CW: This essay discusses rape and sex trafficking. For survivor support, contact RAINN for confidential online and phone support, https://www.rainn.org/get-help.
By Katie Ottaway
For three years all I remembered was the tea. The tea wasn’t even that good.
I was abroad teaching English, and planning a summer of pre-dissertation research. My classes were in the evening, and it was not uncommon for my students to bring friends to audit. In the few minutes before I commenced my advanced English class, I overheard a conversation that a handful of my male students were having in their local language. I didn’t catch it all, but I understood that they were talking about me, and my class, and falling asleep. They were discussing whether or not I would make the cut. There was some discussion of numbers. At the time, I naturally assumed that they were critiquing my pedagogy, maybe discussing if their new foreign teacher was hot or not, and talking about finances as most students do. I didn’t like the fact that they were talking about me within a few feet of me, thinking that I couldn’t understand, so I spoke to the class in their language for the first time.
After class, one of the students approached and asked if I had understood their conversation. I bluffed a little, and replied that I had understood enough of it. His eyes widened, and he assured me that they were talking about a different class and a different teacher. He only returned a couple times, and never made eye contact. His friend, G, who was privy to the conversation maintained good attendance, and even became somewhat of a teacher’s pet.
One evening, a bright young man showed up for my advanced English class at the recommendation of his friends, the guy who wouldn’t make eye contact and G. He was energetic, outgoing, and exuded charisma; it was clear that he would be an invaluable asset in a conversation-based class. After a couple weeks, he approached after class and asked if I tutored privately. I did, but since he was a native speaker of dialect that I was learning in anticipation of my summer travels, we quickly reached a language exchange arrangement.
I had been meeting with D for a couple months before that afternoon. He was always helpful and patient. He was writing a sort of ethnography of his hometown that he had me proofread, and in exchange he helped me practice the pronunciation and colloquial grammar of the local dialect. Our conversations ranged across a wide variety of topic.
One particularly hot afternoon, we were conversing in the sun on his balcony. He and some friends had just rented a nice apartment right across the street from mine, and down the street from campus. I was wearing jeans and a spaghetti-strap tank top with a light cardigan, which I had removed to better enjoy the warmth of the sun. D was clearly distracted by my exposed skin, in a way that surprised me coming from him. He told me that I should “be careful what [I] wear. It might put ideas into a guy’s mind.” It didn’t seem like him, and feminist me firmly believes that it is men, not a woman’s clothes, that control a man’s thoughts. He was wearing a white A-shirt revealing his chiseled muscles; why shouldn’t I have my shoulders out? I guess I leaned over the book in a revealing way, and he immediately called a friend over to meet me. I had already put my sweater back on to ease the distraction before his friend had arrived; the friend seemed disappointed. D asked me to show his friend the book the same way that I had shown him.
By that point, I figured they were cleavage-gawking. Sure, it was a flag, but having been gawked at plenty of times with nothing coming of it. I decided to write it off. While looking me over, the two had a rather generic exchange. Again, numbers were being discussed. I figured they were ranking my rack, or something similarly crass. It sounded like they were talking about money, but that just didn’t seem to fit the context. Another flag, but plenty of men objectify women without acting criminally.
D offered to fetch me a cold beer. I politely declined, saying that I always carried my water bottle during the summer. He offered me a cold soda, anything cold for that hot afternoon. A whole conversation ensued on my drink preferences, aversions, and my omnipresent water bottle and whether or not it ever left my side. He even asked if I had ever just gone off and forgotten my water bottle in a corner at a party, or anything like that. “Of course not,” I replied. “Someone might put something in it.”
He told me that he thought I would be fun to party with, and that his friends are really good at mixing drinks; I should let them be my personal bartenders sometime. I reminded him that I’m a married mother, and my partying days are pretty much over. I told him that I do like tea, and he promised me that he and his friends would be better hosts the nest time and serve me tea. We could have a tea party.
