When I was drugged and assaulted by a friend in high school, I didn’t even know whether to call it rape. Thirteen years later, a new breed of Internet activism helped me process my old trauma.
Late on the night of September 28, 2002, a few hours before I turned seventeen, a guy friend of mine showed up at my front door with a bottle of Grey Goose vodka wrapped in a purple velvet sack. My parents were out of town for the weekend on a camping trip, and my thirteen-year-old sister was asleep upstairs. It was the first time they’d let us stay alone overnight, after much pleading and cajoling on my part. I hadn’t been expecting my friend, who stood there, at least two inches shorter than my five feet two inches, sweaty under his plaid newsboy cap from his moped ride up to my house.
I let him in and grabbed a couple of cut-crystal glasses with ice. We sat across from each other at my kitchen table and drank the vodka straight instead of mixing it with juice. I’d been watching television, but switched it off. Hanging out was comfortable, easy, and having the booze was its own thrill. I never asked where he got the vodka, but he definitely didn’t look old enough to get away with buying it on his own. We laughed and chatted and quickly got a little drunk. We rehashed elaborate inside jokes that drew on years of shared history — one was a rude song we’d made up about an old classmate, set to the tune of “Oh My Darling, Clementine.”
The boy and I had been friends for a third of our lives, strictly platonic. I thought of him as a weird sort of sidekick, or a jester who made me laugh and ran errands for me, and certainly not as a threat.
* * *
I woke up the next morning upstairs in my bed, foggy-headed, but not exactly hungover. My sister and I drove up to the mountains to look at the changing Aspen leaves — all gold at the end of September. My nether regions were slightly sore, but I shrugged it off; denial, maybe, or teenage oblivion. (I was a virgin.) It was a beautiful day, the beginning of my senior year of high school. Later that day, I called my friend, mentioned that I didn’t remember heading upstairs, and asked, embarrassed, if anything had “happened.”
“We kissed,” he reassured me. “Nothing else.”
Roughly two weeks later, I was driving the same friend home from a party outside of town. It was dark and the headlights of my car lit up clouds of dust that the tires unsettled on the dirt road. He was in the backseat, and another friend was sitting shotgun. He was drunk; we weren’t.
“Don’t you remember?” he slurred. “Don’t you remember when I switched our glasses?” The boy said he’d slipped a hydrocodone pill into mine, then led me upstairs. He was incredulous I hadn’t figured it out, and had a hint of pride in his voice.
“We had oral sex,” he said. I asked him how this was possible, if I was unconscious, and he said, “I did it to you.”
I pulled over, to the side of the dirt road, and told him to get out, happy to leave him among the chollas and scrubby piñon trees. My other friend said, gently, that I had to bring him home, so I drove on and dropped him off in front of his house, telling him I never wanted to see him again. My girlfriend and I drove to Walgreens and browsed rows of pregnancy tests. We left without buying anything.
* * *
My daughter and I have birthdays that are very close together at the end of September, separated by just three days. This year my daughter turned two and I turned thirty, which is arbitrary, really, but still feels like a big deal. Thirty is a reckoning, taking stock of what my life has been so far (overwhelmingly good) and who I want to be as I grow into the rest of life. Also, as I do every year, I think about the night before my seventeenth birthday, when to tell my daughter about it (not for years yet) and if, between now and then, I’ll land on the right words to explain to her what happened.
It was weeks before I told my parents, and years before I called what happened rape, even to myself. “Sexual assault,” was more palatable, clinical, even. I got hung up on technicalities, like, if it was only oral sex, did it really count as rape? Nevermind that I don’t know what really happened that night and likely never will. I very much did not want to be the girl to whom this had happened.
If I were seventeen and raped today, I believe, and hope, that many aspects of the aftermath would’ve gone down differently. In 2002, we didn’t talk about rape (especially not date rape) at home, in school, amongst friends. When it happened to me — nobody, not my parents, not my therapist, not my best friends (and certainly not me) — knew how to react. We fumbled in the aftermath: I struggled against denial, no one mentioned calling the police; we barely even used the word rape to describe what happened. In the years since, a conversation about rape and how we handle it as a culture has exploded, largely online. I take it for granted that Wikipedia has a “date rape” entry, as do WebMD and the Center for Disease Control. In 2015, it would be unthinkable for colleges and universities to welcome new freshman without sexual assault workshops alongside awkward ice-breaker name games at orientation. And teenagers, at least the ones I know, are capable of discussing date rape frankly, without euphemisms. But in 2002, this was not the world I lived in.
