The day after my 22nd birthday, I was raped. It was my senior year of college, nearly a year ago, and I had gone to a house party. There, an acquaintance led me to his room and had non-consensual sex with me while I was visibly intoxicated, after I had said no.

I immediately told a few friends and family members. About two months later, I reported the incident to my university’s police department. And now that I've come to peace with my assault, I speak about it openly.

Usually when I tell people that I was raped, I get looks that vary from sympathetic to suspicious. Almost always, and with all good intentions, people say, “Don’t think of yourself as a victim. Look at it this way – you’re a survivor!”

They assume I want to be a survivor. As if putting that label on me will immediately transform my view of my rape, or magically erase my memories from that night.

I don’t blame them. It’s not easy to respond to someone who tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted. Even having endured it, I grasp for the right words to comfort those who disclose their experiences to me. Some people choose to call themselves survivors and it genuinely encourages them in their healing process. It promotes regaining control of one’s life, which can be critical in trauma recovery. I understand that.

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However, I can’t seem to identify with the label “survivor.”

Maybe it’s because my rape wasn’t violent. I didn’t have to fight for my life. I “survived” having drunk, unwanted sex. I wasn’t beaten or drugged or forcefully pinned down. I knew my assailant.

I was disoriented, deceived, and in shock. I’m not a hero for that.
 

So why didn’t I resist? Because I was disoriented, deceived, and in shock. I’m not a hero for that.

But maybe I also can’t accept the label “survivor” because people tend to question if my assault even qualifies as rape. And this, in turn, questions my credibility as a "victim."

I constantly have to prove that I endured a legitimately traumatic experience.

Even if people don’t directly say they disagree that I was raped, I can clearly see their opinions in their follow-up questions and the advice they give me. I’ve learned that most people are too blinded by gender norms and cultural teachings about consent to understand that I did not ask to have sex that night. I’ve learned that people will find a way to blame me for my rape, whether they realize it or not.

I didn’t realize how much our society internalizes rape myths until I told my story to people I thought knew better. The day after I was raped, a close friend told me, “Don’t worry about it, nobody likes the way they lost their virginity!” Another friend insisted that my rapist didn’t know he did anything wrong, even after it was revealed that he had previously raped two other female students. And a police officer told me that I could have given my rapist “nonverbal consent” without realizing it.

What I heard was that I put myself in a situation to be raped — and therefore my experience wasn’t traumatic enough to make me a victim.

Here’s what makes me a victim: someone took advantage of me while I was defenseless and intoxicated, when I was unable and unwilling to give consent for sex. My body was violated by a person who previously told me he would respect my boundaries.

When we avoid calling someone a victim, we avoid the fact that they have suffered unfairly at the hands of another person.
 

Since then, I've struggled with anxiety, panic attacks, medical issues, and unspeakably low self-esteem. I spent countless hours of my last semester of college in emotionally exhausting interviews with the police. I told my story to a panel of strangers in a university hearing where my rapist was ultimately found responsible for committing sexual assault — yet allowed to remain on campus.

No one wants to be called a “victim.” But avoiding this term perpetuates the cycle of denial around sex crimes.

When we avoid calling someone a victim, we avoid the fact that they have suffered unfairly at the hands of another person. We invalidate their suffering and we ignore the responsibility to help them recover.

***

Still, though I prefer the label “victim” over “survivor," neither inspires me. Neither makes my journey easier. Neither says anything about who I am as a human being.

For months after my rape, I spent hours frustratingly exploring this conundrum. I regularly saw a therapist, sought advice from loved ones, and searched for relatable stories online — yet no one seemed to understand my internal conflict.

Then one day, my therapist asked me, “Do you want to be a survivor, or do you want to be free?”

Relief washed over me as I clearly envisioned my future undefined by my rape.

I am a person who was raped. That is what happened to me — but that is not who I am.

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