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At Least I Got my Watch Back

How disclosing my herpes status on a date led to sexual assault.

Cynthia Lewis

Content warning: the article contains a description of sexual violence


Dan and I met on a personals website in 2007. At first, I found him to be bright but conventional. He viewed all illegal drug use as wrong, for example, without any direct experience or critical thought. He’d been a Marine, and I imagine he would have made a good soldier, carrying out orders from his superiors without question. But we shared some important interests and values and were both looking for a serious relationship. We had an easy chemistry on the phone, and the sad stories he told about his childhood made me feel prematurely tender towards him. I convinced myself that he was a soul in need of some kindness, and that I was just the person to provide it.

Neither of us had posted a photo on our profile. When we exchanged pictures, I was disappointed: Dan’s face was expressionless, his stance excessively wide, and his hair militaristically short, as though he might be called to reveille at any moment. He didn’t look anything like the weirdos I normally dated. I told myself to stop being so judgmental; in-person chemistry can’t be determined from a photo.

We met in a coffee shop in a strip mall, and I felt relieved to find something attractive about him after all. Because the picture he’d shared was taken at a distance, I hadn’t been able to see Dan’s eyes clearly. Up close, they were striking: one the cold blue of a Husky dog, and the other a warm brown like my own. The chairs in the coffee shop were armless and too tall, more like bar stools. My thigh muscles tensed to keep me from sliding off. I don't remember what we talked about.

Afterward, he walked me to my car, which was parked several rows away from his. He scanned the lot as we walked, stood guard as I got in, and closed the door behind me. I wasn't used to men behaving chivalrously, and thought it unnecessary. After all, we were in a busy suburban parking lot in the middle of the day, not a Victorian waterfront at midnight. What did I need protecting from? In retrospect, his behavior seems less protective than predatory. He was a lion guarding his intended prey, and nobody else would be allowed to hunt me.

When I was ensconced behind a computer screen again, I broached the difficult topic of my genital Herpes. I told him how common it is, how medically trivial for the majority of “sufferers” including myself, that I rarely had outbreaks and that the slight risk of transmission when the virus is dormant could be mitigated but not eliminated by condoms. After asking me some questions and doing some research of his own, he affirmed that he wanted to continue seeing me.

Our next date ended at his house, a split-level in a Baltimore suburb that he made sure to let me know he owned. He seemed proud of his big-screen TV and of the leather couch on which we sat while I watched him watch football. The game stayed on while he felt me up. He played with my tits like they weren’t part of me, like they were toys. I had often wished they were detachable. Some men wouldn’t miss the rest of me if I dropped them off for a play date. “Did you gals have fun?” I would ask when I picked them up.

A bit later we were lying on his bed kissing, caressing, and shedding clothing. He began fingering me. Now this, I liked. I closed my eyes to concentrate on the sensation. But suddenly pleasure turned to agony. What was happening? I didn’t immediately understand that he had crammed his whole hand inside me. I tried to endure it, but the pain was greater than my wish not to disappoint him. I shrieked at him to stop and tried to pull away, but his hand moved with me. Finally my legs managed to kick free, and a moment later I was in the bathroom with the door locked.

After I cleaned myself up, Dan drove us to dinner at a Chinese buffet. That's where he wanted to go, so that’s where we went, no discussion of what my preferences might be. He didn’t believe in culinary consent either, I suppose. We didn’t talk about what had happened at his house.

At the restaurant, I had an episode of what I now know is depersonalization. It felt like someone else was making small talk with this small man while he shoveled lo mein into his maw. My hands and mouth moved in ways that were appropriate for hands and mouths to move at dinner while the real me cocooned itself, waiting to see when it would be safe to emerge.

After I returned home that night, I realized that I'd left the watch my father gave me when I was in high school on Dan’s night stand. I wanted it back, but I did not want to see him again, nor drive the almost-hour to his house. So the next day, I called to ask him to mail it to me.

I probably would have spoken to him again anyway. When I was young, I often tried to reason with unreasonable people. If someone hurt me, I would tell them how their actions impacted me, hoping that they would understand, express regret, and change their behavior. This is an extraordinarily rare outcome with human beings, especially those that are given to such hurtful behavior in the first place. A friend called my ill-fated attempts "talking to walls" because walls are about as likely to listen. He also once referred to my “trying to reason with alligators,” an alligator ostensibly being a primal beast that has no ability to modify its behavior, nor concern for how its behavior impacts other beings.

When I spoke to this particular walligator, it said it had fisted women many times and no one had ever objected. It even questioned my assertion that I had been damaged because it claimed it hadn’t seen any blood. Invalidating a person’s actual lived experience and shaming them for being different from others are items #1 and 2 of the International Shitty Men’s Creed, to which Dan evidently subscribed.

I told him I was confused about why he acted as he did. I’d thought we were going to have intercourse after he fingered me. He said that he had wanted to but got cold feet because of the Herpes and had fisted me instead out of frustration.

Had I known how he felt, I could have made my own decision about whether or how to proceed. But in return for the courage and honesty I displayed in disclosing my status to him, he acted with dishonesty and cowardice (items #3 and 4 of the Shitty Men’s Creed). This is not the only time I’ve been treated cruelly by someone to whom I’ve disclosed, and I’m far from alone in that experience. Society is vehement that people with genital Herpes (though hypocritically, not those with oral Herpes) have an ethical obligation to tell potential partners. But it's quite mum about the ethical obligations of the people receiving that information.

At some point in our conversation, I exited inquisitor mode and entered accuser mode: “I am still. Finding dried blood. On the Goddamn toilet paper. Every time I wipe.” Dan told me to watch my tone.

Tone policing is item #5 of the Creed. A tone policeman will focus on the way in which a person expresses herself to the exclusion of the content. You could scream that your feet are being chewed off by piranhas, and the tone policeman will tell you to calm down rather than pulling you into the boat. What matters to him is his own comfort. He doesn’t like you disturbing his serenity with expressions of your pain.

It did not occur to me to report Dan to the actual police, or to seek medical treatment. I conceived of the emotional and physical damage he'd inflicted as mine alone to deal with. Had the thought of seeking help entered my mind, I would have almost certainly ruled it out so as to avoid the additional violation of having a rape kit taken, and the vulnerability of discussing such personal details with strangers.

It’s just as well. With his clean-cut appearance, stable job, and written evidence that we had discussed sex, Dan would have persuaded the powers that be that I had consented to be internally bludgeoned. Coming to his house on the second date made me suspect, and voluntarily going to dinner with him afterward sealed my fate. It would have been a classic case of he said/bitch said.

A few years later, I researched the penile (intentionally hilarious spelling of “penal”) code of the state of Maryland. At that time, only penis-in-vagina intercourse could potentially qualify as rape. What Dan did to me would at most have been classified as a level 4 “sexual offense”; a misdemeanor. Nonconsensually ramming a fist into someone until they bleed was considered a violation on par with spray-painting graffiti on a wall.

I wonder how many other women Dan “offended.” I wonder if he told each of them that all the others felt fine about what he did to them. I wonder if he believes that himself.

He does deserve credit for one thing, though: A day or two after our last conversation, a package arrived in the mail. I opened the carefully-sealed box, unwound the bubble wrap, and found my watch. It had survived its journey undamaged.


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