There is a need to build upon social change and the time is now. In the creation of the Break the Silence Photography Series for Sexual Violence Awareness, Stephanie Santore and Ashley Matthews asked volunteers to step forward to reveal their personal experience with sexual violence or abuse. They also welcomed supporters of the cause that included friends/family members of those affected to speak out against it. This event was a part of August First Friday Scranton. The event also doubled as a fundraiser for the Women’s Resource Center.
Stephanie’s Thoughts on the Project:
Ashley’s Body Positivity series and her work through the Build Me Up Beautiful Project was what drew me to her. I knew she would handle this subject and the volunteers therein with the utmost care and compassion while creating imagery that would speak to people – of the emotional process, the trauma, the resiliency, the journey to recovery. She captured these emotions and these stories in an undescribable way.
This project is purposefully personal. It would be a way in which our community could see a collective of survivors and supporters and their personal experiences of the effects of sexual violence, whether it be assault or abuse. It happens more often than we would like to believe, even more than I wanted to imagine for our small piece of Pennsylvania. Someone you know and love may have experienced sexual trauma at some point in their life without you even knowing. If the majority of survivors stay silent for whatever reason, for so many reasons, for reasons we hope to change with this project and beyond, the truth of this will continue to remain unknown.
This project allowed survivors and supporters to come together as a collective voice against sexual violence to help spread awareness of its existence and the need for action against it, in our community, throughout our state, and within our country. Each experience is told through the individual in her own words, coupled with an image that depicts a raw emotion drawn from their story. Each experience varies, each of them coming from different backgrounds, and all of them up until now, chose to remain silent.
It’s time to talk about it. It’s time to break the silence.
Ashley’s Thoughts on the Project:
Since I began photography fulltime, I haven’t had time to do many personal projects and had been craving to create something experiential. Once Stephanie approached me about her campaign and idea, I was immediately drawn to her passion for her project and the idea of it. This particular subject is rough to talk about but it’s very important to me. I wanted to help create portraits based off of the main emotions depicted in each person’s story rather than a woman holding a sign with text.
I wasn’t expecting what actually happened. It’s such an intimate story to share with a stranger to be portrayed in a photo, so at first, I thought it would have been only super emotional for each individual sharing their story. However, there were nights I found myself restless while tossing and turning in bed because I was afraid to fall back asleep to some of the vivid nightmares I was having. Throughout the weeks while the volunteers and I were planning the ideas of the photos to correspond with their stories, I may have been feeling just as much emotional turmoil as they were.
As I mentioned, this subject is rough to talk about, but I believe it’s so important to let everyone know that they are not alone. It’s something we all need to come together and break the silence of. I expect this to be a very emotional art exhibit and I’m so grateful for the many volunteers that chose to share their stories and vulnerabilities.
We can’t deny that violence occurs in our society and within our own communities. This violence will continue as long as sexism, racism, homophobia, classism and other forms of oppression exist. We will continue to breed individual and societal environments that to an extent, condone and excuse violence. This includes sexual assault and abuse. In order to fight for its prevention, we must also continue to work towards ending oppression across all spectrums of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation.
There is a need to talk about sexual violence more openly and without shame. We can no longer allow myths and misconceptions to dictate its handling in the aftermath and silence the affected. The more we talk, the more aware we become. And the clearer the picture, the clearer our understanding. There is still a need for change and it starts with us.
Perpetrators of sexual violence are more often than not, no stranger at all to their victims. We, as a society, need to face the reality that sexual assault isn’t left to only the most severe and depraved criminals. The perpetrators are our friends, our siblings, our classmates, our co-workers, our spouses, our family members, our next-door neighbors.
With a better understanding of who commits sexual violence, we can shift the focus on what changes need to be made as individuals, as family units, and as a community to work towards its prevention before a violent crime has been committed. And if committed, ensure law enforcement and our justice system handle the crime efficiently. We must work together to alter the way in which our society views sexual violence, the perpetrators of this violence, and the survivors who endure the aftermath as a result.