During my next visit to D’s apartment, he wanted to show me the larger room. He and his friends were considering opening a small café, and he wanted my feedback on the space. It seemed an odd request, but he was an enterprising young man, and I had seen stranger things abroad; he did say that he was a businessman of sorts. The space seemed alright, if poorly lit. He lamented that they had forgotten to get me any tea, and so I would have to wait another week. We sat at a square table for our regular exchange.
At this point, I was proofreading sections of his book at home, and our face time was spent working on my language skills. During our conversation, he wanted to be sure that I knew that his name meant “dragon.” He said that it wasn’t his birth name, but that it had been given to him in childhood. He liked it; it suited him.
He was a dragon. I didn’t know it at the time, but he really was; charming, elusive, deceptive, and dangerous. Perhaps he had half a conscience, or more likely he derived pleasure from toying with women; either way, he warned me that he was a “bad guy.” He said that he was “a kind of a monster,” and that if I hung out with him, I “might get hurt.”
I paid little heed to his cautions; he certainly wasn’t the first man to claim to be bad. A tiny part of me that had been cultivated since childhood felt a masochistic comfort in the prospect of a man who would try to use me and treat me like shit. Our conversation moved on to our college years. He asked if I had ever partied, or done anything I had regretted. Yes, I had, and no, I hadn’t. He warned that he and his friends used to have a “gang” (“is that the right word? A group of people who do some things that are bad, maybe illegal. Gang?”). They would “make girls pass out, then have fun with them.” Naïvely, I thought that he was referring to reprehensibly irresponsible partying practices, during which at least his victims knew that they were becoming inebriated, and knew who they were with. The whole conversation was out of line with the D that I had come to know. Perhaps we had reached a new level of friendship. Perhaps he really was a monster.
The following week, D situated me at a large table in the corner of the open room. We greeted each other as normal, and he complimented outfit. He said that it was like I knew, because skirts make things so much easier.
Taken aback, I asked him what he meant. He offered a lame explanation that it was easier to for girls to use the squat toilets when wearing skirts. Crude, but whatever.
As I was getting my laptop set up, he excused himself to the kitchen to see if my tea was ready. After a few minutes, he reemerged with a small cup of hot, but not too hot, tea. Setting it to the side, I began asking him about the pronunciation and usage of various third person pronouns. D suggested I try the tea. I continued with my language practice. Again, D urged me to try the tea. He wanted to know what I thought of it.
I took a couple sips. It wasn’t that good. Really, it was over steeped. I lied, telling him that it was pretty good, and thanked him for the hospitality.
D continued encouraging me to drink the tea. He said that I couldn’t leave until I had had my tea. His friends wanted to make sure that I enjoyed it after they had gone to all the trouble of making it.
I became very suspicious, and told him I’d had enough.
He explained that his friends wouldn’t let me leave until they were through with me, so I might as well finish my drink. I could try leaving, he said, I knew where the door was, but he was sure his friends would stop me. They were growing impatient with me. He said that most of his friends didn’t really like women. Well, they like women, but didn’t have any patience for them. He said, “Some of them have hit women. They’ve hurt women. You understand, you know, how women can be hurt? In that way. They’re strong, and tough, and they’re becoming very impatient. They’re not going to let you leave, and they’re not going to wait much longer. I don’t want you to get hurt, so you should finish your drink. Then we can all have a good time.”
I understood. It was happening no matter what; I might as well drink the tea. The more I drank, the more I forgot why I was drinking.
He kept asking me silly questions. Did I taste anything off? How would I describe the flavor? Was it a good temperature?
With each question I would take another sip, until soon the cup was empty. I remember telling D that we needed to work on my spoken language, as I only had a few weeks before I traveled out to that region.
He was unusually impatient, checking the time every few minutes. He told me that there was no point in us continuing our lesson because I wouldn’t remember it anyway, which I thought was rather rude.
