Friday, March 23, 2007

Being a Statistic

Every two and a half minutes, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted.

Well over a decade ago, I was assaulted by someone I considered a friend. I don’t talk about it, don’t think of myself as a victim and don’t feel that event has a huge presence in my day-to-day life. I did not report it to the authorities. It took me years to come to terms with the fact that what happened to me was rape.

Honestly, I forget about it. And then I hear a statistic about rape and go through that brief moment of, ”I’m glad that isn’t me...” before I remember... Oh. It IS. I am one of those numbers.

I never talk about it, but not because of the trauma of it. Typically I don’t share personal information freely. Few things feel more personal than the emotional memory of being sexually violated. It tends to make me feel uncomfortably vulnerable. Also, my male friends are so upset by this information in a way that is difficult for me to understand fully and for them to cope with. They feel anger and protectiveness and often seem to experience something akin to guilt for just being male. I prefer to avoid those conversations.

You know when it comes up? When a friend has been the victim of a sexual assault or has had a near-miss. Thankfully, it has come up more often for situations in which someone has attempted to assault a friend that in situations in which they have succeeded (of course, that could just be further evidence that actual rape victims are far less likely to discuss it). I realized today, after having one such conversation, that I am tired of this experience existing only to comfort friends who have been victimized. This information lies dormant in me until the day a friend has been hurt and I come to them and say, “Here. I have been too. It’s ok. You’re not alone.” and that’s good, but it’s not enough.

Two thirds of rape victims are, as I was, assaulted by someone they know. It’s an awful truth. Rape or sexual assault are never the fault of the victim, but we aren’t always as cautious as we could be. We do not realize the threat exists until it happens to us. Vigilance cannot prevent it from happening, but perhaps it would help.

Twelve years ago, I spent all my time with a close male friend who I knew was interested in me. I was alone with him often, particularly when spending time at his house which was somewhat isolated. He was over a foot taller than me, had at least 80 pounds on me, and had a notorious history of a bad temper that I was aware of. I saw signs of his displeasure that I did not return his interest, but it never occurred to me that this would erupt in anger. His increasingly obsessive behavior was a warning sign but like so many people, I had a "That Happens To Other People" mentality.

I want to be clear that, just because this person was interested in me does not change the nature of this crime. It was not about sex. It was about violence. My personal experience reinforces the tenet that rape is a violent crime. This man was punishing me for not returning his overtures. Afterward, he began apologizing. I couldn't bring myself to speak to him. I was badly bruised and shaking uncontrollably. I pulled myself together and he drove me home. I still have this stark memory of the song playing on the radio in his car. I spoke to him once after that day. He showed up somewhere he knew I would be in order to talk to me and I told him never to contact me again.

At the time, I had only ever heard about rape in my Health Education class in school. I didn't know who to talk to. I didn't understand what had happened. Just like the textbooks say, I worried that it was in some way my fault. By the time I realized that I could have reported it, any evidence of the attack was long gone.

I have talked to my teenage niece and younger sister about it. I wanted them to understand that these things happen to people they know, that it is something to take seriously and consider when making choices about who to spend time alone with and whether it is safe to walk to your car alone at night. I worry when I realize how cavalier some of my friends can be. I know several women who have had near-misses with men who had shown signs of obsessive or unhealthy attachment that they never took seriously. One friend let two men she did not know show her an apartment alone in a dangerous neighborhood, only to realize that the situation was becoming increasingly sketchy. Another friend always wants to walk to her car alone after a night out, thinking that having someone walk her makes her look weak. I forget how invincible I felt I was when I was younger. I am not paranoid. I live alone and am unafraid. I just make careful choices and think in terms of protecting myself.

I have this subject on the brain because a friend had a bad experience recently. Her drink was drugged by a man she was out at a bar with. She had a bad reaction to the drug and went into a panic. Fortunately other friends who were there stopped her from leaving with him when they saw how erratically she was behaving. The next day she could not remember the majority of the night. Later on her date made some absurd excuses but admitted to having put something in her drink. While her experience was, thankfully, not as bad as it could have been, she is dealing with a lot of emotions that are familiar to me.

