*Identities have been changed.
When I run at night, I always run faster, footfalls paired with glances over my shoulder, shuddering as I pass through shadows and under the highway. I didn't always fear night running, but several years ago my cavalier sense of safety was forced out of me, and the young man who did it was named Jason.
When Jason called me late that night, I had already been asleep for several hours and could barely focus on his voice. He was at a party down the road, he said. He didn't want to bike home this late, his lights needed new batteries. Sure, sure, I said, I wouldn't want to bike home this late. I unlocked the front door and headed back to bed, assured that he would lock it behind him when he came in.
What happened that night is still a blur, a blur partially imposed by my deep desire to forget. What I do remember is the smell of his breath as he climbed on top of me, breath like straight whiskey. I remember pushing him off of me, telling him to stop, go to sleep, wrestling against him as he tugged at my clothes. I remember thinking, "My roommates are going to hear. What will they think?" And I remember him holding down my arms as I tried to push against him, until I finally thought, "He's too strong. If I don't give in it'll be worse later. If I don't give in I'm going to be raped." And so I let go.
I remember getting up later to shower, numb and in pain. When I came back to my room, he was gone, the sole remnant of the night a text that he had sent on his way home. "Sorry. I wasn't a good friend last night." I remember sitting on my bed, staring at my phone until it rang, my father on the other end letting me know that my dog, Toy, had just passed away. I called the organization I was supposed to volunteer with that morning to let them know the news, that I needed some time to process my pup's death. What I didn't tell them was that I couldn't sit on a bike seat for the 1.5 hour ride, that my head was clouded from what had happened to me in the dark silence of my room that night.
"If I had been any younger that would have left me terrified," I thought. "He's lucky he didn't try that on someone his own age. I'm old enough to handle it. I'm strong." I rationalized myself into acceptance, this man 10 years younger who had overpowered me like I was a child. Eventually I began to wipe it out of my mind, and his presence slowly faded both from my daily life and memory.
"You realize you raped me too, right?" I finally answered. It was the first time that I'd said that word in relation to what had happened between us, and I felt gutted by it.
"I wish you had told me that sooner," was all he could say, and he disappeared from my life as quickly as he had appeared. After that single confrontation, I thought that he was finally, completely gone.
Except that he wasn't. He was still in my body, in the form of terror that could burst out at any moment: Riding the bus, running at night, walking my dog. Walking Gumbo became a performance of body memory, as he tugged at his leash to run after some squirrel or skateboarder passing by, overpowering me and often knocking me to the ground. That sense of helplessness, of shear panic at being overwhelmed by the strength of this other being, the inability to control what was happening to me, would leave me shaking and in tears on the ground, stammering apologies and trying desperately to hold it together until I could get Gumbo back to the house.
When my good friend told me that she'd been raped, I knew exactly who had done it. Hers had happened about a year before mine, and I sat on a park bench on a sunny afternoon, the screams of children playing nearby piercing the caverns in our conversation, and I hugged her and cried and wondered who else had been hurt, and why I had thought that I was strong back when he'd held me down and forced me to let go of my will to fight back. Holding my friend, I wanted to fight again, but I couldn't face him. And so we sit with this secret between us, this shame for not being strong enough--then, and now.
And like so many rape victims before me, I just want to forget.
It's hard for many of us to understand the forced silence and shame that women feel around rape (and here I am talking solely of women in the United States, because each country has its own reasons behind sexual assault and the culture of silence, countries united by their commonality: complacency with violence against women.) And within the United States, each woman (and yes, men, too) faces her own intersectionality of secrecy, compounded by her racial/ethnic identity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and on and on. Yet I believe we do share a larger, US culture that at once expects purity and reservation, while also demanding that we look and act pleasing, that we give just enough, but within limits that morph with the eyes of our male beholder.
"You'd look prettier if you smile," I'm told, again and again as I quietly wait for the bus or scurry past the cafe downtown or simply sit on the park bench on a sun-streaming afternoon, weary from medication and late night homework.
"Come over here and talk to me, beautiful."
"Yeah, you fucking slut, you dyke, keep walking then!"
"Dress like a boy, don't want this dick?"
"Short little dress on, you know you want this."
"Bitch, look at me!"
"Stuck up cunt."
"Just give me a hug and I'll let you go."
"You're not that pretty."
"Fat bitch, nobody would fuck you anyway."
And that's just a walk through the park. Women are bombarded with messages their whole lives about what they can do, say, wear, and the punishment for transgressing these amorphous boundaries of acceptability is all too often violence. And so we internalize this shame, and we begin to doubt ourselves, and we begin to think that yes, perhaps I did deserve this, perhaps I did bring this on myself, because (my shorts were too short I was out at night I let him in I thought we were just friends I thought he loved me I didn't say hi I said hi too soon Why wasn't I smiling He's my husband Why did I drink I shouldn't have gone with him I shouldn't have gotten on that elevator alone Be more aware Be more vigilant Friendzone Don't lead him on Walk in pairs Don't wear headphones Nobody will believe me...) And we find ourselves trying to protect everyone but ourselves from the truth of what had happened (He'll be angry with me I deserved it I'm going to make people uncomfortable if I talk about it They shouldn't have to listen...)
And so they get away with it, and we hug on park benches and hope these tremors in our bodies will disappear.
Most undetected rapists go on to rape 6 times. The average age of a rapist is 31. Mine was barely in his 20's. I know of 4 of his victims. Who will the other two be? Why couldn't I name what had happened to me in time to prevent it from happening to someone else? Why can I still not talk about that night? Why does this stigma prevent me from telling others "I am a survivor?" But instead of being able to talk about what happened, we sit in our rooms, typing on our computers late into the night, isolated and filled with self-doubt, never able to comfortably name our trauma out loud.
I think it's time we start talking about it.
(Please join me in the comments section with your stories, testaments, and thoughts. You are welcome to leave them anonymously if you want to share your story but are not at the stage where you are comfortable publicly claiming it. We are all in different stages of our journey.)