How can we really see?

What if we could look at the world and really see it? I mean seeing it through the eyes of imagining. I hope that in reading these posts, the eyes of your mind will open and let you see more, feel more, and think more about the world.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Portrait of a Sexual Assault Victim

Fifteen years old. I was just fifteen years old when I had my first sexual encounter. Sounds pretty normal, right? The only difference is: mine was non-consensual. This is the secret I've been holding in for the last six years of my life.

I was fifteen, and sexually assaulted by a classmate after school. For years, I blamed myself. I could never admit what had happened to me was assault because it would mean that I was a victim, and victims (in my eyes) were helpless, weak, and pathetic. So here's my second secret: I'm not a victim, i'm a survivor.

You're probably wondering what constitutes sexual assault. Let's take a quick look at wikipedia for some answers. Sexual AssaultMolestation, and Rape are usually used interchangeably. The important thing to remember is that sexual Assault is the blanket term that covers rape, groping, or any other unwanted sexual contact. In my case, it meant being groped in a back hallway after school with my hands pressed up against those painted cinderblocks, crying and praying he'd let me go.

How did I get there? Good question. I was a good student with a lot of potential, playing multiple sports and still trying to push myself "out of my shell" after years of bullying in middle school. I was a sophomore in high school. One day during a pep rally in the gym, I noticed that a young man who was sitting behind me was touching my back. I had known this young man since elementary school, and we'd grown up in the same town together, yet I hardly knew him. He was, in my mind at least, decently attractive and very athletic. In short, he was a cute, smart jock who I found I was somewhat flattered to be gaining the attention of. However, I was still extremely shy, and surprised to find him touching me without warning.

Throughout the pep rally he continued to playfully tap on and touch my back. I decided that it was making me somewhat uncomfortable, so I turned sideways and put my leg up on the bleacher instead, assuming that he would stop touching me once my back was out of easy reach. I was mistaken. He transferred his attention to my thigh, and continued to drum on my leg. Several of the friends I was sitting with looked as though they were beginning to grow concerned too. One offered to trade seats with me, but in the packed gymnasium it seemed impossible to orchestrate. So I stayed put. I just sat there and allowed this young man to touch me. Was it because I liked the unexpected attention? Partly. It was also partly because of my complete social anxiety and fear of standing up for myself.

So when this young man stopped me after the pep rally and asked me to meet him after school, I complied. Now looking back on it, I can identify the pattern of a sexual abuser quite clearly, but at the time I was ignorant of any such thing. I just knew that a boy had finally shown interest in me after years of being bullied and ignored by those whom I found myself attracted to. The first step for most sexual abusers is to test boundaries. Sometimes this will be by bringing up inappropriate subjects, such as asking what color underwear you are wearing or talking about breasts or awkward fetishes. Other times they will take a more physical approach such as touching you in ways that are usually socially unacceptable, touching areas like your thighs, sides, breasts, or genitals. If you react very negatively they will usually drop it, but if you are ambiguous in your response, or too shocked to stop them, they may try it again.

In my case, I didn't speak up. This gave my assailant the notion that I would not speak up if he chose to go further, and so he decided to single me out and get me alone. I have no idea if I was the first, or even the only girl he singled out. I'm terrified that i'm not, and by not speaking out that I have allowed a sexual predator to roam free, unchecked. This was part of my struggle for a very long time, between the guilt I felt and the inability to put a name to what happened, and the desire to protect other girls from this guy. I remember conversations about him in the years following, how my friends generally found him "creepy" or "awkward". They complained about him saying inappropriate things in a public setting, and how that made them uncomfortable. Through all of this, I could never tell them what he had done to me. I thought that because I couldn't verbalize what happened, and because I felt I hadn't fought enough, that nobody would believe me.

Now, I am finally speaking out. I was sexually assaulted. I am a survivor. This is my story.

I met him after school as requested. He gestured for me to follow him down a hallway, away from classrooms that were occupied. Looking back, that was really stupid. I mean really stupid. If you can help it, never be alone with someone you don't know that well, and if you get any strange vibes or feel uncomfortable LEAVE IMMEDIATELY or relocate to a more public/occupied area. I followed him. We got to an area that overlooked the floor below, and we both leaned on the railing, not speaking. The hairs on my arms were standing up. I was apprehensive, a little scared, and kind of exhilarated. I was alone, with a guy, who was obviously interested in me. What could possibly feel more right?

Then things happened fairly suddenly, and progressed quickly from there. He grabbed me hard, sliding his arm around my ribcage under my breasts, and pulled me over to a wall. He put his arms around my waist, pressing me carefully against the wall and running his hands over my back and buttocks. At first, I was aroused. I had never had someone touch me that way. I was also afraid, because i'd never been touched that way. He encouraged me to caress his chest and arms, and that was alright. Then... he pressed himself against me, and I could feel his erect penis. I was horrified. I'd never expected anything like THAT.

He didn't do anything else. He didn't kiss me, or tell me I was pretty. At one point he stopped and bolted away from me across the hallway because he heard someone coming. That too, should have been a red flag. Other people I had seen hooking up in hallways at school never jumped away from the other person like they had been burned. In fact they always ignored other people completely because they were too caught up in each other. He must have felt fear at discovery. He knew what he was doing was wrong. At the time, though, I still felt like it was a slightly uncomfortable sexually exploratory encounter. I felt guilt, exhilaration, and confusion. I also felt slightly sick to my stomach afterward. That's not generally a feeling you should have after a positive encounter, but at the time I was naive and didn't understand how sexual things were supposed to feel.

After he was done with me, he left. He didn't even say goodbye, or thanks, or anything. He just left. I myself was left feeling like i'd obviously botched the encounter, because weren't you supposed to say thanks or something when it was over? Wasn't he supposed to kiss me? I went over to a friends' house afterwards, but left without telling her what had happened. I pretended that everything was okay, but I was hurt and scared. For the next two weeks I shrank away from my friends, drawing ever further within myself. I moved through the day like a zombie, while still being perfectly aware of where people were around me at all times and doing anything I could to avoid touching other people.

At the end of those two weeks, I saw him again. He gestured for me to follow him, and I did. I don't know what possessed me to follow him to that back hallway again, except perhaps a hope that the first encounter was a fluke, and maybe he would kiss me and ask me to be his girlfriend this time. This is where I look back at myself and scream in my head "YOU PATHETIC LITTLE WORM! If you had just said no we'd be okay! Future you wouldn't need all this counseling and help if you had just known what was coming and RUN AWAY!" But I can't go back. It happened. I was naive, and stupid, and uneducated. I wonder if I had known how things should have felt, or if i'd talked to someone after that first encounter... but I didn't. And now I spend every day of my life dealing with the consequences. That, however, is not the point of this blog post. That will come next time. Right now, i'm remembering how he led me by the hand into that back hallway, and used me.

That's the only word I have for what happened: used. He pushed me up against a wall without preamble, and began groping me. Where last time it was ambiguous and confusing, this was terrifying. He shoved me and pinned me against the wall, his penis already erect. Then he began groping me painfully all over with his hands, grasping my buttocks and repeatedly thrusting himself against me. I felt sick again. Then he released me, and a person I knew fairly well walked by. I wanted to say something, to ask for his help... but I didn't. I couldn't. My mouth wouldn't work. I just stared at him mutely, my eyes begging him for help. He just kept walking.

As soon as he was out of sight, my assailant grabbed me again and pushed me against the wall. That time, I was facing the wall, my hands pressed against the cold painted cinderblocks, as he jammed his penis through my jeans as deeply as he could into my buttocks. It seemed to go on forever. I wanted to scream, but I couldn't breathe. My breath came in short, choking gasps as he thrust against me over and over. Finally his arms tensed up, and then his whole body shuddered, and he relaxed against my back. He pushed off of me, and walked away. Again, without a word. I wanted to curl up into a ball and sob. I also wanted to vomit. Instead I walked home on shaking legs, and took a scalding hot shower.

