I have been sexually assaulted three times in the past five years. From an outside perspective, I have coped exceptionally well. I decided that I would be “empowered” by my rape, and so I became an activist for women’s rights. I decided that activism would be my way of finding “meaning” and this conviction only increased after I was raped for a second time. I trained to work as a responder for a sexual assault hotline, and I organized a campus benefit production of The Vagina Monologues. I attended “Slut Walks” and tried to share knowledge about sexual assault with my friends and family.
On my college campus I’m the girl that people know is a feminist. I’m a person that you wouldn’t think would take anyone’s shit. I’m a girl who tells her friends to know and embrace their sexual limits, and if their limits are ever violated, I encourage them to seek recourse. I’ve “moved forward.” I did not want to be the girl who fell apart after being abused. I refused to go into the “downward spiral” that all rape survivors seemed to write about in their various essays. I would not credit any problems in my life to the rapes (or even see them as problems). Being raped did not define me. I told myself that being raped didn’t even matter to me now outside of my political and social justice opinions. I was over it. Have I said that enough? I was completely, 100% over it.
Sure, I’d found meaning in rape. I’d found political opinions and causes worth fighting for, yes, but I found all of that through reading. I found meaning in rape, but I missed the meaning of my rape in my life. In being so fiercely motivated to keep everything together, I couldn’t see the full effect that being raped once, and now repeatedly, has had on my development, my self esteem, and, maybe most importantly, my ability to avoid similar future situations.
When I was 15, a teacher at another high school introduced me to sexuality. I had just gotten my braces off, was beginning to understand how makeup worked, and I was discovering V-neck shirts and Victoria’s Secret bras. I wanted male attention, and I got it. At the time, I thought I was in love with him. He was the first person to call me sexy and the first person of the opposite gender to call me beautiful. He listened to me and told me how smart I was. Eventually, my parents found naked photos on my email account that he had asked me to send to him. The F.B.I. got involved since events occurred across state lines. I was seeing a therapist at the time for depression, and she introduced me to the term grooming. This man, she told me, was a pedophile. He liked girls a certain age and everything he told me, all the compliments that meant so much to me, were part of a script.
Over the next year or so I did my own investigating and I spoke with four other girls who he had fed the same lines to and had asked for the same sexual acts. My therapist told me that he was most likely pursuing even more girls using the same routine he’d used on me.
I was devastated. At the time I took a week off of school to stay home and cope. Then I went back and told myself I wasn’t devastated. My parents asked me if I was feeling better, and I said that I was. I thought I did feel better. In the next few months, the F.B.I. decided pursuing charges wasn’t a good use of their funds. There wasn’t enough evidence and the other girls involved wanted to “move on” and not get involved in the investigation. My family never talked about it much, and to this day if anyone mentions it, the whole room gets tense. I’m not sure my older sister even knows it happened. I tell anyone who does ask that it is part of the distant past, but in reality, and without my conscious knowledge, it became part of my daily life.
After the teacher, my relationship with men and boys completely changed. Before, I had a lot of male friends. I have a twin brother. I never went through the cootie phase. I trusted boys and girls equally. After the teacher, I don’t accept or believe any compliments. Why should I? Everything he had told me was just a step in his agenda to having sex with me. By believing him, I had made myself vulnerable. I feel so stupid for not seeing though him, and I won’t let myself fall victim to men like him again. In my mind, any compliments must have ulterior motives. Any male attention must be sexual. Trust and friendships with males rarely, if ever, happen for me now.
The teacher also came into my life around the time other girls started talking about sex and exploring sexual acts. They wanted it all to be special. They acted like a bad first time was the worst thing in the world. I told myself that they were stupid and immature. Sex, I tried to believe, was simply just sex. It was insignificant. The significance society assigned was false and patriarchal, and I was simply above that. I tried to practice what I preached. I hooked up with guys I didn’t care about. I brushed aside the possibility of relationships. I assumed that I would be emotionally safer from the aftermath of the teacher if I convinced myself that sex was of minimal importance. I carried that belief for a long time and followed the script of the girl who didn’t care. I acted so well that even I believed my performance.
It’s only now that I can see through my feigned indifference. When I told my friends about my exploits, I left out the part where I never could fall asleep when I spent the night. I could lie in my hook up’s arms for hours and not find space for myself there. The boys always slept easily. They fucked and then snored unapologetically. They didn’t question how much room they were allowed in bed. They didn’t sleep like they were next to someone special or delicate, and why should they? I advertised myself just as a room for boys to rest inside. I was not their own bedroom or even a room in a house. I wasn’t their favorite or their best; I was just the best option. They didn’t mean to hurt me; in fact, they didn’t mean anything by any of it. I told myself that this was moving on from rape. This was taking control of sex. I said that this was me being happy.
