In light of the recent Kesha trial, and some of the ignorant comments I have seen from sensible people about “crying wolf” and victim blaming, I wanted to share with you my personal experiences with sexual assault along with a few stories about close friends of mine. I know this isn’t on par with the usual things that I write about, but my experiences have made me who I am and I am not ashamed of that.
As a little girl, I was an early bloomer. At least, that’s what my family called it. I did not know how to deal with it, but I remember seeing girls in older grades with lots of cleavage hanging out and how all the boys wanted to date them. So, as a sixth grader with small but noticeable boobs, I thought I was the shit (truthfully, I still think that I am, but we’ll get to that later). I got boys’ and girls’ attention with my new breasts and at first I thought all press was good press, but it wasn’t.
With this attention came two things: boys starting characterizing me by my anatomy and girls started talking about me and calling me a slut. Yes, you read that correctly, at eleven years old, I was experiencing slut shaming for my body’s natural changing process. I was experiencing slut shaming while I looked like this.
And, because the world is the way it is, I have experienced it ever since.
In seventh grade, I had a “boyfriend” (I put this in quotes because in seventh grade you really can’t date, but whatever). He was one of the popular kids in my grade so I was all googly-eyed over him. It was gross. When he asked me to be his girlfriend, I said yes, and he said, and I will never forget this, “All my friends are gonna be so jealous that I’m dating the girl with big boobs.” That gave me butterflies, because apparently that is a compliment???
In ninth grade, a boy who sat behind me in my chemistry class snapped my bra so hard that it came undone, so I turned around and started yelling at him for being a frigging jerk. Guess who got in trouble? I did. For “disrupting class.” So, guess who did it again the next day? He did.
My entire youth was spent being conditioned to desire men’s attention and to be okay with being silenced if I stand up for myself when a man regards me based on my body parts. A boy is being mean to me? “That means he likes you.” A boy tries to reach his hand up my skirt during recess? “That’s just boys being boys.” A boy kisses me? “He’s such a ladies’ man!” But if I kissed a boy? “She is such a whore.”
It sounds ridiculous, and I recognize this even as I recall these instances and type them before me, but I have heard and seen many things that should seem ridiculous and are not treated as such. You are reading this right now and probably thinking “Wow, this girl has had horrible experiences with men,” but the fact of the matter is this: if you ask any woman if they have gone through some of the aforementioned instances (or something similar), MOST of them will say yes. A lot of men have had experiences similar, as well. That’s why we have to address the need to teach children their worth, and the importance of accountability.
I am not the minority. In fact, 1 in 2 women will experience some sort of sexual violence in their lifetime. And those things? They’re not even the worst experiences I’ve ever had. However, because I had been treated that way for years, when I was raped, it didn’t feel unnatural. It didn’t feel foreign or unsettling. It felt like every other form of sexual assault I’d ever experienced: being reduced down to the worth of the sum of my body parts.
*I’d like to put a trigger warning here for sexual assault, because I’m not a jerk and I love you.*
When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a boyfriend who was verbally, physically, and emotional abusive. “Why did you date someone who abused you?” you ask. Let me break this shit down for you nice and easy. First of all, I was fifteen. I had never been in a real relationship, and the relationships I had had were with people who referred to me as “the girl with big boobs.” Again, I was dating someone who was much sought after and thought to be popular so I thought he was totally out of my league. Looking back on old pictures and letters now, I see how skewed my reality was. In the moment, however, all I wanted was to impress him, to keep him interested in me, to be what he wanted. I compromised who I was as a person to fit into the mold I thought he wanted based on how I had been treated in the past by men. Second of all, it happened slowly. The beginning of our relationship was great, he was sweet and took me on dates and kissed me all the time.
After a few months, those things stopped happening. He started commenting on my weight, so I stopped eating. When I told him I wasn’t eating as much he told me “Stop crying wolf about having an eating disorder, you don’t have any real problems.” I stopped expressing myself after he shut me down like that enough times. Then he would get angry at me for not talking enough and tell me things like “You’re lucky to have me, no one else could ever love you,” and “You better hope I never leave you because you will be alone forever.” When you are already self-conscious, as a teenager and as a person in general, these kinds of things can be devastating to hear from someone you care about. After hearing it enough, I genuinely believed it. I was afraid to be alone because I desperately wanted to be loved, and he told me that he did.
