Do you know the feeling? When your entire being shrinks to the size of a pea; your memories retreat from the edges of your body until the very essence of you is neatly packaged and tucked away; you begin to dissociate from your physical self. It's the feeling that follows when someone discards your personhood and reduces you to an object to selfishly take whatever they want from your body. It's the feeling of quickly moving to preserve and protect yourself, unthinking, reflexive. I know the feeling because like so many other women, I've experienced it before. And I didn't report my sexual assault because no outcome would have changed how demoralized the experience made me feel.
I was 16 years old the first time I ever felt this way. A friend invited me over to meet his college-aged cousin who was in town for the night. Cups of moonshine awaited us, even though we were all underage. The liquid looked like some form of punch, but I didn't even know what type of alcohol was in it. After a few sips, my friend's cousin guided me to the back corner of a dark basement, whispering compliments in my ear. I blushed at his flattery, but my naiveté cracked when he grew visibly frustrated with me for resisting his hands’ not-so-subtle directional cues. When I refused to give him a hand job, he grabbed my hand and began masturbating himself for me. This is what you get for thinking it was acceptable behavior to drink and make out with an older boy in a shadowy place, I thought. You deserve this. He was pushing my head down aggressively when we were interrupted by our host. Without any visible reaction to what he saw or walked in on, my friend told us his mom had just arrived home and we needed to leave — now. I ran from the house, hoping he could forgive me for not volunteering my hand as soon as he'd asked. My agency and bodily autonomy had been violated, yet all I wanted was his forgiveness. For years, I'd assumed our interaction was the standard when it came to casual hookups.
I didn't want to have sex. I was a virgin at the time, still hoping my first time would be with someone I loved. He laughed. "We’ll see about that," he taunted.
A year later, I was struck by the feeling again. At 17, a boy I had a crush on taunted me for being unwilling to — to be blunt — "blow him." After all, he liked to remind me, he'd received a blow job before and could again from someone else. Didn't I want to be the one to give him what he wanted? I apologized profusely for my discomfort and prayed that he'd find it in his heart to like me despite my prudishness. By then, TV shows, rom-coms, and a culture of slut-shaming at my high school had reassured me that it was normal and acceptable for boys to pressure you into going further. Boys will be boys, and I just had to go along with it. So, I ended up succumbing and performing oral sex on him.
My freshman year of college, the feeling almost consumed me entirely. While at an upperclassmen's party, another student came up to me and pressed himself into my backside while I danced. We didn't know each other. He whispered, "what’s your name?" and bit my neck. "Catherine," I replied with a peal of playful laughter. I felt wanted — desirable and mature. He pulled me away to his apartment nearby. I went willingly, but communicated my expectations: I didn't want to have sex. I was a virgin at the time, still hoping my first time would be with someone I loved. He laughed. "We’ll see about that," he taunted, and then he pushed me up the stairs and to his bedroom.
He began undressing me, all the while inching me closer to his bed. Wearing just my bra and shoes, he shoved my head down. I stumbled, but rebuffed his prods. I remember mumbling, "maybe later." He squeezed me between himself and the bed, and immediately rammed three fingers into my vagina. I cried out in shock. I couldn’t move; his well-over 6-feet hulking mass pinned against my 5-foot-2-inch frame. My arms and legs were numb and useless. He mistook my pained response for pleasure, whispering to tease me, "how about four?" He pulled my hair back, and once again that feeling of nothingness devoured me whole. I gazed out the window and looked toward the lights of apartments and townhouses in the distance. I wondered if the people who lived there would think that maybe I'd brought this upon myself.
An anger I had never noticed before lit a spark of defiance within me. I pushed him back and said I needed to leave. Once again, he laughed. "Not until you do something for me in return," he said, as if three fingers forced into me was somehow supposed to make me feel good. That threat still impacts me today. He gripped my forearm so forcefully that his finger pads began to turn white. His eyes were wild and unpredictable. I attempted to de-escalate the situation and find a way out, so I did what had been engrained in me, what we teach women to do so well: I apologized. I promised him that next time we would do anything he wanted as I inched towards the door. He grimaced, hesitant to let me go, but finally loosened his grip. I scooped up my dress and pulled it over my head.
I'd been taught to believe that what happened to me was not "serious enough" to be considered sexual assault. Already, I doubted my own truths. He put his hand inside me, but he did not force his penis inside of me. He put his hands on my arm, hard enough to bruise, but did not hit me. He did not rape me. He eventually let me leave. Maybe he didn't hurt me enough. Maybe I was not the victim of assault.
He started to scream at me, as if the sight of the clothes back on my body offended him on a visceral level. This was the first time — but not the last; not when you're a woman who refuses a man's advances — that a man would call me a c*nt. Instead of letting me leave, he stood in front of the bedroom door, blocking my exit, and held my underwear in one hand, still gripping my forearm in his other. He said I could leave if I wanted — but not with my thong. No, that was his to keep. I smiled a most disarmingly, sweet smile and told him it was his; he could have it. Then I jerked my arm away and tore open the door, running down the stairs as he yelled the word c*nt over and over again.
I could still hear his voice ringing in my eardrum as I inched back to my dorm, momentarily interrupted by the ping! of Facebook Messenger. Though I'd only shared my first name with him, he'd found me on the social networking site. "Next time..." His message sent a shiver down my spine. I promptly blocked him — but the fear that he could one day hurt me again wasn't as easy to erase.
