Katie Roiphe, in her 1993 book The Morning After, questioned whether one in four women are victims of rape, writing: “If I were really standing in the middle of an epidemic, a crisis, if 25 percent of my female friends were being raped, wouldn’t I know it?”
To which I respond: Not with that attitude, bitch.
I was raped four years ago. It was January in New York and the snow was everywhere.
My rape would have made one lousy Law & Order: SVU episode. There was no dark alleyway. There was no one lurking in the shadows. I was not in Central Park alone after dark. I wasn’t grabbed and dragged away by some unrelenting stranger. There were no weapons, no chase, no screams. I was raped in the bed of my ex-partner, a bed I had slept safely in many times before. I was raped in a bed I had slept in before inside of an apartment I had willingly entered. I was raped inside of an apartment I had willingly entered by a man I had known, by a man I had slept with before, by a man I had cared for.
He was wealthy, good looking, and highly educated. My friends thought he was “quite the catch.” “Hachi machi” they said the night they first met him. But things did not work out between us for reasons that are now much more clear to me. We had been broken up for six months before I found myself back there, in his bed that had once been safe. No, my rape, in that bed with that man, would never meet criteria for a Lifetime made-for-TV drama, nor a police report, but it was my rape all the same.
It so turns out ordinary people, productive members of society, upstanding citizens, PhD candidates, esteemed members of the community, smart people, funny people, likable people, good looking people, people you know, love, and care for can rape you too.
This is the story of my rape. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
I have decided to talk about mine in embarrassing detail, details I have played in my head over and over and over, because I am tired of so many others being shamed into silence. I am tired of a judicial system that generates more trauma than justice. I am tired of a culture that denies the urgency and ubiquity of this terrorism as old as time “Grab ‘em by the pussy” replayed ad nauseum. I am tired of my own self-doubt, of my own lingering thoughts of self-blame that if not placed quickly into check, evolve into a gnawing self-hatred and a crippling fear of human closeness. I am not afraid anymore.
But I am. I’ve just gotten better at living with the fear.
Before my rape, I was naked voluntarily. Before my rape, I had wanted to have sex. Yes, I repeat: just a few minutes before my rape, I had wanted to have sex. Are you still with me? Are you pulling back the side of your lip, skeptical now of what I have to say? What happened in the minutes leading up to my rape does not make it any less of a rape. I had wanted to have sex, but I was raped.
Rape is not sex. Rape is assault.
My ex-partner did not have a condom nor did he want to use one. He had never wanted to use one, though I always wanted to. In the past he would win that argument, so I stopped fighting. I was forced to go on birth control during our relationship, something that I do not react well to, because he refused to use condoms. But that is all besides the point (or is it?).
During our 6 months apart he had contracted chlamydia and I had known that. He had sought treatment and I had known that. I was still concerned about contracting it, so when he told me he did not have a condom, I said, “We can’t do this,” and pulled away. He tried to convince me that he was clean, that he had taken the pills and the infection would be gone by now. I said I couldn’t be sure and that I didn’t want to risk it. I said no. I really did. I said that singular word, No, a total of 5 times. I know because I counted while I was lying there motionless after my assault; I counted the No’s over and over again.
A moment after the fourth No, he grabbed me forcefully and put me on top. Try explaining that to someone who doesn’t think acquaintance rape is real. I was voluntarily naked with a man I had dated for over a year and was on top when I was raped. He shoved himself inside of me and for a moment, I think I became aroused. Try explaining that to yourself when you can’t think or feel anything and just don’t know if you even have the right to feel as horrified and violated as you do.
I managed to loosen his hold from my hips and pushed my body off of his. I rolled onto my side, facing away from him, and said “no.” For those of you who lost track, that’s number 5. It didn’t matter. He still didn’t listen. He grabbed me again, and tried to penetrate me from behind. At that moment, I experienced what I can only describe as a sudden and full flash of complete panic.
Now, I’m no alien to stress and anxiety. I’ve seen the World Trade Center come to its knees. I’ve seen a tidal surge take away the entire shoreline of the borough I call home. I’ve been stalked on the street. I’ve been in car accidents, been attacked by a dog, screamed at by angry and unstable strangers. I’ve fallen down mountain sides, run from street shootings, I’ve gripped the armrest during turbulence, but nothing, nothing has ever felt like this. Not before, not since. When the flash subsided, all I can describe is feeling completely helpless, frozen, and numb. Somehow I was able to block his dick with my hand. I do not know how I moved that hand. He said some things that I couldn’t register. It ended.
