I was 15.
I am one of that tiny 4% of survivors of stranger rape. It was just like you read about in the papers. Only my story wasn’t in the papers.
Fifteen. A sophomore in high school. It was early spring; I’d been back from London, where I’d spent the first half of that school year, for about three months. The hiatus from my suburban public school in the states made me feel out of place, and that, combined with my wild adolescent hormones and confusions about my sexuality (I was barely conscious of them, as such, but they were there), made for some emotional turbulence.
I coped with this turbulence in two ways: disordered eating, and disordered exercising. I didn’t have body image issues—it was never about how I looked. It was about how I felt. I felt utterly out of place in my body, out of control of my life. Controlling my food and my exercise felt like a way I could get things back into my own grip and start finding my way again.
And so it happened that one night, as I often did, I got up for a midnight run. Snuck out of the house after my parents were asleep to hound my sense of urgency about I-didn’t-know-what into the neighborhood sidewalks with my feet. That night, as usual, the streets were empty and I had them to myself. Except that I didn’t have them completely to myself, because suddenly I heard a car door open right behind me, a car that had been just sitting, parked, by the curb, waiting, lights off, so I had no idea at all there was anyone there, and suddenly there he was right behind me and rather than fighting or kicking or yelling or screaming when he grabbed me I froze. I closed my eyes. I dissociated. So my memory and my flashbacks aren’t of me in my body, being raped in the back of his car. They’re of me hovering somewhere in some purgatory that must be reserved for such things watching the shell of my body get raped. I watched this man from up above, and while I was sick with fear and hurt for that body down there, I also couldn’t stop thinking why is he doing this? how ill is this man that he can see this same body that I am seeing right now and not feel compassion and respect for it? And I pitied him.
But as soon as it was over and he pushed me out of his car, grunting that I should be grateful he didn’t kill me so I’d better not tell a soul, I was *snap* right back in my body and that pity and wonder I’d felt from above blew up in smoke and there I was, back in that body of mine, and I started puking and lay there on the sidewalk throwing up and bleeding and praying to the god I didn’t even believe in to help me get up on my feet because I knew that if I didn’t, I would die. Not from physical injury, but because my soul was flattened under the weight of the hurt and movement, I knew, was the only way I could coax it back to life.
I didn’t tell anyone that night, or the next day, or the day after. Or for thousands of days after that. No one knew. I didn’t go to the hospital. I didn’t call the police. I didn’t get a pregnancy test or a pap smear and when my period didn’t come when it was supposed to, and three weeks came and went and it still wasn’t there, I didn’t go to Planned Parenthood. I knew I wasn’t necessarily pregnant, that the sheer trauma was enough to fuck up my cycle, but I was afraid to find out, so instead I sat at the computer in the public library and searched the internet for ways to intentionally miscarry. Just in case. And I did them all. One day a few weeks later I had the worst period of my life, so much blood, so much cramping, and maybe it wasn’t actually my menstrual cycle revving its engine to start up again anew, maybe it was something else I can’t even type. I’ll never know.
And meanwhile, no one knew. You know why? You know why no one knew about a fifteen-year-old girl who had been raped at knifepoint on neighborhood streets, a girl who was hurting so much that she didn’t know where to put it all except to absorb it in her pores which would harden and splinter and break her into a hundred thousand pieces? You know why no one knew?
Because we live in a fucking victim-blaming society. Because the fifteen-year-old me, already emotionally fragile even before, would not have survived the brutality of being questioned, doubted, chastised, scorned, patronized, picked apart. Blamed. I’d been explicitly taught and had absorbed through cultural osmosis that women who are raped are dirty, they’re trash, they deserve it. Sluts. Bad things don’t happen to good girls. Keep your legs closed, dress modestly, don’t talk to strangers, don’t go out at night by yourself, yell and scream for help, carry pepper spray, take a self-defense class, say no loud and clear and with your body, make sure he knows you mean it. Because obviously it’s YOUR responsibility to make sure you’re saying it in a way HE understands. If you do all those things right, nothing bad can happen to you. And if something bad does happen? You did something wrong. You were out running at night on quiet streets? You were asking for it. Here, have some fucking preventive measures. Next time you’ll be better off.
Next time? What next time? Why is there a next time? (This is just Part I, after all.) There’s a next time because when you blame the victim, the perpetrator gets away. Even if he gets locked up, he still gets away. And you get laden with more responsibilities, you are given a longer list of things you need to do to prevent rape. And if you don’t do them, then next time’s your fault too.
Always be alert and aware.
Get in the habit of looking inside your car and the back seat before you get into the vehicle.
Always keep your drink in your hand.
Install adequate exterior lighting at all entrances.
Be afraid. Know your place.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. If you aren’t fucking aware already you’d better open up your eyes and ears to the stories we’re all telling. And also, can this awareness extend beyond April? Awesome.