Then, the violence started. It was never big things, like black eyes or broken bones, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make a big impact. When we would fight, he would push me. Hard. He would hold me down and yell in my face. One night, he wanted to lose his virginity and take mine, so he did. I never got asked if it was okay, I never had time to think it through, and I didn’t have the chance to tell him no.
That is rape.
*I am not going to sugarcoat my story and use the term “nonconsensual sex” because frankly, that’s bull shit. You’re either having consensual sex or you are experiencing rape. Don’t be afraid to use that word to describe your experiences accurately. It is what it is, and using sensitized words to describe a violent act is similar to saying “He Who Must Not Be Named” instead of “Voldemort.” We all know what you’re talking about. So be fearless, and say it. It will hurt to say at first, but trust me, you’ll feel better.*
Everything tumbled rapidly downhill from there. I got the courage to break up with him after a few months, and I did, then took him back a month later as he groveled and begged for me to forgive him. He promised me he loved me and would never hurt me again. I said that we could be together on the condition that we wouldn’t have sex again, to which he agreed. About a week after we reached this agreement, he lost his patience. He thought that after he was nice to me, told me I was pretty, opened a classroom door for me, and brought me flowers that I would change my mind.
When he got angry, I was his target every time. This time around, I had no idea how bad it would be until I was right in the eye of the storm, looking at a person I realized that I didn’t even know. We were fighting in my car, which was an old Honda station wagon (that I loved dearly) when he lost it. He got out, came to my side, picked me up, and threw me in the back of the car where my backseat was laid down flat so there was enough room to lay down. He got on top of me and held me down, which was something I was familiar with, but this time he started ripping my clothes. He tore them off and threw them to the side. I knew what was happening this time, unlike the first time.
My fight or flight kicked in and I punched him in the chest and told him to get off of me.
Then, he got in the driver’s seat, leaving me in the back naked and crying, and started driving at highly unsafe speeds back to his car. The entire time, he was screaming at me about how much of a slut I was and how he didn’t want to have sex with me anyway. Something animal was inside of me, and I fought back viciously. Every insult he threw my way bounced off of me because I recognized the violent person he was. I was done, I was over it, I was ready to get rid of him… But it wasn’t that easy.
The next few years were tumultuous. I got into a couple new relationships here and there, cheated on one boyfriend, got bored with another, and found myself happily in a relationship with a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I thought my recovery time was done and I was over the whole thing. I didn’t cry anymore and my nightmares didn’t occur as often. When you are strong-willed and stubborn like I am, that’s a natural thought. Life is continuing on, so that means I have to, too.
However, this man assaulted me in a way I wasn’t expecting. I was used to the screaming, the hitting, the belittling that was “textbook” abuse. However, my new boyfriend was manipulative in a quiet way. He would ask me if I wanted to do something, and if I said no, he twisted the situation into me not wanting him to be happy. This grown man would pout and throw a fit until I got tired. That was how he got his way. More than anything, it was emotionally confusing and mentally exhausting. It was annoying to the point that I eventually stopped fighting him when he wanted his way. This started to show in our physical relationship after a while.
I did not even realize that I was in an unbalanced relationship, led by him, until a few months after we broke up and I was able to look back on it with clear eyes. So, when he asked me to have sex on my birthday because he bought me a nice gift, he somehow made me felt obligated. At first, I told him “no, I’m really tired and want to sleep.” He then started to pout and say things like, “but I did this thing for you,” “why don’t you love me?” and “am I even attractive to you?” He knew the things he had to say in order to get his way, and he wasn’t afraid to make me feel bad about myself. After fifteen minutes of bickering, I gave in and rolled onto my side so I didn’t have to look at him. I was disgusted by him, repulsed, and completely not excited about him.
The entire time, I cried from the pain. When it was over, I just laid there until he turned off the lights. When he tried to cuddle with me afterwards, I felt nauseous. The next morning, I woke up, showered, and pretended like nothing had ever happened. Like Emma Lindsay, the author of this post, I didn’t think the event really mattered. That was how sex was, according to my own experiences and many of my friends’ experiences at the time. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I convinced myself that sex was meant for men to experience pleasure and women to give it to them. I didn’t know what sexual coercion was and I didn’t know that I was supposed to be treated differently.
