Nearly four years ago, while I was on a third date with a man, I was raped. For a long time, I wouldn’t have been able to write that sentence. I would have equivocated. I would have quickly followed it up with minimizers like, “I was drunk.” Or, “I’m OK. It wasn’t violent.”
These statements are all true. I was drunk. The rape was not violent in that I wasn’t physically injured. I am OK. At this moment in time, I am comfortable saying that these factors still don’t make what happened my fault. I said no to him repeatedly. That, I am sure of.
In light of the Steubenville rape case, I feel the need bubbling up to reflect upon my rape again, as it often does when there is a prominent rape case in the news. While CNN is busy mourning the lives of the young, convicted rapists, I’m thinking about 16-year-old Jane Doe, and how this will change the course of her life. I refuse to mourn her life, because that implies that she will let being raped define her for the rest of her life. I pray that’s not the case. But I know that being raped will affect her in so many unexpected ways, as it has me.
I was lucky that I was 30 years old when I was raped. Lucky is the wrong word. Lucky is a word that should never be used in conjunction with rape. Let me revise that statement: I was lucky that I had lots of healthy sexual relationships before I was raped, so my sense of intimacy was not completely demolished after the incident. It was merely marred, like someone took their thumb and smudged my sexuality.
The hardest part about dealing with the aftermath rape, for me, has not been sex. It’s been dating. I find myself very guarded on first, second, third and even fourth dates. If I do manage to let my armor down after a few weeks of dating, I remain emotionally guarded for months. Let me make a distinction here about the difference between being guarded and being cautious. Before the rape, I was cautious and still am, after the rape, I became guarded. It’s an emotional distinction, not a physical one. I am more careful about how much I drink and I am much less inclined to go home with someone I don’t know. But these changes in my dating behavior are not some form of self-blame for the rape, they are about control.
The other thing that I find particularly confusing to navigate is the disclosure of the rape. How long do I wait to tell a man I’m dating? Do I need to tell him at all? How will he react?
This anxiety, co-mingled with the anxiety of dating in general, can turn the whole process of getting to know someone into torturous one for me. Emotionally, I often find myself buckling under the pressure.
After nearly a year off, I’ve started dating again, and this time, I’ve decided to take a new, radical approach to talking about my rape: If (and only if) it comes up naturally in conversation, I’ve promised myself, I will disclose on the first date. Not because I’m testing the guy to see how he reacts. It’s not about the guy. It’s not even about the relief of the rip-the-bandaid-off effect. I’ve decided to do it because I’m choosing not to feel ashamed. Choosing to feel ashamed and have this “secret” looming over me on dates, I’ve realized, has kept me feeling like a victim. Feeling anxiety over disclosing my rape was making me feel ashamed. I refuse to feel that way anymore.
My first date rape disclosure has happened twice so far. The first time, my date was telling me a story about how a woman took him home and “was practically raping him.” He was speaking about this in a light manner, but there was my window.
“I was date raped,” I told him.
It hung in the air for a moment. I saw his eyes widen.
“I’m sorry,” he said, after a few tense breaths.
“Thank you,” I replied, instead of adding my usual equivocations.
Then something really interesting happened. I felt empowered. Empowerment is one of those amorphous buzz words, so, I’ll be more specific. I felt liberated. I felt light. I felt more comfortable in my own skin. I felt less guarded.
The second time it happened, I was out with a guy and we were talking about the idea of enthusiastic consent. He expressed — quite sweetly — in the context of a discussion about the Steubenville rape case, how he always felt very in-tuned with rape victims.
“I was raped,” I told him.
“That’s a very powerful of you to say,” he responded, holding my hand.
It felt even better, saying it this time. I felt like there was hope for Jane Doe’s future. I am hopeful that she will discover that there are people out there who will be tender and empathetic toward her. I am hopeful that someday she will be able to find herself on date and say, “I was raped” without feeling an ounce of shame.