I grew up in a time and place that defined rape as a thing that happened when a scary stranger leapt out of the bushes, often holding a weapon. It was a violent affair, with lots of kicking, screaming, and gnashing of teeth. Rape was the worst thing that could befall a woman because afterward, she was somehow less. Ruined. As in: "Oh she was kidnapped and murdered? At least she wasn't raped."
I'll wait while you wrap your mind around that. Go ahead and judge me; I'm a little embarrassed to see it out in writing. I'm also proud to say I no longer hold those world views.
Had I been asked, I'm sure I would've explained that there were lots of other ways unwanted sex could happen, but that they were the fault of an otherwise good woman for failing to make intelligent decisions. Women, in my mind, until embarrassingly recently, were the gatekeepers of sex and responsible for when it happened. Even when they did not actively consent to it. Drink too much? Partially at fault. Go home with a stranger? You should know better. Send mixed signals? What did you expect? Get raped by your boyfriend? Pick better boyfriends, dude.
My rapist played the oboe.
Upon finding myself firmly not-raped, because I knew him, because he did not have a weapon, and because there were no shrubbery on scene, it became exceedingly important not to fall into the other category. Being a victim implied two the things. The first was that I had made bad, or somehow unintelligent decisions. My brains were my one (or at least my strongest) vanity and this was not acceptable. The second was that I was damaged. Less. I think it might have tied back to the implication of bad decision making, but in researching to write a different version of this story, I discovered some horrifying facts about myself.
According to RAINN, this little blip in my life story made me three times more likely to suffer from depression, which I did, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide, which I have also done. It made me six times more likely to suffer from PTSD, which, honestly, is a diagnosis I had never considered until researching to write this. It may fit.
According to information gathered by the National Center for Victims of Crime, I was 2-3 times more likely to be assaulted again. So there's that to look forward to, as well. Yay for owning my sexual story!
This explains why, even after I realized that I had, in fact, been raped, I was so uncomfortable sharing. People had one of three reactions.
- They victim-blamed, which I was painfully familiar with (Hi, Mom!).
- They offered me pity. I suspect it's intended as empathy, but every time a well-meaning commenter says, "I'm so sorry that happened to you," I am filled with a very unseemly rage that they dare feel pity for me.
- They try to un-rape me. They'll walk me through the litany of rape-prevention techniques that all women know. Had I been drinking? Did he hear me say no? Was I sure he understood I didn't want it? See, you weren't raped after all - you had a misunderstanding.
According to my mother, two police officers, and the university counselor I saw afterward, I wasn't raped. I was misunderstood. Isn't that so much better?
It was the spring semester of my sophomore year, and I had been going to the university counseling center for almost three months. Thanks to my work there, I had gotten my chronic shyness under control enough to talk to people I didn't know. Eventually, it lead to chatting with a guy from the university band.
I was a music major, and mousey at best. He was from outside the music program, which lent him, in my world, an aura of cool. He played the oboe, which would normally ... not, but you have to remember: I was a mousy music major. The fact that he participated in the majors-only ensemble as an extracurricular, a throw-back to his high school days, and a way to blow off steam from his stressful course-load, just made him that much more attractive.
We sat through rehearsals in silence that first semester, but in the second, I worked up the courage to borrow a pencil. And then to ask how his day was going. And then to start making jokes about our ridiculous conductor. By March, we were chatting during breaks. In April, I mentioned that some friends and I were going to get ice cream after rehearsal and wondered if he wanted to come along.
He did. My friends promptly bailed. We enjoyed our ice cream and played on a swing-set near my dorm room until dark. He kissed me at the door. For the first time in ages, my heart flew.
Our first real date was a fraternity party at the Sigma Chi house. I'd never had beer before and hated every sip, but drank it to calm my nerves, and to fit in. When he pulled me onto the dance floor, I was mortified, but too shy to say no. It was the first - and last - time I ever danced in public. Several hours and a few beers in, when he wanted to make out on the dance floor, I was too far gone to care.
We stumbled out of the party and back to my dorm. He was handsy the entire way, and I'm sure we were still making out.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking this is how I got raped. And if you are? Just like me: you're an asshole.
I left him at the doorway and snuck past my roommate, who was asleep on our futon. I couldn't sleep for hours, partly because my dorm was spinning, and partly because I was too excited. It was the single most exciting night of my young life, and I was fairly certain I was in love. Was this the way it felt to be normal? To be happy? To have a social life? I couldn't believe my luck.
We went to several concerts together, and to the movies. A few weeks later, we made the decision to have sex. (Maybe you've gathered this from the aura of worldliness my sophomore-self is putting off, but this was my first time. It was a big decision.) We talked about birth control methods and ultimately decided on condoms. We had a fun date night, and things proceeded as things are apt to proceed when a boy and a girl really like one another.
From there, we were inseparable. I had never slept at a boyfriend's place before, and would only permit myself to do so on the weekends (don't I sound super cool?), but I looked forward to those days and to those nights, because he was warm and he smelled nice, and I liked to lie against him and listen to him breathe.
I know what you aren't thinking. That's how I got raped.
It was my first real relationship, and I was naive. I still blame myself for it, even though intellectually, I know that I wasn't at fault. My cultural conditioning has taught me that I should have recognized the warning signs and I should not have put myself in that position.
I was nineteen years old and I trusted a person I loved. That's what caused my rape.
When he started pressuring me to have sex without the condoms, a more experienced version of myself would have put her foot down. A more intelligent girl would've put an end to the sleepovers. As an adult, hell, I might even dump his ass. People who don't accept, "No," the first time are not people who do well in relationships. I was young. I was in love. I was firm in my no's - which, let's face it, is impressive - but things continued as usual.