The change can begin at home, at school, or at work. By promoting respect for all walks of life, we can inspire those around us to live with compassion, kindness, and equality. We can encourage healthy communication and the expression of emotions. We can educate on the recognition and definition of boundaries to our children and our peers. We can teach the understanding of consent and what it means to ask for it.
Discussions must be had about the way in which we conduct ourselves. We can no longer condone actions, physical or verbal, that make sexual violence in any way seem socially acceptable. We can no longer brush off particular conduct or commentary that is labeled as “typical”. We need to develop the skills from a young age to speak out against poor behavior and correct it before it leads to criminal actions that are irreversible, actions that will affect someone for the rest of their life. We can no longer be encouragers or bystanders of this behavior. We must speak out.
It is our responsibility to educate ourselves, to become aware, and to inform those around us that violent behavior, attitudes, or comments, sexual or otherwise, are not acceptable. We need to raise the standard for everyone within our social circle as well as up and coming generations.
feeling like you should’ve known better,
that you weren’t worth protecting,
that you were just an easy target,
that you should suck it up & be stronger because so many others have it worse,
that people would make fun of you if they knew.
Can they tell just by looking?
You are worthless,
you’ll never be good enough for anyone,
you’re tainted now.
Then comes the safety of anger and focusing on others…
their emotions, needs, experiences.
It’s so much safer.
But is it really?
There is hatred for those who have raped someone you love…
and got away with it,
made someone you love feel forever dirty,
the rapists getting to go on with their lives like they did nothing wrong.
making them pay in a thousand grotesque & torturous ways,
only to recognize that would just make you sicker.
Trying every moment to convince someone they are lovable,
they are loved,
they are not dirty or broken from the inside out,
feeling the pain in every touch,
praying for healing.
It changes you.
There’s no way it can’t.
True safety for me is feeling numb.
I’m not telling my story to make a villain of the person who violated me. This violation, although disgusting and impossible to forget, is not what wrecked a year of my life, it is what happened immediately after. Even though what happened to me was text book, no consent, sexual assault, it absolutely was NOT premeditated or violent so I will only refer to it as a violation. The purpose of my participation in this photo project is to help raise a little awareness about Victim blaming and how harmful it can be. If sharing my story helps even one person feel less alone, strikes up a constructive conversation, or pushes anyone to google victim blaming in reference to sexual assault and violation then I’ve done something right.
It was mid-March and like every year a hoard of us were getting ready for the annual St Patty’s Day parade. The hoard included myself, my boyfriend, and a few of his friends. Decked out in all green, ready to drink until we couldn’t see straight, we arrive at the parade. Shots were taken immediately. Throughout the day we all separate and get back together like every other year, the day getting fuzzy as the hours drag on. The day is ending and my vision has doubled. I’ve clearly overdone it.
What time is it? Where is everyone? How is this happening? How do I use this phone? Where am I?
A friend gets me home safe. Everyone is already home. They had been kicked out of the bar hours before and I had no idea. I’m a drunk fool. The evening is ending and its mine and my boyfriend’s turn to babysit a particular friend, we three drunk stooges stumble up the steps into the living room and sit on the couch. These are my last vivid memories before I was startled awake. I don’t know how much time passed, I just know I was face down completely passed out when I felt a hand in my pants pushing my legs apart and a heavy breathing on my neck from behind. I turned to realize this was not my boyfriend and I was still on my couch.
I quickly stood up, screamed, cried and yelled “Get the hell out of my house!” To which he responded, “What’s wrong with you?” acting totally shocked like I was insane. I woke up my boyfriend who was passed out in an entirely different room for a reason we’re still unsure of, and I ran out of the house to our neighbors. I returned home only to find a meeting of family and friends talking amongst one another; not one (other than my neighbor initially) asked me If I was ok. I did hear the phrase “Be quiet we know how you are”. Over a year later and it still makes me sick to my stomach to hear those words out loud. I felt like I was drowning and everyone just gathered to watch me gasp for air.
