A few months after I was raped in my freshman dorm room, I struggled to tell a close college friend—one of the few I would trust—about that night and its whirlwind aftermath. I vaguely remember saying that my body felt weighted and worn out. As my friend’s blue eyes darted from me to various points in the coffee shop, I fumbled for the words to describe the way I couldn’t close my eyes without re-experiencing the rape, the stubby nails against my flesh, the calloused palms traveling over my body. At the time, I didn’t know why these flashbacks were happening or when they might stop. I didn’t know how to explain anything to her, but I slapped words and sentences together to articulate the internal chaos I felt.
The café was filled with the sounds of a busy weekday morning: a grinder crushing beans into fine black powder, the ding of the cash register after a sale, the humming of a barista as she completed an order. When I inhaled to steady my nerves, a velvety layer of espresso filled the back of my throat. My friend lifted her oversized mug and blew on her steaming drink, dimpling the foam.
“But you’re over it now, aren’t you?” she asked nonchalantly.
You’re over it now.
I blinked, stared, and longed for her to understand how her question had belittled my feelings. I wanted to stand, scream, and throw our tiny, round café table to the ground, shattering the plates covered in pastry crumbs. Instead, I nodded, snaking fingers around my ceramic mug that was still too hot from the coffee inside.
“I’m fine,” I said.
I craved more than an exchange to explain what had happened to me and to define this indescribable time I’d entered that my friend didn’t seem to understand; I desired the relief I expected to feel when I confided and my friend didn’t judge me for drinking too much that night or presume my trials were over because the rape was or even preach that I should have reported my assault. Instead, I listened to the blend of surrounding conversations, indistinct classical music, clinking cups and scratching silverware, and pretended I didn’t feel so alone.
You’re, but not your. No ownership. You’re is a contraction that combines the words you and are. Present tense.
One of the first things anyone studying any foreign language learns to say is “I am.” At its core, this simple sentence has both a subject, I, and a verb, am, which is a form of “to be.” But the sentence could extend beyond I am, or existence, and could continue to signify the complex characteristics that make a person: physical descriptions, ownership of names or titles, blended nationalities, a particular faith or set of principles.
Small children often skip this clarification, preferring to talk about themselves in the third person, as if they were tiny cave-people who’ve just discovered fire; only later in language development do we learn and use the sacred I, an unreliable first-person narrator from a rather late beginning. Then, we’re able to manipulate language as we grow, employing all the nuanced ways we can say a whole lot, but avoid what we actually mean.
“You are” was my friend’s version of “I am.” She was using language to tell me I existed, but I felt like I was no longer a person, an “I am” with a following complement that could lead anywhere other than “a victim of rape.” At that time, I had no words to explain how rape had formed some other tense I could not identify, could not use, could not shout at my friend to make her listen even though I desperately needed her to listen and to put down the coffee and grab my hand and tell me how sorry she was for everything.
In the thirteen years since that café conversation, I’ve had to adjust to speaking openly about rape without fearing judgment from outsiders. During the first years following my assault, however, the stigma and correlating shame associated with admitting, “I was raped,” prevented me from fully recovering. My college friend was just the first of many who told me I should be “over it” even as anxiety closed my airway whenever I felt an unwanted brush of a stranger in a crowded street, subway, or hallway as I pushed through throngs of students on my way to class. Although I pulled myself away from a warm bed-sheet cocoon and told my sleep-deprived body to keep up with my daily college routine as if I hadn’t been suffering nightmares for weeks, I felt unable to “get over it.”
“But you’re…” she had said, and the use of the conjunction, a negation to the memories I’d just unearthed, made me feel as though my current emotional state was insignificant at best. “But you’re sitting with me and seem fine” was what she might have said, or how I’d interpreted what she said, even though I felt far from fine, even though the bruises had long since yellowed and faded from my flesh, even though I’d avoided crowded spaces since that moment and now we were sitting in a semi-crowded space and a cold sweat was dripping down my spine and pooling unseen underneath my many winter layers.
