What rape looks like, fifteen years later

Trigger warning: I was raped and I’m going to talk about it.

My first experience with rape happened one day in my seventh grade class for gifted children. That afternoon, some of the boys were joking around and happened to use the word rape. My teacher, stopped the class and began to tell a story, which made tears stream down her face and caused many tiny cracks to form in my own interior. Though I felt her story was inappropriate for our class, I could not shake the unpleasant feeling of this horrifying concept forever merged with one of my favorite teachers.

I didn’t want to know this about her, yet I was endeared to her in a deeper way after that, than I had known could be possible.

I didn’t tell my parents, because even at the age of twelve, I understood that her story was not mine to tell.

Her actions that day stuck with me.

Not in the moments after my rape, or even days, weeks.

The levity with which our society has often used the term rape serves such a dangerous, insidious purpose.

I get that now. It is part of my life now.

November 2001

I was already a fragile, insecure person to begin with my first year of university. The end of my senior year was calamitous at best. My closest friend had a baby the night of prom, and I had begun to “run around” with her and her older friends; spend less time with my childhood friends.

I’d never been a rule breaker before, I guess it was just normal growing up stuff. But I’d never challenged my place in the family before, I was always (mostly) good. By the time senior year rolled around, I figured I was going to do what I wanted, within reason because I still wanted to go to college, and my parents could just deal with it.

By fall semester we were both ready for the break. I didn’t know that our relationship would heal in time, back then, I felt maybe this is how adulthood began: with an ever present sense of loneliness. I found myself unceremoniously dumped by my casual summer boyfriend and for the first time in my life I had no one. I tried to connect with my high school classmates at university, but nothing stuck.

I turned to the only place I knew would always take me: church. Well, kind of. The dorm I lived in was co-ed, by floor. I lived on the fifth floor, in a single but somehow managed to make friends with five or six guys from the fourth floor, who all knew each other somehow and belonged to the same university youth group. Don’t worry, this story isn’t headed in any sort of direction with them.

Through them I discovered SALT. I can’t even remember what the acronym means anymore, other than the lasting irony of the wound it caused me. I began to attend the weekly evening session with them, after which we’d go to one of those all night cafes and eat pie and be dorks together. It was safe and I was making friends.

I met the person who raped me at SALT. He lived in my dorm, also on the fourth floor. Had made friends with my guy group before I had, albeit much more casually, because he already had a main crew: the university wrestling team. My guy friends even played match maker. It was such an unlikely match. He was intimidating in a way I still can’t quantify.

His visage is the reason I am inexplicably repulsed by any sort of muscular man to this day. I will never belong to a gym. He was the most gorgeous, affable, Abercrombie-esque person I had ever seen, let alone interacted with, in my life. At time I was hovering around 90 lbs, experimenting with makeup for the first time in my life, with long bronde hair. It was such an unlikely match.

I spent most of our short time together in shock. My state of constant major insecurity made me a bumbling mess around him. How was this even happening? He asked me to hang out and watch a movie one night. It ended up being a terrible movie, Down to You, but we ended up making out so I didn’t mind. We made plans to hang out again soon.

But then it happened. I was in bed for the night because as an ambitious little freshman I had classes starting at 8am all fall semester, and I was already settled in to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. College was the first time I had Comedy Central and I wasn’t taking that privilege for granted for one single second.

He showed up, drunk, and that’s when it happened.

In my dorm room, in my bed. I had invited him in. I didn’t want to have sex with him, and when I started crying he put a pillow over my face so he could finish. I thought he was killing me. When he got up to leave, immediately after, he said, “Whoa, that got a little out of hand.”

I couldn’t respond. I wasn’t there anymore.

In the moments, in the dark, when I thought I was suffocating to death, one thought raced over and over in my mind. Not a coherent one, but more like a jumbled stream.

“Why is he ignoring me? I’m a person and he’s ignoring me?”

I wasn’t beaten, but I was bruised. My throat raspy from crying and trying to breathe under a pillow. I remember taking everything that smelled like him off and going down the hall to the laundry room. I remember sitting on the cold linoleum there and just sitting. I remember making my bed after I washed my bedding and then trying to sleep what hours were left, on the floor.

I tried sleeping on the floor for about a week, until exhaustion drove me back into my bed.

