This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever written, but also maybe the most important thing I’ve ever written.
1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted during their college years. 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men are raped during their lifetime. 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before reaching the age of 18.
This may be my personal story, but it’s also a communal story, one that so many of us are hurting to tell.
Sexual assault doesn’t always look like you would expect it to. Yes, it can be someone grabbing, forcing, threatening and hurting. A scary stranger from a party or in a dark alleyway, a villain. But more often than not, it’s a friend, a classmate, a significant other, manipulative and coercive, no hard force necessary. Sometimes the threat isn’t made outright but instead felt.
Sometimes there is no violence, just fear.
Sometimes it’s someone you know, you love, that you’re attracted to, that you’ve hooked up with before. No matter who it is, or how they do it, when someone makes you feel like you are being stripped of the right to choose- that is sexual assault. When you are afraid of what might happen if you tell them no- that is sexual assault.
The first time I was sexually assaulted was in my sophomore year of college.
Before I go any further, I need to say something about that terminology. It took me a long time to come to be able to use those words: sexually assaulted. They feel so permanent and binding, almost dehumanizing. They made me feel like part of the statistics, stripped of my autonomy and power. It took me a long while to realize that it was not these words that were making me feel helpless and bitter- it was the reality of what had happened to me.
Back to my sophomore year of college. After a long night, I found myself sitting in the middle of campus, on a bench outside of the library, crying.
I was in a pretty vulnerable state and feeling a little bit in need of saving.
So when a handsome boy approached and asked if I was okay and what I was crying about, I began to engage with him. He was kind and respectful, offering up words of encouragement and embarrassing stories of his own in an effort to make mine feel less huge. Soon I had stopped crying, and when I thanked him and began to gather myself to go home, he offered to walk me back to my dorm. I was touched- what a gentleman- and said yes, please. I felt like this stranger was my knight in shining armor, saving my disastrous night and reviving my belief that good men do exist.
I know a lot of you are reading this and already thinking to yourself, “You’re letting him walk you home? Alone? Oh, what an idiot! There are so many red flags!” You need to stop that right now. I’m serious, if you’re gonna do that this whole time, then please stop reading this. I’m sharing something that is very difficult for me. Please don’t berate me and shame me. Please don’t lecture me about how it would have been avoidable IF this and that, (as if I haven’t spent hours already doing that myself). Please don’t get frustrated or disappointed in me for assuming that a fellow human being means well and has good intentions. I am not the one at fault.
As he walked me back to my dorm he continued to offer up kind words. I had been upset about an interaction with another guy, and he actually began to talk to me about his little sister. About how important she was to him, and about how it makes him sick to think of her growing up in a world where men mistreat women. Oh, he was laying it on thick, and I was eating it up. It felt like he was on my side, like he totally understood what I was saying, preaching right to the choir. When he reached out to hold my hand, I didn’t even think of it as anything more than platonic, protective, brotherly.
When we reached my dorm, he asked if he could come in and use the bathroom before he walked back to his dorm. Of course you can, kind man who has done nothing but help me stop crying and rebuild my self confidence, it’s the least I can do! (Again, stop with the judgment and think about how you might feel inclined to think well of a stranger that goes out of their way to do something seemingly altruistic for you). After he used the bathroom, he asked for a glass of water. When he asked for water, a very, very tiny little piece of me perked up and wondered why he was lingering. But the rest of me quickly ignored that minor worry, outweighing it with all the goodness he had shown.
But then something unexpected happened. He kissed me. And at first, I kissed him back. He was so sweet, and attractive, and older than me, and my visceral reaction was, yeah, this is the kind of guy I wanna kiss. It took me a moment to realize how incredibly overwhelmed I was. When the present came back into focus, I began to remember how unstable I was feeling, and that this was not what I wanted or could handle right now. And so I stopped.
He tried to kiss me again, and I turned away. When he tried a third time, and I gave him cheek, I felt his body grow a bit rigid, angry. I sat down and told him I was going to go to bed. Out of nowhere, in an instant, he changed. Upset that I had turned down his advances, he began to call me names.
All of the sudden he was verbally attacking me, wrapping me in words I didn’t want to wear.
The energy in the room grew threatening as he called me a “whore” and a “slut,” and I began to cry. And the weirdest thing happened when I cried- he attempted to comfort me. Just like that the “gentleman” was back, apologizing and telling me he didn’t mean it. The temporary break in the tension allowed me enough stability to calm down and stop my crying. But as soon as I stopped crying, he switched again, Jekyll and Hyde, and tried again to kiss and touch me, his hand on my thigh. I turned away and the names returned, but this time he called me a “prude” and a “tease”. As I continued to turn him away, he did not budge. Instead, he began to barter with me, demanding “just a kiss” or to “just cuddle,” promising he wouldn’t try anything else.
