If there were no visible scars, no witnesses, couldn’t I just leave it behind?
Content warning: rape
It happened 14 years ago, five years before my husband and I met, far away from where we live and I’m no longer in touch with anyone from that time period. Most of my friends, ex-boyfriends, and family members do not know. It’s not something I talk about.
Until recently, my husband knew very little about my sexual assault. But it’s resurfaced. Probably because I’m writing more personal material, probably because I’m thinking about having a child, and probably because I have one year left to report it. Under the Massachusetts criminal statute of limitations, legal proceedings against the perpetrator must commence within 15 years from the offense. As of June, I’ll have one more year.
In 2017, as we leave behind female stereotypes in many facets of life, rape remains trapped in a web of denial, shame, and victim-blaming.
Emotional, heart-wrenching survivor stories and the comment streams that doubt them litter the Internet. In response to Abigail Hauslohner’s 2014 op-ed in the Washington Post about the difficulties of coming forward, comments included: “Just walk to a hospital.” “Her story does not ring true for me.” “It does not add up,” and “Story is not credible.”
This is not a coming-forward story. I’m not going to bear my heart and soul and tell you everything that my rape did to me and still does to me. I’ll tell you that the summer after my freshman year of college, I lived on Nantucket with two guys, M and K. After hanging out with M non-stop for 10 days, I went into a room with him at a party. Most of my sexual experiences at the time had included making out with guys I was casually dating; I was a 19-year-old virgin. I wanted to make out with M. When he wanted more and I said stop, he held my arms down. I yelled for him to stop. He didn’t. He held his hand over my mouth and held me down. Afterward, I mentioned to K that something “sketchy” had happened but, really, I couldn’t conceive of what had happened to me.
In 2003, as a teenager from suburban Ohio whose family didn’t talk about sex and whose friends weren’t having it, date rape was hardly in my cultural lexicon. My only experience with the word “rape” included my friend who had been beaten up so badly by five men in an alley that they tore her ACL. How could what happened to her be the same as what happened to me? M had flirted with me and even courted me, going on chatty walks with me at dusk.
A few days after it happened, I left Nantucket. I lost 20 pounds, withdrew from my friends, and transferred to another college. If there were no visible scars, no witnesses, couldn’t I just leave it behind?
I do not care if you believe me; I care if we, as a culture, recognize that mainstream reactions to rape are woefully behind the times. Serena Williams’s 2013 comments on the Steubenville rape case were well documented but are so concerning that they are worth revisiting. Williams, a woman known for breaking stereotypes in tennis and fashion, commented that the unconscious 16-year-old “shouldn’t have put herself in that position.” After the public outcry over Ms. Williams’ victim-blaming, her apology statement included “For someone to be raped, and only at 16, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved, that of the rape victim and the accused.” Expressing sympathy for the accused rapists places the Steubenville case within the grey area of he said/she said, which is ridiculous in a case where the survivor was unconscious and the rape was videotaped. Even after a guilty verdict was issued, a rarity for rape cases, mainstream news outlets expressed a mixture of emotions, placing emphasis on the tarnished lives of the high-achieving, athletic young men and not on their victim.
Granted, in 2015, mainstream press coverage finally labeled Bill Cosby a rapist. But it is important to note that the claims against Cosby had existed for years, yet the mass press coverage did not happen until after Hannibal Burress’ bit calling Cosby a rapist went viral. Burress drew a line in the sand—he did not express sympathy for Cosby. His actions are encouraging, but the media and celebrities still often express a mix of emotions, see CNN’s 2016 sugar-coated coverage of the Nate Parker rape case that focused on his apology and barely presented any of the survivors’ claims.
People cannot accept that rape happens because it is too painful. It is too dark a world to rationalize so the victim is doubted or blamed. When I told my brother, he nearly crashed the car. When I told my mother, though she later offered support, her response was “Why did you go alone?” When I told my teenage best friends, one said, “That didn’t happen to you,” and the other said, “You can’t tell her that,” which is very different than, “Yes it did.” My family and friends are moral, kind, and intelligent people—I cite their reactions as evidence of a larger culture that dismisses rape.
I’m finally at a point where I’m ready to not be the only person bearing this pain. After years of wanting to bury it, I am now well aware of the fact that I have one year left before the chance to validate that my rape occurred slips away.
“A year is short. Life is long. What about after that? What do you want then?” my husband has asked me.
I want people to let go of their assumptions of who a rape survivor is and how a rape survivor should act. And what and when and how a rape survivor should report the crime. There is no correct course of action. Know that when it happens to you, you have been silenced. You have been violated. You have been made to feel that you do not exist. To those who have not been through it, you know nothing. All you can do is listen.
Jenny Hatchadorian is an award-winning storyteller. Jenny’s films have won Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Women & Film Awards. Her story “New Family” was published by Story Club Magazine in 2017.