With days left of college, a close friend of mine was drugged at a party.
What followed was a sequence of events about which my friends have praised and thanked me. Looking back, the minimal aid for which I was responsible was tinged with a tacit acceptance of rape culture from the onset. My apologies years later were met with muted stares and rolled eyes. Still, between me and whoever slipped whatever into my friend’s drink that night, I fail to see many differences, excluding the most obvious. We were united in a basic lack of empathy.
With finals complete, pictures in the mail and parking passes obtained, I found myself with a little money and a lot of time in May of 2014. My circle of friends had come from as close as Newark, N.J., and as far away as Camden, N.J., as bright-eyed freshmen four years prior, and we were thinking of cheap, indulgent ways to celebrate our success. Having been tipped off to a going-away party down the hall at my apartment building, we got dressed up and went together. We got in a few minutes after 11.
The three-bedroom apartment was sweltering with the sweat of roughly 100 undergraduates, stained and soaked with vodka and boxed wine, teeming with weed-enhanced desire as the sounds of Popcaan pushed the limits of a small bundle of mismatched computer speakers in a dark corner of the main room. The hosts were seniors, too; girls we’d known since sophomore year. We were instructed not to bring our own alcohol because there’d be plenty of wine, shots and jungle juice to guzzle. We drank and danced until a fight broke out, freed the girls in our squad from the grasps of the men behind them, sucked down our drinks and hit the road for junk food.
Minutes later, a few minutes shy of 1 o’clock, a friend of mine stopped her sentence short while debating the merits of gummy worms and sour worms. Expecting an obscene gesture or a playful smack, I turned around to see her head bounce off the linoleum floor. She’d fallen; her eyes were rolling as her leg kicked involuntarily. In the seconds immediately following her fall, we were scared and confused. By the time we’d loaded her into the back seat of our car, we’d pieced it together.
The trip from our favorite corner store to my apartment usually took 15 minutes. That night, it didn’t take us more than 10. I drove as our friends kept her awake. They peppered her with simple questions she couldn’t answer, helped her raise her arms and sit up, and fanned her with textbooks. A few hours later, when she could stop her eyes from rolling in her head, she’d tell us that she had no memory of the party, the corner store or the ride home. She remembered walking into the party, grabbing a cup, setting it down to find her phone in her purse, dancing for a few minutes ... and then nothing.
I have no medical background, and didn’t then, but I do have a background in bad trips. I helped her cool down, sip water, keep awake and throw up when she felt up to it. We made sure she was taken care of while a few friends went back to the hostesses to compare notes, since another girl had spotted another guy spiking a drink after we’d left. Having captained the effort of nursing our friend back to relative health, the decision on the next course of action, at our friend’s behest, had somehow fallen to me.
I am the son of a black woman from Albany, Ga. She moved through the world past the stares of angry neighbors. She attended college to the chagrin of a few classmates and professors. My earliest memories of her—an immigrant women’s housing director for a nonprofit—involve phrases like “No means no” and “Stranger danger.”
As I got older, I helped her move women from war-torn countries into cheap rooms. I took Saturdays in high school to drive them to support groups. I was deliberately raised to protect and advocate for women. I covered for a few when angry, drunken men came around. I knew certain assault and arrest stats like I knew Paul Pierce’s percentage from the 3-point line.
When college came, I spent my four years pursuing a minor in women’s studies. I’d read and regurgitated the statistics, anecdotes, pitfalls and signs of all of society’s ills as they pertained to women. Judging by my GPA within the concentration, I was damn well equipped to do the right thing when faced with the living, breathing, vomiting, incoherent image of date rape. I had been practicing for my hero moment since acne. Seeing as that moment came in the form of my then girlfriend’s eventual maid of honor, surely I was keenly aware of what was at stake.
However, with all of my well-honed, fine-tuned understanding and empathy, we decided not to involve the police or campus authorities. Why? Sure, rape and date rape drugs are reprehensible. Sure, losing consciousness, suffering a concussion and worrying your closest circle of friends as they carried you naked to a bathroom to relieve yourself is pernicious and dangerous and wrong.
But she knew better than to leave her cup, I thought. If it weren’t for us leaving and being around to help her, after all, it could’ve ended much worse.
The memories of that night were first etched in my brain as a pat on the back, a notch on the belt of the angel on my right shoulder. I calmed an angry, scared group of my closest friends, and maybe even saved a life. I’d done the right thing.
It wasn’t until a year later, during a conversation concerning an acquaintance who was drugged and raped, when I caught myself in a lie. Whipped up in the collective rage and anguish, I declared something about what I’d do and who would have to stop me if that happened to anyone to whom I was close. It was bullshit. I’d had the chance to be truly brave more than a year prior. Instead of balling my fists for the culprit, I’d pointed my finger at the victim, shielding her attacker while endangering others with my call for silence. I wasn’t a hero for pouring a cup of water and opening a window; I was a coward for imploring my drooling so-called loved one to be a more reluctant victim the next time around. I’d done the right thing for the wrong person.
From a distance, empathy isn’t empathy, it’s theater. When one is faced with assault in the form of a probing question, empathy amounts to a man keeping his foot out of his mouth. In real time, stats are obscured in memory by moving parts: the unattended cup and the fear for a friend; the black man who could look like you; the system that could bind you both, guilty or innocent; and so on.
None of those fears were wrong. But I shielded a stranger and stranded a friend after considering them. In the heat of the moment, rape culture shunted in my imagination the agency of a friend whose head bounced off a linoleum floor for the protection of a stranger.
Empathy identifies and validates the feelings of another. Rape culture elevates men as more worthy of empathy. Humanity tells us that all humans are equally capable of feeling and being worthy of empathy. Rape culture tells us women are less human. In reality, by diluting our empathy, rape culture makes men inhumane.
When faced with the reins to a messy situation, I’d cleaned it up the best I could for my conscience, without an ounce of empathy for the real victim.
Watching the news with my now wife a year later, a news channel had dedicated a bloc to the coverage of a story of a vicious rape on a large college campus. My wife, who had stopped our conversation to read the chyron, sat back and pursed her lips in disgust. The details were grizzly, and, it seemed, justice had been miscarried in the ensuing investigation. My wife, heartbroken for the girl whose life had undoubtedly been changed forever, asked me what I would do if our child were the victim of assault at college.
I’ve long since forgotten the details of the case. I have no clue how or if it ended, whether justice was served or whether the woman involved will have sufficient support to successfully rebuild her life. The answers to those questions depend heavily on the amount of empathy in the hearts of men.