[What follows is a very personal and painful reflection about my own experience of being sexually assaulted. Graphic details are included. For a number of reasons, explored below, this was extremely difficult to write and to share. If you know me, I expect it will also be extremely difficult to read. You don’t have to read it. If you do read it, please don’t feel obligated to comment on it — although you are also welcome to comment. Please know that I’m okay (for the most part). I’m a survivor. Mostly, I have decided to go public with this for two reasons: (1) personally, I don’t like feeling afraid and I think secrecy facilitates fear and other misplaced feelings like shame, so, for me, this is a part of confronting my own fears; and (2) mainly, I hope that sharing the following will also help others who have experienced sexual violence and who don’t know how to feel or think about it and who have remained silent. I hope that the following will be helpful to these people. Perhaps it will help folks to negotiate their own confusion or their own sense of isolation. Because of this, I hope that you will consider sharing or linking to this on your own social media as I think the more people this can reach, the more potential there is for it to help in the ways I hope it to help.]
This is the first part
It is difficult to know how or where to begin this reflection. I have tried to write it several times already and ended up deleting each previous attempt at some point in the process. I have taken breaks of days and months and years in between efforts. I did once manage to write a fair bit about all of this in another piece but I don’t feel that I can stand to go and read or rearrange what I wrote there.
They say that survivors sometimes tell and retell their stories as a part of the process of working through everything that happened… a part of “making peace with” or “moving on” or “healing” or “accepting” or whatever other terms people use so easily in order to speak about the unspeakable.
Sometimes I am triggered by events that go on around me or things I see or hear as life goes on – although I am never noticeably triggered, at least I don’t think I am, and I am far less frequently triggered than a good many other survivors I have known – and so to try (again) to sit and dwell in the memory of what was and what still is, to try (again) to put it into words, to try (again) to conceptualize it (to literally transform a trauma into a concept) is very difficult. I tried recently, after I wrote my last post about representations of female sexual desire, because I realized I was walking around for days in a triggered state of increased anxiety while I was writing what I wrote. I got about four pages into my own personal reflection and then I stopped and deleted it and sat on my bed in the dark trying to suppress the feeling of nausea that was rising in my stomach and throat and the feelings of anxiety and panic that were building up in my chest and head.
Thinking about where to begin now, I almost wrote that this is a reflection about something that happened to me. But I feel like that makes me too passive. I was involved in what happened. Things were done to me, but things were also done with me.
Is it still rape, if I let myself be raped?
As I write, I am often stopping in between sentences and paragraphs. My thoughts spiraling off in any number of directions. This doesn’t get reflected very well in the text. It all looks so neat and well structured. One sentence flows into another, one part of the story comes first, the second part of the story comes second. One idea leads to the next. There are titles and line breaks and section headings. As such, the final product will be nothing like the production process. How do I write the trepidation I feel? How do I write the stopping and starting? How do I write the rising nausea? How do I write the staring off into space and the dissociation and the forcing myself back to myself?
How do I write trauma?
In his book, The Long Voyage, Jorge Semprún says he needed to wait many years before he was able to write about what he experienced during the second World War (Semprún was a Spanish anarchist who fought with the French resistance and he spent years – not days or weeks or months but years – in Auschwitz). Semprún says he needed to wait that long because, with traumas like that, one needs to forget enough of what happened in order to think that one can talk about what happened.
Even then, after all those years, Semprún barely talks about his time in Auschwitz. He writes almost entirely about the train ride to the camp, or about his time with the resistance, and about some things he experienced after the camp was “liberated.” He barely even touches on the events that happened while he was in Auschwitz – the book actually ends when he arrives at the gates of the camp. Because how can he forget what happened? In many ways, he would always be there, no matter where he went afterwards. For Semprún, everything ends when the gates of Auschwitz open.
My trauma is not like the trauma of the camps, and I haven’t waited so many years to try and write this. I want to try and write before the forgetting. I want to try and write, while I know – not just cognitively but also existentially – that this is unwrittable.
I am sitting in a coffee shop writing now and am surprised that tears have come to my eyes. I have never cried about this before. Not when it happened, not any time afterwards. I have shed tears with others when they have shared their stories with me but for myself I mostly feel nausea, anxiety, and uncertainty. I feel some fear and shame as well. I don’t know where these tears came from but I won’t shed them.
I am trying to write the unwrittable, even though I know it cannot be written, because I care about others who have experienced events similar to mine (and because I care about myself, too). There are many who have experienced sexual violence who don’t talk about it – not ever – and who don’t know what do to with their feelings, and who feel confused and who have heard many things said about rape – but whose experience of rape doesn’t quite fit with what they’ve read online or learned in courses or heard from social workers or counselors or parents or friends.
These tears in my eyes, I think I know why they are there. They are not just for me. They are for us. It is for us I am writing, and it is for us I am now sitting in the corner of this fucking coffee shop, with my hood up over my head, weeping.
Many, many, many years ago, I wrote series of reflections for a loved one that I entitled “reflections of one who has never been raped.” These are reflections of one who has been raped… I think…
Can I permit myself to be raped?
This is where I try and fail to talk about what happened (originally this section was called “this is what happened”)
I have thought of at least six different ways to begin this section… and I wrote none of them down. I need to just start somewhere…
I was going to begin by saying something like: “Part of the reason why it is hard to talk about my rape is that…” but before I could go any further I immediately thought: “my rape” isn’t that a weird way of speaking? Does this rape belong to me? Am I the owner of this rape? Isn’t the rapist the one who owns it? Isn’t it his rape? But wait… this rape (mine? his?) was something that involved both of us – do we both own it? In different ways? How? Or this whole idea of owning a rape a fucking weird way of thinking?
So I think about other ways of speaking about it and I think: “rape is something that happened to me – it is not a thing that is possessed but a thing that is experienced (do we possess experiences? do they possess us? neither? what?) – and then I correct myself again and think, rape is something that happened with me. And then I’m back to wondering: but then is that rape? And if it isn’t, how dare I speak about the other man as a rapist?
But in all of this, I also think: “I bet a lot of people feel this way about the rapes that happened with them.” They probably think, “this is not rape as we imagine it to be.” And “this man was my good friend” and “I chose to go home with him” and “I didn’t say yes but I didn’t say no” and “my body was sexually aroused” and “I could probably have stopped him if I fought back… but I didn’t” and “well, I did kiss him and take off my clothes in his bed” and on and on. So all of these things swirl around in a person’s mind and that person remains silent because he or she doesn’t want to falsely accuse someone who was a good friend and they don’t want people to tell them “shut up, obviously you wanted it,” or even though they hear that arousal doesn’t equal consent they still feel confused and betrayed by their own bodies because they were aroused. It’s one thing to know something with your mind and it’s another thing to have been in the midst of experiencing that something you are told to think about in this or that way.
And now I’m wondering if anything I’m writing is coherent. Are you still tracking with me here? If you’ve survived like I have, I reckon you are. I hope so.
I’m supposed to be writing about what happened in this section and I keep finding other things to write about because writing about what happened means thinking about what happened means reliving what happened means trauma means trauma meanstrauma meantrauma mentrauma metrauma fuck.
But not like you might think.
I am again dissociating. Thoughts spiraling. Staring off into space. Thinking things I am not writing. How many minutes have passed since I wrote the last section? How many minutes am I away from the next section?
This is a breather
I think part of the reason I am writing this is to try and contribute to a world where it’s okay for people to share stories like these. So many people live in fear of sharing their stories. And I, too, am afraid.
I am afraid that this will be viewed as needy or attention seeking behavior. “Oh my god, TMI!”
I am afraid that people won’t understand and will say, “pffft, whatever, that’s not really sexual assault – you were just experimenting sexually.” That’s how my ex-wife and ex-pastor responded to me. Even two other dear friends said they wanted to understand but couldn’t see how what happened with me was rape (who exactly has the authority to determine if a person was raped?). So I am afraid that everyone else will respond this way.
For those who do see things more from my perspective, I am afraid of forever being branded as “that guy who got raped” as if this will now be the definitive thing about me from here on out.
I am also afraid to speak because I’m afraid that the person who assaulted me will read this and contact me and say something like, “Oh my god, I’m so, so sorry. I had no idea you experienced things like this.” I don’t want any contact with him – but I imagine him reading this and contacting me anyway because he’ll want to feel better and if you’re selfish enough to do what he did to me, then you’re also probably selfish enough to ignore requests for no contact in order to try and experience some absolution.
While I’m on the subject of him, I also remained silent because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I couldn’t bring myself to hate him afterwards. Not right after, not now. He was my friend. He was hilarious and witty and was good at caring for people whom I also cared about.
This, too, made me afraid and it made me wonder: “If I don’t hate him, was it really rape?”
I imagine many people who are raped by friends and family members can identify with this kind of conflict. He raped me… but he is my dad who bought me ice cream and hugged me better when I skinned my knees… He raped me… but he is my friend who journeyed with me and held me when I cried when my mother was dying of cancer… and so on.
Survivors often feel more conflicted about their assailants than third parties do. We find ourselves in this odd place of protecting the people who violated us – because we are uncertain about what happened, we hesitate to speak because we don’t want to hurt those who hurt us.
So, I am afraid for a lot of reasons. I am even afraid to express all these fears. I’ve spent my life overcoming fears and now, I think, I have a reputation for being a pretty solid, calm, and fearless fellow. I like having that reputation. I’ve avoided the whole machismo fearless posturing bullshit, but I’ve found more subtle ways to be perceived of as strong. And I like having people think about me that way. But now I am afraid of all these things and afraid of telling people that I am afraid.
But I also believe that many other survivors experience fears like these. I want to help demonstrate that these fears can be beaten. I can feel afraid but I can choose to not allow the fear to determine what I will do. I will speak, although I am afraid. And, hopefully, by speaking, I will contribute to the lessening of the fears that others feel.
By doing so, I hope to take an event that was death-dealing and respond to it in a manner that is life-giving. What was it that that guy Paul said? “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” If I can do a little of that, then it is worth facing my fears.
I also regret the hurt and possible anger or confusion this will cause people who love me. I think this is another reason many people remain silent. But we do not need to be alone. I am willing to share in the hurts of those whom I love. I know those who love me are also willing to share in mine. I know that we do not have to be alone with these hurts.
I know what I am going to write next. So I am focusing on my breathing now. In and out. In and out. I am remembering the things I am grateful for. Wonderful children. Nephews and nieces. Jess. The river and the sparrows talking in the hedges in the morning. Squirrels and geese and the spider outside my window. Long grass on my fingertips and the wind in my moustache. I am remembering all the wonderful and inspiring people I have known. I am remembering many of the places I have been – cathedrals and mountains and beaches and alleyways.
I have lived a blessed life.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
Maybe I should check my email. I haven’t checked my email in the last twenty minutes.
This is where I try again to talk about what happened
There were three of us. It was a friend’s birthday and we had gone out to celebrate with him. We were all drinking. A lot. A lot a lot. At the time my marriage was falling apart, my wife had ran away with my son, my cat had died suddenly, and I had given up most things I cared about in order to try and make my marriage work… and the marriage wasn’t working and neither was I and I was a massive mess. I was negatively coping by binge drinking on weekends, instead of going home to an apartment with an empty crib, an empty bedroom, and no cat to come and greet me and cuddle with me when I walked in the door. So, that night, the three of us drank a lot.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to remember everything that happened, but I was drinking myself into black-out states at that time. I remember the bar where we drank. I remember when I crossed the line from drunk to black-out drunk – for me I could always tell when the beer was going to put me over the line and I could choose to stop if I wanted to (although by that point of drunkenness it was very hard to not want to be more drunk) but once I crossed the line the drinking would become mechanical and I couldn’t stop. Everything became mechanical when I was blacked-out. I could still walk myself home or go to piss in the bathroom or continue a conversation but I was gone. My body was on automatic mode.
The night of my friend’s birthday I got black-out drunk and kept on drinking. When the bar closed, I remember getting in a cab with my friend who was celebrating his birthday. I have vague memories of leather seats and streetlights. I think I was going in and out of consciousness at that point. Then I was inside my friend’s apartment. I remember my friend kissed me while we stood in his kitchen. I remember thinking it was his birthday and I should probably kiss him back. So I did.
I guess I passed out on the couch. I remember coming to and my clothes were off and gay porn was on the TV and my friend had my penis in his mouth. My penis was erect.
I remember wondering how I could get him to stop without hurting his feelings or making him feel like a rapist. It was his birthday.
I think I lost consciousness again. When I came to he was kissing me and rubbing his penis against my stomach. I remember thinking, maybe I can just get everything to end really quickly so I took his dick in my hand and tried to jack him off while he kissed me (I kissed him back – it was his birthday). He didn’t come.
Neither did I.
I remember he said we should get in the shower. I remember getting in the shower. Then I remember saying I didn’t want to get my hair wet so he half-carried me to the bed.
He went down on me and I think I lost consciousness again. Then I remember him sitting me up and getting underneath me and inserting my penis into his ass. He told me to push.
Then I remember him kissing me on the street outside his house. I remember telling him that he couldn’t tell anybody what happened. I remember him swearing that this would be our little secret.
I remember I was still drunk when I got home. I remember taking off my clothes in the bathroom and being nauseated by my own skin and body and nakedness. I remembering turning off the lights and showering in the dark and wanting to vomit when I washed my genitals with my hands. I continued to shower in the dark for many days. I could barely touch myself or look at myself.
I have never been so repulsed by anything as the way I felt about my nakedness then.
The next time I saw this friend he said that he tested positive for HIV. I said I would get tested, too. He said, “Just joking! Just joking! Hahahahaha! Gotcha!”
That was a good one.
I’m not sure I got everything in the proper order. Did we shower first and then I passed out on the couch? Was I conscious when he put on the porn? I might have been. When you’re black-out drunk, it’s hard to distinguish between moments of consciousness and moments of unconsciousness.
I need to stop and think about beauty and goodness. The faraway mountains where I listened to wolves howl and saw the northern lights and drank from snow-fed streams that tasted like sap. The young man who came back to see me last week to say thanks for all the help and to tell me that he was two years clean from drugs and had a place and a parrot and how the parrot kept him from going back to jail because if he were to go, the parrot would die of a broken heart. The fish on the reefs off the Mamanucas Islands where my wife and I honeymooned when we were young and happy and in love. Charlie’s contented sighs when I hug him and the way Ruby curls up beside me in bed and promptly falls asleep because, when she can feel me next to her, all her childhood monsters cease to exist. A new book I am excited to read. The feeling of adventure I get when I walk under bridges. The look Jess has in her eyes when we are curled up beside each other and are talking without speaking.
I have lived a blessed life.
This is where I struggle to make sense of what happened
What happened? Was I raped? Did I permit myself to be raped? Since part of the fundamental understanding of rape is the lack of consent, is it nonsensical to speak about permitting one’s self to be raped? Or what?
I mean, look, here is the list of arguments against me:
I didn’t say no. Furthermore, there were several moments in that series of events where I participated. I tried to end things by making him climax and when he told me to do other things – like fuck his ass – I did what I was told to do.
Oh, and I kissed him back. Before and after.
And I got hard.
Plus, I’m physically stronger than him. I could have fought him off fairly easily. But I didn’t.
I was also conscious enough to say no about getting my hair wet… but I didn’t say no about the sex… doesn’t that mean I consented? What the fuck is up with that?
Wouldn’t all the bros and frat boys say to me – as they’ve said to countless girls – “hey, man, you got drunk and chose to be a bit reckless and maybe regretted what you did the next day but, shit, that doesn’t mean you were raped! Suck it up, buttercup, and deal. We’ve all done things we regret but that doesn’t mean we blame other people for our mistakes or ruin another person’s life in an effort not to take responsibility for one’s own actions.”
Part of me wonders if this is the “true” story.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
I was the one who swore him to secrecy. I figured the best way to get the whole thing buried and forgotten and never spoken of again was to have him think I was a closeted gay dude, too scared to let others know about my feelings, instead of confronting him about sexually assaulting me.
It turns out that some things are harder to bury than others. Here I am, about five years later, and the feeling of nausea is almost overwhelming. Why do I always think I’m going to be some kind of exception to the rule? As if I’m somehow more resilient than all the others… as if I can walk away unscathed from being raped and not give it a second thought.
Of course, I would never buy any of these lines if they were being used to defend or excuse something that took place with anybody else. I would point out that arousal does not equal consent, I would point out that giving a person a kiss is not the same as giving the person permission to perform oral sex on you, I would argue that not fighting your rapist is not the same as giving the rapist permission to rape you, I would suggest that trying to find a quick way out of the situation – by any means – is not the same as becoming complicit in your own rape, and I would emphasize that being black-out drunk and going in and out of consciousness makes any kind of consent impossible – a person who is unconscious or blacked-out cannot legally give consent (just like a child cannot legally give consent to having sex with an adult according to the Law). For anybody else, to me, this would be a clear cut case of sexual exploitation and sexual assault.
And it is. It is.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
There are a lot of people here now. A kid at a table across the room has made a mask out of a napkin and her mom’s sunglasses and everyone with her is laughing and taking pictures.
I’ve started to cry a little bit again and I think the girl across from me noticed.
Everyone at this coffee shop is dressed in much more expensive clothing than the people in places I normally frequent.
Through the window I see a man carrying a little boy on his shoulders and they are both smiling. There is something of happiness mixed into my tears now, too. God, innocence is beautiful. It is sacred.
It is fleeting.
It is one thing to know something with your mind, it is another thing to know it with your body. It’s one thing to understand a theory or a law. It’s another thing to understand an experience. Some experiences, like trauma, are fundamentally un-understandable. Trauma, by definition, cannot make sense. It is that which actually undoes our sense-making – that is large part of the reason why it is traumatic. Often rape is traumatic, not only because it is violent and it hurts and is a betrayal, but also because it shatters a person’s perception of the world of his or her self of what safety is and where one can be safe, of god and goodness, and everything else.
In a way I was lucky – no, I hate that expression… it has no place here… no one is lucky to be raped, no matter what one’s experience of rape is. I’m going to leave that sentence there, but I am going to start this paragraph again. In a way, I was less devastated by rape because I was old enough and experienced enough that I had already learned that the world is unsafe and that terrible things happen to good people for no good reason at all and that god does not come to save us. So many others are raped by people who have a massive degree of (not only physical but also social, cultural, and economic) power over them – children who get raped by adults, women who get raped by men, people with disabilities or who are differently abled, who are raped by (temporarily) able-bodied people. But me? I was an adult and an able-bodied man with a lot of experience negotiating male violence. Afterwards, I did not suddenly become afraid of men in general. This kind of random nonsensical violence performed by people who might be genuinely kind in a different area of life was already familiar to me. I already knew that even the most unexpected people could be like this. When I now say that “I have lived a blessed life,” I can say that, in part, because even as a survivor of rape, I am a male survivor and what we refer to as male privilege is still operating to my advantage. Consequently, when I experienced what I experienced, my whole world did not shatter. Just me.
I shattered. Although I was already well on my way to being completely broken. And I kinda figured I didn’t matter all that much anyway.
I have crossed my arms and I am staring at nothing again. I am deliberately allowing my eyes to lose focus. Drifting away for a while. This place smells like coffee and a barista is going around giving out free samples of a freshly baked pastry.
From the overhead speakers, a woman’s voice is singing: “Dream a little dream of me.”
Here is the final kicker: I was full of self-loathing at that time. I was weary of myself, my life, and my failures. I was engaging in self-destructive activities. Drinking myself into oblivion. Calling out the rowdies at the bars. Waking up with black eyes from friends who wanted to play rough.
I longed to die. Death often felt like the only possible escape. After what happened with me, I very nearly did jump off a bridge one night. I was sitting on the railing with my feet hanging over the edge and my wallet on the beam beside me so that they would be able to ID the jumper, even if my body was not recovered from the water. But I didn’t jump because I remembered Charlie (Ruby wasn’t born yet). And I remembered that I loved him. And I remembered that I wanted to be as good a dad to him as I could be for as long as I could be. So I got down and I put my wallet in my pocket and I walked away.
Everything since then has felt like borrowed time. A second life. As though I have been born again. Although it didn’t happen quickly or all at once.
But that is a different story, and I’m getting ahead of myself.
That night, my friend’s birthday night, when he did things to and with my body and when I did things with my body, too, I remember having one other thought: “I don’t care about myself. What do I care if he does things to me? What’s a little more loss or hurt to me now? Maybe this is what he wants for his birthday. How can I say no on his birthday? How can I say no now that things have gotten to this point?”
And so I didn’t say no and I didn’t say yes and I tried to be dead even though I was still alive.
This is me, trying to speak of the trauma that has been done with me. But because this is trauma, no narrative fits it well. This is an effort to make sense of the senseless and the sense-destroying.
Perhaps I need more time to forget so that a narrative can seem to fit it better than it does now. Perhaps I need more faith – I just need to believe the stories that the Law and counselors and well-meaning and intelligent friends tell me about rape and the possibility of consent in certain circumstances – I need to believe the definitions and standards they deploy so that I can make a narrative fit with what I experienced. I need to choose a story, so that I can be liberated from the trauma and the way it echoes at unexpected times in my life.
“I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.”
Did I permit myself to be raped?
No, no I did not. But I was raped anyway.
This is the last part
When the snow melts, the river runs high. The current is strong and it carries branches off of trees and floods the banks and washes grass and salt and dirt away. If you spend enough days and seasons walking there, when the spring comes and the river rises, you will also feel the river rejoicing. Rejoicing that spring is here, rejoicing in the strength that returns to it, rejoicing in the things that awaken and grow and nest and feed on it and in it and around it.
Winter is but one season. And we, like the river, will rise. Our strength will return to us and we
What else can I say? I have lived a blessed life.