I’ll never forget my experience with sexual assault. It was one thing to live through the horrible experience of having someone attack me. It was another horrifying experience to muster the courage to go to the police—and I now understand why most assaults go unreported.
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network estimates that a sexual assault occurs once every 107 seconds in the United States alone. And, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, as many as 63 percent of these assaults go unreported. On college campuses, more than 90 percent are not reported—which means that, as a student on campus, I was in the minority who did report my assault. The low rate of reporting probably has to do with the fact that most sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. As Georgetown Law School reports, “Among victims aged 18 to 29, two-thirds had a prior relationship with the offender.” This was certainly the case for me.
My assaulter was someone I had known for a year and had come to view as a friend. We got each other’s jokes. He seemed to understand things I was going through. So when I invited him over to my apartment to watch one my favorite TV shows, it wasn’t meant to be an invitation for “Netflix and chill”—the phrase my peers use to signify an open door for hooking up. I liked him, but I had told him I wanted to just be friends, and my desire to believe the best in people made me think he could respect that.
We were sitting down watching the show when, before I knew it, he started to grope me, moving his hands around my lap and attempting to penetrate me. All the while he held my hands captive so that I couldn’t fight back. I felt powerless and panicked, like I was in a bad dream—he was stronger, and he was going to succeed.
I said “no” and then “Please, no.” He didn’t stop trying to get through my clothes even as I spoke out and struggled in response. When my words of protest weren’t acknowledged, I momentarily froze. Then, as my adrenaline rose, I somehow jumped back into action. I jerked away from him and managed to kick him out of my apartment. I was hurt, knowing I had been violated. But I was also confused as I fielded his pleading texts and calls that it was OK—just a misunderstanding—and that I was overreacting.
That’s when I learned the more insidious side of being assaulted by someone you know: emotional manipulation. Those who commit sexual assault often are not only physically aggressive but also have emotionally controlling personalities. After twenty years of study on the subject of non-stranger assault, forensic researcher David Lisik found that a common tactic of sexual assault offenders is to “use psychological weapons—power, control, manipulation, and threats backed up by physical force.”
The person who assaulted me did just this. Perhaps wishing his words were true—maybe it was just a misunderstanding—I decided to believe him. I agreed to see him again; I hoped it would allow us to smooth things over. This time, he advanced even more aggressively, pinning me and attempting to rape me. A fight or flight instinct took over; I punched him and ran.
Wandering the cold, dark, and wet street alone was more comfortable than being in a warm, lit building with him. I called my best friend, who I am sure broke traffic laws to make it to me in record time. “Something terrible just happened; please come and get me,” I told her. I had to also tell it to myself because I could hardly believe it. When I got in the car, I told her the story, thinking the words “sexual assault” but never saying them. Luckily, she did. She told me that’s what it was and that I needed to address this immediately.
I always thought that if, God forbid, I was in this nightmare situation, I would immediately call the police. But when it had actually happened, I resisted. I felt embarrassed and vulnerable, and I was still hearing his pleas in my mind. In the immediate aftermath of my fleeing, calls and texts flooded my phone. He was leaving messages saying he acted the way he did because he cared about me; he begged me not to call the police. He thought he could talk me out of it, and he almost succeeded.
For weeks following the first assault, I felt overwhelmed by numbness and a sense of being small and weak. I felt confused and scared. I truly viewed myself as nothing. It’s hard to believe, but I perceived my assailant to be someone who actually offered me safety and protection from being hurt by anyone else—a sick irony and method that is common among those who tend to commit sexual assault as Lisik discussed with his psychological weapons research. He led me to believe that I should have wanted him back, that I couldn’t do any better. I now know this is common among victims; there are so many reasons why victims return to their aggressors. We blame ourselves. We talk ourselves into circles, trying to say that it wasn’t really assault, there’s nothing to report.
I felt foolish for ever trusting the guy, but I thought that giving him another chance would make me feel better. I hoped we could have a normal interaction, and I would stop doubting myself for how I was feeling. But that night, when it happened the second time, I knew what had to be done. Self-doubt aside—I couldn’t ignore his wrongdoing.
After my friend picked me up, we drove straight to her apartment and spent two hours talking about what had happened. I called another friend who had police training, and he reassured me that I wasn’t crazy and that I would be taken seriously if I chose to report what had happened.
So that same night I went to the police station at 2 a.m. I stayed for hours talking to the police. The cop who took down my report was kind and gentle, but that didn’t make the experience feel any less humiliating. The police asked me questions that at times sounded accusing; they asked about the nature of my relationship with the accused, about whether he broke into my place. They asked for vivid details about the parts of me that are private, needing to know anatomical terms in detail. It left me feeling naked and exposed in the sterile fluorescence of the station. I held my breath through it all, wondering if at one point they would turn to me and tell me, “Sorry, there is nothing we can do for you.”
While mechanical and humiliating, the reporting process is something I’ve come to appreciate. I know the police officers are doing a job, and that job requires them to be thorough. I also now know that process does not include hand-holding. It wasn’t about my feelings; it’s about controlling a crime, and for a few hours I had to pretend to be numb. No one wants to relive the horror they just experienced by reporting it. Instinct goes directly against that urge.
I ultimately filed a report but did not press charges personally. This means that if someone else files a report on him, they will see he has a prior record. My reporting it wasn’t the end, though; he continued to come after me and pursue me, and it took a personal protection order for the nightmare to end.
My heart aches alongside those who have been sexually assaulted, whether they have reported or not. I believe the line between sexual affection and sexual assault has become very blurred in our society, leading more and more people to be assaulted without later reporting or, in their confusion, trying to justify what happened to them. A range of actions count as sexual assault—even if the perpetrator doesn’t succeed in their intended action, as mine didn’t, it is important for us to recognize that a situation is no less important or worthy of police attention.
I haven’t forgotten what happened, and I am still working to fully move on and thrive again. But I can say, more than half a year later, that reporting gave me an internal boost of strength and sense of freedom. I wasn’t carrying the load alone.
I admire my fellow survivors who reported; I also admire my friends who didn’t report—they had to learn how to thrive again without the closure that a police report can give. In fact, I wouldn’t be writing this today if it weren’t for the friends I confided in, who in return told me that they too had been assaulted but that shame kept them from reporting. As it happens, these were the very friends who convinced me to be brave and continue talking about my experience with the hope that even one person can gain wisdom or strength from what I experienced.
So while reporting my sexual assault was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, the strength I grew from doing it made it more than worth it.
Image Credit: Alex Ivashenko