After my rape, I knew something really bad had happened. But at the same time, I couldn’t think about it. I blocked it out of my sight, but I knew it was there, like mold growing in the closet of a rental apartment. Stinking, ugly, and growing the more I ignored it.
I went to church for confession. It was my way of sanitizing the moldy closet with bleach. But that didn’t quite solve it. Confessing the sexual encounter that was my drug-sedated rape didn’t give me more than a temporary sense of relief. The shudders, the shame, the fears—they were still there.
I now realize why confessing didn’t solve anything. First, because what I experienced was traumatic (i.e., it required real psychological healing not just spiritual). And second, because it was not my sin to confess.
Saying it was my fault doesn't make it so, it turns out, and over time that lie didn't help me. It only festered in my psyche.
For a long time, I was convinced my rape was my fault. If I did x, y, or z differently, it could have been avoided. Sure. Buckle your seat belts, don’t email your credit card number, don't eat carcinogens, and so on. Precautions are always good, but they have their limits. Sometimes bad things happen to people who’ve taken every precaution, making it all the more tragic. And even for those less prepared, the sin of not taking every possible precaution is nowhere nearly as bad as the sin of intentionally violating others.
Still, though, there's a cloud of self-doubt that often accompanies victims of sex crimes. Your sense of security has been upended, so why should you trust anyone? Why should you trust yourself?
I am not who I thought I was, I thought. I’ve cheated on my boyfriend in the worst way. Who does that? Not a good person. I am not who I thought I was.
I now wonder if my rapist was counting on my internal guilt and self-loathing to keep me silent. If so, it worked.
The first time I was with him, I got unusually drunk as he bought me drinks. The second time I hung out with him, I was incapacitated and raped. When he asked to see me again—after the rape—his date request included an offer of pills—specifically, MDMA. Only in hindsight do I realize the trend. While I was blaming myself for not holding my liquor, was he waiting for the next chance to get me incapacitated alone in his presence? Was he offering me mood-enhancing drugs as a partier’s sad attempt at atonement? Or was it a predator's routine act of exploitation—a bait to get me to ingest something even more mind-altering than alcohol into my system so he could force himself on me yet again?
I thank God every day I didn’t meet him for that E-laced trip. Who knows where it would have taken me.
My self-blame and hiding from facing my rape, it turns out, was not going to be healed by itself. I heard things on campus about rape awareness, like Take Back the Night presentations, where women shared their stories, including the different ways they were manipulated and exploited by men. If I hadn’t heard those testimonies, I’m not sure I would have ever realized I had one as well. I'm not sure I would have thought outside the box and realized that even if I did risky things, like drink too much, leading up to the sexual encounter, it doesn’t change the fact that what happened was a rape. It doesn’t change the fact that it was clearly a non-consensual encounter. It doesn’t change the fact that I said "no" and cried during it. And I would never heal if I didn’t acknowledge that.
It wasn’t until I saw my rapist’s face again that my brain alerted me to the real threat. He was the threat to my safety, not my mistakes or short-comings. It was at least two years later, in a new city with new friends. After a social event, I saw he had commented on the Facebook feed of one of my recent acquaintances. There he was.
I wasn’t friends with him on Facebook, but I immediately blocked him. I told our mutual friend what had happened. (He was kind to me, but remained friends with the rapist.) I told my boyfriend. He was mad with the rapist, not me. Giving air to the story of what happened (even if, ironically men were my first listeners), helped me to see the truth I had been hiding internally. My rapist expertly banked on my shortcomings to violate me and keep me silent.
Soon, among safe, select women in my life, I felt comfortable sharing what happened. I found that I wasn't alone.
As I began my healing journey to make sense of what happened without blaming myself, I went back through my memory and recalled prior sexual encounters in my life. Freshman year, one guy friend who had a girlfriend and said he had no other motives than to study together, made a pass at me (I was surprised, but once it was happening, I felt more awkward to push him away than to go along with it). Junior year, a different guy who was partying in the dorm slipped into my room while I was sleeping (that time, I awoke with outrage and shooed him away). Even when I was eventually with someone who would become my longtime boyfriend, the first time we were intimate was unexpected, quick, and I cried then, too.
Somehow over the course of these encounters, I got to a point of very distorted thinking about sex—thinking that to go along with men’s sexual desires was normal. I assumed if I was “there” in the room, I was a participant—not just someone being played. But now I see those are things I told myself to feel better. In many ways, I was being used, maintaining an easygoing attitude, and living with the consequences.
Blaming myself for my rape was indeed like applying bleach to mold in the dark closet of a rented apartment. It's an act that takes ownership of a problem that isn't your fault but the landlord's, and, doing little to solve the root problem, it can delay the real solution that's needed.
Years after the rape, I ultimately removed myself from the land mines of the hookup scene on campus. I found a supportive group of friends and community of women. Do I have faults? Plenty. The path to healing revealed I have many things I could change and work on. But my rape was not my fault. Acknowledging this opened the door to healing. An end to the automatic self-blame opened the door to true self-examination. And honesty about my choices opened the door to true change in my life.