“But I am…” is how I could have replied, yet, at that time, I had no idea the rest of that sentence eventually could be.
Over is a preposition, a part of speech that expresses the relationship of one noun to another. Ten years beyond the college café conversation, I will teach my middle-school ESL students prepositions by placing a chair next to me. I will stand beside it, behind it, in front of it, and I will attempt to crawl under it. To their glee and my sheer luck, I will successfully hop over the chair, demonstrating what it means to be a noun in proximity to another noun. For the rest of the week, my students will randomly point to the nearest noun and exclaim they are close to, beside, or in front of said noun. I will grin and congratulate them, but our lesson will stay simple. I will not entertain a lesson delving into all the warped ways the misuse of words can place one person in power and another into a position of forced compliance. A preposition, like over, is just one piece of the muddled mess: I am under him; he is over me; I am not over rape; rape is over me.
A pronoun takes the place of another noun in the sentence. In conversation and in writing, pronouns are constantly used: she, he, they, us, you, etc. If not articulated before said usage, pronouns are unclear at best while misleading at worst. “It” is the most abstract pronoun and it was the pronoun my friend employed instead of the word “rape.”
My friend, however, already had a concrete notion what the pronoun “it” did. Rather than calling the rape—the one I had experienced months earlier—by its name, she used a euphemism that stood for everything and nothing at the same time. I had unloaded a burden and explained with the best language I had at the time. Instead of using her privilege as an outsider who could help define the aftermath I could not make sense of just yet, my friend obscured everything within one word.
Rape, however, is a verb, an action you can physically perform in the same ways you can jump and run and think and pray. To become a noun, the word “rape” undergoes a transformation from the action to the person committing the action––the rapist.
Perhaps this shift from action to object is partly to blame for why there’s a vernacular associated with rape and an oppressive power within the word. During the year following my assault, I couldn’t say “rape,” when discussing that night. Instead, I chose vague references like “my experience” or “what happened to me” or the all-encompassing, yet ambiguous, “it.” Now, I understand what my subconscious seemed to know back then: that even saying the word “rape” would have propelled me headfirst into discussions that I was ill prepared to enter. I felt alone with my thoughts and memories playing on repeat each day and night. At the time, if I spoke about that night, I was no longer in control of my life, my narrative, and the words I used to describe what happened before and after I said “no.” If I detailed stifled screams, the cool seep of dorm room tiles, the memory of hipbone against my thigh, the rapist and the rape remained in power. To say the word “rape” was to inscribe myself within a discourse that was much larger than my individual encounter—one that is woven into society’s laws, crimes, and language of sexual trauma. At eighteen, I became one of the many who was suddenly thrust into silence.
Nine years after my rape, in my last semester of graduate school, my thesis chair marked my vague usage of “it” in a rape-related essay and she advised me to be specific and avoid the word and the confusion that the pronoun inevitably invites. Without meaning to, I thought to the conversation with my friend in the café. While editing later, I turned my attention to my chair’s marks, to all the “it”s, noting to myself when I had been purposefully indirect or inarticulate, yet all I saw were red circles highlighting all the ways people and language have failed me.
Things I have gotten “over” in no particular order: My inability to read a road map; losing my favorite doll at age five; how sticking my hair in the pencil sharpener didn’t make the ends of my hair pointy like the tip of a pencil, and anger at my second grade best friend who told me that lie about the pencil sharpener; my first boyfriend who called me beautiful and then dumped me two weeks later; books and series I’ll never read for the first time again; cheap lint rollers that will never remove all the cat hair from my clothing; how my best friends and I are no longer together on a daily basis and we all have our own lives and families; that my niece is growing faster than I am present to see; my cat insists on sleeping so his tail tickles my cheeks; how my mother couldn’t teach me how to drive without grabbing for the emergency break and my father was surprisingly calm and patient; that I never earned an A in math or that grades don’t matter anyway. This “Things I’m Over List” is both mundane and endless, yet rape will never have a place on it.