I feel like my story is a classic “how much did she drink” type of situation that unfortunately a lot of victims of sexual assault/violation have gone through. Our first thought needs to stop being “What did he/she do to bring this upon themselves?” As a direct result of being dismissed, blamed, called a liar and made to feel like what happened to me was my fault, I withdrew from people I love. I barely went outside. I got severely depressed, mean, and felt alone. I barely felt at all. The next time you hear gossip about a “drunk slut” who claimed to be violated, think before you feed into or contribute to that victim blaming attitude. Before you ask how much they had to drink, what they were wearing, or how flirty they were, ask yourself: What would you say if YOUR loved one was sexually violated or assaulted and people just assumed they were asking for it? What would you say to YOUR loved one if they told you this happened to them? Would you interrogate them or comfort them?
Some of the first things I heard were:
– “He never should have been there in the first place.”
– “We know you were flirting with him all day.”
– “You made this up because you got drunk and kissed someone else and he told on you.”
– “I saw you, you weren’t even that drunk how could you not know what was going on.”
– “You didn’t smell like booze.”
Consent is everything. I don’t care if you are single, in a relationship, flirting, not flirting, naked in someone’s bed ready to go, drunk, high or sober. If you put hands on someone unable to give consent for any reason this my friends is textbook sexual assault. This is a violation. This is with that person forever.
I decided to volunteer for this project because I witnessed a loved one go through the effects of victim blaming after they were sexually violated. There should be no barriers when talking about sexual assault. Same thing goes for victim blaming. This was very difficult for my sister, however. People that she had built what she thought were close relationships with totally abandoned her. People who she respected, looked up to, and loved implied it was her fault this happened. As the year went on, I noticed subtle changes in her personality. She didn’t go out as much, stopped hanging out with her friends, and just became unattached with what she liked to do. She withdrew from people she was friends with for years because of what happened to her. She isolated herself for almost a year.
After that year had passed, I noticed her starting to come back out of her shell. She started meeting more people who have gone through similar situations, entire groups of people actually. I noticed the more we spoke about it and the more she spoke with other people about it, the easier it became for her to deal with all those feelings of abandonment. As I was reading her story again, going over what I was going to write, I was drawn specifically to this quote:
“What would you say if YOUR loved one was sexually violated or assaulted and people just assumed they were asking for it? What would you say to your loved one if they told you this happened to them? Would you interrogate them or comfort them?”
Other than a neighbor she ran to after the fact (or myself and our older sister when we came to scoop her up) not one person that evening asked her if she was okay. Instead as she stood there crying, clearly upset, one of the first things she heard was “Oh be quiet, we know how you are.” My sister means the world to me and although I personally was not violated and then immediately blamed for it, seeing the effect this has on a person’s life, especially a loved one has truly been eye opening. Assault is something that simply needs to be talked about. Recognizing the problem is the only thing to help us move forward and grow. Listen to your friends and loved ones. Let them know they’re not fighting their battles alone.
I lived with my father when the rape happened. He was a truck driver, making consecutive runs to California, pallets of strawberries. It was easy to hide my suffering from him because he was never home. I blamed my deterioration on strenuous college coursework and an over-achieving attitude. But I had stopped going to class. I had stopped going anywhere. Stopped sleeping. Stopped eating.
I moved from the couch to the large windowsill that overlooked my busy street, to the bathroom floor, and back again. I paced endlessly in circles around the same rooms like a neurotic animal in a cage that had lost its mind. This went on for months. When I stopped feeling numb, I plummeted deep into depression.
I day-dreamed about killing myself, fantasizing about shiny razor blades, red water in an overflowing tub, and a colorless body that would no longer have to think or feel any of this anymore. I went to war inside my mind, a war I believed would never end. Everything was stuck on an endless loop. My thoughts were merciless and my memory was unforgiving. I wasn’t living. I was existing. I just wanted it to be over.
The isolation makes it so easy to disappear, to fade away. It happens slowly and then all at once. Your life, your memories, your personality, your emotions, your mind – they fragment. You become more like glass than flesh and bone. You become a ghost.
These are the things we choose not to speak of, the kind of things we hold inside. The best kept secrets.
Silence brings so much pain. If you stay too long within it, you create your own hell.