His watch fascinated me; I was intoxicated. He took it off and swung in in front of me for a while. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it. He put it on the table so we could play “catch the watch.” He would move it, and I would clumsily try to slap it, missing most of the time. We played the hand slapping reflex game wherein you rest your palms on top of your partner’s, and try to pull your hands away before your partner slaps them. I was giggly, and consistently lost. Finally convinced that I was thoroughly wasted, D left me to admire his watch while he went to get his friends from the kitchen.
My first memory after blacking out was of being laid out on a bed, or maybe a table in bright natural light. Whatever the surface, it was about pelvis height for most of the guys. They were undressing me to “see what [they] have.” Evidently they were prepared for the possibility of my natural nether region, because it only took moments for them to bring out clippers. They explained that girls were supposed to be groomed a certain way, so they had to “clean” me up. I screamed, horrified and confused. Someone put a jacket over my head so that I could, as he said “rest better.”
When they were done, they called D over to inspect their work. They were all amused by the colorful dragonfly tattoo on my upper thigh, and called over several of the guys to have a look. They asked me what it was called in English; it was tutoring session, after all. D was particularly impressed with the serendipity of it. Essentially, I already bore his brand. Black out.
My next memories are of a guy with long-ish, wavy-ish hair pulled back with a headband over me. I struggled, I screamed. Two of his friends were quick to hold my arms, gently, so as not to leave any marks. One of them gagged me with the shirt off another guy’s back. As he was doing so, D smilingly told me that I needed to be quiet, because “we don’t want to get into any trouble, do we?” I must have calmed down. I remember them un-gagging me, and at some point they let go of my arms. I was drugged, limp, drifting in and out of consciousness. There was a penis in my face. Someone told me that I know what to do. I can only assume that my conditioned response from years of abusive college relationships was what they were expecting. While he was in my face, someone else was between my legs. Black out.
I remember at some point, one of the guys wanted to try to do me doggy-style. The problem is, you cannot doggy-style fuck a woman who has been thoroughly sedated. My arms kept giving out, and with every thrust he pushed me closer to the edge of the surface. I guess he decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, and had a friend help flip me back over. Black out.
Come to, and another guy, this one with short dark hair was over me. He was lying on me, kissing my neck and behind my ears. It was the most violated I had felt. Black out.
Come to, and another stranger was between my legs. He was yelling something to his friends that I didn’t understand. The last condom had broken (there was a box on a small table nearby), and he was extremely frustrated at the trouble the delay in the formality was causing him. He had trouble maintaining his readiness, but my weakened, drugged laughter gave him the fortitude he needed. Next memory, he’s moving inside me. D came over with more condoms, but saw that his friend was already at it. D seemed both annoyed and amused at his friend’s impatience. Heated words were exchanged. As the guy was finishing, D brought him his pants and wallet. The guy handed over some more cash, which seemed to placate my friend. Black out.
I awoke at the large table with my laptop and books. D poked his head in to check on me, and noticing that I was conscious he told me that I had nodded off during our lesson and needed to get going so I could prep for my evening class. I briefly noticed another young woman, obviously intoxicated, whose plaid shirt was being unbuttoned from the neck down, revealing a creamy lace-overlay bra. She was embracing the man who was disrobing her, and D assured me that that was her boyfriend and we should give them some privacy. The moment I looked away she vanished from my mind.
I was so apologetic for having fallen asleep; I was certainly over-worked, stressed, and could have used a nap, but it was not at all like me to actually fall asleep during the day. As I was leaving, I insisted on saying goodbye to D’s friends. The ones who had so kindly made me tea, even though it wasn’t that good. The ones who wanted to get to know me better, but were too shy to come out. At first D said that they were busy, but I insisted, so he took me by the kitchen. We walked past the woman with the curly dark blond hair. She was lying on her back completely limp. A young man was over her, hurriedly unzipping his fly; their belts were already splayed wide. Something seemed really off, but I wasn’t sure what.
There were about a dozen guys sitting around the kitchen, some were smoking. Many chuckled when D told them that I wanted to say bye. He pointed out, one by one, the men who had contributed to my tea. There were about four or so. D asked in their language if anyone else had used me, and how. Two guys nudged the one sitting between him until he sheepishly raised his hand. D laughed and congratulated the guy. He did a final count. Four, five, six men?
