way with her on her desk! Hailaga wanted her as well but she fought him off!” [he off course used my real name]
The vicious anger, hate and frustration in his voice caught me completely off-guard. The cold feeling I had felt in my stomach instantly returned. What followed was the densest silence I ever made part of. The three of us walked on. I was dumbfounded by the sheer realisation that I had not been mistaken at all, that he had in fact nurtured pure evil and now hated me enough for having prevented it, that he would cast me as a loser in a rape-fantasy in which he was the victor. He seemed to imply that though Ms. M. would have had no choice in the matter of having sex with him, that she would have actually enjoyed being raped. In stark contrast with my-loser-persona whom she would have rejected not only morally but also physically. A more indicative insight into the rapist-mind was well beyond my imagination. After what seemed like an eternity I succeeded in muttering: “That’s disgusting!” I had meant to say that he was disgusting but I realised I had no evidence to accuse him of anything, not even a victim.
This whole time the third man, whose name I don’t recall didn’t say a word. I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. Did he actually believe these things were said in jest? Did he understand there was some sort of history that preceded this? And why did Mr. B. come out and say this? Was he so angry and frustrated he would tip his hand and basically cop to having sexually assaulted a woman, when he hadn’t? Perhaps his verbalising of the rape-fantasy was a release-button for pent up sexual-frustration aimed at the expense of the one whom he deemed responsible for his failure. The three of us walked on. I started walking faster, breaking another unwritten rule. I just wanted to get out of there! When we came to the train, with a couple of meters separating us, both of them took off towards another part of the train. I felt betrayed by the third man though relieved to be alone at the same time.
I didn’t feel like taking out my computer at all during that ride. Between Ms. M. and Mr. B. I had taken a severe beating that day and beat I was. I had been humiliated, belittled . . . violated. Legally Mr. B. had done nothing wrong except falsely alleging I had attempted to rape Ms. M. There is little doubt with me however that he would in the future find occasion to ‘have his way with’ any number of women. Apart from the one time where I did stop him, there is little I can do about that except tell you about how ubiquitous sexual-assault actually is and not to trust historians or soccer-players at face value.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Mr. B. did actually very well in the company that would end up firing me, half a decade later. We actually crossed paths in several meetings during that time, carefully avoiding having to talk or shake hands ever since. I do regret that Mr. B. will have other victims. I also know that he will not get away with it forever. He simply isn’t smart or emphatic enough to estimate which victim will remain quiet and which won’t. Unfortunately, in Belgium, this will not ruin his life. It is doubtful he will ever even see the inside of an actual jail when caught.
I never heard from Ms. M. again, not did I expect that. I am however, to this day, surprised that she, with all her interpersonal soft-skills never seemed to have sensed the grave danger she was in. Or did she? Perhaps she had felt something wrong with Mr. B., especially by the end. Perhaps she managed to keep her composure in light of de-escalating the situation. At the very least I would hope that, halfway on her way through the deserted corridor, the forced way I made our departure (and the reluctance with which Mr. B. went) would have given her pause. I’d like to believe she got an inkling of what actually happened there. To be clear at no point did I mean to imply that any of this was her fault. Though her looks, her demeanour and her negligence certainly contributed to the situation this does not reduce her right not to be raped. Men who overly assert their temporary authority or belittle juniors don’t get raped, do they?
I never told anyone about this, in fact writing it down has taken some pain on my part. To think that in this story no-one, least of all me, actually got raped, yet how hard it still is to talk about it, must be an indication of how hard it must be for actual rape-victims. I thought writing it down would give me some catharsis, a way of putting it behind me. But coming to the end I still feel the ever presence of my own version of Dexter’s “Dark Passenger”. I worked at becoming a lot stronger now. Yet my fantasizing about ‘doing something about it’ is really just my way of angrily throwing pebbles at the wall. I guess Forrest Gump was right: