Most of us have seen the sexual violence publications: the videos, the blog posts, all sensational and attention grabbing. We think such a thing couldn’t happen to us… until it does. I thought I was immune too. I spent my days in the classroom, learning about the complexities of sexuality within an oppressive culture, and my nights reading and editing problematic college policies. In between working, I talked to victims, survivors, and even with an accused assailant as he sat in jail. I was the ultimate know-it-all. I played rugby, I was fit, I was fast, and I was in a dedicated relationship with my work. But no one is immune. I found that out the hard way; and even after spending months affirming the voices of victims and survivors, I still couldn’t shake the uncertainty that haunted me about my own story: am I making it all up?
There are certain legal and societal qualifications for using the word “sexual assault” and I somehow managed to finagle my experience out of every one of them. I found the loopholes, I made the excuses, I compared trauma. After “it” happened, I talked myself out of feeling like a victim, out of feeling like a survivor, like a woman, and pretty soon I had just about talked myself out of feeling human.
But I’m a research nerd at heart. I still needed a way to qualify my experience; I needed to label it, to be able to find it in a feminist theory book, to point and say, “That’s it.” But I couldn’t find a single word that encompassed what had happened, and the emotional aftermath that resulted. All I wanted was to be categorized into that safe, protective box of a clear cut societally-designated definition.
But instead, other people were telling my story for me; they assumed they knew the narrative. They tried to help based on a general understanding of a stereotypical experience with sexual violence. Nobody asked me what happened. Nobody asked me to describe it. Nobody asked if I wanted to speak out. They just assumed I didn’t, and so they spoke for me. With nothing but good intentions, the administration, college medical staff, and even some of my friends stole the last remaining shred of control I had left by labeling my experience without my permission. And when I said, no, they didn’t listen. Just like him. They told me I was in denial; that I needed to just accept that I was sexually assaulted, that I was raped. Nobody asked me what happened. The disciplinary process went through, and still no one knew the story. In an overprotective attempt to avoid re-traumatizing me, they forgot to give me a chance to speak. I was not allowed to use my own words, but was further violated as my experiences were taken and used in ways I never asked for and didn’t want.
Within the span of 24 hours, my body had been violated, my voice had been silenced, and my self-determination had been shattered. To say I felt crazy is a vast understatement. With other people’s assumptions floating around in my traumatized head, I started to lose hold of what was real.
It took three full days for someone to ask me if I wanted to tell my story, and by that point, I felt like my body and mind had been put through a meat grinder. I was beaten down and vulnerable, but I still needed to speak. I needed to go through the ugly details. I needed someone to listen, without judgment, and help me work out what exactly had happened to me. When I was finished letting the weight of my story hit reality, I explained that I was still struggling to find a word to describe it all. My former boss, and incredible friend, just looked at me and said the best thing possible, “Screw the definitions; make up your own. What word would YOU use?”
“An attack.” I answered immediately. And that’s exactly what it was: an attack on my mind, my body, my sense of being. I had a label. Not a predefined category I had to squish my experience into, but a box I could construct for myself. And with that word, I found my voice. I was finally able to start healing and speaking out, on my own terms.