May 10, 2016

It’s Not Your Fault: On Survivorhood

Content warning for discussion of alcohol; descriptions of sexual assault

I was 18 years old when I was sexually assaulted.

She was charming and solicitous; she made me laugh until I cried; she had a dusting of freckles over the apples of her cheeks that made something in me squirm to look at. She would call me sweat pea and ruffle my hair and my heart would be flooded with a consuming certainty that I was safe. She told me she was in love with me. She was my sister’s roommate. She was 38.

When she first started texting me, she told me over and over that I was “mature for my age.” I, at the time a timid, mentally unwell, insecure and sexually inexperienced lesbian who felt I had something to prove, absolutely ate that up. Her attention was gentle at first; she praised my intelligence, my wit (which, at 18, I can tell you was nothing impressive), and treated me with softness. I was smitten.

And then came the pressure, the come on, just let me fuck you, the I’m glad you’re young because I know you’re not a slut, the clenched fist deep within me that told me something was wrong, that I was not comfortable, that I was not safe, and yet I persisted in the face of her voice in my ear saying am I too much for you, are you scared, you can’t handle me, you’re just a little kid and I, in my need to be seen as adult, as capable, as “mature for my age,” as having disavowed the trauma of my childhood, submitted.

My first ever sexual experience, if you could call it that, took place in the front seat of her car. I was so drunk I couldn’t really speak. My memory of that night is exceptionally blurry, but I remember telling her to stop. I remember saying no. And she kept going.

Over the course of the two month period that I knew her, this happened several times. I did not have the vocabulary to name it as something that was not okay.

When she decided she no longer wanted to see me, I was a mess. I couldn’t drag myself out of bed. I couldn’t think of anything but her. And, as twisted as this is, I would have given anything to be incapacitated in the front seat of her car again – young, tender, exploited, breaking, broken, but at least she was there.

In the months after it happened, I took to laughing it off, despite the hot shame in my throat, the anger, the misery, the heartbreak. I explained it away as my grand first year mistake. My friends were always going to frat parties and hooking up with people only to regret it later; why was my situation any different? I had been stupid and incautious and I was to be blamed.

I held these ideas for the next few years. Even as I began to volunteer with the SASC, to learn about consent and boundaries and feminism, I separated my own experience from all the other narratives I heard. It wasn’t sexual assault, what happened to me. It was just a bad decision. I did not deserve to place the consequences of my recklessness among the ranks of people who had actually suffered, who had been abused and exploited, when what happened to me was trivial in comparison.

It was this October, three years later, that I was sitting in a workshop centered on consent and the law that it hit me like a bullet.

What happened was not a bad decision, poor judgment, a first year mistake. What happened was abusive. What happened was assault. She was charming and solicitous and made me laugh until I cried and she was a rapist.

Leaving that workshop, I felt heavy with the weight of all my misplaced shame.

Softly, tentatively, I began to tell myself, it was not your fault.

It was not my fault.

When I walk by someone on the street who is wearing the cologne she wore the night she watched me get drunk so she could take me into her bed, and the smell takes me back, reminds me of the dizziness and the light-headedness and that clenched fist deep within me that told me something was wrong – it was not my fault.

When I’m kissing someone and suddenly remember her mouth on my neck, her hands on my flesh and I freeze up and have to talk myself down, to tell myself that this is different, that I am choosing this, that not all sex is rape – it was not my fault.

When I think back to that time in my life, when I remember how profoundly miserable I was, how exploited, how used, how disgusting her actions were – it was not my fault.

Even telling this story, I had to fight for every word; I had to fight the voice in my head telling me that I’m exaggerating, that these were my mistakes, that I let it happen to me. But I am fighting to claim the identity of survivor. Coming to terms with the trauma of sexual assault is a long journey, a continuous process, that often feels like one step forward and two steps back.

But it gets easier. Now, having named my trauma, having begun to calm my survivor heart, I know, at least on some level, that I cannot be blamed for what happened to me. Nobody should ever have to experience what I experienced (especially under the guise of love), and no action of mine makes me even remotely culpable for an older woman’s decision to sexually assault me.

If there is one thing I want all survivors to eventually, slowly, softly, tentatively begin to internalize, this is it. It was not your fault. It is not your fault. It never will be, never will have been your fault. Your scars may always be there, but it will get easier. You are strong, courageous, beautiful, and radiant. You did not deserve what happened to you. And you are a survivor.

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