It was the summer after my first year of college, and I had just broken up with my high school sweetheart. For the first time since he and I started dating (at the laughably young age of 14), I was single — and I had no idea what it was like to be single. I was a little excited by the prospect, but mostly, I was terrified. How do you even talk to guys you haven’t been dating for four years already? I had no idea where to begin.
It was at this vulnerable point, freshly single and totally naive, that I was sexually assaulted.
Around a week after the breakup, I got a message from the brother of my friend’s boyfriend, asking me if I wanted to get together. We’d hung out together a few times as friends when I was still in a relationship, so I didn’t think much of it — I figured we’d hang out again as friends, but maybe, now we’d flirt a little. I had always thought he was cute, and I knew he was interested in me, but I figured I’d just see where the night took me. I thought maybe we’d kiss, but I wasn’t even sure I was ready for that much — and I definitely wasn’t ready to do anything else.
I arrived at his family’s farm in Pennsylvania and we hung out alone in the barn for a while, talking casually. He offered me a drink, so I took it. As he let me talk about my year, the breakup, and whatever else I babbled on about for an hour or so, I realized that somehow, I was drunk. As in, walls spinning drunk. He’d been refilling my drink subtly as I spoke, all while somehow maintaining my eye contact, nodding, and asking questions that would allow me to continue talking — I realized my glass had never gotten more than half empty before he added more liquor. I commented on my frustration at having had so much to drink. I hadn’t wanted to get drunk; I still needed to drive home.
“I guess I’ll have to drive you there,” he said, adding, “Or back to my place.”
I told him I needed to get home. I checked my phone, pretending to have pressing texts from my mom about my whereabouts. In hindsight, I should have called my mom and told her that I wanted her to come get me, even though I had lied about where I was going. I was 18, and hanging out with this 24-year-old man would not be something she’d approve of. I vaguely wondered how I’d explain where my car was if he dropped me off at my house. Then I figured I didn’t care — as long as I got home safely, I’d come up with something in the morning. Everything was blurry, and I felt sick. I just wanted to lie down and go to sleep.
I told him I wanted to go home.
He drove to his place anyway.
I objected when I noticed that we weren’t heading in the direction of my house, and he told me we would go to his place so that he could give me some water and coffee while I sobered up. Then, he told me he’d drive me back to the farm when I was sober, where I could get my car and drive myself home. It seemed reasonable enough to my drunken mind, but I must have looked uneasy, because he said, “Come on, you know me. I don’t bite.”
“I don’t think—” I faltered, trying hard not to sound young and stupid. “I just got out of the relationship, and he’s the only one I’ve ever — I’m not ready to be with anyone else. Sorry if that’s weird.” He pretended to understand.
The next thing I remember is waking up. My underwear was on the floor. I felt dirty all over.
I got dressed, woke him, and told him to take me back to my car. We were silent the whole ride back. I asked him not to tell his brother, or his brother’s girlfriend. I got in my car, drove home, showered, and cried in my bed all day. When my mom asked me what was wrong, I told her I felt sick. She brought me tea and Advil. I wasn’t lying; I felt horrible. And not from the hangover.
At the time, I didn’t think of it as sexual assault. I just thought of myself as a slut. I thought about how horrifying it was that I had only broken up with my boyfriend a week before and had already hooked up with someone, and how embarrassing it was that I couldn’t even remember it. God, one of my friends had hooked up with him already! What was I going to say to her? No, I just wouldn’t tell her. Ever. Is this the kind of girl I was now? The kind of girl who just hooks up with anybody, even people she doesn’t want to hook up with? I hated myself.
I don’t even remember it. I don’t know if I said no, if I fought him off, or if I tried to run away. I don’t even know if we actually had sex, or what “base” we got to. For all of these reasons, I never thought about whether it was rape or not. I just assumed it was my fault.
When I got back to school in the fall, to the surprise of the editors at the blog I wrote for, I suddenly had an intense interest in sexual assault. I began researching the rates of assaults on campus, writing about it for the blog, reading books on the subject, and donating to organizations that work to prevent it. It didn’t cross my mind why I might have developed such a strong passion for this subject.
In fact, it wasn’t until a year later, when I had started dating someone new, that I even thought about it. My new boyfriend asked me why I spent so much time writing about sexual assault. “What got you so into this topic?” he asked me. “Were you…?” He let the question trail off.
I brushed it off. “No, no. I mean, one time I wasn’t really sure I wanted to hook up with this guy, and he did it anyway, and then I felt really gross afterward… But no, I was never, like, raped or something.” He nodded knowingly and accepted the answer without question.
He should probably not have accepted that explanation. He probably should have told me it sounded very much like I was “raped or something.” But it’s not his fault that society doesn’t teach us to view things like what happened to me as rape. I was the one who agreed to spend time with him alone. I was the one who agreed to drink. I was probably also flirty. I can’t remember fighting him off. I can’t specifically remember saying no.
But I definitely never said yes.
It wasn’t until I started doing so much research about what constitutes consent, about the definition of rape and sexual assault, and about appropriate versus inappropriate behavior in intimate situations that truth finally hit me.
That’s why I care so much. That’s why I want to pound it into everyone’s minds that simply not saying an explicit no is not the same as saying yes. Because no one else should have to feel the shame and embarrassment that comes from sexual assault, from someone else using your body for their pleasure without your expressed permission. If everyone goes into it knowing they have to get a voluntary, sober, enthusiastic “yes” from the start, no one gets hurt.
I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.
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