Telling My Campus Rape Stories
When silence is not golden.
Image by Jesse Morrow / Stocksy United
I was raped. More than once, not very recently. I never said anything until now. And now that I'm ready to tell my stories, I know how this will go. I know my body will be put on trial. Men will ask: What was it wearing? How was it walking? Was it asking for it? Would anyone really have wanted it? Is it worth believing?
But by keeping my stories secret, I have been protecting my rapists, not myself or women in general. By trying to forget, I am not doing favors for anyone besides the men who have caused me pain and suffering. By believing that my stories are individual, rather than shared experiences, I have prevented myself from contributing to a dialogue that is much bigger than me.
Read More: When Your Period Tries to Kill You
Our collective refusal to speak out has casualties: the women and men who are suffering in self-imposed silence of their own, who need to hear our stories to survive. Here are mine.
By the time Stephen* told me he'd been accused of rape, the trial was already over. All of those involved in the case—Stephen, who was my boyfriend throughout high school, his best friend and alleged accomplice Alec, and my childhood friend Mary, whom the boys allegedly raped—were under strict gag orders and couldn't speak about the lawsuit while it was underway. Or at least that's what he told me.
It was a sunny August afternoon about ten years ago. We were driving over the so-called Grapevine on the way home to Orange County from San Francisco, my parents in the front and Stephen and I in the back. Stephen had cheated on me before, and he was evasive and moody all weekend; I spent most of the car ride goading him, as teenagers do, to come clean about whatever he was hiding. Stephen's behavior had been puzzling for weeks before this. A mutual friend's casual mention of Stephen's quitting the basketball team threw me for a loop, since he had continued to lug a Nike gym bag to "basketball practice" five mornings a week. For 50 silent minutes we stared out separate windows. An explosive fight was sure to erupt as soon as we had a moment alone.
Read More: Living with My Mother's Mental Illness
Every explanation with Stephen was convoluted; every fight had a carefully crafted time constraint—we couldn't have a long discussion, you see, when he claimed to have to jet to go to basketball practice. But what I gathered, without telling a story that isn't mine, is this: Mary, a girl whom I'd known since kindergarten, had accused Stephen and Alec of raping her on New Year's Eve. Six months before. The trial was over. The boys had won.
It wasn't that I immediately trusted Mary, or even that I held her account of the night's incidents in higher regard than whatever Stephen said about it. It was enough that the trial was hidden from me successfully for six months. I was through being in a relationship with someone I could barely trust. I broke up with Stephen for the final time shortly thereafter.
What sane person would put themselves through a rape trial unprovoked?
I didn't call Mary. It had been half a year—what could I possibly say? Did she think I knew about the trial and stayed with Stephen regardless? Or, conversely, did she think I was a complete idiot for not figuring it out? I was so ashamed, so guilty. For six months she had been floundering: failing classes, ditching detention, hanging around with the druggie skater kids. It took me years to finally talk to her about it, and all I really said was that I knew her story was true. What else was left?
Sometimes now, ten years later, I'll feel a pang of guilt over the part I played in my friend's attack. I'd broken up with Stephen that night, asserting that I "needed a fresh start." He was enraged. I unleashed Stephen out into the world in that state! Oh god, maybe if I had only been a little less cold and callous on the phone. Maybe if I would have just listened instead of getting indignant and hanging up. Maybe if I just hadn't caused drama in the first place, none of this would have happened. Stephen and I got back together three days later.
I never had to hear Mary's "version" to believe her. What sane person would put themselves through a rape trial unprovoked? This was a girl I'd known since before I learned to read. We'd drifted since then, but in my heart I couldn't believe that she would plunge headlong into a process during which she'd be called a liar, prodded, and cross-examined by men out to prove she was asking for it. Surely, she wouldn't risk her reputation, mental health, friendships, grades for a lie... she wouldn't. What did it mean that the court had decided the opposite? It haunted me through college, and it's what kept me silent each time I was assaulted.
Data from the U.S. Department of Justice show that only three in every 100 accused rapists will ever spend a day in prison, while the other 97 will walk free. With these statistics (as well as our personal experiences) in mind, it's not hard to understand why 68 percent of rape cases go unreported. Often women are told that going through a rape trial will be even more traumatic than the incident itself. We are told that to relive our experiences will make the pain more vivid, will only hurt us more, will almost never result in vindication. I was told this. It is dangerous advice, and we follow it. We swallow our stories and push them down, assuring ourselves that there is no hope. That it would be best to simply forget, and move forward. And so we let our rapists move forward too.