I was frozen. Literally. My body was rigid, locked into place. I could not move. I could not think. I could see and hear, but I felt and thought nothing. Everything was still. I felt like I was outside of my body, like some part of me was able to flee, but left the rest of me for dead. When the assault was over my thoughts started to come back to Earth. Everything was still still but I remember looking at the clock and thinking, It is 3 a.m. I am over an hour train ride home, up in Harlem. I don’t want to stay here in this bed, but where can I go? It’s 3 a.m., a girl doesn’t go out onto the street alone at this time of night. That’s how you get raped…
I laugh at that irony now. I didn’t then. Then, I remained frozen until the sun came up. I didn’t sleep. I know I cried only because I felt the wetness traveling down my cheek. He fell fast asleep with his back towards mine. He said nothing.
In the morning, I showered and had coffee in his apartment as I finished watching American Hustle alone (which we half watched of the night before). I was sitting there, waiting, caught up in some thick hazy bubble of time and feeling, wanting something. I wanted him to apologize. To address it. To validate me. I wanted him to say something about it. He didn’t. I even walked with him in the morning through the north side of Central Park alongside newly fallen snow.
He admonished me for walking too slow. He had to get to work. I said, “Didn’t you hear me say no?” He said “yes”, but that he had “intuition of what I wanted.” I told him I was worried about contracting his infection. I asked him to get tested. He said “no.” He said I was being irrational.
I couldn’t feel anything for months. All of my senses were there, but I was just numb. I wanted to feel something again. I wanted to feel like my body was mine again, so I downloaded a dating app and met a stranger in a bar. This is not something I had done before. We had sex. He flipped me over and fucked me from behind while grabbing my neck. I didn’t want that. I didn’t say anything. I froze. I remember only thinking, “I don’t even care if he kills me.” My plan backfired and the sense of violation only grew. And I still felt nothing. I have never told anyone about that one night stand. I was, and am, deeply ashamed.
I wanted help, but I couldn’t get myself to ask for it. I went for a gynecological exam. Due to my insurance policy, I was required to explain why I wanted to have a pap smear when I wasn’t due for one. When I gave my explanation, my gynecologist hugged me.
I want to clarify that my tone now was not the tone I had then. I started writing this one month after my rape. I have edited it steadily for four years. Over the past four years I’ve learned to confront more difficult aspects of my trauma, and have become better at talking about them, though I still use humor to avoid the total awfulness of it.
During the immediate wake of my rape, I was not open about it. I could not imagine explaining it to someone. And I did not call it rape. That word, rape — god, to use it felt like I was stealing something from all the women who are violently attacked, from the women who are drugged, who are held against their will, from the women who weren’t naked and willing just a few minutes before. I did not feel like I could have that title: Rape Survivor. Survivor? Was my life ever threatened?
The thing is, when it is happening, your body doesn’t make all these rationalizations and analyses you, from your armchair, and me from my armchair, make now. Your body just knows something unwanted is happening to it by someone who is overpowering it. Anything could happen next. There is a reason the cat does not let you near its belly.
I am belly up for you right now.
Every time you tell your story, you go belly up. The first few months after my rape, I became close with a male friend. We would go to the gym together, something I had never done before. Exercise and physical dexterity are not my thing. He taught me how to lift weights. He did not know how important his instruction was to me. I thought if I could become stronger, this wouldn’t happen again. I thought if I had some muscles, pow, right in the kisser to the next person whose intuition is louder than my “no.” One night, while we were smoking weed and watching old episodes of Lost, I paused the stream and told him. I told him he didn’t have to say anything, but that I wanted him to know. I wanted him to know how much he was helping me, because it wasn’t just the weights anymore; he was training me on how to become close to someone again, to trust someone again. He was helping me to see that it is okay to go belly up.
But it wasn’t okay. He did not know how to react. He did not know why I told him. He became afraid. I think he was afraid of me. A few days later he asked me if I was aware of false rape accusation statistics. He told me that he thought anti-street harassment campaigns and “modern feminism” were creating a call-out culture, fabricating a problem that did not exist. He told me that rape isn’t a societal issue. He told me rape isn’t his problem, like cancer — it sucks but has nothing to do with him, and he said I care about it selfishly because it happened to me. He said the potential of being falsely accused of rape was more threatening to him. I completely broke.
