Trigger warning: This essay discusses memories of rape.
There are many upsetting aspects to the backlash Christine Blasey Ford, Ph.D. is facing after publicly confirming her accusation of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Journalist Ronan Farrow, who broke the story in the New Yorker, said Ford alleges that “during high school, Brett Kavanaugh held her down and attempted to force himself on her, placing a hand over her mouth and turning up music to conceal her protests.”
One of the most harmful responses is doubt about whether Judge Kavanaugh and men like him deserve “lifelong consequences” for their bad behavior “back in high school,” for their so-called “rough horseplay.” Comments like these are dangerous: They minimize sexual abusers’ actions, deny the reality of rampant sexual abuse in our culture, and downplay the long-term impact of sexual violence on survivors.
The truth is grim. One in five women will be raped in their lifetime and one in four girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. Of those victims, 50% will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a disorder that comes with daunting mental, physical, and emotional symptoms. Sexual assault is not “20 minutes of action,” nor is it an “isolated incident.” It’s a federal crime that can result in trauma serious enough to alter the rest of a survivor’s life.
I would know. I’m diagnosed with PTSD, a result of sexual abuse in high school.
When I was a sophomore, I was in a relationship with a guy my age. We were both 16 years old and often drunk, on love and liquor. I was pretty but insecure, trying to fit in with the cool crowd. He was mischievous with a kind smile and seemed to know a lot more about the world than I did. I trusted him, so I let him show me the world through his eyes. After a year or so of being together, I began considering losing my virginity to him. I loved him intimately, we had fun together, and most of all, he had my trust. He was, supposedly, good.
One night while at a house party, we crept upstairs to a bedroom to mess around. With Dashboard Confessional whining in the background, we sat on the bed and started making out. Before I knew it, we were under the sheets getting hot and heavy. As we kissed, I said to him, “I don’t want to have sex tonight.” He murmured something, and I assumed it was settled.
The next thing I knew, he was on top of me, inside me. We were having sex.
“No,” I said in his ear, “I didn’t want to have sex tonight.” He ignored me, continued having sex with me, and kissed my neck. I felt blood rush to my face. I was flush with embarrassment. I looked down and saw that I was still wearing my bra. It was lilac, lace, and had little pink flowers on it. It’s my fault, I thought. I’d worn my sexy bra, so he must’ve taken that as an unspoken sign that I “wanted it.”
Just like that, my virginity was gone, against my consent.
This isn’t a particularly “violent” story, considering the way we mistakenly view rape as being something that can only be done to a girl in a back alley at knifepoint.
But my story shares threads with millions of other women’s stories. Like me, they were young girls who trusted high school boys not to sexually assault them in a bedroom at a house party while they were tipsy. And like millions of other women who have experienced attempted or completed assault, our lives were forever altered that night.
During the months after my rape, I quietly began stealing and snorting my brother’s Adderall. I made a hobby of getting blackout drunk, and I spent days contemplating the different ways I could kill myself. A decade later, I’d developed a reliance on cocaine and alcohol, leaving me vulnerable to continued sexual abuse in college. Today I still battle suicidal thoughts; I have severe anxiety and hypervigilance, which makes being alone a nightmare. When I am misunderstood, I have fight to temper my rage and communicate calmly with those I love. It’s been 20 years since that night in high school, and I’m just beginning to get a handle on my past and its toll on my present.
It has taken me this long to confront my trauma. I have the rest of my life to cope with it.
If a man who has been accused of sexual assault in high school loses an opportunity to be on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life because he is incapable of being a decent human, so be it.
If a man who has sexually harassed women loses his comedy career, great. If a habitual sexual predator loses his talk show, brilliant. The pain and embarrassment they feel as they slip away from their positions of power is savagely fair—and yet hardly sufficient. If you think professional punishment for adults who have been abusive in their pasts is too harsh, you’ve yet to fully understand the all-encompassing suffering that assault survivors face each day: You can’t walk past a door without wondering if an attacker is about to jump out from behind it. You can’t enter your own home after dark without questioning your safety. You can’t hear the simple twinge of a water pipe or rustling leaves without breaking a sweat.
Quite plainly, once you’ve been assaulted, you can’t ever completely escape that moment and its terror. It follows you, in your subconscious, weaving through your days—no matter how old you were when it started.
Age doesn’t excuse victims’ pain, and it doesn’t excuse men like Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who were boys when they allegedly disregarded women like Christine Blasey Ford, Ph.D. when they were girls. So take these men’s jobs, take their dreams, take their success, trash it all. If predators are not in jail for their crimes against women, then they can lose their careers, at the very least. Because, to me, what they actually deserve is a lot worse.
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.