*TRIGGER WARNING—talk of sexual assault, with some detail*
I am so heartened by the strides we are making as a culture right now. Rape culture is becoming a topic of conversation–we are calling it out and working toward eradicating it. The trolls are out, of course, but I truly feel we are taking steps toward a brighter future. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have had the language or the understanding I have today to describe what I’ve felt my whole life. I’m heartbroken these strides we’re making are piggybacking off of a tragedy (and thousands of tragedies before this one). So, I share this today to add my voice and be an advocate for anyone who has felt the same as me. And perhaps to add a different take.
I am the one in four women that has been sexually assaulted. I was date raped at the age of 16 and I was a virgin. I lived in a smallish town in Iowa and for fun we would often go to bonfires and drink and make out and do general mischief in the middle of a field we’d find. So, per usual, one weekend I went to a bonfire with my friends to meet the guy who I’d gotten to third base with the weekend before. My friends and I were trying to coordinate this meet so that my crush and I could talk about dating. To my delight, he was at the party and my friends engineered a way to get us alone further in the field to talk. I was giggling a lot. I was nervous. I was drunk. I wore my coat off my shoulders as was the style then. And when we sat down to talk, we immediately started making out. I was ecstatic.
Then things took a downward turn. He laid me down and my arms were pinned in my coat. I told him this and asked him to get off of me. He didn’t. He took off my pants. I said no. A lot. I was drunk and confused and wasn’t sure what he was doing because I’d never had sex—I just knew I didn’t want whatever seemed to be happening and kept saying so. But he didn’t listen or even acknowledge me. And then he was raping me and my world changed. I remember thinking when I understood what was happening to me, after I’d given up saying anything, that it was like he was doing push-ups over me. Like I wasn’t even there.
Sadly, this is not an unusual story.
People don’t tell about their rapes for many reasons, many that I can relate to. The idea that you would get blamed—check. The idea that you were doing something wrong—check. The idea that it was your fault—check. The idea that it would become public and you would be a pariah, that this would now be your life and who you were known as—check. I had all those. But I had another, more compelling reason, too.
Not for the rapist, mind you. After that terrible ordeal, I hated him with a passion. My friends I tentatively told who believed me hated him, too. My friends who didn’t believe me, I stopped being friends with. (One friend told me she thought I just felt guilty about having sex and said it was rape. I’d guess 80% of survivors have that “friend.”) From my rapist, news got around the school that he had “bagged” me. I endured the looks and the whispers and the slut-sneezes. I endured his looks in the halls, his stupid smirks. I endured it. And still I didn’t tell.
In my head, it was because it was my fault. Because I was drinking when I shouldn’t have been. Because I deserved it.
And because I loved my parents so much. And I didn’t want to break their hearts. The problem wasn’t that they wouldn’t believe me; it was that they would.
Women are conditioned to caretake and I am no exception. My feelings of protection for my friends and family know no bounds. I’ve had years of therapy trying to tame this just a little so that I could actually tell people things about me, feelings, pain, etc., that might hurt them. I’m still not good at it. I was dismal at it as a 16-year-old.
When I woke up the morning after my rape, my dad was singing in the kitchen and I stood there and watched him for awhile. I wanted nothing more in this world than for him to hold me. To feel safe, to still be his little girl, his pride and joy. To feel his complete and utter love for me, even though in my 16-year-old head, I’d clearly done something bad. I ran back to my room and sobbed. I don’t think in my entire life I’ve ever felt as alone.
I thought about his pain and what it would be like to tell him, how it would tear him apart, not just because I’d gone out drinking when I shouldn’t have, but that this irreversible, horrifying act had been perpetrated on his daughter and he was powerless to stop it. How he couldn’t console me about this, not really. Because nothing ever could make it right. I thought about how his sleep would be tortured and his heart would break.
And then there was my mom. I was honestly afraid she might go out and kill this boy who raped me. My mother was a fierce woman and loved fiercely—the thought of her reaction to this broke my heart. She would feel all my feelings, only bigger. She would die just a little inside to know that I’d been hurt. She’d defend me to her dying day, in whatever way she could, and lose many friends and a life she’d built in the process. I couldn’t do that to her.
I couldn’t bear the thought of my parents feeling this pain. Of causing them pain. So I didn’t tell.
Men are often billed as protectors but I think it’s safe to say that most women (I’m painting with a broad brush, here) find themselves the protectors of others’ emotions. They do this often to the detriment of themselves. For those who do not understand how every decision for many women involves myriad calculations of the feelings of those around them, this idea is baffling. But it’s how I live my life and how most of the women I know live their lives. And for the most part, I believe this is a beautiful thing, this idea that we think of others. However, it can become tragic when the negation of self is the result. This ideal of being considerate and kind, when extremely gendered, can become toxic and dangerous. Women are supposed to be caretakers, right? Sacrificial and long-suffering. Though I’d always thought of myself as a strong person, the idea of my pain affecting others I loved so much was too much to bear. I believe I am naturally empathetic and add to that a lifetime of enculturation and what you have is someone who would rather keep her assault to herself so others wouldn’t hurt.
My parents would have wanted to know, I know this. They would have wanted to be there for me. They’d want to be there for me now, because 20 years later I still experience bodily reactions to memories and certain topics of conversation. When the hashtag #YesAllWomen trended, I couldn’t stop adding things on twitter, couldn’t stop yelling on my blog. And I couldn’t stop shaking when the men-trolls bullied me because of it. But, still, after years of therapy and connections and activism and TELLING many things—I will never tell my parents what happened to me. I just can’t bring myself to cause them that pain, even though my inner feminist suggests I should. I just won’t, though. I just can’t.
Please know, I understand the ridiculous privilege I have with this. To have loving parents, to have loving parents who would have believed me, to have loving parents who would have believed me and fought for me . . . an unbelievable luxury. I know how how lucky I am–by no stretch is any of this a complaint. I know that I am and have always been blessed. But the feelings I had surrounding my rape were my reality and they dictated my actions.
So, when people ask why women don’t tell there are so many, many reasons, reasons that absolutely resonate with me. But also for me and maybe others, there was a bigger cultural message that I internalized early on—sacrifice yourself for others. Silence your voice for fear of hurting the ones you love. Be kind to everyone (else). But not always to yourself.
For those of you reading this and nodding your heads, I never told my parents and that was the right decision for me and may be the right decision for you, too. But maybe you want to make a different choice and take that shaky step to tell your loved ones your story. So, I give you this:
Your voice matters.
Your body matters.
Your feelings matter.
It was not your fault.
It is not your job to protect people from the bad things that happen to you.
You are here. You are beautiful. You are loved.
Don’t be afraid.
And for those of you who didn’t tell for reasons similar to mine:
You are not alone.