This trauma is intimate. It burrows deep inside and sinks its teeth in as a living, breathing thing. It becomes a part of you. You can try to bury it. You can try to ignore it. You can wish for it to go away. You can pretend it’s alright. But it will refuse to leave. It is the thing that stays. Most times it sits idle, but other times it lashes out without a warning. I don’t get to choose when it strikes, I just choose to keep fighting it.
Through the numb and the nothing, the sadness, the guilt, the shame, the rage, the anxiety, the terror, the paranoia, the mistrust, the loneliness, the fear, the self-destruction, and ultimately, the transformation from all that you were to who you must become – – you will survive.
Because as survivors, we do what we believe is the impossible: we go on living. This comes with an insurmountable strength that I often think we don’t recognize in ourselves. We must remember that amidst the unrelenting pain, there is hope. It lives inside of us too, and with it, a courage we never thought imaginable.
Most of us will fight our entire lives, but we don’t have to fight alone. Support systems are out there. Go and find them and speak the truth. Silence only buries the things meant to come into the light. The longer you stay silent, the closer you are to disappearing forever.
Webster’s dictionary defines survival as “the state or fact of continuing to live or exist…”
For a long time, I knew it to be the latter. I was in elementary school and in a long-term foster home during the years I was abused by a man named John. But he was known to me and my foster siblings as “PopPop”. I loved him, and that love, mixed with the pain of surviving his form of it, altered the way I saw connection, my own body, and my self-worth – for decades past his death when I was 9.
Survival, I came to learn, isn’t just about living through the trauma itself. It’s also about what comes afterward. It’s about the things you do to yourself in an effort to reconcile and erase that trauma. For me, it was about growing up and maturing into my body with the feeling of wanting to peel my skin off and climb into a new one; a skin that hadn’t been tainted and claimed repeatedly without my consent. It was about struggling to see the same beautiful girl others seemed to see when they looked at me. It was about each boy I allowed to use me in an effort to feel wanted, worthy, and loved, only to end up feeling even more lost afterward.
Survival was also about the certainty I carried that, because I was damaged and tainted by a past beyond my control, I wasn’t worthy of a pure and fulfilling life and love in my future. This last bit was the one thing I couldn’t seem to let go of, no matter how much I grew or achieved for myself. While I managed to excel in a meaningful career, make true connections with others, and learn to accept my body, I still found myself in relationships with men who belittled me, men who called me derogatory names, fat-shamed me when they felt a discussion we were having wasn’t leaning in their favor, used my past I revealed against me, judged me for things I’d put myself through during my struggle, threatened me with physical harm, or treated me like an expendable object. Despite knowing I was a woman now who COULD have more in a partner, I listened to them telling me that I was lucky they were with me. I forgave them when they halfheartedly apologized. After all, with all of my scars, I certainly wasn’t perfect. How could I expect THEM to be?
At the age of 26, after the end of my worst relationship of them all, I threw my hands in the air and made a decision. I wasn’t going to continue feeding my own pain by settling for parasitic partners in an effort to, at last, create the family and find the unconditional love I’d never had. I gave in to the idea that I might not ever find that love in a partner, and decided that in the next year, I’d start my family alone. This, I felt, was a major victory. I was happy with my resignation to do it all on my own. And then…
I met Jason. It is said true love finds you when you least expect it. That’s just what mine did. And, if I’m honest, I credit him with saving the last piece of me that needed to be saved. Within one week of my brother “introducing” us, he flew 1,500 miles just to stand in my presence. I had never been one to believe in love at first sight. How do you believe in fairytale nonsense like that when your life has been such a solid example of the absence of such shiny things? But the instant we saw one another, we were irreparably bowled over by it. Over the next week of his visit, I told him everything. Every scar, every shame, every step forward and backward, and I kept expecting him to run. I expected him to decide it was too much baggage. I expected him to blame me for the large bulk of harm I’d suffered, just as I blamed myself. Instead, something extraordinary happened. For the first time, I heard the words “it wasn’t your fault” from someone whom I was intimately involved with. I heard respect and admiration in his tone instead of disbelief or a hurried response to move past the subject.