The immediate aftermath was that the wrestling team knew. In his version of things, my cries for help became the wild growling of a sexpot, and I quickly earned a reputation. Which was especially unhelpful in my dorm.

Like I said, he was beautiful and noticed by more girls than just me, so once certain ladies found out we “hooked up” I couldn’t go very far without catching a jealous “whore” or “slut” aimed in my direction. My guy pals on the fourth floor completely iced me out. They didn’t think I was that kind of girl. I never went back to SALT.

Instead I got into the first relationship I could, with a physically and emotionally abusive person, but that’s a story for a different time. The trauma and drama of that relationship helped quickly wipe away the memory of being a victim, and bonus perks: since I had a boyfriend, the insults stopped.

Three years later

In my first semester as an editor–the News editor–of our university paper, I experienced my first hostile and sexist environment as a leader. I paused trying to find the words to describe it, and though the ones I chose just now are apt, they were hard to select because I absolutely cherished my time on the paper. Despite the environment.

At one editorial meeting, the Editor-in-Chief lamented on the concept of the Red Zone. At our university, the period between freshman welcome weekend and Thanksgiving break was deemed the Red Zone because it was during that period freshmen were most at risk to try new things and put themselves in potentially dangerous situations.

It was also the period where the most sexual assaults happened on campus.

It was the period when I was raped on campus.

In our meeting the EIC scoffed at the idea and instead suggested that the Red Zone offered otherwise slutty girls the chance to save face by saying that they were raped instead of doing what they had wanted all along.

I don’t remember the rest of that meeting. A rage than began in my chest ended up on paper. I wrote an opinion piece about the Red Zone being real and basically told my editor and everyone other nameless accusatory face to fuck off because I had been raped then.

Despite playing it safe. Completely sober. In my dorm, in my own bedroom.

By a person I thought I could trust, I had even met at a faith-based group.

What a huge mistake that was. Essentially I went zero to sixty on my rape. From not being able to say the words to myself, to telling our entire circulation–which extended to parents and alumni since we had an online readership. My dad found out that I was raped, while he was at work because his coworker (with a freshman daughter attending) happened to read The Observer.

I had people approach me, since all opinion pieces had the author’s face next to her words, all over campus and even in town. Women came to me with their sexual assault stories, sometimes telling me their story for the first time. Apologetic men fumbled through awkward and uncomfortable exchanges.

One of my guy friends from the fourth floor (also a wrestler), contacted me to make sure he’s not the one from the story. “Kyle, we never had sex,” I tell him, disgusted. “Yeah I know,” he replies, “I just wanted to make sure.”

One night at a bar, a group of guys recognized me as the “rape girl” and offered to buy me a drink. I accepted to get that much closer to forgetting.

Student organizations reached out to me to be on sexual assault awareness panels, my opinion piece was examined in English 101 courses, and in general everything spiraled out of control.

All because someone who knew me made a vague accusation that I could be lying if I admitted to being raped. Which no one knew because I hadn’t told a single soul, until I decided to tell all of them.

I became like my seventh grade teacher, on a much larger scale, in a much more harmful way to myself.

Four years later

Being a rape figurehead on campus, without addressing having been raped, took its toll and by summer 2005, instead of nearing to graduating, I was failing out. I began to display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and was constantly being triggered. I didn’t know how to function any other way than to sleep as much as possible, or be around as many people and as much stimuli as possible. I was sleeping all day, and partying all night, in between rage-induced bouts of hysterical crying.

The university intervened and I began to attend both career and mental health counseling. The career counseling worked, the mental health counseling did not. I felt re-traumatized and worse, my counselor advised me to join the sexual assault response team on campus. I had to recount my rape to the team in our orientation because my counselor said it would be a good experience. It was not.

Then, a person close to me was sexually assaulted, and as they struggled and blamed themselves I felt a simultaneous fury and death inside. This was obviously not their fault, but furthermore — how many people could this happen to?

Growing up it seemed like it was just the one person I knew who had been raped, and then it happened to me.

It wasn’t supposed to happen to anymore people in my life.

Prior to their attack, I had comforted myself, secretly, when I was in groups of women I adore. One out of four, I would whisper to myself. I am the one, they are safe because it happened to me. Thank God it happened to me.

Seven years later

I am pregnant and severely depressed. This baby has got to be a boy.

