It was 15 years ago in January, and I can remember the event like it was yesterday.
January 1st, 2003. The day I was sexually assaulted.
The memories of that night are still vivid, and yet I think about that day less and less as the years go on. The times I am reminded of the assault usually sneak up on me. A scene in a television show. A news story. Every single email I receive as a university employee alerting me to a sexual assault occurring on our campus is a trigger of my own memory of sexual assault.
When I look at my children I wish with every part of my being that they never experience anything like I did.
We know that one out of every six American women has been a victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. We also know college women are three times more likely to experience sexual violence than those who do not attend college. Furthermore, one out of ten victims of rape are men. These numbers are way too high for my liking. The number should be zero. Yet I know that I need to be realistic about the reality of this scary truth.
Someone once said, “You don’t seem like the kind of person who would have been sexually assaulted.” What? First of all, what KIND OF PERSON is sexually assaulted? Secondly, don’t say that to someone. Third, does my not seeming like someone who would have been assaulted make my sexual assault less impactful? But, as much as it hurts, there is truth there, too. My sexual assault didn’t come with some of the horrific trauma that other women experience.
Additionally, I didn’t expect to be someone who was sexually assaulted, but I was.
During my junior year of college, I was serving as a Residence Assistant and held multiple student leadership roles. I was charismatic, likeable, and spunky. I had lots of friends, and stayed busy with classes and extracurricular activities. On weekends I often traveled one hour south to another university to visit my best friends from high school. It was not uncommon for us to hang out with their male friends who were involved in a fraternity, and I considered many of those men my close friends as well.
As we prepared to ring in 2003, I was in town to celebrate at a party being hosted by our friends at the fraternity house. We had a great time at the party that evening, and when the ball dropped a cute guy (an out-of-town friend of one of the fraternity members) kissed me. It was nice. We danced, and enjoyed the celebration of the New Year.
As the festivities died down, couples began to tuck into corners of the house to get to know one another better, or sleep. I was led into the formal living room of the fraternity house, which was empty. I had been drinking, and although I was coherent, I felt fuzzy from the alcohol. He began to kiss me, and laid me down on the couch. I could tell he had more in mind than I planned on. I remember telling him I just wanted to kiss, as I heard him unzip his pants. I said things like, “I don’t want to do this!” and “I’m not ready to have sex with you!” and “You don’t have protection. Stop!” He held me down and ignored everything I said.
To this day it still haunts me that I didn’t scream.
When he was done, he got up and left the room. I lay there unsure about what to do next. Suddenly I heard his voice down the hallway, and he was walking toward the living room with another guy. I heard him say, “She is in here dude.” I panicked and realized he was bringing his friend in to me. And I wasn’t sure why, but I was afraid I knew the answer, and it terrified me. I quickly flipped myself over. I pretended to be passed out and made myself dead weight. They nudged me and tried to get me to roll over. When I didn’t move, they tried again but eventually gave up.
The relief I felt was overwhelming. I stayed on the couch, frightened to move, unsure of where my friends had ended up at the end of the night. After I had waited a bit, I tiptoed through the house to find my friends and begged them to drive us home. They could tell something was off about me, but I didn’t tell them what happened.
It was exactly one month later, as we celebrated my birthday, that I eventually shared what happened with my friends. They suggested we head over to the house to hang out with the guys as part of my birthday celebration, and I could feel my body tighten up. The idea of going back there made me sweat. As I told my friends about my experience, I don’t think they were fully prepared to respond to what I was saying. They were very caring, but were not equipped with the resources to assist me. They assured me that the same guy wouldn’t be at the fraternity house this particular weekend, but I was still panicky about possibly seeing him. Soon, I began going back to that house less and less until I never visited it again.
Aside from my friends, I didn’t talk about what happened to anyone.
I was seeing a counselor at the time of the assault, and I couldn’t even bring myself to tell her what happened. I feared she might make me tell the police. I also didn’t want my family to find out. And I kept telling myself that my experience wasn’t “that traumatic” so it wasn’t a big deal. (To be clear: ANY assault is traumatic, and no one should try to tell themselves that it isn’t!)
Fifteen years later, I have slowly worked through what this experience means to me, how it has impacted me, and what I’ve learned from it. I’ve also thought about my experience through the lens of a mother, and I have five things I will tell my children about my sexual assault someday. And one thing I will not.
I will tell my children exactly where it happened, and how comfortable I felt in that space.
They need to know that this can happen anywhere, even in places that you love and places that are filled with people you like and care about.
I will tell my children all about all of the uncomfortable birds and the bees sex things.
Because, although I might feel super uncomfortable talking to my sweet babies (of an appropriate age) about these topics, it isn’t crude or inappropriate and we need to talk about it. This is what we call, “normalizing the conversation.” I need them to feel as though the topic of sex isn’t “weird” to discuss with their mother or their father. They should feel that I will be their biggest support, their most trusted confident, and a faithful protector.
I will teach my children what consent means, and what it does not mean.
I will help them understand that they don’t owe anyone anything for a nice dinner, or a gift, or a kiss. We will talk about how there needs to be a yes from BOTH parties in order for the activity to be consented to. And that no amount of pressure should ever make them feel like they should change their mind.
I will tell my children that if this happens to them, they will not want to tell me.
But I want them to feel 100% comfortable in approaching me about this, and any other hard topic that they face in their life. I want them to know that they have a support system in me, and if they share information like this with me, we will figure out what to do with that information together, as a team, in a safe way.
Finally, I will tell my children that if they are sexually assaulted, it is not. their. fault.
So much of why I didn’t tell anyone was because I heard all of these voices in my head telling me it was my fault that this happened to me. “You shouldn’t have been drinking so much that night! Why did you go in the living room with practically a stranger instead of staying with your friends? You shouldn’t have kissed him in the first place!” But, after many years, I have finally been able to believe that it wasn’t my fault. And it wouldn’t be my children’s fault either.
Do you want to know the one thing I will NOT tell my children about my sexual assault?
I will not tell my children about how I let the shame I felt after my sexual assault define my response to it.
I will not tell them how I hid my experience, and felt as though no one could know! I won’t tell them how I had to (and sometimes still do) leave the room during work trainings when we discussed sexual assault because it brought up too many emotions. I will not tell them how I hid this experience from my family for years, because they should not ever feel as though they need to hide this from me. If this happens to one of my children, they will feel shame. I won’t be able to protect them from that. But what I can do is help them understand that the shame they might feel should NOT define their experience, like it did mine.
Every 98 seconds someone is sexually assaulted. Honest and open conversations about these experiences will help those impacted by an experience like mine feel the power and support to seek the help they need. I plan to start those conversations right at home with my own children in the coming years.
If you, or someone you know has been impacted by sexual violence, please visit the Rape Victim Advocacy Program webpage.
Statistics used in this post are from rainn.org.