CW: This essay discusses sexual assault.
For as far back as I can recall, I have always been a sexual being. I became aware of sex very early on. Having two older siblings, five and six years my seniors, I watched them experience all sorts of things long before I did. As for my parents, they’ve always been fairly open when it comes to sex. It’s not so much that we were having conversations about it, but it was never something from which I was shielded. At a young age I was introduced to sex through movies, music, TV shows, and later on, the internet. During this time, I don’t remember ever being explicitly being told that sex was bad or wrong; it was never a source of shame, because no one ever told me sex was something to be ashamed of. Thus, I became enthralled.
Sex had caught my eye, and there was nothing holding me back from exploring it with great curiosity. I was always that kid in the friend group who brought up and shared what I had learned through my research. By sharing my sexual findings, I opened up a whole new world (*cue the Aladdin*) for a lot of people, but I quickly learned that I had been and was probably going to continue living in this world on my own. In opening up about discovering my sexuality, I was shocked to find that no one else I knew was having this same experience. None of the people that I talked to were as excited about sex as me. I felt isolated and confused: why did no one else seem to want to have these conversations? Before long, my initial excitement subsided and instead was replaced by shame.
By age six, I knew that I loved dancing and being the center of attention (Leo is my sun sign, duh). Oftentimes, that meant putting on performances for anyone who would watch me, while wearing outfits I had used in gymnastics, dance, and ice skating classes. These were typically leotards or flashy little dresses that covered minimal parts of my body. As a child, I was taught that wearing these outfits was acceptable! Wearing these garments meant I was performing and that I would be rewarded with my idea of the greatest gift of all: attention!
Unfortunately, this idea didn’t transfer over very well into the cruel world of middle school. In fact, it turns out that dancing and wearing minimal clothing in middle school still earned you attention, but with a twist: the label slut. I earned the coveted label of “slut” at the tender age of twelve, maybe thirteen. I had yet to even kiss a boy, let alone have any sort of promiscuous sexual contact. The worst part was that it wasn’t even just peers deciding this about me—it was teachers too. On our eighth grade field trip to the state capital, we stayed in a hotel, and after a full day of learning about all of Illinois’ riveting history, we were rewarded with a dance. My friends and I were ecstatic. We eagerly got ready in our hotel room and bounded downstairs to the ballroom. Before I was even allowed in to the dance, a teacher pulled me aside and explained that my shorts were entirely too inappropriate and provocative. She said I would be forced to change into pants; otherwise I could not attend the dance. I remember looking at each of my friends who were wearing shorts equally as short, and for any of my Sex and the City fans: I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why me?”
Fast forward to high school, and I remember having a conversation with two girls in one of my classes during which the topic of masturbation came up. Both girls agreed it was an act meant for boys. Even then, as a die-hard fan of masturbating, I had to defend its honor. They were in disbelief that I could participate in such a thing. I can, in fact, still recall the repulsed tone in their voices when they asked, “You do that?” They told me it was disgusting. Once again, I found myself feeling disappointed in my own private desires and actions. Something that brought me excitement and pleasure was now causing me embarrassment and shame. No matter how I tried to ignore and deny it, the shame followed me into adulthood.
Years later, I was twenty and had a still-fuzzy relationship with my sexuality. One weekend, my friend and I took a trip to Atlanta to go to a concert. She knew one of the guys in the band, so after the show was over and we were adequately drunk, we decided to continue hanging out with the band at a nearby bar. Earlier that night I had complimented a guy standing near me on the Chicago Bulls logo embroidered on his denim shirt. I don’t know if anyone else adheres to this implicit rule, but I almost always ask people if they’re from Chicago when I see them wearing any sort of Chicago sports paraphernalia, especially when I’m drunk. In my mind, it was just a comment to a stranger with whom I shared an unspoken bond. I was happy to leave it at that and go on with the rest of my night.
It turns out that Embroidery Dude was in one of the bands that had played earlier that night. He was drinking at the same bar as us and started a conversation with me again. He was nice as could be. Charming. Funny. Even offered to buy me a drink, to which I obliged. As the night was winding down and the last call ended, a giant group of us stood outside and waited for something, anything to give us some sort of direction. My friend and I offered up the Airbnb where we were staying to continue the night. Suddenly the numbers of people dwindled until there were just a handful of us left. Everything at this point was a blur, but it resulted in Embroidery/Band Dude and I walking back to the Airbnb with my friend and the band dude she knew. Just the four of us. Despite the haze of alcohol, reality set in. I knew this meant I was obliged to have sex with this guy.
