The Slow Paradigm Shift of Sexual Assault

Do I still have to tell this story? Actually, I’ve never really told anyone except my husband. It’s the story of how I woke up to a man having sex with me when I was in college. But it’s not just my story, it’s the story of millions of women every year who are sexually assaulted and how society still hasn’t made enough room for our voices yet.

The Kavanaugh hearings recently brought this issue to life again. Like any controversial current event, a Facebook conversation spiraled down into what soon became victim blaming and the all-too-common disbelief of a credible woman’s story. This person on Facebook summarized Kavanaugh’s victim as a liar, a political operative, an attention whore- because obviously women who want attention don’t care what form it takes even if that means death threats and the airing of deeply personal, intimate stories.

It’s just that- that a woman has to come out and relive and recount this awful, intimate, taboo moment in her life- that is the reason I have never told my story. Until now.

My assault happened when I was in college. I was on the collegiate rowing team and I had a crush on one of the guys in my boat. To be honest, he really wasn’t interested in me. That was pretty obvious to everyone but me, so when he called me to come hang out at night I gleefully went along. I went to his house and we hung out. I don’t really remember what the night entailed. I’m sure we kissed. There was no alcohol involved but I was tired as I usually had to get up around 5:00am to make it to the boathouse on time.

I was so tired and so out of it that I didn’t even remember it happened until he sheepishly asked me if we were “okay” a few days later. He was worried because he hadn’t used protection. I told him we were fine because we hadn’t even had sex. He then informed me that we had.

My heart stopped. I immediately shamed myself for being so reckless. “How could I have done this?” I remember asking myself.

It was only after his prompting that I was able to conjure up a vague memory of him on top of me. I remember flashes of his hands on me and then him having sex with me. He made a joke about having had another girl- a girl he was serious about- over the night before and how his roommates thought his prowess was hysterical. A wave of shame and embarrassment hit me so hard I wanted to curl up and hide forever.

Hiding, however, wasn’t an option. We were on the team together. I was confused. He liked me enough to have sex with me but not enough to treat me decently? What did that mean? Because it was so common to victim shame and blame at that time, roughly 2002, I honestly thought I deserved it, in a way. I willingly got in bed with him. I kissed him. Not knowing any better, I figured that because I had put myself in this situation, I was his to take. In other words, I believed the all too common rhetoric that “I had it coming.”

Me, leading the novice women’s 8 as a coxen.

Although I was humiliated and sick from the assault, it didn’t really register that he had done anything wrong until 2017. Fifteen years later I finally was able to piece together that disgusting feeling inside whenever I thought about that night. I was finally able to understand that it is actually not okay to have sex with a woman when she is not conscious, and that sleeping next to him with my clothes on did not grant him consent.

Today, a newly minted sexual assault expert on Facebook tries to tell me that many women falsely report sexual assault (they don’t). He tries to tell me this victim has a political agenda (hard to believe since she was assaulted as a teenager. FYI, my abuser didn’t care or ask if I was a democrat or republican at the time.) Mr. Facebook boisterously claims that the victim just wants the attention (I can almost guarantee she doesn’t).

There were people in my life I could have talked to about this. I could have gone to my coaches on the team. I could have talked to a professor or a Dean of the University. I could have told my teammates or a friend. I didn’t. I didn’t because I didn’t understand what had happened to me and I thought it was my fault. No doubt, as a child herself, this woman may not have understood what happened to her either. She may have believed she, too, had it coming. Or she may have been scared. Or she may have been a thousand other things she was fully justified in feeling because she was a victim of assault.

There is both a physical and emotional injury to sexual assault. For a long time, I assigned words to myself like “slut” and “whore” because of what this man had done to me. I doubted myself. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t have the language for it. That is an assault on a scale so large and so drawn out that I haven’t been able to get my head around of for years.

Now, I understand that the man on Facebook and the man in that bed have too much in common. They both perpetuate the emotional assault. They make the environment for reporting attacks prickly and inhospitable. They imply the victim was “asking for it” and straight call her a liar. They criticize the way she reported it so many years later, because we, too, are capable of getting that wrong in the judgmental minds of the uninitated.

Me, the year I was assaulted preparing to fly out west. I had dropped out of school and had been removed from the rowing team.

My abuser wouldn’t acknowledge me after that night. He made me feel like I didn’t exist. He ignored me, brushing the wounds of the assault aside, making me feel crazy. That’s exactly what this man was doing, too. Calling women crazy for reporting our stories.

You know what though, he’s right. I am crazy. Crazy determined. Crazy resilient. Crazy outspoken. I won’t let what this person did to me lie in the shadows of shame and guilt any longer. Thanks, Facebook troll, for bringing another story to light. I know you’d like to pretend this stuff doesn’t happen as we say it does, but I promise, it does and with more frequency and in ways you can’t even imagine.

For my girls and my son, I’m speaking up. I’m putting my story out there so we can change the rhetoric of victim blame and shame. I want to join millions of women who cast a new light. I want to live in a world where we validate and support women and their experiences.

We aren’t crazy. We aren’t lying. We aren’t disposable. We are fiercely strong, brave and resolute in our courage and we are coming for you. Believe that we will change the world.

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