Taking Sexual Assault Out of the Shadows

I was 15 the first time I was sexually assaulted.

My friend Chris (not his real name) invited me to attend a university frat party with his older brother. We arrived and within minutes of sipping saccharine punch out of a red Solo cup, everything went black. My memory resumed with a vague sense of two men carrying me out of the fraternity by my arms and legs. The next day, I found out from other party-goers that Chris had stripped off my clothes and molested me in front of at least 10 other people. Apparently no one thought to stop him.

This was my first sexual experience, and I had no memory of it.

The next day Chris called to apologize, though he insisted that I had “asked for” and “enjoyed” the experience. I was told someone asked Chris that night, “How could you do this to her? She’s one of your closest friends,” to which he replied, “She’s hot. You would’ve done the same thing if you had the chance.” At that time, I didn’t have the language or context for understanding what had taken place. I came to realize years later that I had been victimized and humiliated by a person I trusted.

A decade and a half later, a dream internship at Facebook brought me to San Francisco, allowing me a glimpse at the future I might have after finishing up my two graduate degrees. I had just turned 30 and was relieved to have made it through my 20s unscathed by another assault. Everything felt as it should, as I wanted it to be.

One Thursday evening, a friend invited me to a DJ set. We grabbed dinner and then went to the venue early to hang out. One of the reasons I love San Francisco is the strong networking culture, which makes it easy to meet new people. So, in typical fashion, I chatted people up.

At some point, a bearded man asked me to dance and I accepted. Then everything went dark, just as it had 15 years earlier.

This time, when I regained consciousness however, I wasn’t being carried to safety. My first memory was standing naked in a bedroom with that same bearded man as he slept undisturbed. Disoriented and barely able to walk, I stumbled into an empty bedroom and collapsed on a bed, failing to will my faculties into functioning. As I lay there helpless, trying to make sense of where I was and how I could rally myself for an escape, a second man walked into the room. He casually got into the bed and raped me.

I eventually mustered the strength to leave, but when I made it home I discovered welts on my head (the signs of what I would later learn to be a concussion), and dark bruising on my back, buttocks, thighs, arms, and fingers. I spent the majority of the next day in the hospital.

5 Ways to Fight Rape Culture

It has been difficult to tell my story, and harder still to come up with reasons why it occurred. In the wake of a trauma such as this, I am left with all sorts of questions. Why me? Could someone have stopped it? What could I have done to prevent this?

These questions are impossible to answer. They are also largely beside the point.

What is indisputable is that my assault is yet another stat proving a larger indictment that our society has too high a tolerance for sexual harassment and assault. From the moment girls hit puberty, we’re conditioned to receive snide comments about our looks, and often, threats of sexual violence. Those who want to protect us recommend that we dress conservatively, watch our drinks, and be mindful of our surroundings. We are filled with fear for our safety, and then shamed when those defenses fail.

What were you wearing? How much did you drink? You shouldn’t have gone out so late. Are you sure you didn’t want it then change your mind? These often well-intended words commonly come from those who love us, but they only breed shame and increase the effects of trauma.

Tip 1: Don’t ever blame or pass judgment on someone who has been victimized. Even if you’re thinking it, don’t say it — ever. Emphasize that you believe them and it wasn’t their fault.

Negative comments to sexual assault survivors have been shown to exacerbate PTSD symptoms. While I was fortunate that people didn’t blame me, I’m in the minority. Many survivors find themselves immersed in a support network that is, unintentionally, anything but. Questions regarding what the victim was wearing or how vigorously she or he fought back contribute to an overall feeling that a victim could have and should have prevented their assault. Even though these questions often stem from an ultimately supportive place, victims in the immediate aftermath of trauma often have difficulty separating their shame.

Tip 2: Educate yourself and those you care about, especially young people, about sexual assault: what it is, and what to do if it happens.

My first sexual assault was not penetrative rape and I didn’t remember it, so for many years the experience seemed like a non-event. I didn’t feel traumatized, and certainly never identified as a sexual assault survivor. When I heard other stories of assault, I thought they sounded worse than mine. It’s not like he had sex with me or anything, right? This kind of thinking helped me to repress the experience, but I now wish someone had told me what happened was wrong and that I didn’t deserve it.

It’s difficult to fight or process an experience when you don’t have a language or context for understanding it. We need to give young people both so they can talk about issues of sexual violence, and advocate for themselves and others who have been victimized.

Tip 3: Teach boys not to rape. Explain consent and why it matters. Encourage boys to uphold and defend consent to their friends, and to be a hero if they see some being taken advantage of.

I sometimes consider reaching out to Chris to tell him that what happened that night was sexual assault. It bothers me that he might not think about this event in that way, as there is significant confusion among young people about the definition of consent.

Certainly not all boys or men will become sexual assailants, but 32% of college men said they would have “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if ‘‘nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.” This figure is staggering and underscores the need to go beyond telling girls how not to get raped. Boys must learn to recognize rape as rape, and that the definition of it may be broader than they previously thought.

Tip 4: If you see someone at risk of being victimized, step in, say something, and report it.

Things could have ended very differently had someone intervened at that fraternity house. Studies have found that men, those who have pledged a fraternity or sorority, and athletes are less likely to intervene as a bystander witnessing a sexual assault. Those who know someone who has been sexually assaulted and/or has received rape education are most likely to intervene. For this reason, survivors who share their story and identify as a sexual assault survivor can have a powerful effect on those around them.

Tip 5: If you’re a survivor, share your story. Talk about it as widely as you can. Tell your sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, partners, and friends. This accomplishes three important things: 1) it builds social support to help you, 2) it raises awareness for others, and 3) if someone you love is sexually assaulted, they’ll know they aren’t alone. Once you start talking about it, you’ll be surprised how much comfort, encouragement, and empowerment it will bring to you and others.

The system that exists to protect and support victims is not particularly supportive. In the aftermath of my second sexual assault, I did everything a victim is supposed to do: I got a rape kit at the hospital, filed a police report, pressed charges, had an advocate present, saw a trauma specialist, took anti-retroviral drugs (just in case I had been exposed to HIV), even participated in a ‘pretext call’ whereby the police had me call my assailants and record the conversation. Over a year later, my case was nonetheless dropped by the SF District Attorney’s Office due to “lack of evidence”.

As deflating as it was to have my case dropped, I’m still grateful I jumped through the hoops and sought justice. The more sexual assaults get reported, the more pressure there is to do something about it.

Like far too many, I haven’t had justice prevail, but sharing my story has helped aid the healing process. Another therapeutic effort has been building an online tool and community to guide sexual assault survivors through the healing process, regardless of how long ago an assault took place. Given that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I hope you’ll join me in fighting rape culture by being a vocal advocate against sexual violence in all its forms. If you’re a survivor, consider taking your experiences out of the shadows. Use your story to teach and encourage others.

That’s my vision: a community approach to fighting rape with survivors helping survivors, and sharing our stories to create new narratives of strength, empowerment, and the ability to overcome.

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