I remember the beginning of the night. I was back in San Francisco, this time in my first semester of college. Tagging along with some new friends, I headed to a party hosted by the University of San Francisco soccer team. I remember insisting that I wasn't drinking that night, because at the time I was obsessive about my weight and consuming alcohol was both "empty calories" and a damper on my morning gym plans. Because I was stone-cold sober, I remember clearly that I was perched awkwardly in a hallway when one of the boys from the team offered to make me a drink. He wouldn't accept my abstinence—and he was so friendly! I remember thinking, "One drink won't hurt." I remember it was orange soda mixed with something, maybe rum, served in a red cup. I don't remember anything else.
I woke up the next morning drenched in water on my dorm room floor. My mattress, usually on the top bunk, had been dragged to the ground, where I was lying motionless. I had no idea what day of the week it was, what month it was, nothing. It was one of the most surreal and terrifying moments of my life. Only when I shot up to a sitting position did I realize how much pain I was in. Once the pain registered, I became terrified to look in the mirror. When I did crawl to the mirror, it was worse than I imagined: I was caked in dried blood with two black eyes, a fat lip, a split chin, and a throbbing broken nose. I was numb. I spent a few minutes cleaning myself up. I didn't cry.
I was unprepared to ask my friends about the night before, so I decided to put off confronting what had happened. I crawled into bed and downloaded the first season of Gossip Girl. I watched episode after episode, the laptop heating my sheets, trying to will everything away. Halfway through the season, I texted the girl who lived next door and asked if she could bring me something to eat.
I was under the influence of so much date rape drug that I couldn't stand upright or form coherent sentences.
She brought me oatmeal and walked me through the previous night. I knew I hadn't been raped—I would have felt it, I decided. But I was under the influence of so much date rape drug that I couldn't stand upright or form coherent sentences. She told me I had flopped down the front stairs of the team's San Francisco town home like a rag doll and landed on my face. My friends took me with them and made a stop at a 24-hour diner, where I fell on top of a table, sending water glasses, dirty plates, and utensils flying into the air, covering my body in water, bruises, cuts, and table scraps. We were kicked out of the restaurant. Someone hailed a cab. My third face-first fall came while exiting the cab, my fourth on the short walk to our dormitory.
My friends then laid me down in the shower, trying to clean me and wake me up. Frustrated, they eventually dragged my mattress off the top bunk and tossed me there, letting me pass out. In retrospect, they were dumb, drunk 18-year-old freshmen who were doing the best they could for a friend they had only known a few weeks. At the time, though, I felt betrayed. Why was I thrown on the floor of the shower? Why didn't anyone help me walk when I'd already fallen so many times? Why had no one called the police? Taken me to a hospital? I stopped leaving my room. I certainly didn't go to any other soccer houses.
The reactions to what happened made everything worse. According to nearly everyone I talked to, including some of the most important women in my life, I was lucky because "nothing had actually happened," meaning their idea of my chastity was left intact. Meanwhile, I ditched two weeks of school, ashamed to step outside in case anyone saw my bruised, battered face. I covered my mirror with a towel because I was barely recognizable and couldn't bear the sight of myself. I started smoking weed daily to cope with the boredom of being locked in my dorm room. Which seems counterintuitive—I was the one who chose to hole up. But I was paralyzed; making the walk to class or to the dining hall was unthinkable. When I finally made it to the latter, I ran into a mother from my hometown and her daughter, a prospective student. I told her I fell down a flight of stairs. I eventually dropped out.
I got a job as a Greenpeace canvasser. The new work consumed me completely. I quickly moved in with three coworkers into a one-bedroom, fourth-floor walkup on Haight Street, less than a block from the infamous "Grateful Dead House." Acid was more a lifestyle than a drug for my housemates; at one point the 19-year-old white dude with dreadlocks who was renting out our attic fell asleep for five straight days and nights and we weren't sure whether he'd wake up. At first the chaos was a welcome distraction—Janis Joplin on vinyl and thick weed smoke and a canvas couch our guests could draw on with sharpie marker and reality that wasn't quite real. But slowly I became cognizant of my life spiraling out of control. I left San Francisco altogether and retreated home to my parents, my tail between my legs, feeling like an abject failure.
After a year at home, give or take, I had caught up on units at a local community college and was ready to go back to university. I'd come a long way since my "breakdown"—impressive internships and a 174 LSAT padded my resume—and I was accepted to Occidental College with a letter of recommendation from Senator Barbara Boxer, recently re-elected to national office in some small part aided by my tireless work as a junior speechwriter on her campaign.
