To all of the women and men coming forward and joining the #MeToo movement, I hear you, and I appreciate you. It takes courage to speak about such deep scars, and more courage still to hold your head up in the face of a society that’s more offended by victims sharing their stories than it is by ‘locker room talk.’
But my message is for all of the women and men who aren’t. To them I want to say this: it’s okay to leave your Facebook status blank. You’re not weak if you don’t want to air your most painful trauma to the world; you don’t owe anyone your story. I’m telling you this because I need it to be true, because the very idea of naming my assailants and tipping the careful house of cards I’ve spent years building makes me feel small and scared.
But for me, it’s become important.
If not for you to read, then for me to tell. I have a daughter now and as she gets older, I can see the woman she will become. I can see that she will be beautiful, and I can see that she will be forceful, and I can see that she will be desired. It’s cowardly that I could not speak out for myself, that it took my daughter transitioning from babyhood to girlhood to realize that what happened to me was wrong. But I realize it now, and I want any girls who have had experiences like mine to know that it’s not your fault. You are not your assaults. You are not your failure for ‘allowing’ yourself to be taken advantage of. You are not a bitch for speaking out.
Both of my most egregious assailants were people I knew, one remotely, one not. Both of them were ‘nice boys,’ both with surnames that carried weight. As a teenager, I had a reputation for craving attention. I would act in ways that garnered attention – from guys, from friends, from adults, from whomever. When I finally got too much of this attention, all I could think was that it was what I had coming to me. I had taunted the serpent and it had bitten me; it was my fault.
The first time I was assaulted I was in high school and I was visiting friends at a nearby college. They were two boys. I had lied to my mom about where I was staying. I went with a girlfriend, and she and I made plans to take care of each other.
I don’t remember drinking. I have always had a supremely low tolerance for alcohol, so it seems very unlikely that I simply wouldn’t have noticed alcohol in my drink. And yet I ended up vomiting at an outdoor music performance, sick enough to necessitate carrying home. The boy who carried me was the boy who had made my drinks; he was annoyed that I got vomit on his shoes, and he made me very aware that I ‘owed him.’ He said it like he was joking, so I laughed. I didn’t want him to think I was a bitch.
Many hours later, I woke up and it was dark. I was lying on a mattress on a floor, and the same boy was on top of me. He was moving against my body even though I was sleeping. It felt wrong, and weird, and it made my stomach feel sick, like I might throw up again. I chalked it up to the ‘drinking’ I had done, even though I didn’t remember ever drinking. I pretended like I was asleep until he stopped. He never stopped, and I didn’t push him off. I didn’t want him to think I was a bitch.
After that, I started a stilted, strange relationship with my assailant. It was weird to me, to think of it as rape; he was clearly into me, clearly cared about me. It felt somehow better to me in my head to carry on the charade that he started when he told people we had ‘hooked up,’ when he told people how much he liked me, how he couldn’t believe I finally returned his affections. That was a much nicer story than ‘I raped her in the dark,’ and so I latched onto it. I became his girlfriend. Every time we fooled around, I felt that same, sick feeling, but I still preferred that to thinking of myself as a victim.
I finally broke up with him before leaving for college, and I apologized profusely. He loathed me and made it known, blasting me to all of our friends and effectively blacking me out of that social circle. But to this day, what upsets me most is I had apologized to him – I didn’t want him to think I was a bitch.
The next time I was assaulted I was in my first month of college. I went with my girlfriends to a fraternity party; we were all drinking and we were all underage. The boy who took me back to his dorm had to help me walk the entire way there since I was too drunk to stand, too drunk to speak properly. I think he had been drinking, too.
I knew my assailant. He was from my hometown. Before I blacked out, I remember him telling me that he had ‘always wanted to get with me.’ I don’t know what I said to that – I think I was uncomfortable, so I laughed. I didn’t want to seem like a bitch by telling him ‘dream on, buddy.’ At seventeen, I really thought the worst thing I could be called was a bitch.
After he half-carried me back to his room, I don’t really remember what happened. I just remember that I was too drunk to use my phone and I think I threw up. I know that we had sex because I could feel it in my body, and to this day I have strange, half-smeared memories of him breathing onto my neck. I know I left, since I remember stumbling to another dorm in the same building – my childhood next-door neighbor, who asked me what had happened. I didn’t want to tell him so I laughed; I was too embarrassed, and I didn’t want him to think I was a bitch. I really thought the worst thing I could be called was a bitch.
In both of these instances, I lied to myself. I entered into a relationship with my first assailant willingly and continued to sleep with him, all in an effort to convince myself that it had never been assault. Someone who loved you couldn’t assault you, I thought. With the second one, I simply let it go. I was embarrassed; to confess it made me sound like a slut, or made me sound like a bitch. This guy was well-liked, after all. I told one friend and she seemed uncomfortable, saying ‘he wouldn’t do that.’ I agreed; I must have been into it. I lied to myself and accepted that it had been consensual.
Months later, that same neighbor of mine mentioned it in passing, teasing me good-naturedly for ‘sleeping’ with that guy. It was a punch to the gut; I suddenly felt like crying, or vomiting, or screaming. I wanted to tell him that I hadn’t wanted to, that it hadn’t been my choice, that he had taken something from me that I could never get back. I didn’t say that, though; god forbid he think me a bitch.
At seventeen, I really thought the worst thing I could be called was a bitch.
I’m telling my stories only because I am older now and secure. I am healed enough to share them without shame, and I am supported enough to close them up in my past. But not everyone has this luxury, and that’s okay. You don’t have to air your dirty laundry in order to join this movement; you can keep your silence until you’re ready, or until forever. We’re telling our stories so you don’t have to.
You don’t need to wear your assault on your shirt like a badge. You can keep it tucked into your heart, a wound healing over, as long as you don’t let it consume you. And know that even if you’re silent, I see you; I believe you. I know your hurt, and I will hold your hand.
I might just need you to hold me, too.