She went through denial, making excuses for the perpetrator, felt guilt over her anger at a "friend" - all the conflicting feelings that are created by having this done by someone she knew well and cared about. She also struggled with a lot of hurt when close friends who knew the man refused to believe her (in spite of his admission). I went through that when I was assaulted. No one wants to think someone they know could commit that crime. For many years, I only told a few close friends. All the same, one of them refused to believe me, which was very damaging. I think people underestimate how vital it is to the healing process for the victim to receive emotional support. I'm glad that my own history serves a purpose in that I can speak to going through that pain and confusion. But every time this happens, I feel a little odd and impotent.

I am always telling someone my story AFTER the fact. I'm not sure what other context in which to discuss it (you can't very well just start walking up to people and saying, "So, I was raped when I was 18. What about you?"), but the extent to which the topic is discussed feels insufficient. We all know these things happen, but knowing someone who has been assaulted can help raise personal awareness. Frankly, if statistics are accurate, everyone in the U.S. knows at least a few people - male or female - who have been the victim of sexual assault or rape. Due to how many rapes go unreported, the statistics are probably far lower than the even more frightening actual figures. I know that being aware can only make so much of a difference, but it would be something. I also think about the fact that realistically, I must know people personally who have been through this and have never talked about it.

Last year I got into a discussion with a group of women about sexual assault and rape. They knew I was performing in the Vagina Monologues at the time, and this led to a discussion of the broad range of subjects covered therein. There were six of us. Half of us had been raped. More than half of us had been assaulted or stalked. One of the women was in the middle of trying to get a restraining order reinstated. A man had drugged her, raped her and left her unconscious, naked and covered in her own menstrual blood in the middle of her living room floor. The last thing she remembered was sitting on her couch eating popcorn, drinking soda and watching a movie with her "friend." You can imagine the trauma she experienced waking up the way she did. Adding insult (and horror) to the experience, she was having difficulty getting the court to extend the restraining order and the man had begun contacting her again. I had been completely unaware that this was happening in her life. She had been unaware that so many women she knew had some sort of related experience.

Conversations like that reinforce my belief that we need talk about this more often. Take it seriously. Raise our children to understand caution and consent. Communicate openly so that more victims are willing to come forward. Make each other less ashamed or afraid to discuss rape and sexual assault. Destroy the illusion of distance from this crime. Let the people in our lives be aware that these statistics aren't just scary numbers - they are people. People we know.

People like me.

If you notice a change in text from the original, I excised a paragraph and then later returned it. Honestly, I found it a little stressful to recount any details that relate directly to my own experience. But I can't very well share other people's stories and not share any of my own, can I? That would really defeat the purpose of this exercise and undermine my desire to (finally) acknowledge my own personal history to a larger audience of women instead of continuing to belatedly tell personal friends one by one after they have their own horror stories to tell.


  1. I think that people who haven't been traumatized (whether it be rape, sexual assault, the loss of a loved one, etc) have a hard time dealing with it in others, and thus they are afraid to discuss it. It's almost as though they're afraid that by discussing what happened, it will somehow happen to them as well, or they are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, etc.

    I'd be willing to bet that this is especially true with regard to sexual assault. It reminds other women of how vulnerable they are, and often, this just isn't something that they want to come to terms with. It's "easier" to simply sweep it under the rug and say "it won't happen to me".

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with this subject.

  2. Thank you so much for the comment. It was difficult to post this, but I feel like my own negative experience serves a better purpose if I am willing to discuss it.

    I am certain you are right. Everyone wants to feel safe and most people find sexual assault to be a particularly difficult topic. When deciding to discuss it with my teenage niece I thought to myself, "Would you rather she keep the illusion of safety or would you rather she actually BE safer for knowing these things can happen?"