Before I told my parents I went to an old teacher of mine and confessed everything. We attended a small, private, hippie-leaning alternative elementary and middle school that was a universe unto itself, and formed unusually close bonds with our teachers. The teacher, a man in his early sixties, had made favorites long ago of both the boy and me.
I went to see him one day after school. I knew I had to tell a grownup, but I wasn’t ready to tell my parents. Telling a different adult seemed easier, like practice, and I took it for granted that after I told my teacher, he’d offer solace and support, maybe even tell me what I should do. I didn’t know what he would say, but I felt certain that it would help, and that I would feel better having told someone. We sat down together on a lopsided bench made from tree stumps, beside the sidewalk, under a silver lace climbing vine. I told him what happened, skating around the worst parts by saying as little as possible.
“He brought over vodka,” I said. He quizzed me about how much I’d had to drink and offered platitudes about the dangers of alcohol. Even after I explained that the boy admitted to spiking my drink with drugs, the teacher alluded to the responsibility I bore for the rape, though neither of us came close to calling it that. “I’ll always love both of you equally,” my teacher said about the boy and me. I cried into my hands.
I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time, but in hindsight, my encounter with this trusted adult was victim-blaming, and the betrayal I felt at the suggestion that maybe this was my fault was nearly as bad as being assaulted, even though I too believed that it was my fault, at least a little. Months later, the boy’s family got in a fight with the school’s founders over something else, something minor, and the school cut all ties with them (a semi-regular pattern). I wondered where this response had been when I confided what the boy had done to me.
The Internet, too, was so different. In 2002, we were all about dial-up, AOL instant messenger, and chat rooms. There wasn’t a venue — at least not one that my friends and I were aware of — for sharing personal stories in a public forum, and I didn’t read articles on the Internet until college. I wasn’t spending my time online reading about the experiences of other girls who’d been date-raped, or chatting anonymously with women who’d been there. There was no #TheEmptyChair hashtag, no viral Steubenville videos that provoked the outrage of feminists the country over. During my senior year, I was mostly trying to forget that the rape had occurred and convince myself that I wasn’t that messed up over it.
* * *
I told my mother shortly after telling my teacher. I dreaded it, but knew that she, at least, would comfort me in a way that he hadn’t. I went to see my mom on a weekend afternoon in her studio. She’s an artist, and had a multi-floor space with walls of yarn and beads organized by color in bins stacked floor to ceiling. I had squashed myself in a corner, arms wrapped around bent knees, and I stared at my shoes (low-top Chuck Taylors covered in Sharpie doodles) while I told her what happened. I remember thinking that maybe I could use the assault as leverage; I wanted to get a tattoo and didn’t want to wait another year until I was eighteen. I thought if my mom felt bad enough for me, maybe she’d sign some sort of form that allowed minors to get tattoos with parental permission. (No such form proved to exist.) I was grasping at ways to make myself feel better.
I was embarrassed and so focused on getting the words out that I didn’t watch my mother closely for her reaction, but she didn’t cry, at least not then. Her mouth was set in a straight little line, as it always is when she’s upset.
“You’ll tell daddy?” I said at one point. I couldn’t imagine telling my father. I blushed at seven when he read me the part in “Little Women” when Jo and Laurie kiss. We were close, but we didn’t talk about boys or sex — or sexual assault, as it turns out.
I eventually had a conversation with both of my parents and they sent me to therapy, to a woman with unusually wide nostrils that were distracting and reminded me of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches,” because he lists “slightly larger nose-holes than ordinary people” as one of several defining witch characteristics. Yet I don’t remember ninety percent of therapy. Not because it was traumatizing, but because I don’t think it was helpful and I was going through the motions when really, I didn’t want to think about it.
Once, a few months after it happened, my dad ran into the boy at the ski basin. I wasn’t there, but he described the encounter to me when he got home that evening. “I went up to him and told him never to talk to either of my daughters ever again,” my dad said. “He didn’t say much.” I was vaguely disappointed that my dad (or anyone, really) hadn’t given the boy a black eye or broken his arm or something, even though I understood on a rational level that my 46-year-old father couldn’t go around beating up baby-faced tenth graders. Still, I was waiting for someone to respond with the intensity that I felt.
I never doubted that my parents loved and believed me or would have done anything to protect me, but they seemed unsure as to what to do, exactly, when I finally told them what had happened. Nobody mentioned reporting the rape; it didn’t occur to me, and anyway, it was a month after the fact. Like the rest of us, my parents were living in a culture where acquaintance rape (and particularly rape by a seemingly benign fifteen-year-old we’d all known since he was ten) was rarely discussed, in private or in public.
