by Dish Staff
A reader shares a horrific experience:
I was a 20-year-old virgin when another college student raped me. Twice. Twice in one night.
I’ve felt the urge to tell my story a hundred times before. It took me years before I decided to tell anyone what had happened, and it’s taken me over a decade to write something like this. Perhaps it’s the renewed attention that sexual assault has gotten of late, which has allowed me to read too many stories that tell of trials so familiar to my own. No matter what the details or circumstances, the effect rape has on someone is strangely and horribly similar. How we repress memories with impressive efficiency or remember others with absolute precision. How we move backward while trying to move forward. It all resonates. Sadly, we are all members in one of the world’s most populous clubs.
I was a junior in college. My academic scholarship had given me the opportunity to study abroad in France. Some girl friends and I had taken some time at the end of the year to travel, and in the last days of the trip, we decided to go out to a bar to dance and have fun. I was thought to be the one who was a little too responsible, planning our itineraries and making sure everyone was safe and accounted for. Sometimes my friends even teased me with the nickname “Mom.” But I did love to dance and never turned down an opportunity. I can remember exactly what I wore that night, and only because of what would later happen: a long-sleeved mint-colored T-shirt with a long black skirt and running shoes. Yes, running shoes. Dressed to impress I was not. More like the only thing I had clean at the end of our trip.
My friends had started up a conversation with a group of college guys who were studying abroad as well.
I was dancing solo to some old school disco. One guy from this group brought me a drink and started dancing with me – not grinding, not sexual, just dancing. I got his name, which sounded foreign, and he briefly told me his background. There wasn’t much more to the conversation. I kept dancing. As I took my last sip of the fruity drink, he put his arm around my shoulders and ushered me outside. Maybe for fresh air, maybe for a smoke, I don’t know. All I know is that I was quickly losing my sense of agency. He didn’t pause outside but rather steered me down the street to the train. I quickly felt like I might as well have been in a wheelchair, pushed along to a destination that wasn’t up to me. Awake yet pliant.
Soon we’re on the train. He sat us in the two seats closest to the door. I struggled to sit up straight. He’d hold me up. My vision began to blur. I tried to focus on an old French woman sitting across from us. I remember her looking at me disapprovingly, as if she thought I was yet another typical American student who’d had too much to drink. Or maybe she knew something wasn’t quite right. I’ll never know, nor why I didn’t look at her and say, “Help.” Even though at that point I knew I was in need of rescue.
Shortly before, I was dancing and feeling perfectly fine; now something was wrong. Later, piecing together the timeline and events of the evening, I’d figure out that there was likely more in that fruity drink than what the bartender’s recipe book called for.
That train ride lasts about 20 minutes, but not in my memory. Nor do I remember getting off the train or how he got me to his apartment, but then I was there. He handed me more to drink, a glass of white wine. I don’t remember if I drank it, but I remember the glass. I knew I was in trouble but I still trusted that if I could concentrate on staying awake I’d be okay, so I concentrated on that – staying awake. The next thing I remember is him on top of me. My physical control was gone. My body was heavy. I could not consciously move my limbs. My arms were by my side, like a corpse.
I remember trying to will my arms to push him off of me, but they wouldn’t move. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but I knew what he was doing. The last firm memory I have is telling him, “No. No. No. Please don’t. I don’t want to have sex with you. I’m a virgin. Please don’t do this to me. No, please don’t. I’m a virgin. No, no, no.” That part I remember clearly, and it still gives me chills today.
I closed my eyes as they teared up. When he entered me, I blacked out.
That’s where I leave off. I don’t remember the rest. Or maybe my mind put that somewhere where I’ll never find it. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones for being spared those memories.
I came to the next morning, in his bed. The sun was up. He was lying next to me, on his side facing the wall in a black hoodie with the hood pulled up. I got up and started to collect my missing clothing. I noticed a used condom on the floor. And then, as if there was a way to feel even worse, a second one. I almost vomited at the sight. It felt like there was a gaping, throbbing hole between my thighs.
