Every so often, I have occasion to speak publicly about being a survivor of sexual violence, about my rapes. Woah, rapes? I think the word and hit backspace in my brain: quick, delete the “s.” Rape. That sounds better.
It has been my experience that almost everyone who speaks out about sexual assault has, on occasion, been greeted by the deluxe combo platter of blame, disbelief and minimization. There is, however, a special stigma sauce for those who have been assaulted more than once, as though it’s indicative of a character flaw within ourselves. Many of us, I think, will pick the “worst” incident and talk about it as though it’s the only one. I usually do. Partly out of misplaced embarrassment, partly because I can’t stomach another fight against the usual response: I wonder what she’s doing to bring this upon herself. After all, most women are never raped, right? So, someone who has been assaulted more than once must be doing something wrong.
I arrived at Dartmouth already a survivor: three men beat and raped me at summer camp when I was twelve years old. Although I didn’t tell anyone what had happened for two years, by the time I arrived on campus for freshman orientation, I had spent a long time working through the trauma and was feeling pretty good about life. I had formed incredibly strong friendships in high school, was starting college at my first choice institution, and felt immense excitement about the adventures ahead.
When I share my story, that’s usually what I tell, because, in a way, it’s easy. I was a kid, they were strangers, they had a weapon, the attack was physically violent. It fits a lot of the stereotypes. Eventually, I started therapy, I recovered with support from my friends and family, and I became active in the anti-violence movement. As trauma narratives go, it’s very tidy.
Here’s something that rarely gets discussed, though: one of the strongest predictors of sexual victimization is prior victimization. The National Women’s Study found that 39% of female rape survivors in the U.S. had been raped more than once, and other studies have concluded that women who have been sexually assaulted in the past are between 7 and 35 times more likely to be victimized in the future than those with no trauma history. Your name never gets taken out of the hat.
I had gone out to a party with some friends – my freshman floormates – but they had left to get drinks, and I couldn’t find them anywhere. When he started dancing with me, I dissociated immediately: my brain abandoned ship, and I watched the rest of the night unfold from somewhere near the ceiling. I observed him walking me to my dorm, trying to put me on the bed (but I fell down), taking my clothes off (I didn’t help), and fucking me on the floor. I tried to push him off (I stopped when he placed his forearm against my neck) and cried the entire time (he noticed, he kissed the tears off of my cheeks), but I didn’t say anything. Pleading hadn’t helped the first time, and the words kept on getting caught in my throat.
He left right afterwards, and my friends came running into the room, panicked. They’d been looking for me for hours. I laughed it off, downplayed it from the start, it wasn’t so bad, I told myself, no bruises. I know him. He sent me an email. He wants to hang out again. Maybe, maybe it was all a misunderstanding. After all, I was drinking, and I never said no.
In the next few weeks, my internal monologue ran through all of the standard victim-blaming messages that so many survivors internalize. If I hadn’t been drinking… If I had kept better track of my friends… If I had said no… If I hadn’t been so scared… And, on top of that, I refused to admit that I had been raped again, that I had let myself be raped again. It felt too humiliating, and I couldn’t give up the sense of control that I had spent the last several years working so hard to rebuild.
I threw myself into the party scene, desperate to prove that nothing had changed, and it’s incredible how I continued to destroy myself after the fact. I could tell you dozens of stories, some violent, some just sad, but they all happened because I didn’t see my body as valuable, worth protecting. I told myself that, if I initiated, it would be okay, that I was in control. But it’s really not control if, the second you’re alone with someone, an alarm bell goes off in your head and says, “If you don’t have sex with him, he’s going to have sex with you anyway. At least do it on your own terms.”
Years (and many psychotherapy sessions) later, I now have the language and the insight to make sense of my experiences. I’ve learned a lot: about the costs of silence, the risks of speaking out, the pain of being disbelieved and doubted, and the joys of finding new strength and community. I also know that every time a rape survivor doesn’t come forward because we have gotten the messages, over and over and over again, that we’re somehow to blame for what happened, that we’re overreacting, that we’re not credible witnesses, the damage is exacerbated.
We may not be able to completely eradicate sexual violence – there will always be bad actors – but we can reduce it significantly and we can refrain from making it worse. In each of our communities, we need to honestly confront the social structures and attitudes that give rapists a social license to operate. We need to create a culture in which allegations of sexual misconduct are treated seriously, in which perpetrators know that they will be held accountable, in which survivors’ privacy is protected, in which disclosures of sexual violence are not met immediately with speculation intended to nullify the allegation, in which bystanders are motivated to intervene. We need to value survivors speaking out frankly about sexual assault, because the more people who can talk about what happened to them, without fearing for their safety or the social consequences of disclosure, the harder it will be for the same perpetrator to continue to abuse with impunity. These are changes that would have an enormous impact reducing sexual violence and they are changes that we can make. We just have to want to.