At Oxy, I joined a sorority to connect with new women. Since my brief time at USF, female relationships had taken priority for me—growing up I had focused on trying to be a "guy's girl," but now I surrounded myself with women and cared very little about fraternizing with fraternities and sports teams. I even moved into my sorority house. When one of my housemates got raped at a USC party our junior year, I sat with her on the couch for hours while she told her story. I was the only one who believed her.
Then there was Dan. In eighth grade, he'd been my first kiss; in ninth grade, he beat up Stephen because he was jealous. As far back as elementary school, Dan had been violent: I remember he threw a baseball through his window when I told him to stop getting his kitten stoned. He dropped out of high school to pursue his cocaine addiction, went to rehab, then moved to the beach to pursue spearfishing. After I'd lived a full year in the sorority house, Dan reached out to me and asked to get lunch. We hadn't really been in touch, but he was my first crush and I was passively proud of him for his sobriety, so I said yes.
I was terrified. What would happen if I yelled for help and nobody came?
He flaked on lunch. This didn't surprise me—I wasn't holding my breath. And anyway, I was starting a new life. Missing out on hearing about Dan's NA meetings and pretending to be interested in photos of fish is something I would get over. In fact, I considered my acceptance of his lunch offer to be something more along the lines of a "nice gesture" than an actual willingness to reignite any sort of relationship.
But when he called me at 9:00 that night, while I was at a CVS pharmacy down the street, he insisted that he was on his way. He already had my address from our aborted lunch plans, and nothing I said would deter him. I said no more than once. When I arrived back at my house, he was lounging idly on my front stoop. The rest of the night is a blur.
I try to sequester Dan in the sorority house living room, but he insists on seeing my room. He insists on watching a movie. He immediately "goes for it" with me (how else do you describe it?) and I use that timeless female excuse: "I'm on my period." (For some reason, "I don't want to" just feels too harsh.) I can't bring myself to scream as he forces himself into my mouth. I can't bring myself to bite down, though I think about it. I don't want his fists pounding my temples. I'd rather have his dick in my throat. Writing this down, it seems so stupid, so avoidable. But at the core is this: I was terrified of Dan. Worst of all, what would happen if I yelled for help and nobody came?
It's finally over. He saunters down the stairs and out of the house without a word. I stay in my room, lying flat on my back, numb. I stare at the ceiling, getting up only to brush my teeth. An hour goes by. I delete and block Dan on Facebook so he can't reach me. I resolve to forget, but my room is no longer a safe space. I am plagued by a recurring, vivid nightmare of Dan's time there. I find an apartment in Silver Lake and start staying over as soon as I sign the lease. For a few nights before I am able to move my furniture, I sleep on a pile of towels in the corner of my new room. It is the best sleep I've gotten in months.
One of my "sisters," Karissa, moves in with me. My commute to school is now 15 minutes rather than a short walk. I spend my down time in the library instead of the sorority house. I am embarrassed that I didn't give my housemates a reasonable amount of warning before suddenly bailing on fall semester, so I avoid them.
The memory feels like a dream. Sometime in October, after an afternoon spent drinking in the Los Angeles sun and half an Occidental football game, I am back at our apartment hooking up with a nice enough guy who I've been casually seeing. A few hours later Karissa barges into the room and begs me to come to a party hosted by a guy she likes. "I can't go alone!" she squeals excitedly, pulling on my leg, picking me out an outfit. I reluctantly allow myself to be dragged out of bed. My new beau is too tired. I tell him I'll be back in an hour, Karissa's promise.
I get to the party, and am immediately handed a shot of tequila. And another. It's been a long day, I'm dehydrated, I feel dizzy. Roy, one of the guys who lives in the house, suggests I lie down in his room and rejoin the party when I felt better. He takes my arm. I readily accept his offer, figuring I just need a few moments of quiet to conquer the spins. He leads me down curved stairs to a basement room with a sloped ceiling. His bed is unmade. His sheets are navy blue. He leaves, thankfully. I fall asleep.
Roy's room is ominous in the morning light. A single window, placed high up the interior wall but level with the ground outside, winks in assurance that no one peered inside last night; no friendly stranger heard any cries for help (were they issued). The slanted roof casts low shadows, and the room itself seems to be fulfilling a purpose at odds with intention. Had the house been occupied by a young family, this basement dwelling would be filled with benign knick-knacks, holiday decorations, forgotten trophies, ghost stories.