After thirteen years, I, in a sense, am “over” rape because it’s no longer the first thing on my mind each morning and the last thing I think of before drifting to sleep each night. I don’t have flashbacks anymore and I’ve learned to manage my physical and emotional responses when triggered. In order for me to truly be “over” rape, however, outsiders would have to hear about my experience and not comment on my clothing choices that night, or my then-underage drinking, or my past sexual history, or whether I had loudly and articulately and emphatically told the rapist “no!”, or all the presumed ways rapists are never the ones at fault.
The law: In January 2012, in order to establish a more comprehensive form of national reporting in the United States, the FBI revised the Uniform Crime Report’s (UCR) definition of rape to “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Previously, the FBI’s definition of rape had been established in 1927 and applied only to females: “The carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” Compared to the 1927 standard, this new one was both articulate and comprehensive, allowing all genders to experience a legally defined rape as opposed to the murky, male-on-female only kind, despite the knowledge that men aren’t always rapists and females aren’t always victims.
The loophole: state governments can choose to adopt the UCR’s updated definition or state governments can adopt their own standards of what does and does not qualify as rape, which may be more restrictive than the UCR’s definition.
The fundamental meaning: you can legally be raped in one state and just have sex in another.
The takeaway: The FBI didn’t make it easier to report rape, but they did make the definition, if adopted in the state you’re raped in, more inclusive.
But what if, in 2005, that definition is still seven years away? What if I’m eighteen and drunk and alone at my real first college frat party on a numbingly cold February night? What if I’m so drunk I cannot properly stand? What if I can’t discern the masked intentions behind the blue eyes that offer to help me home because I’m too preoccupied trying to steady myself as the floor pitches and heaves from side to side? What if I believed (for far too many years) the owner of those blue eyes when he told me that it was my fault for being so drunk, that no one would believe me, that it was pointless protesting anyway? What if I didn’t report him, stayed mute, and buried myself with shame? What if I carried that shame for far too long? What if he remained in control within my memory because I didn’t speak about rape?
Six months after the UCR’s updated definition, in an August 2012 interview, Missouri Republican Congressman Todd Akin asserted that abortions for rape cases were not justified because “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
But Senator Atkins’s statement places rape’s legitimacy within a women’s body, yet not on the law’s definitions or, more importantly, on the rapist. His understanding of pregnancy defies basic biology; the idea that a woman’s body is powerful enough to stop unwanted pregnancy via rape disregards nature. Apparently, women have torpedoes attached to their ovaries and electric fences lining their fallopian tubes.
In 2005, I took the morning-after pill and didn’t become pregnant. To celebrate my lack of offspring that would be half his, I coerced a then of-age friend to buy me a cheap plastic bottle of vodka that tastes like a vat of nail polish remover smells. My friend took my crumbled money, kept the change, told me I was in for a rough night, but gave me the liquor anyway. “You’ll learn,” the friend warned.
I wasn’t fazed by the rubbing-alcohol stench or the way the vodka burned my tongue so much so that nothing tasted right for weeks. After a few potent glasses, the world turned itself upside-down, my new right-side-up, and I spent most of the night and early morning with my head in the toilet, watching everything reverse. But I told myself I was eliminating evil from my body, emptying myself before the next attack, even if it was self-inflicted.
In 2012, a barrage of responses to Congressman Akin’s statement soon followed, including one from then President Obama, who dismissed Akin’s statement: “Rape is rape and the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we are talking about doesn’t make sense.”