When he left at the end of that week, he asked if I would welcome him into my home and allow him to relocate to start a life with me. Two months later, he left behind everything he’d ever known and did just that. Here I sit, 8 months later, and every single day with this man is better than the day before. I’m still getting used to what he gives me. I’m still getting used to my doors being opened for me, my shower being started for me each morning, my breakfast being made, my lunch being packed with a love note each day, his reminders throughout the day that I’m loved, cherished, and missed, coming home to a spotless house and a partner eager to spend time with me, and to being asked if I’ve eaten and cooked for if I haven’t. I’m still getting used to my words and feelings being validated during an argument by a man who easily and honestly says the words “I’m sorry” when they’re warranted (and, in most cases, even when they’re not). I’m still getting used to a man looking at my body and being hopelessly in love with every single bit of it and caring for it as though it’s an extension of his own, rather than an object to use without regard for its intricacies.
When I look around at my life since he came into it, not much has changed. And yet, he has changed everything. I’m learning not to doubt myself. I’m learning to square my shoulders and forgive those who have hurt me, WITHOUT absolving them of their wrongdoing. I’m learning to love myself in ways I’d never even thought to. More than anything, I’m learning to see myself the way he sees me. Among all of the things he’s given me, his most precious gift has been inspiring me to see myself for all that I am and know, for the first time in my nearly 28 years, that I am deserving of love in its purest and most fulfilling form.
If there’s just one thing I want survivors such as myself, the ones whom have struggled to find themselves worthy after all of the damage they’ve accumulated through their pain, to know, it’s that the voice inside that tells them they are lesser for it is wrong. You are not the summation of the hurt you’ve suffered. You are not damaged. You are not broken. And you are SO WORTHY of the stability and love you seek. My hope for each of you is that you find, in this world and within yourself, the means to break the bonds within yourself that hold you back from reaching your full potential of healing and happiness and that you remember that your entire journey of healing needn’t be navigated all on your own. You are worthy of every bit of love you find along the way.
After seven years it’s finally time to bring this up to the court of public opinion, because that’s how we handle these things now, right?
The topic up for debate and scrutiny… was I raped?
I mean, at 31 years old I should probably know if I was raped or not, however, every time I start to believe one thing society tells me otherwise. So, in all cases, let’s start with what I do know.
The date was May 2, 2010.
I did drink too much at a party.
I texted an ex I was friendly with, even though I was in a then relationship for over a year. Why? I do not know. Maybe I did like attention more than I let on.
I wore a white sun dress which I immediately threw away in a gas station parking lot garbage can on my way back to my apartment, I loved that dress.
I remember a bruise on the inside of my arm.
Flashes occur in my mind to this day like a moment from a past life…
faintly saying “no” while he was on top of me,
the moment a repressed memory of him slapping me in the face came to me when I was in my car, I pulled to the side of the road to throw up.
To this day it shocks me because as a person, he is gentle and always was under normal circumstances.
I remember two days afterwards telling two people I think I was raped, but I was too drunk to know for sure.
I remember overwhelming guilt that I cheated on my loving boyfriend and to this day, he has no idea what happened because I was ashamed to open up.
I remember weeks of not wanting to be touched until I thought he would catch on.
I remember allowing my then boyfriend to be with me as I laid there, eyes shut so hard, tears pouring out, hoping it would end soon.
Now the parts that are still too hazy or questions that still to this day go unanswered….
How did I get 15 miles away from where I initially was?
Did I participate in the actual intercourse?
Did I lead him on?
The counterpoint to this is that society still tells me this doesn’t happen here, this is now how we raise our men. I drank too much or my sundress showed my flesh.
So… was I raped?
As I sat at my college freshman orientation, I barely paid attention. There were lots of speeches, presentations and, mostly, warnings about the dangers of college-like binge drinking, using drugs, failing out and sexual assault.
The latter was focused on quite a bit. They kept talking about “the red zone,” or the first six months of a girl’s time at college where she is most susceptible to sexual assault. They painted this picture of upperclassmen trying to take advantage of young women fresh out of high school. They told us it would mostly likely be someone we know. They told us if we were in a group of four girls, it would happen to one of us. They told us what to do if it happened. They told us it wouldn’t be our fault.
