You can’t escape your past, but you can walk away from victim blaming (content note for graphic depictions of rape)
I had just turned 16 when it first happened. I was unpopular, the first girl to develop curves I only understood years later were just hallmarks of womanhood and not obesity, and while I was good at school, I wasn't going to win any academic scholarships any time soon. This was all very disappointing to my prom-queen-turned-salutatorian-turned-beauty-queen mother.
My stepfather had just passed away (quickly and unexpectedly of pancreatic cancer), sending my mother into a full tailspin as I looked in vain to her for guidance.
The other families in the neighborhood were supportive. A mother of one of the popular girls suggested she take me out and keep me company. Show me some kindness. Keep my mind off the grief.
Suddenly I found myself socializing with the cool kids who were all breaking into country clubs, drinking underage and smoking cigarettes. I never drank or smoke, but I was happy for the company and tried my best to fit in.
On one particular evening, doing my best to look the part of popular-girl-sex-bomb, I wore a burgundy skirt and black tube top. One of the older (read: cooler) boys of the cool-kids-crew told me I looked hot, leaving me instantly feeling validated. So when I found myself later alone with him, sitting on the bed of his pickup truck talking about nothing, I felt as though my popularity points and self-worth might have just shot up at least a few points.
He leaned in to kiss me. Which I allowed. He laid me down on the bed of his pickup truck, his body pressed against mine. Which I allowed. He began to fondle by breasts over my tube top. I moved them away. He proceeded again. I moved them again. He then shot his hands under my skirt, quickly finding his way up my thigh. I moved his hand again. He then wedged my legs apart with his, forcing himself between my legs. I was immobilized as he used his body weight to hold me down. There was nothing I could do. He then lifted my lower back with one hand, pulled down my tube top with the other, and then pressed me back again.
There I lay. Bare-breasted, exposed and pinned down in the back of a pickup truck far from where anyone could hear me scream, were I even to try to do so.
He proceeded to hold me down and bite me. Hard. I continued saying no as he continued to go at my skin like a lion ripping flesh off of prey he'd just caught. He bit my neck all the way down to my breasts.
By this point, I'd been trying to escape for some while and had missed my curfew. My mother proceeded to call my cellular phone in a panic. The special ring I had set up just for her was unmistakable. I begged him to let me up so I could answer my phone. He ignored my requests and continued to fondle and bite me as if I had said nothing at all. I begged again. Still nothing. Finally, I explained that if he didn't let me answer, she would call the cops and declare me a missing person. "Cops", it turns out, is kryptonite to a drunk teenager, and he immediately let me up.
I answered and the yelling began. She was not happy. I told her where I was and she came to get pick me up, berating me for missing curfew the whole time. Of course, he was nowhere to be seen, having dashed off in quite a hurry at this point, and I was too scared and confused to explain anything about what had just happened. I groomed away any of the disheveled look that might have suggested bad-girl foul play before she arrived, and with the forgiveness of the night's darkness, it proved sufficient to prevent any questioning.
I awoke the next morning covered in bruises and cuts, from my neck to my breasts to my legs. I wore a turtleneck to try and cover them on the warm summer morning, which I suppose was a dead giveaway. It didn't work. My mother, not one for personal boundaries, walked into the bathroom while I was showering and saw her daughter's body entirely black and blue.
Again, the yelling began. She dragged me with her to the police station where she demanded I file a police report. Too scared to know what to do, I just froze, unable to speak to anyone about anything. The yelling continued. Eventually it was evident I wouldn't talk, and we left, her disappointment clearly discernible.
It was only years later that I fully understood that I had been sexually assaulted and likely narrowly avoided being raped. That my mother's reaction was completely inappropriate. That a sexual assault, rape, or harassment victim deserves support, not demands.
Then it happened again. Now in my late twenties and dating in the city, I was no stranger to navigating the how-many-dates-until-sex? debate. One first date seemed especially promising. On paper, he was fantastic: educated abroad, well-read, articulate and probably the most gentlemanly guy I'd been out with yet. We had an enlightened and progressive conversation as we walked through the park and talked until the wee hours. I explained that I didn't like it when men were presumptuous about sex and that I liked taking my time before jumping into bed. He seemed to be on the same page.
As the night grew late, he offered to get me a cab back to my apartment. "Wonderful, but gosh darn do I need to pee," I laughed. He suggested two very fancy hotel lobbies within walking distance. Feeling that surely it would be tasteless to walk into a nice hotel in the middle of the night to only use the toilet, I bashfully declined.
