Op-ed: The sexual violence that has no name

Emily Hirsch is a senior majoring in English.

He was my teacher. I was 19 years old and had graduated from high school the year before. I never said no.

Legally, the incident was just poor judgment on both sides. Physically, there were no bruises. There was no force. This doesn’t fit the narrative of the girl who got drugged and raped at a fraternity party, nor does it resemble any sort of stereotype about a non-white stranger jumping out of the bushes and attacking the closest white girl.

It felt atypical. However, as I learned later, it was in fact devastatingly common. I know that I survived something, but I’m not exactly sure what it was. Although we didn’t have sex, it was as if I lost a piece of my virginity over a series of explicit Facebook messages, photos and a kiss. The loss seemed beyond my control.

Over the past year, I’ve been encouraged that the conversation about sexual violence has at last gained national attention. That being said, disproportionate space has been given to voices that earnestly offer solutions, rather than examine the unsettling reasons why the issue persists.

I idolized him – as a teacher, mentor and friend. I was looking for approval, for someone who would understand me and think I was smart. Much of my admiration for him was rooted in the assumption that nothing like this would ever happen. I thought I was safe.

In high school, long before I found feminism, I turned to television for guidance. “Pretty Little Liars” said it was romantic to fall for your teacher. “Gossip Girl” insisted that attempted rape mixed with alcohol was a minor subplot. And as much as I appreciate Shonda Rhimes as an important, well-intentioned entertainment icon, “Grey’s Anatomy” taught me that it was sexy to sleep with your boss. The most talented doctors slept with their bosses. Back then, I didn’t consider any of this particularly problematic.

I was naively convinced that if an authority figure took interest in me, sexually or otherwise, it was indicative of my maturity, intellect and some inherent special quality I had. But, really, it had hardly anything to do with me. It could have been anyone. I was probably not the only one. I was an easy target.

What makes this all so inexplicable is that there is no name for it. Any time I bring it up, which is rare, my go-to line is: “You know that teacher thing I told you about?” By definition, it wasn’t sexual assault, rape or even harassment – it’s come to be that “teacher thing.” At this point, I am desperate for a name, but I don’t know if one exists. Names mean validation, names are affirming – if I were to find a name for this, I bet I would cling to it. I would study it. I would have a framework for unpacking it.

Instead, I’m left with a slew of questions: If sexual violence is such a widely acknowledged problem in college, why didn’t I learn about it before I got here? Why did my high school sex education only focus on how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases? Why did no one tell me the different definitions of consent? Why wasn’t there a discussion about the connection between sex and power? If that teacher thing isn’t called violence, then why did I feel so violated?

How is it that if this same scenario had happened just one year earlier – when he was still my teacher – he could have lost his job? In that year after I graduated, did his position of authority vanish? I can assure you, it didn’t. While he could no longer grade my papers, his influence over me was still strong enough to dictate almost anything else, including sex. If he had followed through on his effort to have sex with me that day I was in his apartment, would I have been able to say no? I doubt it.

Whenever I wonder whether I’m exaggerating the severity of that teacher thing, I remind myself that there is a reason why he didn’t want me to tell anyone. There is a reason why most of my high school classmates thought something was happening. There is a reason why I can’t suppress the memory of my tense body sinking into his seemingly inescapable couch. There is a reason why I hesitated until senior year of college to cultivate close relationships with professors. There is a reason why, even though these relationships are built on foundations of intellectual and emotional respect rather than coercion, I worry that they could end in disappointment.

I don’t want to conclude this piece with a big, sweeping claim about how I propose we fix the systemic conditions that make sexual violence pervasive. Plenty of people have already done that, and often done it well. My objective here is to share a story that I argue echoes countless others that have been veiled by silence because they don’t fit neatly into the confines of language and may never be deemed unlawful.

One of the most frightening types of violence is the kind that cannot be named. As upsetting as it was, there is nothing that special about my story. I am no anomaly. Far too many women I know have also endured moments when power operated so covertly that it was difficult to recognize, when true choice was absent, when sex became scary.

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