You can recognize survivors of abuse by their courage. When silence is so very inviting, they step forward and share their truth, so others know they aren’t alone.
― Jeanne McElvaney
My daughter during her senior year of college a couple weeks before graduation texted me:
“He was found guilty of rape. He will go to prison.”
A few weeks earlier she called me on the phone to seek emotional support before she testified as a witness in the rape case of her close friend. My daughter had been the last person to see her friend and the young man and the first to see her the next morning. In the immediate aftermath, she and her friend bravely took all the correct actions as they had been educated to do so.
During my daughter’s summertime freshman orientation, the Dean of Students spoke boldly and honestly about the rigorous policies and procedures of the school in complete cooperation with city and state law enforcement officials. The dean shared in a very adult and professional manner about the realities of date rape on college campuses. She covered not just the statistics but shared about the real dynamics of young people experimenting with alcohol, drugs, and sex.
Speaking refreshingly forthrightly about clear distinctions between consensual sexual relations and rape, the dean had everyone’s rapt attention. When truths are being spoken, people listen.
You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium filled with students and family members. Afterwards my daughter and I looked at each other in that knowing way. We had previously engaged in many honest and open conversations about these topics. And she knew what had happened to me.
When I attended college no one in leadership positions spoke about date rape.
While on spring break in another city with my older sister, we got invited to a Hung-Over Leprechaun Party, which we attended. My sister wanted to spend time with her boyfriend, who was in law school at the time. Her boyfriend introduced me to his roommate, who easily stepped into the role of my chaperone for the evening. He failed in that duty.
I remember the details vividly to this day. Earlier in the evening, I remember him saying as he placed his hand on my thigh, “You can trust me. Nothing will happen.” He stated this after I told him I had a boyfriend in my hometown where I attended college. I also admitted that I was still a virgin with a deep commitment to remain one even though I experienced feelings of lust and curiosity. He drank a lot of alcohol. I drank sips to fit in.
I fought back to no avail. He was stronger than me. My necklace broke. My earring got lost. He pinned my arms betraying his earlier assurances. Immediately afterwards I furiously hissed at him, “Do you feel better now?” I remember the photo of the woman with the long brown hair, brown eyes. He told me he would likely marry her. She looked stunningly beautiful in that framed photograph on his dresser. I remember asking him to spell his last name and how each letter he spoke felt like they branded themselves to the piercing, sharp pain of my lost innocence, my body seemingly marked for life. And likely for him, I remain a notch on his bedpost, a bragging moment in the men’s locker room, a scoff at how easy it is to deflower a virgin, an easily dismissed and forgotten transaction.
The next and last time I encountered this man was at my sister’s wedding. I walked down the aisle as the maid of honor. He walked as one of the groomsmen. At the reception while standing next to the non-alcoholic beverage table, I held my cup of punch as I watched him approach me with his smug smile, those “I conquered you” eyes staring at me, and his body swagger.
Oh, how many times have I gone back to this moment wishing with every cell in my being that I had put my knee in his groin or thrown my cup full of punch in his face and said all the words I had kept inside since that godawful incident.
Yet, I knew the context. My deeper commitment remained with my sister and the wedding day she had envisioned since she was young. Plus, the blood had drained out of my face; the freeze reaction immobilized me. Standing still in my beautiful green Laura Ashley dress, stockings and heels, I awkwardly mumbled a few words until he finally sauntered far away from me.
Today I thankfully have more confidence and dignity than I ever have. I see myself as a person who passionately thrives even as I continue to work to make peace with the challenges I endured. In many ways, I’m vibrantly healthy, though this awful experience and other past experiences, at times, haunt me as I continue to fully accept them as part of the messy, ugly, beautiful, rich tapestry of the life I’ve lived so far. Forgetting seems impossible. Sharing feels liberating.
Choosing and practicing radical honesty, acceptance, love, and empowerment have become their own form of redemption.
Bravely sharing my truth begins to release my nineteen-year-old’s heart from the prison of victimhood and silence. And I know that my inner soul truths regarding my beauty and worth remain untouchable and unconquerable. The qualities and contents of my character grow stronger every day.
Rape and sexual abuse have absolutely nothing to do with love or healthy sexual expression. Domination often mixed with mental pathology and alcohol create this godawful cocktail of poisonous righteousness inside of many men who commit sexual assault. Rape has nothing to do with women’s bodies-size, color, shape, the clothing they are wearing or not wearing, the alcohol they drink or don’t drink. Sexual assault and abuse happens to boys, young men, and men. This type of violence remains a human challenge.
All human beings deserve to live in safety, dignity, and peace.
In my next essay I will share strategies, ideas, and resources that I found to be profoundly useful in my own pathway to healing and some of the solutions I believe could be implemented to address this challenging issue in our culture and world.