I Never Thought It Would Happen To Me, Until It Did (And My Life Was Changed Forever)

Trigger Warning: This piece contains graphic details on rape and sexual assault.
Aaron Mello
Aaron Mello

I recently came across a quote by Mark Shields, and it has become a quote by which I now live: “There is always strength in numbers. The more individuals or organizations that you can rally to your cause, the better.”

I am a feminist, a filmmaker, and an activist. I have a strong focus on combatting human trafficking, rape and violence against women. For years I’ve known all the facts about rape, the ones that a lot seem to shy away from. I had dealt with sexual assault in my past, and I desired to spread awareness. I would lecture at universities or conferences, and the films I make deal with these topics as well as telling the stories of survivors that have provided hope and strength.

Then, in October 2016, everything changed for me. I had to utter the scariest words I’ve ever said out loud: “I would like to report a rape.”

Several months ago I was raped on my second date with a guy that I thought I really liked. Our night ended in a way that was pretty much the last way I would’ve ever imagined it ending; with me crying and begging “No” and him not listening. It was such an out-of-body experience, I didn’t want it to be me.

Looking down on myself being violated, this man taking my power away from me, it was so surreal. When I came home I collapsed. I crawled over to my best friend’s bedroom cause I thought I was going to die of my panic attack. Frightened, he woke up and through my few words and unintelligible sobs he understood what had happened. He urged me to go to the police station, but instead I had this uncontrollable urge to shower, to rid myself of his smell, his touch. I let the water run over me knowing it would destroy any evidence they could possibly gather on him but I couldn’t stop it.

The next morning I couldn’t keep my emotions together. I was crying all day and the thought of seeing people destroyed me. I wanted to curl up into a ball and die. I felt it was my fault; such a classic thing that survivors think, but it seemed so natural to think that way.

The way our society looks at women is one where we labor to ensure we protect ourselves from rape instead of teaching men about consent; this very much lines up with that thought process. It is an insane notion that we still have to teach the men how not to rape. We see films in which women say no but the male leading man still kisses her and she eventually kisses him back. We forget that that is not reality.

No means no. That fact will never change.

I knew my life had changed forever, and I wanted to be the person that would fall down and get up right away, forget about it and move on. Yet, the more I wanted that, the less I could be that person. I said all the classic demeaning things to myself, and kept myself from thinking the one thought I knew was right around the corner: “You can’t do this alone.”

I knew deep down I needed help, so slowly my fingers glided over the keyboard of my laptop to search for help. What I found was Safe Horizon, an amazing organization. I was instantly put in contact with a counselor who was wonderful from the start and has continued to help me to this day. Even though my first step was made, the thought of reporting had slowly left my mind. In a time where you turn on your television and the President-Elect says he can “grab any woman by the pussy” was hell enough for me.

I left to see my family, I thought it would be an escape from where it all had happened, but I wasn’t myself. Any time a topic would come close to sexual assault I would start hyperventilating and excuse myself to cry in a bathroom, or just let loose right in front of people. My family was terrified for me. When I brought up that maybe there was a chance to press charges they urged me not to because they were scared for my safety, so again I let it go. In my own frightened state I couldn’t imagine being more at risk.

When I returned home to my apartment in the Bronx everything reminded me of it. I would walk down the street and cringe when someone would walk behind me, or whenever any car passed that might be his I would break down, sometimes crying all day.

Then, it hit me: I needed to take steps to find my power and strength again; they weren’t gone or taken, just misplaced.

I felt like I couldn’t ever press charges, but I woke up one morning remembering an article on the the staggering statistics of people reporting a rape. 1 out of 7 people. Why is that number so low? I started really asking this question and what could we do to change that?

Shortly after my rape I had to travel abroad for work. I spoke at a human rights conference about human trafficking and violence against women. I thought long and hard but I finally decided I would make this my most personal speech and tell people I was also the survivor of a rape. I wanted to tell them that this fight for justice was a steep one, but if we unite we can make the world better. I truly believe that. After my speech so many people came up to me with their stories of sexual assaults.

