April is sexual assault awareness month. We asked a survivor to share their story as a rape survivor. They consented on the condition of total anonymity and no member of Project Ava will do anything to compromise that agreement. This story is shared in the spirit that it will stir discussion about the prevalence of sexual assault in the US and around the world. More importantly, it is shared in the spirit that we will do something about it.
It was all I could think to say. “Please stop, I need to lie down, I need to sober up.” I kept telling myself that I was just 15 minutes away from sobriety. It was only two drinks. I was scared shitless. I wasn’t sure what was happening. If my head would just clear up, I could figure out a way to get out of there without making him angry. I didn’t want to make him angry.
We met online. He was 34. I was 21. I didn’t really feel a connection and told him as much. He kept pursuing me. I was new to the whole thing and decided, “What could it hurt?”
We met at a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. He wanted to pay for the meal but I told him no. He went to the bathroom and slipped the waitress his credit card on the way. He grinned when I found out; he looked amused. He kept pushing me to get drinks with him at some bar. I didn’t really want to, but he kept pushing it. He had paid for the meal, and for whatever reason; I felt I owed him for that. “Alright,” I said, “one drink!” I didn’t have anything else to do that afternoon and decided, “What could it hurt?”
We got to this small little dive bar and were the only people there. I ordered a cosmo. He had a beer. We made small talk. I finished my drink. The bartender asked if I wanted another. I declined. My “date” pushed me to get another. I shook my head. I said no. I don’t know how many times I said no. I left the bar to go to bathroom. When I returned, lo and behold, cosmo number 2 was waiting for me. He grinned at me as I sat down. It was just one more drink and I was going to take the lightrail anyway. I decided, “What could it hurt?”
He didn’t force me to go back to his place. It was close to the light rail, he told me. I could lie down on the couch and sober up. I was confused. It was only two drinks and I felt more inebriated than ever. I don’t remember him saying anything before he started, but I remember the taste of his mint chapstick and the wetness of his tongue. I don’t remember when he took my clothes off, but I remember going rigid in his bed, trying to play for time. I have a few, terrifying and dark scattered memories that end with light from the setting sun creeping through the closed blinds of his bedroom window.
Fight or flight. It’s what they teach you in the intro to psyche classes in school. They don’t always teach you about the third F- freeze. That’s what I did that night. I froze. I knew I was in a dangerous situation and I didn’t know how to get out and I didn’t want to do anything that might prompt a violent reaction. My therapist would later tell me, “You were so smart to do that. So brave! You realized how dangerous he was and you did everything you could to protect yourself in that moment. You were so smart, and so brave.” It took me two years to realize that what she was telling me was the truth. In the meantime, I blamed myself.
I took all the anger I should have aimed at my assailant and directed it at myself. I should have been smarter. I should have said no and meant it. I shouldn’t have put myself in that situation. I should have been in control. I should have prevented this.
And that’s the message we deliver to everyone. It is your job to protect yourself. If something bad happens to you, you should have done something differently. And I bought that message like a cashmere scarf for 50 percent off at Macy’s. And I hated myself for what I did to myself.
I beg you notice the careful nuance in the preceding paragraph. This is not the message we deliver to girls. This is the message we deliver to everyone, and that’s an important distinction. We don’t drive home that it is your responsibility to seek consent from an informed and sentient partner. We don’t drive home that not saying yes means no. We frankly don’t drive home or really begin to talk about what rape actually is. If they didn’t want it, they would have stopped it. What a convenient run around for the mess of calling it a rape?
After the assault, I dated around a bit before giving up entirely. I was damaged goods. Every time I heard a rape joke, every time I heard someone make a comment about how “gross” or “dirty” someone was for sleeping around, I would flinch. That was me they were talking about. I felt “dirty” and I was an emotional mess. Forget sexual intimacy, who the fuck would ever want to cuddle with someone like me? I was just too much for anyone else.
My therapist tells me that the only things that hurt us are the things that, on some level, we believe are true. Taking risks is hard if you’ve been hurt, if you are a survivor, if you harmed yourself growing up, if you are an addict, or if you’ve been mocked your whole life for your weight. We believe that the rejection we face for these things is valid because on some level, we see ourselves as less because of these things.
The truth is shit happens. Really, really terrible shit happens. I’m not saying it’s okay that it happens and that we should give up trying to stop it, but when it does happen, you have to put it behind you and move on. There is a risk in that. There is a risk, even in saying to yourself, “I am a rape survivor” or “I am an addict” or “I am” one of any thousands of things that society says we should hate ourselves for. But once you do that and you realize you have nothing to be ashamed of, it makes it a lot tougher for other people to hurt you.
We thank our contributor for being brave enough to share their story.