April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Trigger Warning: This essay contains descriptions of sexual assault.
Nearly a quarter of female undergraduate students experience rape, sexual assault, or violence in college — so I shouldn’t have been all that surprised when, in my junior year, I woke up to find that I had been drugged and sexually violated by someone in my social circle. Yet, somehow, I was.
In the dim light that made its way through his basement-level bedroom window, I was shocked to see my clothes piled on the floor. I was even more horrified to see that in this strange bed with me was a person I sort of knew; he wore nothing but boxers. My mind was foggy, but I didn’t need an instant replay of the night to figure out what had happened to me. The ache between my legs, the queasiness in my stomach, and the despair in my heart told me everything I needed to know.
Without waking him, I stumbled out of bed, hurriedly dressed, and so quickly ran out of the house that I slipped on the icy walkway and cut my hands and knees. The sting I felt after the fall was nothing compared to my realization that I had just been completely and totally violated.
Victims of sexual violence are punished for their assaults in ways that extend far beyond the physical and emotional abuse during the attack.
We are shamed by our peers who don’t try and hide the fact they think we were “asking for it.” We are devalued by a justice system that puts the reputation of “good” boys before the health and safety of “promiscuous” girls. We are criticized, doubted, and ostracized by an entire culture that rests the blame of our trauma on our own shoulders, already heavy with guilt and shame, instead of on the shoulders of the party responsible for hurting us. We are insulted, demoralized, and cast aside. Not believed, not protected.
Nothing taught me that painful fact better than this particular college experience.
My assault had been facilitated by alcohol and drugs I did not take knowingly or willingly. It left me feeling more hurt, shocked, and embarrassed than I ever thought I could feel — even beyond the pain of my previous experiences with coerced sex and assault. Immediately after, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t tell anyone: I was ashamed of what had occurred, and I was terrified of what people would think. After keeping the trauma to myself for a few days, I eventually told a close friend who was immensely supportive — she even offered to take me to the hospital and to the police, but I refused. Instead, with her help, I filled in the other girls in my social circle about what this guy had done, warning them to stay away from a dangerous person who was now a known offender.
A few weeks later, I was at a bar with friends when that same guy approached me. I barely had time to process what was happening before he started screaming at me for lying and dragging his “good name” through the mud. Apparently, word had gotten back to him that I’d told people about our nonconsensual interaction, and he had a very different interpretation of the night. In front of a crowded bar full of college students, many of them my friends, he told me that I’d been “asking for it.” He flung the expected insults my way: slut, whore, liar, druggie, drunk, bitch.
I stood there, dumbfounded, and all I could think to say was “I’m sorry.”
Of course, I didn’t mean it — but in that moment, I was convinced that I owed him an apology. I had, after all, ruined his reputation by telling people about what happened. Undeniably, I’d spread an “unflattering” story about his character. So I stammered out an apology, something about being sorry I’d said anything, I should have kept it to myself; it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. I went home, shaking from our conversation, and cried myself to sleep.
The next day, things only got worse. Another girl — one I considered a friend, one who this guy had feelings for — came after me. I was sitting on another friend’s bed, hashing out the details of the night before and talking about what I should do next, when the girl burst into the room. She screamed that I was a liar and a slut — something I’d already been told by the guy who assaulted me. She chastised me for “playing the victim,” and then informed me that she hoped I got an STD. Other students who had gathered just outside the door heard everything. A few made eye contact with me as I slunk out of the room to head back to my own apartment where I could, again, cry in peace.
The next month continued a lot like that: people I thought were my friends turned their backs on me (old female roommates, even a guy I had known since grade school). I became a pariah because of what had been done to me. I wish I could say that I was fearless in the face of the criticism, but I wasn’t. I could barely muster the energy to go to class, to show up to work, or even to see friends.
I was a mess, and all I could think about was the fact that I’d apologized to the man who had violated me, who owed me so much more than an “I’m sorry.”
A few months later, I learned that another girl in my social circle had been date-raped by the same person. I felt sick all over again. Was it my fault this guy was still on the prowl? Had my apology cleared his name and made it easier for him to hurt yet another unsuspecting woman? I was filled with rage — a kind of anger that defined the next year of my life, a kind of sadness that has never quite gone away.
If I could go back in time and talk to my 21-year-old self, I would tell her to turn away from the anger. That life won’t always be this bad. I’d tell her about the brighter days ahead, when she’ll be confident and use her trauma to bring attention to other girls who have experienced the same thing. I’d let her know that a reckoning is coming, that soon enough she will hear plenty of other women say #MeToo.
And I’d tell her not to apologize.
If you are a sexual assault survivor and need help, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to speak to a trained counselor. You can also chat online with a counselor here. Both services are available 24/7.