One woman stuck out to me; a beautiful, strong woman that was working in high ranks of military forces whose tears flowed freely when she told me she had been raped by her husband years ago, and that it resulted in a pregnancy. He would terrorize her but she didn’t ever report it. How could she? She never felt safe, certainly not in a society which thinks husbands can’t rape their wives. But I think there is more to that. As survivors we feel a spectrum of emotions from shame to blame, and I think the way people look at sexual assault needs to change.

The more I told my story to people who haven’t been through this the more I heard, “Well yours isn’t really rape, it wasn’t like you were yanked into a dark alley by a stranger.” That is such a powerful misconception.

The fact is, sexual assault is any sexual act in which a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will, or non-consensual, sexual touching of a person. Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence, and it includes rape (such as forced vaginal, anal, oral penetration, or drug facilitated sexual assault), groping, child sexual abuse, or the torture of the person in a sexual manner (source).

The situations are endless. Whether you are on a date and you say no, or you are too drunk to consent, or you are indeed being yanked into an alley, it’s rape and the shaming of victims needs to stop.

I told a good friend of mine what had happened and how I wanted to be brave enough to report. “Wow, I can’t believe it,” she said, “you are going to ruin that guy’s life.”

I know it is the pressure of society that has formed such opinions of these situations, and situations that shame the victims has become the norm. It’s the whole picture of reporting to begin with: pressure the victim, then make them doubt themselves before the process has even begun.

Knowing that daunting journey ahead of me I made a decision, and I’m decided to press charges. I needed to. Not just for me but for all the other women out there too scared to report. My best friend who has been there to hold my hand through the whole thing walked with me to the police station. I felt like the ground was never moving, like I was walking in place. With my stomach in my throat I finally reached the door and had to state my business to the officer at the front desk.

After several moments staring at her I finally said the dreaded words. After a grueling first interview with a detective at the crime unit I was transported to the Special Victims Unit at a different station. There I met with my detective who again made me tell the story in detail but he took the scary out if it. He was incredibly nice and compassionate, which made this ordeal so much more bearable. Before I left he ensured me he was going to do everything in his power to catch the guy; when I left I knew I had done the right thing. Even though the very thought of doing that was terrifying I know I had to push through, even though I didn’t yet realize what for.

Two months went by and nothing happened — that is until I got a call from a lieutenant from the SVU. He was calling to apologize about all the delays due to shortage of staff with the myriad Trump security details. (Yes, rape victims are made to stand in line because we have to give security to an alleged rapist who is going to be our president and set women’s rights back by 50 odd years.) The officer wanted to let me know my date had been set with the Assistant District Attorney, and at the sound of the words, my nerves started creeping up on me again.

Another two weeks passed before my meeting at the District Attorney’s office. I went into the building expecting one thing and left with a completely different point of view. I knew going into this a case against my rapist that it would be hard to defend myself with hardly any evidence, but in my mind I had a lot hanging on this, in some ways my entire sanity. As it was said to me, the two things they have to prove beyond doubt is that 1) sex occurred, and 2) it was forced. It wasn’t hard to prove we had sex, but proving force was a different beast. My ADA assured me that these cases were very hard to prosecute but that she would try everything in her power to bring it forward. (It’s the “everything in her power” we should be concerned about.) She mentioned it all comes back to the numbers: 1 in 7. These cases are so hard to move forward because there aren’t enough cases to make the difference. The DA’s office is hesitant to try these cases knowing due to their restrictions they won’t have sufficient materials to move forward.

This is where the support needs to strengthen to get these numbers up. What a difference it could make to be 4 out of 7, or 5 out of 7. I hope by sharing my story it might be easier for the next person to be brave enough to report their assault. We simply must unite as survivors, and supporters, and activists to help one another and give the justice system something to bring forward.

We must do everything to strengthen our changes, and do everything to make this world a safer place, especially for women. Whoever is reading this, and possibly fighting with the choice to do what I did, I urge you to fight past your fear, because you are strong and you can do this. I am right there with you.

We all are. Let’s change the world together. TC mark

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