Thursday, September 13, 2012

That Group of Women Saved Me


**Trigger warning**

Ten years ago this month, I was raped.  Was it “legitimate”? I suppose for some people the jury is still out on that one, but recent events such as waiting for Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and of course Rep. Akin’s recent comments have influenced me to write my story.

I knew my rapist. We had been dating for almost two weeks.  He drugged me. I blacked out. I was physically unable to say NO or to protest.  I was in denial for months until I sat in a circle with other women and listened to them tell their stories of being attacked by a stranger or being raped by a boyfriend or acquaintance. I didn’t tell my story that night, but I did finally admit to myself and my three best friends that I had been raped.

Rape is not something that crosses most people’s minds each day, but it does mine as I am sure is the case for other victims of rape and sexual assault.

But I don’t want to talk about how horrifying my experience was. 

Instead, I want to talk about finding the strength to move on and move forward.

I want to talk about society’s perception of victims and rapists.

I want to talk about what consent really means.

The day after I was raped I was supposed to go to a big frat boy party thing with a friend—and my rapist was going to be there. Even though I hadn’t yet realized/admitted to myself that I had been raped, I knew what had happened the night before was wrong and I felt sick to my stomach just thinking about being in the same vicinity as him. My “friend” (we are no longer friends because she decided to keep hanging out with that group of guys and I, for obvious reasons did not) was so upset with me and tried everything she could to pressure me into going. It worked. I spent the next six hours getting wasted and avoiding my rapist at all costs.  And that’s how I spent the next month and a half—I drank. A lot.

That month and a half was hazy and the epitome of avoidance. I avoided my rapist and his frat brothers. I avoided thinking about that night. I avoided talking to my best friends about what had happened. It was easy for me to compartmentalize my experience and shove it deep into my subconscious.

Being raped drove me into despair but it also pushed me into activism. I often feel guilty that I hadn’t really considered social justice and political activism until I was raped, but I suppose everyone has to start somewhere. I no longer feel sadness, shame or despair. I am no longer a victim—I am a survivor and a warrior. I only have anger left. Anger that I channel into action to end violence against women.

Telling my story didn’t magically erase the pain and anguish I felt.  I had good days and bad days.  There were days when I felt strong and resilient—when I felt like I had my power back. Days when I felt like I could trust a man again. Days when I felt like I could possibly drink amongst strangers again.

But there were days—long stretches of time, really—when it was so easy to slip back into the comfort of denial. It’s much easier to see myself as a whole, happy and healthy person than to accept my reality—a young woman whose college experience is not defined by, but definitely influenced by an act of violence.

It's much easier to think we live in a world where women can choose when and with whom to have sex than to accept reality—a world where women look over their shoulders at night in fear of a stranger lurking behind them; a world where date rape drugs are passed around amongst men like party favors at a child’s birthday party; a world where sexual history determines a victim’s credibility in a court of law.

It was during those times that I leaned heavily on my friends and community. Out of all the women I know, about half of them have been raped or sexually assaulted and I didn’t have to go far to find someone to talk to who understood my roller coaster of emotions.

Activism has been unbelievably therapeutic for me, and it dawned on me that although I am open to telling my story to strangers on the street, I have never written about it.  Until now.

What image pops in your head when you think of rape? What does the woman (or man) look like? What does the rapist look like?

Close your eyes and visualize it.

Now, what does the woman do for a living? What was she wearing? What does the rapist do for a living? What was he wearing?

Open your eyes. Erase that visualization and let me tell you something: it doesn’t fucking matter. Rape is rape. It doesn’t matter if the victim is a stripper in a string bikini getting raped by a wealthy businessman. Rape is rape. It doesn’t matter if she knows him. Rape is rape. It doesn’t matter if they had had consensual sex in the past. Rape is rape. And yet, a rape victim’s sexual history (along with what she was wearing, etc.) is often brought up in rape trials.

I am getting sick and tired of the “she was asking for it” mentality.

I’m also tired of the supposed “confusion” around consent

When are we going to educate our children about response-positive consent? I think what is most frightening about this Reddit article is the men who claim they didn’t know they were raping someone in the first place just because she was passed out from drinking too much.  In addition to talking honestly to folks about consent we need to dig deeper into why anyone would want to have “sex” with a more or less lifeless body as opposed to consensual sex with an enthusiastic partner. 

As the mother of a son, I often think about what I can do to teach him to look at the world through a feminist lens--to see women as true equals, to understand what consensual sex is, to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, and so on. How does a mother teach such lessons in a society that bombards everyone, even young children, with messages that equate violence with masculinity; that sexualizes little girls; where pornography is accessible with one click; where marriage is denied depending on the sex of the person you fall in love with; and where women are constantly objectified?

A big step forward would be integrating something like Men Can Stop Rape’s program geared toward teaching young men about respect and defining their own masculinity to end violence. 

Or maybe something like the Red Flag campaign that talks to teens about dating violence and healthy relationships. Also, a friend pointed out to me that in some states Planned Parenthood has great programs they do in high schools that address dating violence, healthy relationships and rape with teens (another reason to support Planned Parenthood!)


Wouldn’t it be amazing if programs like these were taught in EVERY middle school health class?! We need programs like these to become the national standard--not just something that exists in certain communities. Rape has no boundaries--it permeates through all communities and cultures. So too should programs that educate our teens and young people and empower them to make the right decisions about how they treat one another.

While we’re at it, we need to provide more resources that provide outlets for victims to report their assaults and seek medical and mental health treatment.  Given the circumstances under which I was raped, I didn’t immediately seek help but fortunately that group of women I sat with on that cool, spring night saved me and gave me hope. We were in that room together because we were all involved in the Vagina Monologues and all had a commitment to stopping violence against women.  I felt passionately about stopping violence against women…I just hadn’t realize that I was one of THOSE women—the women we were trying to help—until I stopped to listen to the voices surrounding me, breaking the silence.

There’s something about solidarity that breaks the barrier of silence and transcends guilt, shame and fear. I’ve found that just because of my activism in the women’s movement, women have come to me and shared their stories with me. I remember a classmate coming up to me at the end of our Spanish class (I had just made a pitch for folks to buy tickets to see the Vagina Monologues) and telling me she had been raped at a fraternity house. My stomach hit the ground—I felt so conflicted. Part of me wanted to embrace her and say “you aren’t alone! It happened to me, too!” while another voice inside me sobbed “Was it the same guy that raped me? What would have happened if I had reported him? How many women could I have helped just by calling the cops?”  I ended up listening to her story and telling her she wasn’t alone. And that’s all I said. I still regret it.

Over the years I have heard more stories than I could have ever imagined. Each story, each woman, has reinforced my conviction to end rape and rape culture.

My healing isn’t over. I still have good days and bad days and what keeps me going is the women I have met over the years who manage to keep living their lives.  And on the days where I teeter in the middle—where I could stumble into a bad day or resolve to have a good one—I think of things like a friend’s tattoo: Strongest in the Broken Places, and I try to rally and fight back.

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