If there’s anything that I had learned from years of education from my peers, media, internet porn, and even personal experience, it’s that you have to follow through with having sex with a guy, even if it wasn’t your original intention. If you don’t, you’re a tease. Worse than that, you might even be a bitch AND a tease. I already knew I didn’t want this, but it was too late. I’d trapped myself. I would have to be the one to get myself out.
Back at the Airbnb, Embroidery Dude began making out with me. Before I knew it, my clothes were off. I was hardly coherent, but I do remember asking if he had a condom, as if that would protect me from this act of sex I already didn’t want to engage in. He didn’t have one. Despite knowing from the time we began walking back to the Airbnb that I didn’t want to have sex, it was then that I finally vocalized that I didn’t want this to continue. At this point, I was hardly conscious. He ignored me. I felt him inside of me despite me saying no. I repeatedly said stop. Tried to push him back. He kept going. He said it wouldn’t be good with a condom. As a last defense, I said that I desperately didn’t want to get pregnant. He assured me that I wouldn’t—as if he had any sort of control over biology. Finally, after enough of my pleading, he stopped. During that time, he never once said sorry. Instead, I began to apologize profusely. Immediately I believed I was in the wrong. I had broken the golden rule that had been passed down for ages: always give a man what he wants. Because I felt so guilty for not letting him continue to have sex with me against my wishes, I offered him a blowjob as a consolation prize. He accepted, though clearly annoyed with me. I began and almost immediately collapsed in tears. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry,” I gasped with my eyes still full of tears. I rolled over and passed out on the hardwood floor.
Eventually waking to his sweaty, naked body still touching mine, I saw he was still asleep and had to excuse myself outside to go cry, not fully aware of the extent of what had just happened to me. I knew it made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t know why. My answer didn’t come until nearly a year later when I heard a friend and fellow patient in residential treatment name my experience for me: rape. Almost a year had gone by, and I never once identified my experience that night in Atlanta in an honest way because I didn’t know that rape could look like that. I felt relief and validation in knowing what happened to me, but that didn’t change its life-altering impact. Suddenly the past several months began to make sense. I fit each of them together like puzzle pieces. Only a month or so after being raped, history seemed to almost repeat itself. I got drunk at a bar, and a boy I barely knew walked me home to my apartment. I invited him inside and into my bedroom. Immediately he told me that this wasn’t a good idea. He said that I was really drunk and that he should go. I didn’t understand. I thought this was just how it happened. I finally convinced him to kiss me, when suddenly I began to cry—not out of fear this time, but relief. Tears streamed down my face, and all I could think was, “I am so lucky.” There I was, feeling like the luckiest girl alive because this boy didn’t attempt to assault me.
Nearly a year passed, but the pattern remained. I invited a boy over, and we got drunk. I have never liked drinking because it exacerbated my depression, but I felt that I had to drink to tolerate the fear of hooking up with boys. So there we are, hooking up, and my brain was saying that I wanted it. My body, carrying the memory of trauma, knew better. It began to shake uncontrollably. I felt embarrassed and once again, ashamed. The boy said he didn’t think it was a good idea for us to have sex, which prompted a jarring internal scream of, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?” I got dressed. For the next hour or so I spent with him, I was in a daze, completely dissociated. After he dropped me off, I went into the bathroom and immediately collapsed on the floor in tears. I gasped for breath in panic while toying with thoughts of killing myself. It didn’t matter how badly I thought I wanted sex: my trauma-filled body was not ready, and I felt like I was broken.
It took months of processing, therapy, meditation, and most importantly, giving myself the self-compassion I deserved before I was ready to have sex again. I had to gently remind myself that everyone heals differently and that my recovery didn’t have to be linear or look like anyone else’s. Finding a partner that made me feel safe and comfortable in my body was the final step on my road of recovery. Being able to share my body with someone else and relearn to navigate my sexuality in a healthy way through communication and self-acceptance sets me free from the grips of my rape. I can say with both pride and great relief that my body is mine again.