‘Effects of sexual assault on future relationships’
‘Multiple sexual assaults’
‘Definition of rape’
‘Was I raped’
‘Can you be raped twice’
‘Can your boyfriend rape you’
These were some of an endless list of phrases I typed into google search bars, coming through every results page to see if anything could explain the last few years of my life.
Five years ago, if you’d typed any of the above, you’d get a handful of articles (and one pdf document) that documented the phenomenon of repeated sexual assaults. Most were unhelpfully inconclusive as to why it happened, but they were my only comfort in that they at least confirmed that it did.
A victim of multiple sexual assaults challenges our comprehension, and our empathy. We imagine that the after-effects would be hypervigilance, an ingrained wariness of risky behaviors or situations. The human brain, however, does not always act logically when distorted by extreme pain or shame, both of which rape victims experience profoundly.
A devastating letter by the victim of Brock Turner shed light on struggles of recovering from an assault, but fewer of the less palatable effects of an assault are as widely discussed. People are generally willing to accept anguish, anger or fear. They’re less ready to believe that trauma can beget trauma. If a woman has been so badly burned, some ask, why would she throw herself into another fire?
Smart, strong, reasonable women who have been victimized by sexual assault can still be vulnerable to abusive relationships, sexual situations they don’t know how to control, and unsure how or when to say ‘no’.
I’m one of them. One ten minute incident five years ago spurred me to spend the next 1,095 days unknowingly punishing myself for it. If a boy bought me a drink, I’d feel so guilty that he’d spent $5 on me that I’d close my eyes and bear it when he pushed me against a wall and put his hands up my shirt, even if I’d asked him not to. Was that assault? It couldn’t have been. I didn’t fight him off.
If I came home exhausted and someone I was dating didn’t listen when I said I was tired, then pulled me on the bed and unbuttoned my jeans while I protested, I’d try not to show them I was biting my tongue and crying because of course, this was how men were supposed to treat me and it was my job to put up with it. Also, I’d said yes before. So it couldn’t be rape.
If sex hurt, it was because it was supposed to. If I’d done something I didn’t want to, it was because ‘can we not do this’ was a favour I should be grateful for, not a fixed boundary. If I got hurt, it was my own fault because I should’ve known better. If I started talking about it, the confused looks while friends asked for clarification – “I mean, you said you were tired, but you didn’t insist, did you?” “If you didn’t want him to touch you, why didn’t you push him off?” – pummelled my definition of ‘consent’ to practically nothing.
The more confused I became, the more ashamed I became, the worse my decisions became, the longer my list of, ‘did I want that?’ became, the more my vicious cycle strengthened. Before I hit a breaking point and went into therapy, I would have had to be pulled into an alley kicking and screaming before I considered it rape (and even then I would have double checked what time I was walking home and asked myself what I was wearing).
The only things that would lend my story credence are that despite what happened, I have a good career, I have a stellar social media presence, I’m constantly projecting happiness, I’ve had successful relationships, and I’ve not spoken about it publicly before. The less we speak about it, the less we let it affect us, the more we blame ourselves, the more credible we are. As painful as it may be to lock ourselves into our patterns of behaviour, it is far more terrifying to admit what we’re doing, to admit what’s happening to us. It’s horrendous to be a rape victim. It’s intolerable to be a rape victim nobody believes.
I’m one of the luckier ones. After three years, I stumbled into therapy and a social circle of women I respected with similar experiences. For the last two years, I haven’t cared if someone buys me a drink, and my boyfriends know that even if it’s just because I want to read a book instead, they’ll have to wait until tomorrow.
Nonetheless, I’m still hesitant to talk about it. But recovering enough has left me with the gnawing guilt that comes with knowing that there are other women, right now, who are googling, wondering how much of what’s happening to them is their fault, desperately hoping it isn’t.
It took me five years to be able to say, being raped doesn’t mean you deserved to be raped. Being hurt once doesn’t make you damaged goods. You don’t have to spend your life repenting for something you didn’t do. If you didn’t want it, if you say you didn’t want it, that’s enough.
No matter how many times it happens, you should know, it isn’t your fault. You don’t have to live your life telling yourself it is.