Was I ‘Raped Enough’ To Call Myself a Survivor?

He was my boyfriend, so it wasn’t rape.

I stayed, so it wasn’t rape.

I came back, so it wasn’t rape.

He said he loved me, so it wasn’t rape.

I sometimes enjoyed consensual sex with him, so it wasn’t rape.

I was drunk too, so it wasn’t rape.

I just didn’t feel like fighting about it and gave in, so it wasn’t rape.

I chose to endure it rather than being alone, so it wasn’t rape.

He only put his hands around my neck the one time, so it wasn’t usually violent enough to be rape.

I stayed, so I deserved it.

The first time I was assaulted I was “just” pinned to my bed.

When my confused, terrified cries got loud enough that the friend who was holding me down got concerned someone else in the dorm might hear him, he took his mouth off of my breast, released my wrists, and sat up.

It’s the type of experience so common that even a naive 20-year-old from a safe, small Midwestern town didn’t bother to report or consider it sexual assault until over a decade later. Sure, I was terrified of him — this former friend-with-sort-of-benefits (or whatever it is we’re calling college-aged “dating” these days) — but it didn’t occur to me to go to campus security, even though I’d written about them multiple times for the front page of the college newspaper. Considering the paper had circulation off campus throughout our rather wealthy Chicago suburb, campus security concerns had weight in the community. I had credibility and pull.

It simply didn’t occur to me to use either.

I’d been drinking, after all. We had history, after all. I left the party down the hall with him willingly, after all. I didn’t need anyone else to doubt me; I was handling that myself. The only person I told was a mutual friend who I knew didn’t like my assailant. He didn’t tell me details about “the talk” they had, but my assailant began crossing the quad if he saw me coming from a distance. He even managed to avoid me in our dorm — and we lived on the same floor.

That was how I handled it. I enlisted a friend I knew would believe me — not because I was so trustworthy, but because he already had such a low opinion of my attacker. Without any background in gender studies, without any direct knowledge of the abysmal statistic that only 6.25% of reported rapes lead to felony convictions, without knowing other people who were open about going through something similar, I knew innately that I wouldn’t be considered credible. And it wasn’t that big of a deal anyway. Boys push, girls say no-ish. Eventually, girls give in.

Five years later, at age 25, I was in an on-again, off-again relationship with a coworker — the first person to call me their girlfriend since my high school sweetheart. He was good-looking and popular. He had his own apartment and was acting in some local, independent theater productions, so he was creative like me.

Our relationship started when he took me home my first night working at the bar — not that I remember deciding to leave with him.

It’s hard to overstate how much we drank as a staff. I was miserable, so self-medicating FOR FREE was a huge bonus to this third job I was taking. I had a very high tolerance for a non-industry person, which also made me cocky, drink-wise. The next day, I woke up in a strange apartment (not totally unheard of for me) with the worst hangover of my life, having slept through my alarm. It took several hours before I could sit up.

To this day, I don’t know — and will never know — if I have imagined that I remember flashes from that night, or if my brain created a fuzzy memory on my behalf, using subsequent encounters. I am sure that I don’t really remember talking to him very much as we were closing the bar. And even with my tendencies to overindulge and my typical scouting of any room I was in for hookup potential, I don’t recall a particular interest in him the day I met him.

As my friend Ali Safran, creator of Surviving in Numbers wrote at Buzzfeed, “Victims’ memories are not perfect — and we cannot and should not expect them to be, as the very nature of trauma skews memories.” Our imperfect memories are not proof of fabrication; they are proof of trauma. Which is one reason I have reconsidered the entire nature of my relationship with my ex over the past two years.

We worked a three-minute stumble from where he lived. If he worked on a night when I didn’t, I would often stay in and catch up on my sleep. I was working a dog-walking gig from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and working at the bar from 8 p.m. to 5 or 6 a.m. Thursday through Sunday every week, without a day off for over 18 months. Sleep was at a premium, especially considering how much we drank. So, on more than one Wednesday morning when his exceptionally drunk ass would stumble through the door and climb into bed with me around 8 a.m., reaching under my clothes while I was asleep, it’s an understatement to say I wasn’t in the mood.

But it’s hard to argue with someone who has consumed around 20 Coors Lights and a bottle or more of Jägermeister in four or five hours. After several attempts to push him away or pretend I was asleep, I began having a conversation with myself about which of my options was the least bad. More than once I decided giving in would be faster and easier — despite my exhaustion or because of it, depending on the day. Eventually, that became my default response because none of my other options or plans crafted in the early morning hours listening for him at the door worked anyway.

