By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
When I was about 5 or 6 years old, I think I saw a woman being raped. I had not yet learned about the birds and the bees, and the bad things that can happen between them, so my young eyes could not fully comprehend what was happening.
I reflected on this at “Take Back the Night” workshops and marches against sexual violence when I was a student. For a while I even called myself a feminist.
One day, in a discussion with a leading feminist on campus, a new friend of mine clearly had sharper points. The feminist friend began to get emotional.
In mid-sentence, my new friend turned to me and asked me to call his girlfriend. Then, he resumed the discussion without missing a beat. Not asking for an explanation from me, his girlfriend hurried over.
Later, I asked my friend why he wanted his girlfriend to join us. Slowly and seriously, he said: “Casey, think about it. Two young black men, one emotional white woman. She could claim anything.”
I was stunned and alarmed. I had heard of date rape, real and questionable cases, but I couldn’t imagine being accused of “debate rape.”
That feminist friend knew me, but those who did not, our word against hers, we would not have a chance. I began to protect myself.
I mentioned this to one of my professors. He said that he had an “open-door” policy with students and avoided being alone with female students. He had to protect himself.
Respected, accomplished, but he lacked confidence his reputation and career could survive a salacious accusation. I’ve heard the same thing from businessmen, lawyers, and other professionals.
A few years later, working late one night, I realized there was only one other person in the building, a female colleague. I was then happily married, but realized that it was her word against mine, I would have no chance. I shut down my computer and left.
I am now actively involved in North Korean refugee issues. Almost 80 percent of refugees coming to South Korea are females. Because I volunteer and donate to a number of causes, many refugees seek me out as a mentor and friend.
I help when I can, but I remain defensive. I meet female refugees in public and with colleagues. I make it clear that I welcome their friends or relatives, unannounced, at any meetings without space restrictions.
Whenever I go on a speaking tour with a female colleague, I widely publicize it on Facebook and connect them with female colleagues. Perhaps a marching band with flashing neon musical instruments following us makes it clear that our activities are professional.
I am concerned about them, but my secret fear: I am at their mercy, knowing they could destroy my reputation and career at any moment. I must think twice about every email, photo or comment.
I recently learned I have gotten caught up in the backstabbing and gossiping North Korean NGO and research chit-chat worlds. Trolls and anonymous liars have whispered dirty lies about me.
My North Korean refugee colleagues occasionally cry as they tell their stories. I wonder how often audience members crying along with them have their own painful secrets.
Confessing my insecurity won’t stop miscreants with dirty minds from lying, I know. I would be more successful at stopping middle school kids, rather than older imitators, from lying about others.
They don’t know me. They can’t know that I lost my innocence as a child possibly witnessing a rape; about another private thing that happened to me as a teenager; and that I think twice about interactions with women.
I was out a few years ago with a female friend who for some reason was drinking quickly (I’m not a drinker). Outside, she kicked off her boots and began running. In the movies, the guy would have playfully chased her. In my reality, I slowly walked behind her, not wanting any wanna-be-heroes to shoot me because they had misread the situation.
I told that story to my best friend, he responded with his own. Out at a public park, his girlfriend took off running, challenging him, “I bet you can’t catch me.” She was right. He didn’t even try. He stood and waited for her to return. He explained: “I’m a 6’ 2” black man. I can’t chase you in public.”
I understood. As a young man, I would have accepted a footrace challenge from any woman not on the Olympic team, but chase one, even playfully? No.
His girlfriend was shocked to learn her boyfriend had to think twice about interactions with her, I suppose she may have lost her innocence, too.
That’s probably why, when I innocently asked her to join us as we talked politics one day, she rushed to us.
The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co.in Seoul and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: CJL@post.harvard.edu.