D seemed impressed, and told those who had hesitated in raising their hands something to the effect that they would settle later. He praised my efforts as he ushered me out the door, handing me a fistful of cash, much more than he usually paid for tutoring. When I hesitated, he asked if I recognized anyone. I told him that I thought that I recognized that jacket, but I couldn’t place it. He had me stop and look around the room. “If you saw any of these guys later, would you recognize them?” he asked.
I looked again, and said no.
“Look carefully, if someone asked you- like, say, the police- if you know any of these guys, what would you say?”
“I don’t know them.”
“Good, because we don’t like the police.”
As D opened the door to lead me into the common hall, I remembered the woman passed out on the couch and tried to go back to check on her. He assured me that he personally would tend to her, and that I needed to go home and “clean up before class.” Fog overcame my mind.
D led me out the door. Usually he would walk me down to the street, sometimes even across the street to the gates of my apartment complex. This time, he coolly said as he was taking off his belt and pants, “You remember the way, yeah? I have to go take care of your friend.” I was still so groggy. I wasn’t sure that I could find my way to the stairs, let alone back home, but the door was closed. I was momentarily confused as to why he was taking off his pants when he was getting ready to check on her. For a split second, I remembered everything, and I started running to the end of the hall to leave before they changed their minds and took me back in. Fog overcame me.
Sometime during the walk home, I noticed that my bra was crooked and my skirt was partially unzipped. I wondered how I could be so out of it that my clothes weren’t on straight, and I hoped that no one had noticed. That would have been so embarrassing.
Back in the safety of my own apartment, I began prepping for class. I had lost a couple hours, maybe a little more. As I was using the restroom, I noticed the buzz cut. An image of a man flashed through my mind, but my mind was strong and immediately suppressed it. There was so much inexplicable discharge that I called in my husband. He thought it was odd, and suggested I see the doctor if things persisted. Of course, they didn’t. Nothing had happened.
For three years, that was the end of my story. Now I see that the story was continuing around me.
The following week, one of my top students was walking me home as usual (class ended at 10pm), and he told me that he had heard that D and his friends had done something terrible to me. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He was hesitant, then relieved, telling me, “Good. I must have misheard. If you don’t remember anything, then nothing happened. That’s good.” The student cautioned that he didn’t really know D, and that he thought it was odd that he would just show up in class. He ended by saying that he didn’t think I should see those guys again.
I told him that we weren’t planning to meet again. D had told me about a schedule conflict, and that his only free time was during my classes. He had stopped by after one of my classes to ask if I knew any other tutors who might be willing to teach their “English club.” They preferred someone with an American accent. I suggested a guy that I knew. D scoffed, saying that they “don’t like guys.” I pressed the point, knowing that ulterior motives must be at play, but innocently thinking that said motives were probably rather benign. D confessed that he and his friends liked the softness of a woman’s voice, and were more likely to pay attention to a pretty girl. I promised to let him know if I met anyone.
Summer research and travel plans were being finalized, and my star student and friend, G, was going to introduce me to his friends around the rural areas of his hometown. They were going to be wonderful informants for my research topic; they would be thrilled to take me out into the remote hills and show me things. He said that they he knew they would be very interested in “getting to better know” me; the same phrase that D had used. The words were dangerously, maybe comfortably familiar. I still could not acknowledge what had happened, how well D’s friends knew me, and I relished the excitement in spending part of my summer meeting young people who seemed interested in my work, or even in me. It was another flag that my conscious mind refused to acknowledge.
G was going to put me up in his family’s spare apartment in town. Many families there have spare apartments that they rent out, so this didn’t seem out of place. I told him that I was taking my three-year-old daughter with me for the summer. He cautioned that I might get drunk and not be able to take care of her, and that someone might “mess with her.” I told him that as a rule I don’t drink while traveling, and besides, what kind of sick fuck would “mess with” a three year old. He said that I might drink something, and not realize that there’s anything in it and get drunk and pass out. I told him that that hadn’t ever happened to me, but he suggested otherwise. His worries that the trip might not be safe for my daughter were enough to convince me to modify my plans.