A boy I can work with. A boy I can teach to be a good man. I won’t ever have to tell him my full story, put that weight on him, because I can raise him to understand why it is important to treat women right without making myself his martyr to defend.

A girl is useless to me. Whereas I can teach a boy to be a good man, and defend women, a girl…well, a girl I can only teach to protect herself and even if she is doing that, it can still happen. It happened to me.

My baby turns out to be a girl. I check out mentally and emotionally for the rest of my pregnancy because everything seems hopeless.

Ten years later

The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo comes out in theaters. Though I am fully aware now I need to avoid stories (movies, books, comics) with graphic rape scenes because of how triggering they are, this movie, with rape as its central plot device, frustrates me.

Why does a female character have to be motivated by devastation? Why is rape the go-to plot device now? I watch the men in my life enjoy this movie, discuss it avidly, applaud its feminist efforts and my stomach turns.

Yay feminism, I think, bitterly. What a joke, this movie wasn’t even made for women.

Thirteen years later

I finally have a breakthrough with a counselor. Through cognitive behavioral therapy, I am able to process my trauma, address it, and heal without being re-traumatized.

It only took an adolescent’s entire lifetime for me to get the help I needed post sexual assault.

I am in my thirties now, and finally able to understand that I did absolutely nothing wrong that night in my dorm room.

I could have told authorities, to prevent him doing it to anyone else. But otherwise, I did what I did to survive in the only way I knew how. I forgive myself and begin to speak more candidly about my experience.

I also find a way to cope with anything that could happen to my daughter. After all, I am a strong role model in how one can move forward from a sexual assault, so there is hope for her, if the worst happens.

I don’t mind being called a rape victim, I know there are folks who strongly suggest using the word survivor instead. But when people say victim, at least there is an acknowledgement of wrong doing in the matter. Which is generally absent from things I hear about rape in the news, even to this day.

Fourteen years later

I make the monumental mistake of looking up my rapist on Facebook.

Surely, he won’t be there. He’s probably in prison somewhere or hasn’t been able to maintain the sort of stable lifestyle that affords one regular internet access.

Wrong. There he is, a business owner, with a wife and a son. This enrages me. Not only is he on Facebook but he is thriving, meanwhile it took me more than a decade to grasp what he did to me.

I look at the photos of his wife, and she’s quite a bit more sturdier than I. I wonder if she keeps him at bay this way. I feel sick to my stomach and the unjustness of everything is overwhelming.

I used to believe that him being alone in his head for the rest of his life was punishment enough, but now, I’m not so sure.

Fifteen years later

I would say that the worst thing about being raped, wasn’t the actual moments of violation.

It’s the hyper vigilance I feel, fifteen years later. It’s waking up in the middle of the night because of a strange sound and wondering if an intruder is here to harm me or my daughter.

It’s not being able to sleep because I was triggered when I unintentionally watched a rape scene I wasn’t prepared for.

It’s watching my daughter every single second of every single day of her life, nervously, for a fraction of an indication of any sort of violation to her person so I can be prepared to help her in a way I couldn’t help myself.

It’s the millisecond of terror and doubt when I’m alone with any man in my life, or alone with a stranger, where I think “Is this the moment where he turns?”

It’s the reaction I get from people when talking about my own experience, as if I have emotionally or mentally inconvenienced them somehow.

It’s counting down the days until I’ll have to explain rape to my daughter.

It’s trying to figure out the words to explain something so horrifying for her to understand, coupled with the emotional burden I’ll transfer to my innocent daughter when she understands both what rape is and that I’ve been raped.

It’s watching the news, especially this year, and feeling rage that how the fuck are people not understanding this yet?

Rape is still an epidemic.

And I will never stop talking about mine until it ceases to be one.

The thing that really enrages me about rape is how up until this year, I have only seen women making any effort to change this.

Thinking back to the folks on my campus talking about sexual assault, it was 100% women, and mostly women from underrepresented groups at that. Our vice president over student life and our university president, both women, never came out with any sort of message against rape.

Fifteen years ago, I was raped by a student athlete, and it is still devastating to me personally, to read reports sympathizing with rapists and utterly destroying their victims. Their words give flight to the fears I (and countless others) held fifteen years ago.

But, in reality this behavior is abhorrent and it is unacceptable, and the people responsible for it should reassess their very humanity because it is seriously lacking.