My tendency to fuck away my fear of sex was interrupted for a few months by my second attack. This time was in the grass behind an apartment building in August of my freshman year of college. I was drunk and high. I was lying in the grass because I physically couldn’t sit up. I told him I needed to lie down and he lay on top of me. My head was spinning and I felt like I was going to throw up. I decided to just hook up with him, because it was easier than expressing why I didn’t want to hook up and, remember, I’d already spent a lot of energy telling myself that hooking up didn’t matter. What was some kissing? Who cared about a blow job? Not me…right?
When he went to get a condom, I said I didn’t want to have sex. I said I was a virgin, because most guys were decent enough not to pressure virgins (like they are some special class of girl who gets respect, what’s with that?). He said that virgins didn’t give such good head. I said I was really drunk. He said it was fine; I could just lie there. My friend called my phone, and he took it and hung it up. I said I would blow him, and he said that he couldn’t orgasm from blow jobs anymore. I kept saying no, he kept not listening, and finally I stopped saying anything. I felt obligated to help him finish. I felt like I had no choice. I didn’t fight him. I didn’t scream. I even moaned in an effort to get him to just hurry up and finish.
After that I stopped hooking up for a while. I was scared to be alone with guys and my body completely stopped responding to them. Alone I could masturbate and feel pleasure, but as soon as a boy touched me I’d be tense and dry. I would hear my rapist saying, “just lie there” and feel the grass on the back of my thighs. Sophomore year, I tried to have sex with a boy who really cared about me, someone who could have loved me, and I ended things because the idea of making excuses not to have sex was so terrible.
This time, instead of hook ups, I drank more heavily and began to really use drugs. I did this because my dad blamed my smoking and drinking for what happened that night in the grass. He told me in an email that I needed AA or NA. Now, maybe I do. But then I didn’t. I was so hurt and so caught up in not victim blaming, that I began to use more. The point was two-fold: first, look at all the times I drank and didn’t get raped! It must not be that one decision I made. The rape must not have been because of me. I needed to convince myself of that, because at this point even I doubted my integrity. How did nice girls get raped twice? Was I even a nice girl anymore? I also used for a second reason: I didn’t want to be scared of the guys in my life. After all, I figured that I couldn’t be afraid of people around me when I couldn’t even remember whether I had feet. My tolerance for drinking soared. I went from weed to harder drugs— coke, molly, shrooms, pills, you name it, I tried it, or I would try it. I would do anything to numb the anxiety of being out around boys I hadn’t trusted in years, girls who were excited to have sex, and my own lies. I went out and had “fun.” I drank and I danced and I was the life of some parties. I wanted to be fine.
There were a few moments when I realized I wasn’t fine. I’d be dancing around my apartment high on a cocktail of weed, shrooms, and cocaine thinking that I was finally happy. I didn’t feel like I was in my body on those nights. My body pulsed and music moved through me, swelling and crashing in waves. The drab grays of depression that never seemed to leave were lifted, and I could finally see in color again. I moved with the current of the high. Each time I would think, “I wish there was a pill that could make me this happy forever.”
Then time would stop.
Suddenly the currents were from opposing winds and I could see them tossing me into each next day with no direction. Suddenly the pulses feel like someone hammering from within. My eyes were crudely sewn open to see what I said happiness looked like. My mind ordered me to feel this, to recognize the imitation. All the colors look like cheap motel lighting and there were vacancy signs flickering in my eyes. I wasn’t happy: I was just high. I wasn’t free: I was scripted. I wasn’t any less scared I was just running away from it. The next day I shook off my realizations. I didn’t know how to deal with things any other way, and, imitation or not, I could usually make myself confuse high and happy.
In between the second rape and the third, there were a lot of things that I could call rape or attempted rape but don’t want to. There was the boy who had sex with me when I was blackout. He told me later that he knew I was too drunk to consent but he “couldn’t resist”. There was the boy this summer who told me that he “knew I wanted it,” and since I felt bad for potentially leading him on, I stayed with until it was almost too late. It was only when he was entering me that he realized I was still saying no, that I’d been saying no since he moved below my waist. He apologized. The first guy didn’t. I didn’t ask either for apologies. I was upset, but I was sure that I wasn’t raped. Not again. Nice girls don’t get raped more than once, and they definitely aren’t raped more than twice. Feminists know when to say stop. Feminists make people stop. Hadn’t I learned? No, no, I was fine. When I see either of those boys now, I say hello and act normally.