Although the UCR’s definitions and state-specific adoptions have negated Akin’s statement, I’ve thought about Obama’s rebuttal many times: What would happen if sexual violation is no longer parsed into separate categories: harassment, date, statutory, marital/spousal, incest, gang, molestation, assault? Would language unite survivors in healing rather than divide them into legal camps? Would more accepted terminology eliminate disparaging thoughts or statements that usually begin with, “Well, at least I wasn’t or didn’t…” and most always end with the belittling, “I shouldn’t feel so bad about everything” or “How come I’m not over this by now?” Would it be easier to even say, “I was raped” or, ideally, to report it and have equal access to resources in the aftermath? How different would the world be, at least the world for rape survivors, if a survivor’s words were accepted as truth?
Rape is rape and violation is violation.
The response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein began on Sunday, October 15, 2017. The #MeToo hashtag illustrated the overwhelming reality of sexual harassment and assault and it quickly became a rallying cry for those who had suffered in silence, those who had been ridiculed publicly, and for those who had remained complacent when witnessing acts like catcalling, lewd jokes, inappropriate touches, or even sexual manipulation and rape. The actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a post stating, “…If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Shortly thereafter, the retweets began. The following day, Twitter reported that the #MeToo hashtag had been tweeted over half a million times. Yet a year before the #MeToo hashtag trended, women were tweeting their stories and experiences with assault and rape.
In 2016, Canadian writer and social media personality Kelly Oxford shared her first of four incidents experiencing assault, and then she invited women on Twitter to share their first assault experiences by posting and using the hashtag #NotOkay. In the fourteen hours that followed, over a million women tweeted about unwanted groping, nudity, pictures and texts, sexual acts and coercion, rapes, and other forms of violation. Oxford estimated she received around two sexual assault stories every second. That’s 120 sexual-assault stories a minute and 7,200 an hour. For fourteen hours.
On one hand, I obsessively read tweets posted with both these hashtags, and I posted mine, taking my place among the many, telling my story in modern language protected through the anonymity of a computer screen. On the other hand, this history of violation is now documented on social media, written as part as an endless cycle that repeats over and over and over, yet there are so many more that are lost, unheard, buried. There are so many more.
The numbers don’t surprise me.
In 2007, two years after I was raped and ten years prior to the #MeToo hashtag, Tarana Burke founded Just Be Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps women of color who’ve experienced sexual assault and/or rape. The organization established “me too” to empower women of color who’ve experienced rape, and it also aims to increase public awareness regarding the disproportionate reporting rates and allocating of resources for women of color. Ten years later when the #MeToo hashtag trended after Milano’s tweet to action, many were angry that Burke wasn’t given credit for “me too.” Milano, who was unaware of Burke’s nonprofit and campaign, reached out to Burke and publicly acknowledged and supported her foundation and its “me too” mission. Burke explained while the #MeToo hashtag and Milano’s collaboration initiates discussion about the stigmas associated with abuse and rape, that the need for honest dialogue and purposeful action is lacking; the problem is larger, so much larger, than a hashtag or a nonprofit.
In 2016 when I posted #NotOkay and #MeToo in 2017, I wasn’t shocked when I saw similar posts from seemingly every person I knew: strangers I followed on social media, acquaintances from long ago sports teams and classes, past and current coworkers, my aunts and cousins, my best friends. The hashtag #MeToo was vague enough to disclose that, as a female, I’d received unwanted looks and comments and touches, yet I didn’t have to detail I had experienced more, and I wasn’t the only one. Even thirteen years after my rape, beyond the three support groups, the countless hours of individual therapy, the drafts I’ve written and all the words I’ve rearranged and edited and revised and cut, I still have moments when I need to be reminded that I’m not alone. Immediately following this comfort, though, is rage. Rage for the sheer number of others who stand alongside me, that I wasn’t surprised by these totals, and that I can’t think of even one woman from my life who doesn’t have some story of harassment or assault or rape.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that 17.7 million American women have been victims of rape or attempted rape. I used to search for these people in crowded public places, thinking if I could just identify a certain flick of hair, a long sigh through parted lips, a look that screamed “me too,” I could find a fellow sufferer and we could talk freely without having to explain.
