I was raped one night in my first semester of college. It has taken a long time and a lot of hard work to begin recovering from the trauma I experienced that night.
I was doing what all excited freshman do: going to parties and drinking under age, though slightly curbed by my involvement in the varsity volleyball program. I was lucky to have my teammates as a support system. But I also tried to get along with other freshmen who were less interested in athletic training and more focused on getting out of the dorms on a Saturday night, hoping you made it home in one piece.
One Saturday night in September 2009, I got swept up in the perfect storm of events. I was dealing with a shoulder injury that escalated from the wear and tear of our preseason training and had to sit out of our morning game. Getting benched was devastating. So I soothed my pain in the only way that made sense: drinking until I forgot how bad I felt.
Inhibitions were low, and my group of girlfriends were having a great time dancing with anyone and everyone. We ended up in the basement of one of the larger houses on campus, and I danced with someone. But from haze of both the alcohol and the foggy basement, I could not tell who he was at all and could not even make out his face.
Before too long, the fog machine in this fire hazard of a basement set off the smoke alarms, and we all evacuated. My dance partner led me up the narrow, poorly lit stairway to the back of the building, when he suggested we find somewhere more private. I assumed he meant his dorm room, but he led me to a dark parking lot behind his dorm instead. He opened up his car door for me to get in. I was disoriented, and I asked him to just let me go home, but he told me to wait in the car, slammed the door, and locked it. I was afraid the alarm would go off if I tried to get out and run back to my dorm, so I sat there completely paralyzed until he came back.
He started kissing me. I pushed back, saying I just wanted to get back to my room, but he persisted. Before I processed what was going on, he had forced himself on me, and began telling me I wasn’t doing a “good job.” I could still barely make out who this person was.
He finally signaled he was done with me and I was able to fall out of the car and stumble back home. I was so confused about what had just happened.
I was only able to determine who it was who locked me in his car and raped me a few days later because one of my hallmates recognized him in the cafeteria. Since our school had a small student population, I ran into him many more times throughout my four years on campus. But he never acknowledged my existence, let alone what happened in the car. I wasn’t able to fully understand that night until years later, when I saw him in the local bar my senior year and was overcome by the disorienting fear I experienced that night four years earlier.
That fear has come back several times over the years, in unexpected ways.
How online dating made me relive my assault in unexpected ways
In my first few years of single adulthood in Washington, DC, after graduating college, I turned to online dating as a way to meet new people. Little did I realize that the cycle of swiping, chatting, and then meeting for drinks was leading me to resurface the horrible events from that night.
Online dating has a common, predictable sequence: Strike up an online conversation, take it offline with high hopes, maybe even get intimate, and then never hear from that person ever again. Sometimes you can tell right away when you’ll never hear from someone again. But then there are other times when the text messaging frequency slowly dwindles and somehow conversation comes to a full halt.
It took about a year of online dating for the parallels it held to my sexual assault experience to materialize for me.
Being thrown aside, ignored, and promptly forgotten after being used that night for some young man’s enjoyment is a feeling that has stuck with me for years. Whenever I would go on a date with someone from an app and then never hear from him again — whether it’s the first or fifth date, whether we became intimate or not — I was painfully reminded of that night in the car.
I never considered that what I was experiencing was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), since the concept has always been so closely tied to military veterans. But through some personal research, it started to resonate for me that what I experienced was a trauma and PTSD could manifest itself in many different ways for different people.
I sought out a trauma-informed therapist to help me focus specifically on processing the trauma and learn the skills I needed to continue healing. This treatment gave me a forum to talk about how my trauma was coloring my daily behavior and interpersonal relationships, and it allowed me to discuss ways to feel more safe and secure in my own skin again.
I experienced little victories. I broke into a new career that I enjoyed. I allowed myself to feel fulfilled in a new personal relationship. Along the way, it became easier to recognize when I would revert to feelings of fear — and when that happened, I tried to replace anger and frustration with compassion for myself and those around me.
Why I was oddly encouraged by the Brock Turner story
After all of this really hard work to uncover what had been driving my emotions and behaviors for the past seven years, it finally seemed like public consciousness around sexual assault was beginning to catch up to my very complex feelings.
It felt like my pace of processing my own experiences was marching right alongside many stories bubbling up in the media. When the news about the case of sexual assault at Stanford University broke earlier this year and the country watched Brock Turner's story develop, I paid close attention to the coverage coming out of California.
When I heard chatter around the water cooler at work condemning Turner’s father’s statement during the trial and how the final jail sentence was too short, I got nervous. While my colleagues were saying all of the same things I was thinking, I felt that I had to hold back from chiming in on the conversations in fear that I would get carried away by my passion. I was worried that revealing too much could endanger my professional persona. Luckily I had other outlets, including my time with my therapist, where I could express everything I held back during the workday.
When the letter from the survivor at Stanford was published, I finally saw someone put words to what I’d experienced. In the letter, she wrote:
I learned what happened to me the same time everyone else in the world learned what happened to me. ... He had taken off my underwear, his fingers had been inside of me. I don’t even know this person. I still don’t know this person. When I read about me like this, I said, this can’t be me, this can’t be me. I could not digest or accept any of this information. I could not imagine my family having to read about this. … My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.
The feeling that her body was no longer her own after the assault — that was a feeling I had been struggling with for years after my own experience:
When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced.
She was able to voice her feelings in a way that many other survivors have never have the chance to do. The ability for the author to remain anonymous after the letter was published made her experience more accessible and allowed others to see their own stories in hers. I kept hearing about more and more survivors speaking out. While it was upsetting to realize just how many people have suffered from sexual assault, I was so inspired by the courage I saw.
But Donald Trump made me feel terrible all over again
Then we got to hear Donald Trump’s “locker room talk,” promptly followed by his denial that he’d ever actually assaulted anyone.
And then even more women started to speak out against the lies they were hearing. Again, their stories were promptly followed by denial, wrapped in heavy victim-blaming rhetoric that has demanded more courage than ever from survivors listening across the country.
Everything that Trump has said about women, even before the 2016 election cycle started, has made me uncomfortable as a woman and a feminist. But now, the fact the potential leader of our country appears to be an active participant in the culture that led to my sexual assault is terrifying in a whole new way.
The young man who raped me in college was a privileged white “frat bro,” which is something I continue to see in the professional world and politics in particular. While I acknowledge that it is a stereotype, and not all men who are privileged and white and belonged to a fraternity would rape someone, I have unfortunately had to deal with a handful of men in my early career who closely resemble that stereotype. These men were usually in positions of authority and exercised that authority in aggressive ways that reminded me of the attitudes I saw in the young men, like the one who raped me, in college. My interactions with them brought back feelings of worthlessness and fear that made it even harder to do my job without feeling knocked down in the same way I did the night of my assault.
Trump is the epitome of a privileged white man who has no qualms about exerting aggressive authority over whoever is in his path, especially women. The thought of someone leading our country who seems to feel entitled to use and shame women is threatening to the productive conversations our country has started to have around sexual assault.
Through the survivor’s letter to Brock Turner, people were able to better understand what victim blaming looks like. If someone who could hold the authority of the president continues to perpetuate a culture that enables men to feel entitled to women and their bodies and rewards victim-blaming attitudes, it could threaten healing for survivors hoping to live without fear throughout the country. Please don’t let that happen.
Jess Cooper is a data analyst living in DC and an alumna of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
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