Now the third and worst thing happened. It was a combination of all of the coping mechanisms I’d learned that led me to this. I was tipsy. I was high. I was insecure. I felt like I needed to perform well. I said no to sex, and when he seemed adamant, I said yes because if I said yes this wouldn’t be another assault. Then he had anal sex with me. I immediately began to tell him to stop, it hurt, get off of me. The pain woke me up. The pain kept me from going numb like before. I became aware of my mobility for the first time ever during an assault. I told him I was leaving and I did leave, but I apologized for leaving on my way out. I ran back to my apartment and cried. I told my roommate what happened, and I cried some more. She gave me a Klonopin to help me sleep. I fell asleep crying. This was the first time I ever cried directly after an assault.
Something about this shook me. I felt like I had set the proper precautions: I knew the boy, I wasn’t blackout (or even that drunk), I told him I didn’t want to go too far before I went back to his room, etc. It wasn’t supposed to happen. I’d also never had anal sex and having my last “first” of sex happen this way was devastating. I felt like I was fifteen again and listening to the girls talk about the importance of having first times with people who love you. He also didn’t ask if I wanted to have anal sex. He didn’t even value my desires enough to ask. And I’d apologized. After all that I’d gone through in the past few years, I still was apologizing to some asshole for not making him orgasm.
After that night I tried to keep it all together and just get through finals. But finally here was my collapse. Here was the big implosion I’d been trying to avoid. I dropped a class. I slept too much. I don’t even feel like a person anymore. I spent hours thinking back to what I’ve learned from these men, what they’ve taken from me, and what they’ve given me. They’ve given me fear and doubt. They’ve taken the easiness from my interactions with men. They’ve taught me distrust and anxiety and how to watch doors and survey rooms without acting like I’m doing so. They taught me to look for warning signs and possible exit strategies. They’ve taught me that I’m not worth enough to have a say in what happens to my body. It’s like this final guy flipped a switch and suddenly I can see the downward spiral: masked as choices, masked as empowerment, I have been ruining myself. I am not who I want to be.
My choices — my drug use, my drinking, and my promiscuity — have made me seem like I don’t respect myself. Honestly, I don’t know if I do. I tried to be the party queen — the beautiful, never broken, always laughing, always defiant girl. It helped me survive, but somewhere along the way, everyone else learned to let things scab. They learned gentleness, and I am still 15. I am still chasing a world and a heart that can’t exist. Fueled by a desire to be “fine,” I have let myself stay far from fine, and I have made myself an easy target for predators. I am sometimes drunk, sometimes high, and always so unwilling to say that anything bad has happened.
Maybe I’m looking for explanations and patterns that simply aren’t there. Maybe if I’d handled the first attack differently, the others still would have occurred. Maybe I am finding links that aren’t there just to reassure myself that this time really was the last time. Maybe I’ll reflect again in another few years and realize that this essay is just another misguided coping mechanism. But for my own mental health, I really hope this isn’t the case. It’s easier to think about all of the attacks collectively. If they were partially a product of my own stubborn will to thrive, then I can strategize. I can be ready. I can make myself stronger against this sort of an attack. I can see myself as predators see me. I can know my weaknesses and strengthen my defenses. If they are all different, then the world might be too terrifying for me to reenter. If every boy I know and every man I meet could be my next rapist, then I don’t know that I could have another casual conversation with a stranger in a checkout line of a supermarket or work in my male classmate’s dorm room on a project.
No one asks to be raped. No one wants to be raped. But somewhere, in my absolute terror of being re-victimized or, worse, being “broken” by my attacks, I stayed for a moment too long. I justified doing things with boys that I didn’t want to do. I numbed myself and lost almost all of my interests. I never really learned to believe I was worth more. I never found my voice. So now I’m looking at this straight on. I’m trying to let myself feel it, even if it means seeming “broken” for a while, because the alternative has been so much worse. In life some things and some people take a hold of you in unexpected ways. My rapists and rapes took more than a hold; they have been trying to strangle me for years. Instead of fighting them, I told myself that their grip wasn’t too tight. I told myself that I could breathe and that I was fine. But it wasn’t. Rape has a powerful impact on life. Rape has meaning.
I didn’t help them, but I let them get closer and closer to killing me. This time I’m coming in with my elbows, stomping my feet, and screaming like hell. I am falling, I am feeling, and then I am growing.