Trigger warning: this article contains sensitive content involving sexual assault and rape.
I was 19, a sophomore at Western Michigan University and running away from a diagnosis of clinical depression and bipolar disorder. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, but I knew that I needed to rebel against this prognosis that said that I would have to remain on medication for the rest of my life. I’d always been the prim and proper girl, the shining star that stood out for being smart and did everything that was expected of me, and then some. I wanted, I needed, to rebel. No more living within this mold of being the “good” girl, the talented and chosen one when I wanted nothing more than to be like everyone else. I wanted to party, to enjoy every moment of my college experience. I didn’t want to be different or held up as an example by adults for other kids to follow. I just wanted to fit in, to be “normal,” to be free.
Some friends in my residence hall invited me to a party, and I discovered the power of alcohol. Instantly, the move of my hips, my internal rhythm that moved with the music catapulted me to a newfound status, “life of the party.” For the first time, I was the center of attention, not because of some academic knowledge or achievement, but because I was fun, a member of the “in” crowd. People wanted to be around me. I had an aura about me that got the party going with everyone wanting to feed off of that energy; to dance with me, be at ease, and experiment with this newfound freedom. I felt like I was on top of the world. This popularity was nothing I’d ever known before. For once, I was desirable. I was sexy, and the looks I received from the men around me were different from anything I’d experienced before. No longer was I a conquest, the girl you pretended to like until you got what you wanted because she was too naïve to see through your bullshit. I was a goddess of rhythm and sexuality that energized both men and women around me. Men desired me while women wanted to be like me, to exude this newfound sensuality and confidence that I never realized was within me.
Never could I have imagined that this power, this expression of lust and passion would carry a price that I was without the resources to pay. Lost in the high of feeling desirable, I threw caution to the wind. It didn’t matter to me who I partied with, where we partied, or even if I knew where I was or how to get home. We trekked on foot to the student ghetto, to fraternity village, and anywhere else that we heard cheap (or better yet, free) booze was being served.
I’ll never forget the night that I ventured with a group of freshmen to Knollwood, an apartment complex off-campus mainly inhabited by students. I’d heard stories of the wild parties there and felt that I’d finally arrived when I somehow ended up at an apartment belonging to whom? I had no idea. How we’d gotten there? No idea. The plan for getting home? No clue, but undoubtedly my friends must know the unwritten code that says you never leave anyone alone to find their own way back to the safety of the dorm.
The party seemed uneventful overall. There were a lot of people there, but no insane antics going on. I was in the kitchen engrossed in conversation with a guy named Ken who stood only a few feet away from the keg. He was handsome and charming, not a student at WMU but a friend of one of the hosts whose name I didn’t know. We talked, laughed, and felt the alcohol-fueled chemistry growing throughout the evening. I thought him quite the gentleman for always making sure my red Solo cup was full.
Looking back, I know now that he was the type of guy who would never have glanced my way without his beer goggles on. I usually had a pretty good idea of my limits when it came to drinking. I knew relatively how many beers I could drink before losing control and making a fool of myself, feeling ill and wishing that I’d stopped just one drink before the last, but on that night, as Ken kept my cup topped off, I lost count. I was undoubtedly drunk when he asked me if I wanted to get away from the noise of the crowd. We stumbled outside into the cold autumn night, and I found myself on the ground laying beneath him in the middle of a soccer field, naked from the waist down. We had sex right there on the cold earth.
I do remember that, but I have no memory of how it felt to have him inside me nor do I remember ever saying that I wanted him to be, but somehow because we’d spent the night talking and flirting, I thought I must have been okay with what was happening, right? I was embarrassed as I was finishing the last few days of my period and wearing a pantyliner that I prayed he didn’t notice.
When the less than memorable deed was done, Ken delivered me back to the apartment where the party had noticeably simmered. Nearly everyone was gone, and I couldn’t find any of the freshmen from my dorm that I’d come with. I had no idea how I would get home, and I was still very drunk. I could barely walk. Another party goer, or shall I call him a party predator whose name I will never know, offered to drive me back to campus. I was relieved as I was exhausted and feeling afraid surrounded by strangers with no knowledge of how to get home. I only knew that the distance was too far to walk and neither Uber nor cell phones were concepts in anyone’s mind in those days. This was 1993, the dawn of the internet and only my first year even having email.
I was taken back out to the cold of night and loaded into a van. This man had no intention of delivering me safely home. Instead, he had other motives. I was titty fucked against my will on the floor of that van, hoping and praying that he would still deliver me safely back to my dorm when he was done. Instead, I was dumped back into the apartment where the party was now over. Only a few stragglers remained, mainly the men who occupied the apartment. I was sobered enough at this point to tell them the name of my dorm and that I had no idea where my friends were or how we got to the party. They drove me home, dropping me off in the wee hours of the morning at the front steps outside.
24 years would go by before I ever told anyone about that night.
I was ashamed and disgusted with myself for not keeping track of the number of drinks I consumed. I was angry with my friends that took me along with them to the party only to leave me behind without regard for my safety. I carried the shame and guilt of that night with me for decades believing that all of it was my fault.
Oddly enough, I blamed myself but never seemed to blame the two men who took advantage of me that night. I was conditioned by our society to believe that being sexually assaulted twice in one night by two different men was on me. I allowed myself to be in the situation where bad things could happen. What grieves me most today is the fact that that night, was just one of many where I set out to cut loose of my shell and have a great time only to end up feeling ashamed, alone, and angry with myself for ending up at the mercy of someone else.
On one occasion where I passed out because of an excess of Jack and Coke, I awoke in the middle of the night fighting strong arms that held me down while I was sodomized. Even though I said “No,” and begged, “Please stop! You’re hurting me!” and my cries fell on deaf ears, I still believed that it was all my fault.
Over the years, I learned to block these and the other memories out to the recesses of my subconscious mind. It’s been decades, yet these typewritten words are the first time that some of these stories are being told. People question and wonder why now?
Why has it taken so many years for so many women to use their voices to speak of their experiences with sexual assault? But the answer is simple. Shame is an overwhelmingly powerful silencer.
Our society teaches us that it’s all about what women were wearing, how much we had to drink, or how late at night we were out with someone when instead we should be teaching the definition of legal consent and a woman’s inability to give it. I wasn’t always under the influence of alcohol when I was assaulted, yet the feeling of guilt was somehow unchanged.
I know now that while I could have made much better choices, what happened to me was sexual assault. It was a crime, and it was wrong. I know for a fact that whether I said no and was ignored or wasn’t able to say no at all, what happened to me was not my fault.
At times believing that is easier said than done, but I won’t be a slave to the shame. I believe that I can still be sexy, confident, and desirable like when I was the life of the party, and I hope to meet a man someday that looks into my eyes and asks me, “Is this okay?” as he reaches out to touch me. I look forward to the day when I can welcome his hands and his kisses knowing without a doubt that I am saying yes to all of them.