We rarely talked about it in my family, I think because it was so painful for my parents, too, and traumatizing for my little sister. My mom mentioned to me once how terrible the whole thing was for my sister, who was a young, sweet thirteen-year-old when it happened, and I felt awful about that for years. I still do, and she’s 26 now. I didn’t like bringing up the rape — or as I called it then, “that thing that happened with that boy” — because I knew it upset them, and because talking with your parents about your rape is hard.
Still, I wish we could’ve talked about it more. I wanted to hear something along the lines of, “yes, this was rape, and it wasn’t your fault. It’s OK if you feel damaged, and it’s OK if you don’t. It doesn’t mean you can’t have great, consensual sex; it doesn’t mean boys won’t like you; and it definitely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t like yourself. You’re still you, and it wasn’t your fault.” I also needed to learn to say this to myself, and to believe it. (This is the part that took years.) I’m comforted by repetition, by playing things over in my mind and saying them again and again until I internalize the meaning of the words. Rape is part of the lives of so many women and girls; I want to live in a world where we acknowledge this, matter of factly and often, and strategize about how to change it.
* * *
Recently, I spoke to two friends about my rape, and they both mentioned that they’d been date raped, too. One friend is in her twenties and one’s in her fifties, but their responses to the experience were similar. Both incidents happened in college: My younger friend woke up to her date having sex with her while she was passed out drunk, and the older one was raped after she’d been out drinking with a boy she’d been dating and realized he wasn’t going to stop, even though she’d said “no.”
“I didn’t even know to call it date rape, and I don’t really think about it that often,” the friend in her twenties said. “I thought it was my fault for a long time. I know now it wasn’t, but should he have gotten in trouble? I don’t know. We were both drunk.”
“It sucked, but it just isn’t that huge of a deal to me now,” my other friend put it.
It’s valid to not be traumatized years after the fact, and it’s valid to forgive your rapist if it’ll bring you peace, but we’re in the early stages of reframing what rape looks like as a culture. Our default still lies somewhere in he-said-she-said, with abundant hand-wringing, but few actual consequences. In an expose-style documentary released earlier this year titled “The Hunting Ground,” rape on college campuses is chronicled through testimony from survivors and interviews with professors and administrators. In the film, young women’s rape claims are overwhelmingly ignored or dismissed; alleged rapes are often not reported to the police, and perpetrators face mild disciplinary action, if anything at all.
There’s a difference between violently attacking someone, planning to drug someone in advance, and one drunk college kid taking advantage of another in the moment, but the gap isn’t terribly wide. All three actions demonstrate a disregard for someone else’s body, and a prioritization of one’s own desires at the expense of another human being. Watching the culture evolve around the way we talk about and handle rape over the course of my relatively short lifetime has been gratifying, but it isn’t enough.
And so, while we’re reading board books or lounging in the backyard, I think about what I am going to say to my daughter about rape as she gets older. I want to be open and frank with her, but I don’t want to scare her too much, either. Part of being young is taking a few risks and making some questionable choices, and I want her to be able to do so without incurring terrible consequences.
While I subscribe to the belief that we need to teach boys not to rape, rather than teach girls how to avoid being raped, I still want my daughter to be careful. If she’s curious about drinking, I want her to have a beer with her friends in someone’s backyard on the summer night. If she wants to get a little drunk with her friends on Halloween freshman year of college and hold court over a graveyard séance, I want her to do that, too. But acknowledging that she’s human and will likely experiment someday with alcohol and with sex — and being OK with that — does little to diminish my fear that something similar to what happened to me could happen to her.
I want my daughter to understand that her body is hers alone, and no one gets to tell her what to do with it, not even her mother. More than anything, I want my baby to understand that even if she is raped one day (a thought that turns my stomach) she will be OK. She will still be herself: valuable, smart, funny, whatever other things she grows up to be.
Living with the knowledge that something bad could happen to my daughter, no matter what I do to safeguard and protect her, is part of being a parent. When I do one day tell her about how I was raped when I was seventeen, part of the story will be about how nobody knew what to say, or what should happen next. But the vocabulary of sexual assault will be available to my daughter. Rape will be something we talk about, not in an obsessive, paranoid mode, but in a way that acknowledges that it happens. If, god forbid, she is ever raped, she will have the words to identify it. I can’t promise my daughter that she’ll never have to deal with sexual assault. I can give her the benefit of my experience, my undying, active support, and my words. I can tell her that even if the unthinkable happens, we will both live through it.