The necessity of making the unbelievable fathomable
One in five.
One in five is the statistic that has been repeated to us in school, in seminars, in the media and perhaps in our own homes. One in five women in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted; at least, that’s how many have reported it.
That is a lot of people, I can mentally calibrate in a country with roughly 160 million women that that is an unbelievable number of people. Yet, as a child, and even well into early adulthood, that was still just a number.
Sexual assault, rape and molestation were things that I saw on TV or heard about on the news. They felt a million miles away, and somehow, irrationally, I felt like my life was protected from them.
So I’ll start with what seems clearly obvious now but impossible for so long: I was raped. I was raped repeatedly, consistently, and here’s the most important one, unknowingly, for years. I was raped by someone I loved and trusted, and who, coincidently, didn’t fully understand what they were doing either.
There was this idea in my head of what a rapist was: a man hiding in the bushes, a still of a mugshot from the news, a stranger in a movie. Never had I really had it explained to me that a rapist is more often than not someone you know, or if I had, I never really felt that it could be someone I knew, someone I trusted. Clearly, my arrogance didn’t protect me from reality.
My first week on campus at NDSU, I remember attending the We Take a Stand event. Every freshman student was required to learn about how to prevent violence on campus. This event was well-planned, the individuals running it were clearly passionate and informed. However, all I remember is that my slot was right in between the welcome rally and the hypnotist.
If I had to bet, I would say about 20 percent of the people in the room were taking it seriously, the rest either weren’t paying attention or treating it as another social event.
“How did you two meet?”
“Oh, well we exchanged Snapchats while we were meant to be learning about preventing sexual assault.”
And I can’t blame anyone. It was my first week in a new state, I knew one person when I came to NDSU and everyone was desperate to find a friend or a group they felt comfortable with. During an activity, everyone at my table did exchange information. The next day, one of the men in my group talked about ‘raping’ another team in a field football game outside of the A. Glenn Hill Center.
I didn’t understand then how important it was for me to have people take the topic of sexual violence and rape culture seriously. There were clearly people at NDSU who did so, and the university took a stand on the topic, if you can excuse the pun, but the university culture as a whole wasn’t there yet.
When you learn about these statistics, the unimaginable number of men, women and children hurt by sexual violence amidst a background of rape jokes and catcalls, it makes reality seem further away.
Male students would watch girls change outside my freshman dorm and they’re just being horny teenagers. A student followed me to where I lived and threatened me in the dining halls when I wouldn’t give him my homework answers and he’s just some dumb guy who didn’t feel like doing homework. Another student would shout my name as he drove past in a car every time I walked at night, it was just a practical joke. See what I’m getting at?
Invalidated, made light of, delegitimized; we’re told that predatory behavior is a joke, not just from strangers but from our friends and peers. And after a while, we begin to believe it. I believed it to such a point I couldn’t even take seriously the way I was being violated in my own relationship.
I’m a Women and Gender studies major, which comes with its own brand of stereotypes, but I mention it to say that I talk about sexual violence in my classes. I hear the statistics in almost every single one of them. I believe women when they say they’ve been attacked and logically I have studied the subject to a point that I understand how bad of a problem it is.
So why then did I not recognize that my boyfriend of five years was raping me?
I think because these statistics don’t feel like real people, and we surround ourselves with jokes to make the reality of it harder to see. It can sometimes be difficult, even for those who it is happening to, to recognize what sexual assault really does to a person and what rape culture does to undermine their experience.
It took my being with someone new, a partner who asked to touch me and respected my answers, to realize what had happened to me. Even then, I couldn’t really believe it. I wasn’t a statistic. I knew better. I had the autonomy to stand up for myself. I was so strong and admitting something like that made me feel so weak.
Remembering trauma retroactively and hurting over a history that you could have changed, but didn’t, is so painful. I repressed things for years because I saw it as my responsibility to protect myself. When I would be touched in a way that reminded me of how he had touched me, I would be sick and angry, not just with him but mostly with myself.
The shame was at a time almost unbearable, and I need to make clear why I’m telling this story because a few months ago I couldn’t have. My mental distance from sexual assault was to such a point that it could happen to me, that I could vocalize it and not at all believe it. I had tricked myself, as many of us do, into thinking that those rape statistics aren’t people: they aren’t like me, they aren’t like us.
It’s still not natural for me to talk about this, but it feels absolutely necessary. If I couldn’t understand this shame or guilt until I experienced it first hand, then I can only hope that others can come closer to understanding it by hearing my story.
There might be—now if we’re going back to statistics—there is someone else at NDSU who is going through what I went through. Who is being hurt by the person they love most, by the person they trust or by a stranger. That pain is real and it’s up close and it hurts so bad, I know. I can’t give you anything right now except the promise that I hear you, I believe you and whatever you need people will be there with you through it all.
But I don’t just want the people who have been hurt to hear me, even if I could have used a message like this a few years ago. More than anything, I want the people who haven’t been hurt to hear me, maybe even the ones doing the hurting.
We are your friends, your students, your classmates, we are strangers and your competitors, we’re in your group projects and we live across the street from you, we’re everywhere, and God, we’re real people and this is happening at rates so alarming that it takes going through it yourself to even begin to fathom how big this problem really is.
I don’t want that anymore, and I will do everything I can, including airing my own deeply personal experience, to make sure it won’t be ignored.
This is my therapy, talking about what happened to me, making it real just by saying it out loud. Please understand this is not everyone’s. I couldn’t go to the police or an authority, and I don’t ever plan to. Others will be there first thing.
Some, like me, will share their story over and over again. And some will try to never think about it again. We need to normalize all these. It can’t be a survivor’s responsibility to keep their attackers in check.
I say this because last month I told my ex-boyfriend what he did to me. Despite what others told me, I knew he didn’t understand what he had done. I knew he too had been hurt and that this was his normal. I don’t just tell my story to you, I told it to the person who hurt me and watched as they realized with such pain and regret what they did.
That’s really the problem here. We either villainize rapists and sexual abusers into a caricature or we make light of the reality of sexual assault, both result in a fictionalized understanding of rapists and rape culture that is easier to wrap our heads around.
Sexual abusers and rapists can be villains, but they can also be community leaders or people we trust. When we blow up our perception of rape or we downplay it, we only distort what’s really happening in a way that allows us to feel uninvolved and allows rapists to be unrecognizable.
There is not a day that goes by that the weight of this doesn’t rest on me, some days much heavier than others. If each person took one minute longer each day to invest in prevention, education or even some soul-searching, this weight would be alleviated from me and other survivors like me.
We’re not statistics, we’re people who love and care about you, asking for a little of your time to love and care about us.