It was September, just after my 18th birthday at a college party. I drank too much and felt tired and sick and couldn’t handle the smell of cheap vodka, sweat and cigarette smoke anymore. My friends were ready to leave but taking too long. I asked the friend I came with if I could lay down in her car while I waited. I went to college in a sleepy town with lots of wealthy people and big houses surrounding a picturesque lake. Where there are lake houses, there are lake house parties, and the only thing that I thought could have harmed me that night were curious bears or deer. I was wrong.
I got in the car, locked the doors and laid my back on the cool leather seats, using a sweatshirt I found on the floor as a pillow, propped up in the corner of the headrest and the window.
The next five minutes felt like 55 hours.
I fell asleep and woke up because something was tugging at my shorts. As I started to stir, I realized a boy we came to the party with joined me in the car. His right hand was trying to undo the button at the top of my shorts. His left hand was up the bottom of my shorts, making its way over my underwear and, I would assume, under them.
I realized what was happening and froze.
I knew I needed to act. The way I was laying, I was able to slide my hand to the door handle. I felt to make sure the doors were unlocked: they were. I suspected they would be since I wasn’t alone anymore. A more disturbing thought entered my brain: who gave him the keys to let him in here? I couldn’t worry about that. I had to get out.
Adrenaline helped me shoot up. I pushed him off of me and immediately opened my door. I jumped backwards out of the car and caught one last look at him before I bolted. He looked confused. He looked a little scared. Mostly, he seemed frustrated and even a little annoyed. His face is forever burned into my brain.
I sped to the house to find my friends. I linked up with one. I told her I got sick and needed to leave. I couldn’t tell her what happened. I was scared because I partially blamed myself.
I got back to my dorm and my phone buzzed three times. It was an unfamiliar number and my stomach sank. The messages were from him asking to meet me in his room to finish what we started. He said no one would have to know. I felt nauseous. Why was he trying to act like nothing was wrong? Why was he trying to turn this into something I wanted? Who gave him my number? For months after, I racked my brain: “Why did he do this?” “What did I do to make him think this is okay?” I felt like a crazy person.
One day, I thought about it and my body became hot. It had nothing to do with what *I* did or didn’t do.
It was the red zone.
It was someone I knew. I went to the party with four girls and I was the one it happened to. It wasn’t my fault. I avoided situations with this boy for the next few years.
I still never told a soul, though. People form their own opinions no matter the truth. I’ve been in the presence of too many conversations where someone, women included, asked what a woman was wearing when she was assaulted or catcalled. I’ve heard the term “crying ‘rape'” more times than I care to remember. I knew that my story could be made worse so I kept it to myself. I also wondered how I could call what happened to me sexual assault when nothing really “happened.” I felt fake for feeling bad. Lots of young women had it worse than me. I’m lucky to have got away. I trained myself to think that for a long time. The more I grew up, the more I learned about consent. Years later, I also found out he did the exact same thing to another woman, except her story didn’t end with her running away.
In that moment, I made a promise to myself to share my story with whoever I can. I still carry guilt with me, now I just wish I had spoken up sooner. Maybe if I did, that other girl wouldn’t have that story to carry with her.
I don’t want another person to ever go through what I did. I want young people to know what the dangers are. I want girls to know what they can and should do but I want boys to know why it’s wrong and how their actions have consequences. We have to educate both girls and boys about consent and sexual assault prevention. Sexual assault is not something that only happens in a back alley in a big city and people need to know that. We are making strides but we’re not there yet. I want to tear away the feelings of embarrassment and doubt and self-loathing in a survivor’s mind. I want to end sexual violence. I want to eliminate the red zone.
The first thing I feel compelled to tell you is that I was in the wrong bed. That with identically long, mousy brown hair, he couldn’t tell me apart from his own daughter. That I was so young and so innocent that I couldn’t even process that it was wrong until someone had the ‘bad touch’ conversation with me. They felt that it was time to prepare me for the world ahead of me, unaware that it was already too late.