And so it went. I confided in a female friend I held dear. She told me it was a “misunderstanding but not rape.” I opened up to another friend, who acted sympathetic and caring in the moment, but then went on to tell other people and to use it against me any time I was emotional or angry about something.
It turns out, other people think they know more about your rape than you do. It turns out that many people will have many opinions about an event that didn’t happen to them. It turns out that you will really care about what they think, and it will slice open your belly, over and over and over again.
Six months after my rape, I was sitting in a courtyard with a new friend. I don’t remember how or why, but I told her. The depth of her compassion, her concern, I can never forget. She walked me into the counseling center. Stood there with me as I asked to make an appointment and filled out the paperwork. She came with me to an exhibit called Breaking Silence. She gave me her copy of Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter. She gave me a validation and acceptance that I did not know could exist. Because of her gentle kindness and support, I was able to commit to my recovery. Because of her, within the next year I was able to name the things that were destroying me: shame, self-blame, an unending sense of worthlessness.
Because of her, within the next year I was able to say “my rape.” Not “that bad experience.” Not “that assault-type thing.” My rape! Just like that, I started to take back the ownership I had lost. With this new vocabulary, slowly I was able to start piecing my narrative back together. Slowly, I was able to truly know my story, to truly know myself.
Recovery is not a linear journey. You will have moments of conquest and moments of complete failure. You will leave the room you were raped in and you find yourself back inside of there. You will want to shout it from the rooftops, “I WAS RAPED AND IT DOESN’T MATTER THAT I WAS NAKED AND ON TOP AND WITH SOMEONE I DATED OVER A YEAR AND IT DOESN’T MATTER IF I DO OR DON’T HAVE YOUR VALIDATION!” And you will want to slide under a mass of covers, never to show your face again. You will wonder how if at all you can ever live a normal life again. You will worry that you will have to go through your entire life with your rape at the tip of your tongue. You will try to reclaim your sexuality, only to find you lost more control over it. You will want to tell a new partner, but instead break up with them out of fear of their reaction. You will wonder if it is even possible for you to be loved. You will wonder if you should even risk being close to anyone ever again. You will start to realize that you are not alone in these feelings.
You will start to think about all the other women who have been hugged by their gynecologist and you will want to speak to them. Sisters: You are not alone in your experience. You are not alone in your grief.
You will start to realize that the unscathed woman is a rare thing. You will start to see how normalized these assaults are. You will start to recognize other survivors just by the way they carry themselves, by the look in their eyes, by the articles they share on Facebook. You will start to find a renewed strength as you connect with one another. You will start to see your own progress. You will start to see that the stages of healing are as real and as textbook as the stages of grief after the death of a loved one. You will start to truly believe that your trauma is real, that your reactions are valid, and that you are worthy of love and respect. You will start to realize that all the pain you feel comes not from a dark place, but from a place of deep love — love for this world, love for yourself, love for all survivors.
You will develop such a strong sense of self that the next time you go belly up, it won’t matter how they react. You’ve worked those muscles. You have a solid core.
You will learn that only through post traumatic stress, there is post traumatic growth. And by god, will you grow.
We are not singularly defined by our traumas, these events we have no control over; we are defined by what we do with them. Recall this line from Amelie: “Without you, today’s emotions would be the scruff of yesterdays.” I had a freezing response that I did not choose, but I decided what I would do with it from there. And it wasn’t always pretty, but it got me here. And I don’t know where here is, but I am okay with that. I am happy with myself and my progress, and maybe, maybe I love myself today more deeply than I ever did before in my life.
Rape is a deeply personal trauma that gets hung up on the community clothesline for all to see and critique. Some will try to tell you that your rape is a byproduct of your womanhood. Like it is some rite of passage, a fucking Quinceañera. But that is garbage. You are who you are in spite of your rape, not because of it. And though the world outside will make you feel very very alone in it, the truth is, your trauma has only brought you closer to other people, to other survivors — whether they be rape survivors, hate crime survivors, war survivors, abuse survivors. Together, we can end the silence and the shame. Together, we can recover, knowing we are not just fighting for ourselves — we are fighting for one another.
What I hope is that my experience, in all its embarrassing detail, makes you feel less embarrassed and alone in yours. What I hope is that the next time a person goes belly up, the world does not slice them open over and over and over again.