Content Warning: This piece includes language and content about sexual assault that some readers may find triggering or upsetting.
Two summers ago I was sexually assaulted. It is a memory I do not relive often, and to be completely honest, one I have probably avoided dealing with fully. Despite this, I remember with all-too-vivid clarity the feelings that came next; I remember rushing to get my things and get out of that apartment as quickly as possible; I remember the previous night’s mascara smudged on my face and streaking as I stifled sobs in the elevator; I remember seeing the judgmental look on the pharmacist’s face as I asked her for an emergency contraceptive; I remember spending the entire day rocking myself back and forth, as though the movement could stave off the memories. Afterwards, though, I got myself together, I showered hoping that I could wash the night off, and put on fresh makeup as I waited for my roommates to come home from their weekend away. I had no intention of telling them, or anyone, about my night.
Before the “incident”, I had always disdained people who chose to keep quiet about their experiences. I thought it was silly of them to blame themselves and refuse to come forward about them. I never understood the idea of “silent” sexual assaults – it’s not the “victim” after all who should be indicted, it’s the perpetrator. The true show of strength would be to come forward, I thought. I didn’t understand.
In House of Cards, a character voiced, “the person who got attacked just gets attacked all over again” – her story is one I have heard time and again. So many women get berated for lying when they claim rape; others are told that they are simply afraid of wearing the scarlet letter they earned for themselves. Think that this issue isn’t prevalent on campus? Have you, or anyone you know, ever defended a friend saying “but, he’s so nice” or “that’s so unlike him, I just can’t imagine him doing that?” I know I have. It may be a true thought, but one that in no uncertain terms discredits the injured party.
For me, however, these fates were not the ones that scared me. Rather, I was afraid of being called a victim. We sympathetically refer to those who have been sexual assaulted as “assault victims” or “rape victims,” and before my incident, I used the same rhetoric. But I refuse to see myself as a victim. Having been raped does not define me, and I resent the idea that someone might think that it does. The very term “victim” sounds to me like it confiscates any strength that I have, that it seizes my pride and pigeonholes me into being prey. I am not prey and I am not a victim. I am alive, and I am okay and getting more okay every day. The idea of people looking at me as if my defining characteristic is something pitiable terrifies me. Of course, it is very possible that I am alone in that concern.
I voiced this issue to a friend of mine a few weeks ago, and she asked me the very wise and legitimate question, “Well, what would you like to be called?” And the truth is that I don’t know. What a unfulfilling answer, huh? I might not be sure what feels okay, but I do know how much it grates against me every time the term “victim” is used. No one means it offensively, yet it is like no other word that anyone has ever used to describe me. Not bitch, not bossy (sorry, Sheryl), not anything else. It is uniquely painful to know that is how people think of you.
Probably because of this, I rarely tell anyone what happened to me – many of my (wonderful and supportive) closest friends still do not know. Every time I have told a friend about my experience, I have done so after strictly demanding that they not react. Maybe I don’t really mean what I am asking for, and just don’t want them to feel obligated to feel bad for me. I choose to act as though we do not need to talk about it, because I am too strong to need that charitable discussion. I mention this because I am not the only one who feels this way. We hear ad nauseam that 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted during their academic careers, but few of us can name 200 CMC’ers, or even 5, with that experience. Perhaps because others, like me, wish they were too strong for the discussion. So, we flippantly talk about sexual assault, we use clinical statistics and facts about rape to explain it, and we call women “victims.” We never talk about what it feels like. And truthfully, it is an impossible demand to expect anyone to do so. Instead, behind these numbers there is me, and dozens of others, gritting our teeth while everyone “sympathizes” for our statistic.
You may not know it, but you might have friends who have felt the same things as I have. Perhaps none of your friends have had this experience. But, as is true in many terrible circumstances, you really cannot know that. It’s an upsetting, uncomfortable thought, but I ask you to be cognizant of the people around you. It may be unsaid, but know that like me, there are others that quietly flinch each time rape is mentioned. Those friends are no longer passive observers sympathizing with whatever sexual assault lesson is put in front of them, but injured parties who choke up every time something forces them to conjure up a night they wish they could bury into non-existence. What they need, whether or not they have told you, is for you to remember rape culture is not clinical, it is not a disease, and they are not a statistic – what they need is your sensitivity. Know that even if they seem strong about it, it is important that you realize that it is something that might still affect them. For me, it probably always will.
I guess by asking to make this article anonymous, I am continuing to do what every person I used to see as weak does. I am joining that loud and stifling silence. It brings quite the quandary really: I refuse to be seen as a victim, but I plead for compassion. It is a smothering Catch-22, and one that perhaps is unfair to those around me. But even two years later, I can’t help it. I refuse to be a victim, and I beg the world around me not to make me have to look in the mirror to see that weak, mascara-smudged reflection of me I saw in the elevator that day.