What It’s Like: To Be Date Raped In College
No one wants to admit they’re a cautionary tale, least of all a flush-faced freshman yet to distinguish between book smarts and street smarts. But, as that one woman out of every four, I feel it’s more important to share the story behind the statistic.
Shortly after downing another shot from the sloshing tray circulating around the frat house dance floor, my consciousness went fuzzy, but not in a one-too-many way. I was too dizzy to stand, with no mental energy left over for nonessential cognitive tasks like understanding where I was, what was happening around me, or even that something was wrong. Staying upright when your muscles are GHB jelly and your entire brain is slipping sideways into your inner ear is an impressive enough accomplishment.
The rest of the night I pieced together from visual snippets that materialized days, weeks, and months later:
– I remember this guy propping me up on the sticky dance floor. I remember being annoyed by his groping behind the fogginess, but I needed the help to stand and was too weak to swat his hands away.
– The next thing I remember is making out in his dorm bathroom, feeling my body bruise all over when he pushed me up against the hard corners of the sink. I remember squirming away, sinking down to the tiled floor in an effort to get his mouth away from my face. I remember my hamstrings were too shaky to stand. I remember being dragged into his bedroom by my hair and a fist clamped around my upper arm.
– I remember being hoisted onto his desk, and (THANK GOD) I remember the condom. I remember trying to pull him out by the ring of rubber at the top because my hands couldn’t grasp with any force. I remember him going a little soft when he realized I was picking at it with my nails, and I remember him getting hard again when he snatched my wrists and pinned them to an adjacent bookshelf, cracking the back of my head against the cinder block wall.
– I remember waking up with a start to a completely dark room and a suffocating revulsion in my gut. I remember my abject confusion about where I was. I remember sitting up against the cold wall and breathing, breathing, breathing myself calm, willing oxygenated blood into my muscles as he snored on. When I was less faint, I felt around the floor for covering and got the fuck out.
– I remember that walk home: the head-compressing dizziness and my blistered feet flapping around in his sweaty white alligator slip-ons — and how badly I wished I could have found my underwear instead of having to wear his jeans bareback.
– I remember how much more important showering was than sleeping, how grimly determined I was to scrub my weak and achy body before I crashed, face first, onto my bed, completely exhausted but only partly dry.
The next morning, I was extra hazy on top of the standard Sunday hangover, dotted with bruises, and perplexed by the throbbing bump on my head. My memory’s snapshots hadn’t bubbled to the surface yet. I wasn’t even sure that I had been anything more than just very, very drunk. So, when asked why I had disappeared and then turned up at brunch dressed like post-Subway Jared, my fallback response was self-deprecating humor. I even posed for an “Oops, I’m a whore!” picture in his heavily cologned club wear. My friends thought it was hilarious, and I was just grateful that being the punchline meant the joke was over and I didn’t have to explain it to anyone, including myself. I deliberately avoided thinking about that night every time it came to mind, the force of my internal cringe powerful enough to send his warped face slinking back into the dark corner from which he had first stalked me.
About a year later, The Guy walked by during lunch. I nudged my boyfriend and said, “That’s him.” He immediately leapt to his feet and whipped his head around wildly, fists clenched and veins popping. “Just let me deck him. I won’t even say anything, I’ll just clock the bastard right in the face.” I didn’t want to make a scene, and so I entreated him to sit down, forget it, and not get in trouble.
But his instantly protective instinct stuck with me, and I realized that I hadn’t truly written off the experience as the cost of short-sighted collegiate excesses. Seeing him want to fight for me proved that I deserved protection, a truth I had hidden under layers of pseudo-comforting justifications. So when I discovered this guy was in one of my senior seminars, I couldn’t stop thinking about that missed opportunity. With encouragement and plenty of righteous anger, I approached the human Axe can and his cronies one evening and asked, “Do you remember me? Because it took me a while to remember you.” As I had expected, he feigned ignorance, and his transparent denial just enraged me further. Upper lip curling with contempt, I hissed the damning details at his sweaty mask of skepticism like a malevolent jungle cat reveling in the delightful ease with which my claws shred flesh. I was flushed and giddy, loving every second of the big reveal. This was my time to prove I had never been prey.
But this audience wasn’t the vindicating jury I wanted; they were already his comforting numbers. An oily, mustachioed smile broke over his craggy face, haughty and entitled to a degree that only the special combination of Third World wealth and an Ivy League education can produce. He insisted that he was sorry, but he had never met me before and certainly was not the person I believed he was. “Whatever you need to believe, motherfucker,” I spat and walked away.
On the podcast, Paul and guests describe exactly how predators pick their prey out of a crowd. Despite the weight of that carnivorous gaze, I know that GHB was only one ingredient in the recipe for my disaster. I immediately felt culpable on that excruciatingly bright Sunday morning. I didn’t assign any agency to him; I assumed that he couldn’t help himself (or me) and that it was my fault for not being responsible enough for the both of us. Even as I consciously felt sorry for my poor, hapless little rapist boy, I also felt intense outrage on behalf of other women whenever anything even vaguely “anti-SlutWalk” came up in conversation or in the media. My rabid mama bear protectiveness came from a deeply coursing sorrow that no one had been there to rescue me from peril and humiliation. Rage and remorse exhausted me into feeling blameworthy, too blameworthy to blame someone else because, after all, I had chosen to slam that shot. I was stupid, I was slutty, I was shamefully shameless — and that shame shut me up, turned tragedy into comedy, and held my boyfriend back.
In order to confront that face, I first had to acknowledge that my lack of control and inexperience meant that I couldn’t have reacted any other way. Five years later, I just want to have learned something. That feels like a cop-out because acceptance is all that’s left, but this is how I strive to relate to all experiences in life: at peace with my past selves, looking back with fondness at how earnestly I struggled through dark times, and confident that I am stronger on the other side. There’s no alternative: being weak means you don’t come out at all, and letting it make you weaker means you never move forward.
My therapist reminds me often that acceptance is not ambivalence or culpability, it’s expansive love. It’s understanding why I didn’t react in a healthy way without castigating myself for being unable to do so. It’s knowing which aspects of my behavior are uniquely Me — even in the pockmarked face of uncertainty, opposition, and helplessness — and which are learned behaviors. (For more, start with thissuccinctpaper on rape culture published out of UC Davis.) It’s knowing my anger is justified and using the truth of my experience to guide my politics and morals. And the path to acceptance is becoming more and more comfortable talking about my experience — not just for myself, but also to let others know that it’s not taboo and they’re not alone. I know that I never would have been able to think my way through to writing this down without PostSecret, ProjectUnbreakable, or the uncompromising honesty of the Mental Illness Happy Hour community.