In the months, and then years since this happened... I've blamed myself for it. Why wasn't I stronger? Why didn't I scream out for help? Why didn't I realize what it was right away and make it stop? It all boils down to one fact: I didn't know it was assault until it was too late.

I wonder what might have happened if I had been taught what to expect from sexual interactions. What if I had been taught about rape, abuse, assault, and molestation? Instead of getting help for something I knew was eating me up inside... I hid it. I thought I was dirty, and disgusting, and not worthy of the love of other people. I'm LDS as well, so I thought I had broken the law of chastity (for those of you unaware, we don't believe in sex before marriage, or in purposely stimulating sexual feelings in yourself or another before marriage).

The side effects.
I began to wear very baggy clothing, usually hand-me-downs or men's clothing. I often refused to brush my hair or shower, in order to make myself less attractive to men. I thought that if I just made myself undesirable  that they would never pay me attention like that again. I was so wrong...because I still had to attend school every day with my assailant.

I saw him in the hallways between classes.

I saw him in the cafeteria.

I saw him at school sporting events and dances.

And every time, he would stare at me. His eyes bored into the back of my head from across hallways, rooms, and streets. I could feel his presence the second he entered a room, like a rabbit sensing a coyote.

Then, worst of all, I had a class with him my senior year of high school. English, my best subject. I was in an honors class every year, and I honestly considered dropping it to take the regular class because I couldn't bear being in the room with him. In the end I decided to stay in that class because the teacher was amazing, and I had friends to insulate me from him. I knew that if myself and my friends came to class early and grabbed seats next to each other, i'd be fine. By this time most of my friends knew that I was jumpy around men for some reason, and never wanted to be alone. They couldn't tell why, but most of them instinctively protected me in groups, or made sure I always had someone to walk to class with.

It all worked perfectly, until the day that my two friends were both missing from class. He managed to sit right next to me. I could hardly breathe, and the room felt too small. He pressed his forearm against mine on the table as we wrote our papers for the day, and under the table he pressed his thigh against the length of mine, rubbing it back and forth. I was shaking. I couldn't take my eyes off of the paper I was writing. For the entire class period, I couldn't move or speak. After that day, my teacher seemed to sense something was wrong. I always spoke in that class, and shared my thoughts. I loved that teacher like a favorite uncle. He knew something was wrong because I completely shut down. From that day on, that teacher became my hero. He forced my abuser to sit as far away from me as possible, and if at all possible he made sure it was at an angle where he couldn't so much as look at me.

The rest of that year went smoothly, and we graduated. I was still living in my home town when everyone went off to college 45 minutes away at the state university (or beyond). Several of my closest friends went to that school, as well as my assaulter. Every time I met one of my friends for lunch on campus, we would run into him. He'd never greet me, but he'd follow me around until I got in my car and drove away. I felt hunted. I couldn't even go for a walk in my own town because he still lived there. I knew I needed to get out.

So I prayed. My answer came in the form of an impression that I needed to apply to go to school across the country. I applied to BYU in Provo, Utah, and BYU-I in Rexburg, Idaho. Both were good schools, and both were AWAY, but I knew I needed to go to Idaho. When I was accepted, I knew I needed to leave as soon as possible. It was still a good six months before I finally escaped to Idaho, but it was the best decision I've ever made. As that plane took off I finally felt free. Being out here at college I've slowly started on the road to recovery, and that's the topic of my next blog post PTSD: learning to survive.

I hope that my recounting of the pain I endured will help others to realize, accept, and get help recovering from the assault they experienced. I hope that my admissions will also help people who have never experienced sexual assault to understand what we've been through. Thank you for reading.

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