The Stories We Tell About Sexual Assault — And The Stories We Don’t

flickr/Emily Dunne (image has been altered)

We tell ourselves stories so we may endure, so we can get through, or so we can cope with what we don’t want to remember. But the body remembers all; it remembers every sensation — the crash of clenched fist against gut, the warmth of a body in our arms, the dolor of being pushed away. It remembers what shouldn’t have been and what could have been. Each touch, each moment, becomes a story we tell so that we can prevail.

There are stories we expect to hear about attempted rape.

Several years ago, I worked on an American cruise line as a server in Hawaii. I had a small crush on the man who managed the buffet where I had occasional breakfast shifts. We saw each other sparingly and flirted for a few weeks; he made going into work at five in the morning less grueling. One evening, during an overnight port in Maui, we ran into each other unexpectedly. We talked and laughed without the pressure of being on duty, or adhering to protocol, and on the way back to the ship, he held my hand.

It was what I had daydreamed about while clearing tables and greeting guests, when my eyes would catch his and his face lit up. And it felt exactly as I’d hoped it would — until we went back to the ship together and he tried to rape me, despite my defiant and vocal objections.

Each touch, each moment, becomes a story we tell so that we can prevail.

I kneed him in the groin and fumbled out of his room. Before I could make it back to my own room, I collapsed in the hallway and cried, knowing that nothing would be done. Already I heard the accusatory voices in my head: You flirted with him. You went back to his room. You wanted it. What did you expect? I knew nobody would believe me, and nobody did. I continued to live and work next to my attempted rapist, to see him multiple times a week until I quit.

This is a story that fits the conventional narrative of rape: a declaration of “no,” an insistent perpetrator, a physical fight. Sometimes these narratives end in the victim being subdued; other times the victim gets away. In any case, there is a victim, who — if they are spared their life — immediately transforms into a survivor after the incident ends.

Rape, we’re told, is not about sex; it’s about power. That power reveals itself through force, force that is visibly apparent and physical. But that same power, that same force, can also be unseen, coercive, psychological. The story about this invisible power is the story we don’t expect to hear.

This is the story that I need to tell again.

Erik and I met online, and after a few weeks of emails and instant messages, we had dinner. He was here for an acting fellowship and new to Philadelphia. I was only 23, and I was convinced this was love at first sight — the kind of love you scribble on paper about and call poetry, because you believe this union is destined by fate. I told myself the stories I desperately needed to believe in at the time.

We shared a brief, intense few months together. Then, when his fellowship ended and he moved back home, our relationship turned long-distance. Several months later, we decided it was best to end our romantic entanglement and be the friends we already were. We were best friends for years to follow.

But then one day, I woke up and realized: This was not a story of love, but a story about rape.

The sex between us wasn’t always about ulterior motives; it wasn’t always non-consensual and coerced. But this isn’t about those times. This is about the times when my body said, “Yes,” and my head screamed, “No!” It’s about the times my mouth said, “All right,” and my body howled, “I don’t want this!” It’s about the time he noticed my tear-stained face, and I lied and told him they were “happy tears.”

I had sex with him to keep him from leaving me; he told me this is what he needed in a relationship. I had sex with him to prove that I was worthy of his love; he told me there was no other way. I had sex with him to prevent him from betraying me; he told me he has a habit of losing interest if his needs aren’t always met. I had sex with him to make him happy, to keep us together; he told me I had to allow him to penetrate me or else we couldn’t be together. He told me to stop lying to myself because I would like it. He told me this is how things were supposed to be.

He raped me, more than once, and convinced me it couldn’t possibly be rape because there was no fight, no physical force, no bruises or blood. But my body is covered in invisible scars, and his hands are all over them. And now, all these years later, when I defiantly decide to name him and speak the truth, I still have trouble linking the words: rape, Erik, me. I haven’t spoken to or seen him in years, but he’s still there, in my head. I can feel his smirk behind my lips, his patronizing gaze behind my eyes — he is still inside me without consent.

I can hear him saying he didn’t know, but he did know. Pieces of me knew too, but seeing the full spectrum of the situation was not possible. I was in the beginning stages of recovery from my restrictive religious upbringing and still years away from unpacking my mental-health issues. There were rare moments of clarity, however fleeting, after our relationship turned long-distance, and those moments terrified me — moments when I realized that I was an object, not a person, a possession used to satisfy his needs.

Memories of the ship would stream in unrestricted — the cold wall against my back, the stick of floor on my hands — because the body cannot forget. The weight of not being believed, the crush of accusations and blame, seemed far worse than any other option. And so, ultimately, I would decide it was too late; it was safer to remain in the abusive relationship. Then the unending tunnel of fear would fog again just in time for a visit, and he would smile, and buy me lunch, and I would dream about our future together. I loved him, and I had grown up with the notion that sacrifice is the epitome of love.

Jeanette Winterson wrote in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery:

“We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual worlds are highly coloured and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever reality we have chosen to believe in . . . It may be that to understand ourselves as fictions, is to understand ourselves as fully as we can.”

The stories of power, manipulation, and control — the stories that were all around me — would have destroyed me. I told myself stories that I needed to hear. I told myself stories of love and happily ever after, stories of martyrdom and mercy. I told myself stories that featured a lovable monster, a heroic villain, a misunderstood sinner. I told myself the stories that were once told to me because I needed to believe this is how things should be — I needed to survive and I needed to live.

We are told that time will heal and yes, time is the consummate healer, but the body remembers all that we are encouraged to get over. To keep going is to live; to survive is to love — again. To heal is to remember, and in time, we can remember without the hurt. The stories we tell protect us and propel us forward.

I did survive; I am living.

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