January 15, 2014

Denim Day: A Personal Account

*Trigger Warning*

On January 16, 2013, I realized that an event of the previous September had not been a drunken mistake. It was drug-facilitated sexual assault.

I sat on my friend’s bed in residence and cried. We were both wearing jeans.

The realization on Denim Day was a coincidence. The night before, I had a conversation with a survivor about his sexual assault and my ‘drunken mistake’. It was the first time I told the story without trying to laugh it off. In that telling, I realized that the ends didn’t meet. The next day, I understood what had happened.

I spent the next few months trying to comprehend sexual assault. Why had I not realized sooner? Since I realized so late, did it not count? Was I changing the story in my mind? Did I attach the label of ‘sexual assault’ to absolve myself from blame? Most importantly, was I responsible?

The answers came slowly. Even though I was intoxicated, it wasn’t my fault. Intoxication does not give anyone the rights to your body. When there is sexual contact with someone who is intoxicated, it is drug-facilitated sexual assault. This does not mean that the perpetrator forces someone to drink. It means that legally, the person is unable to give consent.

Still, I felt, I chose to drink. I had worn a dress. Maybe I was giving off the wrong signals. I switched back and forth between blaming myself and blaming the perpetrator. That wasn’t easy – he was my cousin, 15 years my senior, and had been my idol for most of my life.

The ten or so times I’ve told this story, I get the same questions. First cousin? Yes. Did he know he was your cousin? Yes. Had you met before? Yes. We’ve seen each other once a year since I was 7 years old. If you’re my therapist, you might ask, do I drink that amount often?

So you were raped? No. Sexual assault is any unwanted form of sexual touching. And then they’re confused, because my story lacks drama. And credibility – if it was just touching, why couldn’t I stop it?

I don’t have one answer to that question. It could be because I didn’t think it would go so far. I thought he would be discouraged by my lack of encouragement. It could be because I was not in control of my faculties and didn’t understand what was going on. It could be because we were in a hotel with most of my extended family, with many people in the room, and I didn’t feel I should make a scene. It could be because I trusted him to stop.

Sexual assault that is perpetrated by a family member is an individual experience. In my case, it meant that I couldn’t remember my childhood without feeling triggered. I skipped a family reunion because I was scared. I didn’t tell anyone in my family. Even though his actions were by nature violent, offensive, invasive, and damaging, I knew that he had not meant to hurt me. I still struggle with this decision.

After January 16, 2013, I had to confront a lot of issues that started after my sexual assault. I stopped drinking altogether. I started dressing conservatively. I had terrible body image. I didn’t trust anyone. I was sad all the time.

I started researching women’s issues. Very, very slowly, I stopped being angry. I understood that my cousin was empowered by rape culture and did not understand consent. Of course, there is still blame, but the understanding I’ve gained is immensely healing. 

The most important thing I learned was this: consent is an enthusiastic and freely given yes, by a person who is not drunk. I still struggle with self-blame, and when that happens, I try to remember that any sexual contact without consent is sexual assault.

Since the last Denim Day, UBC has undergone too much to ignore. We have made national news for the Sauder chants and the string of sexual assaults on campus. We have started important conversations, hosted lectures, and held more than one Facebook debate over victim-blaming and rape culture.

It is my hope that this Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we acknowledge the frequency of sexual assault and the pervasiveness of rape culture. But it is also my hope that we understand the stories. Behind every statistic, there are millions of faces. When we discuss rape culture, it is not abstract. It has a very real impact on lives.

This past year, I have victim-blamed myself. I am terrified to tell romantic partners. Someone once told me that it showed a lack of character on my cousin’s part, and poor judgment of character on mine. My therapist told me I shouldn’t have had so much to drink, and that I was probably giving off ‘sex vibes’. I realized I would be defending my story for the rest of my life.

I am not glad this happened to me. But I had to rebuild part of myself, and I came back stronger. I have found ways to make myself deeply happy. I fight against sexual assault and rape culture. Some days, I even forget that I was once a victim. Today, I wear what I feel comfortable in – and today, I’m wearing jeans.

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