The night that it happened, he pressured again and I said no. I was annoyed enough that my last words were, "I don't want to have sex tonight. I'm just going to sleep." I think about that moment sometimes: the moment when I rolled over and closed my eyes.
Several hours later, I woke up and he was inside me, and, as one would expect, he wasn't wearing a condom. As confused as I was, I was also livid. I still don't know how it happened. I'm not usually a heavy sleeper. My mother asked me, later, if we had been drinking (we hadn't) or if I had been sleeping in the nude (I wasn't). My mother, my school counselor, and the first, less-than-kind man at the police station all asked a lot of questions about what I had been doing that night, and not a lot of questions about what he did. I know now that they were trying to un-rape me, so that I could go off and live a normal life, and not be a victim forever.
At the time? It felt a lot like being blamed for what happened.
Had I said no? I had, before I went to sleep. I think my exact words, upon awaking, were, "What the fuck? GET OFF OF ME!" He declined to comply.
Had I fought? I did, but you have to remember: I have always been a scrapper, but not particularly strong. I had struggled, and this boy that I loved, he reached down, put his hand on my throat, and squeezed.
If I didn't shout, it's because I was struggling for air. I cried. I remember kicking, feebly, but not wanting to lose consciousness. I didn't want to have sex with him, but if it was going to happen anyway, I wanted to remember it. I wanted to be able to tell the police exactly what he had done to me. He leaned in to kiss me and I tried to bite him. His response was to ram his elbow into my sternum so forcefully it left a bruise that lasted into the next month.
Honestly, in retrospect, I'm surprised that, when he finally rolled off of me, I summoned the courage to tell him never to call me again, collect my belongings, and leave. He had driven me to his place on that occasion, so I walked the two miles back to my apartment. It was springtime, but it was cold.
Given what I know about the cultural stereotypes and social mores I had been raised in, I am stunned that I had the forethought to get myself to a Planned Parenthood and obtain the morning after pill. The police that I spoke with never once suggested medical care. I didn't know that I could use the word rape, and if I didn't, they certainly weren't going to volunteer it.
This occurred in a time and in a location obtaining Plan B was not an easy feat. The woman at Planned Parenthood gave me a lecture about personal accountability and another lecture about how a sexually active girl should absolutely be on the pill and I stared blankly at her, silently seething with hatred for her, for him, and for mother nature's cruel decision to make a woman. To make me weak. (I didn't know yet that men could be raped, too. I don't think I would've cared, in that moment, but I was convinced my gender made me vulnerable.)
Am I proud of how I handled myself? For the first twelve hours: absolutely.
After the first twelve hours, things got complicated. My rapist - erm, I mean my boyfriend - started to call, hysterically insisting that what we had was a misunderstanding. In his mind, I'm sure that it was. My friends - also his friends! - confused by poor sex education and a limited understanding of the term "rape" insisted that I give him another chance. My parents, desperate for me not to have a history of repeated sexual violence, asked if there was a possibility I had cooperated? You know, in my unconscious state? They insinuated I had been drinking.
I tried to report the attack to the police. I always called it "the attack." In retrospect, I think they were trying to tell me that, because we had been dating, and because no one else had been there, I would have a difficult time prosecuting. All I heard was that they didn't believe me. They asked if there was any possibility it had been a misunderstanding. I had heard the word from my mother, when I called in tears.
Nice boys don't attack girls; I had clearly misunderstood. I was firm with her, but my resolve wouldn't last.
The straw that broke the camel's back was the school counselor. After being turned out of the police station, my parents' sympathy, and the doctor's office, when my trusted counselor flat-out refused to allow that I could actually have been attacked by someone I had consensual sex with only days before and that I was mistaken ... I broke. I answered his calls.
We were together for three more years, and I never once slept soundly in his bed. (Until many years and several boyfriends later, I thought I wasn't equipped to sleep in a bed with another human. I now know that I just didn't trust him.) We had sex, which I enjoyed to an extent, and he repeatedly ignored the boundaries of my comfort zone. Again, I don't want to go into the lurid details but rapists? They make lousy sex partners and lousy boyfriends.
I did love him, and we eventually approached marriage, rapist and all. But it was never the healthiest relationship, and most of the things I learned in it were what not to look for in future mates. Because really? He repeatedly ignored everything I wanted in every aspect of our relationship. My friends, my family, and even that same school fucking counselor would (much, much later) encourage me to end the relationship, and in the back of my mind I silently screamed at them: WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU EXPECT FROM A FUCKING ATTACKER? It's not rocket science, folks.
The same friends who encouraged me to take him back because you can't be raped by a boyfriend rejoiced when we broke up, wondering aloud what I had ever seen in him.
I had seen the opportunity not to be publicly shamed with the chorus of, "Are you sure you weren't asking for it? Didn't you want it a little? Did he hear you say no?" (I know that he did, because he responded by tightening his grip on my throat. Even now, I feel the need to answer these ridiculous questions.) I had seen the opportunity to reclaim my victim status without having to be more than marginally uncomfortable.
I had seen the opportunity to undo the damage that he had done. I saw an opportunity to reclaim my power, and I did. Years later, in my first really mutual, healthy, respectful relationship? I'm just starting to understand what that might have cost me.
I've told this story a handful of times in my real life, and people are incredulous that I would continue to date a man who had assaulted me, but I felt I had no other choice. And then the cycle starts again.
"Well, if you stayed with him, it must not have been that bad ..."
You're right. It wasn't that bad. After all, it was just a misunderstanding.