There has been a social uprising over the idea that our society trivializes sexual assault and abuse. We have deemed this term “rape culture” to represent the idea that America has normalized and is desensitized to the sexual abuse of men and women in today’s society. While I agree that sexual assault is a huge issue, and I stand firmly with the #metoo movement, I do not believe that our society as a WHOLE has “normalized” sexual assault. I think that people who have never experienced it personally, or through a loved one, are the only ones who don’t think that it is a big deal. I think that people who have never felt vulnerable, or violated, don’t know what that would feel like because it is extremely hard to describe something like that to someone who has never felt the crushing, overwhelming, nauseating, disgusting feelings that you feel when you are sexually harassed or assaulted. I think that while they may have sympathy for others who have experienced assault, it is impossible for them to relate and truly empathize with how it feels to experience something like that. There is no way we can possibly explain it to them in a way that they will really understand.
But we can try.
After a sexual assault, everything about your life changes, even if you choose not to acknowledge it. Everything about the way you think, see, and react to situations changes. Whether you realize it or not, you are a changed person after experiencing assault. Some people may deny that their life changed dramatically, they say that they moved on and went on with their lives as normal. They might say that it didn’t affect them, but it always does. Your life might go back to “normal,” but it will never be the same. There are several involuntary changes that happen after someone violates your trust, your boundaries, and your body. No matter the situation of your assault, whether it was at work or on the street, a stranger or a friend, in public or private, these changes will most likely happen. These changes are not all bad, but they are very real.
1. You probably feel differently about your body: When someone touches you without your consent, it is a violation of the one thing in this world that we are supposed to ALWAYS be in control of, our bodies. But when someone takes that control from us, for a while it feels like our bodies aren’t even ours anymore. We’ve lost the one shred of control that we are inherently given. Right after a sexual assault, you may see your body and feel as though someone else has taken possession of it. You feel disgusted. You can shower as many times as you want but that grimy, gross feeling you have is not one that can be washed away. Your body may look the same, the bruises may heal, the physical pain may stop. But now when you look in the mirror, all you see is the their hands gripping your hips. You trace the paths their fingers took down your neck, to your chest, all the way down to your legs. You feel constantly exposed, no matter what you are wearing. You feel like showing your skin means everyone else will see where they touched you, everyone will know that you lost control of your body. You feel uncomfortable in your own skin, like it is a tainted shell that has been broken and bruised and stained by the hand of someone else. It is not yours anymore, but you are burdened with living in it.
2. You react differently to physical contact: After someone physically assaults you, your sensitivity to physical contact becomes heightened. You become wary of anyone trying to touch you. For a while, you may jump when someone taps your shoulder. You may feel uncomfortable with hugs, handshakes, or holding hands with your partner. When you’re in a crowd and someone touches your back to say “excuse me,” it might send chills down your spine. When your mom strokes your hair, your chest might tighten, and you might hold your breath for a few seconds. You are suddenly aware of every single time a person touches you, even for a moment. You may flinch without even realizing it. You may not even think that you are reacting differently. But just even the fact that you take notice of every single physical touch is different. Before, you may not have even felt that guy brushing past you in the crowd, but now you are aware of every single particle of air that touches your skin.
3. You are more aware of yourself and your surroundings: Before you were assaulted, you never really thought much about walking to your car alone at night, or standing at the bathroom alone at the back of the bar. You probably always assumed that everyone who offers to buy you a drink is just being friendly or flirting. You probably never would have even noticed that there was another person in the parking lot or that the blonde guy seemed to follow you from room to room at the party. But now, you make sure to scan the parking lot before walking out into the dark alone. You ask a friend to go with you to the bathroom, and you never take a drink directly from a stranger. You count how many times a person looks at you from across the room, and you pay attention to how that guy 30 feet behind you on the street seems to be echoing each turn you make. When you find yourself alone, you become more alert, on edge, and aware of everything going on around you. You plan out in your head every possible way to avoid being alone with another person, and you make sure that you are never cornered. You make sure that you are constantly monitoring who is around you and how they are behaving at all times. This makes going out so damn stressful.
