April is sexual assault awareness month. It was also the time of year that I was raped at sixteen years old, by a close friend and friend of his. I have kept this experience quiet for nearly half my life, but today I choose to speak.
At first I was terrified that my peers would find out what I (I!) had done. I was embarrassed and confused. After about a year I actually managed to block the memory from my consciousness entirely, hiding my dirty secret from even myself.
Oh, the shame was still there– it manifested in the beginning as drug and alcohol abuse that nearly killed me on more than one occasion, an eating disorder which left me a frail and malnourished eighty pounds, the loss of friendships, of motivation, at some points of the desire to continue living.
Later I carried my shame in the form of social anxiety, isolation, and irrational fear. It lived in my marriage, my work, my interactions, and yet I was perfectly unaware of its source. I knew that intimacy made me terribly uncomfortable, and that TV programs portraying sexual assault could send me into paranoid panics lasting days, sometimes weeks during which I obsessed over locking my doors and checking my closets.
The few times that I crossed paths with my primary abuser, I became filled with an overwhelming sense of fear and disgust, an urge to run away as fast as I could. And yet, when my husband and I sat at our kitchen table, answering questions from the doula who was to help in the delivery of our first child, I simply shrugged my shoulders and said “Oh no, never.”
She had asked if I had ever experienced any form of sexual or physical abuse. Apparently childbirth can serve as a trigger for some victims, stirring up painful memories and intense emotions tied to the abuse. I wasn’t lying to her– I truly had no recollection of being raped.
I have since learned that blocking memories of abuse is actually quite common among victims–a sort of self-preservation, and that it isn’t until our minds recognize that we are emotionally capable of confronting the trauma, if ever, that memories resurface.
My daughter was a few months old when the flashbacks started. I would be driving my car and then bam– the image of him on top of me, the sound of his friend’s voice asking HIM for permission to do things to MY body, the weight of his hand on my back, and the sense of paralysis brought on either by the drugs I was given or by my own state of shock and fear. I would close my eyes tight and shake the image away, sometimes for a few days before it returned again. This went on for several months before I ever mentioned the rape out loud.
Except I didn’t call it that. I brought it up as casually as I could (hands wringing, heart pounding, and fighting back tears) during a conversation with my husband about the latest college assault scandal to make headlines. I told him something like that had happened to me in high school, but it was not a big deal, I didn’t really think about it, and besides– it was my fault.
That marked the beginning of my journey toward healing, more than three years ago now. I have come so incredibly far and yet I use that word, ‘toward’ very purposefully. I am strong, I am confident, and I know my value, but I am not healed or whole again. I was robbed. Thirteen years of my life lost on shame and self-loathing, and I’ll never get those back.
The reason I have continued to stay quiet about the assault these past three years, save for my therapist and a very select close few in my life, is because I am worried that speaking about my rape will make others uncomfortable. I have never confronted my abuser, because I don’t want to risk upsetting his wife and children.
Today that changes. You should feel uncomfortable! We are living in a culture that tells girls that getting drunk and flirting with boys at a party is an offense deserving of gang rape, and in which bragging about non-consensual “pussy grabbing” is considered acceptable locker room banter BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. We should all feel really fucking uncomfortable.
Through therapy, I was eventually able to acknowledge that being raped wasn’t my fault. But if I am being honest, I still don’t place all the blame on him either. We were both products of the society we grew up in. I lacked the self confidence to assert myself and he felt entitled to act out a porn-inspired fantasy to impress his buddy.
Things have to change. And I actually believe they can if we are all just willing to get a little awkward. In order for our girls to grow up knowing, not questioning, their worth as powerful independent beings, someone is going to have to tell them that when it comes to unwanted affection, it is not their job to be polite. In order for our boys to grow into evolved men, who respect rather than objectify women, someone is going to have to speak up and intervene before “locker room banter” takes a degrading tone. We are going to have to start calling rape rape.
My abuser deserves to feel a little uncomfortable. Not because I need revenge, but because my silence only serves to perpetuate the problem. My silence screams that what he did was okay.
And so, I share my story today because I refuse to be a part of this problem any longer. You raped me, but you never had the power to destroy me. I am stronger than ever, and I will be a part of the solution.