22 Years After My Own Rape, I’m Grasping Onto Hope

I am cautiously hopeful that change is coming. People are speaking up and demanding accountability.

Today I feel a deep sadness in my core. Although I rationally knew that the Senate may indeed advance Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, I am still shocked at the outcome of the initial vote. I am heartbroken for past and future sexual assault victims as they extrapolate key messages from the events of the past week.

Despite my despair in this moment, I refuse to relinquish hope. I know that real culture change can take decades or even generations. When it threatens one’s position in power, change is terrifying. However, I believe that, thanks to brave women like Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, an unstoppable movement is underway.

Twenty-two years ago, I was raped. I didn’t report it to the authorities, and until last week, I had trouble believing it was really rape. I pushed back — but not hard enough. I said no repeatedly — but not forcefully enough. There were people sleeping 15 feet away who could have heard and helped me if I’d been louder.

I’m a social worker who’s counseled countless adolescents about sexual assault. I know intellectually that it wasn’t my fault. I did the best I could in that moment. But despite my knowledge and experience, I still feel a degree of responsibility for my rapist’s actions.

For many years, I didn’t know why I felt so guilty. But after listening to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last week and President Trump’s cruel comments about Dr. Christine Ford on Tuesday, I know. Our culture tells us not to believe victims. It teaches us to blame ourselves.

My rape story is all too common. I was a teenager living and working in London the summer after my freshman year of college. I worked at a pub and my roommates and I would sometimes host get-togethers at our flat in the evening. One of our neighbors was an older married man who periodically came to these gatherings. There was an attraction between us and one night early in the summer we kissed.

On my last night in London, my flat-mates threw a going-away party for me. We were all drinking. At the end of the night, when everyone else was asleep or gone, the neighbor and I were alone in the kitchen. Sitting on the kitchen counter, I willingly kissed him but as I realized he wanted to do more, I began pushing back. Rather than a violent and abrupt sexual assault, he slowly but forcefully had sex with me. I was crying and repeatedly saying no. I was a virgin and I wasn’t ready to have sex. He raped me anyway.

After the rape, I was confused and disoriented. I missed my flight home and spent a day wandering around the airport because I refused to go back to our apartment. My neighbor tried to talk to me, but I refused. Two weeks later, he sent me a gold diamond ring.

I immediately told my friends and family what had happened, but I didn’t even consider reporting it to authorities. The easy explanation for that is because it happened in a different country. But had it happened in the U.S., I know I wouldn’t have reported it. I felt like I was partially to blame for what happened to me, and I knew the authorities wouldn’t believe me.

It isn’t easy to report a sexual assault. The onus is on the victim to “prove” the crime. When they do speak up, many victims are questioned, doubted, and invalidated. Given those factors, it is not surprising that a recent survey shows that only 12 percent of college victims reported their assault or attempted assault.

Victims are attacked for what they wore, what they drank, whether they were interested in their attacker. None of these things are related to a perpetrator’s decision to force themselves on someone else. But, they are still used to excuse the rapist and discredit the victim.

Sexual assault is largely invisible to the outside world. If I had been the victim of a physical assault that significantly impacted me when I was 19, I wouldn’t have kept the experience as a dark secret. I would likely have been broadly supported, and no one would’ve asked if I deserved it.

If we want more women to report their assaults, we have to shift the cultural messages we send them. There is a disconnect between the public narrative that says more survivors should come forward and the reality that survivors are not honored when they do. Future victims and perpetrators alike are watching what behaviors are deemed acceptable and what people can or can’t get away with.

Feeling heard, encouraged, and believed around one’s experience is incredibly powerful. Feeling questioned, judged and doubted is equally impactful.

Scientific research illustrates the negative impacts of traumatic stress. Studies repeatedly show the far-reaching and long-term effects of trauma, including increased risk of depression, anxiety, chronic pain, problems in relationship and work, autoimmune diseases and many more. But trauma doesn’t have to cause long-lasting problems. Creating a more positive cultural climate that supports, rather than invalidates, victims’ experiences would help survivors heal.

The last week has been that experience for me. It has been incredibly powerful to hear a fellow victim speak publicly about her experience. As Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story is treated as legitimate by at least some people, I have felt a slight shift away from my internalized shame and blame.

And I’m not the only one.

Sexual assault centers nationwide have seen a massive increase in the number of phone calls they have recently received. RAINN, the nation’s leading anti-sexual violence group and 24-hour resource hotline, says the number of callers shot up more than 200 percent above average during the Kavanaugh hearings. As the stigma with sexual assault declines, honest sharing of experiences and healing will increase.

I’m not naïve. I don’t have much faith in top-down change. But I believe in the power of grassroots momentum.

As the mother of three young children, I hope for change but I worry that it isn’t coming soon enough. I struggle with the vision of raising my daughter to be strong and assertive in a climate where girls are encouraged to be “good” and “agreeable.” I fear that my boys will absorb the harmful narrative that “it can’t be true if she didn’t report it.” I don’t know how to talk to them about how our nation’s leaders disregard experiences like mine.

We have the potential to continue down the same path we’ve been taking, but we also have the opportunity to take a new path. The new path of validation and decreased stigma would create a climate where victims felt they have a true choice about whether or not to share their stories.

Twenty-two years after my own rape, I am cautiously hopeful that change is coming. I know that growth isn’t always linear and that power is not relinquished without a fight. I believe that, despite setbacks, change is underway. People are speaking up and demanding accountability. Although today I will cry and lick my wounds, tomorrow I will rejoin the fight.

Gretchen Davis is a clinical social worker and mother of three young kids.

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