CW: Sexual assault
On the cusp of the #MeToo movement, I was working in journalism surrounded by countless headlines and stories of women coming forward and speaking out about their abuser. Whether it was one instance or years of abuse, women were brave enough to have a voice that came deep from their chest to share with others that coming forward and speaking out was okay.
Writing these stories left me with a conflicting feeling in my chest. Some of the narratives that I would read, navigate for interviews, and reprocess for articles brought me back to feelings of anxiety, panic, and adrenaline coasting through my body. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why or how.
The scary, real, uncomfortable narrative of a young girl being intoxicated with friends, being left behind by a girlfriend, and waking up with someone on top of her, or touching her inappropriately, began to strike like matches inside of my core and my entire stomach felt like it was on fire.
I’ve always been someone who “blacks out” painful memories. I didn’t have an easy childhood and there were many parts of it that were filled with emotional trauma. Still, to this day, there are parts of my life that seem patchy, as if I’m trying to assemble a puzzle and I’ve lost dozens of pieces for it. I don’t remember so much and just can’t. It’s what my therapist had referred to as a “PTSD coping mechanism.” To heal my pain, my brain inherently painted it black so I wouldn’t live with the endless repetition of remembering painful and traumatic experiences.
One of these was my sexual assault.
For years, my body had a natural instinct to black out this portion of my memory because, for months, it traumatized me. The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself it wasn’t “sexual assault” and it wasn’t “his fault.” It was mine. It was my friend’s. It was the alcohol. It was the situation I put myself in. It was lying to my parents about where I was. It was the outfit I was wearing.
The narrative that so many other women find themselves in, victim blaming, is more common than I realized, or thought. In fact, according to studies, most victims don’t feel obligated or feel the urge to report sexual assault to the authorities as it is a form of re-traumatization. I guess, deep down, that’s how I felt at the time, too.
It’s not even something that, at the time, I had considered “sexual assault,” because we hadn’t had sex. As a teenager, I considered that if you were sexually assaulted, it meant you were raped. I wasn’t as educated in the understanding that sexual assault is anything that happens to you, sexually and physically, without your consent.
As a teenager, I chalked it up to something that was stupid, and something that was probably “my fault.” I remember being with a group of friends at a friend of a friend’s house and we were playing drinking games. My friend was there with her boyfriend, and another with a guy she was seeing, and a third friend who had left early. That had left only me and one other guy.
We were all drinking and having fun and then things got really hazy. The parts of the entire memory, they’re choppy. My brain just works that way, as a trauma response. But I remember being pinned down on a bed by this guy who was much bigger than me, and I tried to fight my way out of it. I remember his body pressed up against mine. I remember his mouth in places I wasn’t comfortable with. I remember hands on intimate parts that I didn’t want to share with him.
I remember screaming and cursing and kicking. I remember not one of my friends coming in to help me. I remember crying. I remember running. I remember telling my friends what happened. I remember them blaming me. I remember them telling me I should have “just done it” and had fun. I remember them telling me I had ruined the night out. I remember people calling me a “prude.” I remember that I stopped getting invited out for a long time after.
It took me almost a decade to come to terms with the fact that what happened to me was sexual assault. It took me years to admit to myself that I hadn’t done anything wrong. It took me years to realize that the situation I was in wasn’t my fault and then when I had said “no,” it meant no, and that the guy should have respected my withdrawal of consent.
It took me almost a decade to admit that those friends weren’t really my friends. It took me years to admit that sometimes it’s not just the guy’s fault, but the enablers around him, too. It took me years to realize that his friends probably told him he was justified, and it was okay.
It took me almost a decade to admit that I was a victim of sexual assault, and that the trauma from it still follows me now, when I am physical with anyone, and how I view and see my body. Myself. And my sexuality.