Wednesday, March 14, 2012

That Could've Been Your Face

(Trigger Warning: For rape and sexual assault.)

"There but for the grace of god."

I always feel like an old person saying that. It never sounds quite right coming from me, mostly because I don't think I've really lived long enough to have any in-depth hindsight about things.

But sometimes the universe can go and change things on you, just like that.

An article came to my attention the other day, from a newspaper in the "Twin Cities" (Minneapolis/St. Paul) region of Minnesota. It detailed the story of an 18-year-old girl with Asperger's syndrome who had run away from her home in Iowa after befriending a young man on a social network. Once in Minnesota, this young man raped the girl in a hotel room, and then, under the threat of death, he and his girlfriend forced her to have sex with thirty other men who'd been sought via an online advertisement asking them to come there to pay to have sex with her.

Immediately, I was transported in my mind back to my parents' computer room--to the warm glow of the screen in front of me, the click-clack of the keys under my fingers, and the grainy texture of the thick, rubber mat under my chair's rolling wheels. This was the place where I spent so many of my waking hours as a teenager. Unable to connect with my peers at school or make friends, I sequestered myself there, seeking refuge in the only place where I could at last be accepted--the Internet.

Most of the people I spoke to were my age--teenage girls who were fans of the Backstreet Boys, as I was at 15 years old. I volunteered my personal information to these girls readily; without hesitation, without any understanding of the dangers that were lurking quite close to the surface. And when someone claiming to be A.J. McLean of the Backstreet Boys began to infiltrate our little group, I did not doubt for one second that this person was indeed my heartthrob of heartthrobs.

My parents fought constantly to get me off of the computer, and I ardently refused, despondent at the thought of being away from this social network that I had built--my new friends from all parts of the country, fellow BSB fans, and--of course--my beloved "A.J."

The typed, un-hand signed letter that he sent me--saying how much he cared about me, how wonderful he thought I was, and imploring my parents to let me talk to him--now sits crumpled in a drawer somewhere in my old bedroom. The ring he sent me, a fake diamond "engagement" ring, is long gone and forgotten.

That could have been me.

The words choked inside my throat like too-spicy soup, the realization ever-greater as I read the rest of the article. The developmental level of a 13-year-old. An entirely too apt description of myself at 18; the picture of stubbornness, desperately wanting to be seen as an adult, yet too immature, too naïve to understand the ways of the world.

Innocent. That's what I used to be. That's what she used to be, until someone decided to take it away. Not only sexual innocence, but emotional--that certain optimism with which we view the world when we're young, and the way we believe in the inherent goodness of people. That is now lost for this girl--shattered in the most violent and horrifying of ways.

"[...]During a police interrogation, [the girlfriend] admitted to investigators that she knew the girl could be "easily taken advantage of," but she said the girl "was not supposed to actually have sex with anyone, just con them out of their money." [The girlfriend] told police the teen just "never caught on" to the scheme and actually had sex with the men."

The ball of disgust that had curled in my stomach as I read this article crescendoed into an enormous, pulsing anger when I got to the above paragraph. In situations such as these, there is every advantage to be taken by the NT predators against this girl who is on the spectrum, and I fully believe that both the girlfriend and the young man were damn well aware of this.

As for "never catching on" to the scheme, this has more or less been the theme of my life, and that of many other individuals on the autism spectrum. Just as I sat happily typing away to someone who eagerly fed on my loneliness, unaware of his "scheme," I suspect this girl also had no idea of the trap being set for her.

It is clear that the perpetrator here is blaming the victim, and we are right to find this appalling. Yet how often are folks on the spectrum accused of "not catching on" to something in everyday situations, and blamed for our "inability" to understand when it all could have been avoided if anyone had bothered to tell us that "something" was going on in the first place? In the case of the Twin Cities story, however, I truly doubt either the young man or the girlfriend ever had any intention of doing so.

I can only hope that this girl is able to find some peace in the wake of her ordeal, and that her rapist and his accomplice are punished to the fullest extent of the law for their crimes. I can only thank every higher power above that my parents had more sense than I did when I was a teenager, and were probably the only reason I didn't run away and end up in the newspapers myself.

And I can only listen to the careful breaths in my chest, see in my mind's eye that 15-year-old girl sitting at that computer, and feel the pounding echo of my heart as I fight now to make sure that what could have happened to me--what did happen to her--never has a chance of happening to any woman on the autism spectrum again.