I told myself in the deep recesses of my brain that I had flipped the switch from non-consensual to consensual because I caved. Think the Game of Thrones scene between Jaime and Cersei that the director says “becomes consensual by the end.” Right. Because changing her mind is what happened there. But similarly, I imagined that I was opting in to this treatment by staying with him, even though I knew my life logistics didn’t work without him and he held that over my head along with the emotional blackmail of repeatedly proclaiming that he “didn’t deserve” me. The abuse he suffered as a child was an excuse I used liberally to explain away his behavior and refusal to take accountability for his actions or his life. I told myself that I was pretty fucked up too (a truth) and that the only person who could understand me or overlook my now dismissed as inaccurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder was someone who was on my level of broken.

And what did I know about relationships anyway? I’d never been in one as an adult and I’d never been taught about how consent works or the role sex plays in a relationship other than a married man and woman attempting to conceive. Maybe this was normal. Maybe I was expecting too much; he certainly thought so, and he had exponentially more relationship experience than I did. To this day, I am certain that he would be horrified to learn what happened was legally and morally the definition of rape. He has enough self-loathing that he’s already being punished — which could be one reason I’m not angry. There’s another important reason, though. It’s not very popular, but that doesn’t make it any less true: What transpired between us both is and isn’t his fault.

We are taught from the time we are small through Disney movies that men chase women and women get caught. Did you cheer or “aww!” when the Prince kissed a sleeping Snow White? Cuz, y’all — she didn’t know him. I have a particular aversion to that cinematic moment because it’s what happened to me with my ex — a scenario that left me wondering: “Was I raped enough to call myself a survivor?”

To be clear, there were good times. If he had been regularly violent I would have left, even though my tenuous economic situation (please see: He was a coworker at my third job) relied on him propping me up by providing a place to sleep half a block from work and feeding me. This isn’t a judgement on those who stay through worse circumstances, just my benefit of hindsight and personal reaction to other incidents later.

For a four-year stretch during the six or so that we were involved with each other, when I couldn’t adult on my own — a situation the 15 phone calls a day from creditors made clear to him right away — he most certainly weaponized our sex life.

It just took me until #YesAllWomen in May of 2014 to realize it.

I am going to be attacked for this piece. Again, and of course. I tell this story not because it is in any way special, but for exactly the opposite reason: It is extraordinarily and terrifyingly common. From beginning to end — the violence itself and the lack of realizing that we shouldn’t have to just deal with it — my abusive relationship is happening right now to countless people. I know that to be true because as I was watching the posts on #YesAllWomen almost two years ago and a wave of feverish panic spread through my body, I began to share as well, and people sent me their stories. They were empowered to name what had happened to them by seeing a vocal, unapologetic feminist who was best friends with someone on the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, and regularly railed against rape culture on air and online admit that she hadn’t realized she was raped until that moment. If I of all people didn’t recognize what had happened to me, how were those with far less support and no safe spaces to talk about their experiences supposed to recognize and work through their trauma?

After the #YesAllWomen response to the Elliot Rodger shooting rampage and publication of his “why won’t women sleep with me” manifesto went viral, Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me told Democracy Now!:

“The term ‘sexual entitlement,’ which I had heard before, but not widespread, suddenly began to be used everywhere. And it feels like it really changed the conversation, because so many people insisted on it, so many people got it — this sense that this guy was owed something by women and was furious at them for not giving it to him and that he had the right to exact revenge and all kinds of, you know, what our government calls ‘collateral damage’ on the people around him because his needs weren’t being met.”

I felt this so deeply that the hot flash panic I was experiencing as I began reading the hashtag immediately gave way to a cold sweat. The reason it would never occur to my ex that he did something wrong — and the reason my story gets attacked so viciously when I tell it — is that all genders have internalized this “sexual entitlement” of cis men. It’s why many women feel safer giving someone a fake number than turning them down, and why so many of us play off street harassment when we’re alone. We know that engaging or even implying a “no” can be physically dangerous. But, avoiding the potentially deadly reaction to “no” isn’t the same thing as giving consent.

This Margaret Atwood quote was the undercurrent to the #YesAllWomen thread and remains the reality of the #NotAllMen rape culture deniers:

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

It’s why there is a current outcry against the judge who just dismissed Kesha’s case against Sony. “Every rape is not a gender-motivated hate crime,” said the judge who heard testimony about Kesha’s rape and Sony’s refusal to release her from a contract that binds her to her assailant. She’s not even seeking recourse in criminal court; she simply wants to be free to never again interact with the man who violated her.

Rape isn’t even enough cause to severe a recording contract; is it any wonder us ordinary folks don’t head straight for the legal system to validate us and provide protection?

The answer to “Was I raped enough?” is, of course, yes. Emotional and financial restraints are just as powerful as physical ropes or hands around the wrist. The self-doubt that leads me and so many others to ask the question and summarily dismiss the notion entirely is not indicative of our lack of credibility. It is an indictment of our culture.