I am trying to passive-aggressively push a half-asleep rapist to admit to his crimes.
My vagina is throbbing. I touch its nakedness, wince with humiliation, and find relief when I feel myself mostly unchanged. I sigh, dejected, I reach for my clothes. My hand bumps into Roy's slightly-moist, still-sleeping body and wakes him. He smiles, thick with slumber, stretches and blinks open his eyes, emits sounds of satisfaction that make my blood turn cold. He is revolting to look at. I want to shout at him. I don't.
"What happened last night?" True to female form, I am trying to passive-aggressively push a half-asleep rapist to admit to his crimes. It is like trying to prod spontaneous remorse out of a tortoise. Roy is attempting to cuddle me, kiss me, hold my naked body. He is trying to play it off like he has no idea I had blacked out. He isn't convincing and I'm not accepting. "You wanted it," he repeats, confidently. "You were begging for it. I can't believe you don't remember." I ask him tersely why I have giant bruises beginning to show on my legs and torso. This he explains poorly. I fell off the bed, he says, but got up and wanted to continue. I've stopped listening, staring instead at Roy's oak bedside table, sharp around the corners, sturdy in its bulk. My dead weight hit solid wood and it didn't wake me up?
One thought kept recurring above all: How could I have let this happen to me, again?
I have to stay at the house until Karissa is ready to leave. She takes her sweet time. It would have been annoying if it was a one-night stand; as things are, I feel the walls closing in. When we finally make it back to our apartment, my new beau is gone. His note says he took a cab home. I don't call him, because I don't feel like explaining. I won't see him again for months.
In the months that followed, Karissa refused to believe Roy raped me. She told me I probably just didn't remember consenting, that "He wouldn't do something like that." You probably think that I would be outraged, indignant. The craziest thing was that I wasn't—I tried to agree with her. I tried desperately to convince myself that I had asked Roy to have sex with me, that I'd said yes, that I'd wanted it. But I couldn't make myself believe. After seeing Facebook photos that proved Karissa was inviting Roy to our apartment while I was out, I found a subletter and broke my second lease in a year.
I moved into my condo two years ago. It is a peaceful place and it is all mine. I feel more at home than I have in years. I park my car in a locked garage and take an elevator only accessible by key to my front door that I keep deadbolted. I am cautious, but I don't allow myself to wallow in these things that have happened to me. (Especially not all together, all at once, like I have here.) I treat my body well. I hang out with a close group of friends and I try not to put myself into situations where I am without people who I trust. I have a good family and I am able to use them as a resource to insulate myself from danger. I have an amazing boyfriend who loves and respects me so much that sometimes I have a hard time believing he's real. I feel grateful for all the safeguards I have that so many women in the world don't. I am lucky that I am able to move myself out of toxic situations and get myself back on my feet. For a long time I have felt that sharing my stories would run counter to all these things. Why rehash old hurts when I've been doing so well?
About a year ago, after ignoring countless Facebook friend requests from Dan, I finally decided to accept and hear what he had to say. To my surprise, his message was an acknowledgement of his wrongdoing and an apology. I had convinced myself that he would never admit what he did was wrong, largely because I didn't believe he would recognize its wrongness. But this is what he said, verbatim: "you deleted me on fb after that night. i really regret treating you like that tho. you had been a close friend i've known longer than almost anyone. i got a little carried away with how i was treating girls. you shouldn't have been one of them and i'm really sorry."
The last part stung the most. My eyes burned with tears reading it—I'd never thought of the other girls. But of course there were other girls. How many other girls did he assault? Why did he single me out to apologize? I shook with rage. For years I had done nothing about that night in but try to forget it happened. But my silence was only perpetuating the problem. My silence was hurting other women by keeping evil men at large. That is when I realized: these are not my stories to hide.
I've already been called a liar by my roommate and friend after I told her what Roy did to me. I've already been informed that my experience with Dan wasn't legitimate by a man I'd been dating for months and thought I trusted. I've already listened to my immediate family tell me to buck up about getting date-rape-drugged. I know I shouldn't, but I'll still probably let strangers on the Internet make me cry. The fleeting sear of a mean comment is nothing. How exhausting it has been to hide my experiences, to revise my memories. How exhausting to bear the burden of covering up other people's crimes. I no longer accept the premise that I should be embarrassed to have been raped. It's hard to remember, but much harder to forget.
*All names have been changed.