I have decided to live my truth. It has taken me two years, countless drafts and a large dose of courage to debut the hardest story I have ever had to write. In a macabre way, this is my coming out party.
I wear a scarlet letter. The letter is R and it stands for rape. Six years ago I became a statistic when, at the age of 20, I was given the badge to wear. As young adults we’re often told to beware the man in the alley, the faceless perpetrator who will take away innocence and destroy lives. Unfortunately for me it did not happen this way. I knew my criminal; I would have called him a friend. And so I felt no fear the night that he and a group of other friends were invited back to my college apartment for a late night movie after having spent most of the evening at a bar downtown. I have to tell you, I was the designated driver. I had not been drinking; I was in the right state of mind. I was not wearing anything overly provocative or revealing. No one came back to my apartment that I did not know. I did everything right. What came next was abrupt. My criminal did not take no for an answer and did not stop. And in that moment I realized for the first time in my life that I was powerless. But I was also confused. I knew something terrible had happened but it wasn’t what we had been taught. There had been no alley, no masked man, no brutal beating. There had only been a selfish boy and a scared virgin in a bedroom in a college town in America.
I was so confused that I refused to cope. At first, I refused to even acknowledge what had happened. I allowed roommates and friends to make jokes about that night, certain they knew that it had only been an embarrassing hook up that I was trying to forget. I laughed them off but internally I was dying a little every time it was brought up. Soon it fell out of the gossip circle and I was left to suffer alone. I continued to put on the face of normalcy when I would go out but I was constantly searching for my criminal and would immediately make an excuse to leave any time I saw him. And I saw him. A lot. He was still out, still free, still assuming that what he had done was okay. And in a way I allowed him that because I had refused to see clearly what had been done to me. After months of pretending that everything was fine I woke up one morning to discover I could not get out of bed. There was no motivation, no cause for welcoming a new day and no reason for happiness. The depression hit me square in the face and I didn’t see it coming. I had acted for so long that the night I was attacked was an over imagination on my part that I began to believe it. I stopped going to class, I stopped answering my phone, I would go days without showering. During this period I began having fantasies about killing myself and who would find me and if anyone would be sad that I was gone. I never attempted to take my life but I did start cutting myself. I also began to drink, heavily, alone. It was the only way I could allow my mind to go to the places that I refused to let it go in my sober hours. It also gave me an excuse to skip class the next day when my roommates would ask me if I was going to make it to campus. Most people I went to college with, reading this, would probably say they never saw any problems. And they would be right, because I spent every day making excuses, putting on faces, acting normal for the crowds. Other people reading this may find themselves thinking that what I am describing is an addict’s life. And in many ways that’s how I was living. While my guilt and shame did not manifest itself in illegal drug abuse, I was addicted to my fantasies and alcohol.
My denial and inadequate coping mechanisms lasted for three years. While my bouts of depression were periodic and I was able to break free of the solo drinking binges I still refused to talk about what happened to me and never allowed the “R” word to enter my conscious. I was still under the impression that because I was not violently attacked I was not raped. I moved to San Diego, California after I completed my under graduate degree to begin work at a non-profit and, unbeknownst to me at the time, was where I would find the people and the place and the salvation that I desperately needed. I met two wonderful friends who encouraged me to seek solace and understanding and for the first time I put a name to the unspeakable and began the exhausting task of putting myself back together. The two years since I began therapy have been the most difficult of my life. I made the decision to unpack the years of abuse, neglect and despair. But they also allowed me to begin to understand what took place and that no matter what I told myself, what people believed, it was not my fault.
I can look at my life and divide it into two parts. My life before I was raped and my life after. Am I healing from what happened to me? Yes. Will I ever be “over” it? Definitely not. It is the first thing that enters my mind when I wake up in the morning and it is one of the last things I think about before I go to bed. I have problems being around men. My mother would say I probably suffer from PTSD. She’s probably right. Even though I now understand that what took place was not my fault and most days are good ones, there are still the moments of depression, the nagging feelings that I’m defected, that one day when I tell the person I love that I have been violated I will be cast aside as damaged goods. That no one will ever love me back. I have to work on these feelings, to keep reminding myself that I cannot be defined by the terror that befell me.
If you are a woman, think about the first time someone spoke to you about sexual assault. They more than likely offered up tips on how to equip you to be less of a target of men’s unprovoked desires. Don’t walk alone after dark; carry your keys in between your knuckles; wearing a ponytail will allow a man to grab you more easily from behind. And for God’s sake, don’t wear anything too low cut, too tight, too seductive. You were coached to be hyper vigilant near bars and around men who society decided looked and acted like rapists. What society failed to notice was that women are being attacked by men they have had previous contact with*. The boys who we may have been on a date with or boys who could have been a shoulder to cry on at one time are assaulting us. It is severely alarming that most rapists do not fit the profile. They are our homecoming kings and our Eagle Scouts. They are our sons and brothers and friends. And no one has taught them how to prevent rapes; women were never made aware that men were not being taught somewhere that they were responsible for their own actions. We have failed as a society to teach our young men that when a woman says no, it means just that. We have failed to teach them that a woman’s body is hers and hers alone, not solely a tool for a man’s pleasure that can easily be cast aside. We have failed to teach our young men respect and women’s empowerment and consequences when boundaries are broken. We have failed to show men that a woman is a thing of beauty and capability and authority. We have failed.
Rape culture in America is critically flawed. After watching political candidates attempt to tackle the abortion debate by describing “legitimate rape”, after catching the headlines day after day of another girl gang raped and then regarded as a slut by an entire community for so long that the only seemingly logical way out is suicide, after telling my own story and so many young women telling me they went through something similar but never told anyone I have come up with the conclusion that we are living in a society where rape is prevalent and yet we have strangely become desensitized to it, much like violence. Comedians make jokes about it regularly that are then repeated by millions of others because they think it’s funny. Because they think it’s funny. There is something seriously flawed with this culture when we think that a violation of a woman’s rights is something to take lightly. Every time a political pundit or a talking head opens their mouth to unleash a derogatory remark or joke it reopens wounds for millions of victims of sexual assault.
In a way I feel guilty that I’m prolonging the stigma attached to rape culture in America. I didn’t come forward after my rape. And I should have. I should have known what had happened to me when it did so that I may have protected other women. But my small piece of redemption is that I’m coming forward now to potentially be the catalyst for others who have not felt comfortable telling their story and having their voices heard.
My generation has become known as a generation of world citizens. We see revolution in real time and we know about the atrocities happening across the globe. We crave to be the change that an older generation has turned it’s back on. So why not be the redefining factor that will shift America’s opinion and perspective on rape and sexual abuse? So that I may never have to hear the sentence “I was raped.” uttered from my daughter’s lips.