A couple weeks passed. I hadn’t had a chance to meet with D; we were both busy. I was pleasantly surprised to see him and his friends at the Professor’s major end-of-semester lecture. At first, D pretended not to notice me. He and his friends talked in a tight circle, and finally he came over, saying “I’m sure you have some questions. You are probably upset, and you have every right to be. We were just having fun.”
I had no earthly idea what he was talking about. It seemed very out of place, but I supposed that he must have been explaining why none of them had been to my class for a few weeks.
D realized that I was completely oblivious to the truth, and shouted over to his friends “She understands. We were just too busy to come to class. We should have come to class, but we were too busy.”
I talked to a few other friends, and soon it was time to file into the lecture hall. Somehow D and I sat next to each other. I don’t remember if it was his idea or mine. I didn’t understand why people kept gawking at us, and D would confidently smile and chuckle. They were the same kinds of looks passed around the middle school lunch table when someone got a new boyfriend.
The lecture hall was nearly full. I recognized many people from classes I taught or attended. Many others were strangers. There was a foreign woman with curly shoulder-length hair who seemed aloof in spite of the safety provided by her entourage. She saw me sitting with D and glared at us with what I thought was the look of a scorned lover. I now know that she wasn’t a consensual participant in the intimate activities enacted on her body. I wish I could reach out to her now, but I have no idea where she was from, or even if she was a part of their “English Club.”
There were a few minutes remaining before the lecture began, so I decided to share with D that I had recently found out that I was pregnant. His jaw dropped with shock, his smiling eyes filled with an even greater brightness. He asked how far along I was; I told him probably about six weeks or so. He counted on his fingers, calculating in his mind, and his smile grew even bigger. He asked what I was planning to do, since I was already a mother and had a burgeoning career. I confided that even though it wasn’t exactly what my husband and I had planned, I supposed that I would just have another baby.
D was absolutely speechless, but the irony of the whole situation, especially my obliviousness, painted a twisted joy across his face. He told one of his friends who was sitting directly in front of us, in their local language, “Congratulations, Daddy!”
“Wha?!” D’s friend responded.
“She’s pregnant, Daddy. Congrats!”
The poor guy did a double take, and recognizing me, he slouched down in his seat, looking thoroughly nauseated. The other friends in that row snickered; one or two asked for clarification. D crudely and quickly explained what had happened in vocabulary that I was never taught in school, but his interspersed gestures and facial expressions said it all.
Again, I was baffled, clueless, and in complete denial. The pieces were all there, the puzzle should have come together, but years of imposter syndrome let me convince myself that I wasn’t understanding what was being said, and even if the words made sense, the context was just too surreal. Denial is a powerful force.
The poor kid tried to hide under a piece of paper. He borrowed a whole notebook to cover his head. He borrowed a friend’s jacket and another friend’s ball cap to hide from my potential gaze.
Even though I understood their conversation, it made no sense to me. I couldn’t understand why he was afraid of being seen by me. Within a few minutes, he was hidden under a couple jackets and several hats. I asked D why he was so afraid of me, and D finally explained that he was worried that someday I may come back and try to say that it was his baby, an accusation that sounded utterly preposterous to my still-in-denial mind.
The lecture began; the lecture ended. D told me that he had a feeling that this baby was going to be special. That somehow it would have a special connection to the region I studied. He said that maybe he’s a little bit psychic, but that his premonition was very strong. I thought it was a little sweet, if odd, that he would say such things, and be so concerned about my pregnancy. Upon parting, D told me that we would probably meet again, and that I needed to take extra good care of my unborn baby.
I continued with my summer research and travel plans. I found that my research was inhibited by my mounting anxiety and depression. I was becoming psychologically paralyzed, and was socially isolated.
