I have been sexually assaulted several times in my life. I have been street harassed & made to feel like an object simply for being a woman. My experiences of sexual assault, in retrospect, have all had some eery similarities, namely the feeling of paralyzing fear that caused me, each time, to not fight back, or even resist strongly. Because of this, I have spent years revisiting these experiences, blaming myself for what I DIDN’T do, and questioning whether my experiences really qualified as assault.
This may be surprising to many of you, especially if you know me, as you most likely also know that I have had hundreds of hours of sexual assault training & have counseled survivors & worked in the anti-sexual violence movement for years. I will be the first to admit, however, that it is much easier for us to support others than to accept and validate ourselves & our own experiences. I will say though that I have come to terms with my experiences, I no longer blame myself in the slightest & my knowledge and experience has helped me immensely in that process.
Today I was faced with something that reminded me just how long lasting the effects of sexual violence endure & how, even with the knowledge, experience, support & validation we do (or don’t) receive after experiencing assault, our perpetrators often leave scars that last us our entire lifetime.
When I was a freshmen in college, I went to a high school friend’s New Year’s Eve house party while I was home for winter break. In general, many of the people I went to high school with make me generally uncomfortable, and a lot of the people present that night were older than me, or unfamiliar to me & my solution/coping mechanism for said discomfort was to get very very drunk. Shortly after midnight, I realized I was too intoxicated to keep going & my friend/the party host took me upstairs and put me safely in his bed to sleep off my drunkeness. After an undetermined amount of time I was awakened by the feeling of male hands groping my backside. I was facing the wall, laying on the bed & thought that maybe it was someone I had been flirting with earlier that evening, evaluating my state of consciousness. In no shape to wake up fully or engage in any sort of sexual activity, I faked sleep, hoping the hands would realize they weren’t going to get what they wanted and abandon their mission.
Unfortunately this is not what happened.
In fact, the hands groping me were most likely banking on the fact that I was completely passed out from my state of intoxication and felt confident that they could do what they wanted with my unresponsive body. I flashed back to my previous experiences of assault and was paralyzed by the fear that if I were to DO something, try to find out who was touching me, acknowledge my consciousness, I would only exacerbate what was happening to me. So, with all my terrified might, I froze & stiffened & closed my eyes, hoping that these hands would stop groping me or that someone would walk in and save me.
The hands did not stop. They did whatever they wanted to do. The audacity of these hands increased my fear exponentially. I left my body, I tried to go somewhere else. Anywhere else. And that’s when I finally saw my attacker. And by “saw my attacker” I mean that what I had hoped would happen, did happen. Someone came in the room and I heard a voice say “Justin, what are you doing in here?” At that moment I knew EXACTLY who was controlling these hands. It was someone I went to high school with, a friend, or more accurately, a friendly acquaintance. Upon hearing the door open, Justin had yanked his hand away from my body and responded casually to the inquirer, saying “oh I’m just getting tired, I think I’m going to crash on the floor.” I didn’t have enough time or confidence to call out to the person who had entered before she readily accepted his explanation and shut the door behind her when she left. My heart sank to the floor. Immediately after the door shut, the assault resumed, and worsened and I tried to go back to some internal safe space.
When I awoke in the morning, I was laying in the exact same position, facing the wall, and immediately remembered what had happened to me that night. All I wanted to do was get up, grab my things and drive home, curl up in my bed and cry in private. Rolling over to get out of my friend’s bed, I look at the floor in front of me and see my perpetrator, lying on the floor, sleeping with his girlfriend. I felt immediately nauseated as I was forced to step over them to exit this horrible space.
I went home that day and pretended like nothing happened. I went back to college and attended my first sexual assault volunteer training (ironically I had committed to the 40-hour training BEFORE my assault) while pretending like nothing happened. I didn’t call what he did to me sexual assault for several years. It took me a long time to process the experience and forgive myself for what I didn’t do.
Fast forward 4 years and I log onto Facebook only to have a friend request waiting for me. A friend request from my perpetrator. It was that moment that I realized that he didn’t know that I knew what he did to me, he thought I was passed out & most likely thought I would never know. I was angry, to say the least. I rejected his request and sent him a Facebook message to tell him that I KNEW HE HAD ASSAULTED ME & THAT HE COULD GO FUCK HIMSELF. Though there was more, and angrier words involved. He never responded, as I had expected.
Fast forward another year, I’m home for Thanksgiving, catching up with one of my closest friends from high school, and he walks in with one of his friends. They are playing pool and I am burning a whole through him with my non-verbal hate. He finally notices me at the booth with my friend and in less than 5 minutes, he’s gone. He got my message. Coward.
Now fast forward to last year: I’m perusing Facebook as I do and I notice that my perpetrator has posted some song on my 22-year-old cousin’s Facebook profile. I am horrified that they are friends. I send her a message telling her to take caution with this guy & explain what he did to me. No response. While it hurt to not hear back from her, I knew enough about our rape culture, our victim blaming culture, to not blame her for whatever reaction she may have had to my sharing. At the very least, I felt I had made her aware that this person was not a good person.
Finally, fast forward to last week and my reason for this post. My above mentioned cousin posts an update on Facebook wishing another family member good luck on his departure to hike the Appalachian Trail this summer. I was immediately excited by this post as I hiked a section of the AT two years ago and it truly changed my life. So I comment on the update, saying how fantastic it is that he is embarking on this journey. The next morning I get to work, check my e-mails then log on to Facebook only to receive a notification saying that my perpetrator has commented on something that I have commented on. I click the link and see that he has made some unnecessary & unimportant comment about the impending hike along the lines of “I hope he’s prepared.” This comment was not malicious in its content but I was immediately furious, triggered and frustrated by the reminder that this person exists & has no problem reminding me of his existence.
The more I process his comment throughout the day, the angrier I get and the more convinced I become that this asshole did this on purpose, he commented on her update because he saw my comment and seized an opportunity to remind me how little it means to him that I am affected by his presence (even if it is an online presence). So I send him another message, challenging his need to comment, and asking him to stay away from my family, or at the very least, off my radar as I am far beyond the point in my healing process where I would be nervous about broadcasting the assault that he committed. No response again. Not surprised.
I spent the rest of the day at work crying silently and being SO ANGRY that this person could still affect me so strongly, 7 years after he assaulted me and from hundreds of miles away, via Facebook. I then realize what is REALLY getting to me. Yes, I’m infuriated that he had the audacity to insert himself into a convo I had engaged in with my cousin (even if it was only electronic) but what was really affecting me was the fact that I couldn’t do anything about it. And not in a “I wish I could prosecute this piece of garbage” way, because frankly, I work within the sexual violence sphere and I know through my professional experiences what cases get prosecuted and this would not be one of them. It was the fact that this person’s existence makes my stomach turn and I can’t do anything to make him feel just a little bit of what I still feel. This feeling of helplessness, the lack of agency that so many of us, as survivors, struggle through, is one that we must struggle through mostly on our own. We may have support systems, understanding people in our lives who support and believe us and want nothing more than to make things better, to make things just. But things are not just. In a world where rape culture is so prevalent that people are told they deserved what happened to them because they drank, wore the wrong thing, went to the wrong place, trusted the wrong people, work the wrong job or even more simply because they were born in a certain place, of a certain ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender expression that warrants them “rapable,” perpetrators of sexual violence rarely must feel the effects that their actions carry. Sure, in very rare cases (RAINN just released a statistic that 97 out of every 100 rapists will never spend a DAY in jail), perpetrators see some jail time but they will never truly understand what the violation they perpetrated does to the person they assault.
I am not afraid of my perpetrator. But this is not a sentiment that is shared by all survivors and many of us spent years, if not the rest of our lives, coping with the fear, anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, feelings of betrayal, trust issues, body image and self esteem issues that result from their experiences of assault.
What I realized I could do is SPEAK OUT. Share my story with all of you and hope that it helps other survivors realize that they are not alone in their struggle, even when they are. I decided to share my experience so that other survivors could see how, even when you have all of the “tools” to understand the dynamics of sexual violence, all of the techniques to offer survivors to help in the coping and healing process, all of the knowledge and understanding of rape culture that my education and experience has allowed me, it doesn’t go away. It may not be in our minds every minute of every day, we may not make the majority of our decisions based off of these experiences, but they stay with us, like a scar, and when my own hands run across this scar, I am reminded of what this person thought they could take from me.
I won’t let him have what he thought he could take though. I may be triggered by him, I may always deal with these experiences in some capacity, but I shall not be silenced & I shall not live in fear of this or the next perpetrator that comes my way.
Because you took something from me that night, Justin. But you did not take away my strength, and you have magnified my passion for the work I do to end the rape culture we live in, that you contribute to directly. I will not be defeated by you or other people who think us feminists need to just lighten up. You contribute to my drive for change. So thanks (and fuck you).