In hindsight, it seems so simple to resolve. I was in the common room of my suite. My roommates were sleeping all around me. My best guy friends, who happened to by rugby players, were in the suite down the hall. I could have yelled, I could have ran, I could have picked up my phone and called someone.
But it just wasn’t that easy. I was so overwhelmed and discombobulated. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, I was fragile and vulnerable, insecure and alone. And most importantly, there was a pressing sense of danger. There was fear. It’s very hard to reason with fear- you lose the ability to think rationally when you are afraid. It will be hard for you to understand until life puts you in a similar situation.
And so the only way I knew how to safely get him out was to let him in. It’s hard to explain properly, but saying no felt too dangerous. The way he had reacted when I turned away from his kisses had frightened me. Sometimes people say nothing at all, or even concede a “yes,” as a way to protect themselves from the “what if” and confrontation of saying no. I felt like if I just gave him something he wanted he would leave me alone and it would all be over. And so he spent the night. I didn’t have sex with him, but his hands were on my body, and I felt helpless. After he fell asleep I laid in bed, unable to sleep. After a few hours of staring numbly at the ceiling, I got up and took a shower, trying to wash all traces of him off of my ruined body. The water didn’t make me feel any cleaner.
After my shower, I sat in my common room trying to process. More staring at more blank walls, more numbness. When my roommate finally woke up she came and found me and asked about the naked boy asleep in my bed, smirking at me, excited to hear about my fun hookup. I began to cry on the spot, hard, choking tears. She comforted me and even kicked him out for me while I hid in our friends room, because I was too frozen, too scared to face him again.
And that was that. I buried it, hardly told anyone or talked about it. I wanted it not to exist. I told myself it wasn’t a big deal.
But it was, and it began to trickle out. The following weekend I was hanging with friends and got a little drunk and showed off some of my bruises. (Yeah, he had left some pretty vicious bruises on my chest.) What might have seemed to the naked eye like a drunk girl begging for attention and showing off her sexual conquests was in actuality a desperate girl crying for help, showing her friends that she had been hurt. Lucky for me, some of my friends saw through my antics and recognized what was really going on. They tried to be there for me, asked what happened and what they could do, but all I would really give them was that some jerk had taken advantage of me and that it was fine. I was unwilling to call it what it was, even with my friends by my side.
I mostly “forgot” about the whole ordeal after that. Well, except for the days when I would see him on campus. Walking by him wasn’t too bad, at least it was quick. The hardest was when he would be at a dining hall I was eating at. I couldn’t really just get up and leave dinner and my friends without an explanation, so I’d usually just sit there, a little bit paralyzed, unable to exhale until he was gone.
It sucks how much power these people take from you, hold over you.
After awhile I stopped seeing him as much and began to feel a lot better. In fact, I figured I was over it. Isn’t it funny how we rush ourselves and lie and pretend we’re over things? When one night the following summer I found myself in a puddle of tears on my friends’ bathroom floor recounting the experience, I realized that I was still hurting from it. But sharing it with a best friend on tear-flooded bathroom tiles made me feel a lot better. Okay, NOW I had gotten it all out, NOW I was over it!
But I’m learning something about these experiences- we don’t really ever get “over” them. Don’t get me wrong- these events do not have to define us or hold us back. With the right support system, and lots of time, many of us are able to begin to heal, grow stronger, and move on. But these events do color the way we see the world.
And even when we have moved forward, and feel healthy and distant from that state, things can happen that make us regress back to those feelings, whether for a moment or for awhile.
I know that the word “triggered” has come to be a bit of a punchline these days. I know that it is often overused and that people are hesitant to buy into it, seeing it as too sensitive and coddling. I wish this word didn’t have so much baggage attached to it, because it really is the best way for me to describe what those moments are like when I get pulled back into the fear of being sexually assaulted. Just the other day, I was getting dressed and noticed a few bruises on my chest. All of the sudden I found myself sitting on my bed and crying, right back in that moment where I first looked at the damage he had done. That was almost 5 years ago. And yet there I was again, without explanation. It’s not like I haven’t gotten bruises since, too! But something just stole me from the moment and took me back to that scared feeling.
