Five years ago, I was raped. I have never written or spoken those exact words before now; though I have shared the content of this story with those I’m close to, I have always stopped short of actually applying such a label to the experience. This kind of denial is not uncommon, as rape culture functions to normalize sexual violence, turning harassment, assault, and rape into such ordinary occurrences, we learn to see them as simply an inevitable part of every day life rather than recognizing them as the atrocities they are. And in fact, it’s that very hesitancy to identify myself as a victim of rape that has taught me what living in a rape culture truly means.
The circumstances of my rape seem to have been, unfortunately, common ones. I have, in the years since, read or heard slight variations of my story countless times from other women. The man was a close friend, trusted by me and adored by scores of volunteers at the organization where we’d met. He was in his early thirties, a little shy, a little awkward, and most known for his deadpan wit. I harbored a crush on him for many months, but I was in a monogamous relationship at the time and never acted on those feelings. We went out one day for a few beers together, something we did many times. I drank an amount that was normally tolerable for me, but for whatever reason, that day, it was not. Back at his apartment, I threw up. He—perhaps slightly tipsy, but in full possession of his faculties—comforted me. And a short time later, we were having sex.
I realize that for many people, questions of drinking and sex and consent can be a thorny thing. I don’t wish to engage in a lengthy discussion or debate here about whether it is ever possible for one to consent while intoxicated, or how we are to consider circumstances in which both parties are equally impaired. I do believe that there are, sometimes, situations in which one partner does not realize the degree to which the other is intoxicated. But I think it should be uncontroversial to say that if one is drunk enough to become physically ill, there is no possible way she can be considered capable of meaningful consent. In my case, I was never even asked for any kind of consent, anyhow, never asked if I was certain I wanted to be doing this, if I was feeling okay, if I was clear-headed enough to make this decision.
It seems to me, now, so cut and dry. If I heard this story about anyone else, even then, I would have zero hesitation in applying the label “rape.” But at the time, and for a long time afterword, I was unable to view my own rape for what it actually was.
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Initially, I certainly did feel a strong sense of discomfort with what had taken place. It was surreal to think about how much mental presence I had lacked, as though I wasn’t fully inhabiting my body when it occurred. It felt as though I had been an object in the truest sense of the word, like my body had been used while I was not completely there. I knew that I had, at least to some degree, participated sexually. But it hadn’t felt like participation in anything other than a disembodied, robotic sense. The entire encounter felt like a thing that was happening to me, with all sense of my own agency removed from the picture—a sensation that remains haunting to recall. And yet, as I now realize is incredibly common for rape victims, I also felt ashamed. It is sickening to me, now, to recall that I was actually embarrassed that my legs and underarms hadn’t been freshly shaven, that I was self-conscious of what I could only assume was very sub-par sexual performance on my part. That I actually sent him a message the next day apologizing for being such a mess, thanking him for taking care of me when I was sick. Ironically, I was humiliated that he had seen me so weak and vulnerable.
I was unable to see him as any kind of predator. I thought too highly of him, cared about him too much. On some level, I recognized his behavior as wrong; I thought that as my friend, he should have at least tried to check in and make sure I was okay with what was happening. But I made excuses for him. I knew that I had been flirtatious with him, that he was probably aware of the feelings I had for him. I was in my mid-twenties, not a naïve teenager, and yet I believed that he would not have had sex with me unless he had feelings for me as well. Uncomfortable as the circumstances were, I still clung to some misguided notion that he cared too much about me to simply use me in that way.
Weeks later, when I confessed to him that I had feelings for him, he responded by ending our friendship. And though that certainly solidified my sense of being used and objectified, I was still unable, even internally, to name what had happened as “rape.” We continued volunteering together; I continued to witness how loved and admired he was by everyone around us. Whenever I heard someone gushing over how wonderful he was, I thought to myself: you have no idea. But I also knew that there was no possible way anyone would ever believe me even if I did want to come forward with the truth. They would believe what I still half-believed myself: that I had practically thrown myself at him, that perhaps, at worst, he’d had poor judgment in a moment of weakness.
Though my own definition of rape has never been one that necessitates physical struggle or force, when I actually thought about the idea of being raped, it felt like something I had no right to claim. No matter what my intellectual position was, deep down I still envisioned rape as a blatantly violent act, one which involved resistance and pain, one that felt terrifying in the moment. In spite of my utter lack of consent, I felt that it wasn’t really rape because I was not sufficiently traumatized, because I did not say no or put up any kind of fight, because he was someone I knew and was comfortable with and might very well have consented to have sex with while sober, not a stranger or someone I found frightening or revolting. And while I would never dream of applying any of those qualifications to challenge the legitimacy of someone else’s experience of rape, I spent years using them to delegitimize my own. This, to me, is perhaps the most frightening, pervasive, and powerful way in which rape culture functions: sexual violence is normalized to such an extent that we can become unable to identify it for what it really is even when we are victims.
I was, and remain, traumatized by my experience. But what upsets me the most, five years later, is not my memory of the actual events. What I find most disturbing, most difficult to confront, is my own denial, my own internalization of the social norms that allow for such acts to be commonplace. When I hear or read or write about yet another instance of victim-blaming or rape-denying, I cannot help but think about my own experience. And I cannot help but think about not only all of the survivors of sexual violence who never come forward, but also all of those who are unwilling or unable to even properly name what has happened to them, even privately in their own thoughts. It is terrifying to me that we can be so accustomed to these misogynist terms of engagement, we learn not to even recognize the violations enacted on our own bodies. And when I consider how I—a grown woman, a self-identified feminist who was not unaware the patriarchal structures we live with—still managed to deny the validity of my own experience, I can only begin to imagine how many other women have been unable to fully recognize similar acts of rape for what they actually are.
We are still taught, here in the 21st century, that rapists are lurking, predatory strangers. That they are men who, at the very least, give off a vibe of creepiness, or who openly display sexist behaviors. We are taught that they are not nice guys. We are taught to mistrust women’s stories of rape, particularly when the rapist does not fit our profile. We are taught to believe that there is more to the story, that the woman was somehow at fault, that she did something to encourage him, that she was asking for it. And when we are victims, we must then continue to live in a culture that dismisses our experiences, that encourages our objectification, that says over and over, in a multitude of ways: what happened to you was not rape. What happened to you was normal. What happened to you was your own fault. What happened to you is not something you have a right to be so upset about. It’s no wonder that some of us, if not a majority of us, ultimately turn those judgments inward. As Adrienne Rich wrote, “Where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence.” And this is oppression working at its most efficient: it takes little effort to silence us when we are trained to silence ourselves. When we are denied the ability to even name our experiences, we are stripped of all ability to engage in dialogue about those experiences, and therefore also deprived of any means to collectively organize around–and fight back against–the injustices we’ve suffered.
I am sharing this story now not because I believe it is unique, but on the contrary, because I believe it is all too common. I am continuously overwhelmed by the question of how we are to go about combating rape culture, to begin changing such deeply ingrained social norms. But it seems to me that the first step, at least, is to speak out, to tell our stories, to tell the truth, to challenge the narrative we’re fed about who is and who is not a rapist, and who is and who is not a “legitimate” victim of rape. Reading and hearing the stories of other women with similar experiences played a huge role in my own ability to finally face the reality that what happened to me was, in fact, rape. I can only hope that coming forward with my own story might play some small role in helping other women to do the same.