What I wish I had known about sexual assault as a teenager
Trigger warning: This essay describes memories of sexual assault
I was a sophomore in high school the first time I was sexually assaulted. I was drunk and stoned and alone in my bedroom with a guy who forced himself on me — groped me, kissed me, touched me despite my insistence that no, I didn’t like it. When he left, he gave me a hard, unwanted kiss on the mouth and said, “Thanks for being a cool chick.” I remember closing the door to my bedroom, staring at myself in the mirror, sobbing, and wondering to myself, Is this what it feels like to be cool?
There are so many things I wish I knew about sexual assault as a teenager.
If I had understood these things when I was younger, they could have made a difference in how I coped and survived.
That time in my bedroom would be the first of three times when I was the victim of sexual assault in high school — and because I didn’t understand it, I never quite got over it. At least, not until I learned the facts.
My teenage self believed, truly believed, that if something was done to my body without my permission — in spite of my objections even — that I was the only person to blame. That Saturday night alone in my bedroom with a boy who easily had 50 pounds on me and knew how to use it? My fault for drinking and being alone with him in the first place. That Thursday after school behind the cemetery when a friend pinned me down and shoved his hand up my shirt while a classmate stood watch? My fault for being such a tease. That time I fell asleep at a party and woke up with an older dude’s hands down my pants? My fault for passing out.
Each time these things happened to me, the same emotions, the same thoughts, always came rushing in: You’re too dumb. Too slutty. Too drunk. Too quiet. Too weak. All your fault.
But do you know what never came to my mind? The term “sexual assault.”
To me, sexual assault was always something you heard on the nightly news or saw on Law & Order: SVU, not something that happened to you at a friend’s party. It was what happened to “naive girls who walked home alone after dark,” not what happened to smart, mature young women “who knew better.” It was something that happened to other people, not something that happened to me.
Except that it did happen to me, and the truth is, it happens to one in 9 girls under the age of 18.
If I had known these things about sexual assault when I was a teenager, I would have felt less ashamed, and more empowered to seek help. If you don’t know these things, I hope I can help you learn.
1Sexual violence is ANY type of unwanted sexual contact, and it’s NEVER the victim’s fault.
One of the reasons I never did anything about my sexual assault was because, at the time, I didn’t recognize it for what it was. I assumed because I knew the person who did it to me, because I was a sexually active teen, and because I drank or smoked weed, that I couldn’t be sexually assaulted.
I was dead wrong.
Sexual assault, or more broadly, sexual violence, is defined as any type of unwanted sexual contact, which includes attempted rape and penetration, and also any fondling, touching, or forcing a victim to perform sexual acts.
That’s it — there are no qualifiers. It’s still sexual assault if the victim is drunk. It’s still sexual assault if the victim has had sex before, even if they’ve previously had sex with their assailant. It’s sexual assault if the victim is passed out.
Sexual assault is sexual assault, and it’s never the victim’s fault.
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2The majority of victims know their assailants.
While many of us imagine perpetrators of violent sexual crime to be deranged strangers lurking in the dark, the truth is that the majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.
The stigmas around acquaintance rape — that the victim is lying, that he or she really wanted it all along, that they just regret what happened afterwards — makes it even more difficult for victims to come forward, get help, and seek justice.
3Nearly 2/3 of sexual assaults are never reported.
I didn’t come forward with my sexual assault for a lot of reasons, but most of them had to do with guilt and shame. I felt like it was my fault, so seeking help seemed hypocritical. What kind of girl lets that happen to herself?
Little did I know, tens of thousands of Americans are victims of sexual assault every year, but according to RAINN, nearly 80% of them are never reported. Whether it be out of shame or self-blame, fear of not being believed, fear of harassment, or a lack of trust in an inadequate justice system, thousands and thousands of victims keep their trauma to themselves.
If we remove the stigma of sexual assault, help survivors actually receive justice, and openly talk about this crisis, maybe we can start seeing real changes.
4Sexual assault is not an “inevitable” part of society.
Out of any fact I wish I understood as a teen, it’s this: Sexual assault is preventable. That’s not to say that I could have stopped what happened to me in high school, and that’s not to put any blame on any victims of sexual assault. I mean that, as a society, we can and should put an end to this violent epidemic.
The first step to prevention? Open and honest conversations based in facts. Unless we start learning the truth about sexual assault, we can never hope to prevent it.
And prevention? That’s a fact.
If you are a survivor who needs help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or reach them online here. All services are available 24 hours a day. You can find a list of other organizations to reach out to for help here. If you have a friend who has been sexually assaulted, here are some ways that you can help.