If one of every five women has been the victim of sexual assault, look around to the women you know—the odds are that at least one of them, and likely many more, have been sexually victimized. If we all know someone who has been through this trauma, or if we have experienced it ourselves, then why are we so hesitant to talk about it? Why do we cower from the subject because it makes us uncomfortable?
Maybe because we don’t want to hear the hard truths about how we treat the women who have survived.
The country is now intimately familiar with the Stanford case, where Brock Turner—a wealthy, young, white student—was convicted on three felony counts of sexual assault. Turner was caught by two Swedish grad students on bicycles as he was raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The two Good Samaritans chased down Turner, held him until the police arrived, and tended to the unconscious woman. But instead of receiving a 6 year sentence that the prosecutor asked for, Turner was sentenced to six months (three with good behavior) because the judge believed that “a prison sentence will have a severe impact” on Brock’s life and athletic career. The judge went on to say that he believed that this person, guilty of rape, was not a threat to others.
It gets worse. Brock Turner’s father wrote a letter saying that he felt the punishment was unfair for only “twenty minutes of action.” He blames the incident on their drinking and that Brock has “never been violent,” including the night of the rape. And to add more insult to injury, he states that his son is committed to educating other college students of the dangers of drinking and promiscuity.
Part of me wants to rage about all of this. Scream. Cry. Break things. But he’s not worth it. He’s not worth the energy it takes to write this. The Internet is doing a fantastic job of branding this rapist as the monster that he is. Brock Turner may only serve the summer, but his face and name is everywhere with the label “Convicted Rapist” attached to it. Thank you for that.
However there are still those who claim “boys will be boys,” or “they were both drunk, let it be.” These are not defenses. These are excuses used to minimize the damage the rapist has caused. To minimize the woman’s experience. The hurt it has caused her. Her family. Her friends. We can no longer allow victim-blaming to be the norm. We need to have hard talks. Listen to the women. Hear their stories. Understand how their life will never be the same. I know it makes people uncomfortable, but honestly, their discomfort pales to the nightmare the victims live.
In the fall of 2013, I was working as a wedding photographer at a swanky hotel in a popular New Jersey beach town. The bride and groom were amazing. I spent time photographing the groom at a beach house they rented across from the hotel. His family and groomsmen were all present and were wonderful towards me. I felt comfortable around the group and never had any inclination that something bad could happen.
I photographed all of the day’s proceedings, and stayed for the reception. I’d had a glass of wine with the bride before the wedding and I had another about an hour into the reception. Everything was going great. The guests were fun and happy and more than willing to work with me as I documented the couple’s big day. Soon, the wedding was winding down. I’d been chatting with a man about my age named Matt. He was good-looking, and he served as a Naval Officer. I’m not sure how, but we began talking about politics and laughed about how we were exactly aligned. Was I flirting? Maybe. But it doesn’t matter.
As I was packing to go, I realized the couple had not made their final payment. Matt said to come with him, there was going to be an after-party at the beach house and the couple had said they were coming. I agreed and he walked me over to the house as we continued to chat about politics. On the way there, I mentioned I felt light-headed and he said it was probably from the heat. The next thing I knew, I was waking up fully dressed and completely disheveled in my own bed. There was a foggy memory of driving home, but I was sure it was a dream. I asked my husband if I’d told him anything, and he said I’d came in at 4 AM with my clothes hanging off of me, refusing to talk to him. That morning he accused me of being unfaithful, but as far as I knew, I hadn’t been. I was angry. Then, he accused me of driving home intoxicated. I rebuffed the allegation; I’m the one who takes away the keys of those who’ve had too much. I would never, NEVER drive drunk.
After a long fight and many tears, I climbed into the shower and noticed I had bruises and scrapes covering my arms and back. I also realized that something didn’t feel right “down there.” I got out and examined my body. Countless cuts and bruises and even bruising between my thighs. I panicked. What happened? What did I do? I cried uncontrollably.
The next day my husband went out of town on business and I went to work. The ladies in my office noticed I was acting different and became concerned. I told them what I remembered and the marks I noticed and finally it came out “I think I was raped.” Saying it aloud scared me. It made it real.
Over the next couple of days, I had flashes. Sitting on a bed putting on clothes. Sitting on his lap. Kissing him. On the beach falling backwards into a large beach rock and performing oral sex. This couldn’t be me. I’m married. I’m professional. I would never do anything to jeopardize my business. All of this frightened me and I refused to believe it was anything more than nightmares and my mind running wild on me.
My husband had returned, but I was still hesitant to tell him anything—I only kept affirming that I hadn’t cheated on him. I did mention the dreams I was having and that I had sand in my shoes when I never went on the beach. Because this correlated with one of my flashes, I finally called my doctor.
My doctor was amazing. Again, I was able to say “I was raped,” but followed by, “I think.” When I explained to her what had happened, she hugged me and said, “Yes honey, you were and it’s not your fault.” I cried in her arms and she stroked my hair telling me she was going to take care of me. I was embarrassed to behave like this in front of my doctor, but there was a comfort in finally getting it out to someone who could help. She ran all of the tests and when the results came in, I was clear of STDs. However, I’d waited too long for the tests to pick up any drug I may have been slipped, but she was confident that I’d been given MDMA because of the dream-like memory flashes, and how I’d lost all inhibitions.
This revelation prompted me to tell my husband, and together we decided that I needed to be in intense counseling. I found a psychiatrist who dealt with trauma and they got me in right away. The diagnosis was PTSD and severe depression. My sessions were grueling. This is where I screamed. I cried. I became completely unhinged. My husband joined us because my doctor wanted him to understand that he was also a victim and we needed to learn how to talk to each other about it.
I was medicated…a lot. I was on a number of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, and anti-psychotics. Nothing seemed to work. Nightmares every night. I’d wake up screaming, knowing he was there. I couldn’t go back to the town where it happened—I still have a hard time doing this. I avoided any place there was alcohol. I withdrew from society. Failed at work. Raged at home. I had no control, because he’d taken it from me.
Early on, I’d expressed that I wasn’t going to pursue charges because I didn’t have the strength to do it. I also didn’t want my 15-year-old son to have to live through it. I didn’t want the events that happened to me to scar the couple’s wedding day. I was scared and I found anything to use as an excuse. My psychiatrist knew a detective in the town where the rape occurred. He offered to contact her to see if she thought I had a case. The verdict was awful. Since I’d been seen by his friends behaving in a promiscuous nature towards my perpetrator, I would have to deal with several witnesses against me. She also believed that since he was a Naval Officer, it would go through the court martial process and she could almost guarantee that nothing would happen to him. I was better off just forgetting about it. He also informed me that she’d peppered their conversation with “how was she dressed,” “had she been drinking,” “did she ever come on to him,” and so on. Basically, victim-blaming. Even my doctor was appalled.
Months passed by with me completely withdrawn. I’d quit photography and was missing work at my day job. I didn’t sleep, which only added to my aggravation. I did go on a vacation with girlfriends that I’d planned a year prior. A music festival booze cruise, so to speak. I spent most of my time hiding in my cabin. Any time I guy approached me, as innocent as it was, I’d run to the nearest bathroom and puke. I was nowhere close to being ready for this sort of social setting. My poor friends; I’d left them in the dark about what I was going through. They just saw a shell of the woman they knew and had no way of helping her.
Fast forward to today. I’m still on an anti-anxiety medication, I have moments of panic, I’ve put on weight, and I have a hard time dealing with triggers. What are my triggers? Tall blonde men, excessive drinking, my husband being affectionate towards me, seeing sexual violence on TV, and so much more. All of these things leave me crying at any given moment. Not just crying, but curled into a ball on the floor in absolute hysterics. I lay in bed and cry because I’d gone two weeks without thinking about it and for some reason, now all I can see is his face when I close my eyes.
I’m not the only one who has felt the effects of this heinous crime. My husband has learned to tiptoe around me on certain topics. He’s (wonderfully) dealt with my lack of interest in sex. He knows that every time we go to our favorite little beach town, I could go crazy at any moment. He’s seen the anger, the fury that I’ve released without control. He’s held my hand through it all. Then there’s my son. He’s a smart kid and put the pieces together. I’ve tried to be composed around him, but when your world is crashing down around you it’s hard to keep up the facade. He’s seen me angry and he’s seen me cry. He’s heard me threaten that if he ever treated a woman like this, he’d have to answer to me. He always responds so beautifully. Something like “Mom, I could never do that. You’ve always taught me to respect women. I love you mom, it’s not your fault.” My son is my savior.
It’s taken a long time for me to want to speak out about this. I’m fearful of being the “rape girl.” I don’t want to be seen as the person who can only talk or write about rape, but as my husband said to me tonight, I have firsthand knowledge of its horrors. Myself and a twenty-three year old woman from Stanford share a membership card to a society that no one wants to be part of. It bonds us together, just as it does with other women who’ve endured what we have. Her story touched something in me. It gave me the courage to speak out. She was brave enough to speak eloquently to her story, and I knew I needed to match her courage the best I could.
I cannot stress enough that Brock Turner’s “sentence” is a joke. If it wasn’t such a tragedy, it would be laughable. But this is the reality for survivors of sexual violence, and sadly, most rapists go free. It has to change. We have to quit focusing on the woman. There is nothing a woman can do to ever deserve being raped. Not being drunk. Not if she was flirtatious. Not her sexual history. Not her clothes. None of this matters and we must quit acting like it does. Instead we must start calling rapists what they are: A danger to society. A predator. This isn’t about a boy getting “action,” but about him stripping all dignity, confidence, sense of worth, and sense of safety away from her. She is the one left devastated, and he is the one who caused this.
I didn’t write this for pity. I’m sure there will be some who read my story and say it wasn’t rape, or I had it coming. I’m learning how to deal with these people, but it’s a struggle. But there are those who have the capacity to understand. The capacity to do the right thing. The capacity to understand that it is NEVER the woman’s fault. These are the people I am trying to reach. Hear my voice and know there are many more that echo it.