He helpfully explained that his apartment was within walking distance and that he'd be happy to let me up to go to the bathroom, but that he'd insist on getting me cab home afterward. In light of our previous discussion about waiting to go to bed with someone, this seemed perfectly reasonable to me, so I accepted.
We arrived at his apartment, I (gratefully) used the toilet, and then emerged to find him waiting for me. He proceeded to kiss me and direct me to the bedroom. I politely and delicately pushed him off, insisting I needed to go home and saying "no" repeatedly. He didn't care or notice. He proceeded to remove my clothing bit by bit as I continued to say "no" and "don't" and "I need to go home."
I didn't attempt to resist him physically. He was easily twice my size, and I was alone with him inside his apartment. I was afraid doing so might aggravate a man I quickly realized I had apparently egregiously misjudged.
He had a large, heavy flashlight on the nightstand within arm's reach of where I lay on the bed as he continued to run his mouth and hands along my body. I asked myself if I could reach it and hit him over the head with it well enough and fast enough to knock him out. No? Then I'll just risk angering him, and God only knows what he's capable of. I continued to say "no" and "don't" as I thought some more. Could I yell? How thick are these walls? Will anyone hear me? Will anyone be awake? Even if they do hear me, how long until they get to me and what will he have done between then and now? If they don't hear me, how aggravated will he be and what will he attempt to do as a consequence?
I was trapped. All I could do was continue to try and talk him out of it. Continue to say "no" and "don't" over and over.
I laid there in terror as "holy shit I'm going to be raped" ran through my head. A fear of bodily harm like I've never felt washed over me and compelled me to freeze and endure until I could figure out some other plan. Ready to move on from fingering, he proceeded to perform oral sex on me. I informed him I wasn't ready for that or any other kind of sex yet, but he continued.
As the night grew to morning, I was finally able to convince him that I needed to return home. After some time more, he finally let me go, clueless to the terror he had just wrought upon me.
I saved all the clothes, rescheduled a work meeting, and took myself to the hospital for a rape kit. The hospital confirmed that I had lacerations on my labia where he had forced his fingers inside of my unlubricated vagina. I shook and cried as I told them the story.
He texted to say what a wonderful time he had and to ask if I wanted to go out again. I could have ignored the text or reported him immediately, but I didn't. I explained to him that while I'm sure he didn't fully realize what he did, that it was, in fact, rape.
He was confused -- sure I had said "no" and "don't" repeatedly, but he thought I meant "yes" and "do." Of course in retrospect, he said, it hit him like a lightning bolt, and he was terribly sorry. And would I still like to go out again now that we've cleared up this little misunderstanding? Uhm. No.
I never filed charges and I eventually washed the clothes and even wore them out again, ready to clean the stains from my memory as well. I was ready to move on.
Then it happened again. This time with my boss. I was working as a consultant at a software company not unlike most others: male-dominated and misogynistic. I had graduated a few years prior from an Ivy League school with my Ph.D., and I knew I was one of the company's top consultants. So when my boss asked me to accompany him and some others out of town for an important client dinner, I wasn't phased. I had a prior relationship with the client and my company often counted on me to help close the big accounts. Of course, I'll come.
However, I began to fear this wasn't like other client dinners. I understood why *I* had been invited alongside my boss, the client, and the head of sales -- we often worked together as a team. But why had the two young, attractive, single sales reps from the office with no relationship to the client whatsoever also been invited?
Oh shit. This was a triple date setup and we were the chick candy.
I have a reputation for mistrusting men's intentions (I wonder why), so the other two women brushed it off when I said I didn't like the setup. I threatened not to go, but they insisted. So I went. In solidarity. Against my better judgment. Because I too was afraid of the consequences. Of defying my boss. Of leaving my friends.
When I arrived, my boss was already plastered. He decided to practice his French on me, since I'd been taking classes for a planned work assignment in Paris. He looked alluringly at me over his cocktail, one eyebrow raised and smirking, as he intentionally switched back and forth between "un chat" and "une chatte", both meaning "pussy," but one being the version you keep as a pet and the other being the version he wanted to lick. He found himself very smart, and I just laughed awkwardly and ignored him as best I could.
At dinner, he proceeded to debate with our head of sales over which female client was the hottest. He then ran his hands along my female colleague's arms and leg as she attempted to squirm away. The head of sales warned him, "you're going to get us all fired," but he proceeded anyway as the client looked on, either amused or terrified -- I'll never know.
We escaped to the bathroom and acknowledged that unfortunately, the situation was as I had predicted. "I had no idea this kind of thing really happened!" Sadly, I did. We devised a plan to solidly escape as soon as the bill arrived, citing exhaustion.