After college, I began to talk and write more openly about being raped. I started by disclosing to those around me: friends, family, close coworkers, graduate school professors and peers. In noisy cafés, dimly lit bars, early morning walking paths, uncomfortable chairs in freezing classrooms, I’ve told the abbreviated story: “I went to a party my freshman year of college, a guy put something in my drink, we returned to my empty dorm room, and he raped me on the cold floor. I didn’t report him.” Then, I’ve waited, trying to control my nerves with subtle inhalations and exhalations through my nostrils. Occasionally, there’s been a silence, a deep intake of air, and the admission, “me too.”
In those moments, 17.7 million has materialized, a hashtag trend in real time, and I have felt both personally bolstered and morally depressed by the burden of this calculation. America may be closer to defining what rape is through its laws and legal definitions, to calling out accusers both online and in real life, but the country isn’t any closer to addressing the problem if the words only arise from the next Twitter trend, news report, or celebrity scandal. The discourse that comes out of these moments shouldn’t simply be regulated to the zeitgeist, but, rather, should bleed into conversations and courtrooms, giving way to action, rising beyond the traditional language and beliefs of rape culture that have suppressed real, lasting, positive change. The work, perhaps, is too overwhelming, the opposition to strong, and, more often than not lately, there is promising discussion before the focus evaporates and leads inevitably to abandonment when a new media headline and trend shifts and the audience follows.
To really witness and understand rape culture, you need to listen to the words that pass so fluently on busy streets, or the ones insinuated in vulgar jokes at office outings, or even the ones that are within the fast-paced commentary between newscast reporters: “She was wearing a revealing shirt, so she asked for it”; “They were drinking and underage, so she should have known she wouldn’t have been able to consent to having sex with him”; “That skirt will distract boys at school, so we asked her to change into pants.” These statements are somewhat clichéd, but that’s the point; there are many more examples that are so ubiquitous that they’re both unassuming and overlooked.
Sometimes, though, rape culture is noticed. Thanks to constant media coverage, millions around the world watched Donald Trump joke about grabbing a woman’s pussy in an unearthed video that quickly went viral. Later, Trump was charged with nine sexual assault accusations , and everyone gossiped about him and analyzed and accepted his words and behavior, and, in November 2016, some even voted him the next president of the United States.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first or the last example (at best, it’s an overused one at this point) of a dominant rape culture. I don’t have to, nor do I desire to, breathe each atrocity to life because the names are enough: Steubenville, Penn State, The Standford Rape Case, Bill Cosby, the Catholic Church, Harvey Weinstein. Now, America’s president is a man who has nine pending sexual assault cases.
But this is all common knowledge, yesterday’s news, and tomorrow there will be more reports because there always are more. It’s not over. It’s never over.
After I was raped in college, my ears were set to that frequency: I heard the justifications and perpetuations of rape culture everywhere, whether it was from close friends, or my undergraduate classmates in the midst of a heated class debate, or even from visitors during my summer job lifeguarding at crowded public pools. Rape culture, and the language that supports it, had always existed around me, yet it took experiencing rape for me to really understand the culture’s enormity: the man who told my mother and me that he was “enjoying the view” as I struggled to pull a heavy swim bag laden with wet towels to the car; the high school swim coach who told me inappropriate jokes; the first date who got grabby when I declined to kiss him (after which I purposefully walked in the wrong direction to my apartment in case he followed me); the ex-boyfriend who told me in the midst of a heated breakup that I was a slut because of the number of people I’d slept with even though his grand total was double mine; the one boss who told rape jokes to the other men at the office; a female on my college swim team who didn’t know I overheard her tell other swimmers that I’d asked to be raped because I had been stupid and drunk; the countless men on Boston’s streets, or any streets, who whistled at me while I was running or told me to smile or remarked about my outfit or legs or ass; the unaware and well-intentioned friends and family members who suggested I don’t walk alone or at night when I lived in Boston; the man I went on two dates with who then offered to be my “fuck buddy” and when I repeatedly refused, claimed that our dates were to blame because, “if you signal the men, they’ll feed like sharks”; the way I purposefully exited the brightly lit subway at a wrong stop because one man continually changed his seat to be closer to me even though I kept moving away from him; the blank spaces for all the people who will contribute to this list in my lifetime.