The first thing I feel compelled to tell you is that I was wearing floppy athletic pants and a sweatshirt, both too big for me. So big that my prepubescent body was swimming in them as I was drowning in the corner of the convenient store. A candy bar in one hand, the dollar from my mother in the other, and a man with salt and pepper hair towering over me asking if I liked him.
The first thing I feel compelled to tell you is that my brother is 12 years younger than me, so small compared to my tallness, and that I understood when people thought I was his mother, not his sister. It was funny, and we’d giggle, but there was no laughter when the furious man screamed that I was a good for nothing welfare queen who should learn to cross her legs. There were only tears mixed in with his spit in my face.
The first thing I feel compelled to tell you is that there are more good cops than bad ones. That certainly not every cop would stop a teenager walking home at night and ask what she was up to. That not every cop is the one that trapped me like a deer in the headlights of his cruiser, his hand between my legs, reminding me that he now knew where I lived, and that it was his word against mine.
I feel compelled to tell you that the hem of my dress touched my knees.
I feel compelled to tell you that I only had two drinks.
I feel compelled to tell you that I did say no.
I feel compelled to tell you that I tried to ignore him.
I feel compelled to tell you that I was smart enough to run past my house and double back when I was certain he was no longer following me.
I feel compelled to tell you that I’ve taken self-defense classes.
I feel compelled to tell you that there is pepper spray on my keychain.
I feel compelled to tell you that I no longer walk my dog past sunset.
Somehow, I don’t feel compelled to tell you that it never was and never will be my fault.
When I was 18, I went out dancing with a friend to celebrate graduating high school. I went to the bathroom alone, and on my way back to my friend, a man approached me from in front and stuck his hand up my dress.
When I yelled at him to get the fuck off of me and tried to pull away, he grabbed me by the arm and shoved me into the corner where he continued to put his fingers inside me.
I couldn’t think, or move, or breathe. It seemed like the noise in there was all of a sudden SO loud, and it was SO dark, and my voice was impossibly tiny. A few seconds seems like eternity when you think you’re about to be raped in public.
I heard a sharp “Hey!” and felt someone yank the man by his shoulder – I think someone noticed there was something strange going on and interfered, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out.
I immediately found my friend, told her I needed to go home, and we left.
I didn’t tell anyone for a long time. I still don’t speak of it often – and if I do, I don’t go into a lot of detail. I never reported it.
I was wearing a dress.
I was under 21 in a bar.
It wasn’t “actually” rape.
I should have put up more of a protest.
All things I imagined people would say to dismiss the situation.
Would people think I was just looking for attention?
I knew I didn’t do anything to cause the situation, but would other people see it that way?
Immediately after, I think I was in shock. I didn’t speak a word the entire car ride home. Then shock turned into confusion, paranoia, fear, sadness, and anger. All at once.
Confused because I began to second guess myself. Clearly, had I done several things differently, this wouldn’t have happened.
Paranoid of everything and everyone, especially men, and especially of being alone in public.
Afraid the same thing or worse could easily happen again.
Sad because I was confused and paranoid.
Angry because there were people that thought it was perfectly acceptable to put their hands on another human being that way. People that didn’t think another person’s body was off limits to them.
And I was disgusted.
Eventually, I was able to focus on the fact that someone stepped in. It helped me to let go, but I think I’ll always be a little confused, sad, paranoid, afraid, and angry.
“Is it really worth ruining the lives and careers of these soldiers, all because you had a little too much to drink off base and now you have regrets?”
Those words are forever embedded in my brain. I hadn’t been drinking at all that night or any night prior for that matter. I’d been in AIT for about a year before I ever got off base. I was a hold over. I never phased up so I could get off base on my own, so my CO gave me one.
I hadn’t been drinking. I had my battle buddy and was surrounded by people. But then I got a migraine and laid down. It was bad enough I blacked out.
Everyone disappeared except for the 3 of them, hovering over me. I could barely keep my eyes open. I couldn’t scream. I remember getting to the bathroom and propping myself between the bath tub and the door to keep them from coming in. Crying. “Please don’t. Please just let me go!”