I was terrified of being labeled a victim, of being seen as "overly dramatic" by my peers, foolish enough to categorize "awkward" as "assault." I worried I was wrong. Was I still a victim? Did I deserve to be?
The next day, I clung to each and every semblance of normalcy. I pretended not to see the blood that stained my underwear. I covered up the deep, red hickeys that dotted my neck with makeup. I ignored the bruises on my arm. I immediately chose to classify the events as a “weird situation” — a euphemism that had grown immensely popular amongst my female peers, and now I understand why. It became the phrase I used to describe my assault because I'd been taught to believe that what happened to me was not "serious enough" to be considered sexual assault. He put his hand inside me, but he did not force his penis inside of me. He put his hands on my arm, hard enough to bruise, but did not hit me. He did not rape me. He eventually let me leave. Already, I doubted my own truths. Maybe he didn't hurt me enough. Maybe I was not the victim of assault.
That same day, I briefly considered reporting my experience to the university police at the college we both attended. I was terrified of being labeled a victim, of being seen as "overly dramatic" by my peers, foolish enough to categorize "awkward" as "assault." I worried I was wrong. Was I still a victim? Did I deserve to be?
I ultimately decided that I had no desire to go through the impersonal and isolating process of reporting an assault on my college campus, which was rumored to be incredibly emotionally draining by my peers. (Because I did not go through the process myself, there was no way to corroborate or confirm that as true.) I told myself that it was only a "weird experience," not bad enough to risk ruining my abuser's life. I didn't report my assault because I didn't want to be threatened again. Many other survivors have shared my concern: according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), only 20 percent of female student victims of sexual assault aged 18-24 report to law enforcement.
I lived with a deep-seated fear of being told that what happened was not bad enough to take seriously. Above all, I lived in a state of perpetual anxiety, terrified of having to relive the assault over and over, on record — to no avail. My fear is not unfounded: out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free, according to statistics obtained by RAINN. That outcome would have made the impossible even more so — I might never be able to put that night behind me. So I chose to leave well enough alone. I did not report my “weird situation.”
I never reported my assault. Still, that doesn't mean it didn't happen.
Four years later, I don’t regret my decision, but I was never content living in limbo. I felt there was no “right” choice for me in 2014; no path worth taking in my situation. As a result, I continually saw my assailant around campus. He shopped at the bodega where I worked, and I had to ring him up at the counter. We attended the same parties. Each time we brushed paths, I’d relive that night all over again. He tried his best to ignore me, but I’d stare right at him. I was motivated by that same spark of anger that helped me push my way out of his bedroom that September night. I needed him to know that I did not forget. I knew who he was, what he did, and that it would never leave me.
As the one-year anniversary of widely public #MeToo movement in Hollywood approaches (the movement was first founded by Tarana Burke years earlier), I still struggle to call my encounter assault. I frequently second-guess the validity of my own reaction. I question whether or not, to some degree, I could have, or should have, been more forceful or vocal in my response to him. I feel intense discomfort verbalizing my greatest fear: that I simply gave this situation more credence than it deserved. But then I remind myself that feeling immobile and defenseless is not acceptable. So, I’m learning to take my power back. I'm writing this article. I'm finally calling it what it truly was: sexual assault.
For the past 12 days, I have angrily stewed as Dr. Blasey Ford’s and Deborah Ramirez’s allegations of assault and harassment against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh have been repeatedly attacked as "not credible" by government officials and members of the media. (For his part, Kavanaugh has denied all of the allegations lobbied against him.) In fact, President Trump himself tweeted in support of Kavanaugh, questioning why Dr. Ford chose not to report the alleged assault. "I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities," the tweet reads. Additionally, Senator Lindsay Graham echoed the President's sentiments, questioning Dr. Ford's integrity.
I am haunted by the question, why didn’t you report it? I know these words are used to strip away a woman's believability — to reinforce the idea that "bad" is not "bad enough"; to make clear that if you didn't speak up, if you didn't report, it's your fault; to remind every woman watching the Senate hearings at home that even though these women have shared allegations of disturbing and troubling situations, they were not violently raped. They were victims only to "teenage boyhood," the same boyhood I excused for years and years.
There is no shortage of reasons why someone would choose not to report their assault, rape, or harassment. In fact, according to statistics reported by RAINN, only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. That means that two out of three assaults will go unreported. In order to be able to provide just laws for victims of assault and rape, we need reform to the reporting process so that women and men who have been abused, assaulted, and raped can accurately report and represent their experiences.
While watching yesterday's hearing, I asked myself what I would want if I were ever forced into public arbitration of the most personal, painful memory I have to date. I kept circling back to one idea that has been largely ignored in the discourse surrounding sexual assault. More than anything, I would like to see perpetrators acknowledge the hurt and damage they have caused. I want my attacker to know that what he did was wrong, understand why it was wrong, and learn how to be better to other people. I want to forgive and forget, but I and millions of other victims cannot do so in a system and culture that discourages perpetrators of assault from ever taking ownership of their life-changing choices.
As I join an ever-growing chorus of voices sharing their truth and exposing the lasting impacts of their trauma, I hope to continue to personalize an all-too-common experience. Survivors are speaking louder than ever. We're harder to ignore, and we will bring about change.
If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.