A suggestion for the next generation of hashtags: #NowWhat?
The summer before I began my freshman year of college, I enrolled in a self-defense class with two of my best friends from high school. For two days, we learned blocking, parrying, sparring, how to land blows in effective places; we even learned how to thwart an attacker who woke us from a deep sleep. The class was not just physical though: we were taught to yell “fire!” because yelling “rape!” would not summon the aid we’d require. At the end of the class, each student earned a certificate of completion and we celebrated by sharing a plate of homemade cookies. The threat of assault, at the time, felt vanquished, as though we’d feared monsters in the closet and had simply turned on the nightlight to reveal nothing more than shadows.
My rape occurred about six months after completing the self-defense course, and I repeatedly thought back to that class: What good had it done? I had learned all those ways to defend myself, yet I’d used, or recalled, none of the tricks and techniques. The class hadn’t taught me what to do if I was drugged or too drunk to give consent. The class didn’t say how to handle myself at a college frat party, how to know my limits with alcohol, how to decipher what it meant when a smiling boy gently placed his hand on the small of my back and how he later placed that same hand tightly and forcefully around my throat. The knowledge I obtained in the class collected dust, unused among the million ways I “should have” or “could have” stopped the assault.
An informal list of all the “what ifs” I’ve been over and over and over: What if it had been swimming season and I’d had a meet the next day? Would I have been even at that frat party? What if I had left the party with the friends I arrived with? What if I hadn’t asked him to hold my drink that time I went to the bathroom? What if I see him again? What if I’m raped again? What if I had reported him and then pressed charges and then the trial is worse than the rape? What if I had told my parents immediately instead of waiting five years? What if I had encouraged his behavior with my outfit? What if I had dropped out of college after the rape? What if I never told my college swim coach and kept everything to myself? What if I tried to stop thinking about the rape? What if I never address the rape and just keep moving and moving—will I, will everything, eventually just be over?
For a time following my rape, I lied and pretended I could not remember the night. There were some scenes I could recall, I explained to my then college therapist, but not a whole plot. Whatever was presumably placed in my drink prevented a full account. It was an easy excuse that I employed with every ounce of diminishing control. It was too painful to detail, too convoluted to solve, and I was in denial. I told myself that nothing happened if I never spoke about it. The people who needed to know, like very close friends and my parents received a brief synopsis: “I went to a party my freshman year of college, someone put something into my drink, and I was raped.” It was a simple summary, and, more often than not, no one dared ask for more words; I did not offer more.
After being raped, I grieved for the outspoken, optimistic (albeit naïve), extroverted person who’d been so abruptly misplaced. I found that when I confided in others that I was unfocused or depressed or anxious or angry and that these emotions had most likely stemmed from rape, I became something of a pariah, as if rape was as contagious as the stomach bug that ravaged the undergraduate dormitory halls at least twice an academic year. Usually, the listener would break eye contact, squirm, and find a convenient out to change the topic––anything to distance themselves from rape and all the chains it linked together. The conversation, so different from the various forms of rape culture freely expressed in the language all around me, was quickly passed over. The avoidance sent a clear and lasting message: You cannot talk about rape because it is too uncomfortable. Keep everything to yourself.
So I did.