Over the coming months, as my belly was growing larger, my anxiety grew even more. I began having major panic attacks several times a day. Certainly, the stress of teaching, studying, and parenting were contributing factors, but I had been performing that tightrope act for years. I would have severe panic attacks when dealing with materials in my research language.
When our baby was born, one of my husband’s first reactions was that she looked like she might possibly be biracial; he wondered what they had done to me while abroad. He loved our baby nonetheless, and we were quickly consumed by the demands of our little newborn.
His early observation struck a chord that echoed within me for months. My anxiety was through the roof. Even the thought of opening a dissertation-related book would trigger a major panic attack. Listening to podcasts in my research languages elicited a similar response. I did my best to keep pushing forward, but I was falling apart with each step. I missed deadlines, and my usually-sharp mind was softened by a thick haze of anxiety. I ended up withdrawing from school and from the world. It was only in the last few weeks that I have been able to admit to myself, and then to my friends, what had happened.
I realize now that D was selling access to my drugged body. Different prices were attached to different levels of access. If a man changed his order mid-course, he would have to settle with the pimp when he was finished. I suspect that my students must have received a “finder’s fee” for their role in it.
The initial tidal wave of emotions was nearly unbearable. The waves lessened, and now my emotions rock back and forth like the tide. Sometimes the water is still enough for reflection. What those men did to me was heinous, but now I can see a macabre humor in it. I want to simultaneously beat the ever-living shit out of them, and fall crying into the arms of these men who knew me so intimately for a brief afternoon. I want to forgive them, but I want them to repent and ask-no, beg- for forgiveness. I want to know where they are, and if they are still doing this. I want them to know that their afternoon of fun forever altered the course of my life. I want to tell each of their mothers what their little boys have done.
My story is still playing out. We are going to have a paternity test on our child, and though the results will not change a thing about our relationship with her, they will determine in part what closure looks like for me. I also have to wonder, if this guy D deceived me so completely, how can I trust myself in the future? I’ve been used and abused before, but at least I knew what was happening. How can I justify my continued faith in the overall goodness of humanity without being utterly naïve?
I also realize that while the possible baby daddy was probably worried about saving his own ass at the lecture, there is also a chance that the news that he might have contributed to a new life awoke something deeper from within him. In my search for healing, I have felt compassion for that guy. What he did was inexcusable. It was criminal. It was wrong. It cost him a few extra dollars that afternoon. But perhaps, just maybe, his conscience was reawakened that evening at the lecture. Or maybe not. But at least the universe presented him the opportunity for a reality check.
As much as I try to suppress any desire for vengeance, I take a twisted pleasure in knowing that it’s possible that it’s been a nagging, if suppressed, question in the back of his mind for the last three years. And if it has, then I have information that he doesn’t. I know that it was my decision to keep the pregnancy (thinking that it was certainly my husband’s). I know that we have a beautiful sunshiney little girl. I have knowledge. I have the means to find answers, and thereby I have power over the outcome of a situation in which all power was stripped from me.
I went into the field as a self-assured, independent, determined feminist. Through their actions, they took away my volition, silenced my voice. They used my body in an attempt to dehumanize me. They used my body for their pleasure, and for their financial gain. But they failed.
After years of denial and unexplained anxiety, I am reclaiming my life. I am returning to my graduate program to complete my doctorate. And most importantly, I’m telling my story. This is my story. This is my life. I refuse to keep their secrets. I refuse to let them shame me. I will do what I can to offer comfort to others who experience sexual trauma in the field.
As I have begun sharing my story, I am appalled at just how common assault is in the research field. For example, in a 2014 study published by PLOS ONE, that number was found to be one in five. I want to be a part of a conversation about how to stay safe in the field without bowing out of opportunities that might be risk-free to our male colleagues. I don’t have a solution. I’m not even sure that one is achievable in a world full of misogyny, a world in which women are regularly blamed for the actions of some men while those men are rarely held accountable. We need to have this conversation.
Katie Ottaway is a student and mother sharing her story to destigmatize rape and garner awareness of sex trafficking and sexual assault while in the field.