4. You are more careful of your own actions: This one may seem insensitive at first, but just hear me out. After you are sexually assaulted, you start being more cautious of the way that you act around people. You are more conscious of the things that you wear, you try not to be too revealing or suggestive. This could even stem back to how you now perceive your own body, you feel exposed wearing anything too revealing. You are careful with the way that you talk to people and your body language towards them. You don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, so you choose your words more carefully and try not to say anything suggestive. You become distant from your friends, and become hyper-aware of your body language around strangers, coworkers, even your mailman. You think that maybe your abuser got the wrong idea from something you said or did. Maybe if you are more careful of what you wear and how you act, maybe it won’t happen again. This is entirely ludicrous.
5. You feel differently about sex: It’s true. You don’t have to admit it, but it’s true. You may just fight past it, but it is still true. Sex is ENTIRELY different once you’ve been sexually assaulted. Everyone handles it differently, but it is still true that after being sexually assaulted, sex holds an entirely different weight in your life. Some people will be scared to have sex with anyone, scared that it will bring back that experience and they won’t be able to handle it. Some may become numb to it and deal with the experience by sleeping with multiple people, trying to push back whatever repressed feelings they have and trying to act as if it doesn’t affect them at all. But repressing those thoughts and emotions that you have during sex will not make them go away entirely. And most of the time, you will still feel like shit afterwards. Whatever your healing process may be, it’s okay. But sex is different after an assault, that is undeniable. And it may eventually go back to the way that it was, but it may not. Eventually, though, you will come to terms with it, and be able to get past it.
6. You feel differently about relationships: This one is purely speculative based on my own experience, but I do believe that it applies to more than just me. After my assault, I was very wary of getting too close to anyone. I was unsure how I would proceed going into a relationship. If I start dating someone, should I tell them? If I do tell them, when? It’s certainly not a first date conversation. Do I wait until we’ve hung out a few times, until we’ve been dating for a while? Do I tell them before we sleep together, or do I wait until they ask why I keep my eyes closed every time? Is it even any of their business until we get serious, but then will they be mad that I didn’t tell them sooner? Will they think of me differently after I tell them? All of these questions keep you from getting too close to anyone, letting anyone in. You are always uneasy about how this will affect your relationships with everyone, and you dread the day you feel it’s time to have the conversation. You dread telling your new partner why you jump sometimes when they try to hug you from behind. You dread telling them why you always keep your shirt on during sex, and why you have certain reservations when it comes to being intimate. You are now hesitant in all your friendships and relationships.
7. You feel different about yourself: This one comes in many different forms. At first you may feel stripped of your control, that may cause you to feel lost in other aspects of your life. You might feel worthless, like that person took away all of your value, and you are no good to anyone else now. You might think you are weak because you don’t know how to handle it and nothing you have tried is working. Maybe the confidence and enthusiastic personality you used to have has been replaced with one of self-doubt and pessimism. Maybe you feel disgusted with yourself. Maybe you ask yourself how you let this happen, what you did to deserve this.
The answer is nothing. You did NOTHING to deserve this. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted. No one deserves to live their life on their toes worrying about who might follow them into the bathroom, or who might be hiding in the shadows. You should NOT have to worry about your outfit being “too suggestive” or constantly monitoring yourself so you don’t “give someone the wrong idea.” When a person is sexually assaulted, they feel as though their power has been stripped, and their souls and bodies have been broken. But our bodies are not made of glass. They heal, they mend, and they can be washed free from the stains cast upon them. Your bruises will heal, and you will learn to trust people again. You just have to let yourself. I’m not saying to blindly trust anyone who you come across, but eventually, you will learn how to trust people again. You will always be more cautious of people, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You should always be aware of yourself and your surroundings. But you should not let this experience stop you from living your life. It should not stop you from living and loving and experiencing all the things that you want to do. When you are sexually assaulted, you feel as though you have had all control and power stripped from you. But you can take that control back. You CAN take charge, and YOU can control how you let it affect you. You may never be the same as you were before, but it doesn’t mean that you are less. You are strong, you are powerful, you are in control.
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
― C.G. Jung