“You have to report it! I’m so sorry I left you!” – – Okay, but only so it never happens to another girl.
“What were you wearing?” – – BDUs.
“How much did you have to drink?” – – Nothing.
“Why were you there?” “Where was your battle buddy?” “Why’d you let her go?”
The questions never stopped, and they were all about me. My actions.
What about them? Why aren’t you questioning them?
They never did.
I couldn’t remember what happened between certain points of that god awful experience. I couldn’t give a play by play of my assault. So, I must have made it up.
The rape kit was positive but…
“What if you like it rough? Who are we to judge?”
“Is it really worth ruining the lives of these 3 soldiers???”
They asked if it was worth ruining THEIR lives. THEIR careers.
I don’t matter as much as they do. I get it now.
They’re innocent until proven guilty, but I’m guilty until proven honest.
Rape culture is a real thing. It’s the reason your mom taught you to walk with the keys between your knuckles when walking to your car alone. It’s the reason when a star high school athlete rapes a teenage girl, that it’s her fault for ruining his potential sports career. Because people still say things like: “Your daughter’s so pretty, I’d lock her up if I were you”. More people are concerned about why women stay in abusive relationships than why men are ABUSING women.
The night; the night that destroyed my life was the night I was going to have a blast. The night before the notorious St. Patrick’s Day parade with my best girlfriend. I went to a party at who was supposed to be my good friend’s house. At first, we were drinking, dancing, and having a blast. Then, my best guy friend called so my girlfriend and I went to his house for a bit to have a few drinks. We planned to go back to the previous party.
At my best guy friend’s party, there was a kid who cornered me and shoved Xanax down my throat. He literally put them on the tip of his finger and pushed a few pills down my throat as he said “you’ll feel good and get drunk faster.” We stayed for a bit playing card games then we went back to the first party. By the time we got there, everything was blurry and I was blacking out. A guy I knew said to me, “one more drink won’t kill you.”
Next thing I know, I’m in a bed stripped of my clothes. Lying there naked with my stomach in excruciating pain that I couldn’t even stand. I started crying immediately and my girlfriend came in the room told me to get dressed and come drink some more. I was begging her to take me home. Little did I know, she knew what happened. After what felt like a lifetime, after begging her to leave since she was the driver and I didn’t have a cell phone at the time, she finally gave up and brought me to her house.
I was hysterically crying the whole car ride in pain and discomfort. When we got to her house she told me to lay down and told me that I was raped and not to tell anyone about it because my mother would never let me hang out with her again. I got ahold of a phone and called my boyfriend at the time and told him. Luckily, he was a good person who called my mother to come pick me up from my girlfriend’s house. I tried walking to the car but the pain was still unbearable. They laid me in the backseat and my mother rushed me to the hospital. On the way there, all I kept saying was “I’m sorry”. It was my fault I took the drugs. It was my fault I kept drinking. It was my fault I was dressed in shorts with these heeled boots. Everything was my fault, I thought. I arrived at the hospital. A rape kit was done and they found not one, not two, but three different kinds of semen in me.
I was raped by three men and had no recollection of any of it. I blamed myself. It was my choice to go out. It was my choice to wear what I wore. Everything that happened to me was my fault. Luckily, I tested negative for all sexually transmitted diseases but I did leave the hospital with P.I.D. I couldn’t walk for days. I fell into a deep depression and blamed myself for everything that happened. I went to a psychiatrist where I was diagnosed with depression, PTSD, and other mental illnesses. I trusted no one. I became very ashamed and isolated myself. I ended up turning to hard drugs to forget the pain, to forget everything which didn’t help because the pain and the memories will always be there.
I received help, but up until this day, it’s a struggle. It’s like a heavy weight on my shoulders that will never go away. But I have support from this project, everyone involved, my family and friends. When I said I’d volunteer for this project, all those feelings came flooding back into my veins and I went in a depression – but I realized it’s in the past. I’m a better person and am able to fight those demons. I now have a family of my own with a wonderful son. I am a survivor and I’ll keep surviving.
Are you ready to break the silence?
Email Stephanie at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.
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