A year ago, I went to Las Vegas with my girlfriends to celebrate our university graduation. On our first day there, my friends and I went to a loud, large, messy pool party at one of the hotels. Within minutes of arriving, we met a group of young men and started drinking with them until late in the evening. One of the guys, a professional athlete, took a special interest in me and I found his attention flattering.
Thanks to the alcohol, the rest of the evening is now patchy at best. I recall stumbling out of the party as a big group, then ending up in a dark hotel room.
I do not remember if I said yes. I do not remember if I said no. What I do remember is collapsing into a chair one moment, and waking up the next moment in a bed with a heavy body on top of me. I remember his friend sitting on the other bed across the room and making a comment about how his friend had gotten "the hot ginger." I remember feeling that my safest option would be just to wait it out.
I can imagine what you might be thinking at this point in my story:
Well, she should not have been drinking for so long. She should have stayed with her friends. She did go to Vegas.
I'm also imagining that these thoughts occur much sooner than He should not have had sex with her.
Or, at least, that's how I thought about the incident.
I was so ashamed and angry with myself that when I told my friends (and later my boyfriend) about what had happened, I painted it as though it was all my fault. Instead of telling them that someone had sex with me when I was passed the point of being able to give consent, I said, “I had sex with someone.”
Telling my boyfriend was heartbreaking for both of us. I’ll never forget the pained look in his eyes. He didn’t want to talk about it for long, and in that moment it seemed like our relationship was over.
At the time, I really believed it was my fault.
The weeks after this trip were the worst days of my life. I tried to distract myself with work, but I couldn't stop myself from constantly playing back the events of that night, or the constant loop of self-blame in the back of my mind.
My relationship with my boyfriend went to hell and back during the first couple of months following the assault. Even though we still loved each other deeply, there was always a tense undertone to our interactions. Fights started seemingly out of nowhere.
Only when I shared my story with two people who were involved in the counseling psychology program, where I had studied at my university, did it start to click that what happened was an assault.
They were two of the few men in my life that I trusted and viewed as “safe” at this time. They were the first people to use the terms rape and sexual assault to describe my experience, which was both a shock and felt like a lightbulb moment for me to understand my situation.
It took other people telling me I was not to blame for the truth to slowly sink in. What happened was a sexual assault because I at no time wanted to or consented to having sex. It was a decision that young man made without involving me.
The influence of alcohol also complicated my experience. Previously, I never accepted “I was really drunk” as an excuse for anything, so I was not going to let myself off the hook that easily.
It took my counselor comparing my assault to drunk driving for me to finally forgive myself. She said that there is a reason we have laws against drunk driving. The drivers always think they're more capable than they actually are when under the influence. We don’t allow people to drive when they’re drunk for the same reason consent cannot be present for sex when someone is drunk.
It took many hours of counseling, sharing my story with those I trusted, journaling, and self-reflection for me to truly believe that I did not “deserve” what had happened to me.
After I was able to understand that I was a survivor of sexual assault, I knew that I needed to retell my story and paint a more accurate picture for the people I had confided in early on. It was, and is, important to me that my experience is understood.
Retelling my story to my girlfriends and my boyfriend was a very surprising experience. I shared many similar details, but it wasn’t until I used the term sexual assault that my friends truly understood what had happened.
The road to repairing my relationship started once I realized it was a sexual assault and was then able to advocate for myself.
One night we were driving to a party and I told my boyfriend that I was scared to go and be in an environment with people drinking. I remember explaining what had happened in Vegas again and using the term sexual assault. As soon as I said those words, I could see the wave of understanding flooding his face. From that moment on, we were back on the same team, supporting each other through coping with this terrible experience.
We worked through some tough conversations and because of that we now have a deeper connection and level of trust than we have ever had.
I would never wish this experience on anyone, but I have gained more than I have lost from this terrible experience. It destroyed my self-concept, exposed all of my insecurities, and forced me to rebuild my self-view from scratch. It took a lot of work, but through the rebuilding process, I no longer have this deep need for others to validate me.
I understand that I can never know for sure what the experience was like for that man in Las Vegas, but I am doubtful that he has thought about this night every damn day since it happened. I doubt that he woke up the next day filled with regret or worry about what happened. I highly doubt that he still needs to mentally prepare himself every time he walks into a bar, watches professional sports, or puts on a bathing suit.
That night could have been one of many for him. And we live in a culture that feeds us many disturbing messages about sex, including this one: She may not seem like she wants to, but just get her drunk and things will change.
Turn on the radio, listen to almost any song, and you will find a message of male dominance and female submissiveness. I am a huge rap fan and it took me months before I could separate the music from the lyrics and listen to the genre without cringing.
The statistics for sexual assault are atrocious: One in six American women has been the victim of a rape or an attempted rape, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). This number is also likely much higher since many women do not come forward due to the stigma and victim-blaming surrounding sexual assault.
I have put a lot of thought into whether or not I would share my story. For a long time, I was too worried about being judged and being vulnerable, or that nobody would care about what I have to say.
As I healed from this experience, I started to read blog posts by a few women who spoke so courageously and honestly about their struggles with eating disorders, loss, suicide, and depression. I cared deeply about what these women had to say and wondered if I could have a similar effect on someone out there reading this post.
I also remember how alone I felt after the assault. Every day, I hunted the Internet to find someone whose story resembled mine. I frantically read everything I could find, hoping that there would be some detail to prove that the experience was not my fault.
Every time I read that a woman fought ferociously against her sexual assault, or screamed, "No!" at the top of her lungs, my self-hatred increased. When details matched up more closely with my experience, I blamed myself less.
And so I have decided to share my story publicly on social media because of how I have been affected by the blog posts I have read. I hope that I make an impact on even just one person either by validating his or her experience or through broadening someone’s understanding of sexual assault.
Part of why I had such a difficult time labeling my experience was because it did not fit into the picture of what many of us consider sexual assault. When we think of sexual assault, we typically picture a shadowy, mystery figure who strikes randomly, targeting women walking alone at night. In reality, most sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.
I no longer blame myself for the assault or for how I dealt with it emotionally afterward. What happened happened. There is nothing I can do to change that. As I said, I am a stronger person now than I was before and I am clearer on my passions in life.
I am deeply grateful to all of the people who were there for me during this difficult time and to everyone who told me it was not my fault.
If you or someone you care about is struggling to deal with a sexual assault, being told it is not your fault can make a world of difference. I also want to give a big thank you to my boyfriend who worked through this alongside me and who is an unwavering support system.
Please share this post if you feel comfortable. The first step to creating change is increasing awareness around the prevalence of this issue.