Instead, I copied song lyrics and poems and book passages onto now-outdated AIM away messages and into old journals because the words of others kept me afloat. Then, I scrawled all my own words into notebook after notebook, on loose-leaf papers, in blank Word documents with errors underlined in red. I turned all the frustration and confusion and shame and rage inward until the feelings were masked and burst out through alternate disguises: drunken arguments with so many friends I just wanted to confide in but to whom I was unable to explain; purposefully spiteful words I screamed at one friend in particular, and I’d give anything, even thirteen years later, to take back; too many miles run on a treadmill and too few calories consumed at mealtimes; vacillating between silence or lies when my college swim coach pulled me aside and quietly asked what was going on in my head, particularly what was I thinking each time she had looked over during practice and I was staring, distracted and mentally absent among a sea of chattering teammates; alcohol-induced bravado during sexual encounters followed by an anxiety-fueled walk-of-shame the following morning; nightmares that forced me out of my warm bed and into the dark, deserted campus; miles I walked, looping the same paths in hope that overwhelming exhaustion would lead to uninterrupted sleep; floating away from my body on the curls of exhaled smoke from marathon bong sessions; baggy clothes that covered curves that would make me a woman, a person, a shape that was filled or formed or even whole.
Even now, despite the intervening years and the countless hours of therapy and all the words I’ve scrawled or typed, it feels unfair that I don’t have visible evidence to use when I need it most. When the story becomes too tangled to unpack, I’ve convinced myself it would be easier to have a symbol. My younger sister has a small scar on her stomach, confirmation of the ventricular catheter that once carried excess brain fluid to her stomach and through her digestive tract. While she has never used it as an excuse for her learning, developmental, and neurological disabilities, I envy this tangibility. I want proof of violation instead of the words and memories that become so easily jumbled, blended by the years I was lost, drowning in drinks, clouded by plumes of smoke.
If I could have a physical scar from my rape, I’d wear it on my arms or legs so that others could finally see. It would start at my fingers and toes, twisting upwards over skin and blue veins before connecting at the center. This scar would be sustained by the haunting memories that once tore through my body, surfacing from a lover’s gentle touch, flashed images of a blurred night, or a stranger’s drunken advances. If there was a way to showcase this violation, I’d circle the spot with markers, artificial neon colors against flesh. I’d create a map, a palpable order, out of chaos.
Sometimes I wish I had told.
The “over” portion of rape is the part that lurks in my brain, stowing away for years that fall into years before emerging with a subtle remark, rough physical contact, too many drinks and the familiar taste of bile in the back of my throat. I can deal with these triggers because I’ve rewired my reactions through therapy. I take deep breaths and think of and imagine myself into a place where I feel safe. I’ve learned to expect and work through these moments, but what I never really anticipate, however, what I never really remember until it rolls over me like the collapsed roof of a childhood snow fort that made my world temporarily white and still, is shame. It creeps into muscles, tensing limbs, hitching my breath, until all I want to do is crawl under bed sheets and disappear. Forget all the therapists with soft words and practical solutions because when that shame returns, I am momentarily paralyzed, as if it is still the morning after and I’m half-naked, crouched on cold linoleum, and throwing up into a garbage can. In that moment when shame visits, I shrug on my old jacket, noticing how it still fits, thirteen years later, just right.
I can travel over a bridge. I can be over the moon or so over a particular person, career, or event, I no longer have the patience to deal. I can fly over oceans in less than a day. I can feel overwhelmed and overjoyed. I can jump over a rope, over a crack in the pavement, or even over a small stream. I can overcome obstacles, be overcome by them, and I can also say that I will overcome. I can overexert myself to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, and I can overextend myself with commitments, a calendar full of infinite “to dos.” I can have overdue library books or conversations or declarations of love, and despite obvious signs and symbols, my message may not be overt. I can feel overexcited or overtired. I can have an overabundance of accomplishments as an overachiever, but I may overanalyze failures or even simple mistakes. My overactive mind may keep me awake all night, as I plot some overarching desire for physical and mental control, some relief from the overbearing apprehension that creeps back again and again during peaceful moments, some way to find all the words and their arrangements that will best describe this all to you.