But when the bill came, as we tried to make an escape, our bosses insisted. They needed us to come out with them to a bar now. Come on. Just be a trooper. We looked at each other. Helpless. It felt like there was nothing we could do but oblige. So we went, hoping we could stick together to fend off any further pawing.
My boss took us to a bar he liked where the lighting was dark, and tasteful black-and-white BDSM photos hung on the wall.
I asked the bartender in Spanish if he spoke Spanish, and to my luck, he did. I explained that I wanted all of my drinks and my boss's drinks virgin, if possible. I explained that he was already very drunk. The bartender understood and complied. The client, a native Spanish speaker, stood there and listened, understanding everything. I didn't care how it looked. This was about survival.
My boss then came to retrieve me from the bar, putting his arm around me and boasting, "I need to keep an eye on my employee." He plopped me down with him on a loveseat just big enough for the two of us. He proceeded to imply that I had a sexy punk-rock-chick attitude (a nose hoop?!) and asked me how I stay in such good shape. He transitioned from sitting with his arm around my shoulder to running his hand along my arm, to running his hand along my thigh, to finally grabbing my breast in his hand.
His hand cupped the entirety of my breast. I can still feel the pads of his hands where they enveloped me. I've often thought about cutting off that breast entirely to rid myself of the sensation. I pushed him off and popped up to the bar, trying as hard as I could to signal desperately that I needed help -- please don't leave me alone with him.
My female colleague facilitated us wrapping things up as best she could and then we left. I grabbed her and quickly told her, "if anyone asks, we're splitting a hotel room, ok?". She got it.
My boss followed me, wanting to know why we were going to bed so early. Surely I wanted to stay for another drink? He grabbed me, wrapped his arms around me and proceeded to whisper in my ear, begging me to stay. My female colleague then came and grabbed me, citing that she was exhausted, we needed to go to bed, and since we were sharing a hotel room, I had to come with her. He tried to argue through his drunken stammers, but she pulled me away faster than he could stumble after us.
The next day, her boss asked her not to tell anyone about the incident, and my boss tried to play it off as if nothing had happened. I later learned that he's sexually harassed at least four female employees of the same company. I also later found out that it wasn't uncommon for him to get drunk with male colleagues and talk about all "the things he'd like to do to me."
I'm pleased to report that I quit and found another job at a better company shortly after that where I'm being paid better to work less hours without any of the groping. I'm lucky. What if I hadn't had that option?
I'm still struggling with how to handle the sexual harassment. The reality is that lots of sexual harassment goes unreported because the consequences are intolerable. For example, my former boss is one of the most influential people in my highly male-dominated field. One stamp of "whistleblower" and my career is ruined. So unless I think I can get a settlement big enough to retire on, I need to be extremely careful. I've tried to rally the other women to come forward with me, but we're all just too afraid.
And then it happened again. I had just started dating a man and we took a weekend trip to Paris. We ate amazing food, walked adorable streets, drank amazing wine and talked about everything. We were getting to know each other more and more and it was wonderful. In an attempt to get closer to him and develop greater intimacy, I showed him one of my most significant wounds and emotional vulnerabilities. I.e., that I've been a repeated victim of sexual assault, harassment, and rape. I told him the stories.
And then the anger began. He lost it. Right there under the Eiffel Tower.
"How could you be so dumb?"
"Why would you go into a man's apartment on a first date?! What were you thinking?! Of course, if you act like that the man is going to get the wrong signal!"
I thought surely there was a misunderstanding. Maybe his affection for me was so great that it spilled over into anger? I guess people have odd reactions sometimes...
But it persisted. Months later:
"I can't trust you. You have bad judgment when it comes to men."
"Being sexually assaulted that many times is statistically improbable. You must be doing something to bring this to yourself."
"You lack the ability to self-reflect on how you're contributing to these things happening to you."
"If you don't want to be cat-called, don't dress like that."
"My friend is a really attractive woman and she never gets sexually harassed because she knows how to carry herself. You should be more like her."
"What kind of woman gets herself into a situation where her boss can grab her breast anyway?"
He's right about one thing -- I do have shit judgment when it comes to men, as evidenced by the fact that I'm still with him.
Having "bad judgment" has nothing to do with me being raped, harassed or assaulted. Victim-blaming attitudes like this do nothing to help the victim or teach society (especially the perpetrators) that this is unacceptable behavior. In fact, they encourage the opposite.
I couldn't dump my mother when she didn't support me through my assault at 16, but I can dump him.
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