Last year, when I was 17, I was sexually assaulted by a much older man. I’m gradually learning how to talk about it — and make myself whole again.
It took me a week to talk about it. I told my friend Hann first. She was always the first person I told about everything. I couldn’t convey why I was upset because I didn’t know why yet. I wasn’t upset that I had sex with a man. It hadn’t felt good; was that why I was upset? Was I upset because this secret dream I had been living with for 17 years had been a disappointment?
Hann comforted me. She said everyone experiments. She told me she loved me no matter what. I cried over her acceptance. I still felt something other than tenderness within myself. I was so angry that I still felt uncomfortable. Why couldn’t I accept that I had done this? That I was this? I took my denial of his wrongdoing as a denial of my identity. I brushed it off as internalized homophobia.
I realized two months later that I hadn’t had sex with a man. I had been assaulted. It happened in August. I remember what I wore. Brown shirt, burnt orange shorts, and black knockoff Doc Martens. I remember that it was so hot my shirt stuck to my back. I can’t remember his name. It doesn’t matter. But I remember his age. I remember him saying, “I’ve helped younger guys going through this kind of thing before. We can just sit and talk about life.” I remember saying, “I don’t think this is a good idea. I don’t think I’m ready for this.” I remember hearing, “You’ll like it. It’ll feel good. You’ll love it.” I started to say no and he cut me off.
I remember my legs shaking. I remember looking at the trees surrounding us. The summer leaves ready to die. I don’t remember any thoughts I had. I remember his hands gripping my sides like he wanted to rip my ribs out of my body. I felt like I knew the definition of the word bleak. I sat next to him on a bench after I put my shorts back on. I remember thinking, “Don’t be rude. Don’t tell him how little you care about anything he has to say to you. Don’t tell him to shut the fuck up. Don’t cry. You have to be polite to him.” I wasn’t raised to be rude. He smoked three cigarettes and kept talking. I felt time stop inside of me. I heard him talking. I saw people walking by me, but I couldn’t feel myself. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. I couldn’t feel my breath. I didn’t feel my leg shaking restlessly. I didn’t feel the pain that was beginning to nest inside of me. I didn’t feel the twigs and branches being woven together in my bones.
He finally stopped talking and asked me if I wanted a ride home. I felt every inch of me cry out no. I politely declined. He left. I walked home as fast as I could, stopping only to dry heave every five blocks. My father asked me how eating with friends had gone. I said it was fine, and searched for a numbness that I would cling to for months. I never reported it. It never crossed my mind to. Why would I report this when I had put myself in this situation?? How do you report someone for harming you when you feel like you deserved to be harmed?
When he messaged me on OkCupid I thought he seemed nice.
In October I named what he had done to me. I had finally accepted and owned my queerness. I was messaging the boy I thought I loved at 3 a.m. Let’s call him Josh. Josh was telling me about his favorite Yo La Tengo song. I’ve never cared about something less than I cared about Josh’s favorite Yo La Tengo song, but I let him ramble about it. We switched topics, to horror stories about love. He told me about some shitty things men he had slept with had said to him. I was writing back to tell him my one horror story. I realized while typing that what I had gone through had been nonconsensual. I realized I wasn’t considered a person by someone who had touched me. I realized that I had been ripped apart by a man in ways I had only heard about in hushed voices on TV.
I told Josh I had been assaulted. We discussed it for 10 minutes. The conversation switched back to Yo La Tengo. I didn’t bring it up again. I didn’t tell anyone else what I had realized for months. I don’t remember most of the last half of that semester, my first semester of college. I remember crying in the bathroom. I remember vomiting in the bathroom. I kept trying to figure out the way to tell people who thought I was fine that I wasn’t. I couldn’t find the words to tell everyone that a man had ripped me to shreds. I wanted to be a shining untouchable queer god who no man could hurt. I felt as if I was losing myself every day.
I talked about it for the second time in May. I told a boy I was falling for about it. Let’s call him James. I shared more of myself with James than I had ever shared with anyone. When I told him about how I had been torn, he understood. I felt heard. James made me ache in a different way than he had. When James touched my sides I flinched. But after three nights spent with his arms wrapped around me, I felt a new sensation with a man. Safety.
After James I could finally speak. I found the words I needed. “Nonconsensual.” “I said no.” “I told him I wasn’t ready.”
I slowly started telling people what happened. It began trickling out of me in conversations. I started mentioning it in a quiet, offhand way. People seemed totally nonplussed by this. They would continue our conversations without really saying anything. I learned not to trust those people.
I told my friend Joy a few weeks before seeing her at a music festival. Even though she was in the Midwest and I was on the East Coast I could feel her rage. I could feel her sympathy and her pain in the vibrations in my pocket.
I found ways to tell new friends about it. I found ways to weave it into my narrative. I was queer. I wasn’t a boy or a girl. I was homeschooled until I was 17. I was straight until I was 17. Some days I got so anxious I couldn’t begin to imagine a future that didn’t involve me dead. I was sexually assaulted. I was a writer.
It became a part of my landscape. I allowed it to be a dead tree that sometimes poisoned some of the other things I loved.
My friend Caroline was the first new friend I had to tell. I remember telling her the entire story. I remember pausing before I told her he was 48. I remember making my voice not quiver. It was the first time I didn’t feel like I was going to break down crying.
Caroline and Joy and I have spent a lot of time talking about UVA lately. They both went to UVA, and we have spent hours discussing the way rape victims are treated. I am not their first friend to be assaulted. I won’t be their last. I’ve felt their anger on the phone when they yell about how disgusted they are. I’ve felt my own anger grow. Some days I feel as if I cannot look at men. Most days I am terrified of men.
They have inspired me to demand better from every man who ever speaks to me. They inspired me to be able to tell my story. They have inspired me to strive for a greater level of self-love. I spent Thanksgiving in Brooklyn with my best friend and her boyfriend. We curled up on the couch and I replayed the story of my assault for them. They looked at me with hurt. They apologized to me and I shrugged it off. This had become a part of my life. I lived with it every day. Some mornings when I woke up I felt it looming inside of me. Other mornings I woke up without it crossing my mind even once.
In October I met a boy. Let’s call him Matt. Matt was funny and charming. Matt had big brown eyes that smiled at me. I remember not believing he was interested in me until he kissed me. Then I believed him. We ended up on Long Island on a basement floor. He kept asking me if I was OK, if him kissing me was OK. I don’t know if a man has ever made me feel as safe as he did. He put his hands on my ribs when I was on top of him and I didn’t flinch once.
I told Matt about my assault a week after we met. He told me about his assault too. He told me he was so uncomfortable in his own skin that he couldn’t stand the idea of making anyone else uncomfortable. I felt so close to him in that moment I forgot that I was talking to a man about men hurting me. Matt called me drunk one night. He spent most of the call begging me not to let him hurt me. He asked me to hold him. He told me I made him feel safe. I didn’t realize that part of me had been terrified of making a man feel unsafe. I realized that I was scared of hurting others the way I had been hurt.
It’s been over a year. I feel like a person most days. I don’t spend my mornings in the shower gripping my sides and trying to cry quietly so my mother doesn’t hear. I can stand the smell of cigarettes most days. I spent a night crying in bed because I remembered the way his face felt against mine. Most nights I actually do my homework now. I don’t find myself wishing I was dead as much as I used to.
I told my therapist about August after six sessions. It’s getting easier. My ribs are getting stronger.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org.