As Purdue’s Feminist Action Coalition for Today marched in a Take Back the Night rally against sexual violence last week, J.K. Stein’s memoir, “The Director,” provides a place to start the conversation on consent and the transition from discomfort to abuse.
The first chapter of the memoir begins with Stein’s initial meeting with “The Director,” whose name is never given. Dinner conversation consists of topics such as madness, the people The Director has engaged in intercourse with and the state of Stein’s pubic hair. The dinner is a microcosm of their entire relationship. Over the next five years, The Director ruthlessly exploits a professional working relationship to satisfy his own sexual fantasies.
He promises to write a movie in which Stein will star as the main character. After every sexual act she performs for him, he thanks her profusely for inspiring him to continue writing his script.
Stein is never raped. The Director never touches her in ways she does not want him to. Instead, he convinces her to strip for him, probes her for details regarding her relationships and sex life and constantly “compliments” her attractiveness and sexuality.
An expert manipulator, he tells her over and over again that she must perform these acts and divulge these details in order to excel in his movie, in order for him to write his script, in order for her to be a good actress.
These actions may not constitute rape, but reading about The Director’s actions still made me feel sick to my stomach. Stein’s story has made me think more deeply about sexual abuse and the #MeToo movement than any of the posts I have seen on social media.
I partly chalk it up to the singular power of holding a book in my hands, handling a bound, tangible copy of a person’s experience, and the way printed text discourages distractions — no advertisements or open tabs or social media to catch my eye.
But most of the credit goes to the power of Stein’s prose. It is unpleasant, unsanitized and compelling in its simplicity. Stein doesn’t spare details or pull punches. There are no frills or extended metaphors, and to good effect — they would have felt sensationalizing and overwrought. The unedited journal entries add a sense of credibility that would be hard to replicate any other way.
Though I have never been abused, my standards for what constitutes appropriate touching may be skewed by over a decade in the dance world. As a fellow dancer, Stein may be able to attest to the close scrutiny and unwavering pressure from instructors that is commonplace in the studio.
In a usually unspoken agreement, dancers are expected to execute any step that is asked of them, put their all into the delivery and keep their opinions to themselves, even if they’re uncomfortable. Perhaps especially if they’re uncomfortable, some teachers would say.
In many cases, the willingness to push past a comfort zone is beneficial to a dancer’s improvement. But it also cultivates the notion that dancers should be OK with absolutely anything people ask them to do. As someone who spent 13 years in the studio, this idea has seeped into aspects of my life that have nothing to do with dance.
Carried over to an abusive situation, such a notion is unhealthy to the victim and complicates the question of what consent really is.
More than anything, Stein’s story works to dispel the myth that sexual abuse is easy to identify: a girl held down screaming and forcibly raped; a guy “whipping it out” in the office.
Sometimes, it’s not that easy to tell. Sometimes, you consent, and it still feels wrong.
Many young women begin to establish and navigate important professional relationships for the first time in college. Stein herself was 22 when she met The Director.
Reported sexual assaults on campus may be few and far between, but what this memoir makes clear is that sexual abuse doesn’t have to be a clear-cut case of rape to be worth the attention of others, to be worth calling out the perpetrator in whatever way possible — but more importantly, to be sickening and traumatizing to the victim in the truest sense of the words.