Since this happened to me, I’ve unfortunately dealt with much worse. And just as it has taken me years to digest and discuss this first and more minor experience, my other experience has spent much more time hidden in the back of my mind than it has being spoken about, processed, or dealt with. Just over a year later, while travelling abroad, I experienced one of the harder nights of my life. In classic post-traumatic fashion, after it happened I quickly buried the pain and instead twisted into a humorous story about a drunk night out.
I’m sure plenty of my friends are familiar with the story of my night in Buenos Aires where I took a cab home without any money, dropped my house key down the elevator shaft, and fell asleep outside of my host mom’s door. I bet most of them never realized that this was on the tail end of getting taken advantage of by two foreign men in an alleyway while I was blackout drunk. I came to when police showed up- not to save me, but to point and laugh at me. The journey home was traumatizing in and of itself, as I tried to figure out where I was and how to get home with no money or underwear.
Victims of rape and sexual assault often get chastised for not telling someone right away, or for the fact that their story may change over time. People see this as a sign of falsity or dramatics, and fail to see how it is a side effect of undergoing a traumatic experience. It is very difficult to share the stories of your worst days, of the most difficult things you’ve been through. Add to that the fear of being seen as weak, foolish, or at fault.
And so our survivor stories can take years to comprehend and construct, changing and growing as we process the effects of what has happened to us, as we regain our comfort and feeling of safety.
Remember how earlier I said it took me a long time to identify with the words “sexually assaulted”? Imagine how much bigger of a battle I went through with the word “rape”. Typing it now makes my eyes cloudy. It’s been three years and I still go back and forth, arguing to myself whether it was or wasn’t. For the longest time I didn’t think it was fair of me to claim that word. First of all, the fact that I was so drunk made me feel completely responsible. If I didn’t know whether or not I said yes or no, how could I claim any foul play?
And secondly, wouldn’t calling it rape be an incredible insult to all the people who’ve been fully conscious and comprehending during their attacks? I was unconscious for most of my assault, too drunk to have clear memories of what was done to me in that alleyway. I have hazy memories, haunting details, but nothing compared to the nightmarish visions that so many men and women have to relive over and over again. I escaped relatively unscathed, right?
But I didn’t.
Once again my experience followed me, and manifested itself in some really ugly ways. Friends struggled to understand,
and I struggled to explain, why certain events and actions would evoke such intense reactions from me. It’s something I’m still working on.
But what has helped me, what always helps, is hearing from other people that I am not alone. That I am not wrong. I remember the first time I read the sentence “You can’t consent when you’re drunk,” in an article online, I just started sobbing, uncontrollably. I felt this intense wave of relief, this immense joy that someone out there in the world was on my side, believed that it was not my fault. The more I researched and read, the more I found people who understood, and were sticking up for me. And then when I was finally able to open up to a few friends, (just this past fall), and was met with unconditional love, I felt so much lighter, a bit liberated from the weight.
I’m still trying to convince myself that sharing this is a good idea. I had a lot of anxieties when choosing to write this. Will this create a negative paper trail for my future? Is this something a potential employer could read and disagree with, deem me unfit for a job, question my abilities and strengths? Will my friends or family look at me and treat me differently? Will little seeds of distaste or judgement plant themselves in their minds and color their opinion of me?
Will this information hurt my loved ones too much? Will it offend them? I shared this with my parents and brothers before publishing it, because I felt I owed them the space to process the story first. It was really fucking difficult. I hate bringing them pain. I don’t want them to ever think any of this is something they could have saved me from. On the contrary, I have the most amazing support system; they’ve loved me so powerfully that I’m able to find the strength to finally share.
The reason I chose to publish this is because it embodies the very reason I write. I write to process, to feel more connected to the world as it moves around me, to feel less alone. I write because there is nothing more magical or healing to me than taking something that makes me feel other, isolated, alone, and sharing it, and having someone else say “me too”.
Far too often we sit with our pain and think that if we talk about, we will be pushed further away from the love and understanding we seek.
But the truth is that so many of us are fighting the same demons as the person right beside us, we just don’t realize it. We need to stop fighting in silence and reclaim the value of vulnerability.
And so I offer my story to you in hopes that you will look around you, at all the people that you’re lucky enough to love and be loved by, and realize that many, many of them have been through similar pain. And that if we start to talk about it, to tell our stories, to listen without judgement, then we can fight this battle together instead of alone.
I, Sarah Laughlin, at 23 years old, have been the victim, and the survivor, of rape and sexual assault. But this story is not my weakness- it is my strength.