Still, you may not be “over” the time when someone intentionally drugged you and shoved you onto cold linoleum. You may not be “over” how he then pushed himself inside of you while you scratched and kicked and fought until he wrapped meaty hands around your throat and told you, as you told him stop, that no one would believe you while his grasp around your neck became tighter and tighter. So you waited until everything was done, until he had finished, until the experience was over.
An unofficial list of all the questions I’ve been asked by the well-intentioned, the intentioned, and the just plain stupid after I’ve confided in them or they’ve read one of my essays about rape: “Are you going to write about something else?”; “Are you worried you’re going to go to hell now?”; “Are you worried that it [rape] will happen again?”; “Are you ashamed that you asked for it?”; “Are you going to report him?”; “Are you tired of talking and writing about rape?”; “Are you worried no guy will want you anymore?”; “Are you afraid of being alone now?”; “Are you impacted by [insert current rape headlines or sexual-abuse scandal here]?”; “Are you afraid people will think you’re weak if this essay is published?” “Are you going to become an activist?”; “Are you into girls now?”; “Are you going to write a more vivid rape scene so your readers have a clearer picture?”
Two unofficial responses for all these past questions and all the future ones not yet spoken: Do you hear your words? Are you ready to listen now?
But you’re over it now, aren’t you?
I have been over and over and over my rape; I have thought about it and written about it and talked about it with friends and family, acquaintances from work and graduate school, near strangers in group therapy, and with countless therapists. The subject has almost become commonplace, a confession I can release and then pack up again when I feel unsafe or tired or just plain fed up. I have taken scattered memories and attempted to fit them together, as if something this complicated can be made whole, as if I can, as if any human with experiences can. I used to believe that if I could just release everything, if I could find the perfect words, arrange them just so, and tell my story, then I’d be free.
Still, there will never be enough words to fully express rape, its aftermath, and all the nuanced and blatant ways it has altered and impacted my life. I’ve had enough of silence because it’s far more difficult to keep something like rape hidden inside than it is to openly acknowledge I’ve been raped. Words can tangle, shift, and reform, and time, with all its obligations and pressures, can become a type of self-imposed prison. I don’t have forever because none of us do, yet I’ve had enough of waiting for the culture and its people to change.
Discussing harassment, sexual assault, and rape should exist in real time, outside small support groups and the binary that codes social media sites. As a United States citizen, I’m privileged because I’m able to speak publicly about my experiences with rape, but I’m disgusted by the glorification of rape culture from the country’s celebrities, leaders, and even the president; I’m appalled at the resounding silence and spinelessness from leaders who have the power to enact positive reforms. The language of rape culture and the catcalling and lewd jokes and suggestions and all the ways an individual’s body and gender and safety and sexuality can be violated and then brushed aside and away with a simple comment, or the lack of one, has piled into a mountain that each generation climbs piece by piece only to realize that with each passing scandal or outrage, the summit extends. At times, I’ve been forced into silence, both physically, like when my rapist tightened his fingers around my throat, and symbolically, like how subtle veers in conversation helped me and my listeners avoid having to openly discuss the affects of rape. Again and again, I’ve hushed and hidden myself. Rape stole my words and, for many years, the optimism to envision the moment when my story was no longer the problem, but, rather, was the solution.
Within this time, however, I’ve found a place in the larger narrative that is 17.7 million strong. Thirteen years ago, I went to a college party, had something slipped into my drink, and then I was violently raped. In the aftermath, all the words I scribbled and typed and screamed and silenced and posted and shared have tumbled out with a hope that perhaps a current conversation that begins with “me too” can, one day, ideally, become “no one else.” Now, when I think how to address the question posed by an unassuming friend thirteen years ago in a coffee shop, I look at my present reality and back to all those intervening years only to find that my answer has always been among all these words that I never really lost at all.
Shannon, your essay knocked the wind out of me.. I admire your strength and your ability to untangle the story for us in such a powerful, moving, and intelligent manner.