He stirred in the bed. Before he could get up, I said the first thing that came to my mind: “I don’t know where I am.” He mumbled and pointed, “The train is up the street.” I scurried out of his apartment and found the train station. I discovered I was in a different part of the city, some miles away. I don’t know why but I also had no money. I jumped the turnstiles to catch one that would bring me back in the direction of the city and hoped no one would come through to check for a ticket.
When I got off the train, I saw a police officer and asked him where my hostel was. Oh, how I wish I’d asked him to take me to a hospital. But I didn’t. Already I wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened. After so many years of saving myself for the right man, the right moment, the right experience. After so many years of being in control, having my boundaries respected, only to have some stranger in a bar steal it from me in such a sadistic way.
When I got back to the hostel, I found that his roommate had spent the night in my bunk. He couldn’t get a train home because they didn’t run later than the one we took shortly after midnight. He said to me, “I asked the girls if you would be okay. He can be a little aggressive.” One of my friends said, “We told him not to worry. If anyone can handle themselves, it’s you.” I deflated. And what had just happened was sentenced to live inside me, quietly, for as long as I could stand it.
We spent the rest of the day as we’d planned, sight-seeing in Paris, but now with my rapist’s roommate in tow. I did my best to act normal, but each step I took caused my vagina to throb like a bruise that was being punched with every step. With each pain shooting up through my pelvis, some of the night’s memories popped into my head. Others weren’t there. Rather than openly confront what had happened, I tried to bury it. I couldn’t say anything. I wasn’t worried about what would happen to him; I was worried about what would happen to me.
Months after the rape, when I was back in my dorm room in the States, my rapist contacted me by email. Apparently his roommate, who had kept in touch with one of my friends, was able to pass along my address to him. I don’t remember most of it. I could barely look at it. But one sentence seared itself in my memory: “I hope I didn’t hurt you.” (I hope I didn’t hurt you?) I deleted it as soon as I reached the last line. It didn’t happen. It couldn’t have happened. No one could know.
What transpired in the years after my rape follows a pattern many know all too well. The layers of shame. Trying to figure out what your body, your sexuality, is worth when someone can simply take it from you. Did it matter what I wanted at all? Or was I whatever other people made of me? You doubt your own judgment. You forget how to trust yourself. I started drinking too much, smoking too much, self-destructing by putting myself in situations and relationships that reinforced my feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness.
Taking back that control of my sexuality was a difficult, if not impossible, task. I didn’t know how to feel normal again. The wonderful guys who cared about me, and who I cared about, were no longer viable options. I feared they’d find out my secret and would no longer want me. I couldn’t bear disappointing them, so although I tried to date them, ultimately, I rejected them as soon as things looked like they were becoming too intimate physically. As soon as I saw that loving and hopeful look in their eyes, that look that I believed would change once they knew. I thought I was doing them a favor and I was doing myself a favor, saving myself from the rejection I’d feel when they found out. They stood there, surprised, confused, and crushed, and yet I wasn’t going to let them know my secret – that I wasn’t good enough for them anymore.
Instead, the two significant relationships in my twenties were with men who were often jealous, controlling, and unfaithful. Part of me knew I deserved more than that; part of me wasn’t so sure anymore. In between those relationships, I let others, who although they couldn’t have known it at the time, take advantage of my vulnerability. I let them because they wouldn’t be disappointed in me. I found it hard to say “no” anymore because what if I did say “no”? “No” didn’t always work. Wasn’t it better to say “yes” and feel like I had some kind of control? Or say nothing at all and pretend this was normal?
A therapist would later tell me these were typical responses to sexual trauma. Every woman’s dream, I thought: typically responding to sexual trauma.
So many times I have wished I had lost my virginity at age 15 to my first love who cared for me and respected me, enough to not pressure me into anything even though I knew he was much more sexually experienced than I was. At least then I would’ve had some positive sexual experiences to go back to, to reclaim, to strengthen the foundation that I’d tried so hard to build for myself and that my rapist so quickly tore down.
It was even two years before I finally broke down and cried about it. Because fuck him – I didn’t want to give him that, too. I even feel guilty about thinking about it or talking about it, because there are so many women and men out there, girls and boys, who have been through much worse. But it is empowering to know you’re not alone, to know it wasn’t your fault, to know that a man who fucks a drugged corpse is a coward who can’t earn a woman’s body on his own. He’s a man who is not a man. He planned it. He had the drug. He targeted me. He timed it so that he caught the last train out to the apartment. So his roommate couldn’t come home. So I couldn’t escape. I don’t know why he picked me, but he did. Did he know I had an internal power he couldn’t dominate without artificial means? Because I do. Did I look like an easy target? Did he know I wouldn’t report him? I don’t know. But he was right about that too.
I never wanted to be a victim, even though that’s what I was. It’s why so many of us don’t tell a soul, especially initially. You figure if no one knows they can’t look at you differently or treat you differently than they had before. You won’t receive their looks of pity, or even worse, some sense of skepticism or disbelief. They won’t see you as damaged, somehow less than the woman you were before. Even though that’s how you feel.
In some ways, I know I’m a more resilient person for having gone through that, which feels perverse to think. But he did not defeat me. I maintained straight A’s and attended an Ivy League grad school. I was successful professionally soon after that. I’ve found real love and trust, which is what allows me to write this today. It’s been a lot of hard work, but I’ve been greatly rewarded for the willingness to try. And yet still today, years later, I battle the memories of that night and all that came after. And all that didn’t.
And now this: last November, on a whim, I decided to see if I could find him. I’d never had the urge before. I’ve thought about that night a lot, and all the nights since, but I didn’t think much about him. Maybe he was in jail. Maybe he’d moved abroad and I’d never find him. Whatever might come, I decided to throw the few things I knew about him into a Google search. Much to my surprise, he turned up in a matter of seconds.
My jaw dropped and my breath stopped. There he was. His face. His CV. The website of his business, right here in the US. I learned that he’s not in jail nor has he had a difficult life at all. No, he’s quite successful in his own right. I read his list of honors and awards he’s won. I know I’ve unknowingly walked by his office a couple of times. I learned he has a wife and young children. One is a girl. It makes me wonder how he picks her up in his arms and doesn’t think about some pathetic animal doing the same to her. I don’t know how he lives with himself.
It’s difficult knowing that while he’s caused me an inordinate amount of needless suffering that’s spanned almost half of my life, he simply got to move on with his. He suffered no consequences whatsoever.
And yes, part of the shame is knowing I did nothing to hold him to account, and that I may have put other women at risk by not doing so. It was so practiced and planned it seems unlikely I was his only victim. So, add that on to the shame of something I’m not guilty of, that I didn’t ask for. As well as the knowledge that while I get to live with his face every day, he probably wouldn’t recognize mine if I sat right next to him on a train.
Maybe one day I’ll tire of that injustice and decide that I should confront him. Maybe one day I’ll feel it’s my responsibility, since I’ve had a glimpse of what he’s capable of and he’s got a daughter in his care. But he’s taken enough of my life as it is and it’s tough to give him a second more thought, so I generally don’t. For now I continue to concentrate on living with the joy of the life I’ve worked so hard to reconstruct.
It saddens me to see women and men who were braver than I was, who came forward to confront their abusers, be put through the humiliation of an insensitive spotlight. Accounts of abuse and assault abound, and I find myself asking, “When is enough enough?” I hope everyone who has been through something similar eventually finds a bit of peace, though we all know that “peace” isn’t quite the right word. There’s acceptance and there’s resilience and there’s making the most of the rest of your life. Peace, it turns out, can be taken from you quite easily.