With this mentality, however, something inside of me changed. I stopped feeling physical attraction to him and got really into working out to cure my onset depression. I became obsessed with being thin and did everything in my power to do so. That year, I lost twenty-five pounds that I did not need to lose. When I got to my “goal weight,” I was still depressed, so I started drinking heavily and partying all the time. We broke up but still saw each other frequently because our friend groups intersected. I did drugs, I drowned myself in alcohol every day, I stopped going to my classes and started calling out of work at least once a week. All my friends thought I was just trying to have fun, but it was much deeper than that. I was looking to forget.
Admitting that I had experienced rape was the first step. I told my mom and my best friends what happened. They didn’t know what to say to me, but that did not matter. I just needed someone to know. When I started talking about the things that had happened to me, I stopped feeling ashamed and regained my self-confidence. With my newborn confidence in myself and my experiences, other people started confiding their experiences to me. I know women who were blacked out drunk, passed out, and woke up next to a friend that they weren’t attracted to. I know men that were sexually assaulted as children by their relatives. I know women that were impregnated by their rapist and had to deliver the child. I know women who were gang raped by their friends and choked until they almost passed out. I have friends who attempted suicide because the guilt was eating them alive and they felt trapped in their own minds. I can count on both hands how many women I know that have not experienced sexual assault of some kind.
You want to know the worst part of all of this is, though? The majority of the sexual assault stories I have been told involved someone who the victim knew and trusted. Often times as a child I was told not to talk to strangers, not to stay out too late, not to walk alone at night. Nobody ever warned me about the monsters that told me they loved me. I am not scared of getting jumped on the street and raped in an alley. I am scared of trusting men to not take advantage of me, because 8 out of 10 rape cases involve a person the victim knew.
Now, I don’t want you take away from this that all men are evil, because they aren’t. Living in fear will leave you alone, what kind of life is that? My boyfriend now is nothing short of a perfect gentleman who respects my autonomous decision to or to not have sex. I want you to understand that society is screwed up and it teaches people to accept sexual assault, blame victims, and forgive rapists. This does not mean that I and other victims are dainty, broken dolls that need to be babied. We aren’t. There is no part of me that was shattered in the moments I spent being assaulted. On the contrary, we are strong. We have faced abuse in the purest form and survived. We have heard “I’m sorry,” “I never wanted to hurt you,” “Why didn’t you stop me?” along with “What were you wearing?” “What were you drinking?” “Why were you alone with them?” and not let it kill us.
Do you look at a war veteran and feel sorry for them? Or do you admire their strength and courage? Rape and sexual assault victims may not have physically been in Vietnam, Germany, Iraq, or Afghanistan (and I do not mean to undermine veterans and their service), but we have engaged in mental, physical, and emotional wars. Victim blaming, slut shaming, and guilt are just a few things that we all experience generally as people, namely women, but it is magnified greatly if that person is a victim of sexual assault. That does not mean we want your pity – we want you to listen when we talk and to treat us with respect.
Emma Lindsay wrote something that really spoke to me. She said, “we always act like traumatized people are ‘broken’ or something somehow, but my body knew exactly what it was doing.” So when I stopped feeling attracted to him and when I started looking for outside sources to supplement my happiness, it was my body reacting to trauma. When I cheated on my ex-boyfriend and searched constantly for love, it was my heart reacting to trauma. I was not a broken shell of a human, I was healing myself (unconventionally, sure). I was learning a new “normal” as a person who had experienced a traumatic series of events that violated my previous idea of an ideal relationship. I was learning how to love myself and how to move forward from these experiences.
Many people aren’t as lucky as I am, though. About 30% become depressed and suicidal afterwards.
If there is anything you take away from my story, I hope it’s this: shitty things happen in the world because we accept it and perpetuate it by not educating our youth. I have two little sisters that I love so deeply. I am terrified of the day that they say no to sex for the first time, so I choose to tell them about what I have gone through. I choose to communicate that people being mean is not okay. It doesn’t mean they like you, it doesn’t mean they want to date you, it means they. are. mean. I choose to tell the women that surround me every day that they are beautiful, strong, and deserve to be respected in a relationship. I choose to hold men accountable for slut shaming, victim blaming, and being sexist. However, I haven’t always been like this. It took me years of researching, soul searching, and opening my heart to discover the truth in sexual assault:
It is never the victim’s fault.
For those of you that can identify with anything I have said, here is your daily reminder that you are not alone. It’s not your fault. You are worthy. You are strong. More than anything, you are lovable.
If you have had an experience with sexual assault, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline.