Warning: This story involves the discussion of sexual assault. Please read with caution if this subject triggers you.
In my sophomore year of college, during my first serious relationship, I was sexually assaulted.
It’s taken me a while to be able to say those words out loud, and even longer to believe them. My story doesn’t fit the traditional narrative that we think of when someone says they’ve been assaulted. It was not a sudden, violent incident where I was taken advantage of on a walk home or after a night of drinking. Instead, it was the calculated result of a slow but brutal erosion of my personal boundaries, where my sense of self was dismantled in a way that prevented me from fully recognizing just how my body had been violated.
The man who did it appeared at a vulnerable time in my life. I had just transferred to a new college, and I was painfully insecure and lonely. I wanted validation, and I had no idea how to get it besides through the attention of others. And when he gave me attention, I felt he saw me more clearly than anyone ever had. He was charming. He thought I was pretty and that was enough for an intense, very whirlwind relationship to begin.
A week or so after we started seeing each other, I experienced a serious tragedy in my family. Being a sensitive person already prone to bouts of anxiety and depression, I sought a way to escape the tidal wave of grief bearing down on me by channeling everything I had into building a relationship with him. He was the perfect distraction, and I was desperate to make him want to spend as much time with me as possible. If I was with him, I didn’t have to confront my emotions or listen to well-meaning people dredge up my family’s trauma again and again.
He was fun to be with at first, as he was the first person to make me feel truly desired.
Being with him was like entering a different world where I could escape all my other problems. And I’d tell myself that if he was a little snappy or critical of me, I could ignore it because no one was perfect. I was just glad that he wanted me at all. I was very sexually inexperienced, and he claimed a wealth of knowledge about sex and bodies with such confidence that I was spellbound by him.
As our relationship progressed, he started to make comments here and there that would undercut something I said, or make fun of me. Eventually, this developed into comments about my intelligence. If I tried to tell him that one of those comments upset me, he would deny it or say that I misunderstood him. He tried to gaslight me into believing that I was being hysterical, or “acting crazy,” and with the constant turmoil of emotions going on inside my mind, I began to believe him.
At the same time that he was doing this, he was also eroding my sexual boundaries. He insisted that I had to try everything, because how would I know if I liked it or not unless I tried? And if there was something I was nervous about, he would make fun of my conceptions of the thing, saying that people who had bad experiences with it were doing it wrong.
When he’d gained my trust, he stopped using protection when we had sex. The first couple times that I objected, he relented until he became more comfortable, and insisted that he didn’t want to have sex unless we didn’t use protection. I was on birth control, but I was inconsistent in taking the pills on time and grew terrified that I would get pregnant. But through my haze of depression and desperation to get him to stay with me, I eventually stopped protesting.
Then, one day, the incident happened that is so crystallized in my mind. He asked me if I would do a specific sexual act with him, and like so many other times, I said no. But this time, he didn’t drop it and, instead, began to equal parts cajole and bully me to try to wear me down. And it worked. I never gave my consent, but I remember being slumped against the shower wall as he did it. I remember that I began to cry. That tempered his enjoyment, and eventually, he stopped. I know I am lucky in that way. But more than the pain of the incident itself, what rings the clearest to me is that at that moment, I felt like nothing more than an object to him, a doll that he thought he could position for his own enjoyment. It was suddenly very obvious that he had no respect for my personhood and didn’t see me as an equal in our relationship. The truth is, I will always remember my feelings of betrayal the most.
I didn’t tell anyone about what had happened for a long time. It was hard for me to call it sexual assault in my mind, even though I knew I had been violated.
I had never explicitly told him no, after all, so wasn’t it kind of my fault? Who would hear that story and feel sympathy for me, when I was always talking about feminism and being a strong woman? Any anger or betrayal that I felt immediately after it happened was quickly replaced by self-doubt. I didn’t realize it then, but all of his subtle criticisms of me had wormed their way into my brain and were shaping how I thought about the situation and myself. Our relationship had made me into a shadow of who I once was, timid and silent.
After a while, I was able to stop seeing this person. My silence gave way to anger and shame—so much shame that I only wanted to pretend that we had never been together at all. I learned that the way he treated me was part of a pattern. He had a tendency of initiating relationships with vulnerable, isolated people, and pushing them for the same sexual acts through a campaign of coercion. I was one of many, and depending on the day, that either made me feel better or worse. It took me a long time to heal from the damage that he did to my body and mind and the unhealthy sexual habits that I had fallen into as a result of our relationship.
If this man and I had a one-night stand and he assaulted me, maybe I would have told someone sooner.
But in the context of our relationship, I was disempowered and unable to firmly state that what had happened to me was wrong. My consent was not any less important because we were dating. But by the time I was assaulted, he was not only disregarding my consent but had made sure that I didn’t see it as valuable either.
Even after a few years of therapy, it’s still difficult for me to share this story. I do it because I think it’s important that in our continuing public dialogue about sexual assault, we don’t forget about relationships and all the messy and grey forms that an incident like this can take inside of them. The person you date should want your enthusiastic consent each time and make it clear that they value your personhood and your voice in your sexual relationship. No sex is owed or deserved, and even a slow, chipping away at boundaries is still a violation. I learned that the hard way, but I was able to build myself up again with a stronger understanding of what a truly equal and respectful relationship should look like. Since then, I have never accepted less.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault or violence, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).