I’ve recently been reminded of a couple of unpleasant incidents from 20+ years ago — deeply creepy encounters that caused me to step back and reexamine the degree to which certain people will take advantage of another human in a vulnerable condition.
During the winter when I was 20 and attending Purdue, I was separated and in the process of a divorce. At the time I felt confident, self-righteous, and able to handle anything; but nonetheless I wound up in a couple of situations that I probably should have seen coming and avoided — situations involving men who apparently felt that a young divorcee must be in desperate want of male company and that since said divorcee had obviously been around the block sexually, they didn’t have to be subtle about their advances.
First, early in my separation, I was asked out by a man a few years older than me whom I found mildly interesting and was willing to accompany to dinner. He arrived at my apartment with a tiny and somewhat wilty bouquet of flowers, wearing a yellowed dress shirt with a blood spot on the color from mismanaged shaving. He entered uninvited, closed the door, followed me while I put the flowers in water, and proceeded to press his body against me from behind and announce in a rumbly voice that the sensation felt so good that he just knew he was in love. My memory fails when it comes to exactly how I got rid of him, but the dinner didn’t happen (and neither did the other activities he apparently had in mind).
The second incident happened a couple of months later. I was working at a bookstore, which was owned by a 70-ish man whom everyone affectionately called Doc. He was a widower, white-haired, grizzled, and stocky, and he was never without the stub of a cigar in the corner of his mouth. Doc knew everything there was to know about the college bookstore business. I knew him only as a friendly employer, until one day when he overheard me talking to another employee about my personal situation — the tribulations of separation, the upcoming divorce proceeding, difficulties concentrating on school, and so on.
Doc worked his way into the conversation and made a number of supportive and sympathetic comments. Then, after the other employee left, he found some plausible reason — actually, I’m sure it wasn’t plausible at all; I should have known better — why I should stop by his house that evening to pick something up.
When I arrived, he invited me in and showed me around his large and elegant home. Living room, kitchen, den, bedroom — and suddenly I was wrapped up tight by the arms of this (to me) absolutely ancient guy, and lips that reeked of cigar were pressing against mine. When people talk about being in shock about something, about being temporarily unable to think or speak or move, I know exactly what they mean, because that’s what happened to me. I recall standing totally still as he began to talk about how he wanted me to quit school and go away with him on his winter trip to Hawaii — we would stay at his house there, and he’d buy me clothes and pay all my expenses, and we’d have a wonderful time. Disjointed thoughts bounced through my head of stories I’d read in which women were offered fantastic wealth to be someone’s mistress. I heard bits of song from the musical Gigi. I realized that if someone told me this had happened to them, I’d advise them to absolutely yes take the free ride to the tropics — he’s old, right? How much energy could he have? Who cares if you find the idea of him touching you repulsive? You can always fake it. You’ll find some way to explain it to your parents. And then my brain collected itself and my voice came back, and I began the difficult process of extracting myself from his grasp and talking my way out the door.
Today I realize how lucky I am that both of these men were merely creepy — they were not persistent to the point of insistence or assault. I also realize that I put myself in situations I shouldn’t have been in, alone with men I didn’t know well and whose motives were unknown.
But … these guys were clearly looking for one thing only. Once upon a time divorcees were targets, assumed to be easy pickings for any man in need of a sexual fix. After all, she’s divorced, and she’s had sex, so she must be fast and loose, right? I’d like to think that my creepy encounters happened late in the era of that opinion, and that these days divorced women aren’t automatically assumed to be a ready source of sexual supply. It’s an ugly, coercive, insulting, presumptive, icky way for someone to behave, and I’m glad that I’ve had no reason to think about these situations for many years.
I want it to be a better world, lacking in attempts to take advantage of a bad situation. Emotional health and sexuality are vital parts of who we are as humans. Don’t mess with someone when they’re fragile.