educate

How Current Perceptions of Rape and Sexual Assault Hurt Survivors

By Anonymous

*Trigger Warning: This article includes topics such as sexual assault and mental health issues.

 

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Art by Nicole Zaridze

 

Waking up to the stench of alcohol and sweat, my first sight was my friend’s face shaking me awake telling me it was time to go. A lot of thoughts mulled about my head: confusion, exhaustion, a little bit of dizziness. But the one word that should have been ringing alarms wasn’t there: rape.

Before it all happened, I had a clear definition of what was and wasn’t assault. I never picked up a dictionary to learn it’s denotation, but movies, stories, and the news had told me enough. Rape was violent, a woman being held down at knife-point by a psychotic stranger in a dark alleyway. Strangely enough, thinking this way helped me feel safer, like any danger of rape was only a distant concept. But those thoughts only made me more vulnerable.

A close friend of mine invited me over one night and offered me drinks. I wasn’t planning to drink any, but he continued pressuring me and because I trusted him, I caved. One shot, two shots became four and seven. My vision started to blur. All I could think were half-formed perceptions, and my last sight before blacking out was his hands forcing my pants off.

For me, I didn’t think of my experience as rape because it hadn’t lined up with what my impression of rape was. It wasn’t violent. I had been unconscious on his couch. It wasn’t on some dark side street. It was in a house I had felt safe in. It wasn’t some psychotic stranger. He was my friend who I had known since grade school.

Because of the dramatized portrayals we see in our media, it took years of confusion before I recognized that what had happened to me was rape.

These rigid representations of rape serve exploitative interests, whether as a method of drawing in views, serving a movie plot, or bringing grit to art. But they do so at the expense of erasing the experiences of countless victims whose realities don’t match up with these dramatized portrayals.

The most common misconception is the idea that assault must be committed by a stranger. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 8 out of 10 rape cases involve a perpetrator with a personal connection to the victim. However, when we assume an attacker with no relationship, it’s easier to push the blame onto victims. We first ask, “What were they wearing?” “Were they drunk?” “Were they leading them on?”, instead of asking how we can help. If people imagine a victim with no relation to their assailant, they immediately become suspicious of what the survivor did to make it happen. However, the reality of assault cases is much more complicated, often with intimate connections that make it harder for victims to fight back. Because my assailant was also my friend, I spent years trying to rationalize what happened using any other label than rape. Realizing that rape cases are rarely simple allows us to stop looking for a reason and start looking for a solution.

Violence is usually one of the first indicators that outsiders look for when trying to ascertain assault, and also another characteristic that isn’t intrinsic to rape. In trying to get help, women must be held at gunpoint, strangled, and bound to be considered a “real” survivor. This erases the nuances of nonconsensual interactions. Oftentimes a victim is not able to fight off their attacker because they are intoxicated. Victims may withdraw consent but the aggressor doesn’t stop. Others may have simply frozen in the face of such a traumatizing situation. Just because a survivor does not fight back does not mean that they wanted or deserved it. And the misconception that fighting the aggressor is necessary for a rape to be valid keeps many scared to share their story.

But the most important aspect of these perceptions of rape is how they hurt victims. When victims are shamed and told by others that their experience wasn’t “that bad,” they are less likely to report their experience to the police or seek help within their family and friends. I, like too many rape victims, internalized the mentality that it could have been worse, and hesitated to report or share. Whether it be out of a fear that those around me wouldn’t believe me or worse, that they would blame me for the incident, I never told anyone. Staying silent kept me constantly contending with a fear that someone would find out, all while humiliation brewed inside me.

Ultimately, the worst parts of rape come afterwards. The National Sexual Violence Resource Council cited that 81% of women and 35% of men report significant impacts to their mental health such as PTSD following sexual assault. In my own experience, the damage wasn’t something I could fix on my own.

I’d get nightmares and flashbacks pulling me back to that night. The smell of alcohol made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. Hours were spent sitting in a bathtub trying to scrub grime off my skin that wasn’t there, hoping at some point I’d feel clean. But still, no matter what, it felt like I was being overdramatic, that my experience wasn’t real.

It wasn’t until I opened up to someone else that I felt it. She’d had been raped, and shared her experience with me and a few other mutual friends. I remember hearing what she had gone through and immediately pulling her outside. Only after doing so, I realized that I didn’t even know what to say. She asked me why I had brought her out and I didn’t have an answer. I kept dodging her questions until she asked,

“Alexa, is this about what I was just talking about?”

Finally, I mustered up the strength to blurt out,

“I need you to tell me if this is real.”

My story came flowing, telling her as much as I could from that night, how I felt after, and about the discomfort that still hung over me. I asked at the end,

“Was it rape?”

Hearing that yes was the only thing I had needed for those 3 years. I wasn’t okay. Things were still scary. But for the first time, I felt my emotions were reasonable.

Even if it doesn’t feel comfortable, seeking support is critical. Whether it be family, friends, or medical professionals, being able to find solidarity and get help is the most important thing a survivor can do. Just because there was no dark alley does not mean that we should keep to ourselves in darkness. Our experiences are real. By coming forward, we can change the idea of rape away from one created by media, but instead to one formed by discussion, by survivors sharing their experiences.

Survivors don’t always fit into expectations or boxes. Survivors who are, nonetheless, real and valid.

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