The stars shone brightly over Copan Ruinas the summer night, in 2001, when we watched our colleague pee his pants. We'll call him Sam. I don't remember his name, but I do remember he was one of the first to tear the sleaves from this Amigos shirt to show off his shoulders and impress his friends. Last week, as I sat with my peers in the training center, I remembered the strange mixture of confusion and embarassment I felt that night so many years ago.
We were assembled after lunch Tuesday for what was to be a difficult portion of our safety training. The topic was rape. Peace Corps had produced a video with interviews of three female RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) who were victims of rape during their time in the Peace Corps. As the women on the screen emotionally recounted their respective ordeals, I glanced around with mounting discomfort, trying to determine what response was expected of me. Moments later my suspicion was confirmed that sincerity was out of the question.
The video was stopped to give the volunteers a chance for discussion. I'll never know what impulse prevailed in the next excruciating half hour. To say that emotions ran high would be an understatement. On my own part, the response was physical. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and hear ringing in my ears. It wasn't long before we were talking over one another, some voicing comtempt, others making appeals, still others desperately seeking the middle ground. One person got up and walked out in protest. Another did likewise, then another.
Now that my fog of consternation has finally cleared and I am able to reason, I am left with an overwhelming sense of disappointment at two things. Firstly, I am disappointed to find that I submitted to an atmosphere where many people spoke, but nobody could be heard. Rather than ask questions I resorted to defensiveness and platitudes. Secondly, I am disappointed that I had was concerned with winning.
The night Sam peed for us, while I had the comfort of distancing myself, my feelings were similar. We were gathered for the culmination of eight weeks of volunteer service in rural Honduras, once again enjoying hot showers and fresh fruit. The urination was intended as the physical punchline to a comedy sketch he was performing. Some reacted in outrage. Others didn't care. In the end he was shamed in front of everyone and made to clean up, retreating to his room for the remainder of the trip. All that seemed to matter in the end was which side you were on.
Unlike in the episode in Honduras, last week there was no decisive closure. No Sam was made to answer for the discomfort we all felt; for trying to share something that some of us didn't want and wouldn't take. We all still have to live with rape. As a man, I can't understand what an American woman faces in a country like the Dominican Republic where men hiss at you from street corners and you are constantly reminded that you are different and thus a potential target of sexual violence. I can only do my best to be supportive and patient with my fellow volunteers.