After I was sexually assaulted by my boyfriend, I acted like it didn’t happen.
I didn’t get angry with him. I didn’t break up with him. In fact, I planned a romantic evening for the very next night. I stayed with him for several months. Why? Why do women who’ve been raped do things that seem completely inconsistent with the fact they were raped?
The first time I said out loud to anyone (besides my therapist) that I was sexually assaulted was the day after Christine Blasey Ford testified at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I was at dinner with two women I was friendly with professionally. Both were powerful, dynamic, successful. We were talking about how awful it was to hear Ford’s testimony. I took a deep breath and told them my story, including how I insisted on a “do-over” the next night and stayed with him for several months. Then one of my friends said she had a similar story. They were in college, it was her boyfriend, they were drunk, she passed out, she came to when he was on top of her, he didn’t seem to notice that she was upset. She, too, stayed with him and never confronted him about what happened. Then my other friend told her story. It happened in college, they were drinking, she didn’t consent. The next day she invited herself to his room and initiated sex with him.
I was floored by the “me too”-ness of the situation. But I was even more struck by how we each acted afterward in a way that the outside world would see as evidence that we weren’t raped. We each voluntarily had sex with the perpetrator again. We each continued the relationship. We each acted afterward like it didn’t happen. I think we convinced ourselves at the moment that what happened didn’t happen, and then we acted in ways that felt like we were re-asserting control. Until I heard my friends’ stories, I hadn’t really seen that’s what I did. Since that dinner, I have thought a lot about what happened to me at the moment after I was raped—when in the span of a few minutes I moved from fear and grief to convincing myself that I was perfectly okay.
I think lots of people at that moment did what I did, what my two friends did. We just couldn’t admit to ourselves what happened. How were we to think about what happened? How do we process it? Were we a participant or victim? We didn’t want to be a victim. We wanted to be in control. We couldn’t deal with the realization that if this could happen with our boyfriend, it could happen with anyone. If we admitted what had really happened, we would become this other person, a person who was not in control. We didn’t want to be afraid.
We couldn’t think about reporting it. If we did report it, how would we explain the fact that we were drinking, that we were voluntarily engaged in sexual activity, that we didn’t actually say no? I mean, the poor guy, how could he have known that we didn’t want to have sex? Are we really going to accuse him of rape?
And much of our self-esteem was built on being the fun girl, the strong girl, the girl who partied, the girl who wasn’t afraid of anything. If we admitted what happened, all that would be gone. Who would we be? A victim? The shame was too much.
What I want to be clear about is that this all happens unconsciously. I certainly don’t remember thinking any of this. But looking back now, it’s clear to me that some version of these thoughts profoundly influenced my reaction.
So at that moment, we denied to ourselves that it happened. We banished the shame and fear. We clamped down on any feeling of things spiraling out of control. And we did things to convince ourselves that we were still in control. Again, this wasn’t a conscious decision. In fact, I didn’t even realize that I made a decision until thirty years later. It took me thirty years to admit to myself what really happened. Working through all this was really hard, and I still struggle with it. But I believe the only way to heal from a sexual assault is to face what really happened and to try to understand why you did the things you did, and then to forgive yourself for being human.
Any sexual assault survivor who is pursuing a criminal or civil case against the perpetrator needs to be able to understand what happened and to talk about it. My personal experience enables me to understand the survivor experience, and to help survivors face what happened to them. My only goal in representing survivors is to help them heal. And I truly believe that my work with them does that.
RAINN online hotline https://hotline.rainn.org/online
VT Sexual Violence Hotline: 1-800-489-7273
If have been sexually assaulted are considering pressing charges